Chipped Blue Paint

Mi abuela came to America wearing a tattered potato sack, holding my mother, swaddled in palm leaves, in her good right hand, her only one left. With what little money she had, plus a few good games of poker, she bought a dingy, one-bedroom apartment in the basement floor of a crumbling complex in Hialeah, then declared from then on she’d only know success in life, whatever the cost. That was when the arsenic green wallpaper peeled off and the cockroaches fled through the near clogged drainage pipes and the rats darted out through the broken air vents and the front door. That was when my mother first cried after being silent since birth.

When I was born, Abuela repainted the walls sky blue, because it was a more regal color than brackish plaster. When I was born, my mother had barely entered high school, and my father had barely entered prison for preying on students. When I was born, I was named “Paris” because I reminded Abuela of her home city, the one she refused to remember and yet couldn’t forget. When I was born, I saw the color blue. To me it was the sky and the apartment was the world. The cracks in the wall were lighting, the faded paint the clouds, the leaky pipes the whistling rain that made me giggle while my abuela patched up the chipped paint.

My mother went to school in faux-mink coats. I went to school with knock-off Gucci bags when mink went out of fashion because of the mink abuse involved. Abuela decorated us like Christmas trees in fake diamond earrings and fake ruby necklaces and fake emerald rings, even though we always lost the fake jewelry that still cost her a pretty penny from the electricity bill. Abuela got us finishing school lessons so we’d have the same manners as the pretty rich girls at the good private Catholic schools my mother had always been pressured to get into through academic merit. Abuela somehow got me into one of those private Catholic schools despite raising me atheist.

When I was fourteen, I asked her if this was what success looked like.

“No,” she conceded. “But it’s close enough.”

For now, she added in Spanish under her breath.

“What does true success look like?”

Abuela sighed and flipped on the vintage TV set without color to The Real Housewives of Orange County, pointing out the opulent, tacky furniture and the women in Louis Vuitton heels.

“That. That’s what it looks like.”

My mother said that after she graduated community college she’d show her mother what real success looked like. Then she gained her Associates Degree in Nursing from Miami Dade, and passed the Boards Exam with minimal studying. Her first week on the job, she overworked three nights, and almost died of a heart attack, having to recover at home for three months, her left foot partially paralyzed, still allowing her to walk but with a noticeable limp like she had sandbags sewed to her leg.

“Is this what success looks like, Mama?” I asked her the morning after.

My mother glared for a minute, then weakly laughed. “Yes, mija. This is our pinnacle! Blue walls! Cracked ceilings! All we’re good for!”

My mother wanted to one day buy a pretty white house in Coral Gables, a lakefront property covered in palm trees and grand oaks and nearby good free public schools where cocaine wasn’t hastily hidden in ziplock bags stuffed down the boys’ urinal. My mother didn’t want to wake up another day to a decaying Victorian dresser, or an antique wicker rocking chair that looked chewed through by giant moths. My mother didn’t want fancy fake diamond jewelry. My mother didn’t want to wake up and see the same blue walls so faded, they seemed clinical.

Abuela said my mother was going around gaining success all wrong, that fortune required a sturdy foundation. In her homeland, a four-bedroom house wasn’t bought after growing out of a one-bedroom. Walls were torn down with hammers, recycled, rebuilt into new rooms, into new floors, new ceilings. A family home grows out of a tiny hut like a papaya tree grows from a single seed. A blight passed over the land—one of poverty and ill-lead revolution—which tore down long standing orchards full of sweet fruit. But here a new grove would grow. Here a new grove would thrive.

“Now hand me that roller,” she said after the lecture. “The wall paint is chipping off again.”

If success was blue wall paint, then success meant a new washing machine, a new radio, a new vanity mirror—all things my abuela bought with her own savings, also known as the electricity bill. So, on my first Black Friday in community college, I bought a flat screen TV with what money I’d saved scooping ice cream at a local Baskin Robbins by our apartment. My grandmother couldn’t hold in her joy when she saw it, hugging me in a near death grip and sobbing into my shirt.

“Now we can watch TV in color like our neighbors!” she exclaimed.

“It’s just a TV,” my mother said after getting home from her shift.

“It’s a flat screen!” Abuela argued.

“A flat screen means nothing if we can’t pay our electricity bill again this month.”

That night, Abuela abuela and I watched Desperate Housewives for the first time in color. That night, I saw in gold and silver the true wonder and splendor the reality stars lived in. That night, I saw clearly the cracks in the walls, heard and felt the leak from the pipes hitting the plastic bowls beneath them, saw in detail the fading or chipped blue paint. The next day, we sold the flat screen to pay the electric bill. We went without a TV set after that because we’d thrown out the vintage and couldn’t afford a new one.

And a few months later, she passed. And the day she died, I asked her if she missed Cuba.

“No,” she said. “You can’t miss what you’ve chosen to forget.”

“Why don’t you want to remember?” I asked.

The rocking chair she sat in creaked against the rotting wood floor. A single droplet of water landed on her nose, like a little glass piercing, clear and still as she slowly sat back in her seat until the rocking chair rocked no more. She seemingly looked through me, straight through as though I were a window pane, to the blue walls behind me, chipped and fading again, to be refurbished tomorrow. She sighed.

“We’re building a new life here, mija. To remember would be to love, and I want to love what we made here instead.”

“What did we make here?” I asked.

She passed before she would say.

After the funeral, my mother repainted the walls of the apartment white to make way for a “fresh start,” for true success apart from what came before. She sold the old furniture and fixed the pipes herself. Half the money that went toward paying my tuition at Miami Dade now went toward paying the electricity bill.

“It’ll be tight right now, but it’ll all be for the best in the end,” she said. “Once you graduate and pass your board exams, we’ll finally have the life we always wanted, the success we always dreamed of.”

I didn’t argue, didn’t make a peep in response. Instead I listened to the silence of the pipes, felt the lack of cracks on the not-so-thunderous walls. Instead I stared at the whiteness of our tiny, one-bedroom apartment. The cheap paint was either fading or chipping. I could still see the sky blue underneath.

Art by Aaron Lelito

Dos Gatos Coffee Bar-Johnson City, TN

There are these moments in my life when I feel like I can stop time, but time is a fickle thing
that doesn’t stop for anyone and I realized this the day I got a call from my mom telling me
my grandma had seven days to live but she died in three at three in the morning and I wonder
how three could be a lucky number if it left death in its wake, waking me up in the middle of the night
with nightmares of a frightening, old woman who imitated the gentle, caring nature of my grandma
and I read back now and think that half the things I’ve written are cliche and the other half too sad
so I toss them out to write about a cafe where the cold air isn’t really leaking in, but
leaking out because…
the condensation creeps along the windows so slowly, no one notices, until you look up and see
how the once red glow of the sign across the street has faded to a pink and this color blurs with
the black night, so dark you can barely distinguish the road or the frosted cars that drive along it,
but hot tea with steamed milk wards off the chill that slips in your soul and the well-lit cafe that
you think should be warm, but your tea is no longer steaming and there must be a leak
somewhere that allows winter to seep back in and you wonder, how easily it sneaks into you and
your heart and body and thoughts and you tense, when you realize, that cold has always been
there. 

one’s own estuary

I slip both arms into my past like a coat soaked
from the inside with something that isn’t water,
a thing viscous as blood or sap so that the
stickiness makes me a sleepwalker with nothing
to lose, and with nothing I step out into the
white on white light under Baudelaire’s injured
moon—heaving the injured air—trying to trace
a river with my feet who are ever-busy chasing
that river which sometimes is trees and
sometimes is sand and is ever-heavy-laden with
mirage; heavy like the coat over my back as it
drips down my somnambulant spine, down my
limping legs, leaving a puddle: the brackish
reflecting pool of was and is that turns my
waking eyes downward—now I see what has
come off me mingling with the earthdust to
make something so new it sings.

Erin Laughlin Art

haibun with view of God and forest

prayer used to mean eyes sewn shut tighter than seams on a
baseball. these rituals now seem superfluous, so tonight we took a walk
in some woods—that God and I—we chatted, I cried, and they made no
noise as it paced over the earth, over dust from now-dead suns—
which long ago she recycled into my little finger, a swallow’s tail feather,
my mother’s femur, the white speckles on a fawn. I stop to ask them why a praying
mantis consumes the head of its mate. I ask her what it is about a gray sky that
always drapes a radiologist’s lead blanket over my chest. He turns their eye to me:
it’s a gem, or it’s Borges’ aleph; it’s a quasar, which—like my mind in this moment—
is the fastest spinning object in the universe, stumbling & spilling-over
in the tar-black dark, asking the questions of a damned fool, because

my God is brooding.
I am dust—and all the rest.
these trees are my skin.

NOVUS Literary and
Arts Journal
Lebanon, TN