Picture Imperfect: Juli’s Two-Faced Journal

Juli came from a family line that suffered from depression, passed on by the patriarch, Gabriel, who came down to Mayagüez from a highlands jíbaro family, built up an auto parts empire, and according to family and community legend, “tamed the mountain.” He brought law and order to Caiseas Hill by poisoning the dogs, and running off the Dominicans who in those days washed ashore and roamed through the Algarrobos hills, terrorizing young virgins. 

Although a non-believer, Gabriel had married into a network of Bible-readers. By the time Juli entered El Colegio, Gabriel was confined to a wheelchair, mute but keenly observant. When Juli failed out in Spring 2019, it was determined that she suffered from the depression passed down from Gabriel through her mother, Isabela. Juli was prescribed anti-depressants and returned to El Colegio for a second try.

Juli was brown as a nut, unlike her abuela Marta who had the color of a Georgia peach. Juli had a special relationship with Gabriel. She would come talk with him, telling him her small joys and frustrated ambitions. Gabriel would beam at her, angelic, limited in his responses to the guttural noises some neighbors mistook for dementia. But Juli carried on conversations with him. In a family of believers, she sought out the sole non-Christian as her confessor.

Isabela was always a good child. She saw what other teenagers were doing. But while they went through their rebellious stages, out drinking and hooking up, she was ensconced in her room. She was not one to get into petty skirmishes, never disrespected the church, would never snap at her mom. She was the whole package of what every parent wished their youths could be. 

Now, as an adult, it seemed like the trials of Job had been visited on Isabela’s family. So many things were going wrong in her life. The electricity was cut off, and she had to call her mom, again, and Marta paid the bill. The only way she could deal with things was to keep her emotions bottled up, just like she had kept herself locked up as a teenager. 

Whenever Marta, now elderly, would ask for help around the house, Isabela never thought twice. Sí, mamá, ya voy. I’ll be right there, mom. She had just cleaned out a few old photos from a family album. Then, amidst stacks of old photo albums in her mother’s attic, layered with years of dust, lay something she could have happily lived without.

She picked up a loose stack of photos. Most were going straight to the trash pile. Then she saw a tiny ancient-looking cedar box. The rusty lock broke easily. Isabela was expecting jewelry, maybe some girlhood trinkets, but inside she found a stack of faded black and white pictures. Most of them were of a couple, a man and a pregnant woman she could barely make out. Flipping through them, certain repeating details came into focus. The man had deep brown skin, and a bright smile. The woman’s face had been scratched out, in every picture. Her arms were around the man. 

Her heart began racing, pounding. She dropped down from the attic, letting the trap door thud shut. Through a door ajar, she saw her mother, lovingly caressing her immobilized husband. 

“Mamá, can I borrow you a moment?” Marta let go of Gabriel’s hand and shuffled out.

“What happened? Did the dust get to you?”

“Look mom, do you know where these came from?” She held out the faded photos. Marta’s faced changed briefly. She registered shock momentarily, then her eyes took on that habitual joyous, tender look.

“Haven’t set eyes on these…..in ages.” Marta peered closely at one shot. A wave of emotion crossed her wrinkled face. Then she shoved the dusty photos back into Isabela’s arms.

“Trash them,” she said, disgusted. That was not was Isabela had expected. Maybe a story about old times. Marta registered the confusion on her daughter’s face and quickly shifted gears.

“Those are from a different time nena,” she said sweetly. But there was an undertow, an unspoken subtext: “a time we’re all trying to move past.”

Gabriel was groaning again. To his side Marta returned, directing her angel back to his comfort zone. A wry smile crept over Isabela’s face. “But this is what we women do,” she can hear her mother’s voice. “We are loyal.”

Taking leave of the aged lovebirds, Isabela waltzed into the room that had once belonged to Fern, the missionary. It was a small space but the big mirror vanity set made it feel bigger. She studied herself in the mirror. Suddenly there was a pit at the bottom of her stomach. She traced her fingers over lips that now felt thicker, and a nose that, like a mulatto Pinocchio, seemed wider. She spread out the old photos on the bed. The dark man, el Prieto, had thick lips, a wide nose, and strangely familiar eyes. She scratched her neck in a nervous tic. Her skin was warm and pale, not dark, just like her mother… just like the woman in the picture.

The woman’s face is scratched, but in one photo, taken from farther away, her arms are visible. No wedding ring to be seen, no jewelry, none of all the things Gabriel was buying her from the beginning. The only thing visible is something that Isabela wished she had never seen. A small birthmark on the corner of her hand.

There on her own hand, Isabela saw the same thing. She felt the room sway like a sea cabin. She rushed back upstairs to sort the pictures hurriedly, and yelled a quick “nos vemos” towards her father’s room. Running out the door, she nearly bowled over Josué Carrasco.

“Hold on, is something on fire?” Isabela quickly straightened her hair, and leaned in to kiss his cheek. She’d always liked Josué, her unofficial uncle. He brought her a gift every holiday, and shared in the family festivities, celebrated every accomplishment.

“Oh, you frightened me! How have you been?”

Todo bien, finally found some of those old songs me and your dad used to listen to. …..And you, everything OK?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” she lied.

“Alright now. I think I saw Juli hanging out in front of the church.” He gently kissed her cheek in a brief goodbye.

She found Juli lounging on the church steps, playing games on her cellie.

“Hey ma, what’s…”

“We’re leaving.”

“What?” Her brows furrowed. “I thought we were staying to help grandpa?”

“Change of plans. Get in the car.”

“Ma can you please freaking calm down. At least tell me what’s up?”

“Not now, Juli,” she snapped. “We need to go NOW.”

In the car, the air felt sucked out of the space between them. The sweat on her mother’s brow was speaking to her…. The ground had shifted underneath her, she could feel it.

“I ran into Josué today,” said Isabela. “Um, in more ways than one.”

“Oh, I like Mr. Carrasco so much,” Juli said. “His eyes are so bright, so full of, like, hidden love.”

         Isabela slammed the brakes. They came to a sudden stop and turned to look at each other.

Juli’s “Two-Faced Diary”

Entry #1, August 21, 2019

My Advanced English teacher Anne Francis is statuesque, deep brown, full lips, just so hips, a business skirt slit halfway up her thigh. I look at her and think, if I were a black woman, I mean seeing as how I am, well at least una mulata, that is how I would like to carry myself.

         Miss Anne keeps going over to the control dial to turn the overhead fans on and off. Watching her stride and sway across the floor is a spectacle that demands my attention. The simple gesture of turning that knob attracts me somehow–those elegant but I suspect impractical long fingers, trying to find a setting that will get the blades to spin. 

Some of the fans work, and some do not. The August heat is sweltering. The fans make it hard to hear anyone. When Miss Anne turns them off, sweat pours off my forehead, out of my armpits. I hear moaning and panting around me. I feel so much older than this crop of Prepas who have been taught to dream that their blood runs green. 

My counselor asked me to keep a “two faced diary.” To keep tabs on my emotional state. And to observe my physical environment. This is how I met Ruth Delgado.

My mother made me go to “Prepa Week Colegial” 2019. Mamá wanted me to have a “fresh start.” She dropped me off underneath the giant green bulldog at the front gate. So there I was on July 29 rubbing elbows with the island’s brightest science students.

I read the flyer: “The Department of Counseling and Psychological Services give you the most cordial welcome to our…..¡Antes, Ahora y Siempre…COLEGIO!” That slogan is plastered everywhere, on walls, T-shirts, stationary. “El Colegio” is like a mythical kingdom of higher learning. It has always been there, is still here, will always be there for us. 

I met Miss Delgado at a table in the student center staffed by Counseling Services. I liked her because she didn’t say anything to me at first. So I read their literature. Going through this experience a second time, listening to what adults were saying to us, and reading the pamphlets, I was struck by the emphasis on the fragilityof the students. They are treated with kid gloves, infantilized even, like of coursethey will need counseling. My second impression was the greenness of the students. Not El Colegio green blood, but unseasoned, un-ripened green. They were high-schooly, thrilled to be here, as if this was a peak experience. 

         I exchanged a few words with Miss Delgado, took her card, and left. Playing hooky on the Prepa experience. I rented the first room I saw in the Balboa district. And I bought a bicycle. Determined to have a typical freshman experience, not like last year, when I commuted from Mom’s house in Añasco.

I thought about getting rid of the anti-depressants. If I disliked my cohort so much on drugs, then surely it couldn’t be worse on the straight edge? I wondered: What else was I blunting? Did I want to go through life blunted?

Then I panicked the first week of classes. I remembered those pamphlets: “Do you feel stressed? You are not alone.” I pulled out Miss Delgado’s card. She sounded pleased, almost like she had expected me. We made an appointment.

         Miss Delgado’s office was a cubicle in the student center basement. She was low key, mom’s age, but with calm eyes. I told her about discovering that Gabriel was not my abuelo. That my real grandfather was a black man. So I had no genetic or biological predisposition for depression. I was rethinking things…. And could I just stop taking the blue pills?

Miss Delgado wanted me to keep a two faced diary. “I want you to see the world with two ears, to hear with two eyes,” she said, her eyes both earnest and sparkling.


“I see you are paying attention.” She put both hands palms down on the desk between us. “It’s like becoming ambidextrous,” she explained. “There are lots of expressions about over-reliance on one side or the other. Like getting off on the wrong foot. Or developing left-braining thinking, because you’ve only been taught to use the right brain. To write two-faced is not to speak with a forked tongue, but to keep balance, to not be trapped in one’s head.”

I told her about abuela, who liked to quote the Bible. Some of what she said made sense, but it felt like a tug of war. Miss Delgado showed me this version of Ichthus, the Christian fish, but swimming in two directions at once. One direction was faith; the other science. She told me about doubled stories in Matthew.

“Take the two blind men in Matthew 9:27-31, whose sight was restored by touch. Two by two, it’s always pairs it seems that lead towards healing, two senses working together. So I want you to record what you observe through your two eyes and ears. That way you engage the world outside your head. Inside-out. Two heads are better than one!”

Miss Delgado was not trying to convert me, just trying to speak my language. She wanted me to write about my own double-ness, to see, hear, and speak with both sides of my being.

         So I started thinking about many things through this two-faced lens. The doubled grandfather. The Prepas at El Colegio. What else did that mean? PREPA: The Puerto Rican Electrical Power Authority. María exposed them as out of date, un-prepared. If I went down that road, PREPA also meant the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act. Now here I was, a Prepa once more. How did I prepare myself better this time? Could I write a new script?

Two-Faced Diary, Entry #2—The Sun Conure’s YouTube Channel

While talking to Miss Delgado, I remembered a dream about abuelo’s Sun Conure having a YouTube channel. This happened during the Fall of my first try at El Colegio, in 2018. I wrote this down during the Advanced English class, and used part of it for the poem I had to recite. Miss Delgado took an interest in this dream and ask me to write it for her. This is how it went:


I was in the cafeteria, and all the students were looking at the same video. Some of them were looking over at me, while I buried my face in a book. I heard some sound like a perico screeching, and the blood rushed to my cheeks. I started scanning all the screens around me. This animal looked way too familiar, as did the mango tree outside its cage. So I did what any teenage girl would do, I called my mom.

“Mom… what the fuck is grandpa´s perico doing on YouTube?” I said on voice mail.

Mom was out of pocket. I pulled the famous video up on my cell. This crazy Sun Conure had a wig on and was flipping a microphone up and down on its beak. The funny-looking animal´s head kept turning and glitching sideways, eyes looking directly at the camera. Then the Conure opened its beak to screeching, ear-violating moans. It was mocking abuelo, and all the students were laughing uproariously!

Then things got weird. The perico started looking directly at me, sticking its beak and its eyes out of the screen. It was halfway out of the screen, and then it started screeching at me. Everyone was rolling on the floor, splitting their guts laughing at me, or the bird. I dropped my phone. Seconds later, the parrot flew out of the screen and started following me. I heard some students say, “Isn’t that the bird from YouTube?” I tried to get rid of the bird by running as fast as I could, but the bird and the demented laughter followed me.

I began to realize I was dreaming, but focused on trying to catch the bird just to stop the laughter. My palms were sweaty; I was running in slow motion. Then I froze. The perico started pecking my hair. Finally I found myself in my grandparents´ living room, near the cage on the balcony. I couldn’t shake the sensation of the demonic animal harassing me. I started to feel like that bird was trying to tell me something. I wasn’t sure if it was about the stress I felt at the university, or the grudges I was carrying towards Mamá. To this day I cannot look at this family pet without a sense of loathing. Neither could I shake the feeling that, altho’ I hardly said a word to anyone, somehow the dream was telling me that my family life had become a spectacle. 


Miss Delgado felt the dream was a commentary on my relationship with abuelo Gabriel. In fact, depression was apparently a sort of a family curse. He had passed it on to me, through my mother, or so it seemed. I had a lot of repressed resentment about that. Then when I discovered that Gabriel was not my grandfather, the lineage of depression no longer made sense. I was going to have to write my way to rebirth.

Gregory Stephens and Ysabel Hightower

Gregory Stephens has taught Creative Writing to University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez STEM students since 2014. His book 'Three Birds Sing a New Song: A Puerto Rican trilogy about Dystopia, Precarity, and Resistance' was published by Intermezzo (2019). His fiction and literary nonfiction stories have been published in many journals, including most recently, “Going South” in Barely South Review. He shares a byline for this piece with Ysabel Hightower.

NOVUS Literary and Arts Journal
Lebanon, TN