My mom must have held me more than once when I was a baby, but I only know of the one time. The photos fit in the first three pages of the baby album, blotches of brown stretching across them like lichen. In one, my mom is in the hospital bed, her mouth a flat line. I am lying on her chest, swollen and red, my face as wrinkled as an old witch. In another, my mother faces away, all curly brown hair, and my dad poses for the camera, two peace signs up. He wears a mask and a ridiculous hair net, and all I can see of his face are his eyes magnified by thick glasses.
Lulu is in all the other photos, wearing variations of the same dress.
Lulu holds me in her arms, sitting on the chair in the nursery. The light from the window hits her from behind, and if our skin were the same color, and if she were not wearing her green maid’s dress, she could be my mother the way she looks at me, the way my tiny head fits in the nook of her elbow.
Lulu pushes my stroller, dressed in pink now, through Parque del Este, smiling at the camera. My dad took this one—he takes all the photos. My mom is in the frame, distracted, staring up at macaws perched on a chaguaramo palm.
In another, my cousins and I are at a birthday party. I don’t know if it’s my birthday or maybe my cousin Camila’s because we are both wearing paper princess crowns. We did everything together then, hating and adoring each other, jealousy and love all impossibly knotted up. We look up at a clown twisting a balloon. Behind us, leaning against a wall, stand five maids like a row of pastel colors. Lulu in the middle wearing baby blue, the prettiest of all of them, the youngest by half a decade at least. She was also a child when she took care of me.
There are a few other photos, but not many. The final one is pasted onto an otherwise empty page. Lulu and I are in the kitchen, she’s teaching me how to make arepas, my chubby hands squeeze the dough. In this one, my mom is already dead. Lulu looks down at me, and there I see it, the bump under Lulu’s dress. It’s small, but it’s there.
This is the story Lulu told me when I was little, since before my mom died. There’s a man. He’s very sick. He has long thin arms and long thin legs and long thin fingers. He carries a sack. The sack is big enough to fit a child. When girls misbehave, when they don’t do as they’re told, that man comes and takes them. “Does he eat them?” I ask her, terrified. “No,” she says, and not knowing what he does to them scares me even more.
After my mother dies, Lulu comes in the room and gets in bed with me most nights, pulls the cover over us both. Sometimes I’m angry, and sometimes I’m sad. Lulu’s always the big spoon. She hums a song. She smells of coconut and grease. “Tranquila, mi vida. Tranquila.” Then I sleep.
Sometimes I hear my dad walk to the door. I peek through eyelids, and I see his thin shadow leaning on the door frame. And Lulu gets out of bed and kisses me. And her shadow joins my father’s and they walk together into the soft light of the hallway and they are gone.
Whenever I don’t eat my food, whenever I don’t want to do my homework, whenever I don’t pick up the mess in my room, Lulu reminds me of the man with the sack. Those fingers of his prod me to action.
It works until it doesn’t.
What happens to a threat when you stop believing it? But I still see the man whenever I do something wrong. His face, which I’ve sculpted in my imagination: the heavy brow; the aquiline nose with hair sprouting from the nostrils; the jaw, slightly unhinged; a mole close to his right ear, which is swollen like a cauliflower.
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