ABUELITA - Jasmin Pittman Morrell
Occasional fiction, from The Porch.
While Aimee had time away from work for recovery, she’d made a ritual out of waiting for the children to come home from school in the afternoons. She sat on the couch curled into herself, with her knees drawn into her chest, sipping black coffee to keep a headache at bay. She kept the windows facing the street open; the crisp breeze occasionally brought the light blue curtains to life. Like ants scurrying from their hill, the children spilled out of the bright orange bus, burdened by book bags and coats. Their mothers waited for them, some calling out in Spanish, some in English, their words forming thin white wisps in the air. Aimee pulled a blanket from the couch over her body, buried her toes deeper into the cushion, and waited as well.
Her husband Ted would be home soon too. He taught high school English, and since it was Friday, he probably wouldn’t stay late after school. When he walked through the door he would come to her, plant a kiss on her forehead, and ask what she did during the day. He might look hopefully toward the kitchen and wonder aloud about dinner, his words flatlining around her. Did he really expect her to cook? She hadn’t felt hungry for days.
It was cold for early fall, and Aimee wondered if Isabelle, the one she watched for, was warm enough. Isabelle. That’s what she’d named her, even though the little girl’s name could’ve been anything—it could’ve been Anne, or Jessica, or Kate for all she knew. She wondered if it was somehow wrong to assume that this dark-haired, brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking girl with endless dark eyes was named something like Isabelle.
Even if it was too early in her pregnancy to tell, Aimee knew she would’ve had a daughter. She’d already named her Cecily. Perhaps her grandmother’s name was too old-fashioned, but Aimee had been determined to hold onto this baby, and her grandmother was tough, the perfect namesake. Her grandmother had taught her how important it was to “go it alone.” Despite her grandmother’s pearl-tinged complexion and ash blond hair that bespoke fragility, Aimee knew she’d been strong enough to raise her father almost entirely on her own.
Finally, she saw Isabelle walking toward their apartment building from the bus stop alone, singing a song to herself. Isabelle wore a red sweater and a blue plaid skirt, and the harness-like backpack was almost the same size as she was. Isabelle had no coat; if she were her child, Aimee would have made her wear a coat today. Isabelle disappeared into the building and Aimee listened to her soft footsteps climb the stairs. Before she realized what she was doing, she got up off the couch, opened her door, and stepped out into the hallway, her door falling shut behind her. Isabelle had just made it to the top of the stairs and looked up at Aimee curiously. “Hi,” Aimee said softly.
The girl only stared in response and edged past Aimee to her family’s apartment door. She rang the doorbell and the door swung open.
“Mia! Come in child, where is your coat? Hungry?” Aimee caught a glimpse of a white-haired woman in a wheelchair, hands fluttering around the girl like butterflies as she ushered her into the apartment. More words followed that Aimee didn’t understand, but she felt the affection in the old woman’s tone.
There were others inside: Aimee could hear someone playing the guitar and singing earnestly and slightly off-key. The aroma of cooking onions, garlic, and cumin was in the rush of air that swept into the hallway before her neighbors’ door closed, and it made Aimee’s stomach growl.
As if she were waking up from a dream, Aimee turned to go back inside, wondering exactly why she was in the hallway in the first place. She leaned into her door to push it open but was met with resistance. She tried again, even though she remembered with frustration that their doorknob was almost always set to lock automatically, a habit both she and Ted had developed that she usually appreciated. Last year, when her parents helped them move into the city, her father had glanced around and said, “Make sure you keep your doors locked,” and frowned disapprovingly at Ted, who’d taken the teaching position in a school where Aimee would not have wanted to send their children if they had them.
There was no spare key, and her cell phone sat inside on the coffee table. Aimee glanced down at her pajama pants and bare feet, crossed her arms over her chest, and briefly considered walking a block away to the apartment’s office building to see if they would open the door for her. Ted will be home soon, she consoled herself, though suddenly aware of the fact that she hadn’t showered since yesterday. With her back to the door, Aimee slid down onto the floor and tried to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. With no way to tell what time it was, the minutes passed slowly, and she was surprised by how disarmed she felt without her phone in hand, even if scrolling through all the photos of her friends’ burgeoning families was torture.
When her neighbor’s door swung open again, she didn’t know whether to be relieved or embarrassed. This time, a teenage boy emerged, the one she’d always assumed was the older brother. She’d never really even said hello to him before, and certainly didn’t know his name either. He noticed her sitting and paused, shrugged almost imperceptibly, and bounded down the stairs. Aimee heard a key jingling in the lock of a mailbox on the ground floor. In a moment he was back with several envelopes in hand, and Aimee avoided meeting his eyes.
“Abuelita!” he shouted into the apartment as he went inside, “Tita?” he called again, the door slamming shut behind him.
She knew it was ridiculous, but Aimee found her eyes filling with tears as the door closed yet again. But just as quickly, the door reopened and this time Aimee jumped up, wiping her tears away with the back of her hand.
The white-haired woman sat in her wheelchair in the doorway, squinting up at Aimee. She cocked her head, a little smile playing at the edges of her lips. “You live next door, right?”
“Yes.” Unsure of how to explain, Aimee found herself saying, “I can’t get back in,” she motioned to her door. “I can’t go home.”
“Oh my dear, what do you need? Are you hungry? Do you need the phone?”
Aimee noticed how cold her feet were, and something inside of her crumbled. She nodded. “I’m sorry to bother you."
“No bother, no apologies now. I’m Camila, but everybody just calls me Tita. Come in, come in!” her hands fluttered again, beckoning Aimee to cross the threshold. “And next time, just knock, okay?”
Jasmin Pittman Morrell is a writer and editor living in Asheville, North Carolina with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys facilitating healing through creativity, imagination, and deep listening.