The castle of little white lies my mom built to protect us
Rafa was shot with a BB shotgun by his brother. The BB landed on his neck somewhere close to one of the main arteries. It nearly killed him.
The doctors said he would never move a muscle under his neck again, let alone walk. His mother prayed for him every night, defying the verdict.
He would eventually walk again.
Contrary to what his doctors believed, he walked, and when he did, his head didn’t move much, but the rest of his body did. When he walked, he looked like a skeleton dancing a cumbia in the middle of ‘La Batalla de las Rosas’ (‘The Battle of the Roses’ )— one of the most prominent events of “El Carnaval de Barranquilla.”
He walked, relying heavily on his cane and dragging both of his dropped feet as if he was tilling the soil beneath him, prepping it for seeding of yucca or papas criollas.
Rafa was tall and had the kind of sharp features that made him handsome — the marks of indigenous ancestry on his face and skin. He had an easy laugh and stories and jokes for miles. He embodied the cliché of a ‘tall, dark, handsome stranger.’ But you had to add lame to complete the full picture of his disabled body. He was a tall, dark, lame, handsome stranger.
Rafa was a charismatic man, and everybody loved him, everybody except my dad. My dad was always jealous of the relationship Rafa had with my mom. Rafa saw in my mom a woman who was also charismatic and loved by everyone. He offered her a job selling life insurance and mutual funds.
When my parents divorced, Rafa was still around. I don’t think my mom and him ever formally dated. I think my mom would’ve wanted to, but he had a girlfriend who would eventually become his wife.
Rafa was always very nice to my sister and me. Because he often traveled to Miami, he always returned with American candy. In the 90s, it was tough to find American candy in Barranquilla. But Rafa would bring us all the good stuff: Snickers, Milky Way, Zero, 100 Grand, Three Musketeers (my mom’s favorite), and Butterfingers (my favorite). Okay, not all of them were the good stuff, but it was sugar and milk in a wrapper in a way that only Americans could imagine, so it was the good stuff to me.
One time, he brought my mom more than chocolate. He got her a pair of roller skates. The boot was a bright white, two of the wheels were magenta, and the other two were fuchsia.
Rollerblades had been on my list of “mom, please buy for me!” Inline skating or rollerblading, along with attempts at 360s and backflips, have become popular among the cool kids, and I wanted to do what everyone else was doing.
My mom was still figuring out her way through the financial maze of being a single mother in a country without paths to stability for people without a college education. So money was always tight, and it was hard to even pay for the electricity and water bills, let alone rollerblades.
She learned early on during the divorce that she could tell us stories to make up for things that we were missing. We were young and gullible, and she was always a gifted storyteller. She diligently started to sell me on the idea that maybe I didn’t need my own rollerblades but her roller skates.
But I couldn’t get past the obvious, “mom, those are girl rollerblades.”
“tsk, no, mijito! They are unisex. And girls like men who are comfortable wearing unisex things.”
Many of my things growing up were unisex, including the perfume I used for a long time. Sometimes they were unisex like my CK One, and sometimes they weren’t, like my mom’s and my rollerblades.
She worked equally hard at providing for us as she did to make us live a life of make-believe. She did it when she tried to sell us on the idea that oven-roasted beef round with copious amounts of salt and pepper tasted exactly like hamburgers.
Round, of course, is a metaphorical word to evoke different emotions than its accurate description would, ass. That was what it tasted like; it tasted like chewy ass with copious amounts of salt and pepper.
Or when I thought we didn’t have enough food to eat one night and I cried silently in bed, clasping my stomach. My mom rushed into my room after coming late from work and asked me what was wrong. I told her there was no food to eat in the fridge, and she calmly consoled me, “don’t be silly. I’m making you arepas, and tomorrow, they’ll be food in the fridge.”
And she did make me two arepas, and the next day there was food in the fridge, but I don’t remember her eating that night, and I have never had the stomach to ask her if there were days when she couldn’t eat because we didn’t have food. Or if she would even admit to it, this part of our lives being a chapter that she doesn’t like to talk about, thinking somehow it would reflect poorly on her.
But my mom had labia! Which is not the same as labia; don’t be gross. Labia is the Spanish word used when someone can convince you that up is down and left is right. They are verbose, loquacious, they have the gift of jab, they can spin a yarn, or convince Eskimos to trade you their fur coats for needless ice.
And she has it in spades, a gift that made her good at sales.
So I might’ve had the discerning power to know that the beef round didn’t taste in any way like a burger, but I believed her when she told me that our roller skates were unisex.
If anyone even hinted at my roller skates being girly, I’d tell them confidently and manly as a twelve-year-old could, “they are unisex, you imbecile!” And if they ínsisted on it, we would get into a shoving contest, and I’d shout to want of my friend, “hold me back because I’m going to kill him.”
Of course, none of my friends held either of us back because they did hope one of us would get punched in the face because we were boys and we were bored.
Eventually, we would lose interest in shoving each other back and forth, mainly because shoving each other on roller skates takes a lot of time because you get shoved, you roll away, and you have to cover the distance between both of you to shove the other person in the opposite direction.
So we would just move on to the next thing as quickly as the fight started.
Skating gained such popularity that the city built ‘el patinodromo’ or the rollerdrome. The rollerdrome was a twenty minutes walk away from my house. You paid a minimal fee to get in — it might’ve been quinientos pesos which probably converted to an American quarter back then.
There was a small snack concession stand inside, but the unpaved curb outside was lined with street vendors selling ‘raspa’o’ (shaved ice), ‘algodón de azúcar’ (cotton candy), ‘saladitas las papitas’ (insanely salty homemade home packed potato chips) and arepas which I have found there is no good English name for it even though every South American country makes them.
One Sunday night, my sister, my mom, a friend of my mom’s, and I went to the rink. The plan was for my sister and I to make a few loops around the rink and for my mom to talk to her friend. But Rosy was possessive of my mom, and she wanted my mom to get in the rink and skate with her. That meant I had to get out and give my mom our unisex rollerblades.
My mom was a proficient skater; according to her, she had done it for a while growing up in Cartagena. And she had the effortless grace of someone who has been on skates before. It is obvious who has never been on skates because they want to stop gravity from doing its thing by pumping their arms up and down as fly-less birds do.
My mom didn’t have that.
She swiftly skated through the loop. Before the end of the second loop, my mom tripped and fell.
Laughing at someone who falls is mandatory among my family. Our family motto could as easily be, ‘Laugh first, then help.” So I made fun of my mom. But then I realized my mom was crying, and she wasn’t standing up.
Instead, she was holding on to her right leg. When I ran to her, we tried to help her out of the boot, but the ankle had already swollen too much to get the boot out safely without making her writhe in pain. We called an ambulance to help us. The ambulance took my mom to the orthopedic ER in town, just a ten-minute drive away.
The ER was across from my school. I think of how brilliant its location was. My school was in a corridor of several other private schools in my city. They were guaranteed to have a steady flow of customers — curious kids with broken bones from defying gravity and learning the limits of our bodies.
My mom got a cast that went all the way past her knee. She also had to get surgery on it later on. One plate and four giant screws to hold it all together.
All adults in the city break away for a few hours at noon to head home for lunch. My mom would make it home for lunch, but we lived on the fourth floor of a four-floor building. The exact floor limit to avoid building an elevator. My mom had to scoot up on her butt the four flights of stairs. By the time she finally made it, she didn’t have enough time to properly finish her meal before she had to start scooting her way back down.
Eventually, the scooting up and down became so cumbersome as to be unsustainable for the four months she needed to have the cast. So she still came home for lunch, but she just sat on the floor next to the porter’s garita and ate with the building’s service staff.
She would eventually get in to get her cast off, and she promised the doctor she would be back to get the plate and screws out. But she never did it. Health care is private and expensive in Colombia; you don’t get what you need if you don’t have money.
It was similar to my braces.
Like all tweens, I was swept away by the braces craze, and I had to have them, and I did. But after three visits to the orthodontist, my mom didn’t have money to keep paying for the regular upkeep and tightening of the braces. So I stopped going, and my braces slowly fell apart.
Eventually, I would take a nail clipper to the brace holders that were left in my mount. The resin stayed for another year as a temporary reminder that I did have braces at one point. Some people get straight teeth; I kept my original ones, resin for a year and the beginning of a robust and stubborn gum disease that would follow me way into my adult life.
It has been close to thirty years, and not once have I heard my mom throw it back at my sister. She never said, “if you would’ve not cried, I would’ve never put on those rollerblades, and I wouldn’t have a plate and four screes in my leg. I would not beep walking through metal detectors or feel a sharp pain in my ankle when a storm rolls by.”
I often think about the craziness of growing up in my household, along with the courage with which my mom raised us. I hope that kind of courage, unlike my roller bladers, is unisex and that I can display it when raising my children.