I’m in Michigan! I moved back to my apartment at school a couple days ago (but as of an hour ago I’m home-home again for a couple days, to get caught up on doctor appointments and family time and all that).
At this point, I have less than a week left before senior year begins, which is CRAZINESS. I’m honestly terrified for how I’m going to handle everything I signed on to do this year, but almost all of it’s fun stuff, so fingers crossed everything works out.
In the meantime, I’ve been trying to get ahead on reading for my literature class (it’s on film adaptations, so we’re reading The Great Gatsby and Emma and a ton of other fantastic works) and getting back into a regular routine of eating decently and working out. (Although also, I ate nothing but takeout and barely exercised AT ALL while in NYC and I lost seven pounds, sooo.) (I mean, I’m pretty sure it was seven pounds of muscle.) (But still.)
It was while I was on the treadmill today that I got an email from Writer’s Digest letting me know that my short story “The Sun and More” received an honorable mention in the Children’s/Young Adult category of the 84th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition! (Wow, that was a mouthful.) I’d honestly forgotten I’d even entered anything, so it was a surprise (and such a good one).
People have been asking where they can read the story, so I figured I’d post “The Sun and More” as a special Wordy Wednesday. (I’ll write the writing process post that won last week’s poll next week.)
Without further ado:
I slam the Jeep door and shove the keys in the ignition. Cold air blasts from the vents as the heater struggles to life. I jerk the seatbelt towards the buckle—it won’t come, I must have activated a lock—then Mamá is in the passenger seat, lips set in a line, unruly eyebrows low over her muddy brown eyes.
I yank at the seatbelt again but it’s still locked. Mamá’s gloved hand covers my fists. My usually steady fingers shake.
“Maria. Settle down.” Her voice is soft, low. I can’t look at her or I’ll break, so I tug at the seatbelt one last time, but of course it still won’t work, and it’s so hard to breathe, and I can’t take this. It’s unfair. I hate it.
I throw the seatbelt at the door, wrench off my gloves, and lean my forehead against the freezing steering wheel. Outside the Jeep, everything drowns beneath thick, dark clouds.
For a moment the only sounds are my breathing, too fast, and the heater choking out air. Mamá takes off her gloves and carefully brushes a long, loose curl off my shoulder. I smash the heel of my hand against the steering wheel.
The jolt that ricochets up my arm is something I can control. It feels good to be in control, to have a choice in what happens for once, so I do it again. Again.
She shifts away, leaving the space around me somehow both too empty and too full. Dry air pumps from the heater. My eyes burn. My nose runs. Tires crunch over ice somewhere in the parking lot.
My hand hovers above the steering wheel.
It falls limp to my lap.
“Maria.” Mamá has always said my name so uniquely, with that combination of Mexican and Midwestern accents. A trill over the R and the As so wide and endless. My name is a magic spell between her lips. “Oh, mi chiquita.” Mamá leans over the center console again. She pulls me into her arms. I sob into her parka.
She is warm. Safe.
So different from Dad and me.
Mamá is made of tres leches cake and hazelnut coffee. She works a billion hours a day as a paralegal, the first in her family to go to college, and volunteers in the church nursery every Sunday after Mass. She smells like peach shampoo and doctors’ offices.
My scent is probably similar. I want to go home and wash it off. Crawl into bed and never have to face the world again.
She rubs my back. “I just do not understand why you are upset.”
Of course she doesn’t. It’s stupid. I shouldn’t be.
I pull away and wipe my nose with my sleeve. Wipe my eyes. I pull my seatbelt back around to buckle it. Calmly, this time.
I shift the Jeep into reverse and crunch out of the spot.
“We need to talk about this,” Mamá says. “You do not have cancer. Why are you upset? I don’t want you leaving this parking lot until you tell me.”
I open my mouth, but my throat is swollen shut and the pressure still pounds behind my eyes. I put the car in gear.
I pull onto Main Street.
It’s all I can do to blink my eyes clear and keep my focus on the slushy road.
We drive for one minute. Two. Out of downtown and past the cemetery I still can’t look at, all these years later.
“You do not have cancer,” Mamá repeats. “That’s good news from Dr. Iman. You should be happy. We caught the bad mole just in time.”
“But that’s exactly it!” I slam on the brakes. Turn to her. The car behind us blares its horn and swerves around us. I don’t care. “We caught this one and every one before it, sure. But one of these times we aren’t going to catch it. This one was changing so fast! It looked fine a month ago and already it was severely dysplastic. You heard Dr. Iman. That’s one step from Melanoma. One of these times, just—we aren’t going to catch it.”
The doctors have been cutting dysplastic moles out of me since I was eight. They come from Dad’s side. Northern European heritage that led to genes that don’t know how to handle the sun. My relatives on Mamá’s side don’t understand why I’m always so pale, why I’m afraid to do anything outside.
I’m enough of an outsider as it is, raised in Madison, Wisconsin rather than Mérida, Yucatán; blue eyes and freckled cheeks paired with Mamá’s dark, curly hair. Grew up on hot chocolate with whipped cream—Dad’s favorite—instead of horchata.
“One sunburn,” I say. “I forgot to reapply sunscreen one afternoon during the orchestra trip to Disney World over Thanksgiving and Dr. Iman has had to cut out three moles since then. I can’t live this way!”
Bouncing between AP classes and la Sociedad Honoraria Hispánica and violin lessons and practicing violin and not being able to get the violin to do what I want and needing it to do what I want and playing until Mamá comes downstairs wrapped in a blanket to tell me to stop at two in the morning. And doctor’s appointments, and applying ointment and fresh bandages to the latest surgery site every morning, and constantly checking for changes in my skin through it all.
Another car behind us slams on its horn. My heartrate jumps.
“Pull off the road,” Mamá instructs. The car swerves around us. I slip the Jeep onto the shoulder and flip on our hazards. “You’re so worried about dying from cancer? Pull another stunt like this in the middle of Main Street and you will die much faster. Don’t you dare scare me like that!” She shoves my shoulder and I flinch.
Her cheeks pale. “Oh, Chiquita, I’m sorry. I didn’t—didn’t mean that.”
My right shoulder is just the latest place a mole has chosen to lead a kamikaze attack. Another hole in the patchwork quilt of my body. Dr. Iman says I was lucky it wasn’t my left shoulder, or I wouldn’t have been able to play violin while it healed.
The sore throbs. “It’s all right.” I stare at the steering wheel.
A semi-truck barrels past and rocks the Jeep. My eyes water from the dryness of the air. The only things around us are barren trees and grey-tinged snow.
Mamá unbuckles her seatbelt and turns to face me head on. “Maria, in your sixteen years of life, we have never once missed a bad mole. Do you understand how incredibly fortunate you are?”
“Exactly.” I throw my hands up. “The odds are against us. With that many bad ones caught, we have to miss one sometime.”
Skin’s supposed to protect you, hold all the pieces together. The body’s first line of defense. But mine seems to have never wanted more than to self-destruct.
“Twenty.” She raises her eyebrows. “That is how many dysplastic moles we have caught. Twenty moles in eight years. And you, mija,” her voice cracks, “are now a beautiful young woman.”
There were the first two when I was eight, on my back, that they found when I first went to the dermatologist with Dad, a week after I saw him perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra—he graduated from Julliard—and came home begging to learn how to play. He pulled me into his arms and told me his dream was to learn how to make music that felt like colors—the red of first love and blue of a shiver.
Another mole at nine. Three at ten, all on my scalp, so I now have bald patches we have to be careful to hide when I pull my curls back to perform. One at eleven.
Five at twelve, because I went to orchestra camp that summer in a failed attempt to escape everything happening at home. Two at thirteen. Three at fourteen. None at fifteen, because I stopped going outside almost entirely freshman year.
I stopped doing everything. I played so little, I had to earn back my calluses.
And now three dysplastic moles at sixteen, because I wanted to spend the free afternoon of the orchestra competition roaming Disney World with everyone else. A day off from everything. From being me.
And after waiting two hours in line with Abby and Erin, we finally got to ride Splash Mountain, and I forgot to reapply sunscreen on our way to the spinning teacups because we were laughing so hard over how wet we were, and it wasn’t even that sunny.
No one else had to reapply sunscreen after every ride.
It’s not fair. Being half-Mexican, having the sun in your blood, and it poisoning your skin.
I bite my cheek. “You’ve been counting how many times I’ve almost gotten Melanoma and died?”
Mamá reaches across the center console, cups my chin in her palms, and her long fingers curl around my earlobes. There’s another scar behind my left one.
Her eyes are wet, but her lips tilt up. Another car passes. “Chiquita. I’ve been counting how many times you didn’t get Melanoma and lived.”
My chin trembles against her warm hands. Moisture gathers in my eyes. “I’m scared, Mamá.”
She shakes her head. Her smile wavers a little. “I’m scared, too.”
“I miss Dad.”
“I know. I know. Me too.” The tears leak down her cheeks.
I am far too big for it, but I crawl over into her lap. She holds me tight.
“I cannot make promises, Maria, but we will do our best to keep stopping these. We’ll keep doing the mole checks. Keep applying the sunscreen. We just have to be smart about it. Learn from your father’s mistakes.”
“It’s just delaying the inevitable,” I whisper into her shoulder.
“Everyone dies eventually.” Her laugh makes her entire chest vibrate. “My goal is that you live a good, long time before then.” She squeezes me. “And anyway, what would the sunscreen industry do without you?”
“You’re right.” I hiccup out a laugh. I lay my cheek against the hollow between her collarbone and neck. “I have to stay alive for their sakes.”
“And mine. Don’t forget about me.”
I hug her tighter. “Would you mind driving the rest of the way home?”
“Anything for you.” She gives me one last squeeze, then I open the door and step outside so she can climb into the driver’s seat. I slip back in and she turns. Strokes a misplaced curl from my face. She rests her forehead against mine. “Anything for you. I would give you the sun and more, mi Maria. You know that.”
I pull away and nod.
She is the one who pays for the lessons and instrument repairs, who tacked the Juilliard poster above my desk when Dad had been gone a month and I still refused to leave the house. She is the one who helps me through my Spanish homework and sits beside me in the living room during Christmas in Mérida while everyone else basks in the sun. She is the one who translates their culture to me and my culture to them, and whispers into my hair that, “Es bonito ser diferente.” It is beautiful to be different.
My throat’s still tight, but I manage to get the words out, “Maybe since I can’t have the sun, it’s time I started chasing everything else.”
Mamá turns off the hazards and smiles. It hurts, how wonderful and beautiful and mine she is. “What would you like to chase first?”
“Only if we get it with whipped cream.”
“Of course.” I buckle my seatbelt. We pull onto the road and the sun comes out from behind the clouds. It dyes the inside of the Jeep gold, lovely in its toxicity. The shade the best violinists’ wails would be if you could translate colors into music.
Thanks for reading!