My Mother Of God
By Michael Obilade
It wasn’t my fault. I promise you it wasn’t. I did not mean to be bad with her, and I did not mean to be bad to my brother. I don’t know why it’s important for you to believe me, but in the way things are, belief is all we have in the end.
My sister says boys are naturally crazy. She says we want it however we can get it, whether we have to be good or bad. I don’t know if she’s right. But it was November, and the days were starting to cool. Chico, my brother, had become a fallen star. Josie was his gravity. I don’t know what made it different—what made her different—but it was. She was. This was more than love behind the track fields in the long grass. This was more than the kind of love where money changed hands.
He came to me one day, and told me he wanted to bring her home with us. He wanted her to meet our mother, to meet our cousins and our nieces, our near and distant relatives.
“What do you think?” He pulled me aside the day we cut class to buy tickets at the bus station. “You think she could be the one?”
The one? Some girl gives a smile, holds you the right way, and doesn’t slap you when you’re done and you think she’s the one? I’d seen her. She had nice eyes—but wasn’t the sex enough?
I knew he was making a mistake. I wanted to tell him, but something in the way he asked me the question—the way he stopped and looked me in the eyes instead of talking to the wind, or to the sky, as he normally did when addressing people—kept me from speaking. This was serious.
“I don’t know.” I tried to form my words carefully. “You mean marriage?” I knew he did. I just wanted to make him say it, so he could see how strange it sounded, out here in the Tejano air.
“You don’t know how it is, man.” He’d shaken his head. “You don’t know what it’s like.”
I knew I wasn’t being honest with him that day, or any other day when we talked about Josie. The truth was that I couldn’t stand her. Or maybe I couldn’t stand her when she was with him. But I wasn’t jealous. You think I was, but I wasn’t. I didn’t want her; I just didn’t understand her.
She had short, thick black hair, almost like a boy’s. No one knew where she was from. She had brown eyes, sharp but soft. Her hands were small, and her hips were smooth, but the details took time to notice. So it wasn’t that I didn’t find her attractive. It was just that on first glance, she did not look any different from the other girls. I could not see what he saw.
The first time we spoke, she treated me like she’d known me forever.
“So what’s your name?”
“Josie. You’re Chico’s little brother, right? He’s told me a lot about you.”
Except, apparently, my name. Later, on the Greyhound, she would say otherwise. I never understood if this was the way she was, or if this was the way she was with me. It felt wrong to become angry with her for something she could not change. But I did. “Right. Well, bye.” I had turned to leave, having already found a suitable reason for disliking her, but for whatever reason, I turned back. And there she was. Smiling; looking at me through those Tejano eyes, like she knew I’d never have the strength to walk away from her, even if she wasn’t dating my brother. And then she walked away.
Back in Jueveras, before my Uncle Paolo passed away, we would play chess together, sometimes for hours. What she had just done, my uncle would have called “checkmate.” It should not have come as a surprise: some people could not be beaten. She had put me in check from the moment she’d made my brother hiss her name, on one of those endless summer nights when all one could hear was the sound of cicadas and Selena and girls kissing boys in ’78 convertibles.
Perhaps things might have turned out differently—perhaps everything would have remained upright, suspended by silk and honor—if I had focused on my studies. My grandmother thought so. But the passage of time does strange things to all of us. As each night turned to dawn, and each dawn turned to dusk, the sun rose, and the sun set, but the days remained the same. The affection my brother had for this girl, for this sweetness with the torn flower skirt and the sadly peaceful eyes; it did not go away. The morning when he would wake up and decide that this was boring and simple to him, that she was nothing more than a carnal pleasure who had ceased to be pleasurable; the morning when she would run from his bed and out of his life, shards of broken heart trailing her footsteps like candy – the morning did not come. As summer turned to fall, he did not curse or hang his head – not once. I remember the day I walked to the river, and saw him washing her hair. His friends laughed at him, but he did not care. Instead he rushed from his studies to his gas station job in order to earn the money to buy her simple gifts, to fill their days with something other than the dust, the billboards, and the catcalls of prostitutes waiting for their businessmen.
I wrote to my sister. I told her our brother had fallen for a girl who made him say his prayers even when he wasn’t dealing with a broken contraceptive. I told her that he had begun to talk of long-term commitments, that he wished to run away with her. I did not mention her name. My sister wrote back.
“Don’t. But don’t pretend. She will spit on you, if you pretend. If you find yourself alone with her, and you wish to have a brother, keep your belt buckled, your hands behind your head. Pretend she is a policeman.”
I tried to pretend she was a policeman, but she was far too small, and far too young. She did not speak like the policemen did, with their cowboy accents and broken Spanish. Her voice was soft, warm like the rooftop of our school. And unlike the policemen, she did not carry a gun, though I imagined her lips were equally devastating. So I thought of her as the Virgin Mary. Not even the worst thoughts within me would dare manifest themselves upon my Josie—my brother’s Josie—if I saw her as the Mother of God. I prayed it would work.
It was the week before our break. The sun left us with less and less time to use our eyes, but we did not change. In school, 31 of the 69 girls were either pregnant, on the verge of pregnancy, or about to give birth. It was anybody’s guess how many of the remaining 38 had simply gotten lucky. Most of the boys did not have steady girlfriends; they said it would not be fair to deny the girls the variety that could only come through promiscuity. But there was only one girl I was interested in, and naturally, she was the only one I could not have. She was the only one who did not go with a different boy each week to the basement, to the attic, to the roof where the girls counted the stars while on their backs, on leather sport jackets. She was the only girl whose eyes I could not imagine rolled into the backs of their sockets, back arched, legs stiff, in the glorious shudder. She made me feel inadequate. She was, of course, my brother’s Josie.
My brother? He did not know. The thought of his brother being bad with his girl? Never. Not in a thousand cycles of the moon. If he had known, he would never have asked me to come with him, with his Josie, to see our mother, to introduce her to the family. But this isn’t true. This isn’t true at all, because Chico was a generous brother. If he had held suspicions about my feelings for her, he would have shrugged them off, knowing I would never act upon them. I say this because he had said as much the night before we traveled. The three of us were lying on the roof of the school. Me, my brother, and the Tejano girl. We paid no attention to the couple ten feet away from us. We made peace with the rhythms from a gang fight half a mile down the road; all that mattered was above and beneath us. Josie lay next to Chico, her head on his chest. Her eyes watching me. I was beside her, thinking deeply of the Virgin Mary. We said nothing for hours. But sometime after midnight, she stood up, and walked to the edge of the roof. While she was gone, my brother spoke.
“What do you think of her?”
“I think I’m in love with her.” I said it unconsciously, not realizing I had said it aloud until a moment later. The night stood still as I waited for his answer. But the answer I expected did not come. Instead, he looked at me strangely for a second, before laughing and smiling in the dark.
“I’m sorry, my friend—so am I. You’ll have to wait your turn. ‘Till death do us part’ is an awful long time, you know?”
I stopped thinking of the Virgin long enough to remember the story of Cain and Abel. Then Josie came back, her body shadowed in the moonlight. She smiled at me as she went back to her boy, and I scowled at her in the darkness. She didn’t seem to mind.
Our bus was a large, retired Greyhound. It had ten tires, and cavernous seats on the inside. The driver started the rusting engine in the twilight, as the last stars slowly faded into yellow river sky. It was full of passengers, mostly young; mostly from our school.
“I wonder how many boys and girls will begin on this bus ride,” my brother joked. My eyes passed Josie’s as I looked to my brother’s, and my smile faded between the distance from hers to his.
The daylight portion of the ride was uneventful. We crossed the border with the birth of the sun, but the land was no different. Only the feeling in one’s heart. I was looking forward to seeing my mother, to arguing with my sister. I could not ask Chico what he longed for, as boys in love did not long for anything but the continuation of love. We stopped once, twice. I found the sounds of joy and laughter around me saddening, and the knowledge of this saddened me further. Friends tried to talk to me, but they didn’t understand. How could they? The last thing I saw before falling asleep was the top of my brother’s head as he leaned in to kiss the one I—the Tejano girl, both of them sitting in the seat in front of me. I sat alone.
I dreamed of many things, but none could compare to the reality of my awakening. The bus was nearly silent. Cold rushed in from open windows, and I shivered like a lost child. Everything was dark, and everything was still—save for a pair of warm fingers held against my lips. I took my sister’s words, and cast the Virgin Mary out the cracked window beside me.
“If you say a word, this will have to end.”
And so it began.
She was 17, but she didn’t look 17. The speed at which my hands still shook, even now, as I caressed her, told me I would not have stood a chance with her when I was seventeen, and the thought amused me. But everything melted into nothingness when she brought her lips to mine, when she pulled my face to hers and traced a kiss around my mouth. I was her student. It didn’t matter how many I’d had before her—each was erased, banished in her presence. The dull hum of the diesel engine punctuated our reverie, and each tire turned and each star shimmered away, as we performed an act so simple that it could only have occurred under cover of absolute darkness, on a dirt brown bus seat traveling far above the speed limit down a lonely Mexican road. And she became my perfection.
We were the only two awake. I could feel the warm air of her lungs each time she exhaled, the slow expansion and soft contraction of her as she lay above me. I waited for the feeling of rightness to subside; like a condemned man longing the sunrise of his execution, I asked the guilt I knew was coming to wash me into a deep river, to strip me bare, and drown me forever. I was 18, but I felt much older.
“What are you thinking?”
I could not answer her.
“I always knew your name.” She said it softly, sleepily. I remembered, and I closed my eyes.
“Do you love him?”
She did not answer. Josie. My Josie, with the soft, small hands of an angel. But she was no angel. An angel would not have done what she had done, what we had done. So what did that make us?
In the silence, she put her head to my chest, and listened to my heartbeat. We passed a lone streetlight. It burned yellow. In the brief, warm glow, I looked at the seat opposite ours, and saw a boy and a girl wrapped beneath fading covers. As they faded into night, we wondered what they believed.
Michael Obilade lives and writes in Massachusetts. His stories have most
Photo "Adam and Eve," Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1472.
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