Tortillas at Nivea's
By Daal Praderas
Most Americans I meet think that anybody who speaks Spanish is dark and was raised on Mexican food. They see my light brown hair and green eyes, so they treat me like a gringo girl. When they see my parents are dark and short, they talk at them loud and slow, like having an accent makes you stupid and that you can't hear. It wouldn't bother me as much if they did it to me, instead, because I'm only four years old.
Mamá's people call her Porteña, since she's from Argentina. Papá is from Barcelona, where a lot of people want to go back not belonging to Spain. In both those places, when people say tortillas, they mean an omelet, not Mexican food.
The first time I ate a Mexican tortilla was one of only a little bunch of times that my parents took me to a babysitter. Papá says children need to be quiet and that parents always need to be able to see us. Mamá says next year, when I start first grade, no more baby sitters for me.
* * *
This morning the air feels like when I have a fever and Mamá's touches my face with her cool hands. Everything is a little blurry, the green leaves and grasses almost blue; the shadows, tree barks and walkways nearly purple.
It looks like it does when I put on Mamá's sunglasses with the green lenses. Whenever Papá buys us ice cream cones at the drug store, I get pistachio because of its color. Mamá's glasses make me picture myself ducking in and out of James Bond movies, only with bunches of cute boys chasing like those women on TV do, when the guy puts on men's perfume.
I hated waking up this morning. When Mamá turned on the lights, they made the dream go away that I was having, where everything was colored like emeralds. After breakfast, my two brothers went to school.
Mamá dressed me fast, so now she, Papá and I are walking to the front of the apartment building. Our car is parked near a row of high trees that are starting to drop big orange and red leaves our windshield.
At the end of our drive, Papá parks next to two fat short palm trees, in front of an apartment building that's colored like dirty cream. Its roof has waves of red tiles and the windows downstairs have swirly metal in front of them. Papá waits in the car for Mamá and me. Palm leaves brush my hair as I get out. Mamá takes my hand and I follow her down a short brick place to walk. The sound of her high-heeled work shoes makes me feel safe.
Before Mama's finger reaches the door bell, a woman opens the door. A smile covers the stranger lady's whole face. Her skin reminds me of the gold jar of honey sitting on our windowsill at home.
She and my mother say hello to each other in Spanish. Behind the woman, in the shadows of her dark living room, is a skinny girl who's a couple of hands taller than me but who's not in school either, staring at me.
A lump gets stuck in my throat when I find out that Mamá has kissed the top of my head goodbye and she's leaving. I look down so the strangers can't see me cry.
The woman hurries me inside. "Nivea, this is Laia. You take good care of her. I've got too many things to do," she tells the girl.
We walk past a pimply boy and an older man, into a shiny kitchen with yellow and blue tiles almost everywhere. The house doesn't smell anything like mine.
I follow Nivea and her mother into the bedrooms as they make beds and cook. They don't know that I'm trying not to let them see how scared I am that my parents might forget to take me back home.
"Te gustan las tortillas?" the woman asks me as she shows Nivea how to smooth out little round balls of dough into circles. "Do you like tortillas?"
After a while, we go into a sunny room for eating that is stuffed with as many people as I have fingers. A round table takes up most of the room is piled with food and plates and stuff. The woman makes me sit down, but when she goes back into the kitchen, I go stand behind everyone.
A tall man comes in and smiles at me as he sits down. He takes a tortilla from a big pile of them, reaches over to a plate of butter, and slices off a little. He smears it over the tortilla, the butter sliding and steaming over it. He ends by rolling the tortilla up into a flute, then hands it to me with an even bigger smile. At first I don't take it, but when I do, I'm glad because it feels like warm suede; sweet smelling and good.
For the first time since I got here, my eyebrows aren't up. When the man hands me another, I reach for it without waiting first.
Forks, spoons, and knives get quiet. The man peels an orange. He hands a piece to Nivea and one to me. Everyone laughs when I make a face at the sweet sourness of it.
"Marchate," Nivea's mother tells her as she starts cleaning the table. "I have too much to do. Time for your naps."
Nivea puts her hand on my arm and takes me into a bedroom. She holds her finger to her lips, making sure we stand where her mother can't see us, behind the door. Afterwards she takes me out the front door.
Three girls, each with dark hair that reaches under their shoulders say hi to Nivea outside, in Spanish. Nivea pulls me behind her as we all start running.
We stop inside a laundry room. There's a big sink at one wall, next to a long table. Clothes lines hang up high, white ropes that go from one end of the room to the other. Empty clothes pins hang from them, two pins at the end of one line holding up a white handkerchief that gets blown around by the wind from the window next to it.
It's warm now, so the girls take off their sweaters. We all have on short dresses. The fuzzy wool of my red sweaters itches. It's the one Mamá made for me with little plastic heart buttons that I suck on when no one can see me.
Nivea and another girl are on their backs on the floor, with their feet against each other's and they start to pedal, as if they were riding bicycles, but in the air.
A girl calls out, "I see London, I see France, I see Olga's underpants," and we all laugh. Two girls push away the ones that were on the floor so the can lie down where they were.
Nivea steps over the other girls and pulls my sweater off, then puts it on the sink. She makes everyone get on the floor, pushing away the two that are already there to make room for the rest of us. Nivea is next to me and we all bicycle, the five of us making a circle that's not very round.
Afterwards, Nivea takes off her panties and so does everyone else. She pulls mine off.
Now we pedal with the wind touching us. The inside of my ribs feel cold, but between my legs is hot.
Nivea gets up and has me pedal with another girl. She crawls around and looks between my legs from so close that I can smell the butter and tortillas on her breath. My leg slaps the side of her head but she doesn't care.
We hear her mother calling for her, so everyone runs away. Nivea doesn't look like she cares. She takes me through a door at the back of the room and into the living room, where her mother and Mamá are together, at the front door.
"Papá's waiting for us in the car," Mamá says as she kisses.
We're starting to leave, but then she says, "Laia, where's your sweater?"
The wind from the open door reminds me that the backs of my knees are sweaty and that my panties are still inside the laundry room.
Nivea pulls me out of the room and into the laundry room, where she picks up my sweater from where she put it before. She puts it on me, then walks to where my panties got left. She has a tiny smile as she puts first one of my feet, then the other, into them. She pulls them up to my waist, like I'm a doll. At the same time she pulls my dress up to my chin, looks at me, then lets go of the dress.
When Mamá and I get back to the car, I sit in back while my parents talk in front.
"Are you sleeping with your eyes open?" Mamá laughs when she opens the car door for me because we're home.