“Pleeease Mrs. Bante’, Aimee whined.
Mrs. Bante’ unable to resist the opportunity to “introduce” a new face to her vast wealth of knowledge quickly conceded.
Mrs. Bante’ often reminded us of how she once was the right hand woman to many successful and well known political figures in the area. Unfortunately, that highly successful career was very short lived. While she never told us what landed her in the confines of the St. James County’s Department of Education, we all had a hunch that she inflated the measure of her importance just a bit. Of course, no one had the nerve to ask her this to her face and so this hypothesis was never confirmed. Still, she was indeed very knowledgeable and she won the admiration of many female students in the class. Aimee, on the other hand, just wanted another companion to keep her from killing herself from the boredom.
It was during this trip where I met Lena. Lena had a sharp wit and quickly had many of the boys in my class fawning over her. I was sitting in the row across from Aimee on the bus when she introduced me to her very cool and confident cousin. “Eliza, this is my cousin Lena…you remember the one I told you about?” She had only briefly mentioned her. Since that time, Lena and I were “joined at the hip” so to speak. We chatted throughout the entire trip talking about our family, friends and everything else that happened to cross our minds. We were so sad when the trip came to an end but promised to see make plans to see each other again...which we both found was easier than we thought. Apparently, she lived only a few blocks from my house…close to the Old Trading Post. She went to St. Augustine Private School located five miles south of the Old Trading Post and I went to St. James Junior High…on the northern end of the James River. Because St. Augustine was a K-12 school she remained there throughout high school while I graduated over to Nansemond River High School. In true Lena style she joined the cheerleading squad while I maintained courses that were purely academic minus a few art classes I thought might be fun. Still, everything else we did…we did together: we dyed our hair together, went on dates together, went on our first ski trip together, got a tattoo together and got it removed together once our parents found out…yeah we pretty much were the dynamic duo; at least until she decided it was time to break away from St. James. Lena, unable to find a college, (or a subject for that matter) to her liking decided to spend her college fund on traveling the world. While her parents were not thrilled with the idea they decided she was an adult and could do whatever she wanted with the money her grandmother left her. Besides, they had some plans of their own. They were both retired and decided Florida would be a great place to put their feet up and relax. I, on the other hand, did not have the money or the leniency of my parents to travel the world. For the first few months after Lena left I felt so lost without her…my best friend “gone”. For so long we barely spent any time apart other than the occasional family vacation and even so we spoke on the phone every day. In reality I knew she would eventually come back but it was weird not having her so close to home. What made it bearable was the fact that I’d receive several postcards from her from almost each place she’d found the itch to visit including Italy, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Brazil, Russia, and Mexico. I almost envied her for having the guts to get out of St. James. This city had a certain charm which was hard for many unsuspecting visitors to resist. However, those of us who had lived here for a better part of our lives understood all too well how monotonous it had all become. I guess Lena had had enough. She wanted to see what other parts of the world had to offer. Of course, I doubt she had any idea that during her journey the world would have offered up Jeremiah Stevens.
Jeremiah Stevens was a very successful commercial real estate lawyer whom she had encountered during her stay in Mexico. His features made it clear to her that he was not a native. His dirty blonde hair seemed to fall naturally to the sides of his perfectly contoured facial structure. His skin was smooth…the kind of skin long forgotten celebrities paid thousands of dollars to achieve. He reminded me distinctly of the Statue of David with his high cheek bones and pronounced chin. His sun-kissed skin and ocean blue eyes made it obvious that he spent quite a bit of time either working outside or at least a majority of his time at the beach. He was unmistakably gorgeous. She had fallen in love with him instantly and had promised herself that she would end up marrying him. And marry him she did! Lena’s spontaneous side more often than not made her behavior appear irrational. But when the postman came to my door with a certified package addressed to Miss Elizabeth Silva I knew she was out of her mind. The package contained a very beautiful and lavish navy blue bridesmaid gown with matching shoes and three airline tickets…for my parents and I. The gown was noticeably not “off the rack” either; rather it looked like it belonged in a Vera Wang catalogue. Of course, Lena, would know my precise measurements and height so there was no need for tailoring. My mother used to compare me to a coke bottle saying I had enough angles to alter the geometric system…whatever that meant. Still it was my odd dimensions and the fact that I stood a measly five foot four which made it difficult for anyone to buy me clothes for Christmas or birthdays. It was Lena who realized the only way she would figure out what fit and what didn’t on me was to go shopping on more occasions than what is usually necessary. Lena was so thrilled when I called…chattering about the details of the wedding…so much so that I didn’t have the heart to question how long she had known Jeremiah before he had decided to “pop the question”. But based on minor slips on her part I had assumed it could not have been any longer than about three months. It all happened so quickly. She made arrangements to get married on the island of Curacao…everything was already taken care of…all I had to do was hold her hand to calm her wedding jitters, catch the bouquet and blotch her tears with a handkerchief when she started crying. Lena made it clear that under no circumstances was I to allow her to look like an oversized raccoon and I was more than willing to comply. She was so happy back then. And now, five years later here she was…telling me how everything was going so wrong. She was the one who always seemed to have the right answers and showed a lot more poise that I ever did; but now she was different…defeated somehow. The lines around her eyes suddenly making her look much older than she actually was. We were the same age, turning twenty-five only months from each other. And yet, I was the one with such extreme anguish in my heart that I could barely breathe.
“Are you okay?” she asked me. Oh, yeah, sure! I lied. Seeing right through me she opened the bottle of wine that had been chilling and poured a nice portion of it delicately into the goblet.
“Eliza, you never change!” she said. “You always seem to carry the emotional baggage of everyone around you. I wonder how it is that you’re still standing!”
Haha…funny, I retorted. “I guess I’m just lucky!”
Her lips frowned and her eyebrows creased as she heard me say this.
“I don’t want you worrying about me over this, you hear me? And I definitely don’t want you carrying my baggage. I did this! It’s not yours…its mine” she scolded.
I would have argued that I had no idea what she was talking about but we had been friends for way too long to try to claim otherwise. She knew only too well how easily I was affected by the emotions of those around me.
“It’s like you develop an emotional connections to everyone you know…it’s not healthy …you have to learn to control the urge to..to..feel for everyone” she managed to say. Again, I knew only too well what she was referring to. Two years prior, I’d busted into tears after running into Mrs. Kalliger… somehow realizing without Mrs. Kalliger saying a word that her husband of twenty years was just diagnosed with Cancer. I could feel every bit of anguish and pain that surged through her body; I had absorbed her emotions instantly and, at the confusion of Mrs. Kalliger, ran off in tears. A few weeks later she told my dad how our encounter relieved her heart of so much distress that she suddenly found herself wanting to deal with his illness head on. “We’re going to fight this! she had told her husband. It was then that Lena and I suddenly understood that my empathy toward others was far from superficial.
“Eliza, what did you say to her to get her going like that?” my father asked confused.
“Nothing, I didn’t even know he was sick!”
…this was not exactly true but how was I going to explain to my level-headed father that I had “sensed” her pain. No…it was too weird. I would certainly end up in a rubber room with what I so amusingly referred to as an “I love me jacket”. So, I usually endured in silence. Over the years I had actually found a way to ignore those…feelings. Of course, when it was someone very close to me or if I physically touched that person then it was much more difficult not to absorb the emotions of my offender. The emotions came over me like a wave, taking over my senses and consuming me to the point where I could actually “see” as well as feel what the other person felt. It was almost as if I had lost myself in that person’s thoughts and there was no distinguishing between the two of us. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst part were the dreams I had that relived it all…the pain, the tears…sometimes even the joy…all of it. There were times when I even relived intimate events only to wake up feeling ashamed and somehow dirty…as if I had just violated the privacy of my victims. I guess I would have minded more if I thought it made no difference; that whoever was feeling these pains would still be anguished tomorrow but knowing that somewhere somehow it made a difference…well, it just seemed like a small sacrifice. Still, I never thought of myself more for it. I read all the time about individuals who had senses that were for one reason or another extra receptive to those around them and I was no different.
Even with my “extra sensitivity” high school was never quite so easy for me. It’s not that I didn’t fit in (I had my share of friends) but rather I never felt quite the same as everyone else. My way of thinking has always been different to say the least. I never had much tolerance for authority…especially those who abused it. I could never stomach people who would follow the desires of their so called leaders all the while knowing deep down that the verdict was either misguided or wrong altogether. My father once called me “la buscadora de justicia” or the justice seeker. “Great! Let me go find my cape” I responded. I had suddenly pictured myself with a gold lasso and red tights.
“You should have been a lawyer” he would say in a matter of fact manner, but I could never imagine myself in front of a group of people trying to prosecute anyone who had ever a slightest chance of being innocent or the other way around…defending those with a slight chance of guilt. The idea scared me to death but adding my “woman’s intuition” to the equation just made the whole idea absolutely absurd. I could just imagine trying to explain to the judge my reasoning as to why I just knew Jimmy, a tattoo baring, bandana wearing, scoundrel looking gang member was not guilty of robbing the neighborhood convenience store.
“Yes, Your Honor! I do understand that his fingerprints were found all over the weapon and the camera recorded him at the scene at the exact date and time of the crime but despite the three witnesses… trust me…he’s innocent!” Oh, how do I know? Because I think I’m some kind of clairvoyant who can sense these things!
Yeah, Not a good idea!
But still, this anomalous side of my personality didn’t help uncover the mystery to my future. Even now, while most people had already established themselves in careers I was still trying to figure out mine. Unlike Lena, I had taken to attending college in the local area…two years of junior college saved me tons of money and then transferring to one of the few prestigious universities in the area set me on a path to success. Or so my father thought. Papi’ made this part of my future very clear…
”Mija, I only wish I had the opportunity to go to school and make something of myself but it’s too late for me. I’m not going to let you make the same mistake I did!” he said adamantly. “I’ll throw you out first!” he then added furiously.
I tried not to smile when he said this…I guess it’s because I knew him better than that. I knew he would never kick me out of the house but still I could never let him down; not after all he’d been through. He took mami’s death extremely hard and even after three years had a difficult time just speaking her name. He would use adjectives such as “your mother” or pronouns such as “she” and “her” when speaking of his beloved late wife Zenaida.
Jorge and Zenaida were the loveliest couple anyone had ever seen and were absolutely made for each other. Jorge was the Robert Pattinson of his time with his dark features making him very much what would be considered “dangerous yet beautiful”. He really hadn’t changed much except half of the black strands of his beautiful hair were replaced by gray strands and the sockets which held his lovely green eyes now were surrounded by dark circles and stress lines. His skin obviously aged now, shimmered diamonds next to mami’s dark olive complexion. She was beautiful beyond words. With her large honey brown eyes and long lashes I had witnessed only too often how easily she found favor from both men and women alike. When I was a little girl I would spend hours at a time combing through her waist length silky black locks while she sang to herself in deep thought. One day she watched me through the mirror as I slipped the brush through her hair…I must have furrowed my eyebrow because she looked up from her thought and questioned me,
“Querida, what’s on your mind?” I quickly tried to lighten the expression on my face.
“huh…nothing mami, I…I’m fine”.
“Oh really! If you’re so fine why do you look like your eyes are going to swallow the rest of your face?” she said curiously. I gave her a crooked smile.
I gave in, “I was just wondering…about how much longer?”
How much longer until what, mija?
How much longer until I’m as beautiful as you?
“Ohhhh…is THAT what’s on your mind?” she questioned with a slight grin. She then turned back around to allow me to keep brushing through her hair.
Yes! I answered.
“Well, that depends”…she said softly.
Depends on what?
“That depends on when Alemoa decides that you are ready to become a woman.
But how will I know when she decides? I asked anxiously. “Because she will let you know”. I pondered this statement for a moment and saw my mother’s expression through the mirror…her eyes intense…obviously waiting for my response.
“What if I’m ready now?” I finally said.
“Ah mija, do not be so anxious to grow up and do not be so hurried to have Alemoa decide your fate…she said with a slightly wary tone. “There are many women who would gladly trade their time with Alemoa for what you favor now.”
“Why would they want that?” I asked confused.
She looked back around at me and stared at me intensely
“Because Eliza, things are not always as they seem. There are things in this world that can hardly be explained with our bare senses. We must sometimes experience pain to understand the true exquisiteness of pleasure. Like the caterpillar that transforms to a butterfly we must transform into greater forms of ourselves…beautiful and free. Only then will our eyes truly be open and we can see the world for what it really is…in its true and raw form…the way Papa Dios meant for it to be. But there are times, while very few, when our eyes are opened to truths that are difficult if not impossible for some to accept…because if they choose to accept those truths as reality then they begin to question everything they have ever known to be real.”
With that she smiled then swiftly turned around and started singing to herself again…her eyes again lost in thought. I knew at that point that she wouldn’t speak of it again until she felt I was old enough to understand. But, years passed by still Alemoa never came… yes, physically, mentally and emotionally I had grown up… yet, at twenty-one years old there was still always something missing; I was still waiting for some kind of change that never presented itself. When I would try to ask mami’ about it she would simply say in a soft and loving tone, “Mija…you must be patient…Alemoa comes at her time not yours…she will know when you are ready”.
But I never had the chance to ask her about it again. Two weeks after my twenty-first birthday her limp body was found behind the Old Powhatan Trading Post ten miles from my house. Mom had gone to the supermarket to pick up some groceries for dinner that afternoon then afterwards had planned on visiting her old friend Kachina for about an hour or so. She never made it there. Kachina was one of mom’s closest friends and the wife of Chief Brauburn…current leader of the Mochontas Tribe. The Mochontas were very unusual as most Indian tribes in Virginia had dispersed back in the sixteen hundreds; the few which remained did so in hopes of retaining their lands and maintaining their cultural heritage. It was Chief Chuck Brauburn who found my mom’s body behind his store that morning.
“I’m so sorry Jorge…”he said extremely distraught…his eyes furrowed so deeply the lines made him look a hundred years old…”if only I had stayed to do the inventory like I had planned..maybe…she would be…” Chief Brauburn started to say, his eyes gazing down at the rocks at his feet.. “Thank you Chuck” dad quickly cut in, placing his hand on Chief Brauburn’s shoulder, “but this is not your fault…you had no idea this would happen”.
“Jorge?” he looked up at my dad, “do the police have any idea who could have done this?” Dad shrugged his shoulders, “they’re not sure really…but I heard one of them mention Fisher.”
“Fisher!”…he said angrily…he obviously did not expect this answer.
“Do they really believe he had something to do with this?” Chief asked anxiously; He pondered for a moment then added, “well, I guess considering the trail he left behind in New York and Maryland it would be easy to come to that conclusion wouldn’t it?”
“To be honest, with everything that has just happened I’ve thought about sending Eliza to stay with Lena for a while. That way I could hunt for that son of a bitch Fisher myself!” my father said the anger giving way to any pain he may have been feeling.
“Papi’No!” I sobbed. My father hadn’t realized that I walked up behind him after speaking to the police and I’d been standing there for the duration of the conversation.
“Mija!” He grabbed me and tightly squeezed me in his arms. “Please don’t cry mamita” he pleaded desperately as he frantically brushed my hair with the palm of his hand. “Eliza, you are the only thing I have left in this world and I need to make sure you are safe”.
“And how is chasing a lunatic in another state keeping me safe? What would happen if you failed? How would you protect me then?” I continued to sob. then I added softly…”what would mom say?”
From the heavy sigh I felt form in his chest I could tell that I had won the battle…well temporarily at least.
“Chief, do you think Kachina would mind some company while I tie up some loose ends here?”
“Not at all!” Chief, tried to say cheerfully, “she’ll love to have you Eliza!” Then he looked at my dad and said “I’ll let her know Eliza is on her way.”
Not more than an hour had passed when Chief came through the front door to let me know that my dad was already on his way home. “If you like you could always stay here, Eliza!”
“Thanks Chief, but I think I need to be with my dad”…he nodded in understanding. Besides I had to leave…I could barely endure my own pain without the burden of Kachina’s sadness and guilt as well. She had gotten it into her head that somehow my mother’s death was partially her fault. No…I’d rather be at home…I needed to relieve some of my dad’s pain first. I knew it would be the most difficult thing I could ever do…I wasn’t even sure how bad the dreams would be…but I had to do it. I needed my dad to be strong enough to move on…I couldn’t lose him too. So, I jumped in my car…an old beat down Hondai my father had bought for me in an auction. It wasn’t one of the prettiest things I’ve seen but the engine worked great and surprisingly so did the radio. As I drove down the highway I began to think about my mother. Just this morning we spoke for about an hour...nothing important really…just those things that mothers and daughters talk about I guess…the new couple that moved down the street, my old friends who I hadn’t seen since college and what she was going to cook for dinner. On a night when the streets are usually dark and isolated it seemed as if everyone was on the road heading in the opposite direction I was coming from. I almost found myself getting hypnotized by the headlights and dreading the thought of walking into the house.
But when I got home there was surprisingly no pain, no sadness…not even a nightmare…just anger…but even more so than the anger…there was a horrible sinking feeling of something worse…something that I could not heal or make better…it was just a hole…a large gaping hole in our home. It was black and it was cold. It did not feel as if it would get bigger but neither would it close…it would be there always reminding us of this day…of our loss. It was… ……………emptiness.