The 91

Author’s Note: A version of this story was published on 11/25/14 in the anthology of flash nonfiction: Three distributed through PushPen Press.

It’s been over half an hour and we haven’t moved more than twenty feet. A drop of sweat starts to inch down the back of my neck before racing down the length of my spine. I decide to wipe my forehead on the sky blue polo shirt that is my school uniform, peeling my arm off the armrest with an audible smack. The radio is on, but my Spanish is abysmal and I’m not paying attention so I have no clue what the two hosts are yattering on about. A song comes on that I actually know and understand the lyrics to, and Mom starts to belt it out as the traffic starts to let up. I smile, or at least try to, smiling is kind of hard for me right now. It was my fault we were ‘late’ in getting on the freeway. You wouldn’t think it, but there’s about an hour difference between 2:30 pm and 3:00 pm. If I were half of what the rest of my family was I would have been able to get my group to have been quiet long enough for the class to have left on time. Not the case, unfortunately.

My Mom keeps singing. “Que tontos, que locos, somos tu y yo!”. I think about how sad the song is, despite being so damn catchy. It’s about a couple that’s in love, but both of them have “moved on” to other relationships even though they still think about each other all the time. At least, I think that’s what it’s about. I understand the songs better since I spent the summer in my Mom’s hometown. I remember walking to the nearest shop for a soda within twenty minutes of arriving at my grandma’s house, trudging up the uneven, stone paved, road in the kind of weather that would make a patron of Hell complain. The shopkeeper took one look at me and yelled at her sister that my Mom was back in town.

I look at my Mom as she keeps singing her head off, and briefly wonder if she sees herself in me, because I don’t. I think to myself that she’s on a whole other level and I don’t think I’ll ever catch up. I pull a book out of my bookbag. I know it won’t last me the entire commute home, no book ever does. I figure I might as well read it now that we still get the radio and my Mom has something to entertain herself. I can keep her company when the radio dies. Least I could do really…

…The radio is dead. I listen as Mom talks to me about how much she misses my great grandpa, a six foot three Yaqui indian with dark brown skin and the bluest eyes you’ve ever seen.

…The radio is dead. I listen as Mom tells me about the pinata my grandpa made for her. Back when pinata’s were made out of clay and throwing a party meant inviting the whole neighborhood.

…The radio is dead. I listen as Mom tells me how much she hated washing dishes as a teen. How she would trade my aunts all their chores to avoid her turn of washing dishes, and how her first job in the states was a dish washer.

…The radio is dead. I listen as Mom tells me how happy she is that I got another Student of the Month Award. She reminds me of how well all my siblings did in elementary school.

…The radio is dead. I listen as Mom tells me about my Tio Chino, who isn’t really my uncle but a close family friend, and how he used to be a bit of a cholo when he was younger. His then girlfriend and current wife used to carry a switchblade in her hair in case he got into trouble.

…The radio is dead. I listen as Mom tells me about how she disobeyed my grandpa’s wishes when she came to the states on a student visa that she got with the help of my Nina Carmen.

…The radio is dead. I listen as Mom tells me about the porcelain tea set that was the reason she met Dad. At the time they met he told her he had always thought that particular set would be for his wife. I wonder if I’ll ever be that smooth.

…The radio is dead. I listen as Mom tries to act like everything is normal. I don’t tell her I already know about the cysts they found.

…The radio is dead. Mom listens as I lie about why I’m struggling with middle school.

…The radio is dead. I listen to another lecture about the importance of my studies, I take notice of how often she brings up the idea of her not being around.

…The radio is dead. Mom wakes me up and tells me I was making sobbing noises. My sleeping pattern has become irregular. I tell her I can’t remember what I was dreaming about. Years later I will wonder if this was when my insomnia started.

…The radio is dead. I listen as Mom tells me about the cysts they found. I start to worry it’s bad news but then she tells me the radiation therapy worked. I act surprised that any of it happened.

…The radio is dead. I listen as Mom tells me about how proud she is that I’m graduating junior high. I apologize for not telling her I was chosen to give the Graduate’s Farewell, I wanted it to be a surprise. She tells me it’s ok, and laughs. I recognize my own laughter in hers.

…The radio is on full blast as I sit at a red light, belting out the lyrics to some depressing song and take note that I need to call my Mom later. I’m about to hit the kind of traffic that would give the 91 a run for its money. It’s a scary thought. Talk to anyone with a license in the southern half of California and 11 times out of 10 they’ll tell you it’s their least favorite freeway. The lanes are small, there’s always heavy traffic, the carpool lane doesn’t run the whole way through, it’s loaded with big rig trucks and people you swear were suicidal, it’s just not a pleasant experience. But I’ve got a soft spot for that miserable thing and even for the stop and go traffic it’s known for. If nothing else, it gave me time. Time to read, time to think, time to spend with the woman who took me from coloring books to cologne.