By Kristofer Nino

(Graphic: MICHELLE FU/The Stanford Daily)

May 28, 2023, 11:09 a.m.

Editor’s Note: This story is a piece of fiction, meaning that all characters and events are purely from the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

She wears ripped jeans instead of mom jeans, wobbles on doe-ish limbs, and has a face still cradled in baby fat. She ignores the stares as she drags her four-year-old son away from the Baskin Robbins storefront, kicking and screaming BUT I WANTITWANTIT MOMMY!

He pries the door open and the scent of cotton candy and caramel and tooth decay mingles with the strip mall’s musk: sweat, gasoline, sunburnt asphalt. She pulls him away from the shoppe and he adds more claw marks to her skin. He’s the size of a rag-doll but fights like the goddamn devil. The two combatants stagger through cigarette smoke, looping around hookers and avoiding the shoulder rubs of touchy salesmen. With every sluggish bum or hurried customer they pass by, he treats them like a zoo animal. He points, screams, spits — he’s camel-like. 

She’s too tired to scold. She would, she could, she tries, God knows she tries, yet every attempt to rein him in sends the both of them rolling back down an endless hill. A pudgy, dirty-blonde woman watches the scuffle from her car as she bites through a hamburger. Ketchup leaks through her fingertips and onto the dashboard. Blondie shakes her head at the young mother, clicks her tongue, and whispers something to her two kids sitting in the back seats, eating chicken nuggets quietly.

What does she think of me? You think you’re better ‘cause your kids know how to shut up? 

The young mother rushes past, mentally cursing the bitch for judging her parenting, she already gets enough of that whenever she bumps into one of her titas at the market or church. The young mother moves quickly to block her son’s view of the golden arches grinning in the distance. Her hellspawn would spill blood for chicken nuggets.

When they reach an intersection, a sports car zooms through, blurring past a stop sign at deadly speeds. And of course, she keeps her grip on him tight (but she secretly knows it, she won’t say it, she’s his mother, she would never, God, she would never do it, she would never push him, but she thinks it and denies it, please I can’t help it and she trembles) and they weave safely through traffic.

Westbrow Optometry is white. It has pristine walls like a church or an Apple Store. When she finally sees it, she almost wants to let her knees buckle against the pavement and worship. Pale, sterile, it sits like a single polished tooth among cavities, sandwiched between a vape shop and some scummy divorce law firm. In the waiting area, one of her hands begins to shake as it holds up an eyewear price pamphlet, while the other stays clenched around his wrist.

For Emilio Cortez? — Oh hi, are you his sister? the assistant asks.

His mother. Reyna Cortez,  she says.

Then her son swipes his chubby fist at the assistant’s pen, sending it into the dirt of a houseplant’s pot. The mother retrieves it stuttering apologies.

I-I’m so sorry, he’s usually a good boy. I-Isn’t that right, sweetie? Her voice is shrill and she can’t even fool herself.

At each part of the checkup, she becomes his straitjacket. Her son flails like he’s rabid at every optometry station, howling ICE CREAM MOMMY, IPAD MOMMY, WHAT’S ON THE TEEBEE. Oh, she knows everyone in the room is staring, she doesn’t even look up. Can they see her eye bags, do they think they smell liquor? Parents nudge their kids and make her a teachable moment: Linda darling, don’t get pregnant or you’ll end up like her, ok sweetie?

Ms. Cortez? the doctor calls from his office.

The mother drags her son into the optometry’s dark room, she blinks. She recalibrates to dim lighting. She finds that the doctor has familiar eyes.

How are you, Reyna? 

Knew I recognized that name. 

M-my god, Kevin? she stammers.

Been a few years since graduation, I know. he replies. Her son stares forward at Dr. Wong with an inquisitive, almost hungry look.  

Hey Emilio, nice to meet you, little man!

Dr. Kevin Wong gives her son a fist bump and somehow he complies. Her son jitters but is quiet for the first time. The doctor begins testing different lenses, occasionally chit-chatting.

When did you come back to… she begins to ask but trails off. Why would anyone come back here? She wonders if he’s a hallucination, an afterimage caused by heat stroke. He was one of the only ones who made it out. Out. Out and off to be anywhere but in this town. Sitting in the cushy side chair, she feels herself slouch backward, the tense muscles of her back pressing against the padding, and her mind wades through old sensations that float to the surface. 

* * *

She remembers sticking gum under desks, squeaking her pearly white sneakers against rubber gym floors, climbing chain-link fences before sixth period and passing sticks of nicotine from lip to lip inside a bathroom stall like it was salvation. She remembers the slosh of students whenever there was a fight out in the yard, the litanies of teens yelling WORLDSTAR, iPhone cameras whipped out and hungry to go viral, even if the videos were blurry as shit. God, it was that easy to thrill them back then, wasn’t it? Bored out of their minds, blood-lusting in a lonesome town. She and Kevin hadn’t been friends — no way — a girl like her and the teacher’s pet? Kevin avoided those moshes and didn’t cut corners. That’s probably why he was so clean now. 

But somehow, some time ago, she remembers standing side-by-side with him. She stands with a posture straight as a picket fence beside Kevin, and each of them holds on so tight to that cheap-ass plastic trophy, spotlight blinding, applause deafening. 1st Place Science Fair. Goddamn. The memory thuds against her skull, feeling foreign, as everything does when it was before the kid. It juts out — the memory doesn’t fit in with the puzzle pieces of her present existence — but then, something just clicks and she lets herself remember. And suddenly she is there in the past.

She’s half-asleep at her desk in biology ‘cause Mama’s gonna beat her ass if she skips school one more time. She slaps herself awake, wipes the drool off the corner of her lips, and decides to pay attention for once, that’ll show her mom. Just this once. She even volunteers for the science fair when the teacher begs for people to join. 

When she’s paired up with Kev, she decides to put in the work, real shit, 50/50 with Kev. He comes up with the nerdy topic: “Alginate’s impact on plant life.” And she goes along, Google searching like she’d never done before until she was staying in the bio classroom after school tracking seed germination like an expert. They aren’t friends — no, but she likes his spirit and he tolerates hers. They get along like cogs in a machine, and even when she rambles about stupid things he laughs and listens, and somehow they get work done on time.

Alongside him, she pulls bleary all-nighters until her eyes feel like bleeding. Until all her girlfriends think she’s Harvard-bound or something. Until her boyfriend at the time teases her, calling her Dr. Cortez. Until she stands in her Mama’s oversized pantsuit onstage and sees her old woman smile at her, proud of her for the last time. The stage, the spotlight, that trophy, her suit.

She likes the feel of that pantsuit on her. It’s itchy-as-fuck, long in the wrong places, but she likes it. The authority of it. The stability. That’s something, isn’t it?

Stability is something she’s forgotten the taste of. After the award ceremony, she stands in the chill of the parking lot. The wind is too cold, the pantsuit too thin, and her friends want to take Dr. Cortez out to dinner, some fast food, but Kevin tugs on her sleeve before she leaves. Kevin — with his clip-on tie and thick rim glasses — he’s saying something about taking the project to the district level, vying against those private school kids for blue ribbons. The fields of dead grass and shattered bottles rustle, no stars in the sky. She glances behind her and sees a puff of smoke or vapor snake into the still air. She’s already forgotten who Kevin even was. She laughs: Sure, whatever. I’ll think about it. See ya. 

But she remembers ignoring his texts, thinking that the trophy felt heavy enough, and avoiding him in the rest of her classes. And she remembers getting drunk with the guy she was seeing, some nobody with botched tattoos who told her she’d been spending too much time in her room studying, some smooth-talker, some faceless breath on her back. He was right, she hadn’t been living enough these past few weeks. She remembers the blur of clubs and wasted nights and living like it was the end of the world, ‘cause it was fun like that. It was so easy to thrill herself like that. With the world spinning on bottles, with bodies on bodies in the dark ends of the night, and it was all so fun.

Until the baby. 

Until the smooth-talker she hates the name of and won’t even think in her mind, abandons her, catches the one train out of town, and doesn’t leave money for abortion fees. Until the weight becomes visible on her skinny body and her bones sag. Until she drops out, moves out, and runs out of excuses in the face of shouts and swears from Mama. Until she misses wearing that pantsuit, and wishes she stayed forever on that stage.

* * *

She hears Dr. Wong chuckle softly and she is pulled to the present. She’s still in the optometrist’s office, right? Busy daydreaming, what had she asked him earlier? Something about why he came back to this town? She feels kiddish, almost tempted to bring up that science fair, the sensation of holding that tacky trophy. But she takes in the shine of his expensive watch, his leather shoes, his teeth. He wouldn’t remember. He adjusts another piece of his equipment effortlessly and replies with a tone that says this is a practiced line. 

I decided to come back to town after getting my degree in optometry. Always nice to give back to the community… now Emilio, which one looks better A or B?

She’d almost forgotten her son was even there, lost in her thoughts and unaccustomed to his relative silence. But she hears the little devil chant “A or B” with a stupid placid grin. Her awe burns to envy as her son blindly answers, pacified by two letters from the Doctor’s mouth like it’s a game… Is that all it takes to shut him up? Gadgets and a lab coat? She wants to howl, to kick, to scream. She wants to show them her scars and her stretch marks, the sleepless nights. But instead, she watches. Hours or minutes slip by. She waits in the dark, staring.

Then Dr. Wong places a pair of glasses on her son’s face. First her son bats at them, and she is about to apologize once again, but then the change is total.

His face hangs slack-jawed, soundless. His wide then wider eyes wander from fingertip to houseplant to her, swallowing her whole. Suddenly her son is god-fearing — as he takes in the world through these lenses, he gazes at her like she is the terror of the first-night sky, vast and blazing with stars, an eternity just out of reach. She looks back at him unsure but finds a newborn. Time winds back. She didn’t think his sight would be a miracle, but now she believes. Kevin melts away, every noise disappears. No kicks, no screams. She holds her son’s hand. Not his wrist. It is soft, has it always been this soft? She waves Kevin a blank goodbye, reflexively spouting platitudes but still watching her son’s eyes focus and unfocus, focus and unfocus, moving her thumb in circles around his fleshy palm. 

Trancelike, she signs papers and pays upfront. Somehow the two wanderers find themselves outside in the light. The hot sun feels gentle. His eyes bounce up and down streets and signs, he looks so far ahead now.  He sees truth in color, tasting the iridescence of soapy puddles pooling along the gutters by the car wash, cataloging the lime-green neon signs and gaudy pink nails in the Vietnamese salon. She wants to ask him what his favorite color is, she wants to play preschool. This one is turquoise, can you say turquoise with me? And she sees this sonder flow like liquid through his bones as he stares at each passing person with quiet delight, alight with a wonder that dances wordlessly from stranger to stranger, every pore scrutinized, every speck of dust a miracle.

Mommy, is everything new?

Halfway on the way back, they pass the ice cream shoppe again, air sick with sweetness. The mother slows, watches carefully as the boy’s mouth begins to widen, threatening to spill once more. She hesitates. She cannot tell if it is mercy or madness on his lips, she cannot predict what will happen.

  1. The little devil returns.
  2. He’s born anew.

This was a mistake. Seconds become hours. She is cross-eyed. A or B?

  1. He screams for ice cream, he balls fists, he spits and claws her —
  2. He asks his mother for ice cream but does not beg, his vision enlightens him, brings him beyond simple sweets —

She thinks she sees sin freckle his irises and her hands, but mercy in the glasses. His wide smile is uncanny, and the peace, the shock, the rebirthed infant before her stings her tongue, everything is blurring once again. She cannot trust. She cannot blink. Everyone is watching her, Ms. Cortez, A or B?

  1. He will go on, the bull and his china shop, clarity is just a novelty to him, chaos is his native tongue —
  2. He will look around, hookers and bums and sweat and cigarettes, peace is just a temporary to him. Her son will see, he will see this world as it is, not a spectacle, just a mess, and he will be broken like she was —

There is a third option that she dreads most, the one she doesn’t even want to think. Call it malice, call it envy. She imagines that in his clear sight, he will leave this town and leave her. He will wear a pantsuit, he will live in spotlight, she will be left in darkness. Why should he get what I never was offered, after all he’s done? In the presence of her child’s vastness, she tears away the shade and lets her skin grow hot like the surface of the sun, the grease of sweat slicks down her cheeks, and before he speaks, before he can make a choice, she takes his glasses and shatters them against the pavement.

Kristofer Nino is a writer for the Arts & Life section. contact arts 'at' stanforddaily.com

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