Dedicated to my mother. Felíz cumpleaños mamí, te amo mucho.
Brown paper bag secured under her arm, oversized backpack bouncing on her back and hair in a bun, Claudia made her way up the hill to take the bus to school. Today was the first day of class, but it was also the first day she would be going alone. A bit nervous, but tremendously excited, Claudia rushed up the hill as fast as her little legs would take her, pushing past the men and women going up. This earned her angry stares and a couple of inappropriate remarks, but all Claudia focused on was the crest of the hill in sight. The eight-year-old licked her bottom lip and with a final surge of energy arrived, wiping the sweat off her forehead as she scanned the new area before her.
The streets of Antiguo Cuscatlán were alive this morning, and Claudia loved every bit of it. She rushed to the other side of the street where two women sat outside a house the color of sapotes. The older woman was squeezing water from a mango-colored cloth into a bucket, letting the foamy water drizzle from the side, while the younger woman held a baby to her bosom, humming a tune Claudia did not recognize. Both still wore their nightgowns and had their hair pulled back, exposing worn-out, leathery faces.
“¡Buenos días, señoras!” Claudia yelled, running past them before the older woman could scold her for having been so loud around the baby. She waved her lunch bag in the air to show she couldn’t stop and chat, and rushed across the street once more, arriving where a huge tree decorated the square. Each individual branch extended its arms to the sky as if in morning prayer, and Claudia bit the inside of her cheek. She had skipped morning mass yesterday and hoped Padre Ernesto hadn’t seen her, or he would have gotten her in trouble. Luckily, the priest was busy watching the workers paint the church a chalky white because the children had gotten their colors all over the doors last night.
Claudia snickered to herself and continued her walk toward the bus stop but stopped when she noticed the old man pushing a cart full of frozen treats, so old it could have fallen apart at any given moment. She pretended she was going to cross the street too, but instead peered into the cart and spied the paletas she loved so much. It took all her willpower not to reach in and collect the bumpy moneda from her pocket to purchase one. Instead, Claudia focused on the high school teenagers walking to school in front of her.
Lean boys clad in white uniforms ran around, laughing and taking turns pushing each other into the streets; on the other side, girls of the same age walked with tucked-in blouses and knee-high skirts. They were older than Claudia by a couple of years, but their conversations kept her company as she walked.
The girls, Claudia noticed, paid the boys no mind, giggling and gossiping with each other about their teacher’s new haircut or a new student that would be arriving soon. They weren’t that interesting to Claudia though, and she much preferred to watch the boys attempt reckless activities. Oftentimes they would get scolded by men who could have run them over, ending all the fun. It reminded Claudia of the fear she had felt years ago when she had almost been in an accident, but the sound of heels that followed were enough to make her happy again.
It was the working women!
Claudia admired them most. Their heels made everyone aware of their presence, along with the alluring aroma of perfume. It complemented their tight skirts and formal tops well, along with their painted lips and shiny jewelry. These were the women Claudia aspired to be like one day, professional and powerful. Store clerks stopped lifting crates full of bananas and melons just to watch them pass by, while the younger boys would try and act like men to impress them. Even the girls would go quiet, intimidated by the older women who signified elegance and perfection, hairs perfectly curled in place. They had the ability to stop even the most impatient drivers at times, click-clacking across the street late to their jobs because they had spent so much time getting ready. Claudia would often try and pick out the ones who looked like her to predict what she would look like at that age, a thought that excited her even more than going to school alone.
She wondered if her own mother had ever looked like these women when she was younger. She wasn’t old, but never dressed that formally for work every day. Claudia visited her sometimes after school. She worked in a coffee factory run by Germans near the mountains. They would bake fresh breads every week and Claudia adored the smell and taste of the pan. She loved biting into fresh loaves, her mouth full of chewy baked dough. The memory made her hungry, and Claudia almost regretted having passed up the opportunity to buy the cold paletas.
Instead, she continued watching as the last woman made her way onto the bus and felt the wind rush past her as the bus sped down the hill in a hurry as always. She shook her head and rolled her eyes: it seemed as if the women had no effect on even the most impatient bus drivers.
“Claudia, ¡hola!” Rina, Claudia’s best friend called to her, rushing over from under the shade of the big tree.“¿Estás lista para el primer día hoy?”
Claudia could only smile and nod. She was beyond ready. Today was going to be a good day. She turned back to look at the city she knew and loved.
Here was home. Here was where she grew up, where she watched her mother age and her father go. Home was where she crossed the street without looking and ran with her shoes untied, where she ran into people she knew in the afternoons and shared meals with those she loved and looked after. Home was a place she had known ever since she was a little girl, and now, sitting at the table with her daughter and husband many years later in a different country, she realized that home is where she feels happy. It is not a specific place like she once thought, but a memory that can be shared and experienced again and again. It’s love.
Contact Pamela Hasbun at [email protected].