The hallway goes on, a tunnel of gray. Avelia can’t see where it ends. Sister Marie holds Avelia’s hand tight. They pass a lady with fat jiggly arms. She dunks a dirty mop into a pail and swabs in slow circles until the floor shines like a mirror Avelia can see her own face in, reflected above her cracked shiny shoes. Further down the hall is a second lady, also mopping. The woman has gold cat’s eyes and a black beauty mark at the corner of her lips, the same place Avelia has a beauty mark.
Everybody tells Avelia that Carmen is a beauty. That her Mami has a body that turns Monday into Saturday, eyes that burn black and bright. A face that’s beautiful without no makeup, but a face and a body that will get her only so far. Carmen only trouble with that face, Avelia has heard people on her block say. Like Avelia’s own face which everyone tells her is just like Mami’s, her hair which people say they’d trade both feet for, red in the sun, curling without iron or rollers.
The woman gives Avelia a slow sweet smile.
“Are you my Mami?”
“No, baby.” The woman’s smile melts away.
The lady looks scared; her eyes dart left, then right.
In the far corner by the phone is another lady. She has a black braid down her back, her eyes, too, are black and shiny. She’s wearing the same dress as the others, but has on a red sweater. In her ears are gold hoops and around her neck is a thin gold chain with a heart dangling inside the notch between her collarbones.
She is the queen in Avelia’s fairy-tale. A good queen or a bad one, Avelia isn’t sure.
“See the lady in the red sweater?” The woman with the beauty mark crouches low, her breath warm in Avelia’s ear. “The one next the phone, chewing gum?”
Avelia nods, her head bouncing in circles like a jack-in-the-box.
The woman takes Avelia by the hand and leads her over to the lady with the long black braid. They stare at each other.
Avelia glances back at Sister Marie who nods slowly, her arms folded across her habit. Now Avelia knows, this lady is The One.
Mami looks down at her feet. Avelia hands her the picture she’s drawn for her: a flower Avelia has never seen, only imagined, red and purple petals, its thick stem thorned, pasted onto a black ground, floating in darkness. Mami takes the picture and folds it into a small square, tucking it into the deep crease between her breasts. Then she opens the gold heart around her neck and motions for Avelia to look. Inside is a tiny photograph of a mother and baby. The baby has dark eyes, her mouth making an O. The mother holds her close, cheek against cheek, both of the mother’s arms wrapped all the way around the baby.
“Me and you.”
Avelia hears herself say, “You’re so big,” as if some other girl is speaking.
Mami laughs deep and rough in her throat. The laugh turns to a cough; her eyes look wet like she’s laughing and crying at the same time, and Avelia wishes Nana was here. She might wipe Mami’s face with the hem of her skirt like she does when Avelia is crying.
“When I was a girl, they call me little lady. Now I’m full grown, they call me a big girl.”
Avelia doesn’t know what to say. She hasn’t seen her Mami Carmen for three-and-a-half years. No letters, no phone calls. Nothing. Avelia doesn’t remember her. Her aunt Sissy tells everybody Avelia’s Mami is sick, away at a hospital, but this aint no hospital. When Avelia asks Sister Marie, the nun says her Mami did a bad thing, but isn’t bad herself.
“You look tired, babygirl. You sleeping?”
“I’s afraid. I be waiting.”
“Sleep sneak up on you.”
Avelia shakes her head hard.
“Where’s your sister?” the woman asks Avelia, an ache in her eyes. “Where’s Inés?”
“She didn’t come.” Avelia’s older sister Inés kicked and screamed, said she’d never come. “Inés calls me stupid. She hits me. Every day. I hate Inés.”
The woman puts her arm around Avelia and pulls her in close. She whispers in Avelia’s ear. “Know what you say back? When she calls you stupid?”
“You say, I know you are but what am I?”
Avelia laughs as if her Mami is tickling her. She can’t wait to get home and try it on Inés.
“C’mon,” her Mami says. “Say it, babygirl. Try it out on me.”
Avelia thrusts her chin out, and in a clear loud voice says, “I know you are, but what am I?”
Her Mami smiles with her whole face. “You say that, okay?”
Avelia says it again, just to hear the sound of the words, looking into Mami’s eyes. Mami buries her face in Avelia’s hair, breathes in deep. When she kisses Avelia goodbye, she smells her skin.
That night, Nana bakes Avelia a birthday cake with six candles, one just for luck. Avelia gets a toy stove and pretend fridge with play food from Sally Anne. She loves tiny things she can set up as she likes. Even as she eats cake, frosting dabbing her nose and chin, Avelia holds Nana’s pinkie, her lifeline.
While Avelia and Nana are eating cake, Inés grabs the play food, stuffing hard plastic fruit under her shirt. She kicks the little stove. “You’re stupid, Veli. For going. She aint sick, that aint a hospital. You stupid!”
Avelia takes a deep breath and runs up to Inés, shouts right in her face, “I know you but I am I!”
Inés’ eyes open wide. She shuts up for a second.
Before she goes to bed, Nana kisses Avelia in the middle of her forehead and on both cheeks. Avelia feels Nana’s thick at the foot of her bed, and sleep washes her clean over and away.