I have a sobrina, my one and only (for now). The first child of my sister, the first granddaughter of my parents, my first niece. She asks for agua when she wants milk and her favorite food is uvas (for now—or maybe not. Maybe I am holding onto that fact because I need to believe I am not missing as much as I am, living half a country away). She can sign for please and more—more singing, more silly. We act like children for a smile. In one game, if she takes our offered fingers, we shake and flop and garble as if electrocuted by her touch. She squeals and points to each of us, signaling our turns. Grandpa, Mamá, around the circle. Now you go, now you go, now you go, now you.
My Spanish is terrible, but I feed her the pieces I have—¡Hola! ¿Que quieres? ¡Hasta luego!—to soothe her and practice like my sister did to keep up with her husband’s family. At their wedding, his tías from Bogotá spoke English like I do Spanish. We tag-teamed the centerpieces saying words neither of us understood and laughing at our stumbling, pointing fingers and smiles and hoping for the best. I could not think of the word for beautiful even though it was on the tip of my tongue.
Bonita. Muy bonita. My sister and I try on dresses, sharing the handicap dressing room stall so we can fit the stroller. My sobrina clutches at the skirts as we twirl, like she clutches and touches what she is trying to understand, her palms against my shins in black tights—why do they look like that?
We are spurred on by her giggling. Más, más, más.
Outside the dressing room, a woman’s voice snaps: Inconsiderate, rude. People going where they don’t belong. She speaks to someone, but no one answers. She doesn’t speak to us, just draws a circle, venom in the center. My sister and I go quiet, sharing disbelief with our eyes.
My sobrina points. Now you go. Me, aunt, tía.
I open the door and tell the woman that we have a baby in here, but we’re happy to move if she needs this dressing room. All the other stalls are empty. We can switch to any of them. Just give us a minute to get dressed. The woman turns Midwestern kind. Is it my offer—a body more able than the old woman she is with moving aside? Or because my face doesn’t match the words she heard behind the closed door? Her companion needs to sit down. I focus on that. Outside of the moment, it’s easy to question who was in the right and who wasn’t. Whose right comes first. But the sharpness of the woman’s tongue took a long time to fade.
I read somewhere that it helps to imagine what you would do in tense situations, to train your reaction before it is tested and fear overrides reason. I imagine building myself as a wall against those that think Spanish and brown skin make someone less, but I am a poor defense—no steel, no barbed wire, just an aunt uttering nonsense sounds and shaking my shoulders and dancing with electricity when my sobrina takes my hand. One day she will be too old for games, will rely on our family to recall for her what she used to like, how she used to be, but I keep praying to a God I will believe in for her that some memories don’t need memory, that as she grows, she needs no language to tell why she remains certain of her unexplainable power.
Sarah Marie Kosch is the prose editor for Random Sample Review. Her work has appeared most recently in Tin House Online, Grist, Rappahannock Review, Knee Jerk Magazine, and Print-Oriented Bastards. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska.
Photo by Caleb Lucas.