I was seven years old. Our cat gave birth to nine white kittens the other day. They were the most beautiful things I’d laid eyes on since my Limited Edition Barbie that Mom sent me. My grandfather placed them in a cardboard box. Their eyes were closed. I had the urge to hold one of them. I picked one up and carried her to the forest. I named her Nala. She woke up in my palms. Her dark eyes were peeping through, looking up at me.
Nala died a few days later. She slipped from my hands the last time I held her. She didn’t make a sound. I couldn’t make a sound. All I felt were the trees bearing down on me.
I was still nine but considered myself ten. Mom and Dad were over after months and months of me waiting for them. There they were sitting next to me in our living room, as real and American as they could be. I held Mom’s right hand as tight as I could. I was scared to lose her. “You’re coming to America! With us!” Dad exclaimed. I tried to control myself, but I couldn’t help but jump up and down.
A few months later, I was in my new room. The walls were a peachy pink hue. I was sitting on my pink bed with Dad’s black planner and a black sharpie. Barbies, Beanie Babies, and teddy bears watched me as I scribbled in big, bold letters, “I WANT TO GO HOME.”
I was eleven but hated admitting it to my classmates. Everyone else in my 5th grade class was prettier and younger. Everyone else was normal. The boys made fun of how I pronounced the word, “teeth.” The girls thought I was some kind of slut when I came in with a bright blue training bra peeking through my shirt. I had two best friends. Their names were Angela and Kimberly. They told me I was pretty. They were the only ones that did.
It was Saturday afternoon when Mom started telling me parts of everything: Dad isn’t really my dad, and I have three stepsisters and one stepbrother. That explained the photographs I found in his planner. I asked her about my “actual” dad. She said he had to leave her because it was for the better. But why did he leave me?
I was fourteen, and my dark pink dress was sticking to my body. I didn’t like wearing dresses, especially combined with strappy heels. Grandma told me I looked beautiful just like she does in her dark blue dress. “Oh how you’ve grown,” she said. Grandpa was flipping through the restaurant menu, unable to hear her words. “Joey take our picture will you,” Grandma called out to Dad as she pulled Grandpa towards us. Dad held the camera steady as he counted down to three. The light flashed as I pulled her closer.
A few months later, mom hung up the phone. It was Grandma. She was back from the hospital. She had cancer. Lymphoma or Hodgkin’s or whatever it was. It was cancer. Mom’s hand reached for mine, but I didn’t want it. I didn’t want any of this. I didn’t want cancer. I didn’t want to be held.
“I don’t think you’re old enough,” quipped my uncle as he jokingly offered me a bottle of Corona. I told him it was too cold, and yes I was only seventeen. We were watching the playoffs. The Giants were playing. I was busy pretending to keep my eyes glued to the game, but every time I turned, there she was. Noemi. She was lying under a red blanket on the couch next to Mom and Damien. Damien hadn’t left her side for hours. His pointy black ears occasionally twitching at every slight move Noemi made. The Giants scored. The room erupted in yells and applause. No barks. Noemi smiled, her thinning face glowing. Damien looked on, his eyes drooping with emotions we weren’t allowed to show.
A few weeks later, Eli Manning was holding a silver trophy as red, white, and blue confetti were falling from above. “See Noemi, I told you they’d win. I told you, I told you,” Mom cried, her tears trickling down onto the remote control.
“Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep,” I chanted to myself in my pitch-black room. It was 3 a.m., and for the past five hours I had been hearing nothing but the voices in my head. The voices telling me that I’d lost it. I’d lost Kimberly. I’d lost Angela. I’d lost him. I had lost my mind. “You’re a really shitty reason for a friend,” the words mocked me against the glowing screen of my phone.
Twenty-one candle flames were smothered, and I didn’t feel like popping champagne bottles. Messages of “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” on my phone, on my laptop, and on birthday cards were screaming reminders of the many shitty reasons to be twenty-one.
“He never left you,” Mom said clutching my hand. I was staring down at the table, avoiding her gaze. “He came back when you were one-year-old. He held you, but you kept crying in his arms.” I looked up. I was trying to control myself, but I couldn’t help but smile.