Part I: The Ashes
Nola was from Mazatlán, Mexico, and she didn't let you forget it. She liked some of the same music as you, but everything else was cumbia or banda, music that you felt was way too brassy. And she only liked "authentic" Mexican restaurants, a definition you'd narrowed down to mean any place where the only touch of English on display was on the Coca-Cola products in the soda machines.
You had heard of Mazatlán only once before meeting Nola. Your dad was in the Navy for twenty years, and in those years he'd traveled all over the world. He'd been to Hong Kong, Hawaii, and even Australia. He always brought back some kind of artifact of his trip for you: Chinese playing cards, a wooden boomerang with a kangaroo etched into its front. On one of his last deployments he had gone to Mexico and he'd brought you back a t-shirt with a dolphin on the front and, in bright blue letters, the word Mazatlán. It was a nice place, he had said, and you could see the dolphins from the ship. You never told Nola about the t-shirt or the dolphins.
Your dad was from Mexico too, but from a part much closer to California. Your grandparents still visit from there on holidays, every time asking your dad if they could take you back with them, each time with no success. You never told Nola about this, either.
You met her parents not long after you'd started dating. They drove from East LA to Riverside, where you were going to school; not very far, but far enough that it showed they were interested in meeting you. When they got there, you didn't know what to do. You stood behind her as she talked to them, asking how the drive had gone, asking how her younger brothers and sisters were all doing. Her parents didn't speak any English. They were both shorter than Nola and their skin was darker than hers. She had the fairest skin in her family, she'd said.
After the exchange of introductory questions, she turned to you, still smiling but saying nothing. She was expecting you to make the next move. So you stepped forward and all you could manage to say was, "Hi," then, "Mucho gusto." You knew this was the appropriately polite greeting, and politeness, you believed, could overcome the barriers your adolescent Spanish had put between these folks and you. Her mom said "mucho gusto" back, and her dad uttered something you thought was "hi" as well.
"Hug them," she whispered from behind you, "and kiss them on the cheek."
You knew this was a customary greeting of respect, but your family never did this. Even your grandparents, the ones who visit from Mexico on holidays, didn't expect this of you or your cousins, or even your dad. You'd never kissed a stranger on the cheek before, so what you did was you put one arm around her shoulders and pressed the prickly side of your face against hers. She smelled like the tea your grandma used to make for your dad that was supposed to lower high blood pressure. When you pulled away, her mom kept talking to you at first, but then to Nola when you left too many of her questions unanswered. As they spoke, you recognized some key words and phrases, though they spoke too fast for you to comprehend complete sentences. Someone, you learned with your selective hearing, had ridden a bike. A dog, you thought they said, was either sick or had bitten someone.
You looked around for her dad, to see if you could scrape together some kind of conversation, but you noticed that he'd wandered outside. You regretted not paying attention during those summers where your dad would send you to stay with your aunts to help out around the house and learn something. They'd have you pick fruit from the trees in their backyard and teach you basic Spanish phrases like, "I'm cold" or "I have to go to the bathroom." You wished you'd learned how to say "I really like your daughter" and "I'm sorry we're so different."
On Ash Wednesday you went to church with her. She wished she'd been a better Catholic, she told you, but school just kept her so busy, so she thought she'd make up for it by observing Lent that year. She'd wanted to go to a night mass once she'd finished her last class of the day. Your stomach sank at the suggestion, but you said, "Yeah, let's go." You didn't say you hadn't gone to one of these since before you hit puberty.
On her orders, you forewent eating meat and instead tried some fried tofu from a noodle joint down the street from the university that nearly made you nauseous. You let her search on your computer for nearby churches, the closest of which was almost half an hour away in a city you'd never been to before. She said she had a cousin who lived there, though, so it was cool. When you got there, the church was crowded and you had to park a block away next to a house with a blue plastic slide and an inflatable swimming pool on the front lawn. Before you started walking to the church you made sure to check that all the doors on your car were locked.
You barely understood the service (the "misa", she called it). For the most part, you were able to follow along when everyone stood up or kneeled down. You caught a couple of sacred words like "blessing" and "father", but in the prayers you didn't know what to say so you just nodded your head like the Holy Ghost was watching. Towards the end of the service, you waited in line with her to have ashes smeared on your forehead in the shape of a cross. When your mom had brought you to Ash Wednesday mass as a kid, you were always embarrassed when she took you to the grocery store afterward because people always looked at you funny. You were grateful Nola had chosen an evening mass, so you wouldn't have to wear this cross for long.
As you waited, you noticed that this church was a lot less colorful than you remember churches being. When you were four, you stayed with your aunt for a week while your parents moved into the new house. She took you to church with her and you remember the stained-glass windows depicting images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, both of whom wore halos that looked like the sun. There had been a statue at the front of your aunt's church, an altar at whose forefront stood a statue of a cloaked woman. Your aunt had knelt before this woman, and for a long time she remained silent. You hadn't known what to do then, either.
After the mass, Nola wanted to try a taco place that her cousin had told her about. You drove around neighborhoods with houses the colors of brightly colored ice cream pops ("paletas", to Nola). Their yards were surrounded by chain-link fences, some of them overrun by plant life, some of them with pants and sweaters dangling from clotheslines. When you passed by the mint green house with three "Beware of Dog" signs on the front for the second time, she caught on to your frustration.
"Don't turn right this time," she said. "We have to get out of this neighborhood."
Eventually, you found the street you were supposed to turn onto and followed it past a rundown motel and a park where homeless people congregated. In the light of a traffic stop, you caught a look at yourself in the rearview mirror, your forehead decorated with the black cross. Like Harry Potter, but holy, you thought. You looked at Nola, who stared out the window. Her cross had been much smaller than yours, like a quaint plus sign waiting to be part of a math equation. You wondered if it'd look obvious if you sneezed and "accidentally" swiped your forehead with the force of it, but decided against it. What's a few more hours?
You arrived at the taco place, disappointed to find that it was more of an outdoor taco stand than an indoor restaurant. There was a long line of people that stretched into the parking lot. As you passed, you saw many of them with crosses on their foreheads, too.
"Finally," she said. "I'm hungry."
In truth, you could have waited to eat something closer to home, but instead you said, "Same."
When you got home you watched a movie together. Before bed, you were eager to get the ashes off your forehead, but when you came out of the shower you found your face still adorned by the cross-shaped imprint of a priest's thumb. It had faded slightly, but was still noticeably there. Panicked, you scrubbed your forehead until the skin around it began to pinken. Just get some sleep, you thought. Maybe your dreams will scare it off.
When you went into the room you saw her lying in bed, reading Cien Años de Soledad (the English version, she'd told you, wasn't a real book). Her forehead was bare, unmarred except for the slight indentation her reading glasses made above the brow.
"It wouldn't come off," you said, climbing into bed.
"That's okay," she said, not looking up from her book.
It would be weeks before anything helped reduce the holy mark on your forehead. You scrubbed it every night before bed, trying not to scrape the skin off entirely. You even asked to use some of her makeup once, but her complexion was several shades lighter than yours.
"It's really not that big of a deal," she said. "If anything, it's kinda cool, even though Lent's almost over."
"People will ask me questions about the Bible," you said, tying a piece of cloth around your forehead before going to play basketball with friends. "It's been a while since I've read the Bible." In truth, you'd never read it; it was too long and you'd always lost focus when trying. The only verse you had memorized was the one they printed on the bottom of In-N-Out cups.
Part II: The Pregnant Bread
One morning, Nola called you in a panic. She'd missed her period, she told you. You asked her how many days it'd been and she told you almost a week. You walked loops in your kitchen, wringing your hands and thinking of how stupid it had been to have stopped wearing condoms. You knew you had a stash of them somewhere in your dresser, but in the seven months since you'd started having sex, they'd gone untouched for the past six.
At nineteen, it was far too early to even want kids, especially when you still felt like one in a lot of ways. You thought about how your parents had had you young; around this age, you thought. How could anyone be ready for kids that young?
Hands shaking, you did several Google searches to determine your options. The Plan B pill, you learned, had to be taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex. Even though you knew the math, you plugged "5 x 24" into your phone's calculator.
You knew there were other options, but instead of looking at the details, you texted her: "What should we do?"
She replied within a minute: "What else can we do? If I'm pregnant, I don't want it."
You two were so in love, you recounted; though you'd been together a few months now, you both felt certain that the other was "the one"; you often talked about getting married and one day having kids (maybe two or three, despite you both coming from families of five). You knew that she "didn't want it" right now, but that the time would come eventually. Maybe after college.
When you didn't see or hear from her for the rest of the day, eventually you texted: "I'm here for you, whatever happens."
You went over to her place the next morning. When you got there, you had sex. Afterwards, you laid in bed waiting for her to come out of the shower.
She came out of the bathroom fully dressed, her head wrapped in a blue towel. "I think I started my period," she said. The two of you hugged like you'd just won some sort of prize.
The second time you saw her parents, you made the trip down to East LA, the farthest you'd driven in that direction. You clenched the steering wheel the entire trip, almost exiting too soon three different times. Finally, you saw the exit, nestled underneath several others. When you took it, you found yourself immediately on her street: to the left stretched a steep decline of cracked roadway lined with parked cars in front of shops with colorful lettering on their windows. To the right was a strip of small houses, the street ending in a cul-de-sac lined with a wall of hedges.
You found her house easily; it shared a chainlink fence with the neighbors and it had a long driveway that stretched into the backyard. The walkway to the house covered you in the shade of various types of trees, some bearing yellow-orange fruit ("My Jungle," she'd called it). You even saw a couple of cacti jutting out of large ceramic pots. "Nopales," you said aloud, as if studying for a test.
You knocked three times on the white metal of the outer door and listened to a breeze pass through Nola's Jungle. Just as you were about to text her, her father opened the door.
"Hola," you said. Instead of trying to say "I'm here for Nola" in either language, you just chuckled awkwardly.
He greeted you, then unlocked the door.
You stepped inside a small living room with nice wood floors that was immediately attached to a kitchen. This would be the only time you'd ever see the inside of this house.
"Como sta usted?" you asked, unsure if you'd conjugated the words properly. You didn't pronounce every syllable, to make it sound like you knew what you were doing.
"Bien, bien," he said. You let your eyes wander around the room but tried to keep your head in place. Picture frames of various sizes lined the shelf that held the TV. In one of them, Nola had her arms around her father and a man that looked exactly like him; his twin brother, you presumed. In another, Nola and her family stood in front of an old domed building, each of them smiling.
Her father sat on the couch and resumed watching an old black and white film. You tried to listen to what language the characters were speaking but before you could tell, Nola emerged from her room up ahead.
"Come," she said. "Let me show you my jungle outside."
Months later, on a night in the winter, Nola came to your apartment after having spent the weekend with her family. She'd had a big celebration with her family and all of her neighbors, some Mexican holiday whose name you didn't catch. She said there was good food, good music and a lot of dancing. There was always dancing. That was all she did at these parties. You never told her you hated dancing; you couldn't keep a rhythm any more than you could keep it real with her mom and dad. Still, after she'd gush about it, and how her feet would hurt by the end of the night you always said, without fail, "We should go dancing sometime."
When she asked you if you wanted anything to eat you said "Sure," and she pulled out a brown paper bag with tamales wrapped in foil. You could smell the corn of the masa, and they were still warm when she put them on a plate for you. When you bit into one it tasted different than the ones your family made; abundant in olives and pork in a thick red sauce.
"I brought some dessert, too." She placed a piece of decorated bread next to your plate of tamales. It had been torn off of a larger piece, so that crumbs of green and orange stained the edges. "Rosca de Reyes," she said with a sweetness in her voice. "Also," she dug something out of her pocket and placed it in front of you, "I found el bebé." You looked at the small figurine she had placed on the table. It was a plastic baby with a smiling face painted on. Its eyes were two blue dots that pierced your big brown ones. "We had a lot of people, so they put two in this year, and I pulled one of them." You held the baby in your palm and pinched its head. Its two fists were pointing upward like it was cheering.
She explained to you that the holiday is to commemorate the arrival of the three kings in Bethlehem. The plastic baby is supposed to represent Jesus, and whoever finds it would be tasked with throwing a party for everyone. You didn't tell her that your family doesn't celebrate this holiday, that you'd never even heard of it. Instead, you ate another tamale and told her that her mom makes good tamales.
That night the two of you slept in her bed. Within minutes of laying on your chest, you could hear her breathing deepen. You thought about the baby Jesus in the bread. There was a pair of them, she had told you, and you suddenly wondered who pulled the other one out of their piece. You wondered of other Mexican holidays you could have been oblivious to, other traditions your family did not partake in. You wondered whether you'd be together forever like you'd both said.
The baby Jesus was on her dresser, looking at you through the darkness of her room with its blue dots. She had once told you that she loved children, that she couldn't wait to have a baby. She had said that, when around babies, it was impossible for her to not be happy. You wondered if the same could be said of your relationship. You'd scarcely fought, but you wondered if your differences were sometimes more of a hindrance than anything. You listened to her steady breathing punctuate the night. Then you reached over and pushed the baby Jesus behind a stack of books, to where you could no longer see its tiny plastic fists poised in celebration.