Julio says the Americans tear him apart like he’s a weed and then he sucks on his lollipop, viciously, like he wishes he could grey his lungs with tobacco. We stare out the window at the dead street. Nothing grows here, not money or weeds or the wax palms of el Quindio, the ones Julio tells me about. Higher than the Eiffel Tower, he says, combing their fronds through the sky, grasping. Sometimes, I can see them in my head, hazy and vivid like a dream.
“Pendejos,” he mutters. He tells me with his eyes what that means: jerks-imbeciles-Americans. I want to ask him: how do you do it? How do you be half a person and still whole? But Julio never taught me Spanish, and I don’t want to speak the language of the imbeciles.
Mama doesn’t like that I call him Julio, but I can’t really call him anything else. It’s just too sugar-fake to call my absent father Daddy. But Julio doesn’t mind. He calls me nena, sometimes, when I promise not to tell Mama that he stinks of cigarette smoke.
He tries to take a drag at the candy and it breaks between his teeth, shards spilling onto his lip. He scowls. I laugh. Mama says from the kitchen, “Come eat this pineapple.”
Julio tosses the stick from the lollipop furtively into the pot where the lemon tree grows and winks at me. We leave the window.
I went to Medellin last summer to help Julio pack his stuff before he moved here. Also to meet him. Mama didn’t want to come, said it was too expensive, but even so she loaded me onto the plane like I was wedding china. She gave me a pack of gum, for takeoff and touchdown. I snapped that gum between my teeth the entire time I was on the plane. I snapped it in Julio’s ear when he hugged me hello. Now Julio, Mama, and I squish pineapple between our teeth and smile at each other through the juice.
Mama says, “What were you doing?” when she finishes her piece.
Julio says, “Nothing.”
I say, “Isabel wishes she was here.”
I can hear Julio’s teeth click together. Mama pauses to shake the pineapple juice off her fingers.
Mama hasn’t met Isabel yet. I hadn’t met Isabel before last summer, when I opened the door to Julio’s apartment to find her sprawled over the coach, head thrown back in front of the whirring plastic fan. I remember the way she stared at me, a mirror-image-half-smile on her face, the plants in Julio’s window reflecting green onto her skin.
“She doesn’t know what she’s saying,” mutters Julio. He wipes away a drop of yellow juice that is threatening to fall off his lip.
“What made her say that?” says Mama, not looking at Julio.
I pick at the flaking veneer of our cheap wooden table. “She didn’t say.”
Mama stands up from the table, holding the bowl with her hand all curled up into a fist. “Do you want more?” she says.
“Gaby—” says Julio plaintively.
Mama looks at him.
Julio shakes his head at the table.
“I’m fine,” I say. I leave the kitchen.
The sun stains my knees chalk-white when I sit on our stoop. The light hits the asphalt of the street in one interminable camera flash, and in return the asphalt gnashes its teeth blinding at the sky. The blinds of the house across from ours are shut.
Last summer I asked Isabel how her English was so good and she said, “My mama taught me,” like it was a joke between us. We were sitting on the bed pushed up by the open window, leaning our forearms on the cutting edges of the sill. Around us, the city pulsed with light.
“That must have been nice,” I said, breathing in the lingering smell of chewing-gum-cheap perfume from her hair.
“Mm,” she said, “real nice.” She rolled her fingers together the way Julio does when he wants a smoke, the edge of her index sliding against the plane of her thumb. Back and forth.
“Does Julio always come home this late?” I said to warm night air near her ear.
She flicked her fingers out at the window, once, as if to rid them of the cigarette-itch. “I guess. He goes out with his friends, wanders around the city. One of these days, you and I will go get something—a cholado or an oblea or whatever.”
“Yeah. We’ll come home so late, Julio will be snoring in bed.”
I laughed, and she laughed with me, bubblegum hair blowing in the wind. Below us, the sputtering whine of a motorcycle echoed in the street.
Sometimes I wonder where the summer smell went. In Medellin, the air smelled of exhaust and humidity and papaya skin, intoxicating like the cigarettes Julio smokes. Here, not even the asphalt smells, the street wiped clean like water.
The front door squeaks open behind me, and I can tell by the shuffle of crocs against concrete that it’s Mama.
“Hey, baby,” she says.
“What’s so interesting about the street?” she says, sitting beside me on the front step. She’s taller than me, but not by much, and her curling hair brushes my shoulders.
Her hair shifts against me when she nods, noncommittal.
Mama grew up forty minutes from here, on dusty roads still lighter than she is. Mama says she remembers days when this wet Southern forest breathed free of kudzu, when magnolias drooped with Spanish moss and not an alien vine.
“Mama,” I say, “do you think Isabel can really speak English if she’s never been to the US?”
She’s quiet for a long time. The silence stretches out yellow and bright between us, until my skin grows hot under the sun.
“Yes,” she says. “Probably. If she really wants to.”
“She wants to so bad she says it’s cutting her in half,” I say.
She heaves a sigh at that and slides her hands into her hair, her eyes shut tight and tired. She begins to laugh a little bit, and then she blows out all the air in her lungs in one long, uneven breath.
“Oh, my baby,” she says. “My baby.”
Sometimes, I dream that the palm trees of el Quindio hang heavy with kudzu. So much of it that they bend over at the waist, trailing the tips of their sky-loving fronds on the earth. The kudzu lands on the ground, running fast into the grass like and airplane landing. When the palm trees groan, the sound echoes around the valley, burying my voice raw when I scream help/ayuda/listen to me. And Julio and Mama and Isabel stare at me until tongue falls out of my mouth.
On Tuesday, Mama finds the stub of a cigarette in the lemon tree. She sets the watering can down with a hollow clang, and she doesn’t even care that water spills over onto the mahogany table she loves so much. Her hair cascades electric around her face like a stormcloud. She says, “Julio.”
He looks at her from his seat at the table, phone in hand. His eyebrows are drawn down and his mouth set in a crooked, irritated line, half-ashamed. “What,” he says.
Mama says, “Don’t play the fool.”
Outside, the sun shines unwavering and dry, our suburb street turned barren. I press the popsicle stick I have been holding in my mouth hard against my palate, so that the edge of it presses sharp into my gums. I think for a moment that if I started to bleed, Mama and Julio would look at me.
“Ow,” I mumble around the popsicle stick, just to try it out.
“Is this yours?” Mama demands. Julio rolls his eyes. He says, thickly, “No, it’s Isabel’s.” Mama’s fury reaches toward the ceiling. She says, “Excuse me?” And when Julio grinds his teeth at her, she repeats it. “Excuse me? Excuse me?” Over and over again like a scratched CD.
Julio spreads his fingers out on the tabletop. He mutters nasty things. Oversensitive. Exagerada. I think, for a moment, that Julio looks like a weed, all wrapped around his seat. Curling around the table the same way he has curled around Mama and me, into our bones and our blood.
“Pendeja,” he spits at Mama. Jerk-imbecile-American.
That sets Mama spinning again, “I said no smoking,” she snaps, and Julio says, “It’s a tree, Gabrielle, it’s a tree.”
I say, “Isabel—”
And Mama says, “This is my house, and don’t you forget it.”
“You think your tree is going to die from one cigarette, Gabrielle?”
“My house, Julio—”
I take the popsicle stick out of my mouth and I yell: “Isabel doesn’t smoke! Isabel doesn’t smoke! Isabel doesn’t smoke!” until they fall silent and look at me.
“Isabel doesn’t smoke,” I say, biting the popsicle stick. “She doesn’t like the smell.”
Julio looks at me. He unpeels himself from his chair. Then he says, “Go outside, nena.”
Mama sits at the table and puts her face in her hands.
Nobody at school can say my name right, not even Mr. Kapinski who lived in Mexico for three years, so I use my middle name instead. But when I said “My name is Solana Reyes” on the first day of Spanish 2, Mr. Kapinski’s face fell like a mud rolling during a landslide. He said, “Solana, okay,” and sighed so heavily we could see the buttons on his shirt shifting. Sometimes, on hot September days, Mr. Kapinksi will say, “Buck up, everybody, it’s not the tropics,” and smile at me like we’re sharing a secret. I don’t know how to tell him that he knows more about the tropics than I do.
Julio sits on the steps with me and taps his cigarette. He scrapes the ash out with his heel, sneakers grinding against the cement with a rasp that leaves an echo reverberating down the street. He stretches out his legs so that he can take something from the front pocket of his jeans.
“Quieres?” he says, extending a battered fruit punch lollipop to me. It shines dull and fractured in the sun, and when I put it in my mouth, little shards crumble off the edges.
“Yo quiero,” I mumble around the lollipop. I want.
I take the lollipop from my mouth, watch it glisten in the sun. “Yo quie-ro.”
Julio turns his head to look at me, eyebrows drawn down. He taps his cigarette and the ashes brush his jeans as they fall.
“Yo,” I say. “Sho. Yo. Julio, am I saying it right?”
He frowns at me, taps his cigarette again. “The last one was better. The one before that, you sound like an Argentinian.”
“And you need to learn how to say your vowels. It’s at the top of your mouth, not in your tongue.”
“Oh.” I put the lollipop back in my mouth. The sweetness of it coats my tongue in a thin sugary sheen. I take it out. “Ō. Oh.” The sound skips afraid off my palate, leaving the o loose in my mouth.
Julio lifts his cigarette to his mouth. He hollows his cheeks, holds his breath when the smoke reaches the tips of his lungs. “Nena,” he says, smoke fanning out like dust, “I need to go back home.”
“Es que no encuentro trabajo,” he says. “I don’t find work. And I can’t keep living off your mami.”
“But you just got here,” I say.
“I know. But it’s too expensive.”
I put the lollipop back in my mouth. I want to call him Papá, like Isabel could. I want him to be my dad, too. But I can’t even say my vowels right.
Julio sighs. He puts his arm around my shoulders. I close my eyes and pretend.
When Isabel says her rs, they roll out like an idling motor. And when Isabel speaks Spanish, she says things that Mr. Kapinski can’t teach me, things like que pena and no jodes and esta es mi patria. Isabel knows Medellin like the back of her hand, knows which stoplights to run and where to get her hair cut. Isabel uses her first name, and Isabel always feels like a whole person.
Somewhere between the lollipop dissolving to sugar tears in my mouth and Julio pressing his cheek to my head, Mama comes out to the stoop. She sits beside me and takes my hand from the halo of Julio’s embrace.
“You okay?” she says.
I lean into Julio’s side. “Yeah,” I say around my lollipop stick. We sit there, Mama and Julio and me, staring at the blank street. Julio twists his cigarette in the fingers that aren’t curled in my hair.
“Ei,” he says, his fingers working. “Does Isabel still want to come?”
He smells of exhaust and humidity and papaya skin, my daddy. He smells of the corner store where he promises not to buy his smokes. He smells of my home-away-from-home, my Medellin.
I suck at the stick of my lollipop. “I’m already here,” I tell Julio.
Julio’s arm slips from my shoulders. I slide upright, looking into his face baked brown and creasy from the afternoon. He looks at me.
“Solana?” he says.
“No,” says Mama. “Isabel.” She doesn’t say the vowels properly at all: lets the e curl and drop into her tongue, unfurling like a palm frond. She says it just right. Something squeezes my throat tight, so I just nod. Isabel Reyes is here. Isabel Reyes is home.
Mama squeezes my hand tight. Julio presses his mouth to my head. We sit in the sun for a little bit longer.
“Pineapple Upside-Down” was awarded a Silver Key in the 2022 Scholastic Arts & Writing Competition.