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  • Part of the perks of my job is I get picked up by the school bus every morning to take me to work, which saves me cab fare. During these bus rides, I have struck what might prove to be a life long friendship with a third grader named Maria Josefina. Her friends call her Josefina and so do I.

    Third grade, for me, was a pivotal year. It was the year I lost my mom. I watched her go to sleep. Her hopeful green eyes closed. Her Noxema smell replaced with smoke. Ashes. When she opened her eyes again, I jumped back.
    Her green eyes floated lifeless.
    I screamed.
    What looked back was unquenchable need.

    Third grade. I stopped having friends over. I worried they would smell her death. I didn’t know it was a disease. What I did know was the woman that called herself my mom was not the same woman that gave birth to me. Gone were the days of nice little notes in my lunchbox telling me to have a wonderful day and that she loved me. These were replaced with mornings begging my mother to wake up and when she did, her blood shot eyes glared at me, hateful. Third grade was the year I got tough. I had to be. It hurt too much.

    Today, I sit on the bus and wait for her to get on. Her older brother and sister are right on time and perfectly dressed. Where is Josefina? The bus driver honks. We wait. He honks again. She appears. Josefina and she is a mess. Her thick brown hair is hastily pulled up in a ponytail. She has one shoe on and one shoe off and on her white school shirt I think I detect a jelly stain. She doesn’t even care; she is smiling a only a well kept child can, pure.

    “Hola Josefina,” the bus driver and I say in unison. Josefina also has a place in the bus driver’s hear as well.
    “Hola,” she huffs. She is out of air.
    She heaves her incredibly overstuffed pink Carmen San Diego backpack onto the seat and sits down.
    “Slow start,” I ask.
    “Yeah,” and she continues to smile bright.

    Third grade. One day, I walked into my mother’s bedroom in the middle of the day. I could feel like I had done something wrong. Before third grade, I was always welcome there. Now, I wasn’t supposed to be there; she was there. She glared at me. She had something in her hands. She shooed me off. I left. She went to take a bath. I went back to her room to find that thing she had in her hand. I searched and searched. I found it in her drawer. I t was a little bag, white stuff, not sure what. That’s when she found me. She grabbed my hand hard. She threw the baggie down.
    “What are you doing?” she said.
    “Looking for socks,” I replied.
    “Go to your room,” she said.
    I didn’t mind. I liked my room. It was my only place in the house that didn’t smell like death. I went there, started to play. She walked in. I looked up. She was trying to be soft; she used to not have to try to be. She sat on the floor with me.
    “Honey,” she said, “that baggie you found?”
    “Yes,” I knew it wasn’t good; I could feel it in my bones; I had seen pictures of that stuff in Times Magazine; I didn’t understand what it was, but I knew, from the pictures, it was bad. I was anxious for her to tell the truth. To come clean. To come back.
    “That is for my period.”
    Third grade was the year I learned not to trust. I had to. My mother told lies.

    “You’re smiling a lot today,” I say.
    Josefina smiles back. She reaches for her backpack and unzips it. Wads of paper fall out. She sure has a lot of stuff. She reaches in deep, sifts around and then pulls a bag out of her bag. She delicately opens the bag and pulls out a stack of little cards.
    “What are these?” I ask.
    She smiles some more.
    “My birthday invitations,” she hands them to me.
    The invitations are amazing. They have something like the Powder Puff girls on the top (I can’t keep up with the latest third grade fads…so I am not sure if it is Powder Puff but some thing of that sort). These characters are in various states of awesomeness. Some of them look like their dancing; others look like they are taking names. All of them exude confidence. Each invitation has a black band around it that has an emblem with a skull and cross bones with a little pink bow. Underneath each cute skull is her name…Maria Josefina. Josefina is having a birthday party. She will be 9.

    When I was 17, I ran for my life. My mom had two other boyfriends before him. Every boyfriend brought gave her a new identity, new life…new taste in music…jazz to Stevie Nicks, new taste in politics…New York liberal to I just want to smoke pot. Then, in he came and she out she came a redneck, Hank Williams, Fox Network News. Unlike the others, he stayed. I was 12 at the time. He was a Vietnam Vet; he was full of rage. He liked to spread it around. He liked to say things like, “You’re so goddamn ugly if I were a dog and you were a fire hydrant, I wouldn’t take a piss on you.” He liked to say that to me. She liked it too. He threw a log at my head once; she cheered him on. She said I was out of control; she said it was my fault; she felt he could keep me in line. I put up a fight. He was a soldier. He knew how to kill. I surrendered. I retreated to my room, smoked cigarettes, counted the days until I was free. After an episode when they took everything I owned and put in on my bed…everything…down to the dirt…one school night at 11pm and demanded that I have it clean by 6am next day, I knew I couldn’t wait until I was 18. I came up with a plan. I rented an apartment with friends. I told her. She screamed at me that I couldn’t; I was not of age. I told her that she could call the police but she would keep doing this every day until I was 18. She yelled some more; I walked down her stairs. When I was 17, I ran for my life. I had to. My mother and her boyfriend wanted me dead.

    I take the invitations in my hands and admire.
    “Wow, Josefina,” I say, “These are amazing!”
    She knows. She nods.
    “Did you make these?”
    “No,” she shakes her bed head.
    “Who did?”
    Josefina beams.
    “My mother.”
    Before third grade, this is something my mother would have done. She, like Josefina’s mom, has impeccable taste.
    “Your mom has good taste.”
    “I know,” she smiles some more.
    “I’m going to pass them out at school. I am going to invite every single girl.”
    I shuffle through the invitations some more. Each one has a name written on them except one. Josefina grabs that one. She blushes.
    “I didn’t write a name on this one. I brought it in case you could come.”
    She hands me the card.

    When I was 33, I left my safe haven of California and moved back home to Colorado. I moved back to help my mother leave him. After my step-sister, my brother and I had moved out, he had turned his rage on her. She was scared to leave; she feared her life. I knew how she felt. It was the first thing we had had in common since third grade. I hoped this would make her see the light; I hoped that my help would bring her back to me. It did not. She called me one night at my house just down her hill.
    “Please come up here,” she asked, “I need your help.”
    I thought it was him. I couldn’t drive fast enough. I found her laying on the couch with a blanket over her head.
    “Mom,” I sat down next to her, “What’s up?”
    She pulled the covers down and I could see her blood shot green eyes. She, then, got up, walked to the bathroom and threw up.
    “Mom,” I asked her, “What’s going on?”
    She came back to the couch and crawled under her blanket again.
    “I got in a fight. I got hit, fell off a barstool and hit my head.”
    My mother was nearly 60 years old.
    “With him?” I could feel my fists curl.
    “No, with Pam.” Pam was her current best friend.
    She, then, told me of the night before when she had been at her local bar. She had recently started dating the town drunk who was 10 years her junior, a man that would later that year make a pass at me in the back seat of my mother’s car while she was in the front. A real charmer, I guess, because Pam wanted him for herself. Needless to say, this had caused a rift in their relationship, so when my mom saw Pam walk in the bar and head for her man, my mother flipped Pam off. Pam came over to my mom’s table, grabbed her hair and threw my mother off. When my mom finished her story, she got up again, ran again to the bathroom and threw up.
    “Mom,” I said to her through the bathroom door, “did you call the cops? Did you go to the hospital?”
    She answered no to both questions.
    “Mom,” I said, “You need to go to the hospital to make sure you don’t have a concussion. You need to call the cops”
    She came back to the couch, crawled under her blanket again and started to talk in a baby voice.
    “I just want it all to go away. Make it go away,” she looked at me in a way that only a hopeless three year old could. She repeated her baby talk until she passed out. My mother was nearly 60 years old. When I was 33, I realized I had raised myself. I had to. My mother was a child.

    Josefina looks up at me while I hold her card.
    “Josefina,” I ask, “I am invited to your birthday party?”
    “Yes,” she nods excitedly, ”can you come?”
    “When is it?”
    “Saturday,” she looks up at me.
    My heart sinks.
    “I can’t. I won’t be in town.”
    She frowns; I do too.
    “Maybe next year,” she says.
    “I give you my RVSP,” I say.
    We smile again.

    When I was 40, I decided to leave my country. I made this decision because I found my country, like my mother, to be sick. Before I left, I drove half way across my country to tell my family good bye. I hadn’t spoken to my mother, at this point, for three years. I made one more attempt. I emailed her and told her that I would be leaving soon and if she wanted to speak to me, she would have to do it in a counselor’s office. My mother didn’t like counselors. I was surprised when she agreed. She met me in the front office; she made a big scene.
    “I love you, honey,” she cried, “ I want you back.”
    She hugged me; I hugged back. We sat down and waited. She put her hand on my knee; I grabbed it and put it back where it belonged. I knew this was a show; I knew her too well. The counselor came out and beckoned us back. The minute we entered the office, my mother went back to being herself; my mother started in. She said I was out of control; she said it was my fault. She wanted the counselor to take his place; she wanted someone who could force me to the ground. I had been through this before. I looked at her calmly and said,
    “Mom, we’re not going to do this anymore.”
    My mom looked desperately at the counselor. The counselor said nothing. She let me talk. I did. For the first time, I spoke my truth. Mom, you are an alcoholic. Mom, you left me. Mom, you let him do things to us that were not right. Mom, you owe me and my siblings an apology. That is all you need to do. I will forgive you, but I need something from you. I need you to recognize your part. My mother refused. She continued. She said I was out of control; she said it was my fault. These accusations once put me on the defensive. I was tired. I shrugged.
    “Mom, let me remind you that you are the mother and I am the child.”
    My mother scrambled; she looked at the counselor. The counselor just listened. My mother grew angry. There was no one now to enforce her claims. My mother stormed out. I looked at the counselor. She didn’t say anything. She looked at me with compassion. I thanked her. I left her office. I went to my car. My mother was there. I knew she would be. I knew her too well. She accosted me. I pushed past her, jumped in my car and locked it. She hit the window. I cracked the window a bit. She yelled something. I said very calmly that she needs to apologize and that a deal is a deal. I drove off, bought a Coca Cola, sat on the curb of 7-11 and smoked cigarettes just like when I was 13. When I was 40, I said goodbye to my mother. I had to. I knew until she got better that she was contagious.

    “Josefina,” I say, “since I can’t be there, tell me what your birthday is going to be like.”
    She smiles real big.
    “It’s going to great!”
    I jump into a list of questions. What is the theme? What will you eat? What will you wear? Will you play games?
    Josefina just smiles.
    “I don’t know,” she says.
    “You don’t know?”
    “Nope,” she smiles, “my mother will put it together. She always does and it is awesome. Look at my invitations, she had these made. I trust her.”
    This is what Josefina says.

    When I hear this, I think of my mother. I think of the time before I lost her. I think of the time before she went to sleep. I remember her hopeful green eyes. I remember her Noxema smell. I think of those birthdays before I was nine. They, like Josefina’s, were awesome. They, like Josefina, were put together by a wonderful mom. When I hear this, I am thankful for that time. When I hear this, even though I cannot have a relationship with her, I forgive her. When I hear this, I pray for her return. Until then, like Josefina, I will smile even though I have been through a lot with my mother since I turned nine. Even though I cannot be there on Josefina’s birthday, I will celebrate a day of birth.
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