La Limpiada by Julia Angelica Sierra

Illustration by Sophia Levy

Illustration by Sophia Levy


Every time you broke my heart I was on a Queens-bound 7 heading towards Junction.
The first time the tears came fast and heavy and loud and I was sitting in one of the seats that pressed up next to the window and by the grace of God faced mostly away from the other passengers. But they still saw. I clutched my purse deep into my stomach and I tried not to throw up every memory that was getting caught in my throat, tried not to scream them out onto the seat next to me. The first time, I was uncontrollable and a man got on at Woodside. He sat in the row of seats directly facing the one to my side and as I looked out over the city, the sun setting behind the delicate rows of brick and glass and steel, I could see him watching me in the reflection as the sky grew darker. I wondered what you were doing at that same moment, if you were with anyone, or if you were like me, isolated and alone, and yet somehow, still being seen. In the window, superimposed over the city I saw him watch me watch him pull the sleeve of his sweater up over his wrist into his thumb, saw him use the already dirty cuff to wipe the snot that dripped from his nose. I realized that I probably needed to do the same thing but I didn’t care. Let everything fall out of my body, let my tears flood this train, let the mucus fill my mouth and lungs and burst into the river running around my feet until I poisoned every last passenger who didn’t get off in time.
The doors opened on 74th street and I wondered if I had enough time to get off, run across the platform, throw myself in front of the train, lay on the tracks, and wait to be rolled over into an oblivion. Where I didn’t remember you. Where we had never met. But there isn’t enough time. I don’t move. The doors close. The man with the snot covered cuffs is still watching me and I wonder if he can tell that just a moment before I had almost killed myself. I’m still keeping tabs on him in the window, a part of me secretly hoping he may try and rob me so I can halfheartedly try to fight him off and he can stab me through the stomach and leave me bleeding out between the rows of seats. Instead, we get to 82nd street and as I watch out the window, I see him use the quick pause of the train and the people shuffling on and off to come sit next to me. He’s so much bigger than me, his thighs push against mine and his shoulders push against mine and I can feel the heat from his body in so acute of a way that it makes me more nauseous than I already am. I could feel the movement in his body as he took heavy breaths. His face turns to the window and he looks at my reflection.
“I’ve never seen someone look so beautiful while crying,” he said quietly to the girl in the window. I wonder how many tears have been wasted on him. I hope the train fucking crashes and kills us both.

I get off on 90th street, pushing past the thighs that he had pushed into me, saying nothing, leaving behind a little puddle of salt water. I wish I could have drowned him in it. The walk to Junction isn’t long and even though the train was a small enough space for me to cry quietly into myself, on the sidewalk I am exposed. There is a cigarette in my mouth before I even make it outside, and the moment the wind hits I light it. I feel sick. I don’t remember what I came for anymore. But I’m here now. I start walking because I know that I can’t just stand there, even though all I want is to not move, is to let time and space fall around me until nothing is recognizable and I’m all that’s left. Even though it is dark now, there are still people on the street selling everything from fruit to cell phone covers, I try to look past them, I try to avoid eye contact. I force myself to breathe like nothing has changed. And nothing has really, has it? I get to the next corner and it feels like maybe probably I should make some sort of decision, any sort of decision, and so I go left. There is a restaurant and there is a daycare and there is houses and I know that I’m walking away from where I should be going but it doesn’t matter. There is houses there is houses and then there is a botanica. I stop, on a broken square of concrete, there is no one else on the sidewalk and I can hear another train rattle behind me as my cigarette burns out in my fingers. I remember that we had fought before when abuela had taken me to get a limpia because I kept having nightmares. You told me that it was bad, that it was brujeria, that as a good Catholic you couldn’t condone it, that God wouldn’t condone it, that I still wasn’t clean. But it doesn’t matter now, does it?

The sign says open, and even though I can’t see through the posters and the wares that cover the door and the windows, I can feel the people inside. I’m still crying, so I breathe in the air and the smoke and the smell of the restaurant and wipe my face off with my hands the best I can in the reflection of the glass, but I can’t really make myself out. I walk in and a bell jingles above me. Zion y Lennox plays on the radio. There are two women in chairs in the middle of the store waiting for a consult, there is another woman behind the counter who is scrolling through Facebook on her phone. We can be a lot of things, can’t we? We can hold a lot in our hands. She looks up when I walk in,
Con que te puedo ayudar, nena?” She’s smiling and I wonder if there is still eyeliner on my cheeks or if the clean tears that came after had helped me wash them off.
Ay no, no mas estoy viendo.” I look around the shelves. A charm for mal de ojo, an ointment to attract love, lotions for more peaceful sleep. As I read through labels and directions, the radio changes to Romeo Santos. I am too embarrassed to ask for what I want.
Oye, senora, no tienes algo pa’el corazon roto?
Disculpe, senora, pero no puedo respirar.
Por favor, senora, es que no se mas que hacer.
Two women emerge from a door I hadn’t noticed before. There is an older woman with short hair and beads that clack along her wrist. The younger woman holds a baby in her arms, bouncing him on her hip and is whispering quietly into the ear of who I can only imagine is the curandera. The baby starts to fuss and the mother begins to move towards me, towards the front of the shop. She pays the senora behind the counter and she puts her phone down to count the money. The curandera gestures towards one of the women in the chairs and she gets up excitedly and follows her into the room in the back. The door shuts tightly behind them. I wonder if that’s where hearts get put back together, where lungs are forced to move, where answers are given. I wonder if she would know what to do. But I am too shy, too scared, too involved in the memory of you, in knowing that you wouldn’t like that I am here. I am not ready to betray you yet. I walk out, back onto the broken sidewalk. I know that once I leave I can’t go back in.

I remember the first time I told you my mom was a bruja, you laughed in my face. I laughed with you because of course I was joking. But I wasn’t. I have always known. When I was younger she and my father had got into a fight because I said I saw a ghost. They yelled at each other for a long time. After a certain point, I think they started talking about a different kind of ghost. But in the end, he left, as he always did, and she lay me down next to her on her bed and said she believed me. Said she saw them too. Said to not be scared because they’re not all bad. On our second date I asked you if you believed in those things that come from the other side. You said that to believe in God you necessarily had to believe in evil, so yes you did. What do you think about ghosts? I wondered. You said it’s only the bad things come back to haunt us.

In Chicago, we don’t have botanicas the way that New York does. Here they punctuate street corners like commas, offer little breaks in the story that Queens tells. Here they hold the neighborhood together like the thick twine around a bouquet of flowers. Here they make sense. In Chicago, we don’t have botanicas. In Chicago, we have my mother, who calls relatives in the middle of the night to warn them about a woman wearing the color red. We have my mother who everyone thinks is crazy. I am older now. I believe in a different kind of ghost. And I wonder if she knows that they laugh at her. Quietly during family events, loudly when she is not there but I am. I wonder what kind of daughter it is that I am that they are so comfortable mocking her in front of me. I wonder what she would say if she knew I didn’t believe her anymore.
When I still saw ghosts, my mom would wake me up at five o’clock on Sunday mornings. She and her boyfriend at the time used to sell makeup and other small things, toy cars and records, sometimes shoes, at the flea market by our house. We would load the car up and I would curl up in between boxes and sleep on the way there and when I would wake up, she would have a donut and hot chocolate waiting for me and we would watch the sunrise with the other families that had begun to set up their tables. I would lay out little lipglosses shaped like dresses so it looked like a group of beautiful women dancing and she would come and arrange them in a more formal way and then right under tape a small, unnoticeable sign that said “Palm and card readings, $5.” For as much as I can remember, I don’t think I ever saw anyone with their hands outstretched, picking cards out of the pile, handing over cash. But the sign stayed up until the winter came and we slept in on Sundays.

I think that you remind me of my mother because, like her, it breaks me to know I don’t believe in you anymore. I think you remind me of my mother because I know that it is going to take faith I don’t have to forget the ways you hurt me. I think you remind me of my mother because it’s only you that I love as angrily and as resentfully and as deeply as I love her.
I first noticed it when we went to Mexico this summer. Do you remember? It was our third day there and I had been having trouble sleeping because of the horses whinnying in the stables next door. I used to lay awake next to you, the wind from the open window moving the curtain, moving the moonlight in the room. It would have scared me but I don’t see ghosts anymore. I watched you breathe, trying to match the rhythm of my own breath to yours to see if I could lull myself back to sleep. But I couldn’t because I think I knew even then that we weren’t going to make it past the summer. I knew that if it weren’t for the fact we were a thousand miles from home you would have already given up on me. It wasn’t until the sun rose and the light filtered in and made everything yellow that I fell asleep.
There is a magic in Mexico that you believe in. There are the spirits of saints that walk along the cobblestones and stand in doorways waiting for people that need prayer. There are spells that hold together houses that should have fallen apart a long long time ago. Here the bricks that line the streets tell you a new secret with every step. Here it is okay if I still see ghosts. I wonder if I had been having nightmares here if you would have been okay with me going to see a curandera. I wonder if it is only on the other side of the border that I sound crazy. I wonder that maybe if my mother had stayed here, on the streets with the secrets and the doorways with the spirits if people would still laugh at her. I wonder if maybe the moving moonlight was a ghost after all.
On the flight back home you make fun of me for being scared of planes, for wanting to hold your hand so tightly. So I let go. I bought a rosary from a woman on the street. It’s the first one I’ve ever had and I buy it because of you. Because you want me to go to church with you. Because you want me to be closer to God. Because I love you I buy it. It is woven and white and holds its shape even though it shouldn't. The day before I left back to New York that first winter we spent together, you said you wanted me to have something and you took your scapular off from around your neck, and you moved my hair back with cold hands and your face got close to mine as you closed the clasp behind me. For God to protect you until you come back to me, you whispered. You sit next to me on this turbulent plane and you sleep even though you know I am scared and I miss the boy with the cold hands and the soft words. I pray and you are still next to me, hoping that either God or magic will keep us afloat.

Every time you broke my heart I was on a Queens-bound 7 heading towards Junction.
The second time it happened it was raining and the trains were running slow and it was no one’s fault. I had my books and my laptop and my headphones and I was content on my way to go write in a cafe I had found on Yelp because there is something in Manhattan that keeps my words under my tongue. Maybe I was sitting in the same seat in the same car. Maybe I wasn’t. But again, my head was against the window. I like the 7 because it goes up over the city and when the lights blur I can pretend I am in Chicago, I can pretend you are close enough for me to reach out and touch you. The second time it happened it took me by surprise. I haven’t talked to you in a couple of months now. I kissed some other boy last week and it shocked me how little I cared about it, about him. All I really noticed was that his cologne smells like yours. Do you know you left an almost empty bottle of it in my room? That I had to come home and stop myself from breaking it against the wall just so that I could hold onto every last piece of you. But I didn’t do it. I took the T-shirts I had stolen from you, and the three pictures we had together, and that basically empty bottle, and I threw them in a shoebox and put them in my closet.
The second time it happened I didn’t cry as much. It wasn’t as dramatic. A text message from my cousin that said in all capitals that you’ve met someone new. That apparently she lives in Texas. I guess I of all people should know that you didn’t care about distance. I remember when I told you I lived in New York you said you would never come to visit because you were scared of rats. I thought you were kidding until you finally did come and we were walking and one ran out from the piles of garbage and into a building and you jumped behind me. For your birthday I bought you socks that had the words “New York” and little gray rats printed all over them. You laughed in that way I loved more than anything, that I can’t remember anymore if it was loud or quiet, and proudly wore them the next day. Do you remember that night you drove twelve hours non-stop just to see me? And deliriously tired you parked your car without paying attention and we woke up later that day and you had four tickets. Have you forgotten? You never did end up paying them.
A man got on at Woodside as I gripped my phone to keep myself from throwing it as far away from me as possible. To break the screen, to make everything unreadable, untrue. My tears now are angry and so they move slowly and deliberately down my face. Maybe the people around me will think it’s the rain. We pass 74th and then we pass 82nd and this time there is a fire in my body that keeps the seat next to me empty, keeps the eyes of the other passengers averted. I am clenching my teeth so violently I have to keep myself from purposefully breaking my own jaw. Breaking my own fingers one by one until all I can focus on is the pain of my bones cracking under my skin. This time I stay on until Junction. My body is so tense I have to unravel myself from the plastic seat before the doors close. I think about throwing myself in front of the train again. Of having everything end all at once. I don’t remember what I came for anymore. But I am here and I am angry and so I walk. The wind hits my face, the water sticking to my hair it is colder now and it cuts through my lungs. I am still smoking even though you had asked me to quit. I light a cigarette under the awning of a dollar store and it feels like I have saved my own life.

My mother smokes Virginia Slims. Or at least she does when she is sad. Like at my aunt’s funeral when I was eleven years old. It was cold and raining and the gravediggers had started to move the supports away from the grave to fill it with dirt. Families began to move towards cars and I began to panic as I realized I couldn’t find my mother until I saw the small cloud of smoke moving with the wind from the other side of a tree. I had never seen her smoke before but there was something in the shape of the gray that told me it was her. She was sitting on a bench with her back to me and her shoulders were trembling so softly that if I didn’t know her so well I wouldn’t have noticed it. She knows I am there before I say anything and without turning around she pats the stone next to her and I go to sit down. I am so much smaller than her then, I used to like to sit in her lap and pretend that her belly fat would swallow me whole, that I could disappear back into her like I had never been here in the first place. She drags on her cigarette and asks me if I can still see them. The ghosts. And I say I can because I don’t want her to be mad at me. She points to the gray in the sky. La puedes ver mija? Alli esta tu tia y el cielo esta llorando. I wonder now how bad a heartbreak has to be to make the sky cry.

I remember this street. And I remember these people and their fruits and the cell phone covers. I remember this feeling. At the corner I turn left. There is the restaurant and there is the daycare and there is the houses and I know that I’m walking toward where I’ve always needed to go. There are the houses there are houses and then there is the botanica. I stop, on that same broken square of concrete, cigarette still lit in hand. I think that maybe the women inside can feel me standing here breathing in the smoke. It hasn’t stopped raining.
The weather hides my tears and so I walk in without wiping my face, the bell jingling above me. This time it is Mana on the radio. There is the same woman behind the counter scrolling through her phone. There is the same moment before she looks up at me where I can take in everything. This time the chairs are empty, the air is quiet, and I can feel the water from my jacket dripping into a puddle at my feet.
“Con que te puedo ayudar, nena?”
I am still scared. This whole time I have been keeping you alive in my head. I have held you in my heart like you never left. I still pray for you the way you taught me. You said only the bad things come back to haunt us, but what if they have never left. What if you have never left.
“Perdon, senora, necesito una limpia.”