Aestivation: a state of dormancy assumed in response to harsh environmental conditions, such as drought or extreme heat.
One of the few times my father cried in his life was when the OB squinted into the screen at the sonogram and said I was a boy.
A father of four daughters, José Antonio Villanueva had only ever wanted a son. So much so, in fact, that he remained convinced each of my sisters were boys until the day they were born. This forced my mother into last-minute name changes for her beloved girls: Antonia, Juana, Alejandra, and Emmanuela.
They each went home wrapped in the same blue blanket, which by the time it came to me was as worn as my father’s pride.
He named me for himself, José Antonio II, and walked a little taller that day because of his little miracle, his milagrito. And that was the name that stuck.
Emmy and I were always close. In age, in interests, and in our proclivity to test my father’s limits.
She painted my nails once when I was five, a shimmery lavender shade that reminded me of my mother’s hydrangeas. I walked around the house, waving my petaled fingers in the air so I could watch them catch the sunlight.
Mamá saw it first, and walked me back to Emmy.
“It's a beautiful color, mijo," she said. "Pero tómalo—take it off before your Papá sees.”
I remember whimpering while Emmy wiped hastily at my nails with the polish remover, its sterile scent stinging my nose and tears burning in my eyes.
And I remember Papá’s anger when he found out later, and how my nose was not the only thing that stung when I went to bed that night.
Emmy only painted my toenails after that, so I could hide them under my socks.
When I was nearly eight, my teacher read us a book about frogs. They were amphibians, she told us, which was the biggest English word I’d learned to that point, and were covered in a special mucus that protected them from drying out.
I asked for a frog that night at dinner.
“Una rana, milagrito?” Mamá repeated. “They’re so dirty.”
“But I’ll clean up after it,” I begged. “Please?”
“No discutas, mijo,” Papá said firmly. “Don’t argue.”
But on my birthday, he came home with my first frog, a whites tree frog: big and bluish green with amber eyes.
“Time to man up, milagrito,” he said. “Sé responsable. It’s a big responsibility to care for an animal.”
I nodded, though I couldn’t help but think that the more nurturing people I knew were women.
Berto the frog lived for about three months. Emmy and I buried him in the backyard, underneath Mamá’s avocado tree and Papá’s disappointed gaze.
The common reed frog enters aestivation every dry season. Unlike many species, which burrow in the ground or seek shelter, reed frogs pick open, vulnerable spots on dry vegetation.
Emmy was the first person I ever told.
It was the day before Antonia’s quinceañera. My oldest sister’s yellow dress hung in the hallway in all its chiffon glory, sequins gleaming on the bodice while Mamá struggled to get rid of a stubborn wrinkle on the sleeve.
“I wish I was a girl,” I whispered to Emmy, my voice hidden in the rustle of Antonia’s dress.
Antonia was always the most beautiful of my sisters. She inherited Mamá’s grace and Papá’s commanding stature. I noticed very early that people’s gaze followed her wherever she went.
Juana and Alejandra looked exactly like my mother: dark, doe-like eyes beneath thick lashes, little round noses, and proud chins.
Emmy and I looked more like my father. Thick curls of hair, overgrown eyebrows, and wide-set bronze eyes, the same color as Berto the frog’s were.
I stopped meeting my own gaze in the mirror when Emmy’s face began to take on a soft, feminine shape and mine did not.
The common reed frog is aposematic, having adapted coloration that mimics the warning markings on toxic frogs to deter its natural predators.
During the dry season, however, the aestivating frog’s skin turns white.
It was Juana who told Papá that she’d seen a group of boys throwing rocks at me at the bus stop after school.
“You have to fight back, mijo,” he said, and showed me how to make a fist and where to land my punches.
He did so with a strange fire in his eyes, and I couldn’t tell if it was directed at me or my tormentors. We practiced swinging at the air until he was satisfied that I might leave at least one bruise.
But the next time they came after me, I curled into myself tightly, skin thick and colorless against the sweltering heat, heart and lungs all but shut down, waiting for more favorable weather.
I stopped cutting my hair when I was thirteen.
By the time I turned fifteen, my curls hung like thick vines around my face and shoulders. I hid behind them and tried to ignore the fact that I was losing myself amidst facial hair and the deepening boom of my voice.
Emmy threw me a quince in her room the night after my fifteenth birthday. She let me wear her dress from the year before—a simple lavender gown with silver embroidery that we’d chosen together—and she did my makeup by flashlight so Papá wouldn’t know.
We danced norteñas and whisper-sang along to Selena. She smuggled in two slices of leftover birthday cake, which we ate on her bed. We talked about how much we secretly missed Antonia, who had just married her high school sweetheart and moved to El Paso. She told me she wanted to go to art school, and I told her I wanted to be a writer.
“Mila Villanueva,” she whispered. “It’s a writer’s name. Definitely.”
I caught a glimpse of us in the mirror, stretched out in petal-colored dresses covered with cake crumbs, and recognized myself for the first time in my life.
I bought myself my second frog the day Emmy got her acceptance letter from Columbia University.
This one was a grey tree frog with intelligent, beady eyes, who I named Berto II. Emmy helped me arrange driftwood and fake vines in the terrarium when I brought him home.
“You can come to New York and visit,” she said feebly.
“It’s a three-hour flight,” I answered. “And I won’t be able to afford it, not if I want to save up for—you know.”
We set up the heat lamp in silence, a strange sense of distance settling between us, as if she was already gone.
“I don’t think I can make it here without you,” I whispered, trying to hide the brokenness in my voice.
She looked at me, at the thin white scars on my arms, and grabbed my hand.
“I’ll stay. College can wait a year.”
I wanted to let her stay. I wanted it more than anything. “No, you should go. It’s only a year.”
She hugged me then, tighter than I’d let anyone hug me in years. “I’ll call you every day.”
And she did.
During aestivation, common reed frogs do not move or eat. They rely on stored water to survive the harsh African heat, remaining in a dormant state until the wet season returns.
I left my childhood home right after I graduated high school. Mamá cried and said I could stay, that UTA wasn’t that far and I could live at home.
Papá didn’t put up a fight.
Emmy came home that summer and helped me move into a run-down studio apartment I could barely afford. Together we threw away every item of men’s clothing I owned. She brought things from her own closet for me to wear.
After I’d settled in, she helped me find a doctor to start reassignment.
Papá didn’t recognize me when I finally came home, years after I’d left.
It was raining, one of those big Texas thunderstorms that shook me to the bone. Mamá ran out and hugged me tentatively, the both of us drenched and waiting for the thunder on my father’s brow to strike.
“Hi, Mamá,” I said.
“Mi milagrito,” she replied, tucking my hair behind my ear. She searched my eyes, smiling when she found what she was looking for.
“It’s Mila now, Mamá.”
Her smile widened and she nodded.
We met Papá on the porch of the little yellow house. His face was hardened, unreadable.
“Mila’s home,” Mamá said, her voice lilting a bit at the end, as if it was almost a question.
I watched my father’s face crumble in loss. His only son was gone.
He turned without a word and went inside, slamming the door behind him.
Mamá's smile vanished as we listened to the crashing roar of his fury from the safety of the porch. "You'd better go. Let me talk to him."
I turned to leave, hiding the tremble in my hands.
"Mila?" Mamá called. She wiped away a tear as I looked back. "Can I bring you lunch tomorrow?"
In the years that followed, I began work as a nature writer. I visited my sisters often, except for Juana, who refused to speak to me. Emmy traveled around the world as a photographer, but still made time to call me at least once a week, just to check on me and Berto II, who was remarkably still alive.
She called me in the middle of the night once, the bustle of a busy airport terminal echoing through the phone.
“Mila, you up?” Emmy said, her voice wavering.
“I am now,” I replied groggily.
“You need to come home. It’s Mamá.”
Mamá’s funeral was the first time I’d seen my father since the rainstorm.
I wore a plain black dress, flats, and a thin mask of courage. Emmy and I walked to the graveside together, clutching each other’s arms.
Papá stood beside the simple casket, tight-lipped and stoic. Juana and Alejandra stood nearby, surrounded by a needy swarm of little children inquiring about their abuela.
Antonia waited at the start of the rows of chairs, greeting each and every guest with her perfect poise. She smiled sadly as we approached and set a gentle hand on my shoulder.
“Go see Papá,” she said. “He’s been asking if you’d be here.”
I held Emmy's hand tightly as we walked towards our father. Juana saw us coming and shooed the children away with a disgusted look in her eye.
He looked up at me. Once again, thunderclouds loomed in his eyes as he looked me up and down, taking in my dress, my carefully coiffed curls, my makeup. I couldn't meet his eyes, so I watched his fingers as they slowly clenched into fists, as if grasping tightly around those thin and final shreds of his pride.
I let go of Emmy's hand, painfully aware of everyone's eyes on us. Watching, hearts slowed, breaths paused. Waiting.
Before I could say anything, he took me in his arms and began to cry.
“I missed you, mija.”