That’s the thing about this city—it looks like it’s made all of glass. The city seems so big and hardy, full of stretching alleys and ever-expanding secret holes and infinite dim-lit streets. And at night the skyscrapers, glassy and poignant, are the only things marking the path to the sky. There is the big one Mom and I called the Keyhole, because there is a gap at the top that some huge god-sized key might unlock. To where we didn’t know. Narnia, probably. Heaven, Mom always said. “El cielo.” She is like that.
She loves the city. It is Dallas, basically the biggest city in the state, but the surrounding wilderness—the Trinity river, the Cedar Ridge area—has always seemed intent on creeping in. You can see it at night. Vines growing up apartment building corners. Big cedars and live oaks shading small unlit houses in the M Streets. Grass pushing through cracked Lakewood asphalt.
When she could still walk, Mom went walking through alleys. She brought a gun with her, too, and had since she’d gotten the license the day after she got her visa from Venezuela. Small dark-haired woman, small dark alleys, small dark gun. I never went with her. I stayed under the blankets, praying she would come back.
After work I visit her in the hospital, at about four PM. Her small white hospital room smells of tangy soap and is quiet, except for a woman’s voice singing from the radio by her bed.
El amor que una madre tiene por su hija, the voice sings breathily.
Es más fuerte, más fuerte que las montañas
Sí, mas que el viento de montaña…
Mom calls me chica and kisses my hands with her cracked lips. The fat IV bag dangles beside her.
“You look…” I say and hesitate. She looks so weak. She is so thin and small, so vulnerable, everything about her is weak except that which is hidden inside. But it is buried deep. Mom tries to smile when she sees me hesitate, though I know I have hurt her inadvertently.
“You look beautiful,” I say finally. “I am not lying.”
She smiles genuinely this time.
My eyes fill with tears when I have to leave; on the way out she asks if I know that there will be a blood moon that night.
“No,” I say, though I do, and lie because she would have urged me to walk to a park or something to see it and I am too afraid to do that.
It is five PM when Medical City Hospital calls me.
I am sick the day Mom dies, ten years after diagnosis and three weeks after admission to the breast cancer ward. I walk to the hospital, teary eyed and pockets full of used tissues that I feel like I need to burn. They hand me papers and her new slicker and the shoes I’d given her for her fiftieth birthday, all of which I accept numbly. I say yes to an autopsy and no to organ donations and no to cremation; we are both Catholic and she would have wanted a traditional funeral. They call me a “cool customer” and pat my back because I did not cry and scream and demand to see her body.
Then I walk home, with more tissues in my pockets than before, arms full of the last clothes she had ever put on, crying from both frustration and grief. Some part of me knows I am being pathetic.
It is a warm, bright Monday evening. My feet ache. When I get in the door I take off my shoes, pushing the heels off with the opposite toes, and kick them into the corner by the door. I drop Mom's things on the ground to think about later. My face feels tight. I haven't quite understood what just happened.
The floor is warm on my bare feet. It is bare and swept clean as I stand on it, looking at my feet. I swallow hard. I am a cool customer because I don't know how to cry about her yet.
The sun is pulling itself down behind the Reunion Tower, which I can just see if I tilt my head the right way below the railing on my little tenement balcony. I let my purse clank to the ground and pour myself a glass of water. I can’t take anything stronger past five. Whenever I drink a mimosa or something I think of Mom, with half a glass of hard cider at nine PM, her bare feet on the railing, watching the night flow by the city.
I get two ice cubes from the freezer, drop one on the ground, and look around as if anyone was there to tell me off before putting both cubes into the glass. I open the balcony door and settle myself in a wicker chair and wait for night to fall.
Mom had a honey jar once, one she’d brought from Venezuela. It was the color of amber, perfectly round and seemingly weak, made of tempered glass like the rest of Dallas. It was little but strong. I dropped it several times when I was little, putting it away from the dishwasher or on the breakfast table, but it never broke. Mom would look up, eyebrows high, when she heard it clunk on the linoleum, and then down again when I’d call “All good!”
She knew it wouldn’t break.
Like she knew she could keep herself safe at night, like she knew the night was safe and good. Like she loved the city. She was a little, strong woman.
The first night birds sing in the live oak branches down in the street. Their sound is so familiar that it takes me a while to realize they have begun to sing. Mom told me, once, when I was still little and believed everything, that the night birds’ song is always the same, even between Venezuela and Dallas. She told me that exactly one year before cancer happened to her.
Well, it wasn’t surprising, I think to myself, sitting alone on a lonely balcony on a lonely street. I’d had it before her. I got breast cancer at age eleven. I was the only breast cancer patient at MD Anderson for about a week, and then a little white-haired grandmother came all alone, sick and coughing and Mom was the only one who could translate her Guatemala-accented Spanish for the doctors to understand she had Stage Two. She joined me in the breast cancer ward and told me stories about La Llorona. Mom brought us honey in her amber jar to sweeten our hospital food. That unbreakable amber jar.
I lean my head back and the sun soaks my eyelids as it disappears for the day. The glass sweats cold water onto my palm as the city night slowly envelops me.
When we first came to Dallas from Venezuela I was just seven, didn’t speak English or even read Spanish. Mom would walk from place to place in the city, from job to job, her face hard-set and shoulders back as the stars glinted above her. The breeze would be as cool as in Venezuela.
“You don’t know a city until you have seen it at night,” she would say, and she didn’t mean its nightlife. “Not just the big skyscrapers but the little, little houses in the neighborhoods. Where people sleep safe at night. The hogares. That is how you know a city.”
It was how she loved it, too. The night air cools around my shoulders. I relax a little bit; I’m safe up here from the dark streets. The glass slips out of my hand and shatters on the concrete balcony floor. I jump up, startled and gasping, and then lower myself back down.
“It’s nothing,” I mumble, though it seems to represent something I don’t want it to. I feel like that glass, old and broken, now that I know Bed 34 is empty in the Medical City Breast Cancer Ward.
I sit there, my head beginning to throb on my small balcony with wet glass shards at my feet, as Dallas falls into darkness. I start to cry. I never knew the night, so I never knew the city. Or Mom. It is nine PM now and my tears are only just drying. When I walk inside to get ready for bed I pause. Something is broken on the floor. I hadn’t heard it crash, so it must have been there all day, I think.
I have swept up the dark glass shards and am about to throw them away before I realize it is Mom’s honey jar.
It has finally broken.