When I was younger, I think, I wanted to be an astronaut. Lying on the roof of my not-so-mobile mobile home, which sat on concrete slab that matched our neighbors’, I pictured galaxies billions of blocks away from the one I called home. There were matte pearl planets, hot-red stars, and treacherous asteroid belts peppering the void of space, through which my rocket ship/flying saucer thing sped until I found a suitable hunk of rock to planet my flag.
Every day, I filled my notebook with drawings while my 6th grade teacher explained pre-algebra; she would chide me for not paying attention and, coincidentally, was later fired for stealing cash from the school fundraisers. Having no concept of anything, I drew big arrows labeled “1,000,000 miles an hour” next to the amorphous ship drawing; I could never settle on a design because even at 12 years old, I was deathly afraid of being unoriginal. Ah, I was a fat and nerdy little conquistador in my head then. The punch to the gut came one day when I looked up from my scribbles to a blurry board. The glasses I received weeks later made my nose itch and filled me with a dark fury I wouldn’t feel again until adulthood. In fact, adult Cristian might have thrown his fists up and screamed into the cosmos:
“How in the fucking fuck can I be an astronaut if my goddamn glasses float away in motherfucking space?!”
I would say that I didn’t have the words for such thoughts at my spry age, but I did, in fact, learn English by watching R-rated movies with my up-to-no-good-malcriado cousins. So unfortunately, I was babbling “fucks” and “bitches” at my fifth birthday party, much to my wannabe-American family’s chagrin.
“Cristian! Mihijo! Where are you?” my mother called. I scrambled off the roof, having already been warned that more climbing meant a belt to the ass. The sounds of the neighborhood now flooded into my head. Where before I focused on the crickets, I now heard the children giggle and yell from inside the house, my little brother among them, playing cars and distracted by bright flashing lights on the fat, clearance-shelf television. My father was working, or he would no doubt be grilling perfectly charred chicken marinated in a blend of spices and lemon juice, a recipe given to him by a woman from an obscure Peruvian village years ago. I heard the chatter from the neighbors, the barking of dogs, both angry and excited, and the revving of enormous pickup trucks, often carrying the entire livelihood of its owner. Police sirens and the strange churning of the Waffle House air conditioner across the street punctuated the cacophony.
“He’s probably just playing, Ana. That boy loves to run around, even though you feed him so much, like you’re trying to weigh him down in one place,” my abuela said.
They laugh, and I hear the sounds of my mother chopping the ají amarillo and my grandmother shuffling her playing cards resume. The blanket of humidity under the wet Florida clouds covered my body with a thin mist, and my hand slipped when I reached for the rain gutter to stabilize my descent to the ground. As I fell, I remember trying to grab the chain-link fence immediately adjacent to our little home, erected after a gringa neighbor’s mutt could not or would not stop covering our yard in dog shit. I still have the scar on my forearm from the unforgiving fence’s sharp edges; as I cried silently and held my bleeding arm in the yard, I saw my abuela approach through the tears in my eyes, her cigarette falling to the concrete.
“Ay, mihijito, what happened?” she said. She inspected the wound and brought me inside to clean and bandage it. She smiled as she stung me with the rubbing alcohol and said a prayer over the cut.
“You’re a dreamer, Cristian. You’re not going to get to the moon by jumping on the roof.”
In the months leading up to my birth, there was much discussion over what I should be named. My father wanted to name me “Leonardo,” because his son was to be a Leo and more importantly, strong like a lion. My grandmother and my mother absolutely hated the name, and they successfully argued that such a regal name ought to be a middle name, a hidden name to whip out in case the boy ever becomes some kind of royalty. Instead, I was named “Cristian,” after my mother’s favorite Peruvian soap opera star, the “man she should’ve married.” My mama repeated this joke at every family gathering for my first 13 years of life and every time her joke landed, I remember her sigh and smile, coupled with a look of intense self-satisfaction.
“Quizás pueda intentar otra vez, en otra vida,” she would say.
En otra vida, I can’t shake those words. I often wonder how differently my childhood would have looked had it not been for the small detail of my early extradition to the States.
The day I found out my grandmother died, I went to bed without eating. I felt empty, and although loss had not been a new phenomenon, this one felt like God or Allah or whomever was now personally fucking with me. My head felt like it was boiling, and my hands went cold. I had only felt this way once before: a hot and late April night, I lay awake reading Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, 12 years old, arm bandaged, and with shivers of fear running across my spine until I finally collapsed from exhaustion. That night I had a dream, a holy-shit-either-I-sweated-through-these-sheets-or-peed-on-them kind of dream where you wake up shaken and alone. I was the protagonist of this dream, naturally, but it did not take place in this life, rather it was in my otra vida, a version of myself born and raised on the beautiful dirt streets my parents had fought so hard to escape.
Bolting up from a strange bed, the dream began and thrust me into two simultaneous perspectives, both first person, aware of my surroundings, and an out-of-body floating sensation, staring down at the top of my own head. The sun was awake, golden, peering through the dusty curtains, and so was I still. My genes and my bad luck with dreams made it impossible to sleep some nights. I heard the birds chirping, and as the still, cavernous night was slowly replaced with a bustling market street below my window, I knew my sleep cycle would be ruined for days to come. I stood frozen beside the window, delirious, bags under my eyes, and I stared at the mountains beyond the city. Morning dew reflected the spring peaks of the distant Andes off of the skyscrapers to the east. I marveled at the beauty of this magical place. All at once I saw the Amazon canopy, with its brightly feathered macaws and electric eels living in harmony with alpacas and guinea pigs from the mountains, holding paws and fins with tilapia and whales from the coast. The sprawling cathedral in the town square caught my eye as the bell struck 7 times. Mierda. I have to go down and pick up the mangoes for Abuela. Be right back.
As I started down the stairs, they morphed into a slide, and I fell ungracefully until I reached the street. My abuela met me at the bottom; she asked me why I was late, why I wasn’t more responsible, why I wasn’t a good boy. She shuffled closer to touch my head and to touch the fruit now suddenly in my arms. She praised my eye for mangoes. She was a slim woman, mostly skin and bones thanks to the dialysis process, which sucks out her soul and replaces it slowly, cleaner than any working kidney could possibly get it. She held her white cane parallel to her left leg, a sure sign that she intended to take a stroll along Queen Anne Avenue and smell the flowers she could not see.
“Sorry Abuela, I was up all night studying for the astronaut school entrance test.” I said.
“Stop dreaming, Cristian, it’ll only break your heart. You’ll never be an astronaut. You’re Peruvian; we do real work, mihijo. We slave away in the fields, picking coca leaves to brew our ayahuasca, frying anticuchos to sell from carts, and, if you were born rich, you would learn comercio and empire to plunder and profit from our land,” she said. “No room for fantasies, my love.”
The memories of a life which was not mine rushed into my head as if I had lived it. I remembered the people I would sneak into my tiny room after my strict Catholic bedtime; mostly boys, with one or two girls here and there. There was awkward kissing, exciting games of cards, and of course, my favorite, rolling stacks of weed into old cigar paper and pretending the puffs didn’t fill up my lungs and asphyxiate me. I remember how once I heard my grandma stir in the house as my friends crawled through the window.
“We heard that blind people have, like, super hearing and shit. Does your grandma use echolocation to move around like a bat?” one said.
“No, you assholes,” I responded. “She’s just a normal woman who’ll beat our asses with a bat if you keep talking and wake her up.”
The dream chugged on and would not let me wake. The tiny room melted away and was replaced with a blinding sun. I instinctively looked down and saw I had become a lion, mane and tail and all. My abuela once told me a story of a lion and his cage. Though she never said so explicitly, I always imagined an unruly cat, much like myself, who frightened the ragged, weary, and likely incestuous human denizens of the Ark. The dream played out this story as I watched, helplessly as its protagonist. The Ark, in my mind, had landed on some soft, grassy savanna in the African heartland. The humans did what humans do and locked me in a cage, which was perched perfectly on a cliff, and I could watch the sun rise touch everything in my domain. Yet, I could not escape. I lamented that nothing could satisfy the melancholy and loneliness I felt, so God sent me a companion, a lioness, and I rejected her for she was not what I wanted. God sent me flowers to gaze upon, they were colors no one had ever before seen, and exotic meats to eat, but I rejected these too.
Finally, he sent a woman, chose her for her compassion and skill with diplomacy to ask the lion what could make him happy and whole. Reticent and contrite, I told her I wanted freedom. The woman considered my request and replied that God could not offer freedom, only riches, rewards, and pleasures for his obedience. More than that, though, immortality, eternal life and salvation. Burying my anger, I succumbed to the offer and convinced the woman to open the cage door, so that I might bow my head to the Heavenly Father above. In reality, I don’t remember the end of the story, but in my version, I ate the woman. I tried to escape from the clutches of God’s hand as he moved to give me to Lucifer, who would surely torture me forever. This was to no avail, as I would later learn. God is all powerful when it comes to punishment, but useless as a dry dollar store sponge when it comes to helping the destitute. Some cruel Kafkaesque bullshit, if you ask me.
Anyway, as I descended into the dark crust of the Earth, I was buried by the rich Peruvian soil. In the black void, the scene shifted. Blazing, orange hellfire and melting rocks poured into the room as I imagined the punishment that awaited maricones like me. A shadowy devil pointed to a heavy wooden door and grabbed my collar, throwing me toward it. Judging from Abuela’s priest’s sermons, what’s behind this door was definitely some kind of medieval shit, like being drawn and quartered or something. Maybe I would be castrated, kind of like the Jewish boys in my gym class. Only worse, my punishment would be carried out by Catholics, who have been perfecting torture since the Middle Ages. Instead, I saw my grandmother, consumed by the flames and looking at me lifelessly.
I woke up drenched in cold sweat or tears or both. I knew exactly what happened, though I dreamt it more horrifically: it was by my own hand, I killed her with my selfishness. She could’ve lived on if only I’d asked. Literally anything: what was the war like, what was your favorite food growing up, how did you meet grandpa? I knew what was in the next room, and I couldn’t bear to even touch the doorknob. I trembled like a frightened child in front of my abuela’s bedroom until she opened the door, having heard my panicked footsteps.
“Abuela, I’m so glad you’re alive,” I said.
I hugged her tightly as she stood in the dark, perplexed.
Cristian Ramirez is a Peruvian writer, graduate of Amherst College, and an incoming medical student. He grew up in Florida and currently resides in New York. As an immigrant and a lifelong reader, Cristian enjoys stories that transport readers to new destinations, both physically and mentally. Cristian loves reading and writing diverse genres, from diaspora to horror to science fiction.
Meg Palmer is a local artist in Bradenton, FL whose primary medium is collage. She can often be found sitting at her kitchen table with a stack of magazines and a pair of scissors. She is also a writer, musician, and ice cream aficionado.