We did what all kids did: opened a lemonade stand, bruised lemon slices, perpetually murky tap water from the water department’s negligence, about half the sugar Americans were used to. I always let Emilio set the prices: anywhere from a nickel to three dollars per cup, depending on who stopped by. 

There was Mrs. Bort, who we imagined had looked the same her whole life, with stiff silver hair strained into a high bun, skin lightly tanned and smooth except for a single mole on her left cheek. Mrs. Bort, who made a habit of sighing and gazing at our lawn as she went to get her mail, was charged two dollars, even. Emilio would have liked to charge more, I knew, but we figured two dollars was the most we could get by with.

Sebastian Marzo was our youngest and most peculiar neighbor, with ashy blonde hair that fell into inky hazel eyes, a lanky six foot five frame tattooed with images incongruous as a Crucifix on his left shoulder, a dilapidated skull on his right. No one particularly liked him but everyone went out of their way to be polite. Emilio told me it was because they were afraid the rumors were true, that Sebastian was involved in a gang on the west side, that he’d been involved in a series of unsolved burglaries. He was always charged different prices, depending on Emilio’s mood. Emilio said he had to change prices depending on how many customers cane, but I knew better. Rumors of break-ins or assaults always followed a day of cheap lemonade for Mr. Marzo.

I was seven, Emilio was ten. We’d been living in San Mateo for a few months, nearing the edge of summer, unable to understand why every day Madre retreated to the local grocer’s for hours after work, returning long after dusk had set and long rice was steaming in the slow cooker.

Emilio looked most like Padre. They shared the same hooked nose, muscular, slightly stocky build, stiff hickory brown hair. Appearances aside, they were nothing alike. While Padre was taciturn, serious, an avid reader of the San Fran Chronicle, Emilio couldn’t stand silence, had never read a newspaper as far as I knew, could spend hours arguing about the most mundane things.

Even though I was more like Padre, with our nearly opposite appearance, with my knotty long limbs and watery blue-gray eyes, everyone assumed we had nothing in common. Yet it was me who shared Cuban coffee with Padre and asked him about the news. I helped him slice jalapeños for ropa vieja. 

Padre worked from home, a contractor or something like that—the words were meaningless to Emilio and me, and we never bothered to ask. He’d worked at home for as long as we could remember, while Madre taught ESL at the local elementary. We never saw her, Emilio, and I, unless it was a glimpse of her sleek, elegant bun at the nape of her neck as she crossed the hall to make photocopies, or as she exited the cafeteria. She ate alone, saying she preferred it that way. There was a teacher’s lounge, behind what seemed a mysterious pale blue door. Emilio claimed he’d once snuck in, but when I asked what he saw, he turned his back to me, shrugged. “What you’d expect. Mostly.”

I didn’t find out what mostly meant until a year later, when I decided to see why Madre was so intent on avoiding eating in the same room as the other teachers.

Eight felt like a milestone. Eight meant I was finally allowed to ride in the front seat of Padre’s faded army green Toyota, even though Emilio had been riding up front since he was six, or, if you took him by his word, as young as four or five. Even though I’d spent years beginning with Madre, she always folds her arms, her bushy brows crinkling in that stern way of hers, and say that they hadn’t been as careful with Emilio, and I should be grateful I’d been born second, now that they were more experienced as parents. But the way I saw it, Emilio was always ahead of me, in a way that I could never catch up. Nothing could erase the fact that, at the age of seven, Emilio had been allowed to walk to the store to buy a gallon of milk by himself, or that Padre, when he thought Madre was asleep, had even let him back out of the driveway once. 

But I would take what I could get. Truth is, I was a coward. I wasn’t like Emilio, who’d once spit in a guy’s face when he started taunting me and declaring that he owned all the swings on the playground. Instead, I was the kid who would let the swings be taken, resign myself to watching everyone else play. While Emilio scaled the tetherball pole, I was the younger brother, the one no one knew he had, sitting in a grassy bank and reading alone.

The only reason I wanted to ride in the front was a common one: I wanted to be more like Emilio. Somehow I imagined that the reason I was the way I was, with little to no friends, a strange penchant for dusty novels over Friday night football–was because my parents had made me that way. By not letting me do the things my older brother had at that age, I’d become a wimp. 

So the day I sat in the front, seat belt lose around my torso, I tried to pretend I wasn’t nervous. Padre didn’t make a big deal about it, and I was glad for that. I wanted it to feel as if this was something I had done all along, that I’d been doing for years. The world felt different up there, as if, in the back seat, everything was more distant, softer. In the front, everything felt raw, from the tree lines to the jagged edges of freshly mowed lawns to splintering fences and the wheels of the car in front of us. I was aware, now, just of how fast we were traveling, how the road curves ahead of us like the neck of a swan, how the lanes were bright yellow, freshly painted, how big and small we were against everything at once. I couldn’t imagine driving. This alone was a new universe, being up in front, feeling as if everything was rushing in front of me, instead of the usual notion of trailing behind.

I clasped my hands in my lap, then, aware of how stupid that probably looked, let them fall on the seat. I didn’t let myself grip until the car ahead of us came to an abrupt stop.

“¡Coño!” Padre slammed the breaks so we came to a stop just behind the other car’s bumper. I was shaking. “Americans do not know how to drive.”

It was one of those rare times I remember him mentioning Americans—a word he tended to avoid, as Madre said, we were Americans. Emilio and I always had been, we’d been born and raised here, only knew Cuba as tall tales passed down during the holidays. Cuba, for my brother and me, was a fantasy land, a land that did not exist. But from time to time there would be moments where Padre would break, and I could see a hint of his sense of loss, how he never really felt he would belong in this country. 

He glanced over at me. “You okay?”

I nodded. It wasn’t like either of us had gotten hurt. But the rest of the day, after we left the supermarket and started for home, I asked if I could sit in the back.

“Not in the front?”

I looked at him, feeling ashamed. “Maybe next time,” I said. “I’m feeling queasy.”

He didn’t ask me anything else, but I think he knew. It would be another six months before I rode in front again, and this time I was careful not to get distracted by the road, careful to realize that driving was not a magical thing, that, like everything else, there was an ugly side to it, that anything might change in a moment. 

Two days after the car incident, I decided to do something else I’d never done before: cut class.

It was Emilio’s idea, as these things always were. Even though Padre had remained quiet, Emilio had somehow managed to hear what happened. “Got scared in the big car?” He taunted me the next morning as we were dunking Cuban bread in freshly brewed espresso. 

“No, I just felt sick.”

“Sick because you were scared.” He had a coffee mustache. I think we were the only kids that drank coffee regularly, and that was pretty much for our parent’s sake. I only came to appreciate dark roasts when I was well into college; Emilio, I suspected, never did care for it. When we thought no one was paying attention, Emilio and I doused our cups with heavy cream and heaping tablespoons of sugar. That and the warm golden crusty layers of the bread were the only things that made it bearable.

“What’s your problem?”

He laughed, chewing on a hunk of bread. “Just saying. I think you’re the one with the problem. Bet you were proud of yourself when you got to sit up in the front like a big boy. Until you realized it was too much for you.”

He was right, of course. What I didn’t know was why he was picking on me. He had friends, girls flirting with him, decent if not stellar grades. He was already growing into his body, developing muscles as I struggled to grow at all. He was on the soccer team, center forward. I couldn’t imagine why he felt the need to needle my pathetic life.

“Whatever,” is all I managed.

“You know I’m just trying to look out for you.”

I could tell it was almost time for the school bus, the way the sun streamed into our kitchen window, soft orange, like an egg yolk. “Yea? How do you figure that?”

He finished his coffee in one gulp, made a face. “Trying to get you not to be a loser. It’s not a big deal now, maybe, but when you get to be my age—” he took my plate even though I wasn’t finished, stacked it on top of his, and dumped it unceremoniously in the sink. “When you get to be my age, it starts becoming a problem.”

“You always say that.”

“Say what?”

“When I get to be your age… Only I never get to be. I’m always behind and there’s always something else that’s going to go bad for me.”

“Just looking out for you,” he repeated, punching my shoulder. It might have looked playful, but it certainly didn’t feel that way. 

Madre yelled at us as the bus approached our street. She didn’t like me taking the bus anyway, insisting that if she could walk, so could we. Emilio pointed out the obvious: that boys our age didn’t want to be associated with a teacher, let alone walk with one that happened to be our mother. I was thinking the same thing, but I was too afraid to say something like that. Emilio sounded like a jerk and he knew he sounded like a jerk. I came off poorly, instead, because of my silence. I always wondered which hurt Madre more: the fact that one of her sons had called her an embarrassment, or that her younger son hadn’t said anything at all.

“You’re going to miss your bus, and Padre won’t drive you,” she called as she collected her purse. I still remember how she looked framed against the kitchen that morning, with a cream-colored blouse and pencil skirt, eyelashes rimmed in faint mascara, and a handmade scarf from Cuba. I remember how smooth her skin looked, how her hair was neatly combed, and how some of it was escaping her normal bun, loose tendrils framing her gentle face. The scarf looked out of place, boldly orange with lime green flecks, ostentatious, almost, against the backdrop of her modest Mary Janes. Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, she was always doing that: wearing clothes that made her blend in, at the same time always including a single item from Cuba: a wooden cross necklace, a knot bracelet, a hand-sewn clutch. 

I didn’t understand then what it meant to her, and I didn’t understand anymore that morning. I only remember being annoyed with her, how she’d yelled at us both as if I was part of the problem.

“Or do you want to walk?” she asked us, grabbing the chorizo she’d packed for her lunch.

Emilio threw me a look, as if this was my fault, grabbed my lunch by mistake, chucked it at me. “Santiago was arguing with me.”

Madre sighed, tucking a tendril behind her ear. “You boys couldn’t stop arguing to save your lives.”

We ended up walking. It was November, and a drizzle had started, the skies slate gray, the wind sharp and quick. It was unseasonably cool if you could say that. It wasn’t like San Mateo had much of the way of seasons, only slight variations in the scent of the air, the color of the leaves. We wore light jackets, too light for the day, and by the time Emilio and I arrived at school, we were both shivering. Madre knew a shortcut, but we hadn’t bothered to follow her. No way were we going to let her know we’d missed the bus, again. 

Companions walking to school, Emilio split from me the instant we reached the front doors, waved over by a group of guys who looked a full year older than their age. I stood outside alone, waiting for the first bell to sound and the doors to unlock, rain hitting my jaw and thickening, puddles forming underneath me. I could see my muddy reflection, how my hair stood on its end, how the horrible braces I’d been forced to get six months ago made my cheeks jut out like a chipmunk’s. My clothes-hand me down from Emilio, hung on my shoulders as if on a hanger.

No wonder no one talked to me. 

Well, not no one. I had one friend, someone I’d grown up with, almost as much as Emilio, though we’d never been to each other’s houses. Sara was a school friend, I guess you could say. I was fairly certain that Emilio and Padre and Madre didn’t even know about her since I never talked about her. I wasn’t sure why, and with each passing year, I grew more and more aware of how odd that was. Emilio’s friends had been to our house, a few times, to play soccer in the yard. Mostly he went over to their houses, for parties and who knows what else. But my parents knew about his friends–mostly his soccer teammates, with a smattering of football and basketball players, I think, though I paid them the same attention they paid me. 

But if anyone knew about Sara, it was Emilio, who probably assumed we just stood by each other because our last names were next to each other alphabetically: Sanchez and Sanders. Maybe that made more sense because next to me, it would be ridiculous to assume we had anything to do with one another: where I was short-statured, lanky, painfully thin, Sarah was tall and slender, but with increasingly broad shoulders and athletic, strong legs. Her red hair and fair, freckled skin, jade green eyes, made her appear as if we belonged to two completely different worlds. Instead of hand-me-downs, she, voluntarily, wore vintage pieces from thrift shops: a skirt modeled after the 1930s; a silk hat that might have been in fashion during the 20’s;. Over the years she grew increasingly eclectic in her style: by now, instead of a backpack, she carried a pale pink messenger bag with pins marking different dates in history no one else cared about. 

That day, she was wearing a navy blue poodle skirt and sage sweater, her hair long and loose around her shoulders. She laughed when she saw me.

“Nice day to decide to walk.”

“Emilio made me miss the bus.”



Sara shook her head, offered her umbrella. It was meant for one person, but I was slight enough we both managed to fit. “I’m telling you, you should get your dad to drive you.”

“And I told you he won’t do that.” The warning bell sounded and we lingered in the rain, letting Emilio and his friends go ahead of us. We let probably half the school go ahead of us. It was dumb, how the school stayed locked up like that, but ever since the year before when there had been an unresolved break-in–never mind anything was discovered stolen–rules had gotten tighter. It was the principal’s way of trying to assure parents he was being “tough on delinquency” in our district as if that was a major problem. 

“You could get a ride with me.”

She’d offered many times, but I’d always found an excuse. “That’s okay. He’ll find out anyway.”’

The warning bell sounded. One minute to get to my locker. “Whatever,” Sara shrugged. “At least next time, bring an umbrella.”

I wasn’t planning on cutting history; it was my favorite part of the day. I loved the texture and layer of the past, how each event was connected, how, if one thing had been changed, maybe, for instance, my family would still be in Cuba, or I wouldn’t be born. It was an odd line of thought for an eight-year-old, a line of thought that came from too many afternoons reading while Emilio played soccer or broomball in the cul-de-sac. 

But I was going to skip it because it was just before lunch: the perfect opportunity to peek into the teacher’s lounge.

Emilio found me in the hall at quarter till eleven. We rarely passed each other, and I don’t think many people knew we knew each other, let alone that we were siblings. So when I saw Emilio waiting for me at my locker, I knew something was up. 

“What do you want?”

“Who dumped soap in your milk?”


Emilio laughed. “No wonder you have no friends.”

I ignored him, reaching for my pencil pack. When I was finished, he was still leaning against the neighboring locker. A few people were glancing at us, as if trying to place who I was and why Emilio was talking to me. 

He handed me a piece of spearmint gum. I slipped it into my mouth, chewing slowly, overwhelmed with its sweetness. Our parents didn’t ever buy gum, saying it made you look like you were spitting tobacco. “Where did you get this?’

“The problem with you is you don’t know how to go against the rules.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. “I have to get to class.”

“Yea, yea, I get it. Look, do you think I’m here for the fun of it?”

I sort of doubted it.

“One of my friends started talking about you today. Keep calling you bookworm.”

I shrugged. I mean, it was true. I didn’t see what was so wrong with that. 

“You may not care now—”

“But I’ll care later—”

“Listen. You don’t get it, do you? I couldn’t care less if you like books. Heck, I wish I liked them as much as you do.”

That was a surprise. “So you’re worried I’ll embarrass you.”

“Not exactly,” he said carefully. “It’s just…”He glanced over my shoulder, as students started scurrying down the hall. “It’s different for us.”

I asked him what he meant.

“I can’t tell you, not here.”

“Then what are you doing at my locker?” I was beginning to think this was another one of his tricks, tricks that had grown in intensity and frequency the closer he came to his thirteenth birthday. I was relieved knowing soon he’d be in a separate building, for junior high and high school. 

“What do you have before lunch?”

“History. Why?”

“Doing anything important?”

“We have a lesson on–”

“But no test.”

“No.” I regretted being honest.

“Perfect time to peek into the teacher’s lounge.”

“And why would I do that?”

He looked at me, his face expressionless. “To see why mom eats alone.”

I didn’t realize until later how he used the word mom instead of Madre, how he told me she ate alone even though she’d never really said that herself.

Sara would tell me not to. And she’d be wondering where I was. We sat next to each other, comparing notes, especially when Mrs. Bradshaw went on one of her incoherent rants when it was impossible to write everything down. Sometimes we doodled on the sides of our notebooks, a silent contest of who drew the best imaginary creature, of whose caricature of Rodney, the class bully, was most representative. 

But going home and facing Emilio, admitting I hadn’t had the nerve to see the teacher’s lounge, to skip class one time, was more unbearable. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to lie. Besides, he probably had seen the lounge, and he’d know what I was fabricating. 

The hall felt cooler without students, and smelled different. I walked slowly, careful to move as silently as possible, but every step seemed to echo on the meadow green and white speckled titles. I had the urge to sneeze just as I turned the corner, and had to hold it, my eyes watering with the same intensity as when I chopped onions for ropa vieja. 

Just one peek, I told myself. That’s all I needed. I just needed to be able to tell Emilio what it looked like, then call him out for being a turd. 

The jar was closed. It had no windows, no way to peer in. A thought struck me: Emilio was doing this to get me suspended. I wasn’t sure why he’d do that, maybe just for kicks. Or to get back at me, if he for some reason blamed me for missing the bus. 

I glanced around me. The halls were emptying. Any minute, the bell would sound, and I’d be late. I could slip into history, forget this.

But I didn’t. Instead, I ducked around the corner, pressing my books against my chest, waiting until I saw a teacher approach the door. She didn’t notice me, or didn’t care, and slid open the door slowly, carrying a brown bagged lunch in one hand. 

 I looked. It seemed ordinary: round tables and metal chairs, not unlike the hard chairs we sat at in class. A few announcements on an innocuous pale blue bulletin board. There was a microwave, a refrigerator, boxy, after the fashion of several decades earlier, and a pasty green rug. I could smell tuna fish and cheese crackers. I heard a pop lid being opened.

I turned to leave. The door remained slightly ajar, but short of bursting in there, I doubted there was much else I would be able to see. So this is what Emilio had made me come here for: the chance at being caught, to look at some old appliances and a spotted rug that reminded me of chickenpox.

And then I saw Madre.

She was headed down the hall, her head bent to a stack of papers she was carrying, her battered paisley lunch box in her other hand, seemingly oblivious to anything or anyone else. That didn’t surprise me: she often took papers to grade at home, pacing the rooms or going outside for a walk as she marked with blue ink–not red, because she said that made students feel terrible before they even had a chance to read. She said that walking or movement helped her think, that she couldn’t imagine spending hours hunched over a desk grading the way my teachers did. I think Padre once said that was because she was fidgety, and she’d slapped him playfully, pecked his cheek. That was one of the last times during those years in San Mateo that I remember the two of them teasing before Emilio changed everything,

But at that moment I was only concerned about her seeing me. I didn’t love her seeing me as it was. Unlike Emilio, I would nod or say hello, but that didn’t mean I felt great about it. Part of me always wondered if Emilio was right if half of my problem was that I was too damn polite, that I cared more about pleasing Madre and Padre, and too little about who I was and how I was perceived.

She walked straight into the teacher’s lounge. I don’t think she glanced up once, opening the door wide enough so the entire room was visible from the hall. I guess no one thought about a student like me, desperate to look into the lounge. Or maybe they didn’t care. I told myself I would leave; I was only a minute late, and could easily slip in before the lesson started. But I stayed as if rooted to the wall with its peeling paint, as if plastered to the speckled green tiles, freshly mopped. I told myself I stayed because I was afraid someone would hear me. Even now, I’m not sure why I did. Maybe I was simply doing what I always did: avoiding the inevitable, lingering long past when I should, as if trying to salvage the mistake I’d made. 

What happened next is a different kind of memory, like an old polaroid that’s faded in time, sun-damaged to the point only the basic shapes are discernible. Maybe I stayed right by that wall, or maybe I started to walk towards class or maybe I even walked into the teacher’s lounge—although I very much doubt that. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how quickly it happened or how long it took. Maybe it doesn’t even matter. 

What mattered, I suppose, is what I saw and heard, and how these things became etched into my mind, sunk into the pores of my skin, saturated my throat, so that everything I did and saw and felt would always be tasted with the same flavor of that moment, something sad and bitter and sweet, not unlike anise past its prime.

Erin Jamieson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University of Ohio. Her published work includes two poetry chapbooks, over 90 pieces of short fiction and poetry, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. She teaches English at the Ohio State University, as well as works as a freelance writer and YouTube content creator. Her research has been published in The Journal of African American Studies.