I always imagined Sinéad as very young and much shorter than my parents, but when she arrived that morning she was taller than I’d expected and older too. I ran down to greet her before anyone else. Some neighborhood kids had gathered around as she pulled her suitcase out of the taxi; no one in our neighborhood ever took taxis. Our building was full of African immigrants and old Spanish women who lived off state pensions or people like my parents who were down on their luck. When our neighbors went to the airport, my father drove them in the Kangoo and sometimes Darío and I rode in the back, rolling around with all their luggage.
As soon as she saw me, Sinéad smiled in a way that I recognized from photographs and from Mama’s stories. She picked me up, or tried to. My feet touched her ankles; my head hit right at her chest.
“África,” she said. “África Miguel.”
The onlookers stepped away from the taxi, realizing that this woman knew me, that she was ours.
Sinéad kept hold of my hand as she lugged her bag up the three flights of stairs. When she saw Mama, shrunken, waiting in the doorway, she didn’t react as dramatically as so many other visitors had. She just kept her cheek against my mother’s cheek for a few seconds and said, “Mari Luz, Mari Luz,” in her gentle, accented Spanish.
Straight away I pulled Sinéad away from my mother and ushered her out to the terrace to show her Lola, my new pet sparrow. At first, I sensed that Sinéad was scared of the bird, that, like Rita from downstairs, she might have feared contracting lice or some other sort of parasite. But eventually, Sinéad cupped the bird in her own hand and patiently gave her water from the syringe.
That summer we had plenty of syringes because my mother was very sick. She was undergoing treatment for melanoma and twice a day my father gave her an injection in the thigh. The medicine was some sort of nasty stuff. Slowly, at first, and then remarkably quickly, my mother transformed. In January, when first diagnosed, she was still plump and fearless; by March, she was shockingly thin, frail and easily tired. Many days she was short-tempered with Darío and me and then suddenly tender, snot-nosed and apologizing, begging us for forgiveness like a little girl.
When Darío and Papa came home from the market they went right to the kitchen to unpack the groceries and I remember, very clearly, not wanting Sinéad to leave, wanting her stay with me and Lola, out on the terrace, away from everyone. But after a few minutes, Sinéad convinced me to let Lola rest in her shoebox. We ventured into the kitchen, which is when I realized for the first time that my mother might die.
It was how my father buckled when he saw Sinéad and held himself up, his hands behind him grabbing the kitchen counter, tears in his eyes. And how Sinéad hugged him without saying anything, not saying his name the way she had repeated my mother’s or mine. I wanted to throw something at both of them, so angry was I at that show of weakness and emotion.
While the adults sat in the kitchen drinking coffee and talking, I tried to teach Lola to fly. I’d only found her two days before and her wing was still broken. But it didn’t go well, and she just flopped about on the terracotta floor.
Because we had a guest, my father said we could go out for lunch, down to the place near Antonia María’s where they served the best pescaito. Under normal circumstances I would have been thrilled, but that day I was angry that Lola would not be allowed at the restaurant.
“She can wait in the car,” Darío suggested.
Sinéad smiled at my father when my brother spoke, and her smile and my brother’s extreme stupidity sent me into a rage.
“She’ll suffocate in this heat!” I screamed.
My father asked me to take a deep breath.
Mama slammed her bedroom door and appeared a few minutes later wearing a jeans skirt, a wide-brimmed hat, and bright red lipstick.
“Sinéad, you need a hat for the sun? It’s brutal out there,” she said.
Her eyes were moist with the afterglow of a joint. Her own little bird legs stuck out beneath the skirt, making everyone nervous.
My father was already pulling the car around and no one was paying the least bit of attention to me or cared one bit about Lola. Sinéad sat between my brother and me. It was so hot in the car that we could hardly breathe.
“It takes a few minutes for the a/c to kick in,” my father said.
I looked out the window and sulked while Sinéad read a book to Darío. She was a dramatic reader, inventing exotic accents for animals and magical creatures. It was a silly picture book with rhyming poems and she stumbled over some of the words, but my brother was enchanted by her, clasping his hands together and saying, “¡Sigue!”
My parents didn’t speak to each other or to me. Sinéad and Darío were enough
for them, I suppose. They were probably thrilled that someone new was reading all those silly rhymes. When we had parked the car, Darío wanted to bring the book to the restaurant, but Sinéad promised him they would continue reading after lunch, as she unbuckled his car seat and kissed him on the cheek. He was much more easily consoled about leaving the book for later than I had been about leaving Lola. But then, in my case, we were talking about a living, breathing being who had never been left alone before.
We sat outside at a table where my mother and I could fit under the shade of the awning, but the others were left out under the hot sun.
“We’re outside,” I said. “Lola could have come.”
Sinéad promised my mother it was fine, that she was wearing sun cream and beamed, without even flinching, as the dark waiter flirted with her, serving her beer first, welcoming her to Malaga. My parents and, so it seemed, all the other adults at the restaurant got drunk and loud quickly, even before the pescaito had arrived. Sinéad tried her best to stay in my good graces, glancing over at me a few times, asking if I wanted Fanta or juice, but I remained guarded, having seen how quickly she had traded me and Lola for Darío and Darío for beer, and the waiter and that flush of male attention.
Mama was having fun and I was glad, yet wary of that. She kept telling Sinéad stories about Italy, from years back, before Sinéad lived in Spain, before Mama knew my father or had even moved away from home. Way before Mama had moved to Barcelona and shared a flat with Sinéad, she had studied in Italy for two years during university.
“What were you doing then, José?” Sinéad asked.
“I don’t know. Pretending to be an artist. Chasing girls,” my father answered.
“You lived in Granada then with Paula,” my mother countered. “He worked at his father’s hardware store.”
The food arrived. The dark waiter wasn’t as charming the second time around. Maybe he realized that Sinéad, despite being blonde, wasn’t quite so young or quite so new to Spain, or maybe he just had a lot of customers. My father asked for another big beer for himself and two small ones for Sinéad and my mother.
“I guess África will have to drive us home,” he said.
Mama slapped my hand because I was eating the squid and tiny fish too fast. She was oblivious to the fact that Darío and I were bored out of our minds. I stuffed more battered fish into my mouth and announced that I was going to the bathroom.
“Can you go yourself?” Mama asked me. “Do you want Sinéad to go with you?”
“I need to go too,” my brother said.
He hadn’t touched his food and I glared at the fish and bright green peppers on his plate.
“Take Darío,” my father said. “Please, África, don’t make that face! Just give us a break!”
There was a line for the ladies’ and as we waited against the cool tile wall Darío kept singing a song he’d learned at school. He was driving me absolutely crazy.
A round old woman smiled at him. “How old is he?” she asked.
“Four,” my brother answered.
“A beautiful boy,” she said. “Look at those lashes.”
“I’ve decided I don’t have to go,” my brother said.
I headed into the stall and yelled for Darío to wait where I could see his feet. He, of course, walked off. When I finished peeing I burst out of the stall, into the tiny hallway where my beautiful brother was humming to himself and watching the waiters push through the kitchen door carrying steaming piles of fried seafood. Before he could see me, I grabbed Darío, pushed him against the wall and began to tighten my hand around his tiny throat.
It wasn’t the waiters or the kitchen workers who stopped me, but Sinéad, who was heading towards the bathroom door.
“África,” she said as she removed my fingers from Darío’s neck. “Go back to the table right now.”
When we got home, my father said it was time to practice music. I was supposed to be practicing the cello an hour a day that summer. Papa had worked overtime at the post office so that we could rent the instrument for the whole vacation. The cello and the fact that I could sort of play it gave my father immense happiness. Around the time my mother had gotten sick, he had come home and announced that Señor Muñoz had said that I was a very strong player, that my parents should even consider sending me to private classes in the evenings. And so, despite my mother’s diagnosis, my father focused on music. It was as if a nine-year-old girl playing an instrument gave him hope against illness and his general unluckiness in life. He instilled in me the power of culture over barbarism, as if my playing could help us escape poverty and corruption, Andalusia, provincialism, and maybe even fate itself.
On the way to a Wednesday evening class with the new private cello teacher, Papa had said, one day we’ll go to Barcelona, stay with Sinéad and see a real orchestra play, with the violins and the violas and the cellos. Thus, I associated Sinéad with music, urbanity, refinement, cultural sophistication—everything my parents assured me the North meant. But when I played for her in the living room, she looked tired and distant.
She clapped when I had finished and said, “Oh José!” as if my father had been the one playing.
After I had played the three songs I knew, everyone supposedly took a siesta: Sinéad on the sofa, my parents in their bedroom, Darío in our room, and me out on the terrace with Lola. I woke up hot and thirsty and wandered into the kitchen for water. It was maybe five o’clock by then, still deathly hot in the apartment. We were out of bottled water, so I gulped Fanta Limón out of the large plastic bottle my father had bought that morning.
My parents’ door was open and I could see my father sleeping with his mouth wide open, beads of sweat at his hairline. He looked like he could sleep for days. From the kitchen, I heard Mama and Sinéad whispering. They were curled up together on the sofa eating sweets that Sinéad had brought from Barcelona. Years later, recalling snippets of their conversation, I can almost begin to make sense of what I heard: that Sinéad had “lost” two babies and that she was very much in love with a man who had two babies himself and a very beautiful wife.
“Where is she from?” my mother asked, giddy with the intimacy of female company and so much information.
Sinéad answered too loudly, laughing so hard she started to cough, “Napoli!”
My mother laughed so hard I thought she might choke too. “Oh watch out, bonita. If they find out, her family will kill you both!”
After so much laughter, and the pescaito and the sun and the beers and my nasty behavior, Mama needed a three-hour nap, so Darío, Papa, Sinéad, and I took a long walk around the neighborhood. There wasn’t anywhere nice to walk: no park or playground, just cement and high-rise buildings, and a few wheelchair ramps that I liked to ride my bike straight down, no brakes. As Darío and I rode up and down the ramp in front of the medical center, my father talked to Sinéad more than I had ever heard him talk to anyone. It was strange but not alarming. He told her about Mama’s illness and he even talked about me, about how I was stubborn and hard to handle, just like Mari Luz, too smart.
He helped Darío balance out his training wheels and said to Sinéad, “With kids, your whole life changes. And well, now this.”
Sinéad didn’t tell my father many things. I’m not sure, even to this day, that he knew about the lost babies or the man with the Italian wife. She was different with him than she was with my mother; she just listened. She also decided things: to buy us ice cream, to get bread and water for the next morning, that we should walk and not ride our bikes across the street. My father talked about his brothers the whole way back to the house, about why he worried about each one. Sinéad knew their names and the names of all their wives.
By 8:30 that evening, Lola was able to fly from one end of the terrace to the other and Papa said she might be able to fly away soon, which sent me into a fit. I buried my head in the sofa while everyone else got ready to go to the beach.
Sinead thought it was hilarious that we didn’t go to the beach until nearly nine pm.
“It’s too hot before that,” Papa insisted.
He was right about the heat. The sand was still eerily warm when we got there. It was low tide and the sea was gray, calm and flat. The water wasn’t any cooler than the air. We all ran out across the sandbar, so happy to be swimming with Mama, her body thin, her skin almost translucent. Diving into the tiny waves, she looked like she was only a few years older than me, maybe fourteen, topless, flat-chested, and sinewy. Sinéad, on the other hand, looked like a woman in her bathing suit. She stood in the shallow water next to Papa, watching Darío intently as he practiced dunking his head under and blowing bubbles. Her body was round and full in all the places my mother’s had once been: breasts, belly, hips, and pear-shaped thighs.
By the time we had rinsed off and dried our feet it was pitch black and each and every one of us was exhausted in our own way and for our own reasons. Personally, I had been up since six a.m. with Lola and hadn’t had much of a siesta at all. Darío was asleep on Sinéad’s shoulder before we had pulled out of the parking lot.
There was traffic along the national road leading back to the city, people coming home from a weekend away. Sinéad would be leaving the next morning. She had a meeting downtown and a flight out right afterwards.
Sinéad didn’t look like a woman anymore. Apparently, she was only matronly in a bathing suit, and compared to my mother. In the backseat of the car, with her wet hair and navy-blue, zip-up sweatshirt, she looked like a girl, like the girl Mama had talked about so many times: innocent, serious, preoccupied. My father caught her eye in the rearview mirror.
“And Gabi?” he asked, referring to Sinéad’s ex-husband.
“He’s fine,” she said, but it sounded like she was going to cry.
We weren’t off the highway, when suddenly I felt sick to my stomach. It came on like it had sometimes in school: I felt warm all over and dizzy. I knew what was coming: the surge, the humiliation, the joyful release. Just the week before I had vomited on the private cello teacher.
“Mama,” I said.
But there was no time for anyone to do anything, for Papa to pull over or for me to stick my head out the window, or even for Sinéad to pull my hair back, so I panicked and turned and puked all over her.
Darío stirred but fell back asleep. Mama said it was because I had eaten the pescaito in such a hurry.
“It’s in between the seats,” said Sinéad. She looked like she might throw up too.
When we parked a few streets away from our house, Papa put his hand on my forehead. Mama, exhausted, headed inside.
“Get Darío,” Sinéad told him. “I’ll carry África.”
“She’s really heavy,” my father said, but I was latched onto Sinéad’s neck. Already covered in puke, she didn’t flinch as I settled into her and she even stroked my hair as she adjusted my legs around her waist.
“We’re gonna get cleaned up, sweet girl,” she promised me.
Sinéad struggled as she carried me up the stairs. She stopped a few times and we readjusted. Once we got inside, Papa had the shower going and was telling me to hop in with Darío. Mama was changing the paper towels in Lola’s shoebox and telling Sinéad that in a while they would have a glass of wine. But for that walk from the car, all covered in vomit, and then just up the stairs, Sinéad was all mine.