Some things are innate in us: breathing, walking, blinking. Over time, we develop habits that feel instinctual, even though they are learned from mimicking the people around us. Despite my mother never explicitly telling me what bulimia was, I learned from watching her. She taught me how to force my fingers back and tickle punching bags until our stomachs call for a truce, how to let it out, how to etch in my brain that my daughters will learn to do the same too because it’s tradition at this point.
The average person takes 66 days to develop a habit, but how long does it take if the habit is already inside you – waiting for you to cave in?
When I was in fifth grade, my biology teacher taught a lesson about owls and their pellets. She told my class that pellets are just regurgitated balls of fur and bones and that owls usually swallow their prey whole. So, when they eat, everything that can dissolve does. Everything else stays in their gizzard where it will compress into a tiny brown ball. Then, they cough it up. I didn’t really understand how owls were okay with that: eating then throwing up habitually. It wasn’t until my mother showed me how she did it that I finally understood. The first time I heard her throw up, I ran downstairs and tried to help. I pulled her hair back until I realized that she wanted it to happen (and was forcing it). Her fingers kept going down her throat, in and out, and I backed away as she gagged with no release. I remember thinking how I’d never seen that much saliva before as she drooled over the toilet. She never looked up at me or talked to me about it after. My mom never told me how or when she learned to purge (I never asked), but once, I was at my grandparents’ house for dinner, and my grandmother ran to the bathroom after we ate. It was just the two of us at the table, so I followed her in case she needed me. The lock of the bathroom door clicked, silence, then the voiding came. I heard her gagging and the soft plops of chunks hitting the water. That noise sounds like home sometimes. The nerves in my stomach let me know this wasn’t her first time. I realized in that moment that women in my family do nothing more than empty themselves.
How long does it take to not digest a mouse?
How long would it take if the mouse were a whole box of pizza instead?
My mother has got it down to a science: 30 minutes after eating or immediately after an argument with my father. I have clear memories of her running downstairs with tears in her eyes after hearing them yell for an hour and her being locked in the bathroom for a few minutes. My first time was at Olive Garden. I was 11 years old, and my cousin was having a birthday dinner. I had a soup that was made with kale, potatoes, and spicy sausages, and a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. I don’t remember how, but I finished my food way before everyone else. Maybe I scarfed it down and swallowed it whole like an owl would. I chugged a glass of water and excused myself to the bathroom. Honestly, I didn’t know I was going to do it until I was on my knees and already rolling my sleeves up. I tried pushing my stomach at weird angles to make myself nauseous (that didn’t work; that’s not how stomachs work). So, like my mother, I shoved two fingers down my throat and gagged. My eyes watered, and I made an embarrassing noise, but nothing came out. I did it again. My throat burned, and in front of me sat bright reddish pink slime and little pasta worms, floating. I kept going until there was nothing left in me, and I was cramping over the toilet. As I flushed, I wondered if owls felt pain when they coughed pellets up (they don’t; they’re supposed to make themselves vomit, we aren’t). I ran to the sink to wash my hands and my mouth. Looking in the mirror, I convinced myself that I looked skinnier as I dried my hands off. Dinner went back to normal, and the scent of sour tomatoes hasn’t gone away since.
Why does dry heaving smell minty?
Ask my mother and me; it is a flavor too strong to ignore, but not strong enough to become a mask. At some point, your body stops fighting the heaving. Everything you touch starts smelling like it could burn you: acid, bile disintegrating all that it touches. You’re sour. Pieces of you and remnants of your quick bathroom trips leave a stink that cannot be washed out with detergent. Once, I was sitting in a field with my mom on a picnic. Is it still called a picnic if the only thing brought to consume is water? We picked some flowers to pass time, and I found feathers of a bird scattered across the field. I grabbed them and showed them to my mom, but she told me not to touch them because they were dirty and smacked them out of my hands. She told me once that our touch was permanent, and I didn’t understand what that meant until we rolled the picnic blanket up, and it smelled like fermented tomato sauce. I always wondered if owls notice when their feathers fall off, or if molting was as important to them as getting periods is to us. Out of every girl in my middle school friend group, I was the last to menstruate. My backpack always had 2 pads and some liners in it, even though I didn’t get my period until freshman year of high school. Each of my friends told me about their bloody stories: how and when they noticed that their pants had been stained by womanhood. I didn’t have the courage to tell them that I hadn’t experienced any of that yet (and I wouldn’t for 3 more years). We are what we hide.
Mantling is an instinctual habit that owls have where they use their wings to cover their food in order to survive. They hide smaller birds from hawks above, and mice from snakes below. I watched a documentary once about mantling. As their wings spread and their heads bowed down, I realized that we all mantle at some point in our lives. I used to stuff candy wrappers and empty bags of chips under my bed. Every night, as I laid down to sleep, the sharp scents of expired chocolate and stale Fritos welcomed me back. The crackling sounds of plastic sounded like accomplishment. My mother and I aren’t good at a lot of things but hiding has been a pride of ours for as long as I can remember. We push things away often: why I got my period so late, my appetite loss, my suicide attempts. My mother hides her insecurities with tummy teas that make you shit water and skipping meals with me (only to find bowls of old food in her room once she leaves). I hide my anger in shame and long sleeve shirts when it’s too hot outside and locked doors – even when no one else is home. My grandmother hides her feebleness by baking cakes daily and sharing them with her neighbors and never saving a slice for herself.
Is that mantling too? If you throw up and it goes down the drain, does the shame go with it? Much like in a pellet, there are things that will not go away. The bones and fur stay solid for a reason. The dissection of an owl pellet can tell a person a lot about an owl’s lifestyle: what it ate, how often, and where it came from. Unlike owls, the food we eat (or don’t eat) is not all there is to know about our lives. You cannot know of my generosity from the clear, syrup-like fluid floating atop the toilet water. You wouldn’t know what loving me is like from the recurring neon-green chunks dripping from my lips or my chin.
Why do we keep flushing pieces of ourselves away?
I think my mother knows the answer, but I am so afraid for her to find out that her habit isn’t a secret anymore, so I stay silent and keep my questions to myself.
Vanity is a queer human who was born in Massachusetts and now living in Virginia. She attends Hollins University with a double major in creative writing and psychology. She has worked on a child development research lab and one of her college’s literary magazines. As a child, Vanity read horrifying stories by Stephen King and found a passion for cultural horror stories while trying to find representation. She stays busy by finding novels to read on TikTok and procrastinating on her essays and exams.
Mami did not read stories to my sister and me; she told them to us. Juan Bobo stories, Puerto Rican folktales that are now almost two centuries old. Mami learned them from her mother, born in the 19th century, she in turn from her mother — a chain of storytelling, stretching back to my great-grandmother and beyond. Storytelling took place in a small bedroom with a single bed against the right wall, a bureau and wardrobe against the other wall, and shelves by the bed. My sister and I would lie down on the narrow bed with Mami, nestled by her sides, enveloped in her warmth. We listened in the darkened room to her narrative. The stories were funny and silly. We would always ask for more; she would say, “Sí, mijito,” move a finger across our foreheads, and start another as if turning the pages of a book. I can remember everything about our storytime, her voice the only sound, the darkness of the room, her warmth — except the tales themselves. My sister remembers our Mami telling us stories and has no memory of what the stories were about. I asked several Puerto Rican co-workers about Juan Bobo. They remembered his name, but not any of the tales. It was a magical time when our mother told us her tales. Part of the magic was the stories themselves. To reclaim this part of the wonder of those nights, I obtained a copy of Los Cuentos de Juan Bobo, adapted by José Ramírez Rivera from a collection by Maria Cadilla de Martinez, who collected them from storytellers. I hoped that reading them in the original Spanish might trigger a memory from those long-ago days of childhood. None of them brought back any memories of the narratives our mother told us, only the mischievous character of Juan Bobo. One of the reasons we loved the stories was because of how ridiculous they were. The story of the “Clock Adventure” illustrates this and that Juan Bobo was not the sharpest pencil in the drawer. For a taste, I have translated this tale for modern audiences. Before starting this condensed version, I should explain that it involves some wordplay. In English, we walk, but a clock runs. Andar means to walk in Spanish, but it can be used in the sense of a clock running. I have used run in my translation. Juan Bobo and the Clock Adventure One day Juan Bobo’s teacher asked him to bring a clock back to school that a parent had donated. His teacher warned Juan Bobo that the clock was still in good condition and ran perfectly. “Be careful to avoid any bumps that would stop the clock from running,” the teacher told him. Juan Bobo did as he was told and picked up the large, heavy grandfather clock. He soon tired of carrying the heavy clock. “My schoolteacher told me you could run,” Juan Bobo told the clock. “I am going to run ahead and show you the path.” “Follow me! Follow me!” When he looked back, the clock had not moved. Becoming very annoyed that the clock had not followed him, Juan Bobo found some twine, wrapped it around the clock, and started to drag it down the path. Every time it hit a bump, another piece of the clock would fall off, destroying it by the time he got back to school. Juan Bobo’s teacher was so upset with him, punished him so severely that Juan decided not to go back to school. But then Mami stopped telling us the stories. Was it because she had told us all the stories she knew? I don’t remember our mother ever repeating a story. My experiences telling stories to our son followed a similar path and may hold the key to why she stopped and why we can’t remember them. Sometimes instead of reading him a story, I would relate to him a children’s story I had learned growing up. On a hike through the primeval forest of Redwoods National Park in California, our three-year-old son was restless and not enjoying our walk. To keep his attention, I told him the classic story of Hansel and Gretel as we walked along the shady forest path. The effect was dramatic. He listened with rapt attention and walked without complaint. After this, I started telling him stories or making one up when he began to fuss at a restaurant. They had the same calming effect. At bedtime, sometimes instead of reading to my son, I would tell him one of my made-up stories. Holding him on my lap, I would act out the exciting parts of a tale about time travel, rocking and rolling his body with my knees, complete with sound effects. As he grew older, we would bring books to keep him entertained at restaurants, and he became less interested in my homemade stories. Is this what happened with Mami? Did we become less attentive, and if so, why? Then as my sister and I grew older, English replaced Spanish, our first language. Mami would speak to us in Spanish, and we would answer in English and tell her to “speak American.” She, in turn, started to reply to us in English — this was the way our mother learned how to speak English. Did we become less attentive to Mami’s stories told in Spanish and stopped asking for more of them? Something similar happened with music. At first, we listened to the popular Spanish language music of the day Mami loved, but as we grew older, she kept moving to a Latin beat, as my sister and I became rock-n-rollers. First-born Americans, we embraced American culture and its language. Spanish was for old people like parents. Rejecting their Spanish language and culture was the beginning of becoming independent, something all children go through as they reach adulthood. The language used might also be why my sister and I don’t remember the stories Mami told us. We still retained the vivid emotional memories of us lying down with her in a warm, narrow bed, but not the soft Spanish words of the tales she told us in the dark. Our son told me that he remembers the storytelling much more than the actual stories. Perhaps the intimate act of a parent telling a story to a child is the most crucial part of the memory — the teller not the tale.
Michael De Rosa was born in New York City and grew up in Spanish Harlem. His mother was born in Najuabo, Puerto Rico. He holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the City University of New York. From 1973-1989 he taught organic chemistry (in Spanish) and did research at Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela. From 1989-2020 he was a faculty member at Penn State Brandywine and retired as a professor emeritus of chemistry. This piece is from a memoir he is writing on growing up in Spanish Harlem. He recently published a short story, "The Nuptial Dance in Xs and Ys,” in Academy of the Heart And Mind.
Bird of Paradise flower in full bloom, photo by Ken Wolter
Rinconcito is a special little corner in Somos en escrito for short writings: a single poem, a short story, a memoir, flash fiction, and the like.
Forever Home by Lilia Marotta
Home is not always where you hang your hat as it is said. Sometimes home is where you grew up as a child. Other times home is the place you raised your own children. Perhaps home is neither, but a place that you visited during your childhood years. A place where your family roots are embedded in the soil, intertwined with tradition and cultures of those who spread their wings and flew to another land. A small island caught between the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea whose people call to you in your dreams.
Throughout the years, I have had many different homes. I left my mother's apartment at an early age to live with my boyfriend at the time. A year later when it didn't work out, I lived alone, then with a roommate and alone again. Until eventually I married and moved from Chicago to New Jersey. During that time my mother remained in her three-bedroom apartment filled with memories, great food and many plants. I often visited my mother in my childhood home throughout the years especially when I lived only a couple of blocks away.
Now married with a family of my own, we plan a trip to visit the island once called Borinquen. The fear of flying and the expense of the flights make these trips few and far between, however when the decision is made and the time has come, it is greeted with much anticipation. The plans of where we will take the children sightseeing, whom we will visit and what we need for the trip consume the days prior. Calls are made to the extended family on the island and ideas are exchanged, the excitement is palpable. Our kids try to recall the names of their aunts, uncles and cousins based on their prior visits. They never forget Aunt Vicky and Uncle Jorge whom we've stayed with in the past and spoiled the kids during that stay, ensuring that they will not be forgotten. The many cousins become confusing. However they cannot wait to eat the non-traditional spaghetti that my aunt makes. For me, it is the traditional food my Aunt Margarita cooks in her home. Just the thought of her brings back the smell of arroz con gandules and pulled chicken with authentic spices, making my mouth water.
Boarding the plane, I recall the nervous energy my mother used to have and how I inherited her fear of flying. The mornings of those years past when she would spill her café, drop items and lose her temper before a flight, all symptoms of her anxiety. Yet, it was never a deterrent for getting us there every year. As I try to appear brave before my children, I quietly pray the rosary from the moment my feet move me onto the plane until we land with a few distractions in between. Sitting on the plane in those moments of being transported through the air from one home to another, I wonder how things have changed since I was last there. Flying seems to bend the time, in some ways I expect everyone to be as I last left them, but know that isn't so. One year when I visited I was surprised to find one of my cousins was bald. Apparently not something that made the weekly phone conversations.
The kids eagerly watch as the plane ascends into the air and four hours later, clap the moment the wheels touch the ground. While they are being entertained with numerous movies on their electronic devices, I try my best not to focus on the flight itself but the destination. Memories flow of conversations with my cousins when we were teenagers hanging out on the side of my grandmother's house; of sitting with my grandmother on her balcony shelling gandules while she told me stories; watching the mountainous views from the balcony; and going to bed at night listening to the coqui frogs under mosquito netting while my mother, sister and aunts all giggled about the events of the day. When the plane finally lands my tears spill over, as I not only feel relief for arriving safely, but jubilation at having returned.
When the doors open and we step off the plane my hair does what it always does, unforgivably curl no matter how hard I worked that morning to get it straightened. The humidity not only ensnarls my hair it gently kisses my skin. I inhale the scent of the island's indigenous Flamboyan trees and exotic plants, bringing me back to my youth and overwhelming me with emotion.
This trip is different from all others as I carry with me a plant from my mother's house to intern in this soil. A plant that she nurtured and flourished over the years in her home and unfortunately was not doing well in mine. A living reminder of the woman that once nurtured us both, that will take root in this soil and grow for years to come. On this trip I will be greeted by my extended family and will finally grieve with them the loss of my mother, their sister and family matriarch. My aunt and uncle wanted her buried on the island. But selfishly all I brought was a plant. The decision wasn't mine alone but we buried my mother where my siblings and I could visit her grave and where my mother had chosen to call home for 62 years.
Walking out of the airport the heat feels like a cloak over the island and a warm embrace that moves me to want to kiss the ground, because although I was not raised here it is good to be home. Even though, this is not where I reside, this feeling of connection and love will always make it feel like home. That is what my mother wanted for me and what I want for my children.
We planted my mother's Bird of Paradise in the dirt where my grandfather once grew sugar cane and let his goats roamed free. A sunny spot where my aunt can nurture it, so it can continue to grow and flourish, forever in Puerto Rico’s soil.
Lilia Marotta is a Chicago Native transplanted in New Jersey with roots from Puerto Rico.She is a DePaul University graduate who has written stories since she was 10 years old. She’s married, has three children and a dog.