By Cristina Vega
The neighborhood kids are dead wrong.
The white splotch on the left side of Jenny’s face isn’t some birdshit that permanently bleached her dark skin. She isn’t some sidewalk or windshield. She’s like the flower I got growing in my kitchen, brown-mottled and white. She’s stalk thin and seed-small with a large head and the promise that she’d shoot straight up given time. Her skin looks as soft as petals, and she smells like Dove lotion.
We’re in her backyard, filling the ground with plants. She stretches so her longsleeve shirt hitches up and I see a splotch of white against her skin that’s a lot bigger than the one on her face. I sketch it with my finger in the dirt. My finger’s all stupid and clumsy, since I’m drawing with my right even though I’m left-handed. My fingers are made of fire because I touched something I shouldn’t, so when anyone asks I’ll just say I fell or got my fingers caught in some door. They still throb beneath my borrowed gloves. When Jenny looks my way, I pat my drawing down, like I’m burying it deep. I brought my Crayola markers so I can draw better ones, but these plants in her garden are the kinds that’ll never turn to paper.
Jenny passes me a barrel cactus pot and rubs her fingers together as though granules of dirt got caught beneath her gloves. “Careful with the needles,” she tells me as she resumes flattening the soil around a smelly indigo bush. Her garden’s stubborn and hard, since the plants grew up in the desert and couldn’t afford to look pretty. Dust-colored and bleached pale, even the indigo bush looks sick. Thorns sprout from leaves and stalks. Little white flowers are cupped in spikes. Cacti hunch in the soil like grumpy hedgehogs, with needles as sharp as fuzz.
Jenny strokes the barrel cactus as soon as I finish planting it, smoothing the dirt like she’s tucking it in for a nap. She keeps at this long after we kids give up trying to grow a plant in Styrofoam or Dixie cups for our flower projects. Except her garden has bushes and cactus and prickly flowers when everyone else has daisies and peach trees. Jenny’s dad thought it was nice for her to be involved in colonizing the backyard with her little pets, though maybe he says that because he’s relieved someone’s helping him with the maintenance.
He helps with buying the plants at some nursery when they were just seeds, and now they’ve graduated from cramped pots kept on the windowsill to outside. The plants have a large backyard, so they can stretch and not touch each other’s feet.
My feet are all sweaty and covered in a film of dust. Flecks of nail polish glint off my toes. Dirt crusts in my scabs and blends with bruises on my bony knees. Jenny’s scuffed sneakers cough dirt as she clacks them together.
“I’ve never seen that plant before,” I tell her, pointing at a cluster of white flowers with thorny leaves.
“Those are Mojave prickly poppies. I found them by the Salton sea when my dad took me there last summer.”
The closest I ever got to the Salton sea was when I tried making an ocean with my inflatable pool by dumping a can of Morton Salt and fish toys in the water. They came belly up.
Jenny’s been to places that don’t show up on a map, and that’s a lot of nothing out here in the desert. She adopts these arid, prickly plants like others would adopt dogs. Maybe she likes them plants more than people, because they’re sullen but considerate, and they don’t hurt you unless you catch them by surprise or you’re looking to harass them.
“You should play some music,” I tell her as my finger trails along the dirt.
“No,” she says to the red yucca.
“Plants like it.” I think.
“It’ll take a few seconds. I can turn on the speakers—”
“They don’t like music.” Fear makes her voice as sharp as cactus needles. She meets my eyes, hers all wide and wet. If she could, I know she would burrow deep into the ground. All she’s got for protection is those plants, and she moves a little so that the cacti are between me and her. She thumbs her sleeves, brushes skin, and quickly pulls her sleeve down. Her clothes are her armor.
I glance down at what I’ve been drawing and purse my lips. My left hand throbs with my heart, fingers itching to stretch from the fist they’ve been enclosed in. Maybe next time you’ll learn, the pain seems to remind me, in a voice similar to that of my parents.
I draw a small circle, push it into the dirt so it almost looks like those inverted mountains. “My parents play some of that old music when they’re trying to cheer themselves up so it’s all I know. When kids ask me what I like to listen to, I tell them I dunno. It’s embarrassing.”
She stays quiet.
“I like it,” I say to the ground now, since the dirt makes better company. “Even though I forget who’s singing even after my parents tell me. It sounds nice, but I dunno if anyone else would think so.” My finger makes elongated ovals around my circle. I glance up and see Jenny watching me.
“What’cha drawing?” she asks.
I brush my fingers across the dirt patch, wiping away my drawing. “Nothing.”
She emerges from her thorny barriers, scooting a little on her bottom. She’s looking at me with a lopsided smile, and she even pulls her sleeves up just a little so I can see some of her skin.
“It was a flower,” I tell her, pushing it out from between my teeth. The words are all mushy and tattered so I have to repeat that when she cocks her head, this time opening my mouth a little wider.
“You don’t have any,” I tell her.
“I do.” She starts to point. “There and there and there.”
“Yeah, but they’re small and pointy.” Now I have to rub my hands inside my gloves ‘cause they’re dripping with sweat. I bite my tongue to keep from crying out as my hand sends waves of agony up my arm. My words are wavering and I want to get out of the heat, but I know I can’t. Not now. “Not all flowers have thorns. You want me to…show you?”
As I say this, my right hand curls around one of my markers. I offer it up to her in the dirt.
She looks at it and then at me. I don’t know what she sees on my face. Maybe a double, since when I look at her I can only see my eyes all wide and wet like I haven’t blinked. The sun and dust dry them up quickly and now I stare at my marker like it’s a straw I can suck up water through until my belly’s all stretched and swollen.
She picks up the marker, extends it to me. When I take it, she offers the back of her dirty glove.
The sunflower I draw is all lopsided and has some petals that weren’t symmetrical in the slightest. I meant to make it blue, but now it looks like the flowers in her garden must look when there’s no sun.
“It looks really nice,” Jenny says. “Could you draw more?” This time, she slowly pulls at the fingertips of her glove.
It’s not fast. She edges it loose one bit at a time, like she’s unsure. She stops with the glove dangling off her fingers and extends that to me as though she wants me to smell it. I don’t, even if my throat clenches and my head spins. Goosebumps sprout below the wrist she allows me to see, and it looks like plants with dew caught on their petals. My next flower looks more like it got yanked off the ground and left to rot in a cup. I gingerly stretch my left hand until she takes notice.
“What’s wrong?” she asks me, regarding my glove as though it were a rock she has to turn over.
Now it was her turn to coax me, trailing her fingers across my arm until she turned over the rock that crushed my hand. There were flowers of a different kind on my skin, purple and green bruises that are just about turning black as though with rot. “I fell,” I tell her, with enough emphasis for her to understand when one thing means another, an accepted little lie that can bloom into the truth given time and a lot of nurturing.
My markers are poised ready in her hands, seeking permission before she draws violets and daisies, over the bruises.
Cristina Vega grew up in the inhospitable desert of Las Vegas, and now lives in the rainy forests of Sweden. She has a BA in English and is currently working as a freelance writer. Her work is currently ongoing.