This is the story of the summer that changed everything for a girl named Maria. It starts with something bad. Nothing magical; something quite ordinary, in fact. Ordinary, but bad enough to give her belly a sickening, swooping feeling whenever she remembered it. And bad enough to make her mother change everything about their lives.
Maria’s full name was Maria Theresa Ramirez Mamoun. “Mamoun” rhymes with baboon, as Maria’s classmates frequently pointed out. And though she did not look like a baboon, Maria Theresa Ramirez Mamoun was certainly not a beautiful princess. Nor was she powerfully strong, or extraordinarily brilliant. In fact, according to the old lady at the grocery store, Maria was weak, thin, and sickly, like an overcooked vegetable.
“You look like a canned string bean with glasses,” Tante Farida would say. “A girl should have some color in her cheeks. You need to run around outside. You need fresh air and sunshine.”
It wasn’t Maria’s fault she needed fresh air and sunshine. She had lived her entire twelve years in the Bronx, under the elevated train tracks between the Prospect and Intervale Avenue stops, where the tall, gray structure shaded Westchester Avenue most of the day. She left for school before the sun rose and walked in the shadow of gray tracks, past gray apartments until she reached her school. Yes, someone had tried to cheer things up by painting the façade of Bronx RiseUP! Charter School red, but the back side, where the students generally entered and exited, was gray cinderblock with steel wire mesh over the windows.
When Maria returned home, the sun had disappeared behind the buildings on the other side of the street. And the noise! By mid-afternoon the 2 or 5 train rattled and screeched continuously overhead, competing with the rattles and bangs of construction as the last brownstones were torn down to make room for more high-rise housing projects. And with few trees and no yards, it seemed there were not enough plants to freshen the air dirtied by the endless parade of cars, trucks and buses.
But there was one spot of green—in the empty lot on the other side of Rev. James A. Polite Avenue. Maria sometimes crossed the wide street (even though it was on the wrong side for her walk), just to watch the chickadees flitting among the weeds and white lacy flowers. She looked them up in the school library: Queen Anne’s Lace. She wondered at the name of the other plants. She monitored the growth of the vine slowing creeping up the wall of the hubcap shop beside the lot. She sometimes imagined the lot-vine taking over the whole street—and the other plants escaping the chainlink fence and covering the rest of the block in a wash of green and lacey white flowers. And butterflies and birds would come, and everyone would just stop and stare and love it and then let flowers and vines cover the whole neighborhood. She silently cheered for the grass that forced its way between cracks in the sidewalk beyond the empty lot.
Other than her daily walks, Maria had little time outside. She spent most of the day in cinder-block classrooms, waiting for the minutes to tick slowly by. After school, she spent the empty evening locked in her apartment watching TV, waiting for her mother to return from work. Maria was not supposed to go anywhere but school and the apartment because nowhere else was safe, and she had no adults to take her anywhere nice. Her mother, Celeste Mamoun, was a nurse. She worked two jobs: one in a hospital in Manhattan, and another in a nursing home in Queens, and so between her long hours and long commutes she was gone twelve hours a day, six days a week.
Once, Maria asked Celeste why she had to work two jobs.
“Because there’s only one of me,” Celeste said. “And you need two paychecks to make it in this town.”
On Sundays, Maria and Celeste went shopping. Though there were plenty of stores right there on Prospect Avenue, they took their two shopping carts and walked the two blocks east and three blocks south to Al Janed, which according to its sign was an “America, Spanish, and Middle Eastern Grocery.”
Maria loved everything about that store. She loved the photos of the fried meals that decorated the windows: chicken legs, plantains, enchiladas, falafels, french fries, and so much more than she could ever try. She loved the way a string of brass bells chimed when they opened the door. She loved the weird curly writing on the canned foods. But most of all she loved the smells—smoky red paprika, piles of fragrant persimmons, braids of papery garlic, vats of stinky cheeses swimming in milky water, tubs of olives and packages of cardamom and allspice.
The old lady who owned the store, Tante Farida, would always come from behind the counter and clasp her mother’s hands, murmur, “Kifak, chérie,” and kiss Celeste’s cheeks—first the right, then the left, then the right again. Then Tante would slip Maria a maamoul cookie or a piece of baklawa.
“To fatten the string bean,” she would say, pinching Maria’s cheek.
“Merci,” Maria replied. Her mother taught her to thank Tante in French, because that is how nice Lebanese girls do it “back home.” Though Lebanon had never been Maria’s home and Maria didn’t speak French.
Her mother would then speak to Tante in a mix of French and Arabic. To Maria, Arabic was a mysterious language of whispers and sighs that sounded like Yanni, La, la, la, and Shoo. Her mother never spoke Arabic to anyone but Tante—in their neighborhood most people spoke Spanish, English, or Creole—and so Maria had never learned more than a few words.
As they left, Tante Farida would fill Maria’s pockets with sesame crunches and pistachio nougats, refusing Celeste’s money. “You’re family,” Tante would say.
“Are we really related to her?” Maria had once asked. She didn’t see a resemblance between her beautiful mother and the old woman.
“No. We call her aunt out of respect,” Celeste said.
“Then why does she give us all the free stuff?”
“She’s just lonely.” Celeste sighed. “It happens to old people.”
“Oh,” Maria said.
Celeste stopped walking. She cupped Maria’s crestfallen face. “I’m sorry, chérie. Sometimes I don’t say things right when I’m tired. I meant she likes us like family, so she treats us like family. Even though she’s not in our family. Do you understand?’
“I guess,” Maria said. But she wished her mother wasn’t always so tired. There were always so many things she wanted to ask her mother, but didn’t, because Celeste was always so tired. Like why didn’t they have a bigger family? And what happens to lonely old people?
They carted home the value-packs of chicken thighs, and the big bags of basmati rice, lemons, lentils (red for keftah, brown for mujadarah), and chickpeas. Then they spent the afternoon cooking the meals Maria would heat up for herself in the microwave all week long. This was their routine, and it was rarely broken.
Once, the summer Maria had turned ten, Celeste had taken her on the 2 train to Penn Station, then on a train to Long Island, and then a bus to Jones Beach. They spread an old blanket on the sand and ate a picnic. Maria made friends with a girl sitting on the beach blanket next to theirs. They spent the afternoon building castles from the warm gritty sand and dodging in and out of the chilly waves.
It was the best day Maria could remember. Whenever she felt bored or anxious she closed her eyes and remembered that day at the beach.
She told herself she didn’t mind being alone. She was quiet and shy, and she wasn’t sure she would want to hang with the other kids in the neighborhood even if they invited her. They seemed too loud and rough. She’d just as soon avoid them, even if that meant she had no friends. Still, Maria didn’t complain. She understood, really she did. And Maria knew she was luckier than most. She had a clean apartment, a room of her own, and a mother who loved her fiercely. Celeste did whatever she could to keep Maria safe and happy, and Maria did whatever she could to be grateful.
Even though, sometimes, she wished things were different.
And then one day they were..