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The World with New Eyes

by Gabriela Leon

Sometimes I think there’s something broken inside my head. I imagine my brain to be like one of those confetti-filled egg shells that kids crack on their heads during parties. Or… is that a reference that most people won’t understand? Well, in case anyone reading this doesn’t know what I mean: back in my hometown in El Salvador, kids crack hollowed eggs filled with confetti on their heads during birthday parties. Our version of water balloons, I guess? Anyway, that’s not the point.

The point is that I feel as though someone hollowed me out and now the things that are supposed to be in my head, the thoughts and memories and feelings, are like confetti pieces barely kept inside with thin tissue paper. But where most of those confetti pieces are usually colorful and vibrant, what’s inside my head is actually black and gray. I barely hold any of the good memories, they’re hidden in all of the dark pieces, and I barely catch glimpses of them when I look hard enough. I’ll catch a glimpse of light pink, drowned in all the black, and if I focus hard enough somewhere in there I’ll eventually find a hint of purple, too. And so on.

That’s how it is with the memories. My dad will ask me sometimes, “hey, do you remember this person? You used to love being around them” or he’ll be watching the news from back home and he’ll say “Hey! Remember that place?” And I’ll sit there, looking at the screen flashing street names and landmarks, and draw a big blank. He won’t say anything when he sees me struggling, but I know he’s disappointed.

It’s difficult for me to remember most of the places that I knew. I have no concreteness when it comes to the images in my head, and I have no one to ask. My mother left us a long time ago and I know it makes my dad sad, so I let that space be. Empty. Hoping that one day maybe the flashes will coalesce and finally give me a picture.

Wishful thinking on my part, I supposed, because a puzzle has no hope of being completed with over half of its pieces missing.

There are days when I force myself to think about the past. The things that shaped me along with the other children I grew up with. I make myself look for the missing pieces of my memory. Here is one of the pieces, a little less than a half picture, of who I used to be:

I must have been around five or six years old, even that is blurry, when I was sent out to buy queso for dinner. Back home, in the tiny country of El Salvador, several houses on the block would have tiendas. Tiny convenience stores showed into one of the rooms that gave out to the street where the neighbors could buy what they needed when they couldn’t go to the big supermarkets. Each tienda had a kind of specialty: I’d go for pan dulce to one, for queso to the other and for flavored sodas to the third.

The day of this particular puzzle piece, I was stuck in the middle. It was a time before our neighborhood got really bad. I remember that day as the pivotal point where it started, at least for me. I had walked the path to the tienda long before that memory, but I don’t remember the times before or after. I don’t remember how the routine that came after the events cemented, how I started noticing and remembering the bad. I only know that it did.

This is what I remember of that day. One of the bursts of color in my memories: I was five or six years old, walking down the street to buy something from a neighbor, and everything was as it should be. Next to the tienda was an “arcade” with a single pinball machine and claw game where the teenagers used to hang out after they were let off school. There was a group of three or four kids around the pinball machine, cheering for the one playing at the moment. I bought what I needed, and lingered a little bit out of curiosity at why they were being so loud. The owner of the house, we called her Niña Martha, hustled me along so that I could get home. Everyone on the way to the store knew my name, it seemed to me back then, because that’s what they did with the children. Our parents knew each other, and each other’s kids, so that they could keep track of our whereabouts. I had stopped by another tienda for a soda when it happened.

People describe gunshots as firecrackers often, but that’s not really what they sound like. They don’t make a popping sound as much as crack, and they ring hollow. I merely heard the beginning of it that day. It seems kind of funny now, how something so monumental had seemed insignificant to me as it happened. Three rapid crack, crack, cracks! before I was pulled into a house by our neighbor and kept there until it was over. She was a heavyset woman with short curly hair. Most of us kids didn’t like going by her house much because she wasn’t very friendly, and she scowled often. But that day she kept me pulled close to her side behind the door and help me until everything stopped and my heart stopped pounding in my chest. Where there was silence again she sent me on my way home as she stood in her front stoop and watched me walk the ten or so houses inside our pasaje.

Papi (that’s what I call my dad) met me when I was halfway to our house. He’d been at home with my mom and my sister, but hadn’t heard the gunshots because they were too far away. He had gotten worried when I’d taken too long to come back. I can’t exactly remember his face, but I imagine he had been annoyed. What’s easy for me to remember is the feeling of his arms around me when he grabbed me and carried me home. I often wonder what was on my face to tell him that something wasn’t right. I don’t quite remember what happened after we got home other than that I was still shaky and afraid but I felt safe because Papi had me.

Every morning on my way to school I had walked by that arcade and that store. If I was lucky, my mother would buy me a piece of pan dulce to put in my lunchbox. The day after the shooting was different. My mother grabbed my hand and pulled me across the street, much to my protesting because we were going to have to get back to the other side anyway, but she didn’t relent. She didn’t tell me why we didn’t walk the usual way, but when I turned to look at the arcade, I saw the yellow tape enclosing the pinball machine and the rusty brown on the concrete floor. I wouldn’t find out what that meant until much later.

Misa died that day. That’s all I knew of him, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that’s all I’d cared about knowing. That his name was Misael, no last name, and that he was the same age as my sister. He went to the poor public school so we didn’t know him, but my sister had heard of him and spoken to him a couple of times. He was friendly and he was loud. He had been recruited into the gangs when he’d been twelve or thirteen. He was the boy playing on the pinball machine when I was walking home, and he had been shot down by a member of the rival gang at sixteen.

I would be around three more shootings in the next six years, and would hear about four more. My family would be informed about the names of the people that died, many of them kids my sister’s age or younger, and I would think back on that day. I still think of it now as the day that everything began to change for the worse. In my mind, there is the time before Misa and the after Mise. Like with everything else in my head, the before gets drowned in the darkness of the after.

Whenever I try to think about my neighborhood back home, I begin to wonder how we got to the point we were in when I left it. When I wonder how we got to the shootings every other day, and the slow exodus of our neighbors from their homes. When I start to wonder how we got to the point where it was an everyday thing to see a couple soldiers stationed next to my school. If I think about how we got the point where the milkman and the hardware store owner thought suicide was better than sticking around to pay the gangs to let them keep doing business… Whenever I try to puzzle that mystery together, I think about Misa and how everything changed after him.


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