My earliest memory comes wrapped in glossy red paper like a box of candy, like the chocolate ones with cherries inside of them that grandmothers like to give out for Christmas. I couldn’t have been more than five. Rain is striking its incessant beat against my window. I’m home from school, and my toys are scattered all across my bedroom floor. But I don’t want to play. I’m in bed with a fever. My sheets are sticking to my legs and the roof feels like it’s going to cave in. I don’t want to play, I just want to feel OK again. I’m shivering. My vision is glazed with red. Everything is suffused in this light.
My mother enters the room carrying a glass of water which she sets on my bedside table. She lays a hand on my forehead, her palm ice-cold against my burning skin, and makes a tsk, tsk sound. As if scolding my body for failing her.
Drink this, she says as she holds the glass of water to my lips. But every swallow is like fire to my throat. Like torture.
My mother lays the empty glass on the bedside table again and turns to leave. I'll be right back. I try to say something but the words are like cotton balls in my mouth, shapeless, without form or meaning. So I cry instead, the way infants do when language fails them. I cry and the tears flood down the sheets, soaking my hair and my pillow.
My mother walks away, her scarlet skirt swirling around her legs like petals. Mami, I cry. Shh, mi vida, I’ll be right back. I want to show you something. Just rest.
So I try to stop crying, but the tears won’t abide, they just keep sliding down my cheeks till I taste salt in my mouth. When she comes back she has her old record player in her hands. I want to play you something, just lay back and listen, m'ija. She brushes her hand across my forehead, wipes the tears away from my face. No lloras, hija. Don’t cry.
She connects the record player and places a record on it. Smiling at me, she drops the needle on the revolving disc. Weepy strains of guitar fill the room followed by the tentative footsteps of piano. Then a voice. A voice that seemed to be singing only to me.
“Chiquitica, you and I know..”
Years would pass and still the song would haunt me, just a skeleton of the melody, the bare bones of the song. The memory of it like a rose in my head, eternally unfurling, its fragrance filling my reveries and pouring out through my later years. The song is recalled in its first memory, in its first sweetness.
I remember begging my mother to play it, again and again. I learned the words and sang along, pirouetting around the room, racing down the sunlit corridors of my childhood. My first favorite song.
We moved out of that house some years later into a smaller one. Money was tight, and so were the new lines around my mother’s eyes and mouth. Her smiles came rarely. Music was never. I asked about her record player one hot summer day. I was bored and looking for something to do. I was tired of scratching mosquito bites, nothing good was playing on TV.
She looked up at me from the book she was reading, her eyes far away as if she was still inside the story. I sold it. Her voice was matter-of-fact, clipped like fresh cut grass. It hurt my ears. And the records? Sold them, too. I asked her in urgent, broken sentences about the song she used to play me, not making any sense, my eyes begging her to understand, to remember. She buried her face in her book again. I don’t remember, why don’t you go outside and play.
“I hate you!” I screamed with all of my nine year old might. The yelling making my throat scratchy and raw. The yelling making my mom put down her book and yell back at me. But I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything. Everything was changing suddenly, and it was all too much too soon. So I ran down the hall, my flip-flops smacking loudly against the hard tile. Angry tears falling from my unseeing eyes.
I kept running until I crawled through the viney jungles of my teenage years, thorns of misunderstanding everything and understanding much too much cutting up my hands, my feet. Adolescence in all its tangled fury. First sprained ankle, first fight with a best friend, first bra, first kiss. I kept running till I broke through. Scars still on the inside, but I’m here, on the other side. Finally.
Now the song is handed to me again. Here, on the flip side of childhood. Not woman, not girl, but somewhere in between. A hybrid of Lancome and Hello Kitty. The song is handed to me once more wrapped in red paper, a gift.
Searching for MP3 ’s on the internet, I see one by ABBA called “Chiquita.” Could it be..? I dared not hope but clicked on it anyway. I never would’ve guessed ABBA sung this song. When it was finished downloading, I pressed play. It was the song, the same one.
“Chiquitica, you and I know..”
I haven’t heard the song since I was eight at most. More than ten years have passed. Many moons, many memories have filled the space that opened up in me the day my mother told me she’d sold that record player.
The song is exactly like I remember it. Exactly. You know the way that something can seem so incredible when you are a child, and how it is revealed not to be everything your memories built it up to be when you come across it again, years later? This song destroys that logic. It is everything I remember it to be.