I used to sit in the center of my third grade class, where most of the desks smelled like crayons and the coral tiles looked gray because of the pencil tattoos. Ms. Nicolas would perch in the corner of the room. Her desk stood right under the cross, putting emphasis on the fact that Jesus was our one and only savior and that he was good. At least, that's what she taught us after lunch and before phonics in religion class.
Every Tuesday, Mr. Gregory would come to my religion class to prepare us for the next step for completely accepting our faith. One day, he assigned us a writing prompt to answer: Why did we think Jesus was good for us? I wrote something along the lines of: "Since he died on the cross to free us from sin, he only wants the best for us and he tries his hardest to make sure that only good luck comes our way." That day, Mr. Gregory made me read my response out loud to the class. I felt great. His approval meant that I would finally be able to take communion at church. I was finally worthy.
I started to receive packages of information for my parents and lessons started getting more difficult. I was reading passages from the missalette in front of our pews each Sunday, filling in the missing key phrases on the worksheets they'd give to us each class.
My mother began to grow tired of helping me with my religious projects and balancing work. She wanted my father to help me. But he had grown bitter of even helping me with my homework, which was apparently my mother’s job. He was always out before sunrise and coming home at nightfall, obviously too tired from his job as an operator to show me any attention. But when he wasn't criticizing my mother's cooking and money, times were good.
My mother forgot one day not long after and asked my father to help me. My father loaded the revolver that was his mouth with bullets and shot at my mother's cold façade. She came alive then, too, and the yelling carried out into the entrance hallway. My mother’s long hair moved ferociously and she slicked back her locks to get a better look at my father’s face. My father’s forehead glistened with sweat, the light from the dim lamp reflecting off his forehead.
My throat was tearing from screaming at the top of my lungs for them to stop, and I squished between them, pushing them apart with my uncoordinated arms. When we both made it back to the dining room table, my mother had a red cheek. That night as she tucked me into my bed and we said our prayers, she let me know that this was strike two. I didn't know when strike one had happened but I knew that I hadn't been there to stop it.
I didn't talk to my father the next day and when he asked me how my day was, I just nodded. Mother's cheek went back to normal and she glared at him when they made eye contact. I cried myself to sleep that night, praying once again to God that if my existence was causing this strain on their marriage to please take me away so they could be happy again.
In January, two months after I had asked God for help, the tension in the house seemed to lighten up. My father was going to be taking a trip to Panama to hunt for a replacement wedding ring for my mother as well as the dress I was going to wear down the aisle the day of my communion. Her ring had fallen down our bathroom drain some time ago and he finally thought to replace it. He had never really had time to do so before. The superstition of losing a wedding ring down the drain usually meant that their relationship would go down the same path.
He kissed me on the cheek and hugged me off my feet before he left. He held me there for a minute, set me down, then smiled, like he usually does now when he drops me home after the weekends I spend with him. He always looks like he’s crying, but the tears don’t escape.
My big retreat was on Saturday and my mother drove down the main street down to my school where it was going to take place. There were around fifty kids, mostly around my age but a few older. We sat at the picnic tables in the courtyard waiting for our names to be called to our assigned rooms. I received Ms. Santiago's room. I had never been to that side of the school, as it was the middle school and third graders weren't allowed.
I sat in the third seat in the row closest to the door. The people around me knew each other, so they carried out their conversation around me. They tried to include me but my responses were short. I didn't really feel like talking.
The final topic was the virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Mr. Gregory said that a diligent follower of God would need all of these to be able to prevent sin and be the best you could be. We also learned about the seven deadly sins, which when committed would always be forgiven by God. But people on earth would have to pray for you hard enough for God to have pity on you and let you into heaven. I knew I wanted to go to heaven and I would follow His will as long as he'd accept me.
My dad picked me up after the retreat and I thanked him for the snack he usually kept on the dashboard for me. We exchanged small talk until we entered our gravel driveway.
The living room was dressed in white curtains with a red ribbon cinching its waist. The furniture resembled glass and the light from the windows radiated on all our family photos. Our smiles in the pictures now seemed bigger. My mother waited for my reaction as I looked around the room in awe. I stopped to look at her with the biggest grin. I ran as fast as I could into her arms. She was just as excited. I turned to look at my father. He was smiling at my mother; I thought this was the milestone they had finally overcome to becoming friends again. That night we all ate dinner together at the table and the tension seemed to have left completely. My dad’s favorite meal was cooked and they were finally looking at each other like they used to, with happiness. All of our eyes crinkled again when my dad would make a joke and our faces started to hurt from grinning so much.
There was now merely a month until May 3rd, my communion. Mr. Gregory called my name with two other kids at rehearsal and when we finally approached him, he smiled at us and handed us each a paper with our names on it. It was the gospel readings that were to be read at our communion mass. He said that this was an honor and that we should practice reading it every day in order to keep the part. Being one of three kids that were chosen out of the fifty made my mother excited as well and she helped me practice reading the whole ride home. My dad listened to me read at times and he’d give me pointers on how to breathe and where to pause.
April 19th rolled around. My dad finally wanted to reveal the dress to me. But the white dress my father had bought for me from Panama didn’t live up to my expectations. It had very few pieces of beading and swallowed my small body. My mom made a joke to my father about why men shouldn’t buy dresses and he smiled and agreed with her. He allowed my mother to get me a new dress and to wear this one on Sundays when I finally grew into it.
That Saturday we went hunting for a dress. I didn’t like anything I saw at the shops. We left empty handed.
It was now May 2nd and my mother took me to the salon to get ready for communion pictures that were being taken that evening. The stylist curled my hair and my mother pulled out a white veil from the black garment bag that was hanging on the bathroom door in the salon. My mother knew we might run late, so she had brought everything with her, even the dress that I had not yet seen. She helped me put it over my head and zipped up the back and tied a bow. She put some makeup and lip gloss on me and then turned me towards the mirror. I was speechless at my appearance. I hugged her tight, pulling her face down to mine to kiss her cheek. She smiled down at me and told me I was beautiful.
When I arrived at the photo shoot, I was late but the photographer didn’t seem to mind that much. He took more pictures than my mother had anticipated, but she didn’t complain.
That night I didn’t sleep, due to the excitement that was in the pit of my stomach. My communion was going to become official, and I was going read the first reading in front of our community for the first time.
It was finally May 3rd and my mother woke me up at 6:30 that morning to help me get ready. Our house was filled with my family members that had flown from the East Coast for my big day. Mom helped me take out the rollers that I had slept in and did my cosmetics again. After he saw me in my new dress, my dad smiled from ear to ear and kissed my forehead.
The church was filled up to the last row and light flowed through all the stained glass. The kids were lined up in two rows, one for girls and one for boys. We walked down the aisle as the music vibrated through the carpet with every step we took.
Father then greeted us. I later went up to read the first reading and scanned the crowd; I made eye contact with my father. He gave me a smile and a thumbs-up to start. I took a deep breath and read. I walked down from the podium and bowed towards the altar. Father greeted us and asked some of the kids’ questions about what we studied on our journey here. Finally, it became time for us to receive the body and blood of Christ. I bowed in front of the priest, took the bread and wine, then walked to the pews and kneeled. I thanked God for fixing my family and making sure that the bad times didn’t last that long. I thanked him for helping only good luck come my way, because I knew He would only want the best for us.
That night I went to the reception that my parents had thrown for me. Mother was dressed in a silk gown with beading down the back and she was dancing with my father. He was dressed in a black suit. Everyone from my family looked happy and was smiling. It is still one of the best day of my life.
Months passed and things between my parents started to escalate. They stopped talking and I became their messenger. Then one night my mother prayed with me again, just like the previous time, and said strike three. “Sorry, Gaby, he’s out.” I was nine.
When I turned 11 years old, she finally decided to tell me what had happened. My mother had finally been ready to put up a fight. She let the officers that came to check out the house take care of my father. He slept under their watch that night.
The Friday after strike three, my mother packed our belongings while my father was at work. She picked me up from school and, instead of driving home, she headed to a one-room efficiency. She told me that this is where we were staying until we could move to a bigger apartment that was ours. I just nodded to her.
I cried again that night, but now I realize, God only wanted the best for me, and that was for my parents to be happy. They were only happy at a distance from each other.