By Michael Leal García
On that nightmare afternoon at Plaza Mexico, Aaron never saw the gunman open fire. He just heard a series of pops—something he would only later recognize as gunfire—before Cristine knocked him over, their four-month-old son in his arms. After checking that Lil Aaron was fine—the boy still fast asleep—he felt a weight roll off his legs. There, Cristine lay motionless.
Before a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt subdued him, Brock Betts, a police academy flunky, shot 41 rounds from an AM-15 rifle outfitted with a 100-round magazine. Of those 41 rounds, three found Cristine.
In his press conference, the Lynwood Police Chief said Brock Betts drove 89 miles to attack Plaza Mexico. Why? According to Brock Betts: “Because they built a tiny Mexico inside in the United States.”
Plaza Mexico was far from a nation-state but modeled after a Mexican pueblo’s main plaza. Still, Brock Betts saw it as an affront to patriotic Americans.
Aaron simply liked the vibe of the place.
In hindsight, he could see it so clearly. In the parking lot, he had seen Brock Betts, decked out in army fatigues and a plate-carrier vest, but he thought nothing of it. He could see the woman who ran past him just before The Fall. She had her son clutched in her arms as her yellow sandals slapped across the pavement. He had actually wondered where she was running off to—not what she was running from.
Aaron’s father and would-be in-laws became fixtures in his apartment, taking turns changing and feeding Lil Aaron as if Aaron were incapacitated. “Just sit down,” his father would say and turn the TV on to the National Geographic Channel or the Food Network, anything devoid of human-on-human violence. It’s how he learned a giraffe’s heart was two feet long and weighed roughly fifty human hearts.
The would-be in-laws made all the meals and stocked the refrigerator. “It’s the least we could do,” they said and then took turns changing Lil Aaron amidst periodic crying jags. Aaron pretended not to notice them.
Then there were his friends, Cristine’s friends, his co-workers. Everyone coming with food, a box of diapers, a stuffed animal or children’s book, an envelope of cash for the services, and the occasional offer of pity sex. He took everything but the sex.
He tolerated the crying, the platitudes, the advice.
“Just smile,” one co-worker said. “That’s enough to make a baby happy.” So, he smiled—forced it. And it worked. Lil Aaron smiled right back at him. He felt oddly accomplished.
When his friends dropped by, they gave him extended father lessons. Danny taught him how to quell crying fits. Jaime taught him different methods to bottle feeding. Marshall taught him how to pleasure a woman with a straw—for when he started dating again.
At the end of each visit, Danny gave him a pound hug and asked, “You going to be all right?”
“I’ll be fine,” Aaron said.
For the most part, he was, as much as he could be. He was alive. That much counted for something—even if he felt like Sam Wheat minus a living wife.
In Cristine’s rocking chair, his would-be mother-in-law cradled his son and, with her free hand, wiggled her fingers like a spider, descending upon Lil Aaron. “Ahi viene la araña,” she intoned, “la araña que viene de españa te come y te araña y te pone en su telaraña.” With the last word, she dropped her wiggling fingers into Lil Aaron’s belly and tickled him. Lil Aaron giggled and kicked his happy feet.
Aaron shook his head. It was all so fucking sad. A grandmother playing mom. Cristine should have been making her Lil Aaron laugh.
“Aaron,” his would-be mother-in-law said. “Have you thought it over?”
“Yeah, I’m good.” Aaron turned his attention back to the pod of whales on TV.
“You sure? It would be our pleasure.”
“I’m not leaving my kid.”
“No one is telling you to run away. Just to take some time for yourself. Grieve.”
Everyone told him that. Grieve. As if he had a choice.
“He’s better off with me.”
His would-be mother-in-law kept her gaze on him, so he went to his bedroom and took a nap.
One morning CBS News called Aaron for comment on a story about Brock Betts. He declined but watched the segment. They interviewed six Latinas who said Brock Betts had stalked them. Each story the same. He hit on them at Victor Valley College. They politely rejected him. He then somehow got ahold of their contact information and called them all hours of the night, mailed them handwritten love letters, visited their homes, and harassed their families. The anchorwoman suggested that the Plaza Mexico shooting was an act of revenge against all those Latinas who rejected him.
Then Lynwood Police released security footage of the shooting. Cameras caught Brock Betts sniping random passersby in the south parking lot and then spraying bullets into the Chuck E. Cheese’s. From there he walked up the corridor between the Curacao and Fashion Avenue and tailed Cristine, Aaron, and the woman in yellow sandals. That woman noticed Brock Betts, yanked her son into her arms, and took off running. Aaron oblivious to it all, but not Cristine. She noticed Brock Betts raise his rifle, and then shielded Aaron and son with her own body.
Right wingers called the shooting a false flag, some convoluted Mexican conspiracy, but he didn’t give two shits about them. It was the memes that unraveled him. In one meme, someone photoshopped a banana peel under Cristine’s foot to make it look like she slipped. In another, Blanka from Street Fighter II sweep kicked her. It shouldn’t have bothered him, but he thought of posterity, what Lil Aaron would see if he ever googled his mother. Within a few days, the memes shifted focus to Cristine’s loud, pink top. Assholes photoshopped orange flags, glow sticks, lightsabers, anything flashy in her hands, mocking her for drawing Brock Betts’ attention and thus bringing ruin to her family. The machistas of the internet deemed Lil Aaron, Hijo de la Chingada.
In the third grade, Aaron’s father told him the story of La Malinche, the woman who betrayed her people to help the conquistador Hernán Cortés obliterate the great Aztec Empire. As his father told it, history labeled her La Chingada, the fucked one, for she succumbed to Cortés like a needy whore, bore him the First Mestizo and Bastard Son, and—like Eve—cursed the future of generations to come. “You see,” his father said, “you can’t trust a woman. Betrayal’s in their blood.”
So it was no surprise that the day his mother left, his father paced the house and muttered, “La pinche puta de Cortés.”
Before she left, his father lived the machista life, staying out all hours of the night and coming home smelling of beer and (what Aaron’s friends would tell him later was) sex. The nights he stayed home, he had no problem slapping Aaron’s mother around for failing her womanly duties. For his part, Aaron parroted his father and bossed his mother around: clean this, cook that, go to the store. He even ignored her the way his father did, brushing her away with a flick of the wrist.
After a broken orbital, she bounced, didn’t bother to take any of her belongings.
The curse of La Malinche, his father called the whole affair, but Aaron knew better. He and his father chased her away.
When he met Cristine, he had rid himself of most of his machista habits, but some things lingered. On their third date, after some dickhead in a Subaru cut him off, Aaron muttered, “Hijo de La Chingada.”
Cristine patted his thigh and told him to pull over.
With a subtle fury, she explained that La Malinche was a figment of the colonial imaginary—to sow distrust and resentment of women. “She was no traitor, no whore,” Cristine said, “She was a slave, a victim of rape, who had no choice but to serve Cortés. But the Great Machistas of History, like el Chingón Paz, made her an all-purpose scapegoat to blame women for everything.”
Aaron hadn’t a clue what “colonial imaginary” meant or why Cristine referenced Paz, but he listened and never said, “Hijo de La Chingada,” again.
Everything eventually took its toll—the security footage, memes, and memories of his mother—and he found himself unable to leave his bed for three days, obsessing over the final moments, wishing he could have taken those bullets instead. But he didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, didn’t think twice about the woman clutching her son and obviously running for her life, the life of her son.
After his father and would-be in-laws coaxed him out of bed and into a therapist’s office he would never visit again, Aaron decided he would lie to his son. “Your mother died from cancer,” he would tell the boy. Aaron didn’t need him googling his mother and seeing all those memes, let alone her death. He gave his father and would-be-in-laws the details they would tell Aaron, but his would-be-in-laws protested, argued for the truth, so Aaron lied: he would tell the boy the truth when the right opportunity presented itself. Of course, he would never look for the right opportunity.
From then on he refused visitors, except for his father and the would-be in-laws who babysat Lil Aaron when he dragged himself to work. At night he plopped Lil Aaron in front of the TV and put on Peppa Pig. The boy watched in awe, wiggling his hands and feet like a crack fiend. Aaron sat on the couch and watched on.
He didn’t try to drown out thoughts of Cristine. It would have been like trying to forget how to breathe. Some nights he could focus on the positive. The way she raised herself, working two jobs and myriad gigs during college, buying her first car at 18. The way she sang while she drove and showered and did most everything. The way she weaved allusions to history and popular culture into everyday conversation. His favorite: “Every woman’s a Helen of Troy for some broken fool.”
Above all else, he reminisced their first date at a lucha libre show. He was walking beside her, exiting the main auditorium of the Mayan Theater, thinking about whether to attempt the first kiss in the parking lot or back at her place, and then his face was gliding off the sweaty, hirsute gut of a wrestler named El Oso. After kissing her in the parking lot, he intoned, “That’s El Oso you’re tasting.” She replied, “I know,” and then spat out a hair. He had never laughed so hard.
Most nights he lay awake, tormented by Brock Betts and all those memes—that fucking banana peel. At least by morning he was able to rise from bed, however tired and broken.
Lil Aaron’s first word was “Peppa.” Aaron chuckled, didn’t think much of it. The boy loved that cartoon pig and her little brother George. It made sense. But when Lil Aaron finally said, “daddy,” he stressed the last syllable just like Peppa did when she addressed her father.
“How much TV does this boy watch?” his father asked, sitting beside the boy, in front of the TV no less.
“Probably less than you,” Aaron said from the couch.
“Listen to him. He sounds British because he watches that pig so much.”
“He’ll grow out of it.”
His father hand combed Lil Aaron’s hair. The boy laughed at George Pig driving a race car.
“You think maybe you should let someone else care for him. For a little bit. So you can take care of yourself.”
“You going to raise him?” Aaron laughed. “Get the fuck out of here.”
“When’s the last time you took him outside?”
Just about never.
“All the time.”
His father shook his head. “He needs to interact with other kids, play in dirt, be out in the sun.”
“Sleep is all he needs right now, so feel free to make your way home.”
His father nodded and kissed Lil Aaron on the top of the head.
“I just think you need some time to recover is all. Your boy needs more than a TV.”
“He’s fine. I’m fine. We’re fine. Get the fuck out already.”
His father stood but didn’t move.
“Us grandparents have talked it over. We can care for him if you’d like—for a little bit. It’s no problem.”
“You’re out of your goddamn mind if you think I’m going to let a bunch of geriatrics care for my son. One of you geezers are liable to drop him on his head. He’s got enough problems to deal with.”
“Son, he’s not the one with problems.”
“Weren’t you leaving?”
His father grimaced, leaned down to give Lil Aaron another kiss on the top of the head, and lumbered out.
He decided to take Lil Aaron to the mall, see something different for a change—maybe find him a petting zoo and see a real life pig. Before the trip, he installed rearview mirrors onto the stroller, which looked stupid as hell, but he didn’t care. He needed the extra eyes. He put on his stretchiest training shorts to give him added flexibility and his all terrain running shoes for added traction. He then tucked an expandable baton in the rear storage pouch of the stroller.
He put the boy in the car seat and placed a toy lion in his hands. “Go nuts,” he said. Lil Aaron rattled the thing and giggled. He put the stroller in the truck, hopped into the front seat, and proceeded to back out of his driveway. He stopped at the sidewalk and checked for oncoming traffic. All was clear, so he backed up until a car blared its horn and swerved out of his way. He whipped around to check on Lil Aaron who was still rattling his lion. He had checked his mirrors—the coast was clear, wasn’t it?—and still he missed that car and its terrible horn. He had checked and missed it, like he missed the sound of obvious gun fire, the woman clutching her kid and running for cover, Cristine shielding him and Lil Aaron with her body.
Aaron didn’t leave home much after that day in the driveway. Just to work, his father’s place, the would-be in-laws’, and the market during daytime—if he couldn’t get his groceries delivered. At the market, he scanned the parking lot and aisles for possible attackers. Lone white men in fatigues and plate-carrier vests. He did this as inconspicuously as he could for fear of looking ridiculous.
The boy split his time between grandparents but mostly stayed with Aaron’s father, long since retired. His would-be in-laws didn’t have the requisite energy to deal with the verve and fury of a toddler for more than a few hours at a time. Aaron visited him after work. He fed Lil Aaron and ate alongside him. He didn’t talk so much as force a smile and watch the boy bash his food and laugh at his destruction. Aaron’s father did most of the talking.
“Show your father what you learned today.”
Such was the routine. The boy would display a new skill or word. His British accent slowly fading away.
Aaron never took his son out. The thought alone made his heart tremor. His father took Lil Aaron to the park, the zoo, museums, everywhere parents took their kids to experience the outside world, other people.
“You’re free to join us,” his father always said.
“I’m good,” Aaron would reply and try to drown out all the horrible things they could encounter.
Sometimes Aaron wondered if he did the right thing letting his father raise his son. But the boy turned out all right so far. His father too old to fall back into his machista ways.
When time came to enroll Lil Aaron into pre-school, his father took care of it. Aaron convinced himself it was better this way.
He spent his nights playing Madden and Super Smash Bros. Once in a while, he read something from Cristine’s book case: The God of Small Things, Salvage the Bones, Beloved. One bleak story after the other. Then he read The Lowland. He remembered Cristine telling him about it, how the main character married his slain brother’s pregnant wife to save her from his parents’ cruelty—and if that wasn’t enough—he then raised his brother’s child as his own. About a third of the way into the book, he wondered if he could have done the same if he had a brother. Then he remembered how Cristine sacrificed herself for him and Lil Aaron and, invariably, the many ways he failed her, so he tossed the book across the room and gave up reading.
Some nights he’d open OkCupid and peruse profiles. He’d like a few profiles but would never message anyone. Not even when a woman messaged him first. He didn’t know what to write beyond, “Hello, what do you do for work?” But women were clear in their profiles: “Don’t ask me what I do for work.”
His last date with a woman not Cristine was eight years ago. He didn’t know what he was doing then. He certainly didn’t know now. His would-be mother-in-law told him to move on, to get out there. “She wouldn’t want you to spend the rest of your life lonely,” she said. It almost made him laugh.
On their last anniversary, on a limousine ride through the city, Cristine told him, “If I die before you, I want you to spend the rest of your life alone and wearing black. All black. Grief black, the blackest black you can find. And if you love me, you’ll get castrated, too, because, you know, the grief.”
He didn’t see his solitude as honor, but as something he couldn’t quite define.
He took the boy on weekends. They played hide and seek, myriad board and video games. They made forts. They drew the boy’s cartoon friends: Giganto and Tiny roaming Cretacia; Bandit Heeler playing the Ronda alla Turca on Bluey’s belly; and sometimes Peppa Pig treating her father like shit. They practiced their letters and numbers. Every blue moon, Lil Aaron would ask about his mom. What was her favorite candy? What was her favorite animal? What was her favorite song? What was her favorite joke? How did she die?
Chocolate from See’s Candies.
Moon&Sun’s cover of “Chasing Cars.”
Something called cancer.
On Sunday night, he’d walk the boy to his father’s car and kiss him on the top of the head. It was better this way.
Aaron didn’t feel much like a father, an older brother maybe, the kind who stayed in his room, listened to music, and ignored everyone. But one night he felt like Danny Tanner.
The boy charged into his bedroom in the middle of the night and slid under his covers. “La Llorona is coming after me!” he cried.
Aaron wrapped his arms around his shivering son. “It’s okay. I got you.”
“What are we going to do when she comes in here?” Lil Aaron said from under the covers.
“Don’t worry. She can’t enter my room.”
“Yeah, she can. She’s pure evil.”
“But my room is protected from evil.”
“Let me show you.”
Aaron turned on his bedside lamp upon which a plushy giraffe lay.
“See that giraffe.”
“That’s because you’re acting like a gopher. You have to come out to see it.”
Lil Aaron peeked his head out from under the covers, just enough to glance at the giraffe and then burrowed back under.
“How’s that going to protect us from La Llorona?”
“It’s got special powers.”
Aaron grabbed the giraffe and slid it under the covers. “It wards off evil. Your mom gave it to me a long time ago.”
Lil Aaron shook the covers off himself and peered into its tiny black eyes.
“For a long time, these spirits haunted my dreams. But ten your mother gave this to me. She told me to sleep with it beside my bed, and the spirits wouldn’t bother me again. And they never did.”
“What kind of spirits haunted you?”
“Stuff from the past. Your dad made some mistakes when he was younger.”
Lil Aaron scrunched up his face. “I didn’t know mistakes can make evil spirits.”
“Not any mistake. Just the big ones.”
He saw Brock Betts in his army fatigues, the woman clutching her son, Cristine motionless beside him.
“Your grandfather tell you about La Llorona?”
Lil Aaron nodded.
“What did he say about her?”
“He said she drowned her kids in a river and that she haunts families with children and kidnaps children in the middle of the night. Grandpa also said your mom turned out to be La Llorona and that she almost kidnapped you.”
His father, the idiot.
“Aaron, my mom wasn’t La Llorona, and she never tried to kidnap me.”
“But grandpa said so.”
“Don’t believe everything your grandpa says.”
“Is grandpa a liar?”
“He just likes to exaggerate. Let’s leave it at that, okay?”
Lil Aaron rubbed the giraffe’s tiny ears.
“Your grandpa tell you anything about women?”
“Yeah. He said don’t trust them.”
For a moment he thought about telling his son the story of his mother but figured Lil Aaron too young to understand the complexity of femicide, racism, and whatever Cristine’s death represented.
“Like I said, don’t believe everything he tells you, okay?”
“What was your mom like then?”
“She was great, but let’s talk about her later. You should be asleep already. Anyway, tonight you’ll sleep here with me and Raffy—that’s the giraffe’s name, by the way—and starting tomorrow, you’ll keep Raffy in your room, okay?”
“What about you? Won’t the spirits come back?”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
And he actually thought so. For so long he feared not having it in him to be a real dad, to do dad things like protect his son, but here he was doing just that. He felt like he could do anything.
Aaron stood outside the KBBQ place Luna from Bumble recommended, along the perimeter of the waiting crowd. He felt all right, not too nervous, though he could feel himself breathing heavily. First date jitters, he told himself. But the crowd bothered him. Everyone clustered together. Few would survive a mass shooting here. He took a deep gulp of air but quite couldn’t catch his breath.
“You okay, bro?” Some guy in a trucker hat asked.
Aaron gave the guy a thumb’s up and then distanced himself from the growing crowd. To clear his mind, he went through the first date questions he memorized the night before.
What are you most passionate about?
What’s the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you?
What’s your favorite place in the world?
Something about books. Not what’s your favorite book? But something about a character.
“Aaron?” A woman in a billowy grey dress asked.
“Yeah, Luna?” He shook her hand, held it a half second too long.
“It’s nice to meet you,” she said.
As she surveyed the crowd, he breathed through his nose as inconspicuously as he could, thinking it less obvious than his heavy mouth breathing.
“So many people. Did you get your name on the list?”
“I did, but would mind if we went for a walk instead? My stomach just started bothering me. ”
“Of course, not. How about a cup of tea? Something to soothe your stomach. I know a great place nearby.”
Luna led him down Sixth Street. “Was it something you ate, or stress weighing you down?”
“Probably something I ate.” He took a deep breath through his nose. “So what’s the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you?”
Luna’s face collapsed into confusion.
“Oh, sorry. That was just so out of the blue. Let me think.” She mulled his question over as he inhaled another nasal breath. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You’re breathing kinda funny.”
“Oh, my brother gets it bad, too. Do you want to stop off at a drug store and get some Claritin?”
“No, I’ll be fine. Just give me CPR if I pass out.”
“Sorry, I don’t give CPR on the first date.”
“Damn. There goes my chance at getting to first base.”
Luna laughed. It’d been so long since he made a woman not Cristine laugh.
“I guess my most embarrassing moment would be having my first period in the middle of Ms. Hickman’s class in the sixth grade.”
“What about you?”
“Nothing as bad as that, but I did split my pants ice skating.”
Before he could get another word out, a panhandler stepped before them and presented an open palm. “Help me buy a sandwich?”
“Of course,” Luna said and dug into her purse for change.
The panhandler was barefoot, the perfect detail to mask his possibly malicious intent. Aaron checked his surroundings. No one behind him or the panhandler, but across the street some white guy in a trench coat waited for the pedestrian light. That coat could easily hide an AR-15 or shotgun.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” Aaron said and took a breath.
“Just a second,” Luna said as she rooted through her purse.
The light turned green, and the guy in the trench coat stepped into the crosswalk and gazed upon Aaron and Luna.
“We got to go,” Aaron said, his chest tightening.
Luna placed some change into the panhandler’s trembling hand. “Sorry I don’t have more,” she said.
“God bless you,” the panhandler said, just as the change slipped from his hand.
Luna stooped to retrieve it for him. The panhandler chased down an errant quarter. The guy in the trench coat was walking toward them now.
Aaron was almost panting at this point. “Just let him pick it up,” he sputtered.
Luna glared at him.
The guy in the trench coat about ten feet away.
Aaron couldn’t catch his breath.
Luna and the panhandler fumbled for the change spread across the sidewalk.
The guy in the trench coat stood before them now. He nodded at Aaron and then reached for Luna, but before he could make contact, Aaron dove on top of her. It wasn’t until his head smacked the sidewalk that he realized the guy in the trench coat hadn’t actually done anything threatening.
Luna elbowed and bucked Aaron off of her. “Get off of me!”
The guy in the trench coat kicked Aaron in the ribs and then helped Luna up. “Luna, you okay?” he said. “It’s Luke, Megan’s boyfriend.”
Aaron felt like a fool.
“Oh, hi, sorry. I’m a little—” Luna turned to Aaron. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
All he could muster was a barely audible “I’m sorry” and then ran away.
Three years later, his father texted him that Lil Aaron got into a fight at school. The boy wasn’t much of a troublemaker, said some bad words and cracked one too many jokes, but he never displayed violence, so Aaron feared the worst: someone finally found the video of Cristine’s death.
“I’m in Anaheim. Can you go talk to the assistant principal?”
“I’m at work.”
“He punched a girl.”
A chill ran through his body.
“They didn’t say.”
He had no choice. He made a beeline to Castelar Elementary School. In spite of the dread of what lay ahead, he remained vigilant and scanned his mirrors and listened to his police scanner.
When he walked into Mr. Deford’s office, he found his brooding eight-year-old on a burgundy leather sofa. There were no marks on his face, just furrowed eyebrows and pursed lips. Aaron put his hand on Lil Aaron’s shoulder.
Lil Aaron wouldn’t look at him.
“Mr. Beltran,” Mr. Deford said. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”
“So, what happened?” Aaron said, his eyes on his son. The anticipation beating in his chest.
“Would you like to tell your father what happened?” Mr. DeFord asked.
Aaron held his breath, but his son wouldn’t say a word.
It was about a girl. The assistant principal didn’t say as much, but the story had all the tell tale signs of a love triangle. At recess, while Johnny Trujillo walked hand-in-hand with Lara Hidalgo, Lil Aaron ran up and socked Lara in the back of the head. Then Johnny and Lil Aaron fought until the custodian broke it up.
Mr. Deford suspended Lil Aaron for two days and required a mandated mediation between Lil Aaron, Lara, and Johnny upon his return.
His son struck a girl. That was all he could think, wasn’t the least bit concerned about his surroundings, those hidden dangers that agonized him. The junior woman beater sulked in the passenger seat. Mind elsewhere, Aaron wound up northbound on the 110 freeway and then the 5. He finally came to when Lil Aaron asked, “Where we going?” By then, he was an exit away from the zoo.
They sauntered past the flamingos, alligators, Komodo dragons, and koalas. The whole time, Lil Aaron stared at his feet. More than anything, Aaron wanted to scream at his son, but he didn’t want to cause a scene, look like the shitty father he was.
“So, you want to tell me what happened?”
Lil Aaron shrugged.
“Do you have a crush on that Lara girl?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Lil Aaron muttered.
Aaron didn’t push it.
They walked past red pandas, baboons, okapi, and lemurs before Lil Aaron sat on a bench before the giraffe exhibit. Aaron didn’t know his son had a crush, or that he liked girls. He wondered what else he didn’t know.
As his son sulked, he bided his time gazing at the lumbering giraffes, their heads towering in the sky, so impossibly tall.
“She’s just like that puta Malinche,” Lil Aaron said.
“She said she liked me, and then she—” Lil Aaron shook his head.
“You don’t have to say anything,” he put his hand on Lil Aaron’s shoulder because it seemed like the thing to do.
Lil Aaron wiped his eyes.
“I know it won’t make you feel any better right now, but this will pass. You’ll meet another girl.”
“They’re all just stupid betrayers.”
Aaron could hear his father in his son’s voice.
“Where’d you get that idea?”
“Grandpa said your mom left the both of you.”
“How? She was your mom, and she left you.”
“That’s true, but here’s the thing: your grandpa and I weren’t very good to her. ”
“So? Nothing’s thicker than blood.”
“Aaron, blood means nothing if someone treats you badly, and we were awful to my mom. She had every reason to leave us.”
“She still sounds like La Malinche.”
He thought about addressing Lil Aaron’s junior machista bullshit another day, but then he glanced at the giraffes feasting on leaves and wondered what Cristine would do.
“What do you know about Malinche?”
“She betrayed our people.”
Aaron nodded. “People say that, but she was a slave. Did you know that? So, sure, she helped a brutal conquistador, but what choice did she have? She was a slave. What do you think would have happened to her if she didn’t follow his orders?”
Lil Aaron shrugged with an air of childhood obstinance. “She could have done something.”
“I suppose she could have let Cortés kill her, die honorably. Is that what she should have done?”
“I don’t know,” Aaron grumbled.
“Quick question. What’s the name of that woman you thought was trying to kidnap you?”
Lil Aaron refused to answer.
“La Llorona, right? Okay, another question. Who ate the forbidden fruit and supposedly damned humankind to sin or whatever? Your grandpa drags you to church, so you should know the answer this one.”
Again, Lil Aaron refused to answer.
“The answer’s Eve, another woman. You think it’s a coincidence that so many of these stories focus on women behaving badly?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you should know because you’re participating in the dumb ass tradition of blaming women for the actions of men. That Lara didn’t deserve to get punched, but you made a bad guy out of her because she didn’t do what you wanted her to.”
Lil Aaron sucked his teeth.
“She didn’t owe you anything.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Lil Aaron said and walked away.
Aaron followed his son through the crowd of stroller-pushing parents and contemplated what to say next. But it wouldn’t take long. There was only ever one story to tell.
Michael Leal García teaches and writes in Los Angeles, CA. His work has been featured in Hobart, Tahoma Literary Review, Kweli Journal, Huizache Magazine, Fjords Review, and Apogee Journal. He is currently writing his first novel and raising a toddler fluent in Tyrannosaurus rex.