My Mother In The Window

Luisa Castro

Artwork by Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee

There was a difference between mothers and moms. When I was at school and Sister Águeda asked Esther Alonso how her mom was, or when we were in the school courtyard and all those women were waiting for us to come out and Sister Águeda would say to Esther Alonso: “Look, it’s your mom, your mom is waiting for you,” it was already clear to me that she and I were a world apart, and that my mother would never be found among those women. I did have a mother, of course, she just wasn’t a mom. Esther Alonso seemed a bit ridiculous, a bit small to me whenever she said “my mom. . . ” Just hearing her say it forced me to put myself in an uncomfortable place, to feel small as well. It was just a matter of word choice, but it kept me from being friends with Esther Alonso. I was fine with sharing a desk with her so long as she didn’t use that word, or any others like “my dad,” or “my little brother,” all belonging to a vocabulary from a faraway galaxy, the kind you like to see in comics but would never actually try to visit.

Children with moms and dads were sweetly, dopily good and oddly innocent, which always made me feel kind of sorry for them. They never stopped being themselves even if it meant not taking part in the games they didn’t seem too concerned about playing. Conformity had an irresistible charm over me, and Esther Alonso was a mild-mannered rule-follower. I don’t know what she thought of the rest of us girls; maybe she didn’t think anything. Putting yourself in other people’s shoes isn’t a common weakness, as far as I can tell.

One day, I went into Esther Alonso’s house. It was dark inside, but you could make out a minimally luxurious decor: lamps, music players, and tapestries. Her mother was all done up, as if she’d just come from the hairdresser’s; her face was glowing and she was smoking in a housecoat with birds embroidered into it. She didn’t seem bothered by my presence, despite never having met me. She made us a snack and went to the living room to smoke. Esther and I played cheerfully with her toys until dark.

I went home around dinnertime that day. I thought that I was late but my mother hadn’t yet entered the kitchen: she and my sister were leaning out the window, watching my father build a garage behind the apartment. It was a wooden garage, like a country cabin. The area behind our building was full of similar structures, all more or less provisional and constructed with varying degrees of craftsmanship. Everyone in our building had decided to build their own garage in an area the town council had marked off as a green zone and community space. A machine could come and knock down all the shacks any day, and no one would oppose it. We were the last to build ours and my mother seemed very pleased to see my father with his wood and his saws, finally taking action. It was getting dark out and we couldn’t see the garage in its finished state, but when I saw it the next morning, it seemed like a true work of art. It was a bit bigger than the others, with fresh, white-painted wood and a structural rigidity that seemed almost dangerous to us.

“It shouldn’t look so nice,” was my mother’s only objection. “If it was a little bit worse, it might not make them want to get rid of it.”

My father was proud, calm.

“No one’s going to get rid of it. Don’t you see everyone else’s? It’d cost them loads to destroy all those little hovels. And no one’s worried about that anymore, so why should you be?”

“I don’t know.”

A few days went by without any problems, and a few weeks later, the garage was still standing. There are things, like seeing a wooden garage in the same place very morning, that simply feel like miracles. In the afternoons after leaving school, before going up to our apartment, my sister and I would go straight to the garage, leave our books on the hood of the 127, and chase after one another, hide behind the car’s wheels, or make a kitchen over the heaps of wood that my father scrupulously stacked in the ten remaining square feet in front of the fender. It was nothing like Esther Alonso’s spacious loft, full of toys and fun areas, but I didn’t notice—the garage felt to me like conquering space, like winning land from the Comanches, like finding a submarine at the bottom of the sea.

After enough time had gone by and no one was worried they’d tear down our garage anymore, our games spread out to neighboring areas. Each shack or hut was separated from the next along borders that only we users knew. No one from outside could have imagined all the lines on the map in that labyrinth of shacks, but we knew their every twist and turn. The nature of the individual colonization led to a de facto distribution and an odd layout which, given that the laws of illegality are much stricter than real ones, no one ever questioned. Some were much bigger than others, but that was why their owners had been first to take the risk. The apprehensive followed suit and chose better spots, which meant more land. The late-coming apprehensives like us had to take what space we got, and we never felt jealous, or anything like it, toward the early colonists.

But our garage did have one advantage over the others: there was a properly built cement wall a yard high to its right, meant to separate the peppering of disorganized huts from the area marked off by the town council. This reinforced concrete gave our garage a cohesiveness and magnitude that the others, made from scraps and prefab materials, didn’t have. One of my favorite games involved balancing on top of that rigid wall, going from the right side of the garage to the back part which was accessible only from there, and which we used as a secret hiding place.

I didn’t invite Esther Alonso to play on the wall the first day. I waited for it to belong to me as completely as the garage did. She came one fall afternoon when the sun was still out. I took her straight to the shacks and pointed out the hiding place from my spot atop the wall, but Esther didn’t want to climb up.

“I want to have a snack,” she said.

I knew that my mother wouldn’t like that I’d brought someone to play by the garage. She thought that the less time we spent there, the better. But I wanted to appease Esther, because I did owe her the snack in a way. As she climbed the stairs in twos, I realized that my relationship with Esther Alonso was starting to get stuck in the mud of obligation, and that I wasn’t all that interested in being friends with a girl who preferred bread and chocolate to my offer of inaccessible places. Plus, my mother was home, and she wasn’t one of those moms who welcome you in their peacock housecoat and make you a snack themselves.

“No, stay here,” I said to Esther. “I’ll go get you that snack, just wait here a second.”

I jumped down, went into the apartment and, standing up on a stool, I rifled through the cupboards to retrieve our provisions.

“What are you doing?”

My mother could tell I was trying to be stealthy.

“I have a friend waiting down there. I’m bringing her a snack.”

She seemed really pleased. I’m not sure what she would have understood as “down there.”

“Don’t hurt yourselves,” she said, and I was truly grateful for that.

By the time I returned to Esther, there were already surprises in store, and not good ones. Laura, my neighbors’ daughter, had joined our expedition to the secret place. Her meddling made me furious. Without even looking at Laura, who was smiling at me like an idiot, I turned towards Esther and gave her the snack she’d requested.

“Here, my 'mom’ gave it to me,” I said. “She said not to hurt ourselves.”

I noticed Laura looking surprised, as if she were witnessing a rare spectacle. To be fair, it was: I’d mentioned my "mom" and "not hurting ourselves." Even I was taken aback by myself. The hunk of bread and chocolate put a bit of a wrench in my plans to travel along the wall, but I liked the challenge and climbed up, only to be followed by Laura, my neighbor, whom no one had invited to play. Meanwhile, Esther stayed still, feet on the ground, eating bits of chocolate and bread. I wasn’t exactly happy about it, but I was willing to let Laura join if it encouraged Esther. But when I saw that she’d climbed up and that Esther was still on the ground, something strange came over me.

“No, not you,” I said.

“Why not?” asked Laura, with her arms out to keep her balance.

I could have sent her tumbling with a nudge, but I contained myself.

“Because I said so. Because I don’t want you to. This wall is mine and only Esther can come to the secret place, not you.”

Esther was eating bits of bread and didn’t seem to hear anything. I glanced down at her and she looked untroubled. Meanwhile, Laura was continuing forward.

“I told you no. Go to your own garage,” I said. “This is my garage.”

Rivers flowed from Laura’s temples and she began to go white.

“But it isn’t yours, this wall isn’t yours,” she responded, and started to take another step.

“Don’t go any further,” I warned her.

Laura continued, the blood rushed to my head, and I did something I shouldn’t have. Once I regained my balance, I saw there was no going back: unaffected, Esther’s feet were still rooted to the ground and she’d switched from bread to chocolate. My mother was watching the scene unfold from the window, like an unaffiliated party. In the window of Laura’s house, I could see her mother flailing and jumping up and down, worked up and with her hair unkempt, as if something terrible had woken her up and she’d just gotten out of the bed that the neighbors said no one could get her out of, where she spent the whole day sleeping. I realized that something irreparable had happened, something serious enough that this woman who never made an appearance had suddenly showed up in her window and was making a scene. She was screaming at the top of her lungs, threatening me.

“I’ll tear you apart! If I get my hands on you, I’ll tear you apart!” I heard her shouting. “And you, Laura, come upstairs, don’t go near that animal!”

Laura was sprawled on the ground. It was me who’d pushed her down, but it all seemed a bit over-the-top to me. She was bleeding from one knee and crying inconsolably. Still in the window, her mother’s voice was going hoarse from all the threats, and I was dying of rage and embarrassment after seeing Esther Alonso disappear into the maze of garages like a chicken. Three or four heads poked out their windows, wondering what the commotion was. For a second, I felt in danger, I’d never seen someone as beside themselves as Laura’s mother was, but I knew she wouldn’t come down and hit me in front of all these people, not this woman who didn’t even leave the house to buy bread. Throughout this episode, my mother had remained behind the window in our apartment, her body halfway inside, without intervening. Arrogant in her bloody rightness, Laura retreated home like a wounded lion, with the scorn and grandeur of fallen heroes. As she went, she kept on repeating those words I can still hear to this day.

“It isn’t yours, the wall isn’t yours.”

I stayed on top of the wall for longer than usual. I think I was waiting for some kind of show of support from someone, from my “mom,” maybe. But she left the window, reinforcements never arrived, and it was just me up there.



When I came back up to the apartment in tears, I reprimanded her:

“You were just standing here watching. Why didn’t you defend me?”

I was being a bit dramatic after this first experience of abandonment, which would be followed by others that I handled better, because they always had the same characteristics: I’d accidentally get myself into the kind of trouble that keeps you awake at night, and when I’d go to my mother to find comfort, or justification, all I got was a distant figure who washed her hands of it, leaving me bewildered by her indifference.

“Why should I?” it felt like she was saying. “Clean up your own mess.”

My mother wasn’t indifferent towards me, and that’s not how I saw it; it was something else, something that took on a deep and somewhat terrifying meaning for me, as if my mother’s abandonments were our true bond, the one reminder of our mutual solitude.

Letting the Devil tempt you is just a way of trying to get God’s attention, probably the most desperate of ways. Whenever I do bad things or put myself in dangerous situations, what I’m really after is my mother’s mercy, her unconditional support, the backing up I know will never come. That’s also why I feel so much contempt for the “moms” who would justify even the most barbaric of acts perpetrated by their children, contempuous in their own right of things that can never belong to one person, like the cement wall around our garage. I can walk along these things and use them as a bridge to secret places, but any attempt to possess them is the surest way to contempt and ridicule. It’s also what happened when I tried to see other people’s mothers in my own, because of this absurd tendency, which is really more of an indulgence, of putting myself in other people’s skin—in Esther Alonso’s, in Laura Casín’s.

“Even that lady who spends the day drunk in bed knows how to defend her daughter, didn’t you see?”

My mother didn’t see anything. She just gave me a pitying, befuddled look.

“You don’t have to push people,” she said without raising her voice.

“But you don’t pick me up from school!” I replied.

My list of criticisms and grievances was long. I was exhausted by the end, ultimately promising that I would never hit anyone ever again and making my mother say she would leave work a bit early the next day and pick me up from school. But kids are used to having freedom, and my nerves were on end during all four hours of class the next day, hoping not to see my mother when school got out, wishing for the events of the day before not to have changed anything between us. I couldn’t have been more thankful when the bell rang and I didn’t see her among the snooping moms. Everything was the same between us! I ran home freely like I did every other day, spent as long as I wanted to looking at the shop windows, climbed the stairs to our apartment at my own pace, and, most importantly—my favorite part—got ready to open the door to our apartment with my own key, a right and a responsibility that none of my friends had earned yet.

But when I put the key in the door, I noticed that someone was opening it from the inside. My mother had left work a bit early and smiled at me:

“I didn’t come to pick you up, that way we could have lunch earlier.”



These things I’ve realized about my mother, this particular way of taking me seriously and even turning me in to the police if necessary, without quite selling me to the cheapest bidder, still make me tremble to this day. The way I remember it, it’s the absolute proof of her sense of the truth, which I lack. There were multiple times when my father generously covered things up for me, yet I can’t remember my mother ever making any concessions when it came to “real or imagined problems with the law.” No, I’m positive that her clinical view of events keeps her from feeling even slightly guilty about not coming to my aid every time I’ve dug myself into a hole.

But it’s strange, I’ve never understood why my mother, who had such an unshakable sense of justice, who was so impartial in her judgements, was also so afraid of other people’s justice over her. For example: the justice that would have meant tearing down our illegal garage, which she continued to worry about until it crumbled from age. As related as love and a fear of justice might seem, they struck me as incongruous, I couldn’t find the link between my mother’s immaculate morals and her innate fear of the law. And both attitudes felt extremely hyperbolic to me. As I’ve watched her, still awed by her overblown sense of justice, I’ve started to think that the only way to be just, truly just, is by being a bit of a mobster. What Laura’s mother did, which felt to me like an adult abusing a child, was really an act of justice. It was also something I wanted for myself: a drunk, unkempt mother defending me from the window, not a judge with a toga and a white wig. In the end, a judge is a judge, but a just person is something else entirely. And in a sense, we only commit crimes out of a desire for justice, like defending the wall that wasn’t mine as my own, claiming a parcel for myself before Esther Alonso’s wide, terrified eyes. That wooden garage never brought any more trouble than I’ve mentioned here, but like I said, every day that it remained standing, my mother expected men in uniforms to show up and throw us all in jail. The incident with the wall, on the other hand, she forgot right away.

I’ve reminded her about it a few times, so that I could hear her say the words that still excite me and scandalize me, and always will. She always responds the way she did then, when I came home in tears, looking for a lap to cry in.

“But it wasn’t yours, that wall wasn’t yours.”

And then, but always with her eyes and never her voice, I can feel her trying to respond to a question that I can’t bring myself to utter, though it’s in my gaze:

“Of course I’m yours, of course I’m your mother.”

And she looks down at me with a mixture of discomfort and naivety, as if she doesn’t want to lie or disappoint me, as if she wants me to understand something that’s made me anxious for a long time. As if the best thing she could do for me, besides picking me up at school, was to share the burden of the knowledge that my being her daughter and she my mother was, at heart, as undeniable as it was disturbingly random, happenstance.

translated from the Spanish by Jacob Rogers