A story for my younger, more anxious self.
The linoleum kitchen floor was cold, and walking in barefoot from the living room left my toes aching for the warmth of the carpet. I carefully tiptoed along the lines cutting through and across its mosaic design, and paced around the four center squares four times. This process was the first of many routinely conducted to appease my superstitions of the number four. A year ago, on April 4th, in religion class we learned how some cultures consider it an omen of loss or death. Later that same day, I found out we were being evicted from our home. Since then, I began performing several daily rituals to appease whatever unseen force doled out the number’s misfortune. But instead of avoiding it, I learned that doing specific things four times every day helped me avoid the anxiety attacks that often came with my bleak thoughts of the future. They worked most of the time.
I tight rope walked the few feet from the door to the coffee counter, my toes feeling all the scuffs of steel-toed work boots, rushed sneakers, and gardening sandals the entire way. Dad left the coffee machine on, so I poured some of the usual Maxwell House Original Blend into a cup, and followed it with a 4-second-pour of milk, and four teaspoons of sugar. A paper bag of sugary pan dulce from the local panaderia was always kept next to the coffee maker; its contents were normally the center of early breakfast and post-dinner conversations, but not today. Mom and Dad were at work, Phil had summer school, and Mami, my grandmother, was in Mexico until August. I unfolded the bag and my mouth watered at the sight of sugary conchas, small bread rolls with a sweet crumbly topping. I grabbed the biggest one and moved to the round wooden table at the other side of the kitchen, leaving a small trail of scattered sugar crystals behind me. There I found Mom’s cell phone resting by the salt and peppershakers.
I sat and stared at the silver flip phone for a good five minutes. This wasn’t the first time Mom left her phone by accident; it usually meant that she was running late because Phil wouldn’t wake up for class on time, and they’d have to rush out of the house. Dad couldn’t take him to school because he worked too far for it to be convenient, so Mom had to do it. I never understood why Phil couldn’t be more responsible and get his act together, especially when he knew Mom’s job was unstable since her layoff last year. Didn’t he ever think about what might happen? What if Mom was fired again, or what if we ended up losing our home like last time? What would we do if we lost everything again?
Suddenly a loud jingle rang out from the phone, piercing the emptiness of the kitchen. The sharp pitch startled me, and caused my head to start pounding. My face grew hot, and I began uncontrollably heaving in small puffs—I was having a panic attack. Shutting my eyes like Dr. Mala said to do, I kept them closed with the palms of my hands and tried to slow my breathing. I took small breaths in through my nose and slowly released them out my mouth. I tried to focus on the coolness of my hands against my eyelids, and began whispering my go-to chant of ‘Everything will be okay.’ Repeating the phrase sixteen times usually did the trick, but for some reason I couldn’t save my mind from the deluge of wonders and what-if’s that were flooding my thoughts.
“Everything will be okay, everything will be okay,” I breathed between gritted teeth. “Everything will be okay, everything will be okay… everything… everything… will…”
“-Everything will be okay,” interrupted an unknown, strangely familiar voice. My body froze and I slowly brought my gaze up to a pair of all-too-familiar brown eyes. It was him again, someone I hadn’t seen in years since my last major anxiety attack. “Well well, Thirteen. It’s been a long time hasn’t it?”
Last time he called me Ten, which could only mean he didn’t go by the same name either. “TwentyOne,” I said, “What are you doing here?” No longer slouched and wearing baggy clothes, TwentyOne looked less like a couch potato and more like a pseudo-sophisticated young adult. His red high tops contrasted his torn dark jeans and black jacket, and that plaid shirt almost made him look like a college hipster. And were those new earrings?
“Oh come on, Thirteen,” he said as he approached the coffee machine. “Is that any way to greet a guy who knows you better than you know yourself?” He grabbed Dad’s beige coffee mug off the dish rack and filled it to the brim. The steam rose and dissipated as TwentyOne took a sip. He eyed the bag of pan dulce and looked back to me. “I see he still insists on getting one of these every week, huh?”
“You know how Dad is. He doesn’t change much.” Ripping off a quarter piece of my bread, I dipped it into the milky coffee and popped it into my mouth. I took my time tasting the bitterness of the blend melding with the sweetness of the crumb topping. TwentyOne carefully drank from his mug as I rubbed the excess sugar off my fingers, the soft but distinct sound of microscopic granules hitting the tabletop. I cracked the knuckles of my fingers, and TwentyOne looked over to me to crack his thumbs in response. I wondered if he still did it when he was nervous or thinking too much. He did seem less tense than the last time I saw him.
“Too bad I can’t say the same about you,” he grinned.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. “Last time you were here, you said everything would be the same, and that nothing ever changed. Why didn’t you tell me that we’d be losing our home? And why do you look and act so different than before?”
TwentyOne gazed out the window above the sink. His chest puffed out as he inhaled deeply and let it out in a slow long sigh. Often during the summer the smell of oranges from our neighbor’s tree wafted into the kitchen, filling it with a delicious citrus scent. His lips curved into a pensive smile as he remembered. “Man, I miss the smell of those oranges.”
“Can you just answer my questions please?” I asked.
TwentyOne threw me a peeved stare and folded his arms. “I didn’t tell you about the house because there are certain things I can’t mention, Thirteen. Besides, it’s not like it would have helped prevent it from happening if I did. As it turns out, a lot changes as you get older. You can’t avoid it. People change, too. We all go through tough shit, but we learn to grow up from it at some point.”
He laughed as he closed the curtains and joined me at the round table. From this close, TwentyOne definitely looked a lot older. A small nest of black hairs stuck out from his chin, and a few strays peeked around his jaw line. The bags under those same brown eyes that I recognized as my own made TwentyOne look tired, like he didn’t get much sleep lately. “You’ll find out soon enough,” he said, and took another drink.
I grabbed a second piece of concha, but set it back down on the plate. I brought my thumb and finger up to my eye to see the sugar crystals that stuck. Each small spec glimmered in the kitchen light as I rubbed my fingers together with four grainy strokes, and watched them fall like snow. I could see TwentyOne’s eyes focused on me through the sparkling particles. “So why are you here?” I asked, sitting up.
“I’m here to help you, kiddo. I know sometime ago you started obsessively doing those rituals to stop anything bad from happening. It’s all about the number four if I remember correctly?” TwentyOne folded his hands as if he was about to interview me, but it felt more like I was sitting in Dr. Mala’s office, waiting to be evaluated.
“Yeah,” I admitted, twiddling my thumbs. “It started last year when Mom lost her job, then we lost our house, and that day I learned about the number four in class, and… I don’t know. I just felt like I had to start doing something to help, you know?”
TwentyOne took one last long drink of coffee, and loudly set the mug down on the table. “You know what your problem is, Thirteen? You worry too much.”
“That’s what everyone says.”
“Because it’s true,” he replied, somewhat loud. TwentyOne stared me straight in the eyes as he grasped his empty mug and drummed his fingers against the handle. “Listen, Thirteen. I know things are kind of shitty right now with all the therapy, and how it seems like no one listens to you, but believe me. They won’t always be that way.”
“How would you know?” I scowled. My breathing had gone back to normal, but my fingers wouldn’t stop shaking.
“You serious? Would I be sitting here drinking coffee with you if I weren’t sure? Trust me, things will get better; take Phil, for instance. His annoying ass habits that seem like they’re never gonna change eventually will. He’ll become less of a slob and pick up the pace with his chores and school. So try not to be too hard on him, okay? Just because he’s not a responsive guy doesn’t mean there isn’t anything going on inside his head. Besides he’s your—our—older brother. You have to respect him.”
“Yeah, okay,” I sighed. TwentyOne’s words sounded more like a lecture on manners than sage advice, but I accepted them nonetheless. I wondered what happened to make him change so much since his last visit. Last time he seemed more furious at Phil than I do now; he was definitely more upfront about his anger. Maybe TwentyOne just got better at hiding it?
“Now there’s gonna be some shit in high school,” he started again, “but just wait until college. You’ll have more than your share of troubles there, but the friends you’re with will make it all worth it. Just watch out for all the sketchy people. And the hippies.”
“Hippies?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” he said. “Just be careful around them alright?”
I doubted he would explain. TwentyOne’s advice was always vague, so I knew better than to question him. Still, I wanted to know more. I was about to badger him further about college life when I heard a car honking outside, prompting my head to start ringing again. Phil must have gotten out of class early.
“Looks like I gotta go, kiddo,” he said, standing up from his seat. He grabbed his empty mug and put it by the metal sink that never housed more than a single dirty dish. I remained seated at the table, my headache throbbing as I held my palms against my eyes once more. “Oh but before I head out Thirteen, can you do me a favor?”
I noticed TwentyOne’s tone had softened, and he sounded almost somber. “Yeah, sure,” I said, clenching my teeth at the throbbing that grew more intense. “What is it?”
There was an obvious hesitation in his voice that seemed to stumble over itself as he began his goodbye. “…Be sure to give Grandpa a hug for me alright? It’s been a long time since I last saw him, and I really miss him.”
TwentyOne had never been so specific, and he sure as hell never mentioned Grandpa before. I felt my stomach turn at those last words. He couldn’t have been serious. “What are you talking about?” I asked, throwing down my hands.
When I looked up TwentyOne was gone, and Dad’s mug was back on the dish rack as if it had never been touched.