Otra Vida

by Emily Ramos

For parts of my early childhood, my mother was a vampire. Vampires by the laws of fiction are said to deteriorate in the day and become mighty at night. I believed my mother was as nocturnal as a vampire too. That a part of her was this creature that couldn’t be fully seen—someone I couldn’t fully recognize. Like an engine roaring into a life fueled by the sleepless souls of the city.

The mornings would be a series of tiptoes, arguments with my siblings in hurried whispers, glimpses of my mother sleeping with her makeup still on through the make-shift curtain door. Sometimes, I took more than just glimpses and ventured closer when I knew she needed the rest. Forgot-to-sign permission slips, report cards, and other school documents would be scribbled in her sleepy cursive signature. My hands would crimp the edges of the thin paper tightly as I tried not to wake her after succeeding in my early morning adventures. She desired nothing more than to just stay asleep, but my siblings and I were critters that needed to be taken care of. She pulled out of her desire to give us what we needed at the moment. Those mornings always had foggy air with a scent that I did not like. Something musty, thick, sour, bitter—traces of other people’s beer.  The smell never came directly from her but rather from what her clothing touched.

Just after dinner had ended, she would be fully awake. Music would fill the apartment, clothes would be loosely scattered all over the bed, and her makeup bag would be neatly laid on top of the small bathroom sink. I would sit in a white metal chair—most of the time, a book in hand—and I would watch her. I would look up from the pages of my book and watch as she patted foundation over her dark under-eye bags. Immortal as vampires, I never understood her age. Sometimes she was forty, sometimes she was twenty-five, but most of the time I would just agree with her lie, “Tengo treinta. Next year? Thirty as well. Until I die, I will remain thirty.”

My mother was beautiful, still is, regardless of her age, or her chosen age. For a long time, there was never a trace of acne, blemish, or scars on her skin. Her cheeks were smooth and soft to the touch. I would often stare as she picked up brush after brush and let the pigments of color cover the tan of her skin. She would say she was never taught how to use makeup, but she would finish with an enchanting glow each time. Melodies would twirl along to this nightly ritual. She would sometimes sing with the lyrics. Every night in this small moment of peace, she would let the music drown out the world as her mind concentrated on the night that called for her. She spent a lot of time thinking when she was awake, but never thought spoken out loud.

This night was different. The lights weren’t working, so there was no choice but to stick long white candles in every corner of the house and pray no one trips over them. My mother wasn’t playing music and her ritual was disturbed by an odd mood. My mother said quick buenas noches and vete as dormir an hour earlier than usual. The kiss I left on her cheek is engraved inside me like carved words in a silver ring.

While my siblings slept, I played dead. I listened as her phone rang. She was quiet for a long time, listening, before she started talking. Her voice would pick up in some parts and in others it would break. Her shoes would stick and unstick from the floor. She was pacing the adjacent room. “Que voy hacer?” My English and Spanish were starting to intermix without my permission and it broke every fragment and syllable apart, matching that of the current atmosphere. Then, the air grew quiet. I heard her flat shoes being tossed into the closet and her jingles of jewelry quieting. It wasn’t morning yet, why is this happening now?

Too curious to stay in bed, I tiptoed over to where she sat on our old couch, my feet light on the ground from habit. I wanted to ask what was wrong but nothing came out of my mouth. She stared at me with confused red puffy eyes. A scolding is what I was waiting for. To be told to go back to bed and not stick my ear where it doesn’t belong. Instead, she took a deep breath and smiled. It was small but it eased parts of me regardless. My mother tends to push people away as a form of protection, but at this moment, she was letting me in. “Wanna come with me?” She asked. She replaced her white button-down shirt with a simple red t-shirt. Her calloused feet weren’t covered by flats anymore, but by sneakers barely touched.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“To the ‘night restaurant’, I have to pick up my last paycheck.” She blew out a candle as she walked towards the front door. “Ya no quiero trabajar de noche, estoy cansada…”

I stopped seeing her as a vampire that night. I took her hand and walked to the bus stop headed to New York, saw how empty the streets were, and how lonely the night felt. The thoughts that swirled in her mind passed onto me. She kept so much to herself when she didn’t need to. All those nights I thought of her happily traveling through the night and rejoicing with the moonlight, dissipated. In front of me wasn’t someone immortal, but rather a single incredibly tired mother trying her best to provide for her kids. The night was her only company. She was doing what she could to get a steady job, even if it meant giving up her days.

Click here to read an interview with Emily Ramos about this essay.

Emily Ramos is an aspiring Latina writer and hopes to work in the publishing industry to bring more Latina voices into the world to further uplift her community. She is currently pursuing her Associate Degree in Creative Writing and commits to getting a Bachelor’s Degree in the same field.

Photograph: Isabella Allwood, “The Smell of Oil” [detail], 2023. Click here to view a portfolio of Allwood’s photography.