By Mireya Vela
When I arrived home that day, my mother asked me if I’d returned the gift.
“Yes,” I said.
In fourth grade, Thomas sat a few chairs from me. In 1981, boys wore their shirts fitted and Thomas was a “husky” size. Thomas’s striped grey and red knit shirt rounded over his belly. His straight hair fell over his eyes. We both sat in the front part of the room, where the teacher had gathered desks together to make groups.
During recess, Thomas shyly approach me.
“This is for you.”
He stood in front of me, unable to make eye contact. In his hand he held out a small box.
“Thank you,” I said.
I took the gift and scrambled away. The boxes were humbly wrapped. The fact that he had taken the time to wrap the gift makes me want to cry now. Wrapping is such a hopeful act. In the tiny box, lay a magnificent silk butterfly.
The gifts frightened mom. Anxiety bit at her skins like hungry mosquitos in the summer eve.
Mom was stingy about celebrating life. She was a poor gift giver. Walking around and through the lanes of the aisles at the stores, she panicked as she had to choose. If she walked out of the store empty handed, father would become sharp.
“What happened? I thought you were going to get a gift?” he said.
“I couldn’t find anything. What I wanted wasn’t there. I couldn’t decide,” she said.
Father walked towards the car and mom followed. His body was stiff with rage.
“I just couldn’t decide. I couldn’t find anything I wanted,” she said.
“The gift isn’t for you. It doesn’t matter if you like it.”
“I couldn’t find anything to buy,” she said.
“It’s always the same damned thing with you.”
When I turned 40 and had already given up on her, she started wrapping gifts for me. Until then, she would buy something she liked, handed it to me and told me it was my Christmas gift or birthday gift. Often, the gifts came in a grocery bag she would simply hand over to me. No frills. No bows. No formality. Often the receipts were still in the bag. She vacated joy out of each space.
Thomas’ special little trinkets were pretty and frivolous. The gifts didn’t fill me with dread until mom intervened.
“You can’t accept these. You have to give these back to him.”
I ached to keep the sparkling bugs.
“He gave them to me,” I said.
“Yea, but what does he want in return?”
Mom taught me about bartering. At home, when I wanted something, I became taffy. I asked in a sweeter voice—my words picked carefully. For those few minutes, I let go of my direct demanding language. I traded for a favor or a kiss. During trading, I relented and lowered my boundaries. I changed shape like taffy.
Thomas made me feel seen. His beautiful gifts meant I might be worth something. That I might deserve jewel encrusted magical creatures.
“Do you like him?” she said.
“No,” I said.
“Did you do something to make him think you liked him? Why is he giving you gifts?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t do anything wrong,” I said.
“He thinks his gifts are welcome.”
She didn’t say it at the time. She waited about 10 years to say it to me.
“Some women,” she said, “They aren’t pretty, but they get a lot of attention from men.”
The first time she said this to me, I was 16 and thought she was sharing a general philosophy. But when she said to me again in my twenties then in my thirties, I knew this wasn’t a philosophy. She wasn’t trying to process an idea. She stared straight at me.
“Some women aren’t attractive or even have a good personality,” she said.
Afterwards, when my first husband was stalking me, we had the same conversation again.
“Men come after them and can’t let go. It’s like these women have this special something that I can’t see.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” I said.
“You know, like a scent or pheromones. They just draw men to them.”
After I’d met my current husband, she said it again.
“Some women they aren’t even attractive.”
Mom didn’t have options when it came to marriage. But being reminded that there was something quiet and sinister about me that drew men wasn’t a narrative I wanted. It reminded me too much of being sexually abused as a child. It placed the blame on me.
“I ended up with Dan because I made good choices,” I said, It wasn’t luck. I worked hard for this.”
Her words accused me. I wondered for the thousandth time in our relationship, if she could read my thoughts. Shame flooded me when I had Thomas’s attention. When he approached me when no one was around. I’d seen him wait till other people left to talk to me.
As Thomas came towards me, I felt guilt knot in my body. The knot grew long and twisted like taffy. And as he held him hand out with the tiny wrapped boxes, I could hear my mother’s voice in my head telling me he’d likely stolen it. She said that I couldn’t accept stolen items. Everything about my exchanges with Thomas were wrong. I dreaded Thomas’s gaze. I began to avoid him. Avoiding him began to feel like moments of triumph.
There are some women who attract men. In my case, I was still a girl. I was 6 or 7 or 8 and another of my father’s brothers had taken an interest in me. He stalked me around the yard and around cars.
Mom asked me if I was being abused.
“Remember that I will know if you are lying.”
“Yes,” I said.
She stared at me for a bit. She was quiet.
“Stay away from him,” she said.
I felt like I’d been caught in something bad. It was like being told to stay away from stealing items in stores or staying away from lying.
Avoiding that uncle began to feel like moments of triumph. It never occurred to me that it was not my fault.
But Thomas never asked for anything in return. He looked over at me during class time and smiled. And I imagine now, that a return smile might have been the kind thing to do. Perhaps, his home life was as poor as mine and he needed an exchange of kindness.
The next day, I handed the gift back to him.
“But it’s for you,” he said.
He was crestfallen and walked back to his desk. I think he thought I either didn’t like him or didn’t like his gifts.
I didn’t understand kindness this way—that mutual feeling of well-being with nothing taken or owed. When I arrived home that day, mom asked if I had returned the gift.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good. We have no idea where he is getting these gifts. I bet he is stealing them from his mother. What would his mother say if he found out you had them?”
I didn’t say anything in return. In a different way than before, mom was taking away my innocence. She insisted I tell her everything. She insisted I shouldn’t have secrets. She insisted that this would make us best friends. In turn, she took my most intimate thoughts and made them dirty. She violated me. In the battlefield of esteem, I was losing. I learned that a boy couldn’t just like without wanting something and this scarred me. I never understood crushes. I never understood about navigating relationships and figuring out my own power. Instead, I wondered about all the boys trying to hurt me. When, in fact, mom held all the weapons.
Eventually, Thomas moved on to someone else. I pretended I wasn’t heartbroken. I pretended I was relieved that I was no longer the focus of his attention. In fact, I went home and triumphantly told mom that Thomas was ignoring me. I remember mom celebrating this.
But in 4th grade I had one friend whose dedication to our friendship flexed, grew taunt and loosened. I was otherwise isolated.
At that time, mom said one friend was more than enough. Truth is, she didn’t have any friends. Family was friendship to her. Eventually, she would work me down more slowly and try to explain to me that I wasn’t likeable enough to have friends—or to be liked by the family. And I believed her for decades.
With peer relationships, I hadn’t figured out how much giving was too much or how much encroachment on my body was over the line. Or if my friendships needed to include my body.
Love was sinister. She thought about the ways boys would barter for my love and implicate my innocence.
At the fence that divided out homes, I could hear my mom and grandmother talking about my twelve year old body. My mother would spend hours gossiping with her mother-in-law.
“Don’t let her ride a bike,” grandmother said, “She could lose her virginity. I heard of a girl lost her virginity after the bicycle seat fell off. She was impaled by the tube sticking out of the bicycle. And you know, no one wants a girl after that.”
Grandmother continued, “After your father-in-law stole me, my family wouldn’t let me come back home. I tried to run away, but who cares after that?”
I sat on the bench that leaned against the house and tried not to engage too much. But I followed the conversation, as they discussed me, as if I were not there.
“Don’t let her roller skate either. If she falls, she could lose virginity.”
Mom nodded and looked at me.
But grandmother needn’t have worried. Mom had already taught me about bartering my body. And the lessons about how much I was worth would be an ongoing discussion between us that would last into my forties. After I stopped talking to her, self-worth was something I continually thought about. Am I worth those earrings? Am I enough for this job? Am I enough for my children? Self-worth is something that stays with a girl into womanhood.
I am still figuring this out.
Recently, I found a purple moth with mesh wings inside a music box from my childhood. I leaned in to smell it to see if it hid a memory I might share too. The music book had stopped working many years ago. I had used the box for years to store treasures—my best things. I found it in the laundry room inside a cardboard box I’d forgotten about. I’d brought the music box into my bedroom to look through it carefully. I sat on my bed and pulled the treasures out. In other boxes I had found stickers but there were no stickers here. I held the moth in my cupped hand and touched it carefully. I remember having this in third grade. And thinking then how precious it was. Now, as an adult I knew how precious it was. I ached for the girl I was in 4th grade. I began to cry. As I held the moth in my hands, I thought about singing songs to it. Instead, I called my daughter over.
“Ooooh, what is it?”
“It’s a moth,” I said.
“Are you crying?”
“Yea. Look at it. It’s so very pretty.”
My daughter held it. For those moments while we both experienced the beauty of the moth, it felt perfect. I’d needed this. I had needed someone to validate that beauty with me. That love of pretty things that made me buckle and tear up with pleasure.
Mom didn’t think I was worth butterflies or spun moths with embroidered beads. I suppose she wanted me to trade my body and love for security and assurances or a house or a family and a marriage. Butterflies were just too low a price to pay.
But I don’t see it this way. Insects are beautiful. When I finally marry, my husband doesn’t just settle for my love. He wants much more. He wants to be with other women. He doesn’t want to change anything about himself. He wants to be loved for being exactly who he is. He ravages my savings. One night, after the baby is born, I hear him telling our two week old child, “You think you can fuck with anyone. But you ain’t fucking with me.”
My love doesn’t measure up. Giving my ex-husband love never secured anything. Love doesn’t work on trades. Love begins first with a solid foundation of who one is and what one needs. And my mom couldn’t teach this. And those things she thought were worth trading for, I’m not sure they are even what I need. She says I need a good Christian man who fears god and works hard.
But I don’t want these things. These things seem so solid, so heavy, so final. I want pretty things instead. I want butterflies. I want to feel their wings brush against me while I sit in the grass and a boy tells me he thinks I might be special.
I want all the possibilities a moth brings.
Mireya S. Vela is a Mexican-American creative nonfiction writer, storyteller, and artist in Los Angeles. In her work, Vela addresses the needs of immigrant Mexican families and the disparities they face every day. She tackles issues of inequity and how ingrained societal systems support the injustice that contributes to continuing poverty and abuse. Vela received her Master of Fine Arts from Antioch University in 2018. She is the author of Vestiges of Courage, available through Amazon. Vela is also a visual artist. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @mireyasvela.