ASTRAL WAR BODIES

          My mother—saint of acrylic nails, military medals kept in shadow boxes, the brown leather jacket that I wear from September to April—is always eighteen when she visits me.

          She sways around the garage all ghostly like la llorona, watching me fix up the tired motorcycle that Dante gave me for my birthday last year—an ugly, consignment-sale bike with a motor that still runs like a dream, like my mother. When she laughs at my misfortune, her voice freezes the garage until I feel like my skin is splitting open and I’m walking out as a new half-woman. You’re scraping the paint off all wrong. Her lips are painted burgundy like gas station wine. You’re going to scratch it up.

          I used to wonder why she never visits me at forty-one, the last age I saw her alive—with her black curls, camouflage t-shirts, the faint smell of rosemary and gunpowder. But I know now, how her years of active duty stole her hearing so that she could never decipher her own daughter’s voice from bombs detonating. She could barely hear me at the age she died, so I paint her in a different light in my dreams—young, able to listen, omniscient.

          Tonight, she’s eighteen, as always —already in uniform, albeit not her own. She’s like a time-lapse clip, sitting on her knees, leaning forward to proudly show me the name embroidered on her shirt’s breast. Johnson.  Hernandez. Brown. Depending on the angle that I look at the embroidery, the name morphs—melting and reshaping itself in the dying light of my bedroom. She’s got a thousand war bodies—stuck under her acrylic claws and filling up her desk drawers with one-sided love letters. The only love she knew back then was boot camp. Her shirt shifts to the unspoken name each night, the phantom name of my father who is no longer my father, before she disappears.

          Why are you applying to all of these NYC colleges? Her ghost hands finger through the printed applications stacked on my bedroom floor. You don’t have the grades to get in.

          In this midnight reinvention of my mother, she is all-knowing—so I don’t have to explain to her how I will hollow out my own chest with a dull knife to make it to New York City—how it doesn’t matter that I won’t get into any of the schools, because I will get there. Come hell or high water I’ll live in the city that never sleeps, because I have been awake since my mother died—and I have no intention of resting now.

          At the 7/11 where I work, my mother leans on the counter, eating sunflower seeds and flirting with truck drivers. When the dream turns dark, she’ll disappear for a few minutes—just enough time for Dad to prowl in. His dog tags jingle around his neck, buzz cut gleaming in the fluorescent light. The veins on his arms bulge out of his sun-darkened skin. He’s buying two sodas—one for himself and one for the pretty girl in the passenger seat of his pickup truck. I can’t see her, but she speaks to me—even through the door of the 7/11 and the windshield of his truck. She tells me that my father only loves her and guns. She tells me he pawned his wedding ring. She mouths Mom’s name as if a name itself is identity and the identity of my mother is worthless. I curse her spectral presence away.

          I wonder if the girl is in the military, like Mom was, but I don’t dwell on this. My brother Dante, photocopy of our father who somehow lacks his brutal nature, has dreams where Dad is a dark angel—raging, raging against the dying of the light and taking my mother, my brother, the new girl, and me down into hell with him to fulfill his sacred purpose. I don’t dream in such foreboding aesthetics. Instead, I only recall his hollow cheeks, perpetually miserable eyes, beefy neck. Sometimes it makes me so angry that I can remember every minuscule detail about my deadbeat dad—the foil who for all I know could be in New York City now, living the life dreamed up by his furious daughter who can barely recall her mother’s face. Yet in some ways, he is always with me and always will be. Like my mother, a blurry figure trapped between my ribs.

          When your mother becomes a holy sacrifice and your father is a faraway fallen angel, you never recover. When I pad down the stairs to the bathroom at two in the morning and look into my brother’s room, I always see the same sight—his heavy body hunched over his bed in prayer—or perhaps unholy defiance. I can never tell with him. My father gave Dante a face that could never show concern or grief. When Mom died, she took Dante’s voice to the astral plane with her, now he seldom speaks. All he ever did to comfort me in the days after her death was hold me while I screamed—like a modern reconstruction of the Pietá, where a grief-stricken boy becomes the la Virgen de Guadalupe and Christ is his baby sister who is constantly dying and rising again. He blames himself for Dad getting into his Chevrolet pickup after the funeral, speeding away, and never returning for his two children. The inevitable dark side of men like my father—manufactured for warfare, perennial family deserters.

          When I ask Mom what killed her, her dream voice shakes, and we end up talking about NYC or some other emptiness. I think the truth is she doesn’t know what to say. My mother was killed by men and by war. My mother was killed by a deserting husband. This is why Dad could never look at me after she died, I think, because every time he saw my face, my mother’s face at eighteen, he could see the bombs detonating in the distance from the gleam in my eyes.