I ripped the picture as soon as I was able to and threw it away. But I couldn’t unsee it, like a murderer who can’t unsee the gaze on his victim’s eyes right before the life seeps out of them. I wasn’t merely embarrassed that someone would find out that I had that picture of my aunt Rhea; I was embarrassed on her behalf. The picture cheapened her and it didn’t show the side of her that I knew. That I loved. For a time, my aunt was in charge of picking up my siblings and I, along with her daughters, from school due to my mom working two shifts to make up for my dad’s absenteeism. While the other children went outside to play, I would have conversations with my aunt about the things that I had learned in school. I felt like I could tell her anything, things that would have fallen on deaf ears with my mom.
I felt the palm of my hand begin to sweat profusely as I was holding the picture, smearing the “To” and “from” inscription on the back and making the glossy part on the front sticky. My aunt was proudly passing around pictures of herself as if they were party invitations. What was the occasion for all this gaiety that drove her to take this picture and purchase so many copies of it? She had recently separated from an abusive husband, the father of her three children. This act of liberation, survival and courage was not well received by the rest of her siblings. To them, marriage was “’til death do us part” even if the death that parted the “us” was induced by the hands of the husband himself. While my mother always saw my aunt’s emancipation as the bane of her existence, it was my mom’s steadfastness to a drug-addicted ex-convict husband that made her life a living hell that, in turn, made my aunt’s life a living purgatory.
In my family, the name Rhea became synonymous with the word “whore” and the dissemination of this gesture of kindness—something meant to slip into your wallet to remind you of someone you love or are supposed to love—wasn’t helping her case. Growing up, she was the black sheep, sneaking out at night and dating boys behind her catholic mother’s back. Rhea had a lively personality, priding herself as being the only person that could garner a chuckle out of her embittered stone-faced father. My grandmother use to say that my aunt was so crazy because my grandfather was high on something when she was conceived.
The black and white picture showed my aunt staring straight at the camera with her big eyes. Very little was happening beneath them as far as smiles are concerned. Not even a grin. The backdrop of hearts and sparkles brought into focus the manner by which the years had thrown her youth away. After her separation, she went out on a couple of dates with a couple of men. The wallet-sized pictures acted as a head-shot to interested agents.
My aunt wasn’t thrilled with my uncomfortable reaction as she handed the picture to me. To save face, she all but forced it onto my hand, closing it shut. Although the picture was achromatic, I could tell that her eyes were red and watery. She had sweet eyes, full of gullible naïveté, full of the false hope that caring about what others think will make you a better person. A few years later, another man came into her life. He happened to be barren and was ready to settle down, according to what he told her. A fourth child came out of this temporary union, perhaps not out of holy conception, but rather out of wholly deception. She was once again in the singles market, one year older, one child wiser.
Before she even began to walk towards me to hand me the cheesy 2.5 by 3.5 inches of unadulterated self-adulation, I could picture her eyes getting watery to my aversion to it. She really wanted me to like it. A peace offering to stoke the flames of the bond that we had created amidst the darkest hour when my family was being ripped apart. The turbulence in my parents’s marriage forced my mom, siblings and I to leave our home in Los Angeles, move to Tijuana, Mexico and then to San Diego. From time to time, my mom would allows us to go up to L.A. and stay a few weeks at my aunt Rhea’s house. Her house was the same house we had vacated to move to Tijuana, so I still had a vestigial attachment to it, like a refrigerator that’s been cleaned out, stocked with new food, but still smells like the rotten food that was thrown out. The ink on the Notice to Vacate document that my mom signed had dried, but not the tears I would still shed for that place. This house was what I remembered while I lied awake in bed, breathing in the warm moist Mexican night; the smell of that house, her smell, the scent of Rhea. Those kind eyes could not be unseen, even after I would leave her house, ripped up her picture into oblivion or when I think of her today.