Notes on Visalia is a series of essays that take place in Visalia, in the Central California valley, one of the most productive agricultural counties in the country. Find the first installment here.
Another shot of fireball. Another screwdriver. Another anything with vodka. I’ve been at the bar for an hour and a half. But still no buzz. I’m not just at any bar, but the divest grittiest bar in Visalia¾the Pump House. A makeshift barn located on the outskirts of downtown. There’s a sign that says CASH ONLY duct taped above their outdated register. Inside, patrons light up Marlboro lights and throw peanut shells carelessly onto the floor. A place where greasy mechanics, cholos, and wealthy local businessman swig together on plump Coors Original bottles while listening to “Neon Moon” by Brooks and Dunn.
I meet up with Chris, my comadre’s brother who is visiting from out of town, who looks like a Ryan Gosling knock off and dresses Hawaiian hippie. I really didn’t care to catch up with him, it just gave you an excuse to go to the bar. Chris’s childhood best friend Stevie tags along¾ he is unemployed, bald, and wears cholo jeans shorts, you know, the kind of shorts that might as well be pants.
Chris just finished grad school and I have one more year to go. In between shots of Fireball we both talk about being broke in our thirties and still living at home. I invite my friend Letty¾ I want to have a girlfriend here with me¾to support me¾to listen to me, and tell me, what I should do. Letty’s olive skin and deep almond shaped eyes are enviable. She wears shirts titled in bold letters normal is boring. Chris is Letty’s type because she has refuses to date Mexican guys due to her Machista ex-husband. So she only dates white boys now.
Tomorrow is Tuesday and at 9am I’m due in court to disclose to a judge why I requested a restraining order against my brother Thomas. I’m not completely sure if I want the restraining order anymore. I’m not sure if this is the right thing to do. So I look for answers in my well vodka and OJ.
I think about the names my brother called me: Bitch. Whore. Cunt. I think about how he chased me out of the house, locked the door, and left me outside in the 103-degree summer heat. I started my period that day, and my tampon gave out from being locked outside for so long. Blood began to trickle down my leg. I remember that image of me: bloody, barefoot, sweaty, and sad, in a cheap maxi dress. Now, I mostly think of the words he said on that scorching summer day, too palpable to forget. I carry their names with me, and sometimes they whisper in my ear, and I believe them.
He ripped my favorite necklace from my neck, and threw it into the street. I waited for my dad to intervene, to stop my brother, but he never did. Instead he stood so still he resembled a wax figurine. My dad was scared of him too. I waited for him to be my father that day–to pummel this man to the floor. To defend my honor like the courageous dad archetype in the movies—like Liam Nielson in Taken—who crossed thousands of miles to rescue his daughter. My father couldn’t move two feet to intervene and tell him to stop. He just stood silent and stiff, shielding himself like always, with his Wayfarer sunglasses. Not the courageous dad but always the cool guy archetype with a cigarette dripping from his lip. I imagine he didn’t know how to be any other role.
Still, what kind of father allows another man to call his daughter a bitch, a whore, in front of him.
One last bar. One last drink. I’m finally feeling something, getting closer to that release. Stevie’s pregnant girlfriend picks him up, Chris and Letty are cozy together in bar stools. I pump my last dollar bill in the jukebox and play “Mustang Sally,” my favorite Wilson Pickett song. Before the song ends I order an Uber. Before the song ends Letty says to me all you can do is protect yourself, ya know? Her eyes are glossy, yet sincere, her breath smells sweet like a twelve-dollar cocktail.
My phone beeps. My Uber has arrived.
I read the line of yet another essay in workshop where a fellow classmate has decided to write about Mexicans. The antagonist in her story is Juan the Mexican drug dealer.
I’m upset with how she depicts Mexican students as childlike and ignorant. I’m upset with how the Mexican grocery store is portrayed a novelty rather than an actual part of the town¾like it’s where the white people explore when they’re feeling adventurous.
Of course, Juan is responsible for her boyfriend’s drug addiction. Of course, Juan is the reason why they lock their doors at night. Of course, my fellow peers don’t see a problem with how she is perpetuating a stereotype to a culture that lacks representation. Of course, she didn’t take the time to give Juan any humanity. Of course, she didn’t even think to do so.
I trace the outline of the only childhood family photo I have¾ a picture of us at Disneyland, the only family vacation we ever took. In the midst of my parents’ divorce, my father, seeking revenge, stole all of our photo albums, even the pictures in the collage picture frames hanging on the walls in our hallway and living room. I’d like to say he reframed our pictures and featured them on the walls in his house—but he never really had a house, he just occupied temporary spaces until it was time for him to vacate. I’d like to think he wanted to preserve the image of us—a young, good-looking Mexican-American family who survived the barrio and moved to the decent side of town. A family who had a built-in swimming pool with outside speakers, a family whose children could afford to participate in sports. A family who in that picture could now afford the little extras in life.
In the photo I’m a Freshmen with braces wearing Calvin Klein Jeans. Thomas is in third grade with a bowl haircut. My siblings and I are huddled next to Mickey’s best pal Pluto—the lovable, docile pup. The photo is faded, worn, and the memory doesn’t feel tangible anymore, the captured moment feels sanitized from absorbing the only memory of our childhood again and again. But when Thomas was arrested the first time, and I watched him leave in the back of a police car, I began to look at the photograph again. I traced the outline of his face, and remember when he sang in chamber choir, and played defense on the football team for El Diamante High School.
I came home that day from the gym to police cars and a fire truck. I came home to the aftermath of a raid. I came home to neighbors stupefied meandering in the middle of the street, their eyes wide and mouth gaped. I came home to white police officers armed with guns in bulky swat gear stomping their boots into our grass that was hard to grow. I came home to my brother who sat in a subdued state in the back of police car. I came home to police officers asking me questions I didn’t have answers to.
I wait in line at Miller’s Memorial Funeral home to view my grandma Carmen’s body one last time. I approach the casket and lightly touch her silver hair. I remove her rosary from her hands, and in exchange, place my ring onto her finger. I adjust her purple floral top, making sure there are no wrinkles. The lines in her face appear softer now. I considered my grandma as my mother, due to the fact my mother had me when she was sixteen years old. My grandma Carmen cooked everything with Manteca. Beans, papas, and rice, simmered on her stove.
Her father, my great-grandfather Filiberto Cabrera, withdrew her from eighth grade, to start working in the fields. As the oldest child, Filiberto made her work like a man, that’s what she used to tell me. The year was 1940, and she was thirteen-years old. Before Cesar Chavez, still in the haze of the Great Depression and repatriation, my coming-of-age grandma picked fruit and vegetables in various campesinos throughout California’s Central Valley.
She read the newspaper every day, subscribed to Time and National Geographic magazine. An eighth-grade education did not deter her from owning her own home and vehicle. She liked to drink Coors Originals and stayed up till 11:30pm, to listen to Jay Leno’s monologue. Tres Mujeres was her favorite novela, and she always gave me shit for not speaking Spanish.
When my family brought her home to die, Thomas kept vigilance over her in her last days. He monitored her breathing and took initiative when her sheets and clothing needed to be changed. He jotted notes from hospices diligently and repeated instructions of what he learned from the nurses to the rest of the family. The family was proud of him the last three days of our grandma’s life, and they thought he had found his calling.
She died on a weekday in January surrounded by fifty-bodies of family and friends.
I can’t exactly pinpoint in time when my brother started to change. Memories of his behavior start to surface after his first arrest. I remember when he was fifteen-years old and he pushed my mother against the hallway wall and started to choke her. She managed to pull free and call the cops. Later, I thought it strange he claimed my mother choked him.
He started to dress militant, wearing camouflage army pants, combat boots, and a black bandana. He walked around town packing a machete, and changed his Facebook name from Thomas to Freedom.
My mother tells me that in men schizophrenia typically starts in the early to mid-twenties. Thomas is twenty-four.
I look at the imaginary line Thomas cannot cross. Approximately 100 feet from my house. If he crosses the invisible line on Sweet and Conyer per the restraining order the judge granted me, I can have him arrested.
I went to court Tuesday morning and held my mother’s hand¾she too, requested a restraining order. I sat next to her and listened to her plea in front of the judge¾in front of strangers. Her voice starts to crack when she hands the bailiff a police printout of the ten different times law enforcement came to our house.
The courtroom feels stale, like an outdated grocery store and smells medicated like Lice shampoo. I notice my mom begins to pick at her cuticles, so I grab her hand again.
Ms. Cabrera, and Ms. Huertaz, I am granting you protection orders for the next three years. If you decide to see or contact him during that time they will be registered as invalid. I wait to hear the striking sound of a gavel on his mega desk but inflated melodrama only happens in the movies. Instead he says, please, take a seat.
I was the first one in the family to cut all ties with Thomas. I couldn’t support him or his lifestyle any longer. And he hated me for it.
As I watched him drive away in the back of a police car that day, I wasn’t sure who to call first. My mom¾no, she’s missed enough workdays due to Thomas. My dad¾no, he’ll have no idea how to respond. My sister¾no, she just had a baby. So I just sit on the couch, in sweaty gym clothes, with my cell phone in hand, and stare out the window. Curious neighbors retreat to their homes. I watch the procession of police cars become fainter and fainter as they disappear down the street.