I met Maria back in the fifth grade. She was this skinny girl whose mom would always pack her salami sandwiches for lunch. When I think of Maria today, I think of those slices of salami stuffed inside a hardened Kaiser roll. No lettuce, tomatoes, or cheese. Just belch-inducing salami.

This was back when Mom would slap my stomach to remind me to suck it in. Back when she was buying me outfits two sizes too small and pinching the fat rolls spilling over my tight jeans. That year I was hungry all the time. It must have been why it was easy to notice Maria’s sharp bones poking through the white, short-sleeve uniform shirt and the thick black leather belt that secured her pants by cinching her waist. She seemed tiny in more ways than one.

No one picked on Maria. Still, that didn’t stop her from crying every day. The most insignificant things—things that didn’t matter to any of us—would make her cry as if her spirit were as thin and as frail as her body.

At first, she would try to keep her crying to herself by putting her slick face down against the desk. Me and the kids sitting near her would push our desks closer to hers and ask, “Maria, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?” And she’d say something like she couldn’t find her sharpener. And I would think, it’s just a sharpener, but I never said that out loud. Instead, I’d ask, “What does it look like?” and then meander around the classroom, pretending to search for it.

But it wasn’t always about the sharpener. Some reason unknown to all of us would send Maria retreating back to that place inside her head where tears were abundant and free flowing. Everyone would gather around her like the Santa Maria Madre de Dios that she wasn’t.

If Maria hadn’t cried by lunchtime, I would anxiously wait for her to begin. Her tears were the flare gun that made everything else dimmer. When Maria went a week without crying, the world felt off-kilter. Once, I took that same sharpener from her desk, wrapped it in loose-leaf paper, then tossed it in the trash. As she cried for her missing sharpener, I began to wonder what would happen if I took something bigger—a notebook, her pencil case, a salami sandwich. How much would she cry then? Earlier that year, I’d bled through my gym shorts while running laps around the basketball court. Everyone laughed and Mr. Sandford sent me to the nurse to take care of my “business.” After that day, I wasn’t required to participate in any activity I didn’t want to. Maybe because she cried all the time and Mr. Sandford didn’t want to deal with any drama, Maria, too, was allowed to sit out on the bleachers. Most days we sat in silence and watched the rest of the class play broom hockey or volleyball. We rarely talked. Although that week, I’d catch her staring at me as if looking for something.

Back at home, I wanted to tell everyone about Maria and how she cried every day for either no reason whatsoever or for things that shouldn’t matter. But my parents were in the middle of a screaming match, and my sister was out. So I sat on my bed and wondered where her tears came from, how they streamed down her little face with no end in sight. I wanted to know what it felt like to tap into that well so easily. Did she feel lighter?

I thought of all the sad things I knew, like my grandma passing away on her bed in the DR: her yellowed skin and her thinning hair pulled into a low ponytail. Then I thought of my best friend Luna and her family moving back to Brazil because they didn’t have papers. They left without even saying goodbye.

I pushed next on my CD player until Alanis Morrisette’s “Uninvited” came on. And just for a brief moment, I felt it, building in my chest, working its way up my throat. Before I could hold on to it long enough to release it, I heard my mother’s voice in my head, What do you have to cry for? I’ll give you a reason. I imagined her standing in front of me. Beautiful and svelte and strong.

The next day during PE, Maria asked if I wanted to come over. I knew I had to go. I needed to know what swelled and pushed against her throat.

She lived above the local pet shop in the heart of Newark’s Ironbound, along a busy commercial strip with seafood restaurants and Portuguese bakeries. The place had a blue awning and a wood pallet sign adorned with hand-painted puppies, kittens, snakes, and cockatoos, like illustrations from a coloring book. For years, I’d walk by the store, stopping at the glass window to look at whichever animal they’d put on display that week, not knowing people lived above.

The pet shop was brightly lit and smelled like a bag of kibble. There were kennels stacked against each wall. Rabbits, dogs, and cats, restless and sad, stared in my direction.

“Come this way,” Maria said. She was wearing baggy denim overalls. It occurred to me that I’d never seen her without the school uniform. In those plain clothes, she looked as regular as anyone else.

At the register, a lady eyed me up and down before waving hello. Her toothless grin appeared and disappeared from her face before I could even say “Hi.” She leaned on top of the counter and looked in our direction. “¿Qué vas a hacer con ella?

Maria kept walking. “I’m just going to show her around,” she responded, grabbing my hand.

“Do you want to help me feed the snakes?” she asked me.

I nodded and let her pull me along the hall. Besides the movie Anaconda, the only snake I’d ever seen was a garden snake that I’d watched my grandma sweep away with a broom. That was in her house in La Romana a year ago, before she became so sick she couldn’t sweep anymore.

In the back room, Maria turned back around and dropped my hand. She stared me down. “Why do you take my stuff?” she said. Under the fluorescent lights, her eyes were a deep brown, so dark they seemed almost black. “I know it’s you.” Her question made me pause. It was just that one time.

She approached a snake terrarium. It was filled with rocks, shells, artificial plants, and sticks. A makeshift rainforest. She tapped her fingernails on the glass, stuck her hand inside to grab a stick, and used it to prop the lid open. The snake uncoiled its body and slithered against the pane, slowly moving its head up toward us. I watched in silence as Maria ran her fingers along its skin. “Do you want to touch it?” she asked. “It feels like a purse or a shoe.”

I shook my head. I didn’t have the courage to touch it. She held up the snake and took a step toward me. Her arms were suspended in the air as if waiting for a partner to join her in a dance. She clasped her index fingers together and then twirled slowly. The snake hung there, motionless. Only its head curved upward like a tiny S.

She placed it back inside the tank. “Hang on,” she said, then walked to a supply closet. I stood there and watched the snake curl itself back into a coil.

When Maria came back, she was holding something in her hands. “You’re gonna wanna see this,” she said. She brought her hands up to my chest and opened them just enough to reveal the blurry movement of something white squirming inside.

“I don’t want to see this.”

She looked at me and held the mouse by its tail. “You have to,” she said, then dropped the mouse into the tank. The snake unraveled like a whip. It gnashed its teeth and caught the mouse mid-run, then wrapped itself around its body. It tightened its grip until the mouse’s feet stopped kicking and its tail hung limp off to the side. I heard the faintest squeak before Maria moved the stick and closed the lid.

“Don’t touch my shit,” she said.

There, I felt it again, swelling up in my throat. Months of pressurized sadness erupted from me like water from a geyser. I ran out of the store and toward the marisqueira. The people eating outside stared at me, but I kept running. Five, six, seven blocks down Niagara Street, all the way to my house. I stopped at the corner to take a deep breath. I inhaled and exhaled. I counted to ten. My mom’s car was parked outside the house, so I drew my arm up to my face and wiped it dry with the back of my sleeve.

Annell López is a Dominican immigrant. A Tin House Scholarship Finalist, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review, Hobart, The Pinch, and elsewhere. Annell is an Assistant Fiction Editor for New Orleans Review. She is working on a collection of short stories. Follow her: @annellthebookbabe on Instagram and @AnnellLopez2 on Twitter.

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