Suburbia by Melissa Manuel

White-washed walls, yellowing grass, carefully parked mini-vans, bicycles tossed carelessly on driveways, plain gravel streets, red stop signs on every corner, lonely men and women walking tiny dogs on leashes, and a plain flat sky of blue that was only interrupted by lazily strewn clouds. That was everything Ibonne saw in her first seven days in the States.

There was nothing exciting about the suburbs of Miami. It didn’t resemble anything she had seen on her TV screens. No parties, no endless beaches (those were an hour drive away), and it definitely was no sunshine state. It had rained four out of these seven days. No one had told her the American lifestyle would be so tragically boring.

The friends that she had left in Venezuela had sent her dozens of WhatsApp messages saying how lucky she was to be here. Where she had a T.V. in her room, hot water, constant electricity, safety, and lots of food. Ibonne was grateful for these things, they were luxuries she hadn’t known, but they felt like the dress she wore on her Quinceanera. For the first day she wore it Ibonne felt beautiful, rich, and important in its layers of pink silk and fake crystals. After she hung it up though, it dangled lifelessly on a hanger it became useless. A disturbance to her daily life as it got in the way of getting to her day-to-day clothes behind it.

That’s what it felt like living in the United States. Pushing past the glitz and gild to get back to the life she knew and understood.

Jolting her away from her contemplative stance at her window, Ibonne’s mother called her name over the music that wafted up from downstairs. It was the familiar sounds of Gaita, the folk music of Venezuela that blared in every radio and speaker during the holidays. Considering it was August Ibonne knew her mother was listening as if she was still home instead of the eerie silence of US Suburbia.

“Ya voy!” Ibonne called down, I’m coming, she thought once more before going to the mirror and running her hands down the soft yet vibrant red cotton dress. Before she would wear the dress with no second thoughts, it was old and stretched out at the collar. She had worn it to birthday parties, to mass, to school activities, it had always just been a dress. Now for the first time Ibonne felt embarrassed in the familiar cotton. Compared to the muted colors of the world outside in this dress Ibonne looked like an unfamiliar rose in the carefully trimmed grass.

In a sudden fit of passion Ibonne pulled the dress off as if it burned her skin. She then slid into a pair of jeans and a plain gray t-shirt. Looking at herself in the mirror again, all the emotion drained from her sinking out replaced with a wave of something thicker then the fickle anger of before. It weighed on her chest heavily, the polyester shirt and blue jeans made her look the part, but it also made her feel like a fraud.

She was conforming herself to the society she’d have to learn to exist in regardless if she was able to be a part of it or not.

Now as she walked down the stairs her hand lying lamely on the wall, lagging behind her as the rest of her sped down the steps. Once downstairs Ibonne skirted around the taunting brown boxes that have yet to been sliced open, they were full of memories that either weren’t ready to be placed neatly on shelves, or memories that Ibonne and her family weren’t ready to see placed neatly on shelves.

Her mother hands her the warm package wrapped in crisp brown packaging paper. The bottom is moist from the slight grease escaping the freshly made arepas, or salty corn pancakes stuffed with the freshest white cheese that one can find in Sedanos.

Ibonne takes the humble offering and steps outside blinking up at the afternoon sun, it glared down at her like a malevolent spotlight. The walk to her neighbors door is short, it takes two minutes to walk the straight paved sidewalk, and up the carefully outlined pathway to its doorstep.

Yet, it felt as if she was crossing some unseen barrier. An invisible wall that had been standing around her neighbor’s home since they first moved in a week ago. The house that was nearly identical to her own almost felt as if it repelled her very presence. Even if the mat at the doorstep said “Welcome” in thick black strokes.

She stands on the mat for several seconds before she reaches up to knock, her fingers slowly curling into a fist. Yet they pause mid-way as her eyes graze the sleek white doorbell.

With her fist still in the air she cautiously unfurls one finger and presses it into the doorbell hearing the ding-dong echo sadly throughout what could very well be a hollow home. Ibonne waits feeling more out of place then she could ever remember being. Even the arepas in her hands seemed to grow cooler with every minute they stood waiting.

When the door finally opened a slim, pale woman with stark blonde hair hanging limply past her shoulders looked down at Ibonne as if she was some unique spectacle. The woman said nothing, waiting for Ibonne to speak.

“I… My family want to say hello. I am Ibonne. My mother send you this gift.” Her garbled English made her feel as if she was talking with cotton balls in her mouth as she held the food out to the woman.

She takes the gift with the tips of her fingers, nods, smiling tightly in what looked more like a grimace, and shuts the door with a barely audible, “Thank you.”  

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