They warned her that one more offense against good behavior and the promised trip to the promised land (the United States) would be cancelled and to please return the mechanical pencil she'd filched from her classmate Agni's backpack during recess, Agni who was sobbing inconsolably like a coward in the arms of fat "Miss Becky" in a corner of the classroom. The little brat, without any trace of shame or guilt, slowly pulled a Superman refillable mechanical pencil from under her flag-green sweater and extended her hand toward the Principal. Now you can leave, and she went out into the beige hallway. She was followed by a still teary-eyed Agni. This can't go on like this, yesterday it was Ana María's thermos, the day before yesterday graffiti on the wall, last week Marisol's Wonder Woman ruler, and today, this. The Principal's voice had been full of reproach, as if Odette's failed thefts were her parents' fault. Leaving the office, her parents held her hands and took her home without saying a word. They were looking at her as if they had a total stranger before them.
Once in the car the grilling began. Don't you want to go to the United States with your sister? Her stepsister, so brilliant you were blinded by the sight of her, and so obedient that Odette wondered whether she was a living person or a robot. She'd decided that she must be a robot the day she'd broken her sister's favorite Barbie's luxury bed. She hadn't cried (unlike Odette who'd locked herself in the bathroom and hadn't stopped crying for hours)—she'd never been seen crying—she'd simply picked up the pieces of the bed, thrown them in the trash, and given Odette the nickname: Destroyer, you'll never play with my toys again. And she'd kept her word. Odette reflected only a robot could be capable of such self-control. Those toys you're stealing from your classmates, don't you understand that you'll be able to buy them in the United States? Odette's distressed young mother regarded her with compassion but soon ran out of justifications and was alarmed by the sudden hooligan behavior of her seven-year-old. How could I have created this girl? her eyes seemed to say. And Odette didn't know either. Ever since that January afternoon when they'd sat down to have a talk with "the girls" at the cracked dining room table in their narrow apartment, Odette had changed, except they didn't know into what or whom. Ignoring her worried mother's laments, Odette seemed to be studying the avenue, at the end of which glowed a disproportionate yellow M. Just a few weeks earlier Mexico City's first McDonald's had opened, and throngs of Mexican families had thrust themselves against the doors hours before their official opening. Lines spilled over into side-streets; parking lots ran out of spaces; in the playground in back of the red, yellow, and white restaurant children fought to be the first to climb up onto the slide that led to a pool of multi-colored plastic balls; at the "automac" cars brimmed with people sticking out their heads to order two Big Macs with cheese, four Happy Meals, six Coca-Colas, and six fries into the speaker while a human Ronald McDonald walked around in a red and white striped shirt and outrageously big blue pants handing out balloons. The car made a U-turn and the M was left behind, glowing by itself. Again they begged her. Tell us what you're thinking, Odette.
The car stopped at the condo's entrance gate. Odette and her mother waited for the car to take off again. Your father needs to get back to work. They walked in silence. Odette tried to reach for her mother's thin, almost scrawny, hand. Before reaching the door, they spotted a dead bird on the scorched grass. It's the pollution.
Today the same old story pause, a mechanical pencil pause, during recess pause, Odette doesn't do anything. Unexpectedly, her mother closed the door. Odette couldn't hear the rest of the conversation. She took her book and continued reading until her mother opened the door again. She listened to her walk toward the living room: she hadn't taken off her heels yet. I have to get back to work, behave yourself, see you tonight. She thought maybe everyone was a robot. From her bed she could see the gray wooden house of her inert Barbies. Next to it shone the pink plastic star of the Little Twin Stars. She was overcome by a desire to touch it. But she couldn't; it was her sister's pink star. Her sister whose mother was in the United States and who now was forcing her to spend the entire summer in a faraway place. But there are so many toys over there and you'll have a great time, you'll go to a summer camp with other kids and you can go to an amusement park and eat a lot of hamburgers, she could hear her mother's pleading voice in her head. But there are hamburgers here too.
She called her mother's office to let her know that she'd be going out for a bike ride. No, you can't go out, you're punished. She hung up, took her bike, a water bottle, some coins from the little basket where they kept the change, a few cookies, and went out for a ride on the bike she'd received from the Three Kings. She would have preferred an Apache scooter, but in their letter the Kings mentioned that a flat board with little tires underneath and a driving wheel in front was not the best vehicle for a place like Mexico City. But it's what they advertise on TV on Sundays! she screamed furiously and threw a tantrum that lasted hours and cast a dark light over what otherwise would have been a happy January 6th.
She pedaled around the condo a few times but then got bored with the monotony of the route that, despite its not being circular, had made her dizzy. She went to the entrance and waited until the guard lifted the gate without asking her anything and for the first time she was going to be able to ride on streets that until now had been off limits to her. At the end of the avenue she saw the giant M glowing between street posts and electrical cables. She started pedaling with a noticeable bit of fear. She kept on going without paying attention to the cars indifferently speeding by. This has never been a city for cyclists. She was determined to reach the M; fear fueled her desire. She pedaled as fast as she could. So fast that once she reached the M she wasn't able to stop and her bike skidded inside the empty parking lot. She dusted herself off and got up as if nothing had happened. Pushing the bike by its handles, she walked toward the glass building of the restaurant and although she'd been there before, she felt as if she were in unknown territory.
The McDonald's interior didn't dazzle her like the first time. She noticed patches of grime on the floor and a heavy smell of grease and French fries. She went into the restroom to wash her face and hands and found an employee smoking a cigarette and mopping a gray floor with dirty water who completely ignored her despite her neglected air. She didn't even have to wait in line because the place was deserted. She asked for a soda and sat in one of the tables outside, where no other kid was playing, no clown was handing out balloons, and at the "automac" a young man grew bored waiting for an order that never came. Cars passed by one after another in the silence of a clear afternoon. She took a few sips of soda and thought she wouldn't have the strength to return home. She put the soda down on the green table and slid her hand into one of her skirt pockets. She caressed the warm cloth inside it and confirmed the presence of her first successful theft: a miniature Spider-Man. By this time, her classmate would be looking for it in his backpack and maybe tomorrow they'd call her parents again, she'd return to the Principal's office, and she'd be warned that if she kept behaving this way, her promised trip to the promised land . . .
First published in Letralia (Año X, No. 126, July 2005). © Aura Estrada. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2006 by Monica de la Terre. All rights reserved.
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