How to Make a Piñata

Honorable Mention, the 14th Annual 'Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest

There are plenty of instructions out there for how to make a stubborn burro, a bull with sharp curved horns, a star with multicolored points, a lumpy ladybug, or even a hot air balloon to carry you far away in its little dangling basket, but I can't find anything that shows you how to make a piñata of a tumor.

I know that whatever shape I want starts with a balloon. In the time it takes me to blow up one, I will need another. That's how fast some cells multiply, madly, until they break free and follow the warm currents of blood to unconquered land.

I could use a single balloon, perfectly round like the earth, stack several into a lumpy mountain or tape together a long curving snake, the kind that don't bite but rather strangle slowly. I have to figure it out before she gets home from school. Six hours. Twenty-four in a day, 30 days in a month, six months in a prediction. I have begun counting down. Like New Years Eve, like we're going to have a party.

Something to show her instead of something to tell her even though what I

will never ever say is I have something to tell you. Something shaped like what I imagine is growing inside me so she will look at it before she can look at me, before I have to look at her. Look at her, in every picture, so fair, freckled, fragile.

I need balloons, old newspapers, glue, water, tape, scissors, paint and some string. I like the sound of tearing last week's newspapers into long strips. There hasn't been much good news. We are still at war. The Gulf of Mexico is churning its blue-green body into a series of blind destructive eyes. Someone has given them pretty names, girl names. There are mudslides, forest fires, and earthquakes spanning the borders of three countries. I thought I had already imagined every possible disaster.

I need at least six layers of papier maché to make the sides strong but I've already lost track of whether I'm at two or three. I remember how for days the weatherman kept changing the numbers, moving the hurricane up from a Category 3, to 4 then back down again. My number is absolute, Stage IV cancer. There is no Stage V. We watched the swirling red and yellow picture on TV. The abyss had a voiceover. The doctor said I give you six to 12 months. You give me, I said, like a present? The eye wobbles. I haven't cried yet. There's already too much water with nowhere to go.

Before the big tsunami came, the animals knew. Wasps left their nests. Dogs refused to go outside. Elephants screamed and ran for higher ground. Maybe my tumor is a nest of bees. Or an elephant lumbering around. Once, I told my daughter the story about the five men who touched the elephant and thought it five different things. A wall. A rope. The branch of a tall tree. I didn't tell anyone that I knew what I had been feeling for weeks, that I could feel it in my bones.

A piñata doesn't have bones. It's a shell created only to be broken. She won't make it. She's delicate in a way I never was, stopping in the middle of running through a field to pull a few blades of damp grass from her ankles. From the beginning, she couldn't manage to go headfirst into the world and they had to cut her out of me. Now I am supposed to perform my own surgery, to remove a piece of the piñata, carefully, then fill the body with toys and candy, a collection of things she doesn't need.

There would never be enough room for all she will need. Here are some tampons and here is some sunscreen. Here are your Nonie's pearl earrings. Some Virginia Wolff, some Nina Simone, some dark chocolate. Here's the recipe for seven minute icing. This is how you put a condom on a man. You know there is probably more than one right man. Or woman. And there are at least three ways to burp a baby. Sometimes you have to try them all. Learn how a walnut gives between the teeth and how long the smell of lemon lingers on the hands. Here is the broken watch I am still wearing. Here is how you can always pretend to stop time. Here is a permission slip to hate me as long as you need to and then love me again some day, differently.

I tie the piñata's string to the ceiling fan and lie down on the floor. It looks most like a low heavy cloud, dark grey and slowly changing shape as it turns. The fan blades seem to spin both directions at once. Glue drips on me like wet snow. I will not get up. I will let the dripping cover me, grow sticky then dry until it seals my eyes and mouth shut. They will knock on me and no one will be home.

My body is a home. When the child lived inside me she took and took, first the red from my blood and then the strength from my bones. And later, from the outside, she pulled every drop of watery milk out of me until my lips cracked and my eyes darkened. I was a desert, ever thirsty. It seemed that she would live in me and then on me forever.

But right in the middle of six months to a year is nine months. And the day after nine months is the day I realized she had been alive outside my body longer than she'd been inside it. That every day from then on she might need me a little less. I cried then.

There was another day, not long after that, when she seemed to suddenly, instantly, have bones. She stood. Then walked. Then ran. Watching her go, it was the shoulders I noticed first, so grown up looking before anything else. She is getting taller, a series of lines like marks of rising water climbing up the kitchen door frame, coming closer and closer. Her father is tall too, tall enough to keep his head above the rising, to stay like, a tree she might climb. But her lines will never reach me. I will be gone.

I am supposed to let the piñata dry for at least 24 hours but I don't. I carry it out to the young pecan tree and tie it up. The only paint I can find in the garage is a brick red we used on the porch. It's clumped and oily and smears in the glue. The thing hangs there like a giant placenta, the organ we once shared, the place we were first connected, now buried beneath the rosebush. But it can't be that. It grows nothing beautiful. It's more lumpy amoeba, something that needs only itself to move, multiply and survive.

And it doesn't break, just dents then folds in on itself with a damp sigh. At first I swing the broomstick from my wrists, really just poking it a little. But then I aim for the left field fence and whale away. But I'm still too distant to do the kind of damage I'd like so I lean in and use my fists like a boxer, doing that dance with the body bag, first pummeling then hugging then pummeling. My fists, my chin, my forehead are all smeared red. There are tiny drips like blood sticking between my eyelashes. I pull until the string breaks until we both fall to the ground. Then I kick and kick and kick.

The hole is deeper than it is wide, down into the thick gray clay beneath the topsoil, the marrow of the backyard. When I'm finished, I put the grass back in place. From the deck, it looks like nothing has happened here. But I look like I had a fight. That's what I'll tell her. It's time I teach you how to fight. end story

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