“A television crew came to school today.” I tell my mother after she asked about my day. She kneads tortilla dough in preparation for supper.
“What the hell did they want?” She demands as creases fold over her eyes. She pulls off a piece of dough, flattening it into shape.
“Always nosing into everybody’s business,” she mutters, mostly to herself.
I hear the reporter’s lifeless voice echoing in my head, “Sky-rocketing levels of toxins have been reported in the area.”
I clear my throat. It feels like something is stuck in it.
“Esme got to be on tv.” My voice lifts as if I am making an excuse for the television crew’s purpose. I reach over the counter to grab a piece of dough to help with dinner. Mother swats my hand away.
“Good for her.” She snaps. I pull back my hand and swallow, trying to move whatever is stuck in there.
“They kept asking about all of the coughing in the neighborhood.” I cough, half real and half for dramatic effect.
“Everybody coughs.” She retorts while giving me a side glance. It’s the same look of irritation she gives me when I ask her to make me churros or bring a friend over without asking.
I cough again, this time for real. I am aware of my breathing. Pulling in air through my nose, my lungs and ribs strain against the pressure. As I release to exhale, my throat feels rough as if the air flows over sandpaper. There is definitely something there.
“They said we were sick.” I say as I catch a whiff of the simmering mole on the stove mixed with what smells like soot. I never noticed the dirt smell before. I remember the reporter’s words, “Community residents breathe in heavily polluted air.”
“Were they doctors?” She questions, her voice slightly raspy. My mother has never smoked a cigarette in her life, but her voice gives the impression otherwise.
“No, mama. But…” I begin, wanting to tell her of this disease the reporter called asthma and that by living by the shipyard and manufacturing shops, they were getting sick. I want to tell her all the statistics and evidence the reporter gave. But no.
“No buts.” She stops me before I start. “That’s enough. Go play outside until supper is ready.”
I open my mouth in protest, but instead I start to cough. Not a quick clearing of the throat, but a full fit. My lungs feel like they are on fire. My eyes water. My pulse races as the muscles around my throat constrict. I can barely breathe.
“Cut it out. Not in my kitchen.” She picks up her spatula as if she is going to hit me, then points it at the door.
I can’t stop coughing, but cover my mouth with my forearm and move outside. As I step into the evening air, my coughing slows to a wheeze as I try to catch my breath. It takes a few moments before my body relaxes and my heartbeat slows. I take a deep breath, finding the air feels heavier than I ever knew.
I wipe the tears from my eyes and watch the sunset beyond the cranes that loom over the shipyard. The sky turns colors of pink, orange and red. I savor the beautiful toxic slum that we call home, no buts about it.