Mother last saw her nephew, Vicent, in the month of March during the festival of Las Fallas. As was tradition for them, Mother along with her sister, Aitana, and their two families went to the bonfires at Valencia’s city hall. It was midnight. Because Vicent barely had anything to say to her, and Aitana kept their conversation quite superficial, and Father was away working at the hospital, Mother felt quite bored. She watched the piled cardboard and papel maché installations catch fire. The buildings around them perspired grey and golden. She felt the crisping warmth of the flames and the heat from the crowd around her. She was with loved ones, surrounded by others, but in her heart and mind she felt completely alone.
Months passed. Mother was missing the days when Vicent was younger—she would pick him up from school, and they would take the local train together back to her home. Now Vicent had grown old enough to manage himself, but it was summer vacations, and Mother wanted to ask him to come over. She called up her sister but Vicent wasn’t at home. He was in the park with his friends playing football. Mother could have kept talking to Aitana and most likely she would have invited her over out of sympathy. However Mother was having a passing idea that she wanted to act on before it passed on.
So Mother left her conversation with Aitana. She walked to the train station near her place and took a cercania to the southern suburbs. She knew Vicent practiced in the Park Catarroja. He and his friends had hung out there for years even before he was formally on any football team. As she expected, he and a group of boys were kicking a ball in the grass. Vicent was recognisable instantly. He was a short kid with a small patch of hair above his lip, not a firm moustache like an adult’s, but growing and thickening to resemble one.
Mother didn’t recognise the other children around him. Some had olive skin that had bronzed well in the sun. Some had bushy hair or crew cuts, styled to match their favourite football stars. Some had taken their shirts off to show off their muscular bodies and the trails of curls reaching towards their shorts.
Unlike Vicent, who still had the look of a child, these boys were much further in their development into men.
Mother couldn’t believe how they looked. It was almost intimidating to observe this group of thirteen fourteen and fifteen year olds who looked far older than she remembered people at that age to look, and it made Mother wonder why she had chosen to come to this park so abruptly without an invitation. She imagined Vicent would be deeply embarrassed by her surprise appearance. He would most likely lash out and make a scene that would anger her. Mother was thinking of turning around and going back home.
Then Vicent noticed her.
«Tia, ¿què estàs fent aquí?»
Vicent came up to kiss her on the cheeks. Mother reciprocated, and they hugged. Vicent was covered in sweat and had a clear stench. When he was younger, Vicent almost always had the smell of a fresh bath.
The other boys came around to greet her as well, saying hola and asking of her day. She suddenly recognized one of them as Javier, once a severely short and stunted-looking boy, who was now so tall and muscular. The one who asked her the most questions was Tiano. Mother knew his mother from church. Seeing the smiles of Vicent’s classmates and how warmly they welcomed her reminded her that these were all the same children she had known since they were little boys. It was just that they had changed quite a bit in appearance.
The boys went back to their practice, and Mother found herself a place to sit. It was abnormally hot, and she began to sweat. Even the bottle Mother had filled up for herself did not have enough water to hydrate her. She took breaks to visit the water fountain and rubbed water around her collar. She could not understand how the boys could play like they did. They were dashing through the park, kicking the ball passionately, concentrating so hard on following it that they tripped themselves into the bushes. The boys’ sweat glistened over their orange-and-red sweatshirts. The ball swerved up and down and back and forth, switching sides in seconds. Whenever someone scored, the team huddled into a hug and bumped each other’s chests, shouting swear words at the losers.
Mother didn’t like their language, but she waved it off. Her attention was focused primarily on Vicent. He had improved a lot in the year since Mother had last seen him play. He was able to kick the ball with ease and rarely missed passing it to his teammate. It was a proud thing for Mother to witness, particularly given how much she had used to scold him for not taking any of his hobbies seriously.
Mother still remembered how much Vicent had taken to painting. Even when he was a little boy, he would use his notebooks only for sketching. His parents had seen his talent and invested in canvases, paints, and an art teacher. He had created some really wondrous pieces of art, some of which had even made it into institutes. Mother had been convinced that he was another Velázquez in the making. But as the years went by, Mother observed as Vicent stopped touching his notebook and canvas. He was now largely playing sports games on his PlayStation.
Was it because teenagers at that age did not see the value of pursuing art? Would Vicent have been made fun of by his friends for liking to paint? Boys turned on anyone whom they saw as enjoying anything arguably effeminate. Mother had seen this time and time again with her own son when he was coming to age.
But Mother had also been told that this generation was not so interested in gender roles, and they were more accepting of men who were sensitive. Vicent for example never really raised his voice or used curse words even as the boys around him shouted merda and puta at every small thing. During their ball practice Vicent even appeared quite popular, constantly receiving fist bumps for his suave sportsmanship.
So then why was Vicent no longer painting?
Mother sat there for an hour or two, mostly feeling the heat. She did not know how long more they would keep at it, and despised herself for choosing to go out at three in the afternoon on such a contemptuously sunny day. The park had its shade, but the coast was infamously humid, and they were not close enough to the beaches to get anything of the sea breeze. Mother reminded herself that at her age she did not have the stamina to spend so much time outside; it would have been better for her to remain at home.
Then she reminded herself how she always spent her time at home literally doing nothing, dusting over cupboards and tables which were already spotless, dumbing her mind with soap operas in various Spanish dialects from all parts of Latin America. She could have prayed, just as she could have sat there and watched television, but Mother was remembering why she had come unannounced in the first place: she had called her sister, desperate to find something to do.
The practice ended around five, and Mother was glad to see that it was over. The boys were talking amongst themselves and seemed to be planning to hang out elsewhere. When Vicent saw his auntie in such an exhausted state, he broke out of their circle to talk to her.
« Tia, you are looking horrible. ¿Do you need any help returning home? »
Mother felt bad. Even though she had initially come to take her nephew out for snacks and walk him back to his place, now it felt wrong to take him away from his friends. He was sacrificing the time he could have spent with them simply to do a good deed for an elderly person.
The boys understood and sent him off, giving their farewells to Mother that felt almost too polite, too formal.
Mother and Vicent walked off towards the train station. They were silent, not unlike their last interaction during Las Fallas. Vicent looked at messages on his phone.
« Don’t text and walk at the same time » Mother griped at him, though she was tempted to see what updates were on her phone as well.
A handful of minutes, and they were on the train. A stop or two more, and they were at Mother’s stop. Mother and Vicent walked to the steps of Mother’s apartment building. The setting sun was stroking a radiance upon the apartment complex, its rays alighting on top of the little fruit store, barbershop, and bar on the ground floor.
« ¿Do you want to come inside? » Mother asked Vicent.
Vicent looked at his watch and said, « It is getting late. »
Mother knew it was not late at all, but she nodded.
« ¿Do you want to go and have snacks with your friends? »
Vicent did not respond.
Mother smiled and said « It’s getting cool now. It would be nice to go to the beach. I’m certain you and your friends would have a great time. »
« Gràcies, tia » Vicent said, and he walked back towards the train station. Mother waved him off, but he didn’t notice. Mother accepted that, too.
It had been a few months, but in those few months Vicent had changed drastically. That was the frustrating thing about the teenage years. He had been a boy at the start of the year, but now he was starting to gain the personality traits and behaviors that would come to define him as an adult. And that was okay, Mother concluded. She was happy. She liked seeing how he interacted with his friends and that he was growing to be popular; she liked how he treated her with respect.
Still Mother looked back at how she had spent her day, and she felt a blandness and a boredom and a lack of satisfaction at it all. With that was the weight of another thought tugging tightly in her heart.
The time when Mother was meant to be a second mother to her nephew was ending. If they were to remain in contact, it would have to be on Mother, if she wished to stay bonded with the young man who was becoming Vicent. (https://girar.substack.com/p/1-july-2023-vicent?utm_source=post-email-title&publication_id=95668&post_id=132256569&isFreemail=false&utm_medium=email)