Pili sips from her water bottle when the familiar tingling begins. Through the wire cage, she sees Manuel curled up on his bed, looking more like a baby than a sixteen-year-old. He’s come home early from soccer practice because he’s still wearing his cleats and shin guards. His shoulders are heaving with short sobs, his tears soaking into his comforter. His hands are hidden under the pillow, but she doesn’t need to see them to know he’s pressed the button in the center of his right palm, opening the gateway between their minds. As the intense pain of the transfer floods her, she squeezes her beady eyes shut and grinds her teeth, freezing in place as her body begins to rattle.
After a few minutes, the flow slows to a trickle. She crawls to a corner of her habitat to recover, her body still trembling. Though she senses his relief, Manuel can’t hold her gaze for more than a moment. He stares at the floor and whispers, “Me disculpas?” That’s what Pili likes about him. Even though his drive to avoid negative feelings overrides his empathy for her, the guinea pig on the receiving end, he still feels guilty for making her hurt.
He’s been using Pili more often since his mother was deported a few weeks ago. He does FaceTime with his mom every day, but a talking headshot doesn’t compare to the feeling of her arms around him or the comfort of her kiss on his cheek. Manuel tries to be brave when he’s talking with her, but Pili has learned to expect the pain, whether in spurts during the conversation or all at once after he hangs up. Once the transfer’s over, he wipes away his tears, erasing the by-product of a normal human reaction to the most unnatural separation of all.
Pili starts taking deep breaths to build up her reserves again. As a teenager, Manuel’s emotions are unpredictable. She’s in charge of feeling his sadness, fear, rage, whatever he wants to avoid confronting at any given moment. He’s supposed to enjoy the good times and use her to get rid of the bad feelings before going on with life as if they don’t exist. And for now, he does just that, stripping off his equipment and clothes before heading into the bathroom to shower.
Pili learned quickly that if she’s forced to feel another’s sadness, she can’t afford to feel her own. Though she can’t remember what her own happiness feels like after so many transfers, she does treasure the forbidden doses that Manuel chooses to share every once in a while. The excitement of getting a hard-earned A on his English paper in sixth grade, the mix of nerves and giddiness after his first kiss in eighth grade, the tastes of a mother’s tenderness throughout his life.
She didn’t ask for this burden, but she wants to do her best for him. He’s a good boy. He doesn’t get into trouble (that she knows of), he reads bedtime stories to his little sister, and he has good friends who care for him. He’ll sometimes even save some of his food from dinner to give her before he goes to sleep (she especially enjoys picadillo with rice and beans).
Early on, Pili desperately tried to hold onto her positive feelings as much as possible. The memories of nursing her young, surrounded by the warmth of her pack, drinking and eating until she couldn’t, satisfied to feel full, fulfilled by the routine and familiar. All these bittersweet reminders of her life before she was taken, before the transfers, were eventually drained out of her.
One morning, she woke up alone, encased in glass and crying for her children. She heard Manuel’s father explaining to him that she was not a pet, but a receptacle for his bad feelings. As confusing as it was, she still remembers looking into Manuel’s gentle eyes and feeling a depth of compassion coming from him that she didn’t expect. In the midst of turmoil, she felt grateful for him.
She snaps out of the memory when she hears Manuel whimper from inside the bathroom. It sounds like he’s in pain. Then a low groan, followed by soft sobs. Pili keeps waiting for the flood of feeling, but nothing comes. He’s trying to be brave, but she can’t understand why. He knows she can take it. She’s willing to take it. She feels more uneasy as the minutes tick on, gnawing on the wire of her cage. She squeals to get his attention, but he doesn’t come. Then, all she hears are staggering breaths. She can’t take it anymore.
She starts throwing herself against her cage. Finally, it falls to the floor and the door pops open as hay pellets and water fly everywhere. Pili limps into the bathroom, her back stinging in pain with every step. Her eyes flit from the pool of blood on the floor to Manuel’s still body slumped against the wall. His face has lost all color and his left wrist is bleeding. She lets out a piercing shriek as she huddles beside him and nuzzles his left leg. After a few seconds, she hears his father’s footsteps as he calls for his son, then the door swings open.
“Mi hijo!” he cries, rushing to him and squeezing him tightly. He takes out his phone to make a call and Pili start to feel dizzy. She collapses on the cool tile, struggling to keep her eyes open. As his father weeps, she barely hears Manuel whisper, “Perdóname, Papá.” Suddenly, she feels a rush of every emotion coming from inside her and she takes it all in. She cries from pain, from joy, from the relief of knowing he isn’t gone yet. Her eyes flutter closed and she feels strangely at peace in the darkness that embraces her as the sound of Manuel’s father begging him to hold on trails off in the distance.
Eloísa Pérez-Lozano writes poems and essays about Mexican-American identity, motherhood, and women’s issues. She graduated from Iowa State University with a B.S. in psychology and an M.S. in journalism and mass communications. A 2016 Sundress Publications Best of the Net nominee, her work has been featured in the “Texas Observer,” “Houston Chronicle,” and “The Acentos Review,” among others. She lives with her family in Houston, Texas.