A week after arriving in New York we wake up to find that a white blanket has covered everything outside our windows. There’s a blanket thrown over the ground, the trees, and even the sky. Only the tree trunk sticks out in darkness.
“Snow!”, I yell. From the bed above me, I can hear my sister, Diana, fumbling with the blankets then a loud gasp. “I’ll go borrow the sleds!”, she yells back and stumbles down from the bunk bed and out of the room.
Still in bed, I pull the blanket over my head and stare out into the soft whites and grays.
I am still getting used to this view: trees, squirrels and not much else. In Ecuador, one of my favorite views was from my grandma’s balcony. From there, you could look out to the mechanic shop across the street, on to the people walking below and straight into the mango tree next door. It was my cousins’ lot, and their pet parrot would sit on the tree and call my name from time to time.
Not having a room of my own, I’d use the balcony as a hideout for the letters that my mom sent me while she was gone. They were beautiful. Filled with small flower doodles, colorful textured stickers and delicate handwriting. I’d read the letters over and over again. I think I secretly hoped that one afternoon I’d be sitting on the balcony and hear her, instead of the parrot, calling my name. That I’d peek my head through the white metal bars and see the top of her frizzy black curls.
She had won a scholarship to study in New York. So she left a year ahead of us so that she could learn English and settle in. That year, my siblings and I lived with my grandparents, but Diana was in charge of me. She 7 years older than me and a girl, so it made sense that she’d be the one taking care of me. She was the one who packed the bags. The one who held my hand during the long flight. And the one who made sure I looked presentable in my velvet red dress when we arrived in JFK.
The front door slams and Diana runs into the room. She starts finding clothes for me from the pile we’ve just unpacked. “Get dressed, before the snow’s gone!” she says as she throws clothes at me. I quickly put on the slightly too big clothes, all hand-me-downs from our American cousins.
As soon as I’m dressed we go to the living room to find my mom bent over her computer, typing away. She has soft tan skin and is wearing a spaghetti strap dress as if we were still in Ecuador. Since we got back I’ve seen her at the computer at odd hours, when I can’t sleep. But she seems happy, often humming to the Gipsy Kings and drinking mate – habits she’s learned from her new university friends.
“Ma, we’re going sledding”, Diana tells mom.”Ok, make sure you’re well covered,” my mom says as she turns slightly away from the computer to hug me. I smile and squeeze her back.
“Do you think Helena’s shoes will be fine?” my sister asks, pointing to my blue canvas sneakers. Diana and my brother got boots from my cousins, but there weren’t any boots for me. My mom glances down at my shoes, tilts her head a little and says, “It should be fine, just add on some extra socks.”
“Ok,” Diana says and runs to grab more socks for me.
“Let’s go, guys!” my brother Gabucho says from the door frame. He’s never sled before but he’s taking charge as he’s the man of the house now. He’s big, but he looks even bigger than usual in his big blue puffy jacket. It’s funny to see him like this instead of his typical t-shirt and shorts. After I’ve finished putting the socks and shoes on, we run out the door. My brother carrying our single borrowed sled in hand.
It’s a softer world up on the hill, I can feel it in the pillowy snow beneath my sneakers. I can taste it on the cherry chapstick on my lips. And I can see it on the faces of my brother and sister as they’re about to sled for the first time. “Everyone lay down”, my brother says, “and go like this!” as he swings his arms back and forth, creating soft swoosh sounds and the mark of an angel at the same time.
Gabucho sleds first, his excited yell fading away as he glides down. He yells back “It’s really fun!”, so with his blessing, it’s our turn. Diana in the front, me in the back, since I’m the little one.
The sled is already snowy from Gabucho’s run, and we’re instantly wet from the snow he left behind – our jeans soaked and our shoes too, no matter how many socks we put on. “Hold on,” Diana tells me, and my brother gives us a push. It begins slowly at first and we have to use our feet to gain momentum, but soon we’re flying smoothly down a white world while icy air grazes our faces. We reach the bottom of the hill with a tumble, backs first into a plush surface, no real sound made from the fall except our laughter. We climb back up and make big steps, exaggerating how heavy the snow is on our feet.
I can feel my feet getting colder, a sensation that’s new to me. A kind of cold that can’t be cured by a sweater. I tell my sister, and she says her feet are cold too but that it’s normal here. I wonder how Americans can live with such cold feet all the time. We wait for our turn and sled back down a couple more times, my feet slowly getting more numb, but I don’t want to be a baby about it and ruin the fun. But all of a sudden, the pain becomes too much – a thousand needles are dancing at my feet and this world no longer seems so soft. Instead, it seems deceiving and unknown. A place we’re not prepared to be in yet, a place that requires snow boots – not canvas sneakers.
My eyes suddenly fill up with tears, and I’m afraid if we don’t hurry, they’ll soon freeze too. “My feet hurt!” I cry, and my brother starts running down the hill towards us, not worrying about getting covered in snow. He picks me up and carries me back home, Diana holding my hand the whole time.