Maria Valdez had an office of her own as it was appropriate for all President Student Council (those who came before and after her). She very much liked having a place of her own. The office was located at the highest level of the school library and was naturally illuminated by the silky golden rays that leaked through the wide window panes. The light helped her maintain the alertness that was required of those of her position, even in the winter.
You see, it was only natural for Maria Valdez to be President Student Council. How can anyone argue otherwise? The moment word reached campus that Senator Frida Valdez’s daughter had been accepted to U.C.B, the entire university prepared for her arrival, and with it, a series of great expectations. Among those expectations were increased funding derived from no other than U.C.B’s alumni, California’s senator, herself, and a chance for the school to rise again to the level of prestige it had been in the past. It was a natural consequence; her position had been handed to her on a silver platter with no one daring to challenge her otherwise, and she became known as Miss Presidente by all of U.C.B.
Miss Presidente had the university’s official president’s number in her contacts. She had the best of the best working on all the school committees and oversaw each and every opening and event. With observers from all over the state feeding her an influx of intel, nothing ever went truly unseen. She knew exactly whom she should keep an eye on and just exactly whom posed as a possible threat. Faculty respected her. Students were well aware of her control. She resembled her mother with her looks and competitive drive, a mini Frida Valdez. One would assume that she had consciously strived to keep up with her mother’s legacy, except that was far, far, from the truth.
When Maria was fifteen years old, she became aware, for the very first time, of the path her mother formed for her. She had proven she could fluently communicate in Mandarin in front of a crowd which consisted of her mother’s political acquaintances and ended the mock interview by thanking her Chinese tutor with a bow of her head. As she had expected, the crowd applauded her, but their claps were short and brief. She watched with the most cautious stare as their heads turned and their shoes pointed to someone else. It was with disdain that she realized that their praises were reserved, not for her, but for none other than her mother. Because it was her mother who raised her to become successful. It was her mother’s genes that bequeathed her the sharp mind people praised her for. It was her mother’s money, her mother’s power, that shaped her into the person she became.
Their applause echoed in her ears as she shrunk under the crushing weight of her humiliation. All her life, she had been lovingly called: ‘Little Frida,’ ‘Young Frida,’ and ‘Frida’s Mija.’ When was the last time someone called her for who she was? Maria. But who was Maria? Who was Maria Valdez without her mother? Was she simply a prop her mother could show off? A product of her liberal policies and leadership?
That was a question Maria was still trying to answer.
The question caused a rift between the relations of both mother and daughter. And as the years went by, her mother’s flaws became more apparent to her. Maria hated that her mother never called to check up on her or nagged her about what (or if) she ate. Maria hated that her mother was always working, that she never showed up for any family events. Maria hated how badly she spoke of her father, how her father became a threat for failure.
You don’t want to be like your father, right?
Her mother’s taunting voice was clear as day.
Replaying their last argument in her head, Maria’s gaze suddenly shifted to the letter opener on her desk. She grabbed it.
Stop saying that! He’s not a failure! He’s a fucking handy-man and my dad! Just because he’s not a shiny senator like you, doesn’t mean you get to talk shit about him!
Maria traced her finger along the letter opener’s blade, her soft flesh gliding against the sharp metal.
Watch your mouth.
Her mother’s tone was dangerously leveled and controlled. Her hawk eyes seized her daughter’s gaze to communicate a silent warning which Maria should have heeded. But in a fit of wild anger, every word released was unchecked and unfiltered.
NO! You left him! Remember? You were the one that left him. He loved us and you left! How is it after all these years everything is still his fault?
Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about!
Do I? She whispered. I have spent my entire life watching you rise. You pretend you care about the poor and the oppressed but you look down on the very people you promised to protect. You’re a fucking hypocrite.
A sickening clap echoed in her head. The smell of wet metal revived her from her daymare, and she awoke to a trail of blood flowing down her wrist. Maria had unknowingly split her index finger open with the letter opener and cussed at herself for doing so (not that it was the first time she had done it). She checked if she spilled blood on her clothes and breathed a relieved sigh when she realized her clothes were still clean. She could hide the evidence with ease.
A small asian girl bursted through the door. Upon entering, her eyes transfixed on the red oozing down Maria’s hand, and she immediately looked away for the fear of fainting. Maria had forgotten that the council secretary was deathly afraid of blood and silently chided herself for the mistake.
“Can you get me a first aid kit?”
Bitter bile climbed up the back of Emily’s throat.
“Y-Yeah. Of course.”
But her feet remained cemented to the ground.
“Um...you should also know that Fatima’s outside waiting for you.”
Maria thrusted her bleeding finger forward, causing Emily to stagger back. Her grotesque aversion to blood amused Maria, distracting her from the pain.
“How about you get me that first aid kit first, so I can take care of this. I’ll let her in when I’m ready to see her.”
Emily left without saying another word. As promised, Maria took care of her bleeding finger and used three alcohol pads to clean up her hand. The office atmosphere became infused with the sterile smell of alcohol and bandaids. Maria liked the smell. It reminded her of an alternative life she had dreamed for herself; if law school didn’t work out for her, she would pursue nursing. Death never bothered her anyway.
She patched up her finger with a bandaid. Anyone who looked at it would immediately assume that she had accidentally cut herself with paper, a minor accident. Maria put away the first aid kit in one of her drawers and went to open the door. As expected, Fatima stood at the entrance of her office. Her red-rimmed eyes were lined with veins. Dried tears streaked her cheeks. And the deadly steel gaze Fatima threw her way...Maria fought to keep her amusement hidden below the surface. Everything had gone according to plan.
“Fatima!” Maria’s visage constricted from concern. “What’s wrong?”
Without bothering to ask for permission, Fatima stormed into Maria’s office, making sure to lock the door. Her white knuckled fists hung stiffly from her sides. “I’m done doing favors for you. Done!”
Maria assumed her role as superior and pulled out a chair from her desk. In a leveled and composed tone, she said, “Why don’t you have a seat? I’m sure we can work something out.”
But Fatima was adamant about what she wanted. She pushed Maria’s chair back into place.
“No! Every favor I’ve done for you makes me feel shitty. I’m never helping you ever again. I don’t want anything to do with you.”
Maria spotted a stray tear, fresh from Fatima’s eye, and flashed her a sympathetic smile before retrieving a box of tissues from a cabinet. With a mother’s touch, she dabbed the tears from Fatima’s eyes. Her red lips curled sweetly.
Fatima fought to keep her anger alive but she couldn’t. The fire in her heart extinguished, and she became cold. She fell under the spell of Maria’s gentle words and succumbed to her influence. Maria hid her smirk.
“So it’s true then. You do like him.”
Fatima’s brows scrunched together to convey her bewilderment. “Who?”
“There’s no use lying to me. You know who, the very cause of these tears.”
But Fatima hadn’t had a clue. She was genuinely, utterly, confused. She searched Maria’s face for answers only to be met with an impenetrable poker face.
“Fatima, honey. You’re disappointing me here. I thought you were supposed to be the smart one. What a shame. The student has yet to surpass the master.”
There was no reply on Fatima’s end.
Maria pulled out the chair again.
Fatima refused to bend. Maria treaded carefully.
“Sit and I’ll explain. You may be silent now, but I know you, Fatima. I know you’re dying for answers.”
Fatima’s gaze lowered to the chair.
“Sit,” Maria urged.
“Good.” Maria’s fingers came dangerously close to Fatima’s hijab, but she settled on stroking Fatima’s cheeks instead. “Now before I explain, you should know that I’m always looking out for you. I didn’t do this to hurt you, okay? I needed to know if you liked him, so I can know how to protect you. Look at me.”
Fatima stared hard at the floor. Maria had to pinch her chin to force her gaze. The acrylics of her nails sunk into Fatima’s soft skin. Had she pressed harder, she could have drawn blood.
“Am I lying?”
“No,” Fatima said hoarsely.
“Do you trust me?”
More silence on Fatima’s end.
Maria scoffed. “Seriously? After everything I’ve done for you? I’ve known you since freshman year of high school when everyone used to call you ‘Fat Fatima.’ I saved you when you were lying on the bathroom floor bleeding out.”
“You never allowed me to forget,” Fatima mumbled.
“I taught you how to protect yourself. I let you have Grace even though I told you she’s no good. And you still don’t trust me?”
Fatima locked eyes with Maria. They were two black coals charged with energy. Her lack of speech set them ablaze. A tiny ember flickered at the end of Maria’s tongue.
“I care about you.”
Maria’s words were so sickly sweet that Fatima felt nauseous. Unable to hold her silence any longer, Fatima turned her statement into what it was.
“You care about me, so you periodically send me to do favors, favors which require me to emotionally blackmail the crap out of people? The same favors that people know me for? The same favors that cause people to associate my name with dread and disgust? You sent me to that lecture room, knowing fully well who was there, so I can make myself look bad.”
Maria didn’t even flinch. “Fatima. You made yourself look bad. All I said was that I wanted Marissa on the committee. You did that to yourself.”
Fatima sunk her teeth into her lips and tasted metal in her mouth. She needed to feel pain to remind her that she was alive, that she was here. She was not the same pitiful girl who ate alone in bathroom stalls. She was not going to allow anyone to humiliate her again.
“I said what I said because I know what you do to people who don’t comply. The last person who disagreed with you got her nudes leaked. She lost her internship because of what you did.”
Maria looked back at the scheme with a wistful nostalgic sigh. Like she was proud of what she had done. “She deserved it.”
“She fell in love with your ex. You don’t ‘own’ people, Maria! You’re not God! People don’t need you to protect them and you have no right to control people the way you do!”
With both hands on the chair’s armrests, Maria pushed her weight onto the chair and leaned in so that her nose was shy of touching Fatima’s. Her hot breath made Fatima sweat as she realized that Maria was crushing her. She couldn’t move.
The chair tipped back onto its back two legs. Maria was the only one holding both of them off the ground. If she wanted to, she could simply let go, causing the chair to fall back and result in a deadly blow to Fatima’s head. And with the door locked, no one would know.
“I would be very, very careful about what you say, Fatima. Consider this before you do. I’ve known you and watched you for a long time. You are alone. Grace? She ran off with Josh. She chose Josh over you and she will continue to choose Josh over you time and time again. Your father is an alcoholic. He may be sober for now, but something will trigger him. And when that happens, he will drink himself numb. Your mom is a fucking vegetable, which is really unfortunate because I heard she was a brilliant prosecutor in her day. The rest of your family thinks you’re a hopeless excuse of a muslim girl, and don’t get me started on Samir.”
At the mention of his name, Fatima braced herself. She met Maria’s eyes with equal intensity and defiance that was thrown at her. She could not allow Maria the advantage of recognizing the fear she felt within because Maria was like a shark. It only took a drop of blood to throw her into a frenzy. If Fatima was bleeding, she would have to hide it.
“I had a sneaking suspicion that day in the study room. He was fascinated with you, Fatima. You should have seen the look on his face every time you opened your mouth, the sparkling look in his eyes, how enraptured he was by your intelligence. It was like everything you said amazed him. I’ve never seen someone glow from sheer admiration.”
Fatima recognized it now. Envy flashed across Maria’s face and turned her green. “I have to admit. It was kind of cute. You were so fucking clueless and there he was just...he couldn’t take his eyes off of you. Not even for a moment. And of course, I had a little bird tell me that you two met up a few times since then but with no progress. So I figured that I would help you out.”
Maria dipped the chair closer to the ground; the chair was barely balancing on its two back legs. It had the direct effect of making Fatima feel weightless and vulnerable. Blood rushed to Fatima’s head. She fought off a wave of nausea.
Maria spoke into Fatima’s ear; it was a treacherous whisper. “Because until we are sure that we have revealed our ugliest face, our nastiest flaws, and see them look at us with an expression of disgust and disappointment, we won’t know how much someone truly matters to us until it’s too late. Or as Jane Austen would put it, ’Until you have sunk in his opinion.’”
Fatima’s mask of bravery cracked, revealing the terrified girl underneath, the same terrified girl that survived being battered in the school restroom. The fear she felt reminded her of her many screams that went unheard. The taste of feces and toilet water drew vomit to her throat. Maria took Fatima’s yellow face as a sign and fixed the chair upright, moving out of the way so Fatima could run into the nearest wastebasket.
As Fatima spewed chunks into the basket, Maria was there to comfort her. She smoothed down her back and shushed soothing sounds to placate Fatima’s sobs. She had comforted Fatima in exactly the same way she did six years ago. And although six years had passed, it was clear that there were many things left unchanged. Fatima was still the fat girl no one loved and Maria was the selfless saint by her side.
“You’re going to be okay, Fatima. Everything’s going to be okay.”
Maria wiped Fatima’s mouth with a tissue and held her head close to her chest.
“I’m here. I’ll always be here.”
And with no one else to comfort her, Fatima pressed her forehead deeper into Maria’s chest and sobbed.