A few weeks went by and the car accident, meeting Dr. Gray, and telling my family all seemed like a distant dream as I woke up, ready and content to conquer the world. The night before, my mama had told me that because Claudia was going to the same place I was, she was going to start taking me to my Chiropractic appointments.
My mama had been taking me to Dr. Gray’s office three times a week. Every appointment looked and felt exactly the same – nothing ever changed. The days I had a Chiropractic appointment, I would wait in the “car riders” line after school. I felt so cool being a “car rider,” instead of heading to the dreadful, sweat-stained, yellow school buses where the older kids would try to bully the younger ones around. They learned quickly that they should never mess with me. One day, many years before, one of the older boys had come up to me and tried to push me around, but I wasn’t about to take crap from anyone. I was nearly five inches shorter, but that didn’t stop me. I tiptoed to appear an inch or so taller, grabbed his shirt, and said “don’t ever mess with me again or you’ll regret it.” The next day, I was so nervous heading towards the bus. My pseudo confidence had melted down by that point, and all that was left of me was the raw innocent version. I thought for sure I was going to be in so much trouble, but he never acknowledged my existence again. And just like that, I was untouchable.
As I stood there, in the single-file car rider’s line, with my backpack to my knees (because that’s how all the cool kids wore it) waiting for my mama’s car to show up, I usually daydreamt about what it would be like to be straight one day. You know, daydream of what it was like to have a straight spine. It was a constant daydream of mine. I had these elaborate visions of one day miraculously being stretched out like spaghetti, and just like that, I would be straight forever. It was always such a happy dream of mine – to be straight one day. But every time my name was called – “Miss Velez, your mom is here” – I would be sucked away from my dreams and placed back into reality.
My mama would always bring me a Zephyrhills water bottle and a snack for the 20-minute ride down Orange Ave towards Dr. Gray’s office. I would sit in the front seat devouring my Nature Valley honey crunch granola bars and space out. Every appointment was exactly the same. My mama would drop me off and leave me there while she went to run errands. So most of the time, I would go into Dr. Gray’s office alone. Since I had been going for several weeks, the ladies and the Border Collie all knew me well. I would always patiently wait in the waiting room, and when my name was called, I would head back for a chiropractic adjustment. The entire adventure usually took no more than 20 minutes, but it was still rare that my mama would wait for me. Thinking back to that time, I realize how difficult it all must have been for her. I don’t think her absence was intentional, but I do think it was all too much for her to deal with, so instead of being there to support me, she sought solace in other activities.
But then again, it really wasn’t unusual for her to leave me places for extended periods of time, and I was always so embarrassed when she did. This one time, many years before my scoliosis diagnosis, she dropped me off at the pet store so that I could walk around and see the animals. This was one of my favorite things to do. I would walk around and stare at all the displays. I loved being with the animals, and it was something my mama didn’t really enjoy doing with me. So instead of walking through the pet store with me and waiting until I was done exploring every new pet they had recently brought in, she left me there. Alone. For about two hours. I remember pacing back and forth throughout the pet store, not knowing what to look at and not wanting to get in anyone’s way. I didn’t know when she was coming back – all I could do was wait. The owner of the store kept staring at me until he finally asked me if I knew my phone number. I called home and got the answering machine. When she finally came back, the owner of the store was so furious that my mama had left me there, he took it upon himself to tell her that his shop was not a daycare, and that next time it happened he would have to call the authorities. Needless to say, we never went back to that pet store, and my mama just laughed it off as if nothing really serious had happened.
Still, it’s hard to really blame her. My mama had been through so much in her life that dealing with my scoliosis was just one more thing that I am not sure she was prepared to handle. It’s for that reason that I wasn’t really surprised to be pawned off with Claudia. I am not sure whether Claudia offered to take me or if my mama just asked her to do it. It didn’t really matter to me; I was thrilled that I was going to get a chance to hang out with Claudia. At that point, I would have done anything for a good role model.
Don’t get me wrong, being the baby of the family came with so many role models. I always had Farith and Naty, who were both ahead of me by several years. Their life choices, personalities, and mistakes were laid out for me to copy from, emulate, repeat, change, and recreate. I had two life paths, molds if you will, that I could choose from or just change and make my own. Through their lives, I had the advantage of knowing what do with my own life. My reliance on copying my brother and sister meant that I had a hard time knowing exactly who I was, because I was always too busy trying to be like everyone else. But even with them in my life, I realized that I was still missing the type of role model that I wanted, so I was delighted to have Claudia in my life. It meant that I would have someone older who could be my friend.
I was so nervous the afternoon that Claudia came to pick me up. I had gotten home from school at 3:00 pm, and my appointment with Dr. Gray was not until 4:00pm. From 3:00pm till 3:30pm, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I stared intently out the window, I went to the bathroom a million times, I paced around in circles by the front door. I didn’t want to miss it when she first arrived. I wanted to make sure I was ready to go as soon as she got there. What if she didn’t like me? I paced back and forth a little more. What would I talk about? I nervously rubbed my sweaty hands along my jeans to wipe them off. What if she doesn’t come? I thought to myself, while I kept dancing around the front door – until, finally, she was there.
Without hesitation, I gave my mama a kiss on the cheek, and she made the hand motions to bless me on my journey to the chiropractor. As I ran to Claudia’s ever-green Honda Accord my mama waved and yelled “echese la bendicion.” I am not really Catholic, but I am Hispanic, and blessing people comes with the territory. Any time I got into a moving vehicle, I had to bless myself so that God would be with me during my journey. To this day, these mannerisms are hard to escape. They are so engraved in who I am that I feel strange when I don’t do it. I opened the passenger-side door, slid into the front seat and leaned over and gave Claudia a kiss on the cheek. We started pulling away from the driveway and my mama was still watching and waving good bye, while Julian was in the backseat hanging out making weird baby noises. He was Claudia’s six-month-old son.
In many ways, Claudia was my hero for a few short months. She gave me the support that I needed during a really difficult time in my life, and I couldn’t help but look up to her. Claudia, was about 24 years old at the time, maybe 25. She was talkative, outgoing, and a really confident person. She had been working at Red Lobster as a hostess for several years and would always bring my mama some of their wild rice – she was obsessed with it. In the car ride to the Chiropractic office we would always listen to Puff Daddy’s No Way Out cassette. Just like my sister, Claudia loved to listen to it on repeat – it was her favorite – and in the end, it ended up being my favorite too.
I recently played the album again on Spotify to reminisce about those days. I hadn’t heard the songs since the days I hung out with Claudia. As soon as she stepped out of my life, so did Puff Daddy. But, when the song “Victory” came on, I felt the bass take me back to the days when I sat in her Honda Accord, marveling at the way she drove a manual car. Hanging out with Claudia was like having a big sister who liked hanging out with me too – I loved it. It was a nice, needed change. We drove to Dr. Gray’s office together for a month or two listening to Puff Daddy until Claudia started feeling better.
The last week of going to Dr. Gray’s office together, Claudia took me to eat what she called “the best fried chicken in Orlando.” Old-Dixie is a little shack-like place located right on Orange Ave near Pine Castle. It’s still there, if you ever get the urge to try it. The place was decorated in 70s decor with brown and yellow plaid tiles on the floor – I am pretty sure it still looks the same. We sat down in the side room on the left-hand side. Our table had just been wiped down, but the vinyl was still sticky from all the old spills. We were the only people eating at the restaurant, and I didn’t understand why they were still in business. Maybe it was the giant chicken display they had outside that drew people in, or maybe it was the charm of the decor – maybe it took them back to a different time like a time capsule. Normally, I would never go to a place I didn’t know or hadn’t been to before. I was such a picky eater and didn’t really like exploring with my food. I basically only ate cheese sandwiches and strawberry yogurt, so it was a big deal for me to step outside of my comfort zone and join Claudia in a deep-fried chicken basket. It was one of our last days of hanging out together, and I didn’t know what to say. In my mind, I didn’t see this as the end. I thought it would be like this forever, but it wasn’t.
Once we were done eating, Claudia dropped me off, and that was basically it. The many afternoons we had together were memories I cherished, and still cherish. It was nice to have her in my life for a little while. She filled a void I had, and for a small period of time she was the friend I had always wanted.