By Hannah Chen
The windows in our 30th-floor apartment were open after I arrived from my elementary school, with a loud, chaotic construction echoing outside of our building. An aroma of fresh laundry – almost as nice as that of my dad’s infamous chocolate chip cookies – mixed with the hint of cleaning spray surrounded me, and I inhaled it willingly. A small breeze from the Hudson River brushed my hair back, leaving a salty tingle in my nose while another Geico ad played on our TV. “It’s me!” I yelled in the living room so that my mom could hear me, and I waved to the boy sitting on our leather couch before walking into my bedroom to see a tan woman organizing my bookshelf. “Hi, Irené!”
We always pronounced her name as “eeranee” despite knowing it should’ve been “eerene” instead. She never corrected us. Irené was our house cleaner and a babysitter for my sister and me, but her presence in our household was more like air. One of my strongest senses of nostalgia and childhood stems from smell, and I always remembered Irené giving off hints of cinnamon and mint, that fragrance lingering on her clothes when I hugged her. The way our home smelled, just like in that afternoon, is the way I reminisce about that 30B apartment today, the scent not potent but still quite fresh in my mind. I can’t quite remember how often Irené was in our home introducing new Mexican cuisines to our taste buds or helping my sister and I paint our nails, but she spent many hours with us, too many for me to count.
Sometimes, her son, whose name I do not remember and who was a couple of years younger than me, would stay all afternoon at our apartment on the 30th floor. He would help out his mom, read one of the books I would offer to him, or lie on our grey leather couch, watching House Hunters. I used to wonder why he would stay in our apartment, those long afternoons filled with times of little conversation between us whereas he had endless banters with his mother in Spanish. I later learned that it was because his father was often ill, unable to take care of his own son.
“Don’t step there, my mom just cleaned it,” he once confronted me, speaking with an American accent, unlike his mother, and I paused as I was about to get off the couch and run into the warmth of my bedroom. I glanced at him, speechless, my body reacting to his statement by climbing across the couch and onto the other end of the wooden floor, ignoring the thought of wanting to go into my room completely and heading inside my mom’s bedroom instead. Irené paused as she wiped the floor with a mop, glancing at her son with a small smile. I always attempted to be a little more cautious of my whereabouts after that.
But perhaps one of my fondest memories of Irené would be the times she would pick me up at my elementary school on 70th Street, between West End and Broadway, offering to buy me one of my favorite ice creams from the truck that tempted every child on the block. “Get whatever you want,” she said each time, with her Mexican accent peeking out in her English, curving her “u” into a downward tone and pronouncing her “nt” like a “d.” And every time, I chose vanilla soft serve dunked in chocolate sauce.
On our way home from school, she once asked me why I had always chosen that one. “It tastes the best,” I had responded simply, grinning at Irené with a chocolate stained chin, in desperate need of a napkin. She laughed, wrapping her arm around my tiny shoulders, as we walked up a slight hill towards the grocery store, Gracefully’s. In the midst of finishing off my cake cone, Irené and I observed the several pigeons ahead of us; one had white feathers and dark speckles on its chest; the smallest bird had pink-tipped wings; the third was either a dark navy or pure black – Irené and I debated over which one was right. They were picking on a piece of bread, one that must’ve been part of a hotdog, huddling over it and eating together. We wondered if they were still going to be hungry even after eating that feast. Irené and I both agreed that bread wasn’t filling enough as a meal, whether it be for a pigeon or for us. We laughed.
A week later, I spotted Irené in the middle of my public schoolyard, barely noticing her petite frame in the midst of all the parents. When we strode through the maze of the jungle gym and out of the rusty gate, the ice cream truck’s music lured me again. We stood in line, with child after child ordering vanilla soft serve covered in rainbow sprinkles, plain chocolate, and even raspberry sorbet, the man looking down, patiently, at each one of us.
When the line shortened, after what seemed like an eternity, we were finally the ones to order–this time, I handed the man a five-dollar bill that my mom had given me. I had to tiptoe in my pink and blue sneakers to reach him. “Can we have two vanilla soft serves with chocolate sauce, please?” I ordered, waiting for two cake cones to be placed in front of my eyes, eyes that were screaming for sweetness. Before I could count five seconds, two vanilla soft serves, with perfectly swirled whiteness drowning in hardening dark chocolate, were within my reach. Irené glanced at me, her eyebrows raised.
“Why did you get two?” she asked as I handed the ice cream to her, ushering her to take a bite as a sugary vanilla flavor filled my mouth. I watched her reaction slowly unfold, which allowed crinkles by her eyes to make her seem younger.
The ice cream was creamy, cool, and smooth, the opposite of the New York City spring warmth. “It’s delicious!” Irené said after licking off a large chunk of her soft serve and solidified chocolate, looking at me with dancing eyes. Despite it only being such ice cream from a truck, one that only kids in elementary school spent all day thinking about, delight took hold of Irené as she hummed to Somewhere Over The Rainbow and was unable to resist a grin. We finished our dessert on the way home, our fingers slightly sticky from the lingering melted ice cream, our lips talking about her and me and the pigeons and the ice cream and the sky and the smell of hotdogs.
I can still taste the flavor of vanilla lingering on my tongue as if Irené is still here with me. It’s nice.
Born in 2004, Hannah Chen is a writer from New York, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Hannah grew to love writing since the fourth grade when she wrote a fictional story quite similarly based on one of her favorite books. She currently writes for several magazines and teen newspapers, hoping to spread awareness for social issues while expressing her small voice.