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Empirical Girl

Good judgment comes from experience, and often experience comes from bad judgment. — Rita Mae Brown

“This is fantastic,” I said.

“It’s not so good as Josue’s,” said Rosa, turning to her husband. Josue shrugged and took another bite of the penne bolognese — experience dictated that the dish’s swift disappearance would better communicate his approval than words. Rosa smiled. “And, David, this bread, what’s it called again? Portuguese cornbread? It’s amazing,” she said, in her continued deflection of the compliment. Then, changing the subject altogether, “What I want to know, Josue, is when are we getting a grill?”

After tasting David’s grilled offerings earlier in the week, Josue was eager to experiment on his own. It was important to Josue that his grill looked as good as it cooked. He’d narrowed his search down to two models and announced his intention to procure one before the month was out. “Are you going to put it where all those cactuses are?” I asked, gesturing at the pots gathered on the small patio on the other side of the glass door. Josue nodded.

“Guess you’ll have to get rid of those, then,” I said.

“I’ll have to find them foster homes,” said Josue with a note of regret. “I got them when they were babies at the farmers’ market.”

“I’m not a fan of cacti,” I said. “They’re so…guarded.” I glanced toward the end of our table at a small cactus potted in a drinking glass. “Except for that kind, with all the fuzzy bits.” Josue started in on this cactus’s deceptive appearance, how those yellow spots may seem as inviting as fur on a kitten’s neck, yet, in reality, they were as cunning as a hungry cougar. I cut him off. “I know,” I said. “I’ve had a run-in with one of those before. Only the fuzzy dots on that one were red.”

I was 12 years old. Mom had given my sister and me some cash so we could walk the mile to 7-Eleven with some neighborhood kids and buy ourselves nachos and Slurpees. On the way, I stopped to admire a plastic-looking plant speckled with silky crimson spots made vibrant by the complementary green to which they were affixed. As with anything soft and fuzzy, I wanted to touch it.

“Wait,” said the girl who lived two blocks over. She was a few months younger than me and therefore in no place to be telling me what to do. “You don’t want to touch that — it’s a cactus.”

I laughed. “The leaves might look cactus-y, but these parts are soft, just look at it.”

“Those are the needles. My mom says they’re real sharp and can hurt you,” she argued.

“Well, they don’t look sharp.” I had her there. While she was mentally scrambling for a comeback, I reached out and snatched one of the paddle-shaped leaves. “See?” I said, caressing the nubs. “It’s soft, just like I said. Go on, touch it.” She shook her head. No one else, not even my own sister, would feel the silky strands. Having made my point, I shrugged and tossed the leaf, paying no mind to the itty-bitty red hairs stuck like glitter to my skin.

Josue winced as I told my story because he knew what came next; that by touching the prickly pear, I’d assisted the cactus in embedding hundreds of near-invisible barbs into my fingertips — microscopic needles that would torment me for weeks. He sucked air through his teeth and said, “That’s bad.”

“So, yeah, now I know not to touch those,” I concluded.

“You have to be careful, like with the jumping cactus,” Josue said. I cocked a brow. “You know, the cactus that shoots its spines.”

No, I didn’t know. “A cactus that shoots spines? Like a porcupine?”

“It’s true. It’s called the jumping cactus. I have one out there,” said Josue.

“No way. I want to see it. But not just see it,” I clarified, “I want to see it in action. Don’t roll your eyes, David, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to see nature at work. I won’t touch it, I just want to get close enough to see the spines jump. That is, if they jump.”

“You don’t believe me?”

“Don’t take it personally, Josue,” I cooed. “It’s not that I don’t trust you; I just want to see it for myself.”

“But you could get hurt.” David and Rosa nodded in agreement.

I didn’t. Get hurt, I mean, if that’s what you’re wondering. I like to think I’m not stupid so much as skeptical. I armed myself with a napkin and, ignoring the protests back at the table, I molested each of the cacti on Josue’s veranda with the supple black paper. When nothing happened, I considered using my fingers. How bad could it hurt? Weighing the potential for pain against the satisfaction of seeing The Attack of the Killer Cactus, I lightly ran an index finger along one thick spine. No, better not, I thought, remembering the time I was five and my mother told me not to touch the stovetop. She said it was hot, but the stove was off, and the electric rings were not orange. How could I trust my mother when I could see with my own eyes that she was lying? Confident in my visual assessment, I set my entire hand on the stove. The upside to the aftermath was that I left no fingerprints around the house for a few weeks.

I returned to the table after deciding to wait until I could be alone with the plants and really go to town. Better to not have an audience for whatever went down, like the time my sister Jenny (the same sister who’d seen me rub the fuzzy cactus all over my hands) was forced to witness — in a mixed state of convulsive laughter and horror — me being attacked by the very squirrel she’d warned me not to try and touch. Yes, best to wait.

“You have to climb the wall,” Josue said. Rosa nodded, but David and I were in the dark. Josue explained that in Mexico, a tall wall marked the perimeter of his and his neighbors’ yards. “My parents told me not to climb it, that I would fall.”

“Did you?” I asked.

“Sure, of course,” he said.


“I fell down, a lot of times, and got hurt. But I keep trying until I become an expert and jump the wall backward and all these kinds of things. See, if you touched that, you were going to suffer and say, ‘Oh, you were right, Josue,’ but you do it anyway, you need to climb the wall by yourself. Funny thing is, at the end, you try to pass the same thing. You say, ‘Don’t do it, because it’s going to happen to you’ — you try to protect others, but some, like you, will climb the wall anyway.”

“You know, that reminds me,” I said. “I recently heard that it’s, like, practically impossible for someone to eat a teaspoon of cinnamon. It sounds ridiculous. David, don’t look at me like that.” Rosa’s big brown eyes grew wider. “You guys have some cinnamon here…right, Josue? Ever try it?”

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