Afterwards, sometimes, as a teenager, I would stand at the bus stop where my sister went missing, concentrating on the deli down the block, the way the sign on its front door would blink the word Open. I tell you, I would stand there squinting for so long that sometimes a bus would stop and mistake me for somebody waiting. I tried to picture it, 1996: thirteen-year-old Ruthy standing there outside after track practice, five o’clock, alone, book bag graffitied by Sharpies, her red hair knotted and wrapped into a bun. In my head, I’d play out all the different scenarios—our family, shakily divided across a three-way split-screen mounted on the wall in my brain.
While Ruthy was shivering at the bus stop waiting for the S48, as she always did after track practice, me, Jess, and Ma would have already been at home, the handouts for my fourth-grade homework scattered on top of the table, Ma flicking the last pieces of wet onion clinging to her fingers into a hot pan. That night Jess had taken the phone from the kitchen into the small downstairs bathroom so she could whisper into the receiver in private—some sophomore-year secret that nobody even really cared about anyway; still, she lowered her voice. On the other side of the Island, by the mall, my father, who managed a hardware store, would be in the middle of a shift, helping the receiving crew unload a truck of refrigerators, jamming a finger between the twenty-foot shelving and a hand cart, cursing out the motherfucker who sideswiped him with a shopping cart, “Puñeta.”
The alarm did not sound until seven o’clock, when Ma stood on her toes to pull a stack of dishes out of the cabinet and plate the pollo guisado.
Ruthy should’ve been home by six.
Six fifteen at the latest.
Suddenly aware of the time, Ma wiped her hands on the back of her tight jeans and blinked, then tilted her head to the side and stared past me, as if she were having some otherworldly vision.
“Nina, where is your sister?” she asked me from the stove.
As if I could answer.
I was still trying to remember how to add two fractions with different denominators. A series of multiplication signs were floating on my handout. The paper was disintegrating where I tried too hard to erase away my mistakes.
I wasn’t worried about Ruthy. During Christmas she had single-handedly beat up a boy-cousin thirty pounds heavier for calling her butt-ugly: “Oh, you going to cry? Look who’s fucking ugly now,” she’d said, while he blubbered on the basement floor and tried to hide his face.
In my fourth-grade mind, Ruthy was invincible. Thirteen-year-old Queen of the Quick Comeback, hoop earrings and Vaseline, Patron Saint of the Fist and the Late-Night Call Home from the Principal. Who in the world could touch her, my sister?
My mother, now more agitated, stepped quickly to the bathroom and shouted through the door. “Jessica, get off the fucking phone already, God.”
Once Ma got her hands on the receiver, she dialed the school, but nobody was picking up. Then she called my father at work and started flipping out in Spanish. It was now approaching seven thirty, and Ruthy wasn’t home. No phone call. No nothing. (Though Jess had tied up the line for God knows how long.) “And I’m telling you right now, Eddie. I’m not playing games. If I find her sitting outside, chilling with her little friends. . .”
But the edge in my mother’s voice softened and trailed off, betraying the unmistakable fear that sometimes surfaced at the cash register after her credit card was declined and she’d send me back to return whatever brand-name box of cereal I’d begged her to put in the cart. Ruthy was never late coming home from track practice. Not once that I could remember. After she ran, Ruthy always arrived on time, six p.m. for dinner, hungry and eager to replace whatever energy she’d lost.
It was twenty-eight degrees outside that night.
Ma made me and Jess put on a coat and loaded us into the car to drive out to IS 61. Then she told us to roll down the windows and call out for Ruthy, “Loud, girls, so she can hear you.” But our voices only echoed across the street against the brick walls of the empty school building.
“For how long?” I asked, the fourteenth time around the middle school.
“Until I tell you not to,” Ma said.
When Ma got tired of circling Castleton, she took Forest Avenue and turned left on Victory Boulevard, drove down that long hill towards the water, where we could see the city’s skyline twinkling ahead, the buses gliding past us away from the ferry. The long gray lines of electricity suspended between a stretch of wooden crosses erected along Victory Boulevard like the pictures I’d seen of the Calvary in our Sunday school textbook.
Sometimes it feels like the three of us are still stuck in that car.
Shouting out Ruthy’s name into the unanswering dark.
For a straight month the cops rolled up and down the block asking everybody the same questions, whether or not Ruthy had a boyfriend? “Or maybe one of youse saw her after school walking back that night to the house? A skinny-looking girl?”
Five foot one. Long red hair. A beauty mark beneath her left eye.
Look, a picture of Ruthy cheesing on a bus on a seventh-grade trip to Six Flags, probably getting ready to argue about something she said somebody was spitting behind her back. Probably about to roll up her FUBU sweatshirt to show you the place in her belly where she’d pierced herself with a safety pin. Our Ruthy’d been a special kind of pain in the ass. She took more liberties than any of us did; once she even snuck out at night and came home at two in the morning, inspired by a dare and unafraid of the epic ass whupping she would receive from my mother, who sat there in the living room on the couch, waiting in the dark for her return. Even though she was only thirteen, she’d been practicing disappearing since she was twelve.
But people didn’t talk about that. Not at the praise and worship service at Our Lady of Hope, where they lit candles afterwards and the pastor chanted, “That Ruthy Ramirez will return to us safely.” And certainly not in the Ramirez house, where we’d taped her eighthgrade class photo to the wall above Mom’s dresser and surrounded the picture with candles and rosary beads as if she were a small deity.
But I knew.
For years I argued with Jessica about whether Ruthy’d run away or whether somebody had taken her. For me it was clear that Ruthy had simply left. The morning she disappeared, Ma had yelled at her for the fifteenth time for not bothering to properly clean the bottom of the caldero when it was her turn to do the dishes, and Ruthy had shaken her head and muttered underneath her breath, “I can’t wait to get out of here.”
“Look, even her favorite shirt is missing,” I would say. To which Jessica would whisper, “Don’t be saying that shit in front of Mom, Nina. You hear me? Because I will kick your ass.”
There were no clues in the diary Ruthy left.
Just her bubbly shaped script describing kicking it with her best friend Yesenia, several page-long takedowns of the teachers she hated, and then a couple of moments of infighting with the crew of girls she hung out with at school. A poem. A few raps that sounded suspiciously like Left Eye’s part in “Waterfalls.” One brief breakup with Yesenia, in which Ruthy called her “a fake corny bitch,” and then numerous passages in which she made fun of me and Jessica. “Poor Nina, she’s got no rhythm. It’s like the girl, she was adopted.” Or: “Jessica needs to stop plucking her eyebrows so thin. It makes her forehead look extra big.” There were descriptions of our childhood fights, sometimes lists of rules: if you fall off the bed while wrestling and don’t get up, you lose; if you blink in a staring contest (even if it was because you had to sneeze), you lose; if you cry while getting roasted by one of your sisters, then, oh Lord, were you finished! Crying was a mortal sin in the Ramirez house. The ultimate sign of weakness.
In Ruthy’s journal, there were no suspicious boyfriends or predatory grown-up men. No kindly male mentors with hidden agendas. Just pages of her logging in how fast she ran that day during track practice or descriptions of the pale green hamburger she forced herself to eat during lunch.
Our father waited at the precinct after work every day for a month, with his puffy leather coat folded in his hands over his lap, not for good news (my father was a pessimist) but to make sure the cops did not forget us.
“They got to know that we’re watching. And that people care about her,” he’d say, his head bent to the plate as he shoveled rice into his mouth late at night, long after all of us had already eaten.
The cops had suspected him at first. Dad knew they looked at him like he was a piece of shit, until they called his boss who confirmed that he’d been working overtime, a late shift, the night that Ruthy disappeared.
Still, it broke my father’s heart.
That somebody could think that about him, and those types of rumors, they don’t ever go away.
Our mother, shocked, spent large amounts of time stuck at the kitchen table. And if outside people or one of the extended family became restless or moved around the house to clean or to cook, or if people wanted to take her out to dinner or to a movie to cheer her up, my moms would tell whatever people, “Why don’t you sit the fuck still?”
“Pues, stay still, then!” people started to say, the church folks especially—who’d always looked down on her for being thirty-two with three daughters, for having the first kid when she was just seventeen—they left my mother alone. Even after the gossip and the heartbreak finally killed my father five years later, these people, they kept on whispering. “Besides, you can only sympathize so long for somebody else’s loss before you run out of encouraging things to say.” So my mother stood still.
For many years. By herself.
So that she blew up like a balloon, eleven different sizes.
From What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez by Claire Jiménez. Used with permission of the publisher, Grand Central Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Claire Jiménez.