Jaquira Díaz | Longreads | June 2018 | 19 minutes (4,721 words)
1985. These were the days of Menudo and “We Are the World,” the year boxer Macho Camacho gave a press conference in a leopard-skin loincloth as Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” blared from radios across the United States. In one month, the space shuttle Challenger would explode while all of America watched on television, entire classrooms full of kids, everyone eager to witness the first teacher ever launched into space. My mother had just turned 22, and a week later Levy turned 8. By then, Mami had three children. She’d already been a mother for more than a third of her life.
In those days, Mami teased her blond hair like Madonna, traced her green eyes with blue eyeliner, applied several coats of black mascara, apple-red lipstick, and matching nail polish. She wore skin-tight jeans and always, no matter where she was going, high heels. She dusted her chest with talcum powder after a bath, lotioned her arms and legs, perfumed her body and her hair. My mother loved lotions, perfume, makeup, clothes, shoes. But really, these were just things to her. The truth was my mother loved and enjoyed her body. She walked around our apartment butt-ass naked. I was more used to seeing her naked body than my own. You should love your body, my mother taught me. A woman’s body was beautiful, no matter how big, how small, how old, how pregnant. This my mother firmly believed, and she would tell me over and over. As we got older, she would teach me and Alaina about masturbation, giving us detailed instructions about how to achieve orgasm. This, she said, was perfectly normal. Nothing to be ashamed of.
While my father only listened to salsa on vinyl, Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón and Ismael Rivera, my mother was all about Madonna. She was American, she liked to remind us, born in New York, and she loved everything American, including her music. She belted the lyrics to “Holiday” while shaving her legs in the shower, while making us egg salad sandwiches for lunch. She talked about moving us to Miami Beach, where most of our titis and Grandma Mercy lived, about making sure we learned English.
On New Year’s Eve, she made me wear a red-and-white-striped dress and white patent leather shoes. It was hideous. I looked like a peppermint candy. When she styled my hair in fat candy curls, she said she wanted me to look like Shirley Temple. I had no idea who Shirley Temple was, but I hoped she didn’t expect me to be friends with her. I wasn’t trying to be friends with girls in dresses and uncomfortable shoes. At 6, I was more of a bare-feet-and-shorts kind of girl.
I knew that these were things meant for girls, and that I was supposed to like them. But I had no interest in my mother’s curtains, or her tubes of red lipstick, or her dresses, or the dolls Grandma Mercy and Titi Sandy sent from Miami. I didn’t want to be Barbie for Halloween, like my mother suggested. I wanted to be a ninja, with throwing stars and nunchucks and a sword. I wanted to kick the shit out of 10,000 men like Bruce Lee. I wanted to climb trees and catch frogs and play with Star Wars action figures, to fight with lightsabers and build model spaceships. I didn’t have a crush on Atreyu from The NeverEnding Story, like my brother said, teasing me. I wanted to be Atreyu, to ride Falkor the luck dragon. When I watched Conan the Destroyer, I didn’t want to be the princess. I wanted to be fierce and powerful Grace Jones. Zula, the woman warrior. I wanted her to be the one who saves the princess, to be the one the princess falls for in the end.
Years later, would I think of Zula during that first kiss, that first throbbing between my legs? It would be with an older girl, the daughter of my parents’ friends. We’d steal my mother’s cigarettes, take them out back behind our building, and light them up. She would blow her smoke past my face, stick her tongue in my mouth, slide her hand inside my shorts. How she’d know just what to do without me having to tell her — this was everything, this butch girl, so unafraid, getting everything she wanted. And how willing I was to give it to her.
She arrived in the middle of the night, our new neighbor, carried her boxes from somebody’s pickup into her living room, then waved goodbye as it drove away. She arrived in silence, filling the empty space of the apartment next door, where nobody had ever lived as long as I could remember, and hung her flowerpots from hooks in the balcony. She arrived with almost nothing, just those plants and some furniture and her daughter Jesenia, a year older than me.
The morning after, my best friend Eggy and I were outside catching lizards, holding on to them until they got away, leaving their broken-off tails still wriggling between our fingers. She stepped out on her balcony, watering her plants with a plastic cup.
“Guess you have a new neighbor,” Eggy said.
La vecina, as we learned to call her, was nothing like Mami. She wore no makeup, a faded floral housedress, and out-of-style leather chancletas like my grandmother’s, her curly brown hair in a low ponytail. She had deep wrinkles around the corners of her eyes, although she didn’t look as old as Abuela. When she looked up at Eggy and me, she smiled.
“Hola,” she said. “Where’s your mom?”
“Working,” I said.
She pressed her hand to her cheek. “And she lets you play outside by yourself?”
“Sure,” I said.
We talked for a while, la vecina asking us questions about the neighborhood, about the basketball courts, about what time the grano man came by on Sunday mornings. Eggy and I answered question after question, feeling like hostages, until my father emerged.
“Buenas,” Papi said.
La vecina introduced herself, and Papi walked over, shook her hand over her balcony’s railing. They got to talking, ignoring me and Eggy, Papi smiling, the way he never smiled. My father always had a serious look on his face, a look that made him seem angry, even when he was happy. He ironed his polo shirts, always trying to look good, grooming his mustache every morning, massaging Lustrasilk Right on Curl into his afro before picking it out, even if he was just lying around the house on the weekend. The only time my father dressed down — in shorts, tank tops, and his white Nike Air Force high-tops — was when he played ball or when we went to the beach.
La vecina laughed at something he said, and my father patted his afro lightly. When I saw the opening, I tapped Eggy on the shoulder and we took off running toward the basketball courts.
Sometimes, when Mami was at work and Levy at school, Papi took me to Abuela’s house for lunch. Abuela lived in the next building over. Her kitchen always smelled like fried meat and café, her bedroom a blend of Maja soap, bay rum, and Bal à Versailles perfume. The second bedroom belonged to my tío David, who was a priest at the Catholic Church in the city and only came home occasionally.
In Abuela’s apartment, where he’d lived before he and Mami got married, before we were born, Papi was at home. He had a special bookcase there, and some books I was not allowed to touch — expensive, signed first editions on the top shelf, stories not meant for children on the second. That bookcase was his refuge, where he sometimes went when Mami was yelling or flinging plates across the room. He’d sit in Abuela’s kitchen, turning pages, always with his café. I would do the same, take a book off the lower shelf, sit at the table trying to make out which words I knew, as if this would transfer a sort magic to me — secrets only Papi knew.
Abuela always said I was like Papi’s tail, that when he came into a room, I was usually not far behind. You are just like your father, she’d say, knowing how much I loved hearing that. She’d tell me stories about Papi as a kid. Cano, my father’s nickname, given to him by my tío David when he was a baby, meant “light.” When he was born, my father had been a light-skinned baby with very light hair, and my uncle, three years older, found that hilarious.
La vecina introduced herself, and Papi walked over, shook her hand over her balcony’s railing. They got to talking, ignoring me and Eggy, Papi smiling, the way he never smiled.
Cano, Abuela told me, would climb guayaba trees to steal fruit, sneak out of the house to run through the cañaverales with the street kids. He was always getting in trouble. Cano throwing down with the school bully to defend my tío, the quiet, Jesus-loving kid who refused to fight. Cano getting whooped with a belt by the assistant principal for smacking another kid upside the head. Cano, who’d spent a short time in the Army. Cano the prankster, the papichulo with a girlfriend in every other town, always finding trouble. Cano, who — before any of us were born — had taken off to New York for a couple of years after trouble finally found him.
Every time I ran into la vecina, she wanted to talk. She lived alone with her daughter, Jesenia, she told me. Jesenia wasn’t in school yet, but she would be starting in a couple of days. Jesenia was shy. Jesenia loved to watch TV. Do you want to watch a movie with Jesenia? Do you want to jump rope with Jesenia? I hadn’t seen this Jesenia yet, but I was already done with her.
One morning, with Mami at work and Papi asleep on the couch, la vecina caught me leaving our apartment. She was sweeping the front steps when I came out, and called after me when I tried to sneak past her. “Jaqui, wait!” She leaned the broom against her door and sat on the stoop, tapping the space next to her.
I exhaled dramatically, then plopped down on the step.
“Where were you headed?” she asked.
“Is your brother at school?”
“Is your mom at work?”
“When does she come home?”
“I don’t know.”
“Does she come home at night?”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, she comes home at night.”
“Is your father home?”
“Does he take care of you when your mother’s not home?”
I studied her face, trying to figure out why all the questions about my parents. “Sometimes Abuela takes care of us.”
“Who makes dinner for you?”
“Abuela,” I said. “And sometimes Papi.”
“What do you like to eat?”
She laughed. “What about your father?”
I shrugged. “He likes arroz con pollo, I guess.”
At first it felt like being interrogated, but after a while I was so happy to have a grown-up listening to me talk about myself, I let it all out. I told her about the kioskos on the beach where Papi took me to eat ensalada de pulpo. I told her all about how Levy almost died when he was born, how they kept him in the hospital for two months because he was so little, how he’d had machines to help him breathe. I told her how Levy and I were always fighting, how I wasn’t supposed to go to the plaza, but I still snuck over there sometimes. She listened to every word I said, really listened, even laughed when I made a joke. Then, I don’t know what made me do it, but I told her about the tecato who came up to our balcony and pulled out his dick.
“Do you know who he was?” she asked.
“No, but I’ve seen him before.”
“Did you tell your father?”
“You know,” she said, “if you ever need to, you can talk to me.” She looked right into my eyes and waited.
“Okay,” I said. And I believed her.
Levy, Alaina, and I shared a cramped bedroom — linoleum covering the concrete floors, aluminum persianas, spiderweb cracks on cinder block walls. Levy’s twin bed against one wall, mine against the opposite, Alaina’s crib in the middle. The thick smell of something burning in the air, wafting from the cañaverales, from the nearby mills where they made sugar and guarapo de caña.
I woke up sweaty, Levy still snoring, Alaina sitting up, crying softly, her chubby fingers in her mouth, brown curls stuck to her moist forehead. Pedro Conga’s “Soy Peregrino” blared from the record player in our living room.
I could hear Mami and Papi arguing in the kitchen. My mother slamming plates and silverware in the sink, asking over and over about la otra, a dirty fucking whore she could smell all over him, this woman who had taken the money she worked for, the money she brought home to take care of her children while my father was chillin’ with his homeboys in la plaza.
My father denied everything. There was no smell on him. He had not spent the night with another woman. He’d gone out with friends and was too drunk to drive home. She was imagining things. She was making shit up. How could she think that he would ever do something like that? It was ridiculous. It was crazy.
“Don’t you call me crazy!” my mother yelled. Then she started screaming, like she really was crazy, the sound of it threatening to crack the cinder block walls around us. I would remember this moment when, a few years older, I’d listen to my mother screaming, wailing, during another one of their fights. All of us already living in Miami Beach, Levy, Alaina, and I hiding in the bedroom, our parents hurling coffee mugs and ashtrays at each other, yanking the phone off the wall, turning over the dining room table. My father already so fed up with Mami, with all of us, he would accuse her of making shit up, call her foolish, ridiculous, crazy. And my mother, not even 30 and already in the snares of schizophrenia and addiction and three kids at war with each other, with themselves, Levy pounding on me, depression already like a noose around my neck.
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Another day, la vecina’s apartment door wide open, she caught me as I was coming home from the basketball courts, sweaty and breathless, my face hot from the sun.
“Hey, Jaqui!” she called after me, “come in and play with Jesenia!”
I didn’t know how to say no to her, and I didn’t think she’d like it if I told her that Eggy and I always avoided Jesenia when we saw her riding her bike out front. Jesenia and her Jesenia dresses, one in every color of the rainbow, and her folded-down ankle socks. Jesenia with ribbons in her hair. Jesenia and her stupid pigtails. She was everything I wasn’t. I had a mass of sunburned frizz that stood straight up and I liked it that way. Whenever Mami put ribbons in my hair, they ended up on the floor, or stuffed between the couch cushions, or in one of Abuela’s planters.
She led me into her kitchen, where her only table was a child-size plastic one with two small red chairs. Jesenia sat there, a plate of chocolate chip cookies in front of her, getting crumbs all over her purple dress. Her pigtails were perfect, each plaited into a tight, long braid and secured with a ribbon. La vecina pulled out the other chair and set a small plate for me.
“Jesenia, say hello to Jaqui.”
Jesenia barely looked at me. “Hola.”
I nodded, took a cookie, and instead of playing with Jesenia, I answered more questions for la vecina.
“Where does your father work?”
“He goes to the university,” I told her, even though I could not remember the last time my father took any classes.
“Really? What does he study?”
“Books,” I said, which made her laugh.
Jesenia got up, pushed her chair aside, and left the room.
La vecina poured a cup of milk, set it on the table, then wiped her hands on her dress. “So what’s your mother like?”
I studied her for a minute, not sure what she was asking. La vecina was nothing like Mami. My mother would never wear a dress like my abuela’s, would never smell like fried plantains and pine oil, would never ask question after question before getting to the point. My mother was direct and she took no shit. She got right to it. We got to a party and right away she was dancing. She was small but scared of nothing, a foulmouthed chain-smoker with a hot temper, who drove a stick shift Mazda Rx-7, who never set foot outside without makeup, without her door-knocker earrings, her heels. As petite as she was, my mother owned every room she walked into. She eclipsed the sun with her confidence, took the world by the throat and shook it until it gave up what was hers. You crossed her and she was ready to throw down on the spot, taking off earrings and heels and tying up her hair. She was curvy, with a swing in her hips, and everywhere we went she had admirers, leering men asking her name, asking for her phone number, calling after her, Mira, mami! But she didn’t give any of them the time of day. My mother was utterly and completely in love with my father. Hers was the blazing, frenzied love of Puerto Rican novelas, the kind of love that drives you mad. She loved her children, the three of us — Levy, Alaina, and me — even more so. And she never let us forget it.
La vecina waited for me to respond. This woman. I just couldn’t picture her in red stilettos and a fishnet dress, dancing like Madonna in front of her TV.
“She’s blonde,” I said finally, “with green eyes like my brother. And she likes Madonna.”
Jesenia came back into the room, dropped a bunch of dolls on the table. “Do you like Barbies?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said, which was not entirely true. I had Barbies, dolls Mami had given me for my birthday or Christmas, or that my titis had handed down to me. But I didn’t exactly like them. They were like reminders of everything I wasn’t — blond-haired, blue-eyed. They always made me feel ugly, the brown kid who would never look like her white mother. They’d end up on the floor, tossed aside, with their heads bald. Later, when I learned about sex, I started posing them strategically: Barbie and Barbie facing each other, kissing, their stiff arms sticking up, naked Barbie on top of naked Barbie.
“Do you want to take your father some lunch?” la vecina asked.
“Okay,” I said.
She sent me home with a platter of arroz con pollo, some red beans on the side. It was so heavy I almost dropped it walking through our front door, but Abuela took it off my hands.
Hours later, after Abuela was already gone, Levy watching TV, and Alaina in her crib, Mami walked through the door, tired from work. She sat at the kitchen table, rubbing her feet.
“Did you eat?” she asked. “I’ll make you something.”
“I already ate,” I said. “Had some of la vecina’s arroz con pollo.”
“La vecina?” my mother asked.
“She sent a big platter of food for Papi.”
Suddenly, my mother got up, slamming her fist on the table. I jumped back, almost falling over.
My mother shut her eyes tight, brought her hands to her face. Then, without warning, she stomped out of the kitchen.
My father, again, denied everything. He followed my mother as she came back to the kitchen.
“It’s not true, Jeannette,” he said. “I don’t know what she’s talking about.”
My mother opened the refrigerator, searching, opened the freezer, the oven, lifted the lid to our trash can. She inspected the dishes in the sink, opened and closed all the cabinets, searching and searching. When she didn’t find what she was looking for, she came over and took me by the arm.
“Show me,” she said. “Where is it?”
I looked for la vecina’s platter everywhere, opening drawers and checking the fridge again, but nothing.
“I don’t know,” I said, tears starting to sting my eyes.
“I’m telling you,” my father said, “it never happened.”
I looked to my father, trying to understand, searched his face, tried to look in his eyes. But there was nothing there that could clear things up. I burst into tears.
Mami looked back and forth from Papi to me then Papi again. She finally turned back to me, leaning down so her face met mine. “Are you lying?” she asked me.
I couldn’t get any words out. My mother was mad as hell, standing there, breathing hard, the stink of her cigarette on my face.
“It never happened,” Papi said again.
My mother did not move, did not say a word. She was waiting for me to break. I kept crying, looking at my father for answers. He looked at my mother, beads of sweat collecting at his temple. But he would not look at me.
“I don’t know what she’s talking about,” my father said, looking down at his feet, at the floor, at the wall, at the stove, unable to meet my eyes. And then, finally, I understood.
That night, I would swipe Mami’s sewing scissors, cut the hair off every single one of my Barbies, the ones that still had any hair, and flush it in bunches down the toilet. I would pull my father’s favorite book off the shelf, Hugo Margenat’s Obras Completas, slide it under my mattress. And while my parents yelled at each other and threw the rotating table fan across the room and threatened to leave, I would lay my head on my pillow and feel nothing but the sharp sting of my father’s betrayal.
Days later, Eggy and I walking back from Abuela’s house, where we’d polished off a half dozen mangoes by ourselves, our faces and forearms sticky with juice and pulp, we ran into a mob of people outside my building. Eggy’s mom and his brothers, the guy who sold pinchos around the corner from the front gate, a bunch of street kids, some viejas who lived a couple buildings over, everybody rowdy, hollering, shoving each other.
I spotted Pito and Levy and lost Eggy as I pushed through the crowd to get to them.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
Pito pointed toward the middle of the group, his face sweaty and red. He elbowed one of the other kids out of the way and pulled me by the arm, trying to squeeze us both through the small space.
“Your mom!” he yelled.
Somebody rammed me right into Pito. I almost fell, but kept moving, struggling through the throng of people, bumping them with my shoulders.
Behind me, my brother shoved me, yelling at the back of my head. “Move!”
“I’m trying!” I hollered back.
When a space opened up, Pito thrust through it until we made it to the front. The crowd was opening up when I saw them: Papi had Mami in his arms, trying to hold her back. Mami was kicking and slapping at my father, trying to get free, her hair windblown and tangled.
Our upstairs neighbor, a six-foot-six basketball player everybody called Gigante, was holding la vecina, her curly hair pulled out of its ponytail and torn to shreds. La vecina swung both arms blindly, aiming for anything she could hit.
When Papi tried to carry Mami toward our front door, she slid down and got loose, and all the street kids exploded, Pito and Levy and Eggy calling out, “Light her up! Knock her out! Préndela!” It was the same kind of shouting we heard in our living room during boxing matches, my father and his friends knocking back Medallas in front of the TV, everybody jumping to their feet when Macho Camacho started wailing on José Luis Ramírez, hollering, Knock him out! Light him up! Préndelo!
La vecina was nothing like Mami. My mother would never wear a dress like my abuela’s, would never smell like fried plantains and pine oil, would never ask question after question before getting to the point. My mother was direct and she took no shit.
My mother tangled her hands in la vecina’s hair, pulled her down out of Gigante’s arms and onto the ground, and started kicking. My father got a hold of Mami again, picked her up in the air, my mother red-faced and shrieking, arms flailing, spit flying out of her mouth. He carried her inside.
Gigante helped la vecina get up. She had three long, bloody scratches over her nose and mouth, like claw marks.
Just then, as la vecina was getting to her feet, my mother burst through the front door, a steak knife in her hand, the crowd moving back, opening up more space between themselves and my mother. Everything seemed to slow down, Pito and Levy and Eggy, all of them, disappearing until it was just me and my mother and my mother’s knife, the three of us echoing through the years, propelled forward in time, and because I am my mother’s daughter more than I have ever been my father’s, it will be this moment I think of when I’m a 14-year-old hoodlum tucking razor blades into the sides of my Jordans, brass knuckles and Master combination locks and pocket knives in my backpack; when I am 15 and getting jumped by five girls at the bus stop; when I am 16 and trying to decide how to deal with a friend who has betrayed me; when I am 17 and fighting with my brother. How I would always come back to this, my mother and her knife and all that rage, la vecina leaping back out of her way. And then my father, my father’s face, my father’s hands, my father’s voice, Jeannette, let go of the knife, how he took both of her hands into his, saying it over and over, Suelta el cuchillo, suelta el cuchillo, suelta el cuchillo.
But my mother would not let it go. Instead, Papi lifted her hands above her head, trying to pry it from her fingers, and Mami bit his shoulder, kicked him. He leaned her up against the doorway, pressing his body against hers until she couldn’t move, subduing her, and when he was finally able to get the knife, some of the onlookers rushed to help. It took three grown men to get Mami, kicking and slapping and hurling insults at them, back inside our apartment.
Outside, as the crowd split — while la vecina was still fixing her hair and clothes, limping around looking for her chancletas — I saw Jesenia. She saw me, too. Standing on the front lawn, outside the crowd’s perimeter, Jesenia in one of her Jesenia dresses, a white one with big yellow flowers, her hair parted down the middle, braided. How she stood there, alone, her face stained with tears, how nobody else seemed to see her, how nobody stopped as they headed back to their apartments or the basketball courts or la plaza, how nobody asked if she was OK, if she needed help, anything. I’d like to say that when I saw her, Jesenia looking back at me, yellow ribbons in her hair, that we had a moment, that as we looked into each other’s eyes, we both understood that we had been lost, that we had been lucky to find each other in a crowd, and we both thought, Here is a girl who sees me. Here is a girl who understands.
The truth is we did have a moment, Jesenia and I, seeing each other, knowing each other, and it was clear: We were the same. I hated her, and she hated me. Because we were our mothers’ daughters. Because we could not turn back time to the days when our mothers were just girls, or forward, when we would finally break free of them. Because back then we could not see what either of us would become.
* * *
Jaquira Díaz‘s work appears or is forthcoming in the Best American Essays, The FADER, Rolling Stone, and is forthcoming in T,The New York Times Style Magazine and NYTimes.com. Ordinary Girls, her first book, is forthcoming from Algonquin.
Editor: Sari Botton