Zoe Rana Mungin
Love, from Mexico
School’s in an hour so I am awake, half-dressed at the kitchen table. My mother is at the stove, the phone between her shoulder and her ear as she ladles grits into bowls for me and my sister. She calls for Rosie who’s in the next room, not that Rosie wants any breakfast that Mami has made. She’s got the TV on, volume as loud as it can go, the baby beside her, screaming like if he lays there another second he’ll die. Rosie doesn’t know how to raise a baby, anyway, let alone how to stop hers from screaming. Mami says that a little few tears never hurt anybody, though Rosie’s baby is likely to give himself a hernia, she says, because he can’t ever to shut up.
Mami places a bowl in front of me, leans over the table and says, “Eat it all, Jenny.”
I hate grits, but Mami’s got no time to make eggs or anything that tastes good. She’s got to drive me to the train station and remind Rosie to pick up her WIC checks around the corner and then to cash in her WIC checks at the store because the baby needs formula and we need cheese and milk and Rosie still hasn’t applied for food stamps, the office is right there on Pine, and Mami doesn’t know who Rosie thinks is going to feed her and her baby both, especially when Rosie can’t even get off her ass to cash in the WIC she’s already got for more milk, and maybe she should go downtown to Family Court and put a child support out on her good-for-nothing baby daddy, who’s still around the corner, still with his mom, and we ain’t seen nothing of him but the back of his neck since Rosie came back home.
She’s gotta curse out my father, too, all before she goes to work. I know better than to ask for anything better than grits. But this is how we are: Mami talks and we listen, even Rosie, even though she’s in the next room, watching as she moves, like a car making too fast a turn off the boulevard, barreling down Essex and there’s a stop sign at the corner and maybe the car will slow, maybe it won’t. Maybe it’ll hit a kid, maybe you’ll see it, standing on the sidewalk, eyes open, waiting for the sky to fall. Maybe the car will veer onto the sidewalk. Maybe it’ll hit you.
I stir in the sugar and the milk and she stands at the head of the table pulling plastic rollers from her hair. They make her look more American—more than the out-of-control spirals she’s got going on without trying, she says. She’s got peach-colored skin and this long, straight nose, covered with freckles, but those could be from anything. Somewhere better than Puerto Rico, at least. Once, when we’re in the city, this Strega Nona came up to her, stooped over like she’s just stepped out of the story, and starts talking in Italian and everything, like Mami was supposed to know what she meant. It’s easier with white people, who look at her skin and think she’s foreign in a good way. But it’s her accent that gives her away, and the only way she could ever pass for anything but Boricua is to keep her mouth shut, and in that way Mami’s like the baby, or maybe the baby’s like her: if Mami isn’t running her mouth, she will die. She talks like she believes this. Rosie would say that she does.
Mami’s mouth is pressed to the phone, and I can hear my father murmuring on the other end. She looks away from me to the wall, like my father is there, like he can see her face, her eyebrows angled like angry strokes of a pencil, a picture that someone drew. She says, “What? Fuck you. I’m talking to my daughter.”
She leans away but everything about her hangs in the air, cement slippers in a river, the only thing for you to breathe. She smells like Skin So Soft and knock-off Olay, powdery and sweet because she’s going to work and that means she has to be somebody, because other people will see. It’s the glory of Payless and the clearance rack at a nine-hour Macy’s sale; wearing stockings, always, even if it’s the papery shit we buy from the bodega across the street, the kind that rip if you put them on without rolling them right, but if I’d listened to Mami and carried clear nail polish, like she told me, I could still wear them for a couple a weeks.
“Coño,” she says. “What the fuck are you doing? Like this, mija. Do you want to make it worse?”
It’s an edge I learn to walk instinctively: how to look like somebody without looking like someone who wants. This is how girls get into trouble, Mami says.
She says, “I would fucking know.”
This is how she meets Daddy, on her way to Our Lady of Guadalupe in East Flatbush. She says he was a tall moyeto with the sun on his shoulders.
“They say a couple of words to you and next thing you’re having a baby.”
Mami says I should feel lucky. Her mother died before Mami was old enough to be told anything. She calls it a curse, traces it back to when Daddy first called out to her when she was fourteen.
She tells me this as she holds Rosie’s baby. “Eighteen with a fucking baby. Mother of God. What did I do wrong?”
“Everything,” Rosie says, but Mami blames Daddy and his curse because she cannot let go of anything. Daddy especially, who’s been gone longer than he stayed. She sends him cards on Christmas and Easter—the insides inscribed with nasty little messages beneath words that proclaim, “¡Feliz Pascua Florida!” and “Una Plegaria de Navidad.” She only calls on his birthday, but she plans it weeks in advance. She asks me for my report cards and what things I want that she can’t afford and buys a calling card from the bodega across the street.
The owner is a man from San Juan who looks like Willie Colón, skin like a steaming serving of café con leche when you’ve only stirred in half the milk. A thick black mustache that eclipses his upper lip. He’s known my mother since before her life went wrong, and he gives her store credit and advice she does not want. When I’m little, he teaches me to dance salsa on-2 between the deli counter and stacks of pork rinds in green and red bags. The black kids call him “Papi” because they think that sort of thing is fun, and I follow because he doesn’t mind anyway, even if the black kids are being fresh and Mami would get me good if she heard.
When he sees my mother, he says, “Señora Dolores, mi amor. Hola.”
They talk in Spanish too fast for me to understand. When we are little, Rosie gets the Spanish, but all I get is the words—every other if I am lucky, but there is no hope if Papi is talking to my mother. If you don’t roll your rr’s like a muchachita you are not Boricua, just brown, which means black, which is the worst. There’s no difference between being black and being on the floor. Papi calls me muchachita when Mami sends me to the store. Papi tells me I’m beautiful, too, but Papi sometimes counts the dollars and cents all wrong and gives me back too much change, and when I tell him this, he laughs and says, “It’s okay, linda. My mistakes can be yours.”
When I go to the store with Mami, he calls me muchachita and asks me if I still watch Sailor Moon and Mami will put rice and cans and cans of habichuelas on the counter and Papi will turn to her and say hola and Mami will say hola back and their Spanish will take them to a whole nother plane, far away from anything I can touch with my tongue even as it fills the space in my ears. Once, when I was very little, Mami cleaned my ears too good, so good that they hurt. Everything sounded like broken bells and Mami wouldn’t believe me when I said it hurt because something always hurt, mostly because I was always walking into things or falling over and if I hit my knees then I should be complaining about my knees, not my ear—did I think she was stupid, was I stupid? She told me to leave her alone before she made something really hurt. I said okay.
This is how it went for awhile, pain that moved from my ear to my brain and would disappear as fast as it came. When we played double-dutch in gym the girls wouldn’t let me turn because suddenly I was double-handed and they would point to the ropes and say, “Can’t you hear that?” I couldn’t ever find a beat with my ears, not how everyone else said that they could, and nobody quite knew how I normally turned so well when I said I couldn’t hear but those days I was double-handed all I could say was “huh?” because it wasn’t just the beat I was missing, it was everything else, too: sound moving in and out like I was moving between rooms, even though I was standing still. The back of my mouth tasted like puke.
One afternoon I came home from school with the collar of my school shirt stained with splotches of pink and Mami took me by the neck and inspected it, asking me about markers and what I had done in school. You’ve gotta be real careful when Mami asks you questions like that because Mami has a way that she thinks school should go which isn’t how it is at all. It’s one of those things that Mami doesn’t know because Mami went to the kind of school you had to pay for and Rosie said it was important to let Mami think what she wanted so long as she never found out any sort of truth. But Rosie played that game better than me. Maybe because Rosie wasn’t ever scared of Mami, not even when she was little like me, not even when Mami beat her until she was red then purple then green.
I knew better than to play with markers, especially in my white shirts, but Mami swore the art teacher had it out for her because what woman in her right mind gave eight-year-olds markers when they were required to wear white. Mami sent letters. When she talked about Ms. Krantz, she said, “That fucking bitch.” But in art we were working with black paper and chalk and I showed Mami my picture and she looked at me and she looked at me until I looked away and rubbed at my ear. She said, “Dios mio, let me see,” and when she pulled my hand away, there was pus and blood. Not a lot, but we took a cab to the doctor, even though we usually walked. Mami pressed her hands to her face and told me she was sorry, and I pressed my face against her stomach and wished that she wasn’t sorry, that my ear didn’t hurt, that I hadn’t been telling the truth.
This is how Spanish feels: sounds that I know that I’m touching through water or maybe through walls, or maybe that place deep inside of me, that place that existed before I was born that I am too new to remember how to use. Sailor Moon doesn’t even remember that she is Sailor Moon until someone tells her, and even then it’s just a echo, though maybe Sailor Moon has it easy, because even if she doesn’t remember, she’s still got magic and she gets to transform into everything that she doesn’t remember. Rosie says I watch too much TV, but things don’t have to be true in order to be real, and Rosie doesn’t understand. When things would get bad between Mami and Rosie, before Rosie left and came back with a baby in tow, when Mami mad enough to blow, she and Rosie would go back and forth with the words in their bones that I didn’t understand so I made them up instead. Rosie told Mami, “I love you, but you make me sad.” Mami said back, “I want you to be okay.”
My mother and my sister are a game of opposites: the louder their voices, the kinder I imagined they were. Rosie sometimes left, slamming every door that she could, loud enough to wake Mr. Brown upstairs and he’d come storming down and he’d say, “There ain’t no slammin doors in my mutherfuckin house, you hear me?” and then he and Mami would get into it, because Mami would slam all the doors she wanted because her rent was paid and the heat in the front room was still broke and just give her a reason to call the city, because she fucking would, Mr. Brown could swallow her fucking dick. By then, too much time would’ve passed for Mami to chase Rosie down the street and pull her back by her hair, and all of the everything would whoosh out of her, and Mr. Brown would just look at her, like maybe he felt bad, and he would say, “Stop slammin’ my doors, Dolores,” and Mami would say, “Cállate,” but the way they spoke to each other was different, like they could only be nice after they had already been mean and Mr. Brown understood a lot, I think, about having a daughter who had left and wouldn’t come home. Mr. Brown would say goodnight and go back upstairs and Mami would sit on the couch and wait for Rosie who always came home, always, until the night she didn’t, and Mami cried herself sick. Mami didn’t leave the bed for a week.
But Rosie is home—with a baby, no less, but very little feels changed. Rosie says it hurts, Mami tells her to shut her mouth, and when Mami goes with me to the store, Papi still looks at her as if she is a little girl in pretty clothes trying out new words and sometimes saying them wrong but still talking, always talking, the prettiest Spanish I’ve ever heard.
It is easier to imagine the exchange between Papi and my mother, predictable as Sunday mass: song, greeting, prayer. Amen. They say hello, how are you? There is talk of children, of the store, of the black boy who got shot on the Conduit just that afternoon. Mami works over there, in the school. A shame, he says to her. She asks for a calling card, and Papi says, “It’s that time again?” and Mami asks for a cigarette, only one. Papi gives it to her, no charge.
Mami didn’t have pictures of Daddy. He left for Mexico when I was three, so only Rosie remembers him, because she was seven and seven is old enough, even though she says that she remembers everything, despite how old she may have been. When Mami would put money away—to send one of us to our father, she said, farther away than far away, all the way in Mexico—Rosie would ask her to promise, to swear.
“Send me,” she would say. “Please. I hate you. Send me away.”
The money was never for Mexico, but Mami swore that if we tried her, she’d fucking do it, so fast our heads would spin, that we’d be getting off the plane by the time we remembered which way was up, and by then it was too late, we were in Mexico and we could see for ourselves how bad it was and we’d be begging her to bring us back. “Please, señora,” she said we’d say. “We’ll be good. Please. Just bring us home.”
It wasn’t bad all the time. If we were good, she’d buy us a real pizza for dinner, not that shit they sold in Papi’s store, with the cheese that melted like plastic and the brown, rubbery crust that stuck to the roof of your mouth and didn’t want to let go, like it wanted you to choke. If we were lucky, we’d get a Barbie from the drug store. The new dolls went to Rosie if she wasn’t mouthing off, and I would get to pick from the old ones that she didn’t want.
Still. It’s the sort of life you pray over every night before you go to sleep.
“Please God,” you say. “Please, please save me.”
There wasn’t ever any kind of escape. Back then, she was a lunch lady at 202, which went from K – 8 and was around the corner and two blocks away—which meant she could drop us off and walk us home and make sure we didn’t get into any trouble. She worked the steam tables, her glossy black hair pulled back with a hairnet so thin it didn’t hold back anything, much less the mess of hair pinned to the back of her head. Her hair would curl around her face, curlicues so perfect they looked like they came from a movie. Her face would be as white as her apron, pink in the cheeks from the steam and from being angry like she usually was at school. Because everybody wanted this and not that, and nobody understood that you were supposed to shut up and eat what you got, because somewhere out there was somebody who didn’t have anything, and you wouldn’t be picky about shit if this were your only meal.
She was the lady no one went to because she never gave you what you asked for. Ask for pizza, you got the hotdog. Ask for the hotdog, you got sorry collards and some beans. Not that Mami knew anything about collards or anything like that. The black lunch ladies boiled them in salt and water because the school wouldn’t get neck bones—because they weren’t good for you. Mami would dump in half a bottle of Adobo when no one was looking.
After school, she would ask me, “Did they taste any different?” And I would say, “Sí, sí,” even though they only tasted like Adobo—like everything she made—but I knew better than to say something like that to my mother.
In the lunch line, I would keep my head to the floor and she would ask me about my homework and my teacher and make me eat whatever vegetables they had: over-boiled broccoli that felt like mush on my tongue or canned beets that sat on my tray like congealed blood—the stuff you find in your underwear when you don’t know you’re gonna bleed and all you’ve got to clean yourself up with is the coarse gray tissue from the bathroom in school, dense and scratchy and bulging between your legs, like whole buildings have sprouted in your underwear, tearing you apart from the place where it hurts the most.
Mami swore by the lunch line: free food, enough to fill you up until afterschool, at least; till dinner if you ate everything on your tray. She swore that whatever she slapped onto the tray was more nutritious than what we asked for. “Get your protein,” she would say. “Eat some vegetables. Dios mio! These fucking kids.”
The black kids laughed at her accent—thick like the red paste she slathered over ravioli, or chicken patties, or the pizza. “Dios mio!” they would say. “Dios mio, dios mio!”
Mommy would slam a ladle down on the steam table, eyes sharp as knives as she promised to tell their mothers when they got picked up from school. “You think I don’t know who she is? You think I don’t know?” Their eyes would widen and she would grin like a wolf, like she was hungry and satisfied at the same time, like she was full on their fear, like she wanted more. “I can’t wait to tell her what you do in school.”
This shut them up for a few days, until the beatings wore off and they once again got brave. “Watch, those boys ain’t gonna be anything,” she would say to me as we walked home from school. She carried a Macy’s bag filled with leftovers from lunch, the bag so heavy the red dye from the star stretched till it turned white, like when you scrape your knee and rip away the brown of your skin, and all you can see is the white meat, right before you start to bleed.
If I called out in class even once, Mami knew—without anyone telling her, I used to think—and I spent first and second grade biting my nails and my lips because I was so scared I would call out and get in trouble. I felt out of control—like I couldn’t control anything, even my own voice. I ended up not saying anything, not ever—at home or at school or any of the places she could see me, so that I wouldn’t get in trouble. When I told Rosie, she dug her nails into my sides and said, “I think it’s the devil.” It tickled and it hurt and I laughed but mostly cried, because I was scared of the devil more than I was scared of anything—almost as much as I was scared of Mami—and Rosie couldn’t understand past her own fun.
At the lunch tables, kids would turn to me and say, “I can’t believe that’s your moms!” like their mothers weren’t raising hell for someone as they made minimum wage somewhere else. But it’s more because me and my mother are more like Wonder Bread and wheat, and when I’m too little to understand what love really means, I can’t believe I belong to her, either.
“That’s because she found you,” Rosie would say to me. “She found you on the street and she picked you up. She said to me, ‘Ay, poor negrita! Rosie, we will take her home.’ So we did. That’s how we got you. That’s why you’re so dark.”
I knew it wasn’t true; I have Mami’s eyes and her moles, the freckles along my fingers a touch from her Spanish ancestors—que los conquistadores—coloring me with spots like some white girl stained from the sun.
Rosie isn’t the same. She looks Dominican: light-skinned and nappy-haired like she’s from a place with too much Africa in the water. When I tell her this, she punches me so hard in the chest that I wheeze.
Hair aside, she’s enough like Mami that no one wonders, that people say, “Ah, hija de Lola.” They never say things like this about me. If I didn’t look like Mami, then I had to look like somebody. But all of this is before Daddy came home at the start of the summer, stayed for two months, holding my mother’s hand and sharing her bed and pressing his face to Rosie’s belly, the baby still inside, saying things like, “Te amo” and “I can’t wait for you to come,” even though he was gone quick as summer, days and days before Rosie’s baby was born.
Before Daddy came home, when I didn’t know if he ever would, I didn’t understand nothing about anything—that I am a shade from his people with a nose like his Anty Antoinette, the coarse curls on my head itching for a relaxer like a crackhead digging for his next hit. I am the child of the lechero, great fun for the ladies who say these things, patting my head like an animal, the negrita Rosie swears Mami found on the street.
Rosie is lucky because she looks like tea and milk. Even though her hair is nappy like mine and every black girl we know, she can still be pretty, because at least she isn’t dark.
Mami didn’t care about any of that, anyway. Even if she found me, I am still hers, and even as a girl, I felt like I was being swallowed up by something that I couldn’t escape from, that she had me sitting deep in her belly—a place that was small and burned—so that I couldn’t ever leave her, or be stupid, or ever not be okay.
Rosie used to tell Mami not to call, because even though it was Daddy’s birthday, it wasn’t like Mami had anything to give, and she always cried afterwards. But Rosie doesn’t say much of anything anymore, not since she came back home. She’s been back and forth since the first time she left for a whole week, the time she got pregnant, but she left for the longest after she had the baby in September. She left because she had a boy and at the hospital Mami said, “Well, at least it will be easier this way.” I don’t know if she said this because boys can’t get pregnant or because of everything Rosie did to her, but Rosie was too pissed to care and Rosie didn’t come home for two whole months.
Mami said, “You think leaving is going to change something? Go ahead. You think you’re special enough to raise a baby with a boy? Be my guest. You’ll come back to me. You’ll see.”
She’s gotten me into a high school in the city, an hour away on the train. It’s better than the failure factory down the street—the only school that would take me, regularly, but Rosie went there and Mami wasn’t having any more of that. She wakes up an hour early to drive me to the train station, and she wears face cream the color of peaches beneath her eyes because it looks like she hasn’t slept in weeks. She hasn’t slept, not since Daddy left at the end of summer, but neither of us say anything about Daddy, because it hurts, and only Rosie is angry enough to bring him up when Mami’s getting on her about food stamps and her baby daddy, or when Mami is holding Rosie’s son, telling him he is beautiful, her beautiful, beautiful thing.
I tell her that I can walk, but if I walk she says I will get pregnant, or worse. I’ve never even kissed a boy, but you don’t have to be looking for trouble for trouble to come looking for you. I’ve had my period since I was nine—earlier than Mami and Rosie both—and that’s trouble enough, especially since Mami was fourteen when she had her first baby, and I’m the same age that Rosie was when she began running wild, which is probably why she has a baby now, too.
Sailor Moon is fourteen when she discovers she’s the Princess of the Moon, but in my family, fourteen is cursed, the place where shit slips so far there isn’t any pulling it back up. Right when Rosie had her baby, ladies at mass patted me on the shoulder as if to say, “Nice try, Jenny, nice try.” They would never say this to my mother, but Mami stopped going to church because she got a new job that took her into Queens on the weekends, and Rosie couldn’t defend herself because she’d taken her baby and run away with Matteo, this caco who promised her things like family and a house—things he’s going to pay for with drug money, but Rosie didn’t care anymore, because being with Matteo meant she didn’t have to be at home.
These ladies have daughters with babies, too—daughters who are younger than Rosie is at eighteen, who can barely put together two English words, let alone pass their GED or SATs and Rosie scored perfect on both, not that numbers matter when you’re poor and stuck between being brown and peaches and cream and you’ve got no money and now you’ve got a baby, too. Rosie can’t even cook. Maybe Rosie could’ve gone to college but Mami says she’s fucked it all up. The only degree she’s getting is some associated piece of shit from BMCC that maybe she can use to wipe her ass when she runs out of toilet tissue that she can’t afford because what kind of job is Rosie going to get with a GED and a two-year degree and a baby on her hip, may we never forget. She mind as well sign up for welfare, too.
Mami is kinder than the ladies at church. To them, Rosie’s failure has less to do with Rosie and more to do with my mother, who has been high on the smell of herself since she was a girl. But Mami’s mother was never anything to speak of and Abuelo—have mercy on his soul—didn’t know any better on his own. He spoiled her because he was her daddy and she was his only, though the ladies swear that if Mami had wanted for a little more she wouldn’t have gotten herself into this mess at all.
“It’s because he sent her to that school,” they say. “Paid for her books, even. Like she was better than everyone else. And then look what happens—she lets some maldito who doesn’t know up from down have his turn and then just leave, like she’s another stop on the train! Now look, now look!” They throw their hands in the air. “Isn’t it sad?”
Still, it is nice to see Señora Beauchamp—Señorita, when they are feeling cruel—brought down to where she belongs.
Sometimes, Papi tells me stories of my mother at fourteen: glossy-haired, knock-kneed and beautiful. This is Mami’s curse: of wonder, of being beautiful in the way that people want to touch. Abuelo sends her to Our Lady of Guadalupe, as clean and Catholic as he can dream. She wears a crisp white blouse and socks, a pleated skirt, and carries textbooks with her name in them. We have pictures of her like this, and she looks like Rosie, with nicer hair. Papi tells me to look at her hands—las lindas manitas—and her fingers, nimble and long. She plays the piano, songs as sweet as angels, though he has never had the chance to hear. She helps with Sunday classes, does her homework. She is perfect, he tells me. He throws his hands in the air, his eyes towards the sky as he says, “Qué bonita!” When I was little, this made me giggle, and my mother would roll her eyes and hand him a stack of government checks for milk, cheese, and beans.
I wonder where her colors began to turn, like trees in the fall, if she sees the same shift in Rosie, the first time she finds her with Matteo, standing too close, smoking cigarettes on the corner of Essex and Hegeman, like that shit was cute.
Mami says to her when she is sixteen, “You will not make my mistake.” Her fingers are on her cheeks, as if to squeeze the sin from my sister with her bare hands. The first time we stain our sheets red is the beginning of everything, Mami says.
“Right now it’s just a little blood. But then they will come looking for you. Trust me, mija, I fucking know.”
Mami’s moment looks like this:
It is a late Saturday morning when she is fourteen. Her back is pressed against her bedroom door, her teeth digging into a muscle of Daddy’s shoulder so she doesn’t make any noise. Abuelo is in the living room, sleeping off his second job to pay for her quinceañera and the tuition for her to attend school. He sends her to Our Lady of Guadalupe because he believes in the word and in my mother, doesn’t think that she’s thinking of more than just math and Jesus as she rides the 2-train to school.
This is how she meets Daddy, walking up the stairs from the station when he stops her, says, “Qué hermosa!” She’s never met a black man who could speak Spanish before, and she knows better than to mix with a cocolo from some place without running water.
I imagine her brows pressing together, her lips thin, as she asks, “¿No es dominicano?”
He smiles and touches her chin. He says, “No soy dominicano.”
And like magic, she is his. Forever and always. Mami is fourteen. Daddy is already thirty.
“Never again,” she tells me, and it’s like a promise, between me and her and Rosie and Jesus—because even babies know better than to break a promise to the Lord.
But none of Mami’s planning or prayers or stories have ever worked. Not for Rosie, at least, who has followed her in her sin. At mass, I am blessed by Father Ortiz. He asks me about my mother, my sister and her son, Angel, who is the color of a peach and more beautiful than anything any of us have ever held in our hands. He squeezes my fingers and tells me, “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”
Afterwards, Señora Calderon pats me on the shoulder and says, “Oh, pobrecita. You know how it is. De tal palo tal astilla. But you can’t fight life, you know?”
Mami will save me from this curse. Every morning, she tells me to keep my chin up and my eyes down and drives me to the train station and everywhere she can, because she believes this will keep me safe.
This is more than what she could do for Rosie, who is eighteen and wrong. But when Rosie was in high school, Mami didn’t have money for a car, or anything. We ate school lunch for dinner because Mami had a job so the food stamps office said they couldn’t help anymore, considering we were getting welfare, too. But that was short-lived, as it’s always only a matter of time before the government finds out what you’re up to. Mami says that there ain’t nobody more stingy with their money than the people you want to give it to you, even when it’s their job to help. Mami was at work for three weeks before the checks stopped, because other people needed it more, even though she only worked part-time. She made enough for rent and weekend groceries, but there wasn’t much left, and anything that was, she saved for things that were important: my first communion and Rosie’s new school shoes, or calling cards to curse at my father. She saved for years to buy the old Honda from Papi, though back then I always thought it was money for Mexico.
She would say, “I’ll send you with your father. Then we’ll see how you like to act out.” I would cry, because I didn’t want to go anywhere, especially not to Mexico to be with a man I’d never seen. Until Daddy came home when I was thirteen, I didn’t know anything about him except that he was gone. I spoke to him when Mami called on his birthdays—if Mami wasn’t so angry that she hung up, and if Rosie ever stopped crying enough to let me speak.
“You’re too little,” Rosie would say. “You don’t understand. What do you want to say? Tell me, and I’ll tell him for you.”
I didn’t like any of this one bit, but I was nine and Rosie was thirteen, and even now I’ll follow wherever she leads—even if it’s to the streets and everything Mami never wants for me—so I shut up and did what she asked. I would think of what I wanted her to say for me: that I was the second in my class for tests in math and the only one my age at church who knew the Apostle’s Creed. I wanted her to tell him that I was learning about water colors in Arts and made Mami a picture for her birthday card, that I hadn’t ruined my shoes since the new year, and that I’d really, really like it if he ever came home. I would tell Rosie this. She would look at me, then say into the phone, “Yes, Daddy. That’s Jenny. She says hi. I’ll tell her. Okay.”
Later, she would say to me, “He says hi, too.”
When I did speak to him, he would laugh, the sound so big it felt like it flew all the way from Mexico, like Daddy was next to me and his laughter was in my chest. “Jenny,” he would say, like I was a good girl. “Stay sweet. For your mother.”
I didn’t know what this meant, but I knew better than not to respond when someone was talking to me. “Sí,” I said.
“Tell her that I love her.”
“You’ll remember?” he would say, kind of curious, like he was having fun.
It felt like the most important thing anyone had ever told me, ever. “I will. I promise.”
He would laugh again. “Good girl.”
When I told this to Rosie, she told me not to say anything. “You know that she cries, don’t you? She’s crying over Daddy. Don’t tell her what he said.”
I told Rosie that this was too important for it to be a secret, too big for even me and her, even though we’d been keeping secrets from Mami for years. But our secrets weren’t that big at all: forged signatures and change stolen out of her purse, throwing the school lunch she brought home for dinner out the back window for the dog next door, or the fight Rosie got into after school when Mami was at her computer class in the library behind Cypress Hills.
“But I promised,” I said. I could hear Rosie shift in her bed, the curve of her body highlighted by the streetlight from the window. Our room was too small to fit anything— including us, Rosie used to think—and her bed was so close to mine that I could reach out and touch her, if I tried.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “People make promises all the time.”
“But he asked me to, Rosie. He asked me. He’s never asked me to do anything.”
I could imagine the frown she made in the dark, her lips going thin like Mami’s because I got something from Daddy that she could never have. “You think Mami’s never asked him for something? That she never asked him to come home?”
I didn’t know what she was asking me so I didn’t know how to respond. Mami never asked Daddy anything on the phone. She’d yell and she’d curse, and then she’d say, “Here, talk to your daughter. See how she is.” Then, she’d pass Rosie the phone.
Rosie was quiet for a long while, so long that I thought she’d fallen asleep just like that, facing me without speaking. “If he really meant what he said, he wouldn’t ask you to tell her.”
At nine, I still knew how to make excuses for him. “Well, maybe he can’t,” I said. “You don’t know.”
“Don’t be stupid. He’s got two lips just like the rest of us. It’s not that he can’t—he won’t. We can’t even get a card in the mail.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know our address.”
“Maybe he doesn’t love us.”
Daddy had never said anything about loving me and Rosie, just Mami. But despite all my excuses, I watched enough telenovellas to understand what it meant when a man wouldn’t come home.
In the quiet, I asked, “You think he’s got another family?”
Rosie said, “Muñeca. I’m not going to talk to you all night.” She turned over, so I could only see her back, and I pressed my face into the pillow and cried, because Rosie hadn’t told me anything, which was enough to tell me that it was true.
I didn’t tell.
Even when Mami cried, when she said that she hated her job and the schools and everything in Brooklyn, when she looked like, maybe, if I told her what Daddy said, she’d be okay, I kept my mouth shut. I was waiting, I said. For a sign: a birthday card, or a telephone call that Mami didn’t have to buy a calling card for, because Lord knew he never called us first.
I kept the secret safe inside of me, where no one could touch it. Not Rosie and her curses, or Mami and her tears. It was Daddy’s chance to be good to us, a chance to love my mother.
He never sent anything, but I told myself that maybe he called, when we weren’t home and no one was there to talk.
Next year, when it was my chance to talk, I told Daddy about the fourth grade and the friend I made upstairs. He hmmed, and I knew that I loved him, more than anything.
Before he hung up, he said, “Jenny. Did you tell your mother what I said?”
I swallowed, pushing down Daddy’s secret so that I could speak. “Sí.”
“Good girl,” he said to me. “Make sure you never forget.”
On the phone, Mami says to him, “I want you to know that you’ve ruined everything. You’ve ruined everything and I hate you.”
If this is the curse, I think, I have inherited it. In her head, she divides her life by two separate times: when she was stupid, and when—thank Jesus—she wasn’t. But stupid doesn’t have anything to do with hope, and me and Rosie have it like freckles or moles or the shape of our lips. Less than a wish, Rosie used to say, or even a feeling. It’s something that covers everything like dust, a shapeless emotion that you can’t see but makes everything a little gray around the edges, so you can’t see everything in the frame.
Mami tells me that she’s old enough now to see everything—past the promises he halfway made to all the things she always wanted but Daddy would never say.
“Nobody needs a love letter,” she says to me. “I’ve got kids to raise, anyway.”
But everything she says has got an entire list of things she doesn’t ask for. She says she got peace of mind now—finally—and I feel a little of Rosie beg to come out because she’s full of shit.
But that’s Mami’s kind of forever—till the wheels fall off or nothing at all. She says that people can’t live this way, but Rosie’s already eighteen and they’re a generation deep, too far in to know which way to go. I sit at the table and listen to her curse at my father. In the bedroom, Rosie tries to soothe the baby with a lullaby she learned from the Dominicans when she left us.
Rosie is here because she’s fighting with Matteo. He bloodied her mouth, so she called the cops and took his son and came back home to us. It’s only been a few weeks, but my mother doesn’t mind the baby and she likes being able to tell Rosie that she was right about Matteo and Dominicans and everything. She likes being able to say, “Now look at you. Look at what you have become.”
It is because of this that Rosie is going back to Matteo. “He hits me because he’s stupid,” she tells me. “But at least he doesn’t tell me that I’m nothing.”
My mother has Daddy on speakerphone so that I can hear him. “So that you’ll understand, mija,” as if the handful of sentences they exchange every year will ever explain how our family came to be.
My father sighs, and the sound crackles like a piece of paper, a bad connection. “Hola, Lola.”
She clucks her tongue, her cheeks burning red. “Don’t you dare call me that.”
There is a sound from the other end of the line. I’m not sure if he’s laughing, or sighing. We can hear the rustle of clothing as he moves. I wonder if he’s getting out of bed, if there is a woman beside him. My mother stares at the phone as we wait, long pale fingers wrapped around the edge of the table. She could have been a pianist, I think. A dancer, or a hand model. I wonder how my life would have been different if it had been my mother’s hands on Jergens bottles, or book covers, instead of serving sloppy joes to us ingrates at 202 or, later, typing for nine hours a day at a school in Queens when she finally got her GED. I wonder how things would have changed if she hadn’t turned around when he called out to her when she was fourteen, if he had been man enough to find a woman his own age, instead of pouring everything he had into a girl who found it more than she could bear. I wonder if my mother thinks this, if she regrets Daddy and Rosie and me the way that she should—the way that anyone would, were they in her place.
There is whisper of Spanish from my father’s end, a woman’s voice that makes the breath held in my mother’s chest explode.
“I hate you,” she says. There are tears, but she is always hysterical. Again, she tells him, “I hate you.”
“Dolores,” he says, his voice as quiet as a whisper. “How are the girls?” he says.
“No one’s a damn girl. They’re nearly grown. You missed it, everything.”
There is silence. He asks about Rosie, then me. “Rosie is fine,” my mother snaps. Then, “Her man—the Dominicano—he beats her. She’s staying here, with the baby.”
“Ah,” he says. “And my Jenny?”
Mami looks to me and snorts. “She’s not being beat bloody by some puta. She’s a good girl.”
Daddy says, “Of course.”
She says, suddenly, “I wish I could give you what you have given me.”
“I would take it,” my father tells her. “All of it. Everything.”
Mami doesn’t say anything, and the silence that stretches between them is like the distance between Brooklyn and Mexico. It’s filled with the weight of all of us, with everything Daddy can’t take back and Mami won’t say. Emotions that don’t have shape rise inside of me like vapor, but everything is more gray than normal, so that the only thing I can see is Mami, curlers falling from her hair, standing over the phone.
I wonder if this is how Mami feels, heavy with things she can’t find words for.
My father says, “Thank you, Lola. For remembering my birthday.”
“Of course,” she says. “Of course.”