Mel stared at her twenty-year-old hands, similar to her mother’s without spots or crinkled skin. She pondered the next big move. Schooling was behind her. So was her steady boyfriend. In other words, everything that tied her to dependence. It was time to step into a fully grown up world and embrace the challenges that lay ahead. She knew two things for sure: that someday she’d buy a house like the one that she grew up in, and that she’d want her own twenty-year-old. The question was how to get there on her own, without the crutches of her past.
Elena stood by the doorway. She carried a haughty demeanor with the ease of someone born into old money. Except that she wasn’t, as her mother-in-law pointed out whenever the subject matter of grandchildren surfaced. The old woman spat that Elena was nothing but a barren imitation. Yet, nothing in her posture or poise betrayed Elena’s humble beginnings. Not then, not now.
Elena moved to the windowsill, ears fixed on the monitors. Her gaze settled on a family of four across the hospital’s courtyard, the little girl skipping. She waited for the sound of freedom, the old woman’s last exhale.
His earliest memories of adult love involved pain. Dad beat Mom because he loved her. Mom accepted Dad sleeping around because she loved him. Mom and Dad beat the children for their own good because they loved them. In the middle of the night, he’d overhear thrusts and groans coming from Mom and Dad’s bedroom in the name of love. It’s little wonder he grew up afraid of grown up love. Love equaled violence and he wanted no part of that for himself. He lived a Peter Pan existence and surrounded himself with innocent children incapable of eliciting complicated love.
“Bendicion mami,” said Elena. She reached up and kissed her mother for the daily blessing.
Her mother wrinkled her nose. “Fó! Lávate la boca!”
Elena rushed to the bathroom. The rebuke had become routine. Up and down, side to side, but no matter how hard she brushed, a strong odor emanated from the back of her throat. It wasn’t only her mother. She began to notice classmates avoiding conversations with her. She withdrew and became the girl with bad breath. Isolation masked the discomfort behind her throat when she drank her lonely tears. Meanwhile, the lump continued to grow unnoticed.
Linda’s wiring system was such that she recoiled at human touch. Sounds screeched in her head. Images loomed large. The world was terrifying. She self-preserved in an invisible shell. There she rocked herself to sleep and blocked out sounds by counting or quietly reciting songs. Today she’d fall under the wide autism spectrum, but back then, “What a strange child,” were common whispers. Her mother felt rejected and her father alienated. Her little sister, though, refused to be ignored. She nagged and prodded. She hugged even when hugs went unreturned. Eventually she cracked the shell and forged a forever bond.
I’d occasionally run into Brian standing in front of the Shubert Theater. A gregarious sort of fella, with wavy hair and smiling eyes. I’d wave to him and he’d happily wave back, adding his unmistakable personal touch, “How are those headaches of yours?” I’d continue on my journey to the Port Authority anxious to tell my husband I had seen his cousin. I still feel his presence in Shubert Alley, as if guarding his beloved theater. This morning when I passed by, I whispered, “I attended your baby’s wedding. She was radiant.” He replied, “I know. I saw you there.”
“Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men,” said Jesus, according to Matthew 4:19. And it has been thus ever since. And it has been the basis of most religions, whether Mormon, Scientologist, Muslim, Catholic. All religion counts on recruiting new members and increasing its population to find the way to eternal life. Why so much strife, then? Why brother against brother in the name of salvation? We need to strip down to our bare essentials and reconfigure what is truly important and necessary in our individual lives. And then, maybe then, in our humility, we’ll embrace each other.
Elias’ feet turned in and his toes faced one another other. He hobbled all day long all around town with bare feet, muttering under his breath. From a distance, he looked like an eleven-year-old boy, or perhaps it was my nearsightedness rendering me incapable of distinguishing features. The first time I got a close look, his cragged face revealed day-old stubble, just like my grandfather. Every morning my grandfather left the house clean shaven smelling of Aqua Velva. Every evening he’d return with prickly stubble smelling of rum. Close up, Elias reminded me of my grandfather. The resemblance discomfited me.
White dress shimmered in soft candlelight. The virgin bride presented herself in front of the altar with pure heart. She held a bouquet of gardenias, symbol of purity, refinement, love. Lofty ideas of a life filled with tea parties and social dinners played in her head. And love? Her heart skipped beats in his presence, mostly when they held hands. She was ready. Married life showed a different hand. Innocent love died on their honeymoon when drugs sat front and center. He remained incapable of consummating their sacred bond. The one saving grace, an annulment was within reach.
Mom lived in the Northeast for over 40 years and indulged in summer gardening. Now back home, exotic orchids adorn her lush garden. Lizards camp out between twigs. Coquis hide beneath leaves. Butterflies flit about. Each room boasts fresh cut flowers. Produce rests on countertops. She peels and chops the fruit of her labor. Her kitchen smells of homemade, home grown.
The older I get, the more I become like her, except for that green thumb. My plants suffer from too much water, too little water, too much sun exposure, not enough. Perhaps I too should live in the island.