Mom gave me Dad’s handkerchief to cover my mouth and nose. She fanned out my long hair on the bed then sprayed it with Black Flag. Yes, the very Black Flag used to kill insects. Then she wrapped it tight in a white towel. “That’ll suffocate those sons-of-bitches.”
She instructed me to remain still on the bed. I wondered why she used Black Flag on my head and not Alberto VO5.
She returned to the room. “Honey! Honey!” she called out to Dad. “Look!”
A long trail of straggling lice exited slowly from the toxic gases trapped in my head.
“Her hair grows like tobacco plants,” exclaimed Iris. She was the no-frills hairstylist who made house calls. “Folds upon folds.”
My mother loved my thick, abundant hair and let it grow past my waistline. It was laborious to upkeep, but she was not going to allow fifth grade pranksters, who stuck a gob of gum in it, rob me of my crowning glory.
Iris pulled, tucked, and chopped off a large chunk. Any other person would have a bald spot, but not me. The tobacco-like swirls swallowed the butchered hair.
Iris charged Mom a few extra dollars for her services.
I waited with my mother at the admittance office on the first day of school. I was the new fifth grader. Even if I weren’t the new kid, I stuck out. There was nothing soft or round about my appearance. I was at once too much and not enough. Too much hair, sharp elbows, knock-knees, thick eyeglasses, lanky, flat chest.
Mom noticed most girls my age wore training bras. She pulled me close to her and peered down my blue first-day-of-school top. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked. “You’re being left behind!”
I tore away mortified. Everyone within earshot heard.
It was the day before my seventh birthday. I was in Puerto Rico where my grandparents watched over me while my mother, far away in New York, delivered my baby brother. The New York landscape exuded grayness with its tall buildings, concrete pavements and elevated trains. Puerto Rico exuded life, its air pregnant with the greenest greens and azure skies. On my seventh birthday, though, trees bowed in every direction and shook their leaves. Midday darkened. Winds howled. Hurricane Faith swept across the island. Today I remember the fear I buried long ago as Hurricane Irma barrels across the Atlantic.
Luz took a deep, long drag. Her eyes fixed on the hanging clock shaped like a cat. It ticked loudly. Deafening, in fact, in the otherwise silent kitchen. Its tail swung with each tick. Its eyes shifted left to right. That was the only truth in the silent kitchen. That, and the smoke in her lungs. She exhaled on the fifteenth tick and imagined the gray smoke formed into the shape of Ana’s lover. His expectant lips partly open. She shuddered and swiped the smoke as if to erase her dark secret. “Ana, hija,” she called out. “It’s getting late.”
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.