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.
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.”
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.
Angelina wiped her tears and breathed deeply. Bravely she revealed to the kind lady that death was upon her. Last month and now again she was plagued with blood. Oh, the relief to unburden her soul! To her astonishment, the lady snorted with laughter.
“Tonta,” she said, “you are now a Senorita!”
Angelina laughed heartily barely able to get out the words as she recounted this tale to her granddaughters. They laughed along for although they didn’t quite understand about the birds and the bees they understood her relief. More importantly, they understood her humor alluded to unspeakable adult matters.