Time Out New York
Geographies of Homeby Loida Maritza Perez
After leaving the college she'd attended to escape her religiously conservative parents, Iliana, a first-generation Dominican-American woman, returns home to Brooklyn to find that her family is falling apart: one sister is careening toward mental collapse, another sister is living in a decrepit building with her abusive husband and three children, and a third
After leaving the college she'd attended to escape her religiously conservative parents, Iliana, a first-generation Dominican-American woman, returns home to Brooklyn to find that her family is falling apart: one sister is careening toward mental collapse, another sister is living in a decrepit building with her abusive husband and three children, and a third sister has simply disappeared. In this dislocating urban environment Iliana reluctantly confronts the anger and desperation that seem to seep through every crack of her family's small house, and experiences all the contradictions, superstitions, joys, and pains that come from a life caught between two cultures. In this magnificent debut novel, filled with graceful prose and searing detail, Loida Maritza Pérez offers a penetrating portrait of the American immigrant experience as she explores the true meanings of identity, familyand home.
Time Out New York
- Penguin Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.73(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
The ghostly trace of "NIGGER" on a message board hanging from Iliana's door failed to assault her as it had the first time she returned to her dorm room to find it. Just a few more hours and she'd be home. Already she breathed easier. She locked the door and mounted her suitcases on a cart her parents had let her keep after escorting her to Port Authority eighteen months earlier. Gripping the cart's handle, she dragged it along the corridor and bounced it, one step at a time, down the wide staircase. On another day she would have stepped quietly. But on her departure from the dormitory whose high ceilings and pale arches reminded her of a museum, she took pleasure in letting her steps echo loudly through the morning silence.
Depositing her keys in the Resident Assistant's mail slot, she stepped out into the cold and under the grey and low-slung sky. That sky's color was one of the reasons she was leaving. Its relentlessness put her on edge. She had chosen the university because of its location five hours from New York Citya distance too great for her parents to visit her as often as they had her brother in Albany. The campus was also reputedly one of the prettiest. From glossy photographs of the surrounding lakes and gorges, she had concluded that the university would be the ideal place to escape her parents' watchful eyes. She had not anticipated that, when not collapsing with rain or snow, the sky would nevertheless remain the same threatening shade.
She was also leaving because a voice had been waking her with news of what was taking place at home. The accounts had started several months earlier and, depending on the news, had lasted until dawn. It had gotten so that she rarely slept. As soon as her head touched her pillow, the disembodied voice crept close. Upon hearing it for the first time, her eyes had flashed open, her heart had slammed against her ribs. Hadn't her father warned her?
"Mi'ja," he'd said, drawing her attention as she'd prepared to board the Greyhound bus and continuing in Spanish, the only language he and Aurelia spoke. "Find a church. There must be one around there. Don't let what happened to your sister Nereida happen to you too."
"I'll keep in touch," was all her mother had said.
Hugging both, Iliana had assured them that she would remain faithful.
"Seven spirits," Papito had added urgently. "Seven evil spirits at your side if you should stray from God. Remember!"
In the single room she had considered herself lucky to obtain, Iliana had remembered. Not only had she neglected waking early to catch the bus to the Seventh-Day Adventist church in town, she had also gone to the local bar and, for the first time ever, to the cinema, where Satan preyed on souls.
"Get thee behind me, Satan," she had commanded the voice, relying, without conviction, on the exhortation she had been taught repelled evil spirits.
"Stop that foolishness, Iliana Maria!"
The voice was her mother'sauthoritative but hinting mischief as when she had taught her to dance merengue on a Sabbath morning while the rest of the family attended church.
Hands trembling, Iliana stumbled out of bed to dial her parents' number.
"Iliana Maria?" Aurelia asked, instantly identifying her daughter's silence.
Iliana slammed down the receiver.
"Don't be afraid, mi'ja," the voice said, defying the distance Iliana had deliberately placed between herself and her mother. "The devil exists, but it's not me."
Shivers unraveled along Iliana's spine. She willed the voice to go away, but it persisted, hounding her as her mother's had at home. It spoke of her brother Emanuel's visit from Seattle; of the two eldest, Mauricio and Chaco, who, with their families, had moved back to the Dominican Republic; of the dream that had inspired Nereida to be rebaptized after an absence of years from church, of the flowers in their Brooklyn yard and of the vegetables growing so well that the corn reached past Papito's head.
"The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?" Iliana recited, her voice scraping against her suddenly dry throat so that it sounded barely above a whisper. "The Lord is the strength of my life." Her dilated eyes searched the darkened room. "Of whom shall I be afraid?"
Faintly, so that she strained to hear it, the voice returned.
"Forgive, mi'ja. I didn't think you'd be afraid. You know we can't speak much on the phone. It's too expensive. Your father would be angry."
Cowering beside her bed, Iliana recalled her mother's ears. Those ears, with holes pierced during a past Aurelia rarely spoke of, had both frightened and intrigued her. Raised in a religion which condemned as pagan the piercing of body parts, she had imagined that, were her mother's clogged holes pried open, she would transform into a sorceress dancing, not secretly on a Sabbath when she stayed home by feigning illness, but freely, unleashing impulses Papito's religion had suppressed. This image had sharpened whenever Aurelia had undone the braids wound tightly around her head. At such moments, before Iliana's intruding eyes caused her to braid the cascading locks into submission, she had smiled at her own reflection shifting from an aging matriarch's to that of a young girl's with hoops dangling from her ears.
This memory evoked others to which Iliana had previously attached no significance: Aurelia waking restlessly before dawn to scrub clean floors; Aurelia wringing sheets dry with a strength that defied exhaustion; and Aurelia slicing onions, a sharpened knife blurring dangerously toward her thumb at a speed which would have resulted in the loss of a finger had anyone else attempted it. This incessant activity, even at moments when she might have opted to relax, now suggested an effort to contain forces struggling to escape.
Initially the visitations had occurred sporadically. But as the racial slurs began appearing on Iliana's door, they increased in frequency. Though unable to explain the phenomenon, she became convinced that the voice was in fact her mother's. When she called home, Aurelia began conversations where the voice had left off the previous night. If asked about events never discussed on the phone, she responded without hesitation.
Everything Iliana had been brought up to believe denounced the voice as evil. Yet her instincts persuaded her it wasn't so. On nights when the radiator in her room gave off little warmth, the voice transported her to a Dominican Republic where summer days were eternal, clouds evaporated in the scorching heat, and palm trees arched along beaches of fiery sand. It spoke of her birth immediately following her grandmother's death; of how she should have been a boy since her sex had been predicted from the shape of Aurelia's pointy stomach and all her siblings had been born to form alternate pairs of the same sex, a sequence only Iliana had disrupted; of how, although Mauricio and Chaco, Rebecca and Zoraida, Caleb and Emanuel, Nereida and Azucena, Vicente and Gabriel, Marina and Beatriz had each been born two years apart, she herself had refused to come until three years after Beatriz and three before Tico, the youngest child.
There, in the attic room of the university whose hilltop location contrived to make her forget the rest of the world and whose courses disclaimed life as she had known it, making her feel invisible, the voice reassured Iliana of her own existence and kept her rooted. She learned that during her absence both her parents had been diagnosed as having alarmingly high blood pressure and that Papito, afraid of dying, had resorted to taking his and his wife's prescribed pills while she refused her own; that Rebecca's accounts of Pasión's abuses had caused Aurelia's heart attack; that Marina, wishing to have her future told, had visited an astrologer later to claim that he had raped her; that Beatriz had left home and not been heard of since; that Vicente had dropped out of graduate school and his wife had packed her things and left him; that Tico rarely left his room; that Laurie had supposedly refused to sleep with Gabriel throughout their first two years of marriage and Gabriel, during one of his frequent, short-lived spurts of religious fervor, had confessed to the pastor and then to Caleb of his adulterous affair with Linda, Caleb's common-law wife; that Caleb had turned his gun in to his parents' custody for fear of killing his own brother; and that Marina had suffered a nervous breakdown.
It was these events, more than her disappointment with the university, which had convinced Iliana to leave school.
She avoided the icy path leading from her dormitory and cut across the lawn. Brittle grass crunched beneath her feet as she headed toward a cluster of buildings on North Campus. Except for a few other students, the campus was desolate. It was at such moments that she enjoyed it most. She was able to walk, unashamed of the stride that had caused her grief since childhood and that she had tried her damnedest to change since then. But, no matter what, her hips thrust forward and swayed as if unhinged. Her friend Ed had described the stride as regal, her sisters as whorish. And it was they whom Iliana tended to believe. Wanting to appear confident, she had taken to walking with her head held high and her eyes staring straight ahead. This, combined with shyness, had gotten her labeled an arrogant bitch. Whenever she had attended parties, even those sponsored by minority organizations, she had never been asked to dance· And when she had attended with Ed, rumors had spread that she dated only white men.
If the rumors hadn't hurt so much, Iliana would have laughed. Not only had no oneblack, white, yellow, or redever asked her out, Ed was Mexican and preferred to sleep with men.
She climbed the steps to his dormitory and called him from the courtesy phone. It seemed to ring interminably before his roommate answered.
"David, is Ed there?"
"Holy shit! What time is it?"
"It's almost seven-thirty. We're supposed to catch the bus at eight."
David dropped the phone on the other end. "Ed, get up! Iliana's on the phone! Ed! I'm not telling you again!"
Minutes elapsed before he returned to the phone. "I'll let you in on my way out," he said, clicking off before Iliana was able to respond.
She stamped her feet in an attempt to keep them warm. Just as she was about to redial, David flew past her, barely letting her catch the door.
"I can't talk. I have an exam at eight and fell asleep at my desk."
"Well, goodbye to you too," Iliana said.
He whirled around and hurried back to her. Smiling sheepishly, he gave her a hug and kissed her cheek. "I'm sorry. I forgot. You're not coming back, are you?" He released her and ran off, slipping on a patch of ice. "Maybe you'll change your mind," he yelled. "Home is never fun."
Iliana watched him: his limbs flailing awkwardly; his green hair blowing like a tuft of grass. Not long ago, he had asked her to bleach his hair and dye it blue. The peroxide he had insisted she leave on longer than the required time had left his scalp lined with welts and his dark hair a yellow that had turned green with the bright-blue dye.
She would miss him, crazy though he was.
Iliana pulled the cart into the dormitory and stepped into the waiting elevator. From the lounge on the third floor, she saw Ed's door ajar and his body still in bed.
"Shit, Ed. Can't you ever get up on time?"
He peered at her through slitted eyes. "What time is it?"
"There's a clock right beside you."
"Oojale, what's gotten into you this morning?"
"What's gotten into me? You! It's seven-thirty and you're in bed!"
"Will you relax? It'll only take me a few minutes to get ready."
"Whose idea was it to take the early bus? Who insisted I make it here on time?"
"Ay mujer! Ya!"
The authoritativeness of Ed's voice jarred Iliana into silence. Maybe he was right. Maybe she was overreacting. So what if she had spent most of the night packing and had woken early at his insistence? What was the use of clinging to anger because he had accidentally overslept?
She watched him clamber out of bed. As he strolled past her toward the communal baths, he beamed her an impish grin. Its patronizing curve affected her like burrs prickling her skin. It dawned on her then that, should he have been the one to be kept waiting, he would have had a fit. Yet with his "Ay mujer!" he had effectively dismissed her anger. Worse, he knew how she hated those two words, how they reminded her of her father's "Mira, muchacha!"
As clearly as if it had occurred the previous day, she recalled one of the few times she had stood up to Papito. He had just purchased a box of soaps for her mother and had proudly held one out for her to inspect.
"Ummm" she'd said, flattered that he was showing her the gift before presenting it to Aurelia. "It smells like cinnamon."
"Mira, muchacha! Don't you see the strawberries on the wrapper?"
Iliana took the soap from his hand and moved it closer to her nose. "I know, papi, but it smells like cinnamon"
Papito snatched the soap from her hand and raised it to his own nose. "Strawberries" he insisted. "Strawberries!"
"Strawberries aren't spicy."
"What are you saying, that I waste my money buying garbage?"
"Maybe someone mislabeled them" Iliana said. "How were you supposed to know? And the cinnamon isn't bad."
Papito jerked her head closer to the soap. "Strawberries! This is a strawberry-scented soap!"
Iliana again sniffed the soap pressed suffocatingly to her nose. "But to me it smells like cinnamon."
Before she knew what was happening, her father's callused hand had slapped her face.
"Muchacha de la porra! Admit it! It smells like strawberries!"
Cinnamon, Iliana mumbled.
"What does it smell like?"
Iliana defiantly braced herself for another blow. "Cinnamon!"
The back of Papito's hand again flew toward her face. Determined not to cry or cringe, Iliana held her ground.
"It smells like cinnamon! Why ask if you don't want to know?"
Her father unhooked his belt and drew it from the loops around his pants. "Sinvergüenza! I'll teach you to disrespect me!"
"Cinnamon" Iliana had shouted, blocking out the sound of the belt whizzing toward her legs and glaring at her father with all the contempt that she could muster. "Cinnamon, cinnamon" she had chanted, her legs stinging and welts rising as the leather strap landed repeatedly on her thighs. "It smells like cinnamon, not strawberries!"
Iliana removed her coat and plopped down onto David's bed. Here it was a year and a half since she'd left home and still certain words triggered self-doubt and left her mute, still she feared the consequences of asserting herself. Her eyes strayed to her suitcases waiting by the door. When packing, she had reluctantly given away the items she dared not take home with her: skirts which, though just above her knees, would have just been judged indecent; flat shoes, all except for the boots on her feet, for which she would have been called matronly by sisters who already considered her an old maid; clip-on earrings she had secretly begun to wear; and all her books, including those required for courses and others she had read voraciously without fear of her father's throwing them away.
Only now did she realize the implications of her decision to go home. Throughout all her planning she had mostly thought of taking her family by surprise. She had not stopped to consider that by returning she would be relinquishing her independence. Not only would she have to live according to her father's dictates, she would also have to join him in Bible study, attend church on Saturdays, and listen to his sermons if her face but revealed an expression interpreted as defiant. Should she neglect any of these matters, her name would be brought up for prayer before the congregation.
Even now, remembering the first time its prayers were solicited in her behalf, Iliana's conscience pricked with guilt. She had been only seven and had decided that she did not want to go to school. Knowing that if she postponed being sick until morning her mother would suspect she was faking, she had moaned and tossed in bed during the night. One of her sisters notified their mother. Alarmed when Iliana unwittingly pointed to the location of her appendix as the area where it hurt, Aurelia woke Papito. The two of them knelt beside Iliana and, with hands joined at her side, prayed that God too might place His hand on her to heal her.
The following morning Aurelia insisted on taking her youngest daughter to see a doctor. Terrified that her lie would be discovered and already imagining the sting of her father's belt, Iliana developed a fever. By the time they arrived at the clinic she appeared to be in so much pain and was perspiring so heavily that the doctor, after a cursory examination, decided that she indeed had appendicitis. Fearing that her appendix would burst before an ambulance arrived, he drove mother and daughter to a hospital himself.
As they drove across the Williamsburg Bridge, the sight of Manhattana city Papito had often compared to Sodom and Gomorrahincreased Iliana's fear. Although she had not fully understood what he'd meant when he'd said men on that island slept with other men and women with women (hadn't she herself slept with her sisters?), she had concluded that Manhattan too would be destroyed. So real to her was the possibility of being caught in that hell and burning with other sinners that she began to cry.
The doctor, lips stretching into a line more a grimace than a smile, turned to face her from the front seat. "You need to be brave," he said. "You're a big girl now." Then, switching from broken Spanish to English as if confiding a secret he preferred Aurelia not to understand, he added, "It'll be just like a vacation. You won't have to go to school. You'll even get to watch as much TV as you want and eat in bed. That's not so bad, is it?"
His intimate tone convinced Iliana that he knew she had lied and was only taunting her. She mistrusted his eyes, icy blue and dull like metal, which, lacking depth, made him appear to have no soul. Looking at him, his hair shimmering golden in the sunlight slanting through the car window, she believed he was Satan's angel sent to take her off to hell.
"Don't let him take me, mami" she sobbed. "Please don't let him take me. I'm feeling better. It honestly doesn't hurt anymore."
"Sssh. Don't cry. Everything's going to be okay," Aurelia said, gently squeezing the hand she had held since dragging Iliana, kicking and screaming, into the back seat.
Iliana was hospitalized for four days throughout which family and church members prayed for her recovery. After the fourth day, the doctors, finding no symptoms of appendicitis, released her to her parents. Convinced that God had performed a miracle in her behalf, Papito donated flowers to the church every Saturday until the one-year anniversary of her recovery. Worse, the pastor forevermore portrayed her as a living example of God's care toward those who believed in Him in a modern, wicked age.
Remembering, Iliana wondered that her lie had never been detected. Either she was a magnificent actress or her parents had been determined to teach her a lesson she would not forget. She tended to believe the former. But if the second was the truth, the lesson learned had not been the one intended. More than realizing the disastrous consequences of lying, she had discovered that authorities, as personified by her parents, the doctors and the pastor, were not as knowledgeable as she'd believed. Furthermore, because throughout the years her father had silenced any questions that challenged life as he perceived it, she had learned to agree with everything he said while secretly composing answers of her own. Only by leaving home had she, on occasion, acquired the confidence to express her opinion, and she feared that by returning she would fall silent once again.
"That didn't take too long, did it?"
Iliana barely turned toward Ed.
"Listen, I have an idea," he said. "Why don't you stay with me before going to your parents' house? They're not expecting you, and I've got Susan's apartment to myself for the entire month"
Iliana silently shook her head.
"Why not? It'll give you a chance to adjust to being back."
"Ed, I can't. I might run into one of my brothers or sisters on the street."
"I thought you said they all lived in Brooklyn"
"Most of them do, but several work in Manhattan and they'd be quick to jump to conclusions if they caught me out with you."
"Oh, come on. It'd be so much fun. We could go to museums and galleries, then hit the clubs at night. It's a big city. What are the chances of running into them?"
The resentment Iliana had been harboring toward Ed surfaced as she left him to stand before a window. He behaved as if each moment were his to enjoy without guilt or fear of consequence. In contrast, she snatched what little pleasure she could from an ever-watchful God. Each time she allowed music to sway her body, went to the cinema or even had a sip of coffee, she was hounded by the idea that she risked her eternal soul. It didn't matter that she had long since stopped believing in God, or at least in the God her father claimed. The possibility of that God's judgments nevertheless preyed on her fears. Each night, before drifting into sleep, she reluctantly knelt beside her bed to plead for her soul should He in fact exist.
"You don't understand, Ed. I'd be so paranoid that I wouldn't have any fun. Besides, I'm already nervous enough about going back without setting myself up for trouble"
"You're not having second thoughts, are you?"
Iliana stared glumly out of the window. She trailed a finger along the dusty sill, then rubbed the dirt onto the glass.
"I just have a premonition, that's all."
"Oh, I don't know. I just think I'm fooling myself. I meanI've come to hate this place so much that I've convinced myself I should take a year off and help with all the shit going on at home. I've even flattered myself by thinking I'll be welcomed with open arms. But that's pretty funny, considering we were never one big, happy family to begin with."
"Don't go, then," Ed said matter-of-factly.
Iliana whirled around to face him. "Hell is breaking loose at home! How the fuck am I supposed to stay and pretend everything's okay?"
Surprise elongated Ed's already narrow face. "I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to tell you what to do. I only thought"
His apologetic tone deflated Iliana's anger. Shoulders hunched, she slid under the window and let fall the tears that, years earlier and in defiance of her father's beatings, she had vowed to suppress at whatever cost.
"Are you sure you don't want to stay with me?" Ed asked, attempting to draw her near, only to have her raise a hand to stop him. "At least for a couple of days?"
Iliana wiped the tears she hadn't wanted him to see. "Waiting isn't going to make it any easier."
Ed watched her, not knowing what else to do or say.
"I'm okay," Iliana mumbled. "You know I always am."
Meet the Author
Loida Maritza Perez was born in the Dominican Republic in 1963. She lives in New York City.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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It was a hard feeling -- to have to come down from a high after reading the first few lines in this book. Perez sets the reader up for an incredible trip, but clumsy prose, and arbitrary, verbose flashbacks take the story off track. We never get a clear sense of who Iliana is, why she hears a disembodied voice, and what her homecoming efforts really yielded. The true protagonist in this book is Aurelia, and her reunion with her indigenous spirituality is absorbing. If the writing had also developed Iliana, who seems to share the same gifts as her mother, then she would have earned her keep as a major character. The sister Beatriz is mentioned briefly, but forgotten in the swirls of Marina's madness and Rebecca's helpless self-hatred, which are only explained through melodramatic flashbacks. Actually, I think Perez will offer the literary world many riveting pieces down the road, because her material is compelling -- but first she has to get control over the chosen subject matter.
Loida Maritza Perez has written a striking first novel about the personal struggles within a large immigrant family trying to survive in New York City. The characters have life. They are not mere cardboard figures.They are complex and conflicted people, capable of contridictory actions and emotions.I was swept away into their grim world. Although the story has some lose ends and some other faults, I found it an absorbing read. I was moved by the love, regret, anger, hate, and forgiveness explored by this author--emotions that can be found in every family, not only in this fictional one. A touching and memorable book.