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Almost a Woman
By Esmeralda Santiago
VintageCopyright © 1999 Esmeralda Santiago
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Chapter One"Martes, ni te cases, ni te embarques, ni de tu familia te apartes."
In the twenty-one years I lived with my mother, we moved at least twenty times. We stuffed our belongings into ragged suitcases, boxes with bold advertising on the sides, pillowcases, empty rice sacks, cracker tins that smelled of flour and yeast. Whatever we couldn't carry, we left behind: dressers with missing drawers, refrigerators, lumpy sofas, the fifteen canvases I painted one summer. We learned not to attach value to possessions because they were as temporary as the walls that held us for a few months, as the neighbors who lived down the street, as the sad-eyed boy who loved me when I was thirteen.
We moved from country to city to country to small town to big city to the biggest city of all. Once in New York, we moved from apartment to apartment, in search of heat, of fewer cockroaches, of more rooms, of quieter neighbors, of more privacy, of nearness to the subway or the relatives. We moved in loops around the neighborhoods we wanted to avoid, where there were no Puerto Ricans, where graffiti warned of gang turfs, where people dressed better than we did, where landlords didn't accept welfare, or didn't like Puerto Ricans, or looked at our family of three adults, eleven children and shook their heads.
We avoided the neighborhoods with too few stores, or too many stores, or the wrong kind of store, or no stores at all. We circled around our first apartment the way animals circle the place where they will sleep, and after ten years of circling, Mami returned to where we began the journey, to Macun, the Puerto Rican barrio where everyone knew each other and each other's business, where what we left behind was put to good use by people who moved around less.
By the time she returned to Macun, I'd also moved. Four days after my twenty-first birthday, I left Mami's house, the rhyme I sang as a child forgotten: "Martes, ni te cases, ni te embarques, ni de tu familia te apartes." On a misty Tuesday, I didn't marry, but I did travel, and I did leave my family. I stuffed in the mailbox a letter addressed to Mami in which I said goodbye, because I didn't have the courage to say goodbye in person.
I went to Florida, to begin my own journey from one city to another. Each time I packed my belongings, I left a little of myself in the rooms that sheltered me, never home, always just the places I lived. I congratulated myself on how easy it was to leave them, how well I packed everything I owned into a couple of boxes and a suitcase.
Years later, when I visited Macun, I went to the spot where my childhood began and ended. I stepped on what was left of our blue tiled floor and looked at the wild greenness around me, at what had been a yard for games, at the corner where an eggplant bush became a Christmas tree, at the spot where I cut my foot and blood seeped into the dust. It was no longer familiar, nor beautiful, nor did it give a clue of who I'd been there, or who I might become wherever I was going next. The moriviv? weeds and the culantro choked the dirt yard, creepers had overgrown the cement floor, pinakoop climbed over what was left of the walls and turned them into soft green mounds that sheltered drab olive lizards and chameleons, coqu? and hummingbirds. There was no sign we'd ever been there, except for the hillock of blue cement tile on which I stood. It gleamed in the afternoon sun, its color so intense that I wondered if I had stepped onto the wrong floor because I didn't remember our floor being that blue.
"Something could happen to you."
We came to Brooklyn in 1961, in search of medical care for my youngest brother, Raymond, whose toes were nearly severed by a bicycle chain when he was four. In Puerto Rico, doctors wanted to amputate the often red and swollen foot, because it wouldn't heal. In New York, Mami hoped, doctors could save it.
The day we arrived, a hot, humid afternoon had splintered into thunderstorms as the last rays of the sun dipped into the rest of the United States. I was thirteen and superstitious enough to believe thunder and lightning held significance beyond the meteorological. I stored the sights and sounds of that dreary night into memory as if their meaning would someday be revealed in a flash of insight to transform my life forever. When the insight came, nothing changed, for it wasn't the weather in Brooklyn that was important, but the fact that I was there to notice it.
One hand tightly grasped by Mami, the other by six-year-old Edna, we squeezed and pushed our way through the crowd of travelers. Five-year-old Raymond clung to Mami's other hand, his unbalanced gait drawing sympathetic smiles from people who moved aside to let us walk ahead of them.
At the end of the tunnel waited Tata, Mami's mother, in black lace and high heels, a pronged rhinestone pin on her left shoulder. When she hugged me, the pin pricked my cheek, pierced subtle flower-shaped indentations that I rubbed rhythmically as our taxi hurtled through drenched streets banked by high, angular buildings.
New York was darker than I expected, and, in spite of the cleansing rain, dirtier. Used to the sensual curves of rural Puerto Rico, my eyes had to adjust to the regular, aggressive two-dimensionality of Brooklyn. Raindrops pounded the hard streets, captured the dim silver glow of street lamps, bounced against sidewalks in glistening sparks, then disappeared, like tiny ephemeral jewels, into the darkness. Mami and Tata teased that I was disillusioned because the streets were not paved with gold. But I had no such vision of New York. I was disappointed by the darkness and fixed my hopes on the promise of light deep within the sparkling raindrops.
Two days later, I leaned against the wall of our apartment building on McKibbin Street wondering where New York ended and the rest of the world began. It was hard to tell. There was no horizon in Brooklyn. Everywhere I looked, my eyes met a vertical maze of gray and brown straight-edged buildings with sharp corners and deep shadows. Every few blocks there was a cement playground surrounded by chain-link fence. And in between, weedy lots mounded with garbage and rusting cars.
A girl came out of the building next door, a jump rope in her hand. She appraised me shyly; I pretended to ignore her. She stepped on the rope, stretched the ends overhead as if to measure their length, and then began to skip, slowly, grunting each time she came down on the sidewalk. Swish splat grunt swish, she turned her back to me; swish splat grunt swish, she faced me again and smiled. I smiled back, and she hopped over.
"T? eres hispana?" she asked, as she whirled the rope in lazy arcs.
"No, I'm Puerto Rican."
"Same thing. Puerto Rican, Hispanic. That's what we are here." She skipped a tight circle, stopped abruptly, and shoved the rope in my direction. "Want a turn?"
"Sure." I hopped on one leg, then the other. "So, if you're Puerto Rican, they call you Hispanic?"
"Yeah. Anybody who speaks Spanish."
I jumped a circle, as she had done, but faster. "You mean, if you speak Spanish, you're Hispanic?"
"Well, yeah. No ... I mean your parents have to be Puerto Rican or Cuban or something."
I whirled the rope to the right, then the left, like a boxer. "Okay, your parents are Cuban, let's say, and you're born here, but you don't speak Spanish. Are you Hispanic?"
She bit her lower lip. "I guess so," she finally said. "It has to do with being from a Spanish country. I mean, you or your parents, like, even if you don't speak Spanish, you're Hispanic, you know?" She looked at me uncertainly. I nodded and returned her rope.
But I didn't know. I'd always been Puerto Rican, and it hadn't occurred to me that in Brooklyn I'd be someone else.
Later, I asked. "Are we Hispanics, Mami?"
"Yes, because we speak Spanish."
"But a girl said you don't have to speak the language to be Hispanic."
She scrunched her eyes. "What girl? Where did you meet a girl?"
"Outside. She lives in the next building."
"Who said you could go out to the sidewalk? This isn't Puerto Rico. Algo te puede suceder."
"Something could happen to you" was a variety of dangers outside the locked doors of our apartment. I could be mugged. I could be dragged into any of the dark, abandoned buildings on the way to or from school and be raped and murdered. I could be accosted by gang members into whose turf I strayed. I could be seduced by men who preyed on unchaperoned girls too willing to talk to strangers. I listened to Mami's lecture with downcast eyes and the necessary, respectful expression of humility. But inside, I quaked. Two days in New York, and I'd already become someone else. It wasn't hard to imagine that greater dangers lay ahead.
Our apartment on McKibbin Street was more substantial than any of our houses in Puerto Rico. Its marble staircase, plaster walls, and tiled floors were bound to the earth, unlike the wood and zinc rooms on stilts where I'd grown up. Chubby angels with bare buttocks danced around plaster wreaths on the ceiling. There was a bathtub in the kitchen with hot and cold running water, and a toilet inside a closet with a sink and a medicine chest.
An alley between our bedroom window and the wall of the next building was so narrow that I stretched over to touch the bricks and left my mark on the greasy soot that covered them. Above, a sliver of sky forced vague yellow light into the ground below, filled with empty detergent boxes, tattered clothes, unpaired shoes, bottles, broken glass.
Mami had to go look for work, so Edna, Raymond, and I went downstairs to stay with Tata in her apartment. When we knocked on her door, she was just waking up. I sat at the small table near the cooking counter to read the newspapers that Don Julio, Tata's boyfriend, had brought the night before. Edna and Raymond stood in the middle of the room and stared at the small television on a low table. Tata switched it on, fiddled with the knobs and the antenna until the horizontal lines disappeared and black-and-white cartoon characters chased each other across a flat landscape. The kids sank to the floor cross-legged, their eyes on the screen. Against the wall, under the window, Tata's brother, Tio Chico, slept with his back to us. Every so often, a snore woke him, but he chewed his drool, mumbled, slept again.
While Tata went to wash up in the hall bathroom, I tuned in to the television. A dot bounced over the words of a song being performed by a train dancing along tracks, with dogs, cats, cows, and horses dangling from its windows and caboose. I was hypnotized by the dot skipping over words that looked nothing like they sounded. "Shilbee cominrun demuntin wenshecoms, toot-toot" sang the locomotive, and the ball dipped and rose over "She'll be coming 'round the mountain when she comes," with no toots. The animals, dressed in cowboy hats, overalls, and bandannas, waved pickaxes and shovels in the air. The toot-toot was replaced by a bow-wow or a miaow-ow, or a moo-moo. It was joyous and silly, and made Edna and Raymond laugh. But it was hard for me to enjoy it as I focused on the words whizzing by, on the dot jumping rhythmically from one syllable to the next, with barely enough time to connect the letters to the sounds, with the added distraction of an occasional neigh, bark, or kid's giggle.
When Tata returned from the bathroom, she made coffee on the two-burner hot plate. Fragrant steam soon filled the small room, and as she strained the grounds through a well-worn flannel filter, Tio Chico rose as if the aroma were an alarm louder and more insistent than the singing animals on the television screen, the clanking of pots against the hot plate and counter, the screech of the chair legs as I positioned myself so that I could watch both Tata and the cartoons.
"Well, look who we have here," Tio Chico said, as he stretched until his long, bony fingers scraped the ceiling. He wore the same clothes as on the day before: a faded pair of dark pants and a short-sleeved undershirt, both wrinkled and giving off a pungent, sweaty smell. He stepped over Edna and Raymond, who barely moved to let him through. In two long-legged strides, he slipped out to the bathroom. As he shut the door, the walls closed in, as if his lanky body added dimension to the cramped room.
Tata hummed the cartoon music. Her big hands reached for a pan, poured milk, stirred briskly as it heated and frothed. I was mesmerized by her grace, by how she held her head, by the disheveled, ash-colored curls that framed her high cheekbones. She looked up with mischievous caramel eyes and grinned without breaking her rhythm.
Tio Chico returned showered and shaved, wearing a clean shirt and pants as wrinkled as the ones he'd taken off. He dropped the dirty clothes in a corner near Tata's bed and made up his cot. Tata handed me a cup of sweetened cafe con leche and, with a head gesture, indicated that I should vacate the chair for Tio Chico.
"No, no, that's okay," he said, "I'll sit here."
He perched on the edge of the cot, elbows on knees, his fingers wrapped around the mug Tata gave him. Steam rose from inside his hands in a transparent spiral. Tata served Edna and Raymond, then sat with her coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, talking softly to Tio Chico, who also lit up. I brought my face to the steaming coffee to avoid the mentholated smoke that curled from their corner of the room to ours, settling like a soft, gray blanket that melted into our clothes and hair.
I couldn't speak English, so the school counselor put me in a class for students who'd scored low on intelligence tests, who were behavior problems, who were marking time until their sixteenth birthday, when they could drop out. The teacher, a pretty black woman only a few years older than her students, pointed to a seat in the middle of the room. I didn't dare look anyone in the eyes. Grunts and mutters followed me, and although I had no idea what they meant, they didn't sound friendly.
Excerpted from Almost a Woman by Esmeralda Santiago Copyright © 1999 by Esmeralda Santiago. Excerpted by permission.
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