Mami’s youngest sister—my tía Yrma—finally made it to the United States that year. She and tío Miguel got themselves an apartment in the Bronx, off Grand Concourse and everybody decided that we should have a party. Actually, my pops decided, but everybody—meaning Mami, tía Yrma, tío Miguel and their neighbors—thought it a dope idea. On the afternoon of the party Papi came back from work around six. Right on time. We were all dressed by then, which was a smart move on our part. If Papi had walked in and caught us lounging around in our underwear, he would have kicked our asses something serious.
He didn’t say nothing to nobody, not even my moms. He just pushed past her, held up his hand when she tried to talk to him and headed right into the shower. Rafa gave me the look and I gave it back to him; we both knew Papi had been with that Puerto Rican woman he was seeing and wanted to wash off the evidence quick.
Mami looked really nice that day. The United States had finally put some meat on her; she was no longer the same flaca who had arrived here three years before. She had cut her hair short and was wearing tons of cheap-ass jewelry which on her didn’t look too lousy. She smelled like herself, like the wind through a tree. She always waited until the last possible minute to put on her perfume because she said it was a waste to spray it on early and then have to spray it on again once you got to the party.
We—meaning me, my brother, my little sister and Mami—waited for Papi to finish his shower. Mami seemed anxious, in her usual dispassionate way. Her hands adjusted the buckle of her belt over and over again. That morning, when she had gotten us up for school, Mami told us that she wanted to have a good time at the party. I want to dance, she said, but now, with the sun sliding out of the sky like spit off a wall, she seemed ready just to get this over with.
Rafa didn’t much want to go to no party either, and me, I never wanted to go anywhere with my family. There was a baseball game in the parking lot outside and we could hear our friends, yelling, Hey, and, Cabrón, to one another. We heard the pop of a ball as it sailed over the cars, the clatter of an aluminum bat dropping to the concrete. Not that me or Rafa loved baseball; we just liked playing with the local kids, thrashing them at anything they were doing. By the sounds of the shouting, we both knew the game was close, either of us could have made a difference. Rafa frowned and when I frowned back, he put up his fist. Don’t you mirror me, he said.
Don’t you mirror me, I said.
He punched me—I would have hit him back but Papi marched into the living room with his towel around his waist, looking a lot smaller than he did when he was dressed. He had a few strands of hair around his nipples and a surly closed-mouth expression, like maybe he’d scalded his tongue or something.
Have they eaten? he asked Mami.
She nodded. I made you something.
You didn’t let him eat, did you?
Ay, Dios mío, she said, letting her arms fall to her side.
Ay, Dios mío is right, Papi said.
I was never supposed to eat before our car trips, but earlier, when she had put out our dinner of rice, beans and sweet platanos, guess who had been the first one to clean his plate? You couldn’t blame Mami really, she had been busy—cooking, getting ready, dressing my sister Madai. I should have reminded her not to feed me but I wasn’t that sort of son.
Papi turned to me. Coño, muchacho, why did you eat?
Rafa had already started inching away from me. I’d once told him I considered him a low-down chicken-shit for moving out of the way every time Papi was going to smack me.
Collateral damage, Rafa had said. Ever heard of it?
Look it up.
Chickenshit or not, I didn’t dare glance at him. Papi was old-fashioned; he expected your undivided attention when you were getting your ass whupped. You couldn’t look him in the eye either—that wasn’t allowed. Better to stare at his belly button, which was perfectly round and immaculate. Papi pulled me to my feet by my ear.
If you throw up—
I won’t, I cried, tears in my eyes, more out of reflex than pain.
Ya, Ramon, ya. lt’s not his fault, Mami said.
They’ve known about this party forever. How did they think we were going to get there? Fly?
He finally let go of my ear and I sat back down. Madai was too scared to open her eyes. Being around Papi all her life had turned her into a major-league wuss. Anytime Papi raised his voice her lip would start trembling, like some specialized tuning fork. Rafa pretended that he had knuckles to crack and when I shoved him, he gave me a Don’t start look. But even that little bit of recognition made me feel better.
I was the one who was always in trouble with my dad. It was like my God-given duty to piss him off, to do everything the way he hated. Our fights didn’t bother me too much. I still wanted him to love me something that never seemed strange or contradictory until years later, when he was out of our lives.
By the time my ear stopped stinging Papi was dressed and Mami was crossing each one of us, solemnly, like we were heading off to war. We said, in turn, Bendición, Mami, and she poked us in our five cardinal spots while saying, Que Dios te bendiga.
This was how all our trips began, the words that followed me every time I left the house.
None of us spoke until we were inside Papi’s Volkswagen van. Brand-new, lime-green and bought to impress. Oh, we were impressed, but me, every time I was in that VW and Papi went above twenty miles an hour, I vomited. I’d never had trouble with cars before—that van was like my curse. Mami suspected it was the upholstery—all seemed to have intrinsic badness about them. Papi was careful about taking me anywhere in the VW, but when he to, I rode up front in Mami’s usual seat so I could throw up out a window.
¿Como te sientes? Mami asked over my shoulder when Papi pulled onto the turnpike. She had her hand on the base of my neck. One thing about Mami, her palms never sweated.
I’m OK, I said, keeping my eyes straight ahead. I definitely didn’t want to trade glances with Papi. He had this one look, furious and sharp, that always left me feeling bruised.
Toma. Mami handed me four mentas. She had thrown three out her window at the beginning of our trip, an offering to Eshú; the rest were for me.
I took one and sucked it slowly, my tongue knocking it up against my teeth. We passed Newark Airport without any incident. If Madai had been awake she would have cried because the planes flew so close to the cars.
How’s he feeling? Papi asked.
Fine, I said. I glanced back at Rafa and he pretended like he didn’t see me. That was the way he was, at school and at home. When I was in trouble, he didn’t know me. Madai was solidly asleep, but even with her face all wrinkled up and drooling she looked cute, her hair all separated into twists.
I turned around and concentrated on the candy, Papi even started to joke that we might not have to scrub the van out tonight. He was beginning to loosen up, not checking his watch too much. Maybe he was thinking about that Puerto Rican woman or maybe he was just happy that we were all together. I could never tell. At the toll, he was feeling positive enough to actually get out of the van and search around under the basket for dropped coins. It was something he had once done amuse Madai, but now it was habit. Cars behind us honked their horns and I slid down in my seat, Rafa didn’t care; he grinned back at the other cars and waved. His actual job was to make sure no cops were coming. Mami shook Madai as soon as she saw Papi stooping for a couple of quarters she let out this screech of delight that almost took off the top of my head.
That was the end of the good times. Just outside the Washington Bridge, I started feeling woozy. The smell of the upholstery got all up inside my head and I found myself with a mouth full of saliva. Mami’s hand tensed on my shoulder and when I caught Papi’s eye, he was like, No way. Don’t do it.
The first time I got sick in the van Papi was taking me to the library. Rafa was with us and he couldn’t believe I threw up. I was famous for my steel-lined stomach. A third-world childhood could give you that. Papi was worried enough that just as quick as Rafa could drop off the books we were on our way home. Mami fixed me one of her honey-and-onion concoctions and that made my stomach feel better. A week later we tried the library again and on this go-around I couldn’t get the window open in time. When Papi got me home, he went and cleaned out the van himself, an expression of askho on his face. This was a big deal, since Papi almost never cleaned anything himself. He came back inside and found me sitting on the couch feeling like hell.
It’s the car, he said to Mami. It’s making him sick.
This time the damage was pretty minimal, nothing Papi couldn’t wash off the door with a blast of the hose. He was pissed, though; he jammed his finger into my cheek, a nice solid thrust. That was the way he was with his punishments: imaginative. Earlier that year I’d written an essay in school called “My Father the Torturer,” but the teacher made me write a new one. She thought I was kidding.
We drove the rest of the way to the Bronx in silence. We only stopped once, so I could brush my teeth. Mami had brought along my toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste and while every car known to man sped by us she stood outside with me so I wouldn’t feel alone.
Tío Miguel was about seven feet tall and had his hair combed up and out, into a demi-fro. He gave me and Rafa big spleen-crushing hugs and then kissed Mami and finally ended up with Madai on his shoulder. The last time I’d seen Tío, was at the airport, his first day in the United States. I remembered how he hadn’t seemed all that troubled to be in another country.
He looked down at me. Carajo, Yunior, you look horrible!
He threw up, my brother explained.
I pushed Rafa. Thanks a lot, ass-face.
Hey, he said. Tío asked.
Tío clapped a bricklayer’s hand on my shoulder. Everybody gets sick sometimes, he said. You should have seen me on the plane over here. Dios mío! He rolled his Asian-looking eyes for emphasis. I thought we were all going to die.
Everybody could tell he was lying. I smiled like he was making me feel better.
Do you want me to get you a drink? Tío asked. We got beer and rum.
Miguel, Mami said. He’s young.
Young? Back in Santo Domingo, he’d be getting laid by now.
Mami thinned her lips, which took some doing.
Well, it’s true, Tío said.
So, Mami, I said. When do I get to go visit the D.R.?
That’s enough, Yunior.
It’s the only pussy you’ll ever get, Rafa said to me in English.
Not counting your girlfriend, of course.
Rafa smiled. He had to give me that one.
Papi came in from parking the van. He and Miguel gave each other the sort of handshakes that would have turned my fingers into Wonder bread.
Coño, compa’i, ¿como va todo? they said to each other.
Tía came out then, with an apron on and maybe the longest Lee Press-On Nails I’ve ever seen in my life. There was this one guru motherfucker in the Guinness Book of World Records who had longer nails, but I tell you, it was close. She gave everybody kisses, told me and Rafa how guapo we were—Rafa, of course, believed her—told Madai how bella she was, but when she got to Papi, she froze a little, like maybe she’d seen a wasp on the tip of his nose, but then kissed him all the same.
Mami told us to join the other kids in the living room. Tío said, Wait a minute, I want to show you the apartment. I was glad Tía said, Hold on, because from what I’d seen so far, the place had been furnished in Contemporary Dominican Tacky. The less I saw, the better. I mean, I liked plastic sofa covers but damn, Tío and Tía had taken it to another level. They had a disco ball hanging in the living room and the type of stucco ceilings that looked like stalactite heaven. The sofas all had golden tassels dangling from their edges. Tía came out of the kitchen with some people I didn’t know and by the time she got done introducing everybody, only Papi and Mami were given the guided tour of the four-room third-floor apartment. Me and Rafa joined the kids in the living room. They’d already started eating. We were hungry, one of the girls explained, a pastelito in hand. The boy was about three years younger than me but the girl who’d spoken, Leti, was my age. She and another girl were on the sofa together and they were cute as hell.
Leti introduced them: the boy was her brother Wilquins and the other girl was her neighbor Mari. Leti had some serious tetas and I could tell that my brother was going to gun for her. His taste in girls was predictable. He sat down right between Leti and Mari and by the way they were smiling at him I knew he’d do fine. Neither of the girls gave me more than a cursory one-two, which didn’t bother me. Sure, I liked girls but I was always too terrified to speak to them unless we were arguing or I was calling them stupidos, which was one of my favorite words that year. I turned to Wilquins and asked him what there was to do around here. Mari, who had the lowest voice I’d ever heard, said, He can’t speak.
What does that mean?
I looked at Wilquins incredulously. He smiled and nodded, as if he’d won a prize or something.
Does he understand? I asked.
Of course he understands, Rafa said. He’s not dumb.
I could tell Rafa had said that just to score points with the girls. Both of them nodded. Low-voice Mari said, He’s the best student in his grade.
I thought, Not bad for a mute. I sat next to Wilquins.
After about two seconds of TV Wilquins whipped out a bag of dominos and motioned to me. Did I want to play? Sure. Me and him played Rafa and Leti we whupped their collective asses twice, which put Rafa in a real bad mood. He looked at me like maybe he wanted to take a swing, just one to make him feel better. Leti kept whispering into Rafa’s ear, telling him it was OK.
In the kitchen I could hear my parents slipping into their usual modes. Papi’s voice was loud and argumentative; you didn’t have to be anywhere near him to catch his drift. And Mami, you had to put cups to your ears to hear hers. I went into the kitchen a few times—once so the tíos could show off how much bullshit I’d been able to cram in my head the last few years; another time for a bucket-sized cup of soda. Mami and Tía were frying tostones and the last of the pastelitos. She appeared happier now and the way her hands worked on our dinner you would think she had a life somewhere else making rare and precious things. She,nudged Tía every now and then, shit they must have been doing all their lives. As soon as Mami saw me though, she gave me the eye. Don’t stay long, that eye said. Don’t piss your old man off.
Papi was too busy arguing about Elvis to notice me. Then somebody mentioned María Montez and Papi barked, María Montez? Let me tell you about. María Montez, compa’i.
Maybe I was used to him. His voice—louder than most adults’—didn’t bother me none, though the other kids shifted uneasily in their seats. Wilquins was about to raise the volume on the TV, but Rafa said, I wouldn’t do that. Muteboy had balls; though. He did it anyway and then sat down. Wilquins’s pop came into the living room a second later, a bottle of Presidente in hand. That dude must have had Spider-senses or something. Did you raise that? he asked Wilquins and Wilquins nodded.
Is this your house? his pops asked. He looked ready to beat Wilquins silly but he lowered the volume instead.
See, Rafa said. You nearly got your ass kicked.
I met the Puerto Rican woman right after Papi had gotten the van. He was taking me on short trips, trying to cure me of my vomiting. It wasn’t really working but I looked forward to our trips, even though at the end of each one I’d be sick. These were the only times me and Papi did anything together. When we were alone he treated me much better, like maybe I was his son or something.
Before each drive Mami would cross me.
Bendicion, Mami, I’d say.
She’d kiss my forehead. Que Dios te bendiga. And then she would give me a handful of mentas because she wanted me to be OK. Mami didn’t think these excursions would cure anything, but the one time she had brought it up to Papi he had told her to shut up, what did she know about anything anyway?
Me and Papi didn’t talk much. We just drove around our neighborhood. Occasionally he’d ask, How is it?
And I’d nod, no matter how I felt.
One day I was sick outside of Perth Amboy. Instead of taking me home he went the other way on Industrial Avenue, stopping a few minutes later in front of a light blue house I didn’t recognize. It reminded me of the Easter eggs we colored at school, the ones we threw out the bus windows at other cars.
The Puerto Rican woman was there and she helped me clean up. She had dry papery hands and when she rubbed the towel on my chest, she did it hard, like I was a bumper she was waxing. She was very thin and had cloud of brown hair rising above her narrow face and the sharpest blackest eyes you’ve ever seen.
He’s cute, she said to Papi.
Not when he’s throwing up, Papi said.
What’s your name? she asked me. Are you Rafa?
I shook my head.
Then it’s Yunior, right? I nodded.
You’re the smart one, she said, suddenly happy with herself. Maybe you want to see my books?
They weren’t hers. I recognized them as ones my father must have left in her house. Papi was a voracious reader, couldn’t even go cheating without a paperback in his pocket.
Why don’t you go watch TV? Papi suggested. He was looking at her like she was the last piece of chicken on earth.
We got plenty of channels, she said. Use the remote if you want.
The two of them went upstairs and I was too scared of what was happening to poke around. I just sat there, ashamed, expecting something big and fiery to crash down on our heads. I watched a whole hour of the news before Papi came downstairs and said, Let’s go.
About two hours later the women laid out the food and like always nobody but the kids thanked them. It must be some Dominican tradition or something. There was everything I liked—chicharrones, fried chicken, tostones, sancocho, rice, fried cheese, yuca, avocado; potato salad, a meteor-sized hunk of pernil, even a tossed salad which I could do without—but when I joined the other kids around the serving table, Papi said, Oh no you don’t, and took the paper plate out of my hand. His fingers weren’t gentle.
What’s wrong now? Tía asked, handing me another plate.
He ain’t eating, Papi said. Mami pretended to help Rafa with the pernil.
Why can’t he eat?
Because I said so.
The adults who didn’t know us made like they hadn’t heard a thing and Tío just smiled sheepishly and told everybody to go ahead and eat. All the kids—about ten of them now—trooped back into the living room with their plates a-heaping and all the adults ducked into the kitchen and the dining room, where the radio was playing loud-ass bachatas. I was the only one without a plate. Papi stopped me before I could get away from him. He kept his voice nice and low so nobody else could hear him.
If you eat anything, I’m going to beat you. ¿Entiendes?
And if your brother gives you any food, I’ll beat him to. Right here in front of everybody. ¿Entiendes?
I nodded again. I wanted to kill him and he must have sensed it because he gave my head a little shove.
All the kids watched me come in and sit down in front of the TV.
What’s wrong with your dad? Leti asked.
He’s a dick, I said.
Rafa shook his head. Don’t say that shit in front of people.
Easy for you to be nice when you’re eating, I said.
Hey, if I was a pukey little baby, I wouldn’t get no food either.
I almost said something back but I concentrated on the TV. I wasn’t going to start it. No fucking way. So I watched Bruce Lee beat Chuck Norris into the floor of the Colosseum and tried to pretend that there was no food anywhere in the house. It was Tía who finally saved me. She came into the living room and said, Since you ain’t eating, Yunior, you can at least help me get some ice.
I didn’t want to, but she mistook my reluctance for something else.
I already asked your father.
She held my hand while we walked; Tía didn’t have any kids but I could tell she wanted them. She was the sort of relative who always remembered your birthday but who you only went to visit because you had to. We didn’t get past the first-floor landing before she opened her pocketbook and handed me the first of three pastelitos she had smuggled out of the apartment.
Go ahead, she said. And as soon as you get inside make sure you brush your teeth.
Thanks a lot, Tía, I said.
Those pastelitos didn’t stand a chance.
She sat next to me on the stairs and smoked her cigarette. All the way down on the first floor and we could still hear the music and the adults and the television. Tía looked a ton like Mami; the two of them were both short and light-skinned. Tía smiled a lot and that was what set them apart the most.
How is it at home, Yunior?
What do you mean?
How’s it going in the apartment? Are you kids OK? I knew an interrogation when I heard one, no matter how sugar-coated it was. I didn’t say anything. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my Tía, but something told me to keep my mouth shut. Maybe it was family loyalty, maybe I just wanted to protect Mami or I was afraid that Papi would find out—it could have been anything really.
Is your mom all right?
Have there been lots of fights?
None, I said. Too many shrugs would have been just as bad as an answer. Papi’s at work too much.
Work, Tía said, like it was somebody’s name she didn’t like.
Me and Rafa, we didn’t talk much about the Puerto Rican woman. When we ate dinner at her house, the few times Papi had taken us over there, we still acted like nothing was out of the ordinary. Pass the ketchup, man. No sweat, bro. The affair was like a hole in our living room floor, one we’d gotten so used to circumnavigating that we sometimes forgot it was there.
By midnight all the adults were crazy dancing. I was sitting outside Tía’s bedroom—where Madai was sleeping—trying not to attract attention. Rafa had me guarding the door; he and Leti were in there too, with some of the other kids, getting busy no doubt. Wilquins had gone across the hall to bed so I had me and the roaches to mess around with.
Whenever I peered into the main room I saw about twenty moms and dads dancing and drinking beers. Every now and then somebody yelled, ¡Quisqueya! And then everybody else would yell and stomp their feet. From what I could see my parents seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Mami and Tía spent a lot of time side by side, whispering, and I kept expecting something to come of this, a brawl maybe. I’d never once been out with my family when it hadn’t turned to shit. We weren’t even theatrical or straight crazy like other families. We fought like sixth-graders, without any real dignity. I guess the whole night I’d been waiting for a blowup, something between Papi and Mami. This was how I always figured Papi would be exposed, out in public, where everybody would know.
You’re a cheater!
But everything was calmer than usual. And Mami didn’t look like she was about to say anything to Papi. The two of them danced every now and then but they never lasted more than a song before Mami joined Tía again in whatever conversation they were having.
I tried to imagine Mami before Papi. Maybe I was tired, or just sad, thinking about the way my family was. Maybe I already knew how it would all end up in a few years, Mami without Papi, and that was why I did it. Picturing her alone wasn’t easy. It seemed like Papi had always been with her, even when we were waiting in Santo Domingo for him to send for us.
The only photograph our family had of Mami as a young woman, before she married Papi, was the one that somebody took of her at an election party that I found one day while rummaging for money to go to the arcade. Mami had it tucked into her immigration papers. In the photo, she’s surrounded by laughing cousins I will never meet, who are all shiny from dancing, whose clothes are rumpled and loose. You can tell it’s night and hot and that the mosquitos have been biting. She sits straight and even in a crowd she stands out, smiling quietly like maybe she’s the one everybody’s celebrating. You can’t see her hands but I imagined they’re knotting a straw or a bit of thread. This was the woman my father met a year later on the Malecón, the woman Mami thought she’d always be.
Mami must have caught me studying her because she stopped what she was doing and gave me a smile, maybe her first one of the night. Suddenly I wanted to go over and hug her, for no other reason than I loved her, but there were about eleven fat jiggling bodies between us. So I sat down on the tiled floor and waited.
I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I knew Rafa was kicking me and saying, Let’s go. He looked like he’d been hitting those girls off; he was all smiles. I got to my feet in time to kiss Tía and Tío good-bye. Mami was holding the serving dish she had brought with her.
Where’s Papi? I asked.
He’s downstairs, bringing the van around. Mami leaned down to kiss me.
You were good today, she said.
And then Papi burst in and told us to get the hell downstairs before some pendejo cop gave him a ticket. More kisses, more handshakes and then we were gone.
I don’t remember being out of sorts after I met the Puerto Rican woman, but I must have been because Mami only asked me questions when she thought something was wrong in my life. It took her about ten passes but finally she cornered me one afternoon when we were alone in the apartment. Our upstairs neighbors were beating the crap out of their kids, and me and her had been listening to it all afternoon. She put her hand on mine and said, Is everything OK, Yunior? Have you been fighting with your brother?
Me and Rafa had already talked. We’d been in the basement, where our parents couldn’t hear us. He told me that yeah, he knew about her.
Papi’s taken me there twice now, he said.
Why didn’t you tell me? I asked.
What the hell was I going to say? Hey, Yunior, guess what happened yesterday? I met Papi’s sucia!
I didn’t say anything to Mami either. She watched me, very very closely. Later I would think, maybe if I had told her, she would have confronted him, would have done something, but who can know these things? I said I’d been having trouble in school and like that everything was back to normal between us. She put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed and that was that.
We were on the turnpike, just past Exit 11, when I started feeling it again. I sat up from leaning against Rafa. His fingers smelled and he’d gone to sleep almost as soon as he got into the van. Madai was out too but at least she wasn’t snoring.
In the darkness, I saw that Papi had a hand on Mami’s knee and that the two of them were quiet and still. They weren’t slumped back or anything; they were both wide awake, bolted into their seats. I couldn’t see either of their faces and no matter how hard I tried I could not imagine their expressions. Neither of them moved. Every now and then the van was filled with the bright rush of somebody else’s headlights. Finally I said, Mami, and they both looked back, already knowing what was happening.