Authors: Mara White
Table of Contents
Copyright © 2015 by Mara White. All rights reserved.
First Kindle Edition: 2015
Cover © Daniela Medina
Editor: Leanne Rabesa
Epigraph from Cien sonetos de amor (1959) by Pablo Neruda
Published by University of Texas Press, 1986
Used with permission
All rights are reserved to the author. No part of this publication may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. The unauthorized reproduction for distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be scanned, uploaded or distributed via the Internet or any other means, electronic or print, without the publisher’s permission.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
For Diana Rosa, who proves every day that beautiful flowers grow in the Bronx.
Te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras,
Secretamente entre la sombra y el alma.
(I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.)
Cuando el amor no es locura, no es amor.
(Love without madness is not love.)
—Calderón de la Barca
here ain’t too much that can shake me. I was born into the belly of the beast on a blazing hot day in July. A heat-wave scorcher that brought the caps off the fire hydrants and everyone out on the street. Old men pulled their wife-beaters up over their bellies to cool off and the girls wore even less clothing than normal, which ain’t much, in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx. Air conditioning was a luxury afforded to the rich; the only place to cool down was either at the hospital or the car service on the way there. Just don’t bleed out from a bullet wound before they get you through the lobby.
My ma says her water broke while she was walking back up the stairs to take a piss. Being that I was her first, she thought for a second she’d peed her pants. She hobbled back out onto the street and yelled for somebody to get her a cab before she gave birth to her son on the makeshift corner domino table.
Ma likes to say that she carried so big with me that she could barely walk—that she knew I was macho from the very first kick in her gut, knew that she’d call me Luciano after the first light of the morning sun.
Like I said, ain’t too much that can flap me. South Bronx, Spanish Harlem, then to West Harlem and the Heights—I’d seen it all by age ten. Seen it all and then some. I ain’t no stranger to violence.
But war is different when it moves from rival blocks and gang-claimed school yards to open desert or caves and tunnels dug two miles deep into a mountainside. Out here you’re not fighting your own war. You’re part of a machine that is unimaginably bigger than you are. When you’re out on a mission, you pray with each footstep that the machine will take care of you.
One thing is for certain—whether you’re ready or not, the machine will make a fucking man of you.
Out here under the white-hot sun, I think about that scorching day in the South Bronx in ‘89 when my Ma brought me into this world. And who knows if she was ready, but she struggled alone, like a roach on its back, her whole life just to take care of me.
The sky is empty and an endless, deep blue. What I wouldn’t give right now for the propeller beats of an army chopper to break the monotony. My warm, sticky blood seeps through my fatigues and the sand soaks it up like it’s been waiting its whole goddamned life to get a drink of me. Alls it would take is a single sandstorm for me to get buried out here forever—no record, no closure, no body to recover and fly home for an honorable funeral service.
So I think about how she would describe to me the day I made an entrance: hot, sleazy summer. Beaches too polluted—no swimming, no air but the devil’s own to breathe in the city. She swears the
music stopped when she hit the street and screamed she was in labor.
That the old men upset their domino game as they all stood simultaneously in attention.
That the sky momentarily lit up with a flash of heat lightning. She thought for a second,
, but then realized the sensation was only her own water dripping down her legs.
That the temperature broke one hundred and five on that day. She said the heat made labor easy, that it helped to loosen all of her muscles. She said she knew I would be a boy and that the heat would make me just as stubborn as I was strong.
And she knew that I would take care of her—that we would take care of each other.
My ma told me the story whenever there was a heat wave passing through the city. Nothing could ever compare to
heat wave in her head. I couldn’t know that day better if I’d been there to see it.
My Luciano’s heatwave was worse, it was better, we were lucky we survived it
. That the heat was a blessing disguised as a curse, that her boy would be hot-blooded and naturally drawn to the fight. But my ma wasn’t scared. She clenched down on her teeth instead of screaming in pain.
In Spanish, for giving birth, they say,
. My ma swears up and down that I was born to save her life. Luciano, she named me, the giver of light.
That night a five-alarm fire burnt down almost our whole block. Faulty wiring
they said. Six people died, all of them in our rundown building. Everything she owned became ash. The only reason we weren’t too was on account of my spontaneous entrance.
We moved less than a mile away into a tiny apartment my Tía Betty shared with their uncle. A year later, Belén was born, and from that moment on, we slept in the same crib. It seems like my whole life my cousin has always been right next to me. I would wake up when she’d cry and drift back to sleep as she did.
Now I lie on my back, wounded, probably mortally. Alone, unarmed, in prime enemy territory. What I wouldn’t give to be by her side now.
Belén. My cousin. My own heat wave. The flame to my fire.
he grease pan is crackling on top of the stove and the noise brings us into the kitchen. We pull out our chairs to sit. Luciano and I are good at waiting for
. I like them with cheese; he likes them with meat. Our feet don’t reach the floor so we giggle and swing them as we wait for our treat. Titi isn’t in the mood for talking so she doesn’t turn around from the stove.
We know not to go near her and to stay away from the burner as she cooks. Luciano has a scar on his forehead from when Titi put him too close in his car seat when he was still a baby. Hot grease jumped out of the pan and kissed him right on the forehead. He howled loud enough for all the neighbors to hear and Titi cried from feeling bad. I don’t remember it happening, but Mami and Titi like to tell the story and that’s how we know to stand back from the grease pan.
Luciano squirts a blob of ketchup onto my plate first and then on his. He does lots of things for me even though he’s not even a year older. Nine months, Mami says. That’s why everyone in the family calls us
los primos hermanos
. ‘Cause we’re so close in age.
Mami will pick me up tonight after work—late, after everybody is already asleep. When I stay here, I sleep next to Luciano and that’s why I like it. Titi gets angry faster than Mami and sometimes she throws things. Luciano never cries, but he goes into his room and closes the door. We play with his trains and his superheroes. I don’t mind playing with his boy toys. I like the sounds Luciano makes with his mouth. Sometimes he gets spit on me from making train noises. It doesn’t bother me, though. I don’t know why. Maybe it should. Spit is supposed to be gross.
When Abuelo dies Mami gets the call in the middle of the night. She makes me put on two layers of everything before we stuff some clothes into a bag and grab a gypsy cab off of Broadway. She cries into one hand and holds me close with the other.
She says things in Spanish to the driver and he says he won’t charge her. It’s not too far to Titi’s house—at least not like when they lived in the Bronx. Now we’re all in Harlem, Mami and me in West Harlem and Titi and Luciano in East Harlem, but they all call it Spanish Harlem and I don’t know why because everybody on the West side speaks in Spanish too.
Luciano is still sleeping and Titi’s face is red from crying. Her and Mami start up again as soon as they see each other. They’re howling and yelling and I jump when they shout things. They don’t even seem to hear me when I ask over and over again, “Where’s Luciano?”
,” my Titi finally gets out.
I run to his bedroom and push open the door. He’s lying on his mattress in a white tank top and underwear. I’ve seen him naked before. I’m already eight but I still remember taking baths with him not so long ago. If it were another boy I’d be scared, but I’m never scared of Luciano.
I step on the heels of my shoes to peel them off and unzip my jacket. I have sweats on top of my corduroys and a sweatshirt over my sweater. Luciano would tease me if he was awake, and I smile when I think about it. The air is cold in the apartment even though I can hear the radiators banging, so I lie down beside him and pull the covers up over us. His eyes pop open and he looks frightened, but then he smiles. I smile right back at him.
“Is it time to get up, Belén?”
“No, but Abuelo died. We have to fly to Santiago in the morning.”
“All of us?”
“I don’t know if Hemi is coming.” I squeeze my eyes shut and sort of pray that Hemi stays in Staten Island because I already know I don’t want to ride on a plane with her and all of my cousins. My Titi Jimena has four kids and they’re all “
” like Mami says. Raymond and Ramón are the older two, they’re twins; both born on the island, Annalise comes next and Briana is the baby. My cousins are crazy and they aren’t afraid to swear or run their mouths off at grown-ups. Even at teachers and policemen—they’re not scared of nothing. Mami says Titi Hemi’s kids’re gonna end up in jail and she says Raymond is already helping Hemi’s boyfriend run numbers.
Luciano and I don’t cry, even though we can both hear Titi and Mami crying and shouting things that sound sad, like they’re yelling at God for taking Abuelito. We look at each other and I stare hard at his scar. I examine his eyebrows and the spot right over his nose. His eyelashes twitch because he wants to sleep. I look at his cheeks and his chin. Luciano has a button nose that looks a lot like mine. He falls back asleep while I’m still watching him. His mouth falls open and I can see the edge of his bottom teeth. His breathing is raspy and I listen to it as I slowly follow him into sleep.