I am a survivor of my mad existence. The long conflicted nights set my imagination aflame and feverish stream of days sustained me as it pulled me along. I was raised in the city of concrete and inhaled the black dense fumes daily. I slept fitfully through the noise and learned how to keep up with the frantic pace of the claustrophobic crowds. It’s a restless city, but I found peace on the enormous and lush Great Lawn of Central Park and have felt cradled by the looming skyscrapers and the historic brownstones that lined the avenues. It was hard for me to believe that lives could come together in this erratic metropolis and still be torn apart. My parents met in high school during the late 1960‘s. Even years later, the intensity of the thrill that charged through him affected him still whenever he spoke of meeting my mother for the first time.
“The first time I saw her, it hit me like a shot. I told my friend that I was going to marry her. He didn’t believe me, but I was right.” His handsome face reflected powerful emotions that made his eyes soft with care.
“She grew up rough, you know? I mean, that‘s why she‘s the way she is.” he shook his head sadly. Inwardly, I rolled my eyes. It was the same old excuse that I’d heard too many times to really believe. Secretly, I have kept a beloved memory of my parents embracing and dancing to a deep throbbing rhythm. He loved to make her laugh and when she did, she laughed loud and hearty. She would throw her head back and open her mouth wide and let out a sound that came from low in her throat. I take that moment as evidence that a great love had existed.
They were married on a hot summer day in July 1971 at Our Lady Queen of Angel’s church. The iron steeple building sat on 113th street in Spanish Harlem flanked the dark brick of the Projects.
Their wedding photos showed them staring into the lens with a mixture of happiness and hope.
My mother, Lorna Garcia looked lovely in her handmade satin and lace gown with a cathedral train. A tiara of pearls perched elegantly on her carefully done curls and it gleamed in the light. She had a delicate oval face with tawny skin that had a spray of freckles across her pert nose. She had wide chocolate brown eyes, high cheekbones and slim lips. Her true beauty laid in her smile. She didn’t do it often, but it lit up her eyes and made her look vulnerable, hinting a need for protection. Don’t be fooled.
My father, Tomas Manuel Diaz Jr. was a shade darker than his bride. He looked every day of his eighteen years with his chestnut brown hair parted on the side, his hooded brown eyes, a slightly wide nose, defined lips that curled up with a smirk, and a strong jaw. His slender build fit the tuxedo well and he held his new wife with a confident strength. They made a stunning couple.
While he didn’t hesitate to marry the love of his life so young, my mother would often display her reservations for years afterward. She gave the impression that marriage sucked you in with false promises and sweet dreams only to find it being a lot of work to maintain, that eventually it changed you and threatened to snuff out your light.
“I wanted more time to be me. I was in no rush to be somebody’s wife and mother.” She said looking away. I had to wonder if the family had suspected that she was having sex and getting married was more of a precaution. If she ended up pregnant, they wouldn’t have a bastard running around mucking things up. Thin lines appeared between her brows and her words stank of regret for choosing to please others instead of herself. Or maybe she was caught in a loop of the day I was born. The day her innocence ended.
Metropolitan Hospital was beaten by heavy rains and strong winds when I screamed by first breath on April in 1972. The unusual weather was unexpected and the fallen bodies of street signs, thick branches and glass coffin phone booths went on for blocks. The hospital was a gothic monstrosity tucked into the eastside. It had elaborate arches over the main entrance and marble swirled floors. It distracted the eyes from the glare of the fluorescent lights, but provided no protection from the sting of disinfectant.
The corridors saw a lot of me as I wandered while my parents worked.
My parents’ marriage was volatile. Yelling, screaming, cursing, slamming, hitting, bleeding and crying became normal and dreadful. It’s not an easy sight to see your mother trying to pull out every hair on your father’s head or your father hitting your mother so hard in the kidneys, she peed blood and could barely walk. These things are branded on my brain and seared my heart.
They handled these times differently.
My father would meet his friends in clubs and stay out all night leaving my mother home to pace, smoke and bitch. Most days she was impatient, but the silences between them would grate on her nerves and she’d become a shrieking banshee on acid. I had learned early that comfort was not what she needed.
“Not now.” she’d say after pushing away my hug. I used to get angry at him for making her that way, but I already knew it in the back of my heart that she couldn‘t feel me much less love me. I knew it, but I refused to believe it. Denial is a powerful tool; it provides blind spots of various sizes to block the unpleasant truths.
The one person I saw with 20/20 vision was my paternal grandmother, Maria. My abuela was an unfailing lighthouse in my chaos. She somehow knew that the way to my heart in allowing me all the space I needed to express myself, even if that meant sliding across the floor in her clean sheets. She took it all in stride and gave me a motherly love that can never be replaced. Her one bedroom apartment in the Bronx was my palace and she made me feel like a princess that would someday inherit a kingdom. It gave me pride that I had knowledge and experienced in our customs, in our foods and music and in understanding our language. She spoke to me in Spanish and I responded in English, that’s how we taught each other. She wasn’t always aware of what went on at home, mostly because of the Golden Rule: What happens in the house stays in the house. I had more than one beating for forgetting. My father was usually the first one to break that rule and shamelessly pour out a few troubles.
Maria Rivera was born in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico in 1933. Her mother died in childbirth and the child soon after. She had an older brother and sister who married young and lived in other parts of Puerto Rico. They had children of their own and didn’t have the means or the space to take in their younger sibling. She was shuffled around through relatives she hardly knew until one of them brought her to New York City. Manhattan was a busy place in 1947. They were able to find a decent apartment on 115th street and Lexington Avenue. She didn’t get much schooling, but I am pretty certain that having a factory job sewing buttons on wool coats at fourteen years old was quite an education as well. She wasn’t a wild child, she was self controlled and disciplined. She knew how to make the most of a situation. Her emotions were always kept in check except for her family. We saw the tears and the worry on her weary face. As a child, it never occurred to me that she was getting older until I saw a black and white photo of her at seventeen in a club. She wore a black off the shoulder dress and I imagined her darker than the pasty white of the harsh flash. Her hair was swooped up in the front and into a low bun. Her full defined lips were probably a rosy red. Her earth colored eyes bright and danced with joy of being young. She sat ramrod straight, completely relaxed as she smiled shyly into the camera.
When she was about nineteen, she met Tomas Manuel Diaz Sr. through a mutual friend. He was handsome man of twenty from Arecibo, Puerto Rico. He wasn’t a Barrio rat who couldn’t put two words together and she was drawn to his intellect and charm.
“Y muy aguilloso de todo de Puerto Rico.” she said wistfully. He was proud of his roots. I don’t know the story about their relationship, but I know that once my father was born, he was gone. I’ve only seen a picture of him. In the aged Kodak, he looked about forty with his gray hair combed back. He wore a button shirt and a pair light colored pants, it was striking contrast to his deep tan. He looked calm, at peace with himself and his life, but a wicked streak showed in his grin. I searched my memory for his face, but I couldn’t find any trace of him.
She raised my father like most Puerto Rican women in those days raised their sons, like kings. She gave in to most tantrums and requests. It kept their relationship close, but it didn’t stop him from doing tricks off the fire escapes and jumping from roof to roof with his friends, resulting in a broken arm and a scar that went from his wrist to his elbow. Ever since then, whenever he left their small apartment on Grand Concourse, she’d respond to his ” Bendicion, Mami” with “Que Dios te companine'” and watch him go, trying not to let him see her worry.
The year I was born, she met a security guard who worked at the hospital named Earl Jonson. At the time, she worked the manual service elevator and wore her uniform proudly. The charcoal gray skirt, a white button shirt, a deep red blazer with the hospital’s insignia on the lapel and black low heels gave her day purpose. She didn’t go out to eat with the housekeeping hens for lunch; instead she preferred to stand outside of her elevator smoking a cigarette and drinking her coffee. He must have been entranced by her. She had dyed her sable locks with Nice and Easy #101, light ash blonde. Her hair curled and swirled down and around her shoulders. It should have looked ridiculous, but instead she looked brighter and younger. She was her own person and expressed herself without fear. Whether she wore her clinging lipstick red dress or a floral patterned bikini, she wore it confidently. She never exercised because she knew the value of her time and didn’t waste it by worrying about the sags and bags.
“La vida es para vivir.” she’d say.
She lived to work, no one worked harder. She never avoided it, not even when she got hurt on the job. She was fussing with the faulty elevator door and broke her index finger. Still, there she was the next morning in the Woman’s lounge, flipping through the latest issue of Avon, half listening to the ladies gossip. They clucked around the large table, pecking at their food. Her broken finger in a bandaged splint looked awkward and stuck out from the pages.
She felt that God had put her in the job and she intended to stay until He said otherwise. She was religious, but didn’t attend Mass. She had her own way of praising God and asking for answers to her prayers. She started to go to the Grotto (pronounced groo-ta) during 1977. It was part of a church in the Bronx. The Grotto has a series of connecting caves and each one had a statue or two of saints. At the end, it took you outside with a stone stairway that led you to the top. Christ’s crucifixion was depicted in an enormous painting with flowers and melted candles at the foot of it. People would kneel to pray and gaze at His anguished face.
A line would form near the entrance that had long benches for those especially weary in spirit. People would come to collect water that flowed from under a wondrous statue of the Virgin Mary. Next to it, an alcove of candle stands, some new, some old. Fresh and withered flowers all around from the faithful. The mini waterfall of very cold water that we thought to be holy was worthy of traveling any distance. Abuela would fill up four gallon jugs with the blessed liquid.
She and Earl moved into the one bedroom on 174th street and Westchester Avenue. The balcony faced a playground and in honor of finding such a great place, she erected an altar on her tall dresser. She had a number of saints and a framed picture of Jesus on the wall above it. Next to that was a picture of her mother, Carmen. Her largest saint, Santa Barbara stood in the middle then San Lazaro, San Miguel, Santa Lucy and San Antonio. They stared at you kindly from their pristine white cloth and were surrounded by coins, money, and candy and clipped prayers for certain requests. Every week, she would mix and burn herbs in an aluminum pot. Then she’d walk around the apartment shaking the embers so that the fumes covered everything with blessings and luck. It was a religion for abuela that suited her lifestyle, encouraged her faith and kept a peace that instilled itself so deeply that no matter how bad things were, you felt it from the moment you stepped into the apartment.
If my parents were at each other’s throats, my mother would send me to her mother, Esther’s house in Brooklyn. It was also her way of punishing him; she knew he would have some questions to answer from abuela and how much he hated that. He would be forced to give in to her demands.
Esther Morales, grandma, already had a child when she met Ray Garcia at a New Year’s Eve party in the early 1950’s. They had a connection that would endure the years, but didn’t keep them together. Family rumors ran around about drug use, but at the heart of it was simply that the family didn’t think she was good enough for the only son. They or rather his mother, Consuelo used every trick she had to stop them from being together. The unplanned pregnancy sent Ray running to college, leaving grandma to deal with the pressures of her broken home life and financial difficulties. So, at three weeks old, my mother was sent to live with Consuelo. The decision would mar their relationship and make every communication tense for years to come.
Consuelo and her husband, Rolando, were raising three daughters in the two bedroom apartment on 116th street. Those were the days when women ruled the roost without little or no help from the husband. It was enough that he worked; she took care of the rest. My mother’s face would harden when she spoke about her childhood. She was the youngest of the brood and wasn’t spared the rod.
“Once, she found out I was playing hooky and told me to go take a bath. I was in the shower and she came in with the extension cord and started hitting me…maaan, I never played hooky again.” She actually chuckled after telling me this story. I would look at her and wonder how she could manage it. I understood the physical pain of being hit, but she was still suffering from being abandoned and to add welts and bruises to that made me want to cry.
I, personally hated going to Consuelo’s house, it was just so boring. You couldn’t act like a kid; you had to sit on the plastic covered sofa and try to stay still. Her TV never showed cartoons or movies, only Spanish shows and novellas. God forbid, you asked for a snack.
“Jor moder no feed ju?” she’d sneer at me, and then she’d go to an elegant candy dish and hand me some candy that was sweating with sugar. Her frame was wide, but she carried it well for five foot four. Her complexion was practically unlined and tanned. Her hair was whiter than her original dark brown and it was curly and short. All of her emotions were held in her eyes, those light brown eyes that were flecked with gold showed you all you needed to see. At that moment, I knew she thought I was a pain in the ass, but boredom set in quick and I was usually alone with her. I had a few cousins who I saw on the holidays, weddings and funerals. My aunts weren’t into having too many kids, having a career or going to college took enough of their time.
By the time my mother was seventeen, there were several unsuccessful reunions that just left my mother more scarred and they were estranged for a time. My birth brought them together, but they always seemed to be on the brink of war. Grandma would try to make efforts to clear the past and my mother would select which one would suit her needs at the time. If she felt that she and my father needed some time alone, she would take me to the 14th street train station to meet grandma and hand me off. I made a scene almost every time, screaming my head off and trying to hold on to the bright yellow wooden turnstiles. Grandma would calm me down and by the time we reached her apartment on Halsey Street, I was just fine. My young aunt and uncle, Diana and David were the closest to siblings that I had and they treated me as such. My time with them is stuck in my mind and heart along with the echoes of laughter and giggles.
As I grew older, my time with grandma would go from a weekend to weeks at a time. Grandma would enroll me in day care and I’d adjust, make friends and settle in. Then my mother would call and want me returned. I would cry like there had been a death every time. When my parents’ fights would become more frequent, I’d be returned to grandma. My tears had dried by then and the sadness that overtook me made it hard for me to want to stay. I didn’t want to see them fight, but what could I do to stop them? This back and forth continued until grandma spoke about the harm it may be causing me, to which my mother would become defensive.
“Look, don’t tell me how to raise my fuckin’ kid!” she’d yell into the phone then slam it down. I knew that I’d be seeing more of abuela than of grandma, that’s the way it always worked out.
In the fall of 1978, my mother decided that she had enough of moving from place to place to avoid paying rent and got a secretarial job. My father had been spending their money on drugs. I guess she knew it was only a matter of time before he lost yet another job. He was against it and it caused a lot of fights, but she refused to quit. This meant that I would need after school care. It wasn’t long before she found Mama Julia. She was a typical Spanish overweight woman with bad caramel skin and short hair that was dyed an orange blonde. While she and my mother spoke, I was looking around the unfamiliar neighborhood and trying not to feel nervous. I held my mother’s hand in a death grip.
“No te procupe,” I heard Mama Julia assure her. “La nena esta bien con migo.” she said as she focused her beady eyes on me.
Her small brick house soon became a place of torment. I wasn’t allowed to wander the around, once I was inside, I stayed inside. She would escort me from the front door to the living room, where she had me sit in an old recliner. I was forbidden to move unless I asked permission. If I didn’t eat all of her food, I would get a smack on the head.
“Mala manyosa!” she’d yell. I had to be sure that I finished whatever she gave me or she would pinch the sides of my jaw hard with her fat fingers and shove the food into my mouth. If I asked for more, I’d get a stinging slap on the mouth. If she had guests, she would tie me to the bed in one of the rooms until they were gone. She liked to deny food then when it was time to leave, she would tell my mother, “Bendito, no se que pasa con la nene, no queire comere.” Her tone and expression full of fake sympathy. There was a lump of nausea from it in my throat. As a punishment, she refused to let me use the bathroom. When I would piss myself, she would bath me in cold water, but wouldn’t let me use her towels. She would leave me standing there shivering, waiting for her to get me fresh clothes. She was friendly with a few neighbors whom she would invite over sometimes. When she was bored with playing cards, she would entertain them by making me stand in the kitchen so that she could laugh at me with her friends.
“Ju so ugly, jor moder don love ju.” she’d say and would cackle loudly. I remember trying not to cry, but feeling the tears coming anyway and the roaring laughter that came with it. If she happened to pass me, she would pinch me hard while her gaze dared me to weep.
It came to an end one morning when my father was taking me to Mama Julia’s house. He was helping me tie my sneaker, when his hand grazed my leg. I winced. He lifted the pant leg to reveal the bruise that I had been trying to hide. I tried not to cry, but I broke down, I was desperate for a rescue.
“Mama Julia said that no one would believe me. She said that no one would believe me and that if I said anything, next time would be worse.” I told him as I clung to him and cried. He had tears in his eyes and without putting me down, called the police and met them at her house. He showed them the bruise.
“I want that bitch arrested for what she did to my daughter.” he told them enraged. I couldn’t look at the officers, I felt embarrassed. She tried to play it off at first.
“No puedre ser.” she said when the officers told her the charges. When they snapped on the cuffs, she got angry. Her eyes full of fury met mine as they brought her to the squad car.
“Mariconcita! Te odio!” she shrieked at me and I hid my face in my father’s neck. He gently stroked my hair. When my father told my mother about what happened, she came to me and looked at the ugly bruise. The she looked at me, bothered and skeptical. My gut tightened at the thought of being in trouble for telling.
“Do you know how long this fucking bitch has been doing this, Lorna? Susanna wasn’t the first either. Neighbors told me that she’s done this shit before.” he told her, but she continued to stare down at me. I couldn’t bring myself to look at her. Beyond the relief that I’d never go to that house again was hurt and disappointment. I expected her to hold me and instead she seemed upset that I had said anything. I should have kept my mouth shut and take the punishment. She finally tore her eyes from me and looked at him.
“How the hell could I know, Tommy?” she asked him.
“If you paid more attention to her instead of the fuckin’ job.” he started, but she stopped him dead.
“I’m not quitting.” she said and walked away from him. I heard him almost growl as he went after her. I knew what that meant. I jumped up and ran to my room, to hide and cover my ears against the noise of struggle. I whispered my usual prayer in the darkness.
“Please God, don’t let them kill each other.” I tried not to hear the yelps and the slams. I didn’t have to see what was happening. I knew that she was getting hit in places that made her gasp, being hit by this monster that was inside my father.
“Tommy, stop!’ she would cry out, then a crash.
“Don’t fucking tell me what to do, I tell you! You think you’re big shit now because you got a job?!” he yelled.
“No! Stop it!” she screamed. The struggle would reach a certain intensity that made me want to run, but instead I squeezed my eyes shut and hummed every song I knew.
My mother began to stay after work later and the air in the apartment was thick as my father waited and paced. We had a small wooden plaque in the shape of a dog house, it had three dogs with our names on them. Whenever my mother stayed late, he would look at me agitated.
“Now, mommy is in the dog house.” he told me as he placed her dog in the house.
Early one morning, she had to take me with her. On the train, she leaned over to me close.
“I have to go to my boss’ house to pick up some work.”
I nodded. I didn’t care where we went, just to be with her was enough. It rained while we were on the subway and some of the streets and sidewalks of Brook Avenue were under dirty water. It was deserted except for a few homeless people looking through garbage, collecting left over tidbits of food. They looked tired of their lives, dressed in clothing that was worn and tattered, barely protecting them against the biting October cold. The area was littered with trash and remnants of buildings that once stood there. I got goose bumps looking at the decaying structures and the people that lived there. I was used to seeing people in need. The Welfare office was a very familiar place where I met other kids dealing with fighting parents and the craziness. We’d play made up games while our mothers were locked in conversation about their troubles, looking for some validation or an ally in the battle of living. After walking a few blocks, we came to a building that was in better shape than the rest. Inside, the halls stank of food and smoke as the paint peeled off the walls. There was no light except for what managed to peek through the dirty windows. We climbed up the loose marble stairs and across the chipped, sticky black and white checkered floor. Our steps were accompanied by the sounds of the neighbors’ lives. When we arrived at the apartment, a familiar floral and spicy scent lingered there. It was Agua de Florida, Florida water. It was sold in most botanicals and used as blessing water. The man that opened the door was Spanish and hairy. He wore a pale blue collared shirt and slightly wrinkled pants. His dark hair was slicked back and combed over his expanding bald spot. His wide somber eyes were lined at the corners and looked like two big pieces of coal on a snowman. His jowls spread as he greeted is with a cunning smile. I could not shake the vibe that something was going on, that feeling that sits in you when you know what you’re doing is wrong and you hope that you don’t get caught.
Inside, the shades were drawn. The living room was small and the cheap sofa was the old fashion type with scrolled wood and faded upholstery. Crammed in with it was a floor model oak TV and a very broken in armchair that was the ugliest green I had ever seen. My mother settled me into it, the springs creaked and poked.
“I have a little bit of work to do in the back, so stay here and be good.” she told me. I nodded and watched her follow the man down the hall. The TV flickered at a low volume and pictured The Flintstones talking in Spanish. It reminded me of Consuelo’s house and soon I was asleep. I awoke with a start and saw that the sun was going down. The apartment was very quiet and I was afraid that I was left alone in the horrible place. I got up and started down the narrow hallway.
“Mommy?” I called out. A door flung open and she stood there in the setting sunlight that was streaming into the room. It held no desk or chair that I could see, just a sofa with strewn cushions. I had never seen my mother look the way she did. She looked feverish and her eyes that were usually so dead calm or flashing with anger were no wild and unfocused. The man appeared at the door, looking amused and smug. His pants buttoned, but not zippered. My mother looked at me while she adjusted her clothing.
“I know, we’re going home now.” she told me. She turned to the man and put out her hand to shake, but he pulled her to him and brushed her lips. She pulled away quick, but it was too late. I saw it. Her face turned red as she grabbed my hand to rush off, but not before he planted a firm slap on her ass. He looked at me and with a wicked smile and winked. She was quiet until we were back in the subway.
“It’s very important that you never tell anyone where we went today. Promise?”
she asked. I agreed and thought that this secret would bind me to her. I would’ve promised anything, even if I knew it was wrong.
The weeks that followed were calm for a while and I was thrilled when my mother became pregnant. No one was happier than she was. I knew she had wanted a boy when I was born and after she lost a kidney to an infection, the doctors warned her not to get pregnant again. I think she knew that this child would be the boy who was denied her. No one was going to stop that. The frenzy of the pregnancy flowed through the family and was the reason for frequent gatherings. My mother would have friends around often to distract her from my father’s absence. His initial happiness wore off sooner than she had expected. A few months after we moved to Wheeler Avenue and her due date loomed close, he tried to be home more. He became attentive and loving, she softened under the attention.
In June 1979, Nelson Elias Diaz chose to make his appearance. I remember rushing home from school after a day of bragging about my new brother or sister. It didn’t matter which, I had someone to play with, to share triumphs and complaints. He took my breath away when I saw how perfect he was. When his tiny fingers wrapped around my finger, I felt strong and protective. I had someone to look after, but it also made me sad. Here was this little baby who would have to hear the yelling and the noise too. When my mother’s friends would visit to coo over Elias, I would have to push my way through to see him. My mother thought I was jealous and she was right, but not the way she thought. I wanted Elias for myself. I was distrustful of others around him. With the exception of abuela and myself, I was convinced that no one would protect him the way he needed. At night, I would creep over to his crib and whisper stories to him. Stories of places far from the Bronx, far from New York. Places where we were safe and had fun, where we would be happy and have everything we ever wanted. I used to wish that he could talk, and then he could tell me what Heaven was like while he could still remember. I loved him then and never stopped.