The last time my parents fought, my mother ended up in the hospital for a perforated eardrum. He hit her hard and pushed her against a large aquarium that we had in the hallway. She fell with it and the thick glass shattered, the stand’s bars bruising her. She was still for a moment sitting in the then she held her head in her hands as she cried and moaned from the pain. I believe it was more than the bodily harm, it was the fact that someone who claimed to love you hurt you until you screamed, until you begged them to stop, until you flinched when they came near. That was the real pain. After she returned home, my parents sat me down and broke the bad news.
“Me and your father are getting a divorce. Do you know what that is?” She asked me. I nodded. Of course, I knew what that was, I just didn’t want it to happen. She explained it anyway.
“Your father isn’t going to live with us anymore. It’s for the best.” she told me. My father sat in silence. I waited for him to say something, but he looked blindsided and speechless. His silence irritated her.
“Say something, Tommy.” she told him through clenched teeth. He looked at me, but seemed to brokenhearted to mutter any words of reassurance. Instead he got up and began to pack a bag. A terrible thought crept into my mind, if he left, he might forget me. This thought made me run to my room and tear out a paper. With a big red crayon, I drew a big heart for him to take. My mother, still on the sofa, was very calm and most likely relieved that it was coming to an end. While I was in the throes of a race. My father was zipping up his bag and I forced my cramping hand to go faster.
“Papi, Wait !” I called out as my mother repeated herself.
“It’s for the best, mami.” she told me, but she was stone-faced. Her tone was mechanical and flat. Mami, the word she used when she wanted me close enough to believe what she was saying. A manipulation tool. When my father walked to the door and I ran after him, she sprung into action. I was three steps away from him, when she grabbed my arm. My other hand held my precious heart; I was waving it back and forth.
“Papi!” I screamed out. As I struggled, my drawing fell on the floor and slid to the threshold of the door. She got to the door and slammed it shut, on my drawing. She bent down and ripped it free. I closed my eyes and felt a part of me die. The chill of the death left me feeling empty and lost. The pieces of my heart were still on the floor when she came to me.
“Pick this up and don’t you fuckin’ scream like that again.” she said, actually annoyed.
We saw little of him on the weekends. He was working two jobs at the time and had moved in with abuela. She kept us distracted by taking us out on her weekly visits to her sister, Millie’s house and her brother, Hymie’s apartment. Millie moved to New York several years ago, after she had her only daughter, Jennifer. She lived in a walk up brick house that was spitting distance from the elevated 4 train. Every time the train roared by, the house hummed with the sound and forced you to stop what you were doing and wait. Millie was a round woman with a pudgy face and very dark eyes and hair. She was the only evidence that abuela was a brunette. She had a husky voice and always seemed tired, like life no longer held any surprises. Her husband, Flaco was the opposite. He was tall, skinny, hence the name. I have no idea what his real name was. He got along very well with abuela (as everyone did) and Earl.
“Oye, Earl, “he’d greet Earl with a toothy smile.” Lo Jankee esta CHA CHOOO.” He’d say, then they would spend the hour watching TV, talking baseball and complaining about their jobs. Elias and I stayed in the kitchen listening to abuela and Millie talk. Abuela was the only woman I knew that didn’t relish in gossip. She listened mostly and spoke only to prove that she was listening, she knew that Millie didn’t have anyone else to talk to.
Her visits to her brother, Hymie were different. There, she smoked, danced, laughed and drank. He lived in a duplex apartment in a very tall building on the 21st floor. The view was the Hudson River and the busy FDR from the rows of color coded doors was a spectacular sight was more than enough to make these visits fun, especially at night when everything was lit up. The Circle Line floated by sometimes and Elias and I would wave at the passengers like idiots.
Hymie indulged his sister and was genuinely happy when she visited. You could see his love and concern, even though he was in an alcohol fog most of the time. His overweight wife, Ana didn’t drink, her vice was food. And lots of it. It didn’t seem to matter what time of day we visited, she would greeted us with a greasy face or sticky fingers. She had a generous build, but she was lighthearted and optimistic. It was hard not to laugh when she laughed.
“E HEE HEE HEE HEE” she’d crow as she tossed her head back, her mouth so wide that you could see the light gleam off the gold and silver fillings. These visits took us away from our dismal reality and showed us different aspect of family.
On the day my parents had to sign their divorce papers, they took us along. We waited in my father’s dark blue Nova while I watched them argue to and from the lawyer’s office. My father slim in his jeans and a bronze Members Only jacket and my mother’s long straight hair flying in the wind and around her thin shoulders. Her knee length skirt flapping at her skinny legs that were encased in thick heeled boots. Their faces were tense and angry and hurt, just in different ways. I watched them feeling torn. My mother was elusive with her feelings and I pictured them like butterflies, beautiful and fluttering from place to place looking for a way out and finding none. Still, I wanted one for my own. Perhaps that’s how my father thought of it too, as if he was losing his butterfly. Without nurturing and care, it could never last, no matter how much they loved each other. I wanted them to stay together, I wanted them to try to make it work and I was angry that they couldn’t, or wouldn’t do that. Now, we were schlepped back and forth and have to deal with the questions about how the other was holding up, always praying that the answer wouldn’t do more damage.
“Do any men go to visit mommy?” he would ask with eyes bloodshot and holding on to his sheds of hope.
“No.” I would answer, feeling down because he didn’t even ask me how I was or what we did during the week or how school was.
“Does your father have any girlfriends?” my mother would ask. I didn’t believe that she really cared whether he did or not. It was just curiosity to see who he would pick to put in her place.
My mother couldn’t afford the apartment on her paycheck, so she moved in with Consuelo while we moved in with abuela. We spent our weekends with her. Mostly, just watching her get ready to go to nightclubs and suffer with the hangover the following morning. I was glad to go home on Sundays, abuela was nothing like Consuelo. I was pretty sure that she thanked God that she didn’t have to deal with us on a daily basis. We didn’t have to live there to be exposed to experiences that forced their way into our minds and become a stain.
Every Saturday night was prayer night at Consuelo’s house. She, my grandfather Ray and two of her long time friends sat around a fold out table in the living room. These were the only time I saw a few of my younger cousins and all had the same look of fear on their faces. Candles were lit, chants were recited and the children would be called to the table one by one. Prayers were said over the child and they were blessed with holy water. Consuelo would shake around in her seat and speak a language that I didn‘t think the adults knew. Baths were prepared in unlabeled plastic bottles to remove obstacles and the child’s body was smacked lightly with large green palms to clear the energy. Santeria ran deep through the roots of our family. The women were said to be gifted with intuition that was accurate and remarkable. They respected the saints and the rituals, the goal being peace, luck and money. I thought maybe the remarkable intuition skipped a generation because I was sure my mother didn’t have it.
Peace was short lived with my parents. They would agree to a time for the pick up or delivery of us, then one of them would not show up. There was always some lame excuse, but I don’t think either of them considered how it made us feel. Pretty soon, we were taking taxis alone just so they didn’t have to deal with each other. It seemed like I was waiting with my heart hanging out of my chest. My anticipation ebbed by the minute. The clock became my enemy, it ticked along oblivious while I stayed stuck to my chair looking out the window and swallowing my hope. Elias would tug on me and point out the window.
“Mommy coming?” or “Papi coming?” he’d ask, trusting me to tell him the truth when all I could do was lie.
“Soon, Pooh Bear.” I’d say and stroke his hair. I called him Pooh Bear because of his insane attachment to anything that had Winnie the Pooh on it.
As with everything, an ending to the situation came with a fight. My mother had come to abuela’s house to pick us up. She was surprised to see my father there and he was also taken aback. He opened the door and pulled her inside. Elias and I were just finishing our lunch at the kitchen table. I had a clear view of them, something I didn’t always enjoy. Abuela was in the bedroom, for which I was glad because she wouldn’t hear the struggle that began near the closet., where they tucked themselves and out of my view.
“I don’t want to kiss you.” I heard her tell him as she struggled.
“Come on, Lorna.” he said. She continued to resist until I started to get scared.
“Abuela.” I called out. He let her go and she started to walk towards us, but he grabbed her arm.
“Come here, I want to talk to you.” He told her, opening the door and pulling her out into the hall. I stared at it while all of their fights played in my mind. All of their hits synchronized with the beating of my racing heart.
Abuela came into the living room. “Se fueron?” she asked me. I shook my head.
“They went outside.” I told her and followed her to the door.
We found them nose to nose. Their heated words swirled around them like a furious tornado, threatening to sweep them both off their feet and out of their minds.
“I met someone and we’re going to live together. He’s more of a man than you are.” She told him, white hot with anger. My father took her by her shoulders and slammed her head on the wall. She dropped to her knees hard and very quickly, bit his index finger almost clean off. The sight of the blood, abuela screaming at my mother, my mother screaming back and my father screaming in pain, made me run out of the apartment. I flew past them and down the stairs. My feet skipped swiftly over the steps, I could only hold on for the ride. My heart pounded in my chest and the tears stung my eyes like sweat. I went crossed the street to the park and took a swing. I started to swing myself back and forth, hard and high. I closed my eyes and let myself drift. I let my body relax against the wind. I let the sound of the breeze fill my ears to drown out my hurt. I saw abuela watching me from the balcony, but Earl didn’t come for me until it was near dark.
In the elevator, he looked at me. “I’m really sorry, little girl.” He told me with sympathy in his brown eyes and put his heavy hand on my head for a moment.
“Yeah.” I said and took a deep breath.
“You know it was your mother fault, right?” he asked when we got to our floor.
“Yeah.” I told him and moved away from him. What the hell did he know? He wasn’t there, I thought. He didn’t know what it was like to watch them attack each other like animals trying to claim a dead prey. I didn’t care whose fault it was. Even though I loved them in different ways, they were both to blame. My father didn’t lose his finger, but he lost sensation in it. A dead finger.
In the winter if 1981, my mother moved in with Benjamin Castillo. He was a clean cut, intelligent vet in his late thirties. He was divorce and was the father of three. He worked as a clerk at the 86th train station, which he ruled with military efficiency. They dated for a while until she felt it was time to meet us. From that first meeting, I knew I didn’t like him. All he said was hello and my soul shrank from my skin. I knew he wasn’t a good man and I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t feeling the same, it was like an overpowering cologne that choked your breath and made you teary.
In the beginning of their relationship, things were easy. He would take us out and talk about different subjects. It seemed important for him to be heard and respected for his opinions. Underneath all he said, there was no realness. There was nothing genuine, he did it to show that he was smart. He always felt the need to show off his knowledge at every opportunity, but my mother was happier than I had ever seen her. So much so, that she and my father arranged for us to live with them. I didn’t like the idea of living with Benny, but I tried to get along for her sake. He turned out to be an alcoholic and things got ugly when he drank. Our first experience with the ugliness was a time when we were visiting his sister, Chita and chatting in her cramped apartment on 112th street. He and my mother got into an argument and he stormed off. He came back at one in the morning, stinking of his poison, Anisette. He insisted on driving us home and they picked up the argument as we sped through Harlem. I noticed the speed picking up, the blur of headlights and red lights became a ribbon of light and color. My mother noticed it too.
“You’re going too fast, Benny.” She told him, holding onto the dashboard as he made a sharp turn.
“Fuck you, Lorna!” he told her. She frowned at him.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” she asked. I hugged Elias close and tried to hold tight.
“You! You’re wrong with me.” He slurred and headed over the bridge toward Brooklyn. I gripped the door handle and tried not to slide with every narrow miss. Cars honked their annoyance and I wondered where were the police when you needed them?
Elias started to cry, but it was hard to soothe him when they were arguing.
“Benny, slow the fuck down!” she yelled at him. She was wasting her breath, we were at Benny’s mercy.
“Don’t yell at me or I swear to God, I’ll drive this motherfucker over the fuckin’ bridge!” he screamed. She didn’t say another word. When we got home, he dropped us off and left. We didn’t see him again until late that afternoon.
We had recently moved to a duplex apartment near Coney Island.
I had my own room and Elias’s was down the hall. The duplexes were attached to each other and formed the shape of a T. Each one had a small back yard and a cement pathway that led to each yard. Light posts were placed strategically on every corner, giving a small town atmosphere.
In the center, a wooden jungle gym and tire swing was planted in sand.
All the kids went to the same nearby school and I looked forward to walking next to the water going to and from with the perpetual movement.
I made a few friends and often got a glimpse into their family life. If for nothing else, I wanted to compare their home life with mine and I usually found they were no better.
I wasn’t very lucky when it came to friends and keeping them became a job instead of a gift. Sometimes jealousy would separate us, sometimes it was gossip that managed to stick doubt into my friend’s mind and that would end us. Other times it was my need for attention that labeled me crazy and they would run. Either way, the result was the same.
Mostly, Elias was my companion. He was a three year old replica of my father, who we hadn’t seen since we moved. My baby brother was sweet, lived to hug and be held, smart and curious. When he would pout that cherub mouth, puff out those fat cheeks and his brown eyes would get moist, I melted. We had our own world where there were no problems. We forgot we had parents when we would go to amusement park. We loved every ticket stand, bumper car and cotton candy stand. We would stay until late night and watch the Wonder Wheel turn on its colorful lights that threw sparkles on the water. I would go to the freak shows as we would be leaving. I related to them because I felt crippled and deformed, just on the inside.
One morning, I was walking down the stairs with Elias when I heard a loud crash. I moved further down and saw a large hammer on the floor, among the glass. A heavyset woman dressed in a dark hooded sweatshirt came through the window. She held a large knife in her fat fist and I could stop staring at it’s ready sharp edge. She gave Elias and me a glance and proceeded to attack all of our furniture. I was frozen, he clung to me. A minute later, another woman came through the window in a fury. She had short brown hair with streaks of copper. Her brown eyes were red and her pretty face was puffy from exhaustion and crying.
“What the fuck are you doing in my house?” she screamed at us. My mother pounced out of the background and tackled the woman. She was wearing a thin peach nightgown, her breasts hung heavily on the bodice. They rolled around on the floor, cursing, screaming and pulling each other’s hair. The heavy set woman ignored the scuffle and concentrated on destroying the wood tables and chairs. Slowly, I moved with Elias toward the kitchen and helped him out the window. We ran across our yard and under a neighbor’s picnic table. Hearing the screaming and crashing made him cry. I embraced him and tried to use my confident voice.
“It’s okay, Pooh bear. It’s like hide and seek.” I told him as he snuggled to me. Some minutes went by and soon it grew quiet. We crawled out from the table and went to the side gate of the duplex to see what was happening. A neighbor had called the police and they showed up as Benny was driving in. I waited until the two male officers had my mother and the other woman separated. I snuck out of the gate and crept slowly toward the apartment. I supposed to an outsider, it looked as if I were another nosy neighbor.
My mother was standing by the doorway, looking quite fit after having been in a brawl. She now had on her robe that was wrapped around her and secured tightly. Her full arms were folded over her large bosom and she was looking amused at the scene. Elias ran to her and she picked him up, she held him close pressing his fat cheeks against hers.
Benny walked toward one officer by the squad car, who was guiding the heavyset woman into the back seat. She was sweating a lot, her skin looked very pale and her auburn hair stuck to her face. She refused to look at Benny; she angrily turned her back to him. He smirked through his thick mustache.
“Good afternoon, officer. My name is Benjamin Castillo and this is my residence. Did something happen?” he asked while looking toward the apartment, toward my mother.
“Afternoon. We got a call about some fighting and that there were children in the residence.” the officer explained. Benny nodded slowly and glanced at the heavyset woman in the car. He looked at the officer with embarrassment.
“My ex wife.” He said sighing. “She can’t seem to accept that it’s over.” The officer nodded, unimpressed. The other officer brought out the dark haired woman, handcuffed and still riled up from the adrenaline. She was guided toward a squad car and Benny walked toward her. When she saw him, she broke free from the officer and rushed Benny like a quarterback. He fell to the ground and she recovered quick and stood. She kicked him twice in the gut. The officers pulled her off and I expected Benny to start yelling about pressing charges, but he couldn’t in the state he was in.
“Listen to me! This is my house! He told me that he owed some money and that he would have to sell the apartment. I got worried, you know? I had to live with my aunt in the fucking projects with my three kids. I knew he was up to something.” She told them. The she leaned in close to Benny as the officers tried to pull her back. “I know you too well, motherfucker.” She told him with acid in her voice. She turns to the officers. “I stop by and find his girlfriend and her kids living in my house. He should be arrested, not me.” She told them as they ushered her to the car. My mother was still in the doorway. Her tight expression told me that she was absorbing it all and not at all liking it. I was relieved when the police left, I felt like I could finally unattached my feet from the ground. Benny got up slowly, moaning in pain and dirty. She waited until he was at the door before letting it go, it whacked him hard in the shins.
“Shit.” He muttered and he pushed his way into the apartment to survey the living room. The floor was strewn with the insides of the sofa, pieces of the dinette set were thrown into corners and glass, like diamonds, sparkled against the sun. I tried to pass by it without looking at it all. That night, my mother and Benny argued and I fell asleep to their raised voices. In the early hours, my mother woke us up and we slipped out of the house. We were on the train by sunrise, on our way to Consuelo’s house. I would have rather gone to abuela’s house. At least there, she would have us snuggle in her bed and sleep the day away. Consuelo didn’t want anyone in the rooms, much less in the bed. So we ended up falling asleep on her stiff sofa. The plastic made us sweat as we slumped and slept uncomfortably.