We spent two weeks with Consuelo. Two weeks of waking up at six in the morning, even on the weekends.
“Despieta!” She’d yell out before turning on all the lights. My senses were assaulted with the glare and the blasting of Spanish news radio. She would make a farina from corn flour and milk. After, we had to take cod liver oil capsules. If she was out, the liquid was forced down our throats. Two weeks of having to accompany her to the bank where she accused the teller of robbing her.
“I shore I put more money in dare. You’s people take it !” she would yell at the poor person who happened to be there that morning.
Two weeks of having to accompany her to the supermarket where she complained about the high prices.
“Yesterday, der price is 1.99. Today, der price is more. Why? Ju tink I’m a stupid?” she’d ask the cashier, who looked like she just wanted to go home. Muttering in Spanish, she’d count the colorful food coupons and rip them out of the book.
Benny called late one night. At first, my mother refused to pick up the phone.
Consuelo warned her. “No quiero problemas en mi casa, Lorna. Enteindes?” My mother nodded. So when the phone rang again, she picked it up. Elias and I were lying down on the sofa bed. I listened to my mother’s voice turn from firm to soft and wondered how Benny accomplished it. I felt that he had something that she loved and needed, like Elias. Unlike me.
“Okay, Benny, but listen. I’m not going to put up with any more shit. You hear me?” she told him, but I was pretty sure he didn’t take her seriously. I didn’t believe her either.
He was very busy within the two weeks. He managed to get a superintendent job at a newly built building for the elderly on 120th street and Lexington Avenue. It was a wide short building of dark red brick. We moved in before the tenants, to make sure the building was ready. It was at this time that he started to pay an unusual amount of attention to me.
My mother laid it on the line about her motives for going back to Benny, perhaps to pardon her doubt.
“Benny’s a good man.” She explained to me. She looked at me as if I had questioned her and voiced my own opinion. “Don’t start, Susanna. Your father and I will never be together again. That’s just the way it is.” She said. “He made a mistake, everybody makes a mistake. He deserves another chance.”
He was very proud of his new position and took it very seriously. He took me around the building, taught me about small repairs, electricity, procedure and such. I liked the idea of knowing how to do something that most girls didn’t know. He encouraged that, but he wanted it remembered that he was the source of the knowledge.
“I’ve have history books that have more information that would blow your mind, girl. Shit that the school doesn’t want you to learn about this country.” He told me. I would just nod my head politely.
I had noticed that Benny had started to include me in conversations he would have with my mother at the dinner table.
One topic that was one of his favorites was education.
“If you didn’t want my opinion, why the fuck ask me?” she asked him, stabbing her chicken with her fork.
“I asked for your opinion because I thought you would give me an educated one.” He told her between bites. He looked at me. “You see what happens when you don’t finish school and try to squeeze in four years of vital education into a four hour test? They give you the Good Enough Diploma.” He told me and pointed his fork at her. My mother dropped her fork with a loud clang.
“Fuck you, Benny. At least I passed it.” She fired back as she stood.
“Yeah, after failing three times. Don’t be so sensitive, Lorna. God.” He said as she walked to the bedroom and slammed the door. He smirked at me.
“She’ll get over it.” He said. He glanced at the door. “Shit, like it’s my fault she never finished school.” He said and shook his head at the unfairness. I didn’t like the feeling I was getting. I felt like I was being used in some way and I didn’t like him making her feel badly by chopping up her accomplishment.
He continued to do this until one day he didn’t come home. Worry turned to anger for my mother and by the time he buzzed the intercom, she was foaming over with it.
“Use your key, Benny.” She told him, trying not shriek at him.
“Send Susanna out.” He told her with his voice full of static.
“What?” she asked. She was annoyed that he was drinking again.
“Send ‘er out!” he yelled into the intercom.
I never liked being told what to do, but at that moment if she told me to stay, I would’ve gladly. She looked as if she didn’t know what to do, so I tried to sway her.
“I don’t want to go.” I told her quietly. I saw her face relax, but the persistent beeping of the intercom made her tense up and give in.
“Go, just be back quick.” She told me and I nodded like I had any control over how fast I could get back. I tried to calm the fluttering in my belly on my way down to the lobby. I didn’t think I was doing a good job.
Benny was sitting in the tan Chevy he had purchased used and was leaning over a little.
I wanted to run and I was very angry with my mother. He was her problem; I didn’t see why I had to be in the middle. She knew how I felt about him and she would constantly put me there. She should be the one in the passenger seat, trying not to inhale the stinging scent of alcohol wafting from him. He was quiet for a moment then he turned his glassy eyes to me.
“All I want is to be family, but your mother, man, she makes it so hard. You know?” I said nothing. Silence had sneaked in through the metal and glass. I waited and hoped that he would pass out so I could sneak back inside. Abruptly, he started the car and I began to panic.
“Mom told me to be quick.” He shrugged. “Don’ worry about her.” He told me and steered the car out of the parking lot and onto the street. I sighed and sought out the seat belt. He laughed. “Awww, you don’t trus’ me?” he grinned.
“Uh huh.” I said as I snapped on the belt. We drove around the neighborhood and all I could think about was my mother at home, pacing, and smoking and pissed off. I hoped I wouldn’t get the blame.
“We should go home. Mom is going to be mad.” I told him as we drove. He stopped at a red light.
“Someday, you’ll learn about people. You know, when you live wit’ someone, give up yer life for them and they just end up fucking your life up. It takes a real strong person to go through that over and over without being a bitch. Your mother gone through a lot, but she’s a bitch.” He told me as we rounded the corner in a squeal.
“Hey, do you have a boyfriend?” he glanced at me. I shook my head.
“I’m too young to go out with boys.” I told him. He laughed quietly.
“There’s no stopping that, but remember what I said about people.” He finally pulled into the parking lot and I was unbuckling my belt, when I noticed that he didn’t move.
“She’s gonna ask what I wanted you for, so tell her.” My head buzzed. What would make him think that I would lie? “She won’t believe it anyway.” He added then drove away. My stomach sank. She wasn’t going to be happy and I wasn’t happy about telling her. It was the longest walk back to the apartment. My mother took the news with doubt, just like Benny said. She looked at me for a bit, and then touched my hair. I almost flinched.
“You know, I had you so young, too young I think. When I found out, your father was so happy.” She said softly. I looked at her carefully just to be sure I was talking to the same person. She looked at me. “Me? I wanted an abortion.” I literally stood there with my mouth open. She just sighed a bit. “Oh well.” She left me standing there holding hands with my shock and feeling wretched.
When Benny came home hours later, they got into a vicious fight that attracted the neighbors and got to the ear of the higher ups that hired Benny. He lost the job and we moved again to an apartment closer to abuela’s house.
My mother and Benny enrolled me in Saint Cecilia’s. I took it all in stride, adjusting was one of the traits I was actually proud of. I felt that I could adjust to anything, I thought of it as strength. I didn’t mind the uniform or the rules, but it took me a long time to learn the scriptures and the prayers. I could repeat them in my mind, but when I opened my mouth to say it, they would slip away. I was there for about a month before I was expelled for fighting. I spent the rest of the year in public school.
Did I believe that God was listening? No. When was he going to step in? What was he waiting for? While I was praying and believing, he was just watching my life like some sordid reality show.
For my tenth birthday, my mother decided to celebrate it in the new apartment. She invited the family, but my father sent his gift, a rag doll that became my most prized possession. I was excited and fatigued since I didn’t sleep much thinking of all the presents that were probably sitting on peoples tables. I could envision them wrapped in pretty and dazzling colorful paper, just the thought made me smile. I reveled in the attention and couldn’t help but make up little songs to sing throughout the day. I was up at dawn, watching the sun peek over the rooftops.
It was going to be a magical day, I thought and listened to the calm quiet. Grandma was coming with Diana and David and I was frothing over with frenzy. Diana was like a big sister and I couldn’t wait to see her. Some of my birthdays were spent with grandma and my ‘siblings’ and remained very special to me.
I was in my pretty dress of pink and white lace and taffeta, loving and hating my white patent leather Mary Hanes. My hair was in curls and ribbons barrettes and bounced as I ran to answer the door.
“Susanna, don’t run!” my mother yelled from the kitchen, the phone was pressed into her ear by her shoulder while doing the dishes. I opened the door and leapt at Diana, who smelled like bubble gum and talcum powder. She giggled and caught me her thin, but strong arms. I gripped her tight in an embrace until she cried out. Then I dragged her off to my room to show off my newest doll.
“Hello Susanna.” Grandma called out from behind me and it made me do a U turn toward her.
“Hi grandma.” I said as I kissed her. David was bringing up the rear with a big colorful Lord and Taylor’s paper shopping bag. I went to him and kissed his cheek, he pulled away like I had germs and playfully pulled my hair. It turned into slap fight.
“Hey! Cut it out!” grandma yelled. I stuck my tongue out at him and he held up a threatening fist. Diana pulled me away to my room and closed the door. I made a beeline for the things that I wanted to show her. She tossed my new Barbie on the bed carelessly and held my hands.
“I want to give you your present now.” she told me seriously. I thought how grand it must be, something spectacular and special. I kept my hand open to receive the gift. She pulled me toward her gently and touched my lips with her soft flesh. The warmth was electrifying and I inhaled the kiss through my nostrils. It spread like a virus through my blood and straight into my heart. It was seared on by the heat and I winced, feeling the painful second that I fell into this girl’s world. For me, she was a guide through the changes that would come and in her hands I would be safe. She taught me to French kiss and proclaimed me a natural.
The rest of the day was a blur and I’m sure that I must have made an ass of myself at some point, I was bubbling with this secret and confusion and no way to get it out. I understood that we couldn’t tell anyone, they wouldn’t understand and only look at it as something obscene. I knew I loved, respected and trusted her. I would’ve done whatever she wanted, but even I knew that with something good, something bad usually followed.
Months later, I was shifted again and living with grandma. It didn’t matter how long we were apart, when we were together it was as if I never left. Every night, we slept in her fairy tale canopied bed. She smelled like flowers, exotic and sensual. We would spoon each other, nude and under the thick quilt. This was the closest that I ever felt toward someone and the fact that we had grown up together made it feel safe. It was so important to me that even when she was mean, I was quick to forgive her.
Grandma took us to her cousin Virginia’s house in Queens, she had two kids of her own, Bobby and Iris. She was a former model and stood at least five feet seven. Her children were miniatures of her, wheat colored hair, flashing green eyes, angular nose and define full mouths. They were about my age, eleven or twelve and we all looked up to Diana, who was three years older. She thought up a game for us once we were alone.
“Okay, Susanna and Bobby have to go into the closet if they can’t guess the number that I’m thinking of.” I was awkward around boys and was becoming increasingly nervous as we used up our guesses. Bobby and I looked apprehensively at the closet.
“Go on, in the closet.” She pushed us toward it. We went inside and stood side by side in the dark.
“Okay, if you want to come out, Susanna has to touch Bobby’s penis.” I heard Iris giggle loudly. In the dark, I blushed.
“What?!” Bobby yelled out, though his voice seemed stuck in the small dark space.
“You want to come out? She’s got to do it.” Diana insisted and I started to feel uncomfortable. I didn’t understand why she would make me do this when we shared so much. Did this mean that she didn’t love me anymore? I felt sad and used and dumb.
“Let’s just do it and get out of here.” I told Bobby and felt him turn to me.
“You want to?”
I sighed, I just wanted to get out of the enclosed space and breathe again. I didn’t know whether to be hurt or angry at Diana.
“I just want to get out of here. Hurry up and let’s get it over with.” I whispered back.
“Come on, I said one touch. What’s taking so long?” Diana called out impatiently.
Bobby exhaled and began to unbuckle his pants while I waited.
“Okay, go ahead.”
I moved my hand around in the dark until I felt his hand guide it to what would get us out. His flaccid penis was soft and rubbery. I didn’t like the feel of it.
“Okay, I did it.” I called out and Bobby hurried to button his pants.
Diana opened the door, smiling.
“See, it didn’t kill you.”
Iris giggled and leaned close to me.
“What did it feel like?” She was flushed with excitement. I shrugged at her.
“Weird.” I couldn’t describe my disgust for it and how I would have rather stared at Diana for hours. I felt cheated.
I was angry and stayed angry for a couple of days. I slept with grandma and didn’t talk much. Then one night, Diana had over her best friend, Lisa and the three of us watched movie. I got up to get a snack and I left them in Diana’s room, in bed. When I returned, they were kissing and I was crushed. She had broken my heart, I thought I was the only one and just like everything else, it was temporary.
I went to sleep with my blood boiling and thinking that they were snuggling together under the covers almost drove me crazy.
I was doing my chores the next morning and Diana had asked me to do something.
“No, you do it.” Her whole body stiffened, like a cat rubbed the wrong way.
“I said I want you to do it.”
I picked up what I was doing and was about to walk away when she grabbed my arm in a tight grip.
“What’s wrong with you?” salvia collected in her mouth as she bared her teeth.
I pulled away hard and she reached for me again and quickly got me down on the couch. I struggled, but she soon had me vulnerable. I erupted.
“I don’t care if you don’t love me anymore. I don’t need you.” I was weeping and becoming quite a mess.
“Oh, you’re a woman now, huh?”
I looked into to her eyes with everything I had.
“Yes. More than you.” I couldn’t breathe, her knees were digging into my legs. The pain was intense and it fueled my anger. Diana was furious and she shook me hard, deep into the sofa.
“More than me, huh?” She was very angry, a quiet fury. She pressed her weight on me. “Okay, if you could get me off of you, you’re a woman. I’ll give you up to the count of five. Ready?”
I certainly was not ready, but I tried anyway. She counted to five while I tried to wrestle her off me, without losing her breath at all. I failed and she looked at me. Certain in her victory, but not looking like a glowing winner. She looked enraged, wounded and in disbelief.
“You’ll never be more woman than I am.” She pursed her lips and spit on my face. She climbed off me and went upstairs. The sharp slam of the door shook the house. I laid there, her spit dripping from my face, feeling so humiliated and just completely freaked out, I was numb.
Grandma broke the news days later that I had to return to abuela’s house and I cried like a baby. Diana came to grandma’s room, where I was weeping and we ran to embrace. I would remember that she broke my heart, but I chose to forget my anger.
My mother decided to resume our visits to abuela’s and it was like we never left. It was better to be back home, safe and loved. I could breathe easier knowing that I would be there every weekend. Rain or shine.
We lived at the new apartment for a few months with little heated discussions, but nothing major. Elias and school took up my time; the calm routine was a safe zone that I thrived on. Things went smoothly until a fight began one night and it spilled out into the living room. I closed my bedroom door and put the headphones on Elias. I played his Sesame Street tape loud and rocked him to sleep. I heard a distant crash that made a jump. It turned out to be our TV being tossed out the window. Inevitably, the police showed up and my mother and Benny spoke to each officer composed as kittens.
A female officer spoke to me quietly. She had strawberry red hair that was tucked under her cap, pale flawless skin and blue gray eyes that smiled kindly at me.
“Hey there. What’s your name?” she asked very friendly. When I responded, her smile widened. “That’s a pretty name.” she said.
“Thank you.” I answered. She sat down next to me on the bed.
“Must be hard to hear your parents arguing.” I looked at her, annoyed that she assumed that Benny was my father.
“He’s not my father.” I told her, raising my voice a bit. She nodded sympathetically.
“Try not to be scared. Sometimes grownups act like kids and their yelling is just them talking loud.” I thought that maybe she had used this line a lot on a lot of kids and it probably sounded to them what it sounded like to me. Bullshit.
I was hoping they would take Benny. She patted me on the head, talked to Benny and my mother about the extra trash (TV) and the noise and went on their way. When the argument started again, Benny left. He was gone for two days. Her moods shifted from not caring to rage with rapid speed. She smoked more, slept less and cried a few times. Listening to her cry hurt, what hurt more was that I knew that my comfort would be rejected and just sat there helplessly listening to her cry her heart out. The following morning, Benny called and spun his magic. I was awakened by her voice, firm and insistent.
“I can’t take it anymore.” She cried. I tiptoed to the door of her room and watched her. Her naked back was to me and her short hair clung to her neck wet from a shower.
“I need you to come and get the kids. I can’t handle them anymore.” I felt guilty. This is my fault, I thought sadly. Now, I was in agony because the one person I needed was suffering because of me.
My mother was infused with the energy of a plan. I didn’t know what it was until she put up a sign in the lobby announcing an apartment clearance. She sold everything we had. Elias and I were only allowed to take one toy. I took the rag doll my father bought for me and Elias chose his Winnie the pooh blanket. My father’s arrival confirmed my fear. He faced her with patience and coolness.
“Benny and I are going to Puerto Rico to live.” She told so matter fact that he didn’t have time to be disappointed, the casual tone in her voice seemed downright unfeeling. He looked at me sitting on the sofa. It was my first time hearing her plan and I felt a part of me break away. I felt the tears in my throat, I couldn’t swallow them fast enough and they poured out. I wanted to beg her to stay, but I knew that she wouldn’t and it made me cry harder. My father came to me and pulled up and into his arms, where I wailed into his stomach. The scent of his Pierre Cardin cologne filled my head.
“She’s just crying because I’m leaving. She’ll be fine.” She told my father. He looked at her as he took mine and Elias’s hand.
“Well, Lorna. You do what you have to do. You always do.” He told her, looking quite sad.
“That’s right.” She said defiantly. My father was leading us away she stopped us at the top of the stairs.
“Here.” She said, sifting through the bills and handed my him a twenty. “Buy the kids some McDonald’s.” He looked at her affronted and handed it back.
“I’ll take care of it. You keep that.” He said walked away. I took one last look at my mother; her focus was on the money she was arranging obsessively.
“Bye guys.” She called to us.
“Bye mommy.” Elias responded. He thought we were going for a visit and I was glad that he didn’t know that our mother was abandoning us.
The winter of 1983 was the coldest for me. The sky was a dirty gray that whipped us with bits of snow and wind. I paid no mind to it. I was busy trying not to freeze from the frost that had formed around me. I lagged behind my father and Elias, dragging my doll through the snow as if it were a broken limb. My heart was lost somewhere in my chest, somewhere in my pain and dark sorrow. We walked to abuela’s house, where she brought me into her room to cry it out.
“Estoy aqui por ti, nena. Por todo mi dias. Yo y tu papa te amo mucho. Sabes, si tu tienes amor, tienes todo.” If you have love, you have everything. She stroked my hair and held me while I cried in her lap. My heart knew she was right, but it killed me to know that I didn’t have my mother’s love. No one was telling me how I lost it or how I could get it back.
My mother’s trip was postponed because my father had decided to file for sole custody. I waited out the days breathless, anxious about the outcome.
“Don’t worry, baby. I’m going to fight for you kids.” He assured me and I didn’t doubt it. A few weeks later, he sat me down.
“You have to come to court with me in the morning.” He spoke almost carefully. “The judge just wants to ask you some questions. Don’t worry, just tell them the truth.” The truth was I was worried.
My stomach was tight with nerves the following morning. We made our way to the Family Courthouse on 161st street. The heat inside did nothing to thaw the solid block that rested in my chest. When we got to the judge’s chambers, I had to go in alone.
The man that sat behind a wide wood desk had thinning brown hair splashed with gray and parted to one side, brown eyes and sunken pale cheeks. His black robe hung on him and on his thin shoulders were flakes of white. His gnarled hands were folded in front of him.
“Come and sit down, Miss Diaz.” His voice was a rich baritone and I imagined that his yell would sound like a loud roar. I obeyed because I didn’t want him roaring at me. He shifted some papers around then looked at me with boredom; he must have seen this type of thing every day. Yet, I was rigid with fear. I was used to the boys in blue, but this was more serious.
“Miss Diaz, I’m going to ask you some questions about your parents.” I nodded. He started off with a few simple ones until the end. “If you had to choose which one you’d like to live with, who would it be?” I was stunned. How could I? I loved them both and I just wanted them to be happy. I wanted them to try. I wanted them to care. Now, here was this stranger who knew nothing, telling me to choose. He waited for my answer and I felt my answer would be letting one or the other that she loved the other more.
My father was given sole custody and I was glad, but it meant that my mother would be gone soon. He knew it too and I suppose he felt he needed to unburden himself when he woke me a few nights later. My eyes were puffy but the darkness had covered my grief from him.
“Susanna, I never want to lie to you. I think you kids have been lied to enough, so I’m going to tell you the truth. I need to tell you that your mother gave you and your brother up. She only came to court because she had to and she didn’t fight for her rights.” He confessed and I was better off not knowing. I had dream that night. My mother was standing at the end of a long tunnel, immersed in a bright light. I screamed for her, but the more I tried to move closer, the further she got. I couldn’t catch up to her, and then she faded away into the light leaving me in the pitch tunnel alone.
I awoke to my father’s booming voice.
“I don’t give a fuck what you do!” he yelled into the receiver and slammed it down. I didn’t move when he stomped out of the room. I heard him yelling in the kitchen.
“Que paso, mijo?” she asked, always calm.
“She married him, mom!! She married that piece of shit!” then he slammed out of the house. My mother had married Benny and left to Puerto Rico. She had called my father from there and I imagine that it was a little payback to upset him. She knew that he still loved her and always would. If she had left Benny and come back to him, we would be a family again. After the experience in the judge’s chambers, I knew that would never happen.
I laid there and thought about her. She married him and didn’t even invite us; it was like she left us all over again. What was the sense in giving birth to us if all she ever wanted was for us to be away?
I couldn’t understand it so I pushed it down. Deep into my belly and there it sat like lead, causing a blockage in my breathing, in my vision, in my heart and there was no cure in sight. I thought about my father and how he felt about her now? Did he hate her? It was something I was sure he managed to keep at bay by making excuses for her. Now, he had to accept that it was truly over and that created a sadness in him that I didn’t think he could always bare. When he was in a funk of depression, he would make us sit with him while he talked about my mother.
“You kids are very special. You were made with a real love.” he’d say and then he would look at me.
“You look just like your mother, beautiful.” He said it with so much misery, I wanted to hug him. I didn’t because I was annoyed that he told me that. I didn’t want to look like her; I didn’t want it to hurt when he looked at me.