The ending of the group put a cloud over my every day. My grades began to slip from average to failing. I spent more time in my room and sometimes, through dinner.
When I did join them at the small table, the conversation would drip out until I felt too uncomfortable to continue eating.
My mother and Benny began to watch me more; they were horrible at hiding it. I just wanted to avoid them. I needed the space of my near empty room to bounce all of my emotions on and they were always sitting near me, or asking me how school was. It was ridiculous to me. How was school?
Soon, the watchfulness took on more meaning. It got so that I started to fear that they knew my secret. I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I just wanted to lock it up somewhere and forget about it, but the pain wouldn’t go away. Instead it kept building, a growing storm.
I didn’t want anyone to ever know what my father did. I was afraid they would think of me as dirty, a bad person. A sicko in need of some serious psychiatric help.
Before I could make my escape for school one morning, my mother stopped me.
“There’s a movie that I want to see with you tonight.” she told me as I looked at her with surprise and wariness.
“Okay.” I muttered then rushed off.
The movie was something about Amelia. It’s about a daughter being molested by her father.
Once I got the gist of the movie, I did my best to mentally block the images on the screen and the ones flooding my mind. The scenes brought back the shame and the hurt. Then I became furious. If she already knew what happened, why would she put me through reliving it this way?
Did they think that I was going to jump up and say “yes, this happened to me.”?
I swallowed everything down.
After the movie, she turned off the TV and turned to me. I could now hear a scraping noise that came from outside.
“Is there something you need to tell me?” she asked. A blasting alarm sounded off in my brain and I scrambled to protect the secret and myself. I shook my head.
“I don’t have anything to say. I’m tired; I’m going to go to bed.” I said and left feeling relieved.
I saw Benny sitting outside on a metal rocker on the porch. I knew he heard the conversation and I chose to ignore him. The scraping noise aggravated my nerves as I walked toward the main house.
The annoying noise stopped when I got to the back door.
“Hope you have a good night, Susanna.”
He called out. I said nothing and didn’t feel safe until I locked the door.
I felt like a criminal on the run. I spent my time trying to hide my true identity from the ones who had the power to put me away.
“Ja Benny. Come to bed.” I heard my mother cry out, but when I peeked out, he was staring at the back door. Willing it to do what, I wondered. Open, perhaps. I was scared then as if it wouldn’t surprise me that he could open the door with his thoughts if he wanted to. It was a bad thing.
When I came home from school, I found my mother waiting for me on the front stairs. Her face was solemn.
“I want to talk to you about something serious.” she told me.
I hoped that it was divorce. I sat down next to her and waited. She looked down at her sandaled feet then at me.
“I was molested by someone close in my family.” she said. I held my gasp in my throat. “I want you to know that I understand how you feel.”
I was quiet on the surface, but inside, I could feel the place I used to store those haunting memories begin to open and like Pandora’s box, they flew out in shrieks and slashes of pain. I started to cry.
“Tell me what happened, mami.” she said and I did, all of it. She didn’t hold me in her arms, but at that point being close to her was enough to feel comforted.
She listened without interruption and when I was done, silence fell on us.
“That mothefucker.” she said looking off into the distance, and then she jumped up and walked out the front gate toward the main road.
I ran after her. I knew where she was going, she was going to call the family and tell everybody.
In retrospect, I think I understood the desperation that some people feel when a hidden deed is threatened. People have killed to protect it. The nightmare was coming true and I couldn’t stop her.
I followed her to the pay phone and she started to dial.
“Please, mommy. Don’t tell anybody. Let’s just forget it.” I begged. She looked at me as if I spoke a foreign language. There was no stopping her from telling the family word for word what happened. I stood nearby, shifting nervous from foot to foot.
“He should me arrested, right?
She asked into the phone. I leaned against the wall and cried into my hands, ignoring the looks of strangers. All I could think of was the police going to abuela’s house and her having to watch them put handcuffs on her son. I was angry with my mother for tricking me, for using me to get back at my father.
“It’s not his fault, it’s my fault.” I said quietly.
When she hung up, she seemed satisfied with the outcome. We never spoke of it again and nothing came out of it.
Benny continued his attention on me. He came to me while I was watching the sun sink into the ocean on the balcony. He dropped a thick book in my lap.
“So you won’t grow up to be one of those ignorant Puerto Ricans and shame us.” he told me.
The book was the History of Puerto Rico. I dove into it to appease my boredom.
He liked to test my knowledge and the more I got right, the more he sought out to test my mental capacity. He started giving me pop quizzes, psychology and IQ tests.
He loomed nearby and watched me struggle with complex formulas and find the answers among the strangely worded questions.
One night, he crept into my room. His presence woke me and I could smell that he had been drinking.
“I wanna talk to you, its important.” he told me. His shadow filled my room.
“Leave me alone.” I said my voice shook with the hard thumping of my heart. I was more angry than fearful.
Lately, he had taken to winking and blowing kisses at me when my mother’s back was turned.
I gripped the sheet in my fists.
“If you don’t leave me alone, I’ll tell.” I threatened.
He chuckled. “ She doesn’t care about no one, but herself and she’s not very nice, you know, right?” he asked me. I said nothing. He waved it off.
“That’s okay. It’s our secret.” he said, putting his finger to his lips. “Shhh.’ he whispered. He stepped toward me.
“Go away.” I said more firmly.
It stopped him and he stared at me for a moment before laughing quietly and walking out.
His whiskey scented laughter wafted after him. I close the door hard behind him and used my bike to lean up against it. I tossed and turned all night, the sound of his disjointed laugh was in my ears and haunted my dreams.
The next morning, I awoke to find my mother gone and Benny and Elias and the middle of playing cards.
“Mommy went to work.” Elias told me. I couldn’t remember her mentioning finding a job.
I sat with Elias while they played. When he was bored, he handed me his cards. I took them reluctantly and played some hands with Benny. I concentrated on the game while he tried to make small talk. We played until I got bored and counted myself out. I was about to get up, he stopped me.
“I want to apologize for last night.” he said. I nodded. “I just get so frustrated when you’re quiet all the time or you’re in your room, but I handled it wrong. I’m sorry.” he said softly.
“It’s fine.’ I told him, not really meaning it. I stood then he stood and in my way, he was looking down on me and was too close to me.
“I’m glad we talked about it. I feel much better, don’t you” he asked. I nodded again and tried to maneuver around him. He took my hand in his. I didn’t like his hands. They were flat, like a spatula. They felt scratchy and skeletal.
“I still feel bad about making you so uncomfortable. I want to try to get a long a little better.’ he told with a friendly smirk on his face.
“Sure.” I said and pulled on my hand and turning to leave, he pulled me toward him and kissed me. He smashed his thin lips to mine, trying in vain to sneak in his tongue. I pushed at him, but he held tighter. I could feel his fingers digging into my flesh, I tried not to cry. The fate that I had barely escaped with my father was here in some cosmic way, was here to finish the job. My mind exploded in a brilliant red, bloody enough to taste. I felt crazed with fear and fury that lay dormant and finally awakened. I struggled against him harder; I felt his fingernails bite into my skin. I winced through my lips. My balled up fists were smashed up against his beefy chest, I fought harder for my hands until he had to release them. I turned so I was closer to the door, we struggled. He pulled his head away and laughed.
“Mmmm, you taste so sweet.” he said and then simply loosened his grip. I ran out and found Elias, together we went find my mother.
There were only a few places for employment and after some searching, we found her at the only resort like hotel on the island. She was part of the housekeeping team and she wasn’t pleased to see us.
“What are you doing here?” she asked annoyed.
“Elias missed you and there’s nothing to do at home.” I explained as I fidgeted with my fingers. My response to stress and she saw it. She narrowed her eyes.
“Where’s Benny?” she asked. I shrugged.
“He’s home.” I answered. She just sighed.
In the end, she sent us home.
“This is my first day and I don’t want to get fired. You‘re not allowed to be here. Besides, how are you going to get home if we left together? I didn‘t bring extra money with me.” she told me. It was a flimsy excuse.
“We’ll be fine.” I said angrily.
I took Elias’ hand and left. I pedaled hard and sweat was flicking off my hair. Elias complained once or twice, but I wasn’t listening. I was too busy thinking about how much this whole situation sucked. The solutions were so easy and I was still stunned that they, the grown ups, couldn’t see them.
People just didn’t care and they were getting what they wanted, what about us?
I fantasized that Elias and I would go away and live on our own. At least I wouldn’t have to sleep with one eye open. I puzzled over my need to be with my mother and the rage that fueled my hatred of her.
We went to the Plaza and played until I thought that she was home. We walked our bikes home, exhausted from our play and were greeted with the usual noise coming from the guest house. The raised voices and the slamming of doors.
We went into the main house, turned up our cheap transistor radio full blast and waited to be called for dinner. He and I were caught in the eye of the storm at dinner. Calm and quiet, I couldn’t wait to get from under the acute tension that hung over us.
For the that week she had the job, their fighting had once brought nosy neighbors to the door in hopes of getting the first whiff of scandal in the hum drum of our Barrio.
Benny would accuse her of cheating and she was not easy to quiet. It escalated the situation and things would get pretty violent. The more this happened, the more he drank. The more he drank, the more she sought shelter in Elias’ room.
In my room, I watched the spot of light on the doorknob for movement. My ears strained to hear anything besides the coqui, relentlessly singing their own name. I closed my eyes and prayed for protection and a solution to help Elias and me. My mother may be a willing victim, but I didn’t see why we had to pay for it.
The next night, I opened my eyes and saw Benny darkening my doorway, watching me.
I got up to shut the door, but he blocked it with his foot.
“Need help sleepeen?” he slurred with a wicked glint in his eyes. He smelled as if Anisette coated him, it stabbed at my eyes and burned my nostrils.
“Mom,” I called out.
“Benny, go to bed.” she said groggy with sleep.
I saw a different look come over his face. A look of vengeance so deep it chilled my bones.
His eyes revealed a blackness that frightened me.
Slowly, he stepped back and into the shadows and I closed the door, but his eyes never left me. I saw them every time I blinked and it brought on fresh fear. I wondered when the other shoe was going to drop and on whom.
I was about to drop off to sleep when I heard a loud crash that made me rush to the window.
Benny was having a fit in the small house and was tossing broken parts of furniture out the door. My mother got up to investigate and the arguing began. When she couldn’t stop him from destroying the house, she took us with her into town. We walked briskly, but Benny was not far away. He was stumbling and yelling for her in the quiet street.
We stopped at the Plaza and waited as he made his way to us. He was sweaty and his face was flushed. He stopped before us and looked at me.
“Did you tell her about us?” he asked and smiled smugly. I felt the bottom drop out of my soul. She looked at me and I tried to explain what happened, but Benny pushed me out of the way. I stood aside and watched them argue, nose to nose.
I held Elias in front of me, covering his soft arms with my own. I noticed a car turn down the street slowly to observe the spectacle. I watched them for a moment and was turning back to the argument, when I was hit in the face hard enough to send me tumbling to the ground. My ears rang and my focus was blurry. I turned to seek out Elias and saw him being swept away by my mother. I scrambled to get to catch up as she near sprinted to the unknown car. Benny was furious as we drove away, cursing at the top of his lungs.
The good Samaritans took us to a very large and well kept house. It had tall palm trees by the door and it had colorful painted ceramic plates of various shapes, artfully placed.
A small woman of seventy welcomed us as if we were expected. She fed us and made us a bed for the night. It was like being home.
Lying next to my mother in the dark, I tried not to think about all that had happened all at once.
I was startled when she spoke.
“Tell me what happened.” she asked. I told her all of it while a question twittered around my brain: Who is she going to believe? Me or him? I tried not to hope for a hug when I started to cry, I dug under the covers to hide myself and prayed that the heat would suffocate me while I slept. Now, everyone was going to know. She held her secrets close to her, but someone else’s was spewed out like poison.
I didn’t sleep.
After our hostess gave us a bountiful breakfast, we returned home.
Benny was waiting in the living room for us. He had replaced some items and cleaned up the small guest house. I could see my mother softening under his apologies. I was glad I had school, the sight nauseated me.
At school, I turned to the walk up a hill of stairs and small landings to find Marisol waiting for me with a guy.
“I’m going out with him.” she told me. I was very surprised that she had kept this from me. We shared everything, but my home life.
The guy stood at a respectful distance. He was dark, tall and lanky like her, but he was toned by some unknown work. He was dressed in a pressed pair of blue slacks and a gray shirt. He had a short cut and a golden tan. He looked like a perfect match for my friend.
After last night, I wanted something that made me feel like I didn’t lose anything, that something weren’t going to change or disappear. I was disappointed, but I was happy for her.
“Oh, well. That’s great.” I said and I meant it, but my disappointment was shadowing it.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before, but I didn’t want you to get mad.” she said, hurt. “You get mad so easy and I wanted us to stay friends.” she explained.
I went to her and hugged her.
“Congratulations, Mari. I want you to be happy with him.” I smiled at her and she looked very relieved. I laughed.
“He better make you happy or I’m going to be mad at him.” I said and I was relieved when she laughed.
I watched Mari and her beloved hold hands and nuzzle when they thought I wasn’t looking. It was always nice in the beginning, but really, I thought, what was the point?
What was the sense in building a beautiful castle and working so hard on it, just to watch it be washed away by the tide? It didn’t make any difference anyway, I believed that being happy with someone wouldn’t going to happen to me. I was too messed up for that, too strange and weird for anyone to like or love for too long.
When I returned home, I found my bag packed. Only mine. I stared at it, feeling a familiar void coming over me. As if an ocean had pulled out and left the ground to bake and split in the sun.
“We thought it would be better for everyone, if you lived with grandma in New York.” she told me.
I closed my eyes to my defeat. I had lost my mother to Benny. Maybe I never really had her.
“Benny told me what REALLY happened, that you would wear tight shorts and walk around him. So he would touch you, we’d break up then I’d go back to your father. How many times do I have to tell you? I’m never going back to him, never. Get it through your head!” she told me angrily. When I saw her eyes flash, I felt the brush of my own anger. SHE was angry?
“I know that,” I said. She put up her hand to stop me.
“No, bullshit. If you knew that, you wouldn’t have done this.”
“I didn’t do anything.” I said. Her face twisted with disbelief.
“Yeah, that’s what you always say. It’s always someone else’s fault, right?” she said and shook her head. She turned and left me standing there, at a total loss. I sat down on the stairs to digest what was happening. I felt blocked off, my mind was not processing things right and I felt numb. A taxi came slowly up the road. I stood up and pick up my bag, when what I really wanted to do was scream out my innocence and make her get rid of him. He hurt me and she didn’t care. I could see Benny standing in the doorway of the guest house. His arms were crossed over his chest and an amused look on his face. He had quite an appetite for the pride of others; he dined on their low self esteem and would wash it down with their tears. He was an ugly man who enjoyed doing ugly things. I went to Elias and hugged him tight.
“I love you and I’ll write you soon.”
I whispered to him and kissed my brother goodbye. I took my bag and left without another word. As the car got farther away, I thought about how I ended up being the one being thrown out. I couldn’t understand it and now I was paying for something that I didn’t do. Something was done to me and just like with my father, I was paying for it. My eyes started to itch and twitch with tears, but I wasn’t going to let it out for the cab driver’s entertainment.
On the flight to New York, I sat in my seat seething with rage and a murderous hatred. It withered my joys, my small victories and my compassion. It displaced my resentments and my furies. It created mottos stuffed with ego and conceit.
Thousands of feet in the air and hours from home, I turned off. Everything became instinctual, mechanical and cold. I became opportunistic, cunning, devious and dishonest. I invented glorious distractions from the pain I chose not to fully face. It was too much, like being crushed by an impossible weight. I refused to pick up the pieces, since it wasn’t I who had done the breaking. Everyone would know what had happened, but no one would know that I felt ruptured, cracked open and exposed, and branded by traits that needed to be hidden and the constant struggle that comes with that. I covered it all up with the belief that there was no love in anyone, no real hope that couldn’t be swept away with a few choice words. I simply had the bad luck of being born as a temporary stop in anyone’s life. Why? That’s what I needed to know, the answer would be worth anything. I would go through whatever I had to and then at least I would know that I wasn’t messed up. Damaged goods. The most that I could do is stay alive, keep breathing despite the pain and the tears that never seemed to cease. I was stranded on a sand bar in the middle of the ocean knowing that there would be no rescue. No one would know that I even existed.
I walked around JFK airport looking for grandma and David. My mother had neglected to provide any information of a meeting place. She probably waited until I was in the air to call and let them know that I was on my way. That was her way, to keep you off balance.
I was wandering around from gate to gate, when I saw them ahead of me. They were wrapped in their heavy coats against the oncoming winter winds. The cold didn’t bother me. What bothered me was that a mere year ago I was in this same airport as uncertain about my future as I was then. I hadn’t come any closer to being calm, I was just angrier and sadder. There I was trying not to give in and put on a fair face. It bothered me that I would be the one to deal with the effects, while my mother was lived in a sort of paradise. She had all that she needed. David and grandma’s serious face told me that my mother wasted no time in telling Benny’s side of the story. I hoped that as time went on, I’d be given the chance to tell the truth. It really hurt that they believed the sordid things that Benny had said. He was a nobody, an outsider. I was someone they knew since birth, how they could choose his side over mine?
Grandma’s house was different than abuela’s but I remembered it as a place of comfort. I looked forward to letting that comfort guide me to some kind of happiness. This was blotted away as soon as we arrived. We were still at the front steps, when grandma began to explain what was expected of me.
“You’ve been living good so far, but nothing in life is free. You have to do your part.” she told me. She opened the door and began listing the chores that would be done everyday. I tried to listen hard but I was stunned. I simply could not believe that there were the same people of my youth. Where had they gone? Why? When she was done, she looked me over.
“The first stop is the doctor to check if you’re still a virgin.” she clucked at me. Her words were caught in sneer; they stabbed me in the gut and twisted. I felt them churn up and tighten as I walked through the house, like a new employee.
The house was as I remembered it. A cozy one family with brown, distressed shingles and a gated porch area by the stairs that housed an oval shaped bush. It held it’s own in a neighborhood where the houses were larger and more modern. Except for a few African American families, Italian American families were dominate.
Inside, it had walnut paneling and stucco ceilings and brown wall to wall carpeting. It had a bay window that was flanked by two wing backed chairs and a table between them, a sectional sofa, a rarely used fireplace, a dining table for six with a delicate chandelier hovering above.
The kitchen was wallpapered in a faux vintage type, in a farmer theme and all the dark wood matched, but made the room seem small and cramped. Like you had to eat with your head down.
A short flight of stairs led to the basement, where the washer and dryer waited silently, nestled in a nook next to an even small bathroom.
In the lounge area, there was a lone ironing board and the walls were nearly covered with posters of the New York Yankees, The New York Mets and one poster ad of Jamaica, featuring a wet half naked woman wearing a bright orange t shirt with the word of the island across her generous breasts.
In the corner, there was new clean newspaper on the floor and wet spot just inches away. The walls were lined with short bookcases stuffed with books of varying ages. Some had run out of spaces and were piled on top, volumes that couldn’t be given or thrown away.
Grandma had three dogs at the time. The German Sheppard, Wally was about two years old and spent his time in the small back yard.
During winter months, we kept him in the kitchen blocked by a piece of wood that he probably knew he could jump over or knock down, but was obedient enough not to. He was protective, strong and playful.
The two Chihuahuas, Samson and Delilah were pushing on in years This could be seen in their weak teeth, shedding coats and the thin shrill of their barks. They were coddled like the elderly and were fed boiled chicken thighs and not the usual dog food.
“They have to eat at the same time everyday or their stomachs would get upset. So no later than six they should eat.” she informed.
The first chance I got, I went to the bathroom, which was tiled in a tranquil green and white. I sank down to the floor and thought about the punishment that this was, to be sent to the person who gave her own child away. Like collecting on a debt. My memories of my time with grandma were wrapped up in my hope. The place where I could always feel togetherness turned into a place of work and doom, a place to wait out a sentence. Limbo. There was a moment when my sobbing stopped in mid cry and I began to will on a kind of numbness. The chilled started in my head and spread down my body as I thought about the events that brought me here in careful detail. By the time I left the bathroom, my rage had surrounded me like a bubble. I was safe. I could watch the slimy words hit the protective bubble and slide down smearing my vision, but feeling no pain.
The next day, the phone was constantly ringing. It made me edgy because I knew it was family wanting their fix of gossip and I couldn’t stand there and witness it. I went out to play with friends until I heard grandma’s call.
“We’re going to Consuelo’s house, so go get ready.” She told me.
I didn’t want to go, they never visited when we were in Viequez. Why would they be interested in knowing now? I also knew that grandma wasn’t thrilled to go. In the past, she was polite to them and they endured her for Ray and my mother, but she wasn’t invited to any family gatherings. They considered those private and for those who stayed in touch with the family over the years.
Elias and I grew up with their philosophy of Que se joda. Loosely translated it means Let them get messed up. Once you were a certain age, they figured you should know what to do, the difference between right and wrong. If you didn’t, oh well. Que se joda. They thought that the school of life was a better teacher, but the reality was that they simply didn’t make the time. Every time we saw them, they greeted us with bitten tongues and lukewarm embraces.
A few hours later, I found myself with my grandfather. A white haired and moustache gentleman in one of back bedrooms.
“Sit down.” he said. I sat and tried not to appear nervous. I knew what I had to talk about and I didn’t want to talk about it, trying to remember details. What happened with Benny wasn’t even mentioned, only what happened with my father. I was wary of talking to another adult about it because of the experience with my mother.
When he wanted me to point out where he touched me, I started to cry. He sighed annoyed.
“Alright, go wait outside.” he told me, looking very disappointed. I made a beeline for the bathroom. I put cold water on my face and tried to calm down. I breathed in slowly and exhaled the black negativity. I brought my golden shield up against me. The request for coming here was only out of their morbid curiosity. What does the other woman who cleverly disguised herself as a daughter look like? I didn’t like being thought of as a slut, but it didn’t matter what I said, they would side with my mother. Then I’d be alone and I didn’t want to be. I seeped deeper into my silence, into my safety. I felt myself closing up, moving farther away. I crouched on the floor, hugged my knees to my chest and hid my head from the blows that came and hoped they would pass quickly. In the end, nothing was done about it. The incident became fodder for gossip. No reports, no police.
I used to think that I had left copies of myself with every bad event that came. I imagined there was a twelve year old girl, still living in abuela’s house that can’t get over being hurt by her father. There’s a girl abandoned by her mother, wandering aimlessly, dragging a rag doll down the cold streets or a girl in Puerto Rico, alone and betrayed. They were stuck in a time that doesn’t pass, but rewinds.
Music became my rock and salvation. I needed to be lost in the rhythm; it granted me a second wind. It was exhausting to keep up the strong front all the time. I learned quickly that it was better to concentrate on tasks and sing like I didn’t have a care in the world.
The first few weeks of living with grandma felt like an adjustment to my surroundings than to my situation. Throughout my life, I’ve lived with them and I was sure they were wondering what the hell was wrong with me, acting weird and like they were strangers or new roommates. To me, they were tainted by my mother’s half truths and manipulations. I felt let down because I never thought that they could be this way, I guess I thought that they would be on my side.