It broke my heart every time when he had “ to go make money.” and when he would return, it made me whole again.
He started getting arrested every month or so and I started going to abuela’s house for how ever long he was away. She was always happy to see me, she never grilled me about my life. I kept my secret from her because I wasn’t going to break her heart, my father had done enough of that.
“AI nena, que bueno que tu venete. I so happy.” She hugged me tight and closed my eyes, letting all my unhappiness fall to my feet. I was home.
“Can I stay?” I asked her. She pulled away with surprise, he brown eyes wet with tears.
“Claro que si.” she said smiling her encouragement and support.
Earl barely hid his dislike for the idea, but I ignored him. It was sad that our relationship had changed from what was easy into something tense. Now, he was simply the man my grandmother lived with.
They took care of each other and she would dye his wiry receding hair jet black.
I wanted her to know that I had someone who cared for me, but I knew she would only judge him by what he did.
“Un pillo no vale nada.” she said. A thief is worth nothing. It hurt to hear her say that, Joey meant a lot to me, I knew that what he was doing was wrong, but I believed that one day he would change on his own, or even better, for us.
So, whenever he got arrested, I was their companion. While I didn’t mind going to work with them, I had grown up around the employees of Metropolitan, I did mind getting up at six in the morning.
While abuela was working, I would nap in the Women’s Lounge then we would have lunch together or step out to play the Lotto.
When she would return to work, I’d wandered the streets of Manhattan, looking through windows of expensive shops.
I liked being by myself, it recharged my battery. I liked being independent and active in keeping myself strong, even though I wasn’t really doing anything except keeping my grief, anger and torment at bay.
One afternoon, I heard a familiar whistle. I leaned over the balcony to see Joey and Christina. She was clutching him for dear life, looking at him adoringly.
I was excited to see him and enraged that he had gone to her first. I bid abuela good bye and ran back to my life.
In the elevator, I was rehearsing and putting together a way to act. I decided to be confident. It was important that I didn’t come off looking for a fight, so I held my head high, pulled back my shoulders and tried to relax as much as possible.
She greeted me with a smug smile and it made me uneasy. I smiled and nodded to her. Joey was leaning against a car, he smiled when he saw me. I hugged him tightly and kissed him deep. I did it to remind him and to let her know that I wasn’t going to be brushed aside.
When he untangled himself from her to hold me close, I knew I had gotten my point across.
She looked away and we continued.
“Wow! You missed me?” he asked licking his lips.
“Oh yeah. Let’s go home.” I told him in a sexy voice. She took his arm again, to remind him that she existed.
“I thought we were going to hang out.” She told him.
“Oh.” He thought about it for a moment. “ Well, let’s hang out in Mo’s house, she’s still at work.” he said, glad to solve a problem, but she looked disappointed.
When we got to Monique’s house, Joey seemed to change. I wasn’t looking forward to making idle conversation about meaningless things, Joey was getting frisky and while she sat in the living room watching TV, we were in the bedroom. After wards, I decided to drive my point home.
“I’m thirsty, I’m going to get some water.” I told him and he nodded.
I walked out of the room completely naked and extremely bold. She came out to hall, hearing the door and probably expecting Joey. She stood there, stunned. I smiled sweetly as I walked past her.
“He’s thirsty.” I said over my shoulder.
It was an act done out of pride, anger and bitchiness.
The shit hit the fan when she called him one day, to celebrate their anniversary.
“She carried my child.” he said.
“Which you said you didn’t want.” I shot back.
“I know that, but look, she’s in a fragile state right now.” He told me. I rolled my eyes. He was allowing his sympathy and guilt run away and wreak havoc on us.
“You’re older than her, you should be more understanding.” he told me. I snorted. “Yeah, I understand. I understand that you left her to be with me, now it looks like you’re with her. Maybe YOU should understand how it looks and feels.” I told him before storming out and going to abuela’s.
I spent the night and was invaded by intense and vivid images of them together. I told myself that I didn’t care, he chose the first time, he would have to choose again.
Joey called me in the morning.
“Why didn’t you come home last night?” he asked.
“Well, I thought you needed to think about what you want.” I said. My heart hammered in my chest at the thought of losing him, but I used my static as a buffer against my emotions.
“I don’t need to think about anything. I love YOU and I want to be with you. I told her that I couldn’t see her anymore, you were right, it doesn’t look right.” he said and I didn’t take any joy in hurting her, but I was tired of the back and forth. Dealing with Joey going away was enough, I didn’t want to be looking over my shoulder for her too.
I was silent.
“Are you coming home?” he asked me, sounding so hopeful it touched me.
“Yes.” I said and believed every word he said.
Joey was true to his word and stopped seeing Christina. He even got a Summer job working in a school cafeteria. The perk was that he brought home food and I was glad to have him safe.
For fun, we went to friend’s house parties and sometimes he would go with the guys somewhere.
My trust in him was easy, I didn’t doubt him when he said he was going somewhere or going to do something. I gave him what he gave me complete trust and faith.
When the Summer was over, he was out of a job. When there was no money and no place to stay, we slept on trains. We shuttled from the Bronx to Brooklyn and back again, slouched down in the hard seats. I tried not to feel like a bum when passengers would glare down on us for occupying seats that were meant for working people. I tried not to feel grimy in the clothes that I had slept in for a couple of days or my unwashed hair. My feeling was that I wasn’t going to have a nice bath and a warm bed in abuela’s house while Joey couldn’t.
He would boost clothes for us to wear and sometimes we would be able to sneak into Monique’s house to shower and change when she wasn’t home since she refused to take us in.
In the Winter, he would steal a car that we could ride and sleep in. We could only keep it for two days before we dumped it somewhere, but at least it was a warm place to sleep, even though the heat couldn’t be on for long periods or the battery would go out and we would have to face the frigid winds.
These times would go on long before Joey would be boosting again and find us another room with another addicted couple.
We were only there for a few weeks when he got arrested again. Again, I had to see his sad face at the arraignment and hear the judge deny release. They gave him sixty days. I cried hard when I left the courthouse, more out of frustration than loss.
When I was with him, I saw a future for us in the long run. My fantasies were so clear that it was impossible not to believe them, but the more he was gone, the more I started to see that he didn’t try as hard as he could have. It was as if he didn’t mind leaving me alone in an apartment that was used as a smoke den, that we lived on snacks and meal supplements, that we had to use a bucket to pee in because the addicts had a habit of passing out in the bathroom with the needle in their arm or neck.
I didn’t want to believe that he was thoughtless or selfish, I was sure that I would see the red flags.
This was his time of need and I was determined to be there for him the way no one was there for me. The reward would be a happy life if we survived the rough start.
I don’t know where I got that idea from since my parent’s marriage was a nightmare, what made me think my relationships would be any different? I could sense that their existed a calm in a steady relationship, I had a taste whenever Joey was home and not boosting. The certainty filled every corner of my brain.
I believe that there are some things that cannot be forgotten.
The blue gray of the chipped cement walls of the waiting area at Riker’s Island, the clanging slam of the cells and the white t shirt at Joey’s cell, our signal for I love you are all engrained in my memory. We would exchange letters and I’d spend some time before the visit trying not to cry or be angry with him. I had asked him, begged him to quit boosting for good and get a regular job.
“Why should I bust my ass for a weekly bullshit paycheck when I could make more doing this in one day? No thanks.” he voice echoed through my mind.
During the visit, I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t want to spend our short visit arguing. It didn’t leave a lot to talk about. On the bus home, I wondered how long we could live this way together?
Two weeks later at the start of the visit, Joey walked slowly and looked grim.
“They’re sending me to Valhalla for the rest of the sentence.” he told me.
“Can I still visit?” I asked and he nodded.
“It means that you’ll have to be traveling a little farther, though.” he warned and when I shrugged, he smiled.
“You’re so great, you know that?” I smiled at my loyalty for him.
He wasn’t kidding when he said I’d be traveling. The bus that went to Valhalla was tricky, the schedule was useless and you just had to practice patience in the terminal that filled up with exhaust and smoke. I was fine as long as I had my walkman and my music, I would wait forever, listening to the same damn songs over and over.
It became a struggle to get money to travel for the visits. Abuela began to refuse, for my own good.
“Obvidalo, nena.” she would say very calmly after not giving me money. Forget him? I looked at her with amazement.
“I can’t do that, he needs me.” I told her. It was the first time when I felt that she didn’t understand how I felt for him.
The Penitentiary in Valhalla was a three hour bus ride each way for a thirty minute visit.
It was a squat gray building with a fence surrounding the very large yard, complete with barbed wire. I didn’t like it when the visitors had to walk by the gate when the yard was full of prisoners. It scared me to hear their lewd callings and whistles, it made me miss Joey’s protection.
Sometimes I’d miss the bus and would try to get a ride with other visitors to the terminal or I didn’t have enough money to get on the bus and would have to walk the long dark road alone. It was sandwiched between black woods, the red and white lights from the cars provided a steady rhythm for songs that I sang quietly to myself to distract me from my fear.
I told myself it was worth it when the guards would make the visitors wait outside in the cold, snow and rain. I told myself that what I was doing was a good thing, he relied on me and I had to remain strong.
I was still staying in our room and when I got back there, I was so exhausted I collapsed on our twin bed. I couldn’t get out from under the feeling that my small world was being sabotaged by some bad luck or unknown force.
Early the next morning, I awoke to a loud banging on the front door. I sat up in bed and listened to the persistent banging until I jumped at the sound of the door being thrown open. I quickly threw on some clothes and took hold of my fear. I looked around for any weapons I could use, I didn’t intend on becoming a front page story.
“Marshall! Everybody out!” I heard the voices near my door and they tried the knob.
“It’s locked.” a male voice said. Fearing the worst, I ran to the door.
“Don’t! I’ll open it.” I told them.
They threw everyone out of the apartment and tossed all of our possessions into huge wardrobe boxes and out into the hall. It was an embarrassing experience, I don’t think I did a very good job at hiding my humiliation.
I took what I could and went abuela’s. I rang the buzzer to 7C and found solace in the familiarity. I was home again. The door opened and her welcoming smile nearly brought me to tears. The smell of her wonderful food played under my nose. My stomach complained loudly.
“Tu papa esta aqui.” she told me. I froze in the doorway, my heart pounded in my head.
She was so excited to have my father home, she didn’t notice that a thin film of sweat began to form on my forehead and upper lip. She took my hand in hers and led me to the living room.
I hadn’t seen my father in five years and I felt nervous and unprepared.
He was seated on the sofa smoking a Marlboro. He looked thin enough to cause concern, but still looked strong or at least capable. He smiled when he saw me and seeing those dazzling while teeth sent me spinning back to my childhood. That was the smile that used to comfort me, even after he broke me heart.
He came to me and hugged me tight, while abuela watched the reunion with a smile that beamed and tears in her eyes. I could feel every bone on him and could hardly breathe the from shock.
“How you doing, baby?” he asked me trying to sound bright.
“Fine.” I told him, but it was a lie. I was feeling the familiar squeeze in my belly that told me two things: Something bad was coming and it was going to hurt.
We didn’t talk about where we had been all these years, mostly we just jabbed at each other with looks of wariness, awkwardness and at a total loss of what to do next. He came to make an announcement.
“Mom, come and sit down. “ he called to her. I steeled myself inside, but I knew it would be impossible not to feel what was coming. Abuela sat down next to me, glowing with happiness as she held my hand in her arthritic ones.
“I have to tell you something. I’m,..” then he stopped. His face collapsed into a sadness that hit me in the gut. His tears were flowing, which horrified us.
“Que Fue, nene?! Que paso?!”
She asked him frantically. He shook his head slowly.
“Mom, I have HIV.” He said finally and the words fell flat to the floor. Abuela looked at me.
“HIV?” she questioned me. I looked at her sadly and she began to shake her head quickly, trying to shake off the tragedy that had come.
“No, no, no..No..mi hijo, no..” she said pleadingly.
He went to her and held her as she cried in his arms, they wailed together. I had to step away and went to the balcony. I gazed out at the highway and beyond. I heard abuela sobbing, but I couldn’t bring myself to get that far. I knew what he was telling us, he was dying. Everyone who knew about the deadly virus knew that death was just a simple cold away. It attacked the body, dismantled it piece by piece. The disease had taken a beloved niece of hers just a few years before.
The casual way he accepted his fate angered me. He didn’t talk about treatments or drugs that prolonged the life, he would talk about the end, as if it were a goddamn graduation.
“When I expire, you and your brother will have a little money coming to you.” he’d say, which I seriously doubted seeing that he could barely scrape by with what disability gave him. Expire, like a credit card. He acted as if he were headed toward a new and better life and he was dying (figuratively) to leave the old one behind. Who told him that his next life would be better if he rushed toward it?
Who the hell was he? Someone better than the rest of us? A child molesting father would get a BETTER life? It was his arrogance that bothered. I told Joey about my father during a visit.
“I’m so sorry, baby. How you doing?” he asked me touching my fingers lightly and slowly so that we wouldn’t get embarrassing scolding from the guard. We could hold hands and hug at the start of the visit and before leaving.
“I’m okay. It just pisses me off that he acts like it’s no big deal, but it is a big deal.” I tried to blink back the tears, but they continued to flow.
His fingers moved further along mine as comfort.
“I’m getting out real soon, so don’t worry, everything is going to be okay.” he told me gently. I left clutching his letters to my chest, it didn’t make me feel any better.
I couldn’t wait for him to come out, but I dreaded it too. I didn’t want to go back to living the way we did. I wanted a little more.
Even after my father’s news, we didn’t see much of him. Abuela didn’t understand why he wouldn’t stay home, so she could care for him. The frustration became etched on her beautiful face, but she did her best to maintain grace, faith and strength.
I can still see her sitting in her faded beach chair on the balcony, covered in sunshine and expertly peeling a juicy mango. She’d look off into the sky as if she knew something was out there. A vision of stillness. My father’s illness effected us all in some way.
Abuela went through her every day patiently awaiting his return, so that she could exhale and live again.
Earl resented the invasion of his home and would lose himself in playing numbers. He kept a notebook to log the day’s numbers then calculate them using different equations, surprising for a man that could barely read. He would spend hours doing this while listening to the Yankees game.
I entertained myself with childhood friends and had started writing again. I gushed out all that I felt into a small notebook, metaphors and angst lined the paper. Just looking at it made me feel better and to keep that precious euphoria alive, I’d write through the night and into the dawn.
When Joey got out, I rushed to his side and every one and every thing was pushed aside. My focus was once again clear.
We found another couple to rent from picked up where we left off.
We had several lucky months where he would return from boosting. He was able to get a car even though his license was expired. It was a Midnight blue Monte Carlo that had a variety of problems, but got you from A to B.
The addicts in the building were always trying to sell us their items and this gave him an idea.
He would drive them to Westchester County, where he thought they would have a better selection and an easier time. Then we would get a small cut and they would make money.
The first few times were successful, then he decided to take them to New Jersey, to a large strip mall. The three women that came along itched to get their hands the merchandise that would allow them to fill up their lungs and bodies with poisonous fumes. We waited in the car while the women ‘shopped’,
Joey smoked and I nervously bit my nails. Then one by one, the women got caught. I watched as two tried to fight off security and one was led out in handcuffs. Before we could hurry toward the exit, four police cars boxed us in. They came at us with their hands on their weapons and they pulled us out separately. Over the roof of the car, I could see Joey being cuffed and having his rights read. He gave me a glum look as they placed us in separate cars. He mouthed I’m sorry through the window as I watched the car roll away. Terrified, I was near stammering when answering the officer’s questions.
“How old are you?” he asked. I was shaken, feeling the cold steel around my wrists.
“Seventeen.” I answered, trying hard not to freak out. The officer looked at me skeptical.
“Are you sure?” I nodded because I didn’t trust myself to say another word.
I was taken to the precinct and into a small windowless room with cinderblock walls and a bench. I was handcuffed to a bar and there I sat for what seemed like forever.
There was no sound except what was in my head, the static and my own voice wondering now what?
My heart and guts flipped when I heard the key and the too familiar clack of the lock.
A kind looking man, big as a bear, uncuffed me and led me to the large squad room. It was empty except us and the desks in neat rows. He was dark and burly, a man that could intimidate easily, but there was something fatherly about him. I sat in the seat next to his desk and his piercing blue eyes nailed me down.
“How long have you known this guy, Susanna?” he asked me, looking disapprovingly.
“About a year and half.” Even as I said it, I couldn’t believe that so much had happened in such a short time.
“Why would you get involved with a guy like that? Do you know what kind of life he’s led?” he asked me concerned.
When I saw him looking at me like that, I wished with everything in me that someone had asked me before. Maybe I wouldn’t have been there if someone had. Then again, I wouldn’t have listened.
It wasn’t too late for me to step on a bus and go to anywhere, but I couldn’t, wouldn’t leave Joey now. He needed someone who he knew was strong and self reliant, it kept him calm.
I shrugged at the officer’s question.
“He’s nice to me and he loves me, he takes care of me.” I told him with my heart beating in my veins, the static buzzed in my skin, I started to itch.
“I see. Well, he’s not coming out any time soon. Do you have someone who can pick you up?” I was confused.
“I get to go home?”
When he nodded, I was relieved.
“You’re a minor with no record. This is your first offense, so the most you’ll get is a court appearance ticket. You’ll need a parent to pick you up. As for your friend, he has a very long record and will be lucky to get out this month.”
I felt the sadness drape over me, but I was too numb to take it in.
I tried to call my father at abuela’s house and hoped he would be able to borrow Earl’s car and get me. I almost cried with relief that he picked up the phone instead of abuela, I didn’t want her to know about it. He answered with a lazy drawl.
“Daddy, I need you come get me in New Jersey. I got into some trouble with my boyfriend and he got arrested and I need a parent to pick me up.” I told him without pausing. He sighed heavily through the phone.
“Mami, I’m sorry for your trouble, but there’s nothing I can do.” he told and hung up.
At that moment I hated him so much that I silently wished him dead. With everything that had happened, you would think that he would jump at the chance to help, in any way. He didn’t even ask me how I was, I was calling from a police station. Even if he was too sick to drive, he didn’t even offer assistance.
I had no choice but to call my mother. Abuela felt it important that we have her number when she returned from Puerto Rico several months earlier.
I refused to call or speak to her, so I let the officer talk to her.
“You should know, Mrs. Castillo, that I believe your daughter is being taken advantage of by this Joey guy, he’s bad news.” he told her.
I wondered what adults had that made them judge others with such high-handedness. Neither of them knew Joey the way I did, all they knew what was his record called him. A thief who was too lazy to get and keep a job, who wanted the easy way and getting free room and board on the City’s dime. Another wasted life that just happened to have rights.
Meanwhile, there’s a law against abandonment, yet here was my mother arriving in quiet fury.
I readied myself for the blows and tried not to flinch when she leaned across me to shake the officer’s hand.
Benny was waiting with the seats. He looked tired and bloated. I didn’t want to think about what kind of life Elias was living with them. I still felt guilty for leaving him behind, alone with my mother and Benny. He looked at me and smiled a little. He still had the military cut and a thick messy moustache, his skin was very pale and had a slight sheen of sweat. The walk to the car was the longest. I was between them and I hoped the earth would shatter and swallow me up.
Benny opened the door and looked at me.
“She should sit between us.” he said and my mother sighed.
“Ai, please Benny. She’s not going to jump out of the car.” She looked at me. “Right?” she asked me and I nodded.
“Get in the back.” She barked at me so suddenly that I did flinch. I got in the backseat and leaned my head against the cool glass of the window. I closed my eyes and drifted off.
I awoke to the busy sounds of El Barrio. The sun was going down and throwing the tenements’ and bodegas into the shadows. Poking through the sunset streaked streets, people hovered in clusters on stoops and in playgrounds. The older Spanish men were seated outside of their social clubs, slamming their way through a vigorous game of Dominoes.
The yawn of Spring in 1990, perfumed the air with culture and history.
My mother had a one bedroom apartment above a liquor store on Lexington Avenue and 110th street.
Here she is, I thought, married to someone who gets crazy when he’s drunk and she lives here?
It didn’t make sense to me, but then not much did and I always felt like the odd man out, like everyone knew what was going on except me.
The feeling of not knowing amplified my static that was already on full blast since we left New Jersey.
A chubby dark haired kid of ten poked his head out of the kitchen. His smile was as wide, toothy and generous as our mother’s. He looked strong and healthy and that stung since I hadn’t eaten since I had gotten arrested.
He felt the same, he still felt like a baby and my guilt shook itself awake. I had abandoned him as our mother abandoned me. Our reunion was cut short when he was sent to bed.
I dropped my jacket on the arm of a chair that I thought would be comfortable enough for the tongue lashing I was sure I’d receive.
Benny and my mother sat on opposites sides of their sofa. I prepared for myself for being ganged up on, but I used my only weapon, my silence. I never let in what I was feeling, it was like watching it from afar and I became successful at giving the impression that I couldn’t have given a rat’s ass about what was happening even if it wasn’t true. Nothing hurt more than to have people say that I was full of shit when I tried to be loving and unselfish. I guess you could say that my defense turned out to be my enemy at times.
Four years had passed since I had seen them and nothing had changed. She acted as if she had been putting up with me all this time and this was just the latest embarrassment, but I couldn’t bring myself to stay angry with her. Sometimes, it scared me to be. I pictured my fury ripping me apart, screaming, snarling and merciless. I fought away those images.
“So tell me. Are you going with him when he comes out?” she asked me, without looking at me. I didn’t hesitate.
“Yes.” I said and prepared myself for a blow, but none came. She stared at me.
“So, then we can expect you to be gone in two weeks, right?” I nodded and she sucked her teeth hard.
“I can’t believe you, Susanna. You just got out of jail,” She said.
“I was in the precinct.” I said and she narrowed her eyes at me.
“Whatever. It’s because of this piece of shit and you’re still going to be with him?” She asked heatedly.
“Yes.” I answered without explanation. Even if she had asked for one, I was too submerged in my static to find the words. She was quiet for a moment.
She looked over at Benny, who was looking at the floor and chuckling to himself.
“I told you.” he said quietly and she was not happy about it.
She looked back at me.
“Fine. Well, if you’re going to be here, you have to do something. I know of a place that gives GED classes, we’ll go tomorrow morning.” She said bringing down the verdict. I agreed and went along.
I spent some awkward alone time with my mother and I hated searching for something to talk about, trying to jump start our memories so we could find some common ground. I was sure that she was just as uncomfortable with me, she found any excuse to send me to the store or taking to friend’s apartments where women gathered with wine and music.
My mother was an affectionate drunk, but I had learned early to take it with a grain of salt and I had been duped too many times. It wasn’t easy to humor her when she would lather me up with hugs and sweet words.
“You know mami,” she’d slur at me. ” I love you so much, I just want you takin’ care of. You know? Why don’t you find an older man, someone who is more stable? It’s for you own good.” she said, swaying slightly.
I looked at her, my beautiful mother who could kill me with a rough word and who didn’t seem to mind it at all that she was.
“You mean, for the best.” I said, to see if I could jolt her out of her stupor. Instead she seemed happy to think that we were on the same page.
Her face lit up.
“Right.” she agreed and kissed me sloppily. She wanted SOMEONE, anyone to take care of me, but her. It ignited the slow burn that had been inside since I discovered that she signed away her parental rights. I felt stupid for thinking that Time had changed her, even a little bit.
I kept in touch with abuela because Joey knew her number and since I couldn’t see him, it was the only way to send news to him.
“Just tell him where I’m at, he’ll find it.” I told her and she agreed.
I thought about Joey so much, I started to feel as if any minute I would see his face and the light would return to my world.
Two weeks later, my mother poked me awake.
“Joey is outside.” she told me and I leapt from my bed. I dressed quickly, kissed Elias as he slept and stopped by my mother, who was holding the door open for me.
“Thank you for everything, mom.” the last word nearly stuck in my throat. I gave her a light peck on the cheek and I ran for my life, into Joey’s waiting arms.