Fire of ’94
Robyn Ransome has to grapple with memories of childhood homelessness, her mother’s drug addiction and her father’s abandonment, even though her grandfather was a prominent New York City politician. She transcended the chaos by studying psychology and is on her way to becoming a therapist.
We sang, “The roof the roof the roof is on fire. We don’t need no water. Let the motherfucker burn. Burn motherfucker, burn,” [Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three] laughing all the while high on weed and tipsy off St. Ides malt liquor. It was January winter of ’94 and we had already had two snow storms. I had on a raggedy black leather jacket, Rebock classic $54.11, too-tight jeans, no hat, no gloves, no scarf. Faye, my best friend had on Nike Air Max and a colorful short jacket. We were black girls lost, living in Brooklyn, New York walking the streets because there was no one concerned about our whereabouts or well-being.
We laughed the whole way home while I entertained us with song and dance moves. It was cold and I didn’t know what else to do as we walked. Silence made everything loud so doing this made me forget about home, yet this night home would be loud.
As we approached the building I shouted, “Some shit is burning!” The fire was huge, the colors were beautiful, we just laughed. Yet as we got to the entrance those laughs became concerns. There was my whole family in front of me with gray blankets and tears in their eyes. I didn’t understand what was going on. As I approached my mother someone stopped and pulled me aside. “Where were you? Did you leave the stove on?” I didn’t know what to say. I just kept asking what happened. No one would explain anything to me. Finally, I got to my mother and brothers. No words were exchanged; we just sat there. I was embarrassed, ashamed, and angry. I knew deep in my heart she had done this. Guilt was all over her; she couldn’t look at us. She was still high on crack cocaine yet in shock. Her secret had been exposed. Now everyone knew and she had prided herself on no one knowing.
Yet I did. I had watched her for months; she was a mess. The drugs were taking over fast. My mother was strong, beautiful, and everyone loved her. She was the neighborhood mother; whatever you needed to know, she could assist you. However, when it came to her own children there was a disconnect. She never knew how to help or parent us in the right direction. It was like we were a burden to her. I always felt as if she wanted to be free. She didn’t fully live her life, raising her brothers and sister, then having her own kids didn’t allow her to know who she was as a woman.
Once she and my stepfather went their separate ways things begin to crumble. She wasn’t herself anymore. I think the betrayal was too much for her to handle. She left him, then went to a shelter. We never had anything, no money, no food, no clothes, not even a place to live. How could she burn down the room? A room in a shelter. Damn. She must have been on a mission this night. This was her rock bottom and we didn’t even know it. I just keep staring at her. She knew I was furious. My brothers were confused, scared, and had no understanding as to what was taking place. We were given another room that night yet I didn’t stay with them. I asked Faye’s mom if I could stay and she agreed that would be best. I woke the next morning learning that my mother and brothers had gone to my grandfather’s and they would be back that evening.
I knew if I went to my grandfather I would have to answer questions. I knew what mom was doing but so did the family. They just chose not to deal with the issues of her drug use. This time around it had to be dealt with. See my grandad was Roy Innis, a prominent politician and activist in New York City. If word got out that his daughter had a drug problem, was living in a shelter, and had burned it down, this wouldn’t look good on his part. He made deals with whomever and mom was on her way to a detox program. When mom went away we were all separated. The boys went to our grandmother’s house and I went to my grandfather’s house. This was hard; once again we would have to suffer for her choices and decisions.
He was lying on the bench sleeping. I was shocked it was him. This night I happened to be alone; normally it would be a crew of us. I guess God knew I wouldn’t be able to explain myself to my co-workers. It was the end of summer and the 59th Street train station was hot as hell; no air was circulating, it felt like a sauna. I was wearing my favorite denim dress with red Nine West Mary Janes. He had on all denim with scuffed up white sneakers. I hadn’t seen in him months. I was nervous and happy altogether. He was home, no longer in Rikers Island, a correctional facility in New York. As I approached him I really didn’t know what I would say so I called his name. He didn’t move, so I tapped him and once he looked up his face went blank as if he had seen a ghost.
I know he didn’t expect to see me, not here not now. He sat up and looked at me again. No words from his mouth but I could tell he was in shock. He had told me on our last visit that if I ever caught him in a bad situation he would keep it moving. I laughed because I didn’t believe he would do that. But you see, he was a man of his word. He jumped up quick and started walking to the back of the train. I called after him, “Robert Ransome! Dad!” No response. I was right on his heels
“You’re not going to speak? Hello, I know you hear.” Still nothing; he wasn’t even looking at me. The train was pulling into the station, so I took a piece of paper from my bag and wrote down my number for him. And I said, “I love you, no matter what.” He continued to ignore me. I could not believe he was doing this to his first-born child.
This wasn’t the man I went to visit once a week. We would laugh, I would cry, we would have deep conversations. I even brought my brothers up to visit him. Shit he had made promises. We had made plans. Now here I am, standing on the train platform like a little girl lost. My father, the man I love, was rejecting me. This sting, it felt like I was in a dream.
He looked at me one last time and went through the cars. I could not move. This was not happening, is all I thought to myself. Did he just walk away and say nothing? Was that my father? Yes, Robyn that was him. He warned you if he was ever fucked up he would leave. You cannot be mad.
A man then came up to me starting to talk. I couldn’t hear a word he said. I then snapped back into reality. He was asking for my name and number so I gave him the paper that I would have given my dad.
He asked, “Shorty, who is Robert?’ I tried to explain to him what just happened. He looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe I was. Shit how did I just give him my number with all this going on? I kept looking each time the train door opened to see if my father had gotten off yet.
As we reached 125th Street the man was mouthing something I couldn’t hear. Once again I was too busy looking for my dad, confused as to what just happened. I stood there frozen. The doors closed and he vanished.
Once I got home I was a mess. I cried to my uncle but he could not understand why I was making a big deal out of this situation. “FUCK HIM,” he kept shouting. “What can he do for you if he’s on the street?” See what my uncle didn’t understand is that I was a daddy’s girl. I love my father. I missed my dad. I needed him. I wanted this man in my life. No one understood the hurt I felt seeing my dad and being rejected. Each time I would talk about it, their response would be the same: “Get over it. He didn’t want you; if he did he would have never walked away.” So, after hearing this so much, I took their advice. I buried my hurt and went on about my life. However, I would become the ICE QUEEN. My heart was no longer available it was broke. I would go like this for years.
[Robyn and her father, in better times.]
* Robyn Ransome graduated from Lehman College with a degree in psychology and is working towards becoming an holistic clinical therapist. Writing helps Robyn to articulate her thoughts and feelings; it’s a form of therapy for her. Email: email@example.com
© 2020 Robyn Ransome. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.
Resist the Temptations of the Wolf
I could always count on Socheath Sur to make us laugh when he was in my class in 2015. He worked full-time as a medical lab technician at Montefiore Hospital but he still had the stamina to comment on his classmates’ work and delight us with quick-witted jokes. His writing style was influenced by the super-hero comic books he read as a child and later by Japanese anime; his prose is distinctive and enthralling. Now, five years later, Socheath has just been accepted to the Montefiore School of Nursing.
My tale begins with those responsible for my creation. To my father, Kheng, who in my eyes will always be the most intellectual person as well as the most stubborn person that I've ever known. I am honored to have you as a dad. To my mother, Chorvy, the most hard-working and motivated person who has kept me out of more trouble and who was always there to give me a swift ass-kicking when I needed it.
Born in a small village in Cambodia, my dad learned from a young age how to survive and adapt to the changing environment. Cambodia is a third-world country, a place where children become adults the moment they walk; a place where the demands for food far outweighed the amount the environment was able to produce during the times of turmoil; where even clean running water is still considered a luxury and the government is about as corrupt and worthless as the charred soil left tainted by war.
The Vietnam War brought fire and chaos to the land of Cambodia. Among the hailing rains of napalm infernos, the screeching fighter jets and the never-ending agony of bullets, fire and bombs, there was a family that was desperately trying to escape, grasping at any glimmering chance and never losing hope for a better life.
My father was but a boy of eighteen; small, very thin, as if malnutrition was the diet plan of choice. There was no time to grow up, no words to express, only action to take; like a road with only one direction, the only path was forward. He had to make his way out as best he could, huddling together with my mother, grandmother and other family members, leading them towards a ship of salvation. Stubborn to a fault, a trait I deeply respect, he does not hesitate once his decision has been made. You'll be damn sure he'll reach the finish line.
They battled the grueling terrain, riddled with land mines that claimed the lives of both enemies and allies alike. So many bodies littered the ground, it was impossible to even fathom the exact number. Even among the symphony of chaos and destruction that was happening from one day to the next, my family would be able to sing their own celebration song as they were able to board a boat and sail towards refugee camps and eventually towards the warm embrace of America.
New York City would be the starting stage of a quirky problematic character, none other than myself. My mother, Chorvy, is a glorious, warm, tender and loving woman, who gives her all for her children. But make no mistake, she can go from zero to a 60 real quick if you have wronged her in some way.
My older sisters are a pair of demonic beasts, who I truly believe were conjured up in some ritual to destroy my life. The beginning days of my life were constantly plagued with vicious attacks ranging from punches, dropkicks, elbow drops, hay makers and moves only a pro wrestler could identify. Others might call it tough love but I called it hell on earth and they tested my limitations as evil siblings do. I felt like my parents brought me in this world, tossed me into pit with two lions and told me to fend for myself. My survival instincts were crafted at a young age. I jest of course, describing them in this fashion. Of course I adore and cherish them greatly.
I pause to remind myself of a fond moment in time. A vivid memory as a child, mischievous at that, forever the little explorer, mustering up nothing but trouble for my family members. I remember as a toddler our first bicycle that we all shared. My inner selfishness would hog it most of the time, as my sisters devilishly struggled to keep it out of my mitts. I used to race down the block, getting my first battle scars from reckless behavior. They would always teach me a lesson by hilariously beating me up, a battle I always participated in and lost. With my small fingers and knobby legs, I soon discovered the odds were against me; nothing I did would turn the tides. They did allow me to get away with a lot of stuff. Only when I was too selfish and couldn't understand that we wouldn't be able to buy something, did they literally beat it out of me.
Early life for my parents and sisters was an everyday fight to survive. Being the youngest, I was ignorant to all of it; only now do I understand the reality of the situation. It wasn't the bicycle that was special, it was the moments we joyously shared and the realization that even at my family's hardest time, they still made the effort to provide happiness in whatever way they could.
Time flew past to the era of education, the dreaded first day of kindergarten, where rules and regulations were enforced by control-obsessed, ginormous people called adults. The whimpering songs of freedom were slowly fading in the wind, my days of oppression had just begun. I was forced to embark on a journey of new experiences, the introductory stages of the game we call life. My world before this moment had consisted of charitable titans called parents and those demonic entities, the torturers of my existence called sisters.
Though my initial feelings were sour, I had a eureka moment, an epiphany: no longer would I be at the bottom of the totem pole. There were new possibilities, the laws of the jungle will now be reset. The days of being trampled down by those carnivorous, vicious, sibling predators would be no longer. The transition from zebra to lion would be in my hands, I had a shot at the champion belt and I was gonna take it.
As I entered the realm of possibilities my eyes lay siege on this new chaotic world called school. Physical stature had no advantage here, everyone was my size or so I thought. Then, amid the crowd came the behemoth, overshadowing the other kids, one kid to rule them all. My one threat to the top had shown himself immediately. I knew the outcome of this scenario all too well, David vs Goliath, but in my case I already knew from experience it wasn't going to end in my favor.
With my basketball sized head, I knew a crafty, more tactful approach was in order. As I huddled in the corner, deviously planning my war strategy, I noticed the ground shaking. Preparing for the worst, I turned around to face my opponent, only to find a large jaw-dropping chocolate chip cookie being handed to me in front of my eyes. Sensing no hostility but in fact genuine kindness, I accepted the gesture from what I thought was a dangerous encounter. It was then, in that moment, I would make my first friend.
It was high school where I would meet the troublemakers who became my best friends. Hahn, the Blasian (half black and half Korean) visionary, who was the type to always have a grand project in the works and the tenacity to make it happen. Then there was Ray, the constant go-getter, who could never sit still, always traveling and out partying.
If I had to choose an object that best reflects us, to place in a museum exhibit about my life, it would have to be a compilation art piece made by my best friends and me in high school. The drawings were depictions of numerous imaginary characters we had fabricated with the wonders of a teenage mind.
We all contributed to putting our art pieces on blank spaces of a large cheap poster board. It would be our open canvas, riddled with the inner emotional states we had come to terms with, characters we had drawn to represent ourselves. Mine was a dark slender swordsman with an aura of mystery who bore my lone wolf mentality. James drew a large stoic courageous Orc warrior to convey his open and brave ways of adhering to new situations. Lastly, my spontaneous friend Ray, painted an energetic assortment of colors to form what could be a silhouette of a man, whose direction was never certain or confined.
The drawings themselves were nothing spectacular but, the bonds we shared during those times and memories we made during their creation would pave the foundations of our relationships to this day. We were the band of rambunctious kids that didn't fit into any category of the traditional high school hierarchy.
I would love to have called us the rebels, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Like all kids, we had our own bullies, who would judge us as different and weird and acted out the classical high school drama everyone had to go through. In fact, we were that cast of awkward characters that were united through our differences.
While other kids were all eating lunch in the cafeteria, we had a special spot in the library where we could escape the stagnation we had felt from the education system, making it slightly more bearable. Our collective unit of delusional rebels made the library our home base, where our imaginations were allowed to run rampant through art and internet usage. We had countless debates over which fictional heroes would triumph in fabricated scenarios of our choosing. It was a safe haven from the prosecution of judgment, the struggles of an adolescent and a pause on life in general. I will forever remember my adolescent years and this artifact embodies my strong memories.
As I grew, so did my feelings for girls. It never worked out too well for me in this department. I was very socially awkward and not blessed with the gift of good looks. Girls would never really pay me much attention or bat an eye in my direction. I filled the nice guy profile all too perfectly. Like the saying goes, “The girls always chase the bad ones,” and I was far from it. Then came the human tornado that would turn my life upside down.
The ex-lover’s name was Manar, a beautiful girl with dirty blonde hair, equipped with exotic yellowish green eyes with a figure that had men kneeling at first sight. Born in Syria of Muslim faith, coming from a rather wealthy family, living her earlier privileged childhood days there until her family immigrated to the United States, ending up specifically in New Jersey. Though born in Syria, her cultural background was of the Circassian people.
I never heard of these wandering gypsy-like folks. They had no real land to call their own and through some recourse had migrated and settled in Syria. She spoke English very well regardless of her birth, but she also spoke an Arabic dialect that sounded to me like she was machine gunning a lugee all over the place. However, I put my own hilarious twist on her name and called her, Manasty. Because in the beginning and the end, she would be so nasty and rude about everything.
She was the type of girl who was good-looking and thought they could get away with murder because of it. I would meet this she-devil while working in a hospital which I'd rather not name. We were complete opposites in every way and we waged war against each other daily at work. The first time I laid eyes on her, I thought she was pretty, though she fell under the stuck-up category. That category was on the bottom of my list.
Day after day, doctors, nurses, clerks, any guy who had a lust for women would constantly come around to praise her appearance. While I, on the other hand, couldn't help but crack jokes at this thing who I concluded was a velociraptor, straight out of Jurassic Park, disguised as a woman.
Our excessive need to bicker and nag each other caught the attention of other staff members. In time, they began labeling us as husband and wife, because the rants were endless. Words soon transformed to violence, she began to unfairly attack me daily, in response to my humorous jokes. It was in her nature, being the prehistoric predator she is. This femme fatale came equipped with claw like hands that pinched me mercilessly for my verbal transgressions. “You guys are straight out of a romantic comedy,” said one of the supervisors of the microbiology lab. Little by little, she broke my exterior shell to keep her out. Only to find I had changed, unexpectedly to a sense of fondness.
It was 5 a.m. in the morning, when I received the call that would start me off on this crazed adventure for which I had no preparation. The sun still snoozing while darkness loomed over the city of New York. The robust vibrating hypnotic tone of my cell phone was the first noise to assault my eardrums and rudely awaken the hibernating beast that I was in bed.
Alarmed and unaware of my surroundings, I desperately reached out into the darkness for my phone, which I could never accurately locate from underneath my covers. After toppling over nearly everything in my room, I successfully got hold of that feisty electronic device. My eyelids still struggling to open, I peeked into the screen's shining light to see a familiar deviant face whom I'd grown to love and hate at the same time.
Her Circassian Arabic eyes glaring at me, I answered the phone, only to hear a hysterical crazed woman on the other side of the phone shouting. “Malaka! Suka! I need your help!” She frantically said other words that if translated, would have caused parents to slap their children if they heard it. Yes, it was profanity, curse words of a foul nature that she had associated with me for comedy’s sake. I thought she was joking at first only to fearfully realize she was serious. I immediately dived out of bed and stood upright so as to hear clearly what came next.
“I hit something, my tire is flat and I'm stuck in Jersey on my way to New York. I don't know what to do; I'm terrified,” were the dreadful words she exhausted no time to say. After numerous games of back and forth problem solving tactics I suggested, the effort was all in vain. She was completely incapable of listening to reason due to fear and panic. I decided the best course of action was to rush to her aid personally. “I'm coming to you. Stay where you are. I will find you.”
With no train of thought, or resources to solve the problem myself, I decided to gamble on the sure fire possibility that her car had a spare and jack that would solve the problem. “How will you know where I am? You'll never find me.” She doubted me like she always did.
“You'll be the only car stuck on the New Jersey Turnpike with hazards on,” I said raising my voice slightly to convey complete confidence. Like the wind, I jumped in my car and rushed towards Jersey still on the phone with her. Though incredibly foolish and dangerous, I juggled driving and talking at high speeds to ensure I would reach her in a short time.
As I was driving, I heard her hyperventilating on the phone. She'd had a traumatic experience in a car crash with an 18-wheeler in her childhood. I could hear her breathing becoming sporadic, as she started to utter a confused rush of depressive thoughts. Now I added keeping her calm to the list of actions I was already haphazardly doing. Mother nature had it out for me this day making things worse; heavy rains made the roads slippery and visibility low. Interestingly enough I didn't care for any of that, my main focus was to get the job done, and make sure she was safe both mentally and physically.
Maybe fate was on my side, as not one state trooper, or local law enforcement in the vicinity tried to stop me speeding in my vigilante style quest from New York to New Jersey, and I was free to rush to help the girl I loved.
I eventually located her and, without delay, I pulled over, flipping on my car hazards. I ran to the driver’s side of her car, where her head rested against the steering wheel in a position of hopelessness and desperation. She would then turn ever so slightly and we made eye contact.
I never saw a car door swing open faster than that very moment. She jumped out like a trapped animal who has witnessed salvation for the first time. Her arms and lips wrapped around me almost immediately, to my surprise, as I was expecting a verbal onslaught. After a period of affection that led to her regained composure, I got to work on the flat. I rustled through the trunk of her car, pulling out heaps of items she had left in there like some sort of deranged hoarder. I finally hit the jackpot, the spare, combined with the tools to change it. Relieved that the solution had been found I pushed forward. It seemed some outer force was testing my patience as I laid eyes on the bolts only to find she had wheel locks. I asked her where the corresponding key was. She was clueless to my question, having no knowledge of any automobile term.
A thought occurred to me; any normal person would put it in the glove compartment. Searching the glove box, stripping everything, my search was empty. I should have known, there was nothing normal about her, I laughed to myself. I again ventured back into the trunk and as I reached in to scavenge, my eyes caught a glint of a small metal item hiding in the deep dark inner workings of the trunk. Eureka, there it was, shrouded in darkness, I grabbed it and continued onward.
Moments later I dusted myself, successfully changing that problematic wheel. I then escorted her home, like a bootleg civilian police officer, directing traffic and blocking lanes to ensure she got home safely. I will forever remember the event as a collection of rashful thinking and actions that I would never normally take. It would continue to show and remind me till the dawn of time that those feelings I had for her were real.
Sadly, mutual feelings were not enough to keep the strings attached. External factors would break the chains that bind us. Her family was Muslim, who would not accept me, nor be willing to understand who I was. I would be forced to cut the ties to spare her from fighting with those she held dear. The importance of family is of no surprise to me and I wasn't about to let her battle it out. Fearing that her family would disown her, I exited stage left. “You'll find someone better, and most importantly, someone your parents will accept,” I said sternly. Masquerading as a man with no emotion, I withheld the tears and disappeared from her life.
* Socheath Sur will begin studying at the Montefiore School of Nursing in fall 2020. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2020 Socheath Sur. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.
Working at the A & P
J.G. grew up in the outskirts of Lima, Peru and immigrated with his family to New York when he was 18 years old. He was a disciplined student, determined to improve his writing and become a journalist. J.G. wrote for the Lehman College newspaper and was tremendously proud when he was accepted into the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Now he has his master’s and, while looking for a full-time journalism job, works as a teaching assistant for a non-profit that provides extracurricular classes for NYC schools. His essay reflects what his life was like one summer, while he was a college student.
When my brother and I would get out of work in Yonkers, we’d go to the bus stop to wait for the 52 bus. At that time, we worked as grocery clerks at an A&P supermarket. We worked almost every day and the job was hard but it made us feel useful. We were working bees.
Sometimes in the summer, we'd work in the morning and get off from work in the afternoon when the sun was still up. I didn't know what was home anymore. We had been living here and there like nomads all over the city since we came to New York. While sitting on the bench, I’d see some ants marching close to my foot, carrying a dead insect or a half-eaten candy, heading off to their colony where life was organized. At least they knew what to do with their life, I thought.
Other times we'd get off from work at 9 or 10 p.m., when almost nobody was around. Across the street, night wanderers entered and exited a CVS/Pharmacy and then took off in their cars. If we weren't there, we'd be in another bus stop close by. This other bus stop was surrounded by a parking lot, a few one-story houses, a hair salon, and a two-story Italian restaurant. Through the windows of the Italian restaurant, a murmur would come to my ears, a sound that might be the laughter of the waiters or the guests, celebrating a get-together or a going away party. They were celebrating life. And my brother and I were not invited.
Sometimes around that hour, some people would appear to wait for the bus and keep us company. Housekeepers, waiters, waitresses, dishwashers, and babysitters. They were the sort of people that had come to New York to have a better life. People who, as the years went by had forgotten who they were or why they came here in the first place.
When the bus didn’t run, on a Sunday or a holiday, we’d go to the train station. It was far away, so we ran if we were late to catch the train. To get there, we had to cross through a neighborhood with colonial houses. A jungle seemed to be growing from inside the neighborhood. Grasshoppers chirped. At that hour, when it got so dark, it was hard to distinguish between the lights of the airplanes and the lights of the stars. The branches of the trees had grown so long we could touch them without jumping. It felt like we were back to our grandma’s farm, the one we left behind in Latin America.
There were days when we wouldn't talk to each other. I'd attribute the problem to myself, to the fact that I hadn't been a good older brother. I had failed. And I’d feel miserable.
“Don’t bother me. I don't want to talk to you because you think you know it all. I can do things by myself. I don't need you to tell me what to do. I’m not a child,” he said. And before I could say anything to him, he would put his headphones on. And we’d just sit there, on the bench, to wait for the bus or for something else that would take us from that reality. At times, he’d talk to himself or laugh for no apparent reason, a behavior that I'd find odd but that I'd forget the next day. The shade of a big tree would cover us. The rays of the sun would illuminate everything. We had started to hate our job and our lives. I feared for the future.
“I’m just trying to help you. None of what you say is true,” I’d say to him trying to maintain my composure. But deep down I’d feel ashamed.”
I would confront him in those days. And what would I hear from him sometimes?
The bus stop would become some sort of confessional for us, as cars passed along the highway and I stared at the broken cigarettes on the ground.
Once, on a rainy day, when we were waiting for the bus, under our umbrellas, we were giving each other the silent treatment again.
Early that day, when we were packing up groceries in the store, he came running to me with blood on his hand. He had cut himself by mistake. Instead of helping him, my first reaction was to yell at him and tell him he was a fool. How many times had he come to me for help like a wounded pigeon when we were little kids? How many times had I sworn to protect him? Who was I becoming? I heard rain is good because it washes everything clean. But that day at the bus stop, the sky seemed to be crying. Drops of water were falling furiously through the drains.
A loud thunderclap resounded in the sky and dark clouds were forming.
Little did I know that my younger brother had a mental illness and that he was going to be locked up in a psychiatric hospital during the following months.
* J.G. holds a master’s degree from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He teaches “a little bit of geography, language, cuisine, history, etc.” to K-12 students in NYC. Email c/o: email@example.com
© 2020 J.G. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.
Bureks, Battle Scars and Bracelet
A.K.N. was so articulate and compelling when she wrote about the dynamics of her family and the struggles they endured and transcended. She is doggedly stalwart in her life, but has a deft, light touch in her writing.
I was five years old, staring at my worn-out Dora sneakers, as they swung back and forth, trying to catch the rhythm of the weird Canadian songs Uncle Sammy played for me. He was the unusual, irresponsible uncle that everyone talked about. But, boy did he make my week into fantasies every time he came down to visit. His broken down Nissan took us to a new adventure every day, from the zoo, to the candy store, to the ice cream parlor. I would jump in the passenger seat , smirking, which translated to, “Mom won’t find out.”
We both knew I was his favorite even when he wouldn’t admit it. I knew that he was my favorite person ever because he comforted me, gave me attention, and made me feel special in just one week; something my parents couldn’t do for any of their five children their whole life. I didn’t blame my mother because she dedicated all her time to take care of the big baby of the house… my father.
I used to point out every car that I liked to Uncle Sammy. He would laugh and say, “You sure you weren’t supposed to be born a boy?”
“Ewwwww a boyyy? Noo blahhh!”
One day as we were driving, I gasped and pointed to a parked car. “Look! That’s like mama’s car.”
We drove by to see the resemblance and saw a lady hysterically crying with her hands over her face, her forehead against the steering wheel.
My head slammed onto the side of the car as Uncle Sammy swerved and stopped, once he realized that the woman was his sister. He quickly got out of the car slamming the door behind him, forgetting he had a child with him. Quicker than I could get out of the car, my father was there, out of nowhere, as if he came out from underneath the car. There he was, screaming at my mom, making everything worse. My uncle, who was 26 at the time, pushed my father to the side and argued back. I cried next to the Nissan staring at the fight, not knowing what was going on. All I could put together was that my father was the bad guy… he always was.
I didn’t realize until that moment that Uncle Sammy wasn’t here for my company, he was here to keep me away from seeing what happened between my mother and father. I wasn’t taken out because I was his favorite, I was taken out to be distracted. I never saw Uncle Sammy again after the big fight with my father. My grandma took his place and lived with us to look after me and my brothers. Everything and everyone I lost was because of my father’s actions.
Children think their parents are superheroes. They are unbreakable, strong and would never leave your side as they protect you. That’s how I viewed my parents until my dad lost his mind and started to break the family apart, literally. Problems after problems seemed to never stop and he always treated other people better than his own kids and wife. The constant negativity and abuse drove me and the whole family insane. As I grew up that’s how I thought I was supposed to be treated since that’s how our “ideal figure” raised us, to believe that everyone was better than us. He raised us to be hella insecure.
School was my escape from home. I was able to play with my friends which helped me forget about my miserable family at home. I was in 3rd grade when my father’s abuse escalated to the point where ACS had to knock on our door to investigate. My mother was getting me and my older brother, who was in 6th grade, ready for school, while my dad was making demands so early in the morning.
“Be useful and go get me water.”
My brother quickly jumped and poured a glass. As my brother rushed with the water, he tripped and glass shattered on the ground.
“Are you shitting me! One thing I ask for! One thing and you can’t even get that! Stupid! Get up.” My father shook my brother and grabbed him by his mushroom haircut.
“Clean this shit up.” He let go of my brother and slapped the back of his head.
My brother held his tears back and picked up the big shards of glass. He couldn’t dare let out a squeal because he knew what would have happened if he did. My mother would cry and help my brother but my father would attack her as well.
“That’s why they are the way they are, because you baby them. Don’t let them come out like you.” He kept repeating as he lit up his cigarette.
My father really thought a nine-year-old would stay quiet after she witnessed all that before heading out to school. I held it in as much as I could but the minute my teacher asked me what was wrong, I spilled every detail as I sobbed in my chair. I got sent to the counselor’s office where I was fooled. The counselor told me no one is going to know and that I’m safe telling her anything. She began jotting down my siblings’ names and ages and that’s when everything went bad.
The day after, ACS showed up on our door step and I could feel the heat that built up in my father’s body when he opened the door. One of the ladies took me into my room, where she made me strip down to only my underwear as she began examining any bruises on my little-boy body. She examined all of my siblings as well. They couldn’t find anything that could be charged against my father.
“Mr. N___, for you record, we will be observing you and your family for the next three months. Do you understand?”
“You don’t think I understand English? You come disrespect me in my home and accuse me of hitting my own kids? You don’t think kids over exaggerate?” My father was embarrassingly rude when he spoke.
“I’m afraid I don’t, Mr. N----. Have a nice day.” The lady looked at me and winked.
My body shook like an earthquake. I wanted to scream for the lady not to leave because I knew what was coming my way. She didn’t realize she just started a new world war in the house.
My father took me to the attic where he locked the door while my mother screamed.
“Shut up. I’m just going to talk to her.”
By talking he meant slapping me around and pulling my hair, leaving some of it on the ground. I knew exactly why my mother didn’t open her mouth when the investigators came. We needed my father. Although he didn’t provide much, we still had a place to stay instead of being Gypsies.
Every Sunday, when my father was off from work, my grandma would take me by my hand and walk me across the street in a pace slow enough for her little legs to handle. I was ten years old, old enough to understand the concept of being taken out of the house whenever my father was around. I was being protected from his raging screams and curses. Sitting in Side by Side Pizzeria, biting into the crunchy layers of bread and the feta cheese avalanching into my mouth was unforgettable. My taste buds dance while my mind travels back in time and plays its own movie right in front of me. I saw my five-year-old self sitting in the same seat by the window with Uncle Sammy. This time I shared my experience with his mother, my beautiful grandma.
We always sat in the seat where you can look up and see my mother staring down at us through the apartment window, making sure we were all right. Uncle Sammy assigned me that seat and that is where I always sat. Right in front of me was my grandma, staring at me with thick glasses, which made her eyes look even more serious, making sure not one crumb of feta cheese was left on my plate.
She never seemed to eat with me, which I thought was because she only liked the bureks she made with her bare hands. It took me years to figure out that money was the reason why my grandma didn’t order a burek for herself.
We would chit chat in those straight back chairs that my feet dangled from, as I listened to the amazing stories and life lessons my grandmas loved to tell. Story after story until we got a phone call to come back because my father had left out the house.
My father would abandon us whenever he felt the need to and came back expecting open doors when he felt like it. We didn’t dare kick him out or else all hell would break loose. I feared my father rather than loved him. My father leaving was a financial crisis for us.
He left us with nothing. No money, which led to not paying the bills, which led to the water being cut off, and then less supply of food to feed seven people. But it was better to struggle without him around.
My whole world changed when he left. I became as independent as an adult and I finally was able to express myself without the fear of being howled at. I finally figured out that I shouldn’t be taken advantage of even though at times my mind replayed the irritating voice saying, “You are useless.” That voice became my motivation and pushed me to strive harder. I graduated a year early from high school while working a full time job at Rite Aid, to provide for my mother since she deserved the world and I wanted to do everything in my power for her to have it.
The small, silver bracelet chained around my wrist might seem like just a piece of jewelry to people. However, for me it’s a piece of my father’s heart that he left for me. When I was born my father gave me this bracelet with my name engraved on the front, and “My precious daughter” on the back. I never took it off.
When my father abandoned the family, I realized who he really was and I refused to wear the bracelet. I stuck it in one of my old sweaters and hid it in my closet. I could not love anything about the bracelet anymore. It meant nothing to me, just like the three words engraved in the back of my bracelet meant nothing for my father. My wrist felt naked and missed the feeling of the cold metal dangling off it. I thought I was just being dramatic but days passed and I did not get used to its absence. I couldn’t bear the feeling of losing both the bracelet and my father. I reached into my closet and felt the carving on the bracelet. I clipped it back on my wrist and my wrist felt relieved. Although I sometimes regret getting so attached to the bracelet, I realized that I value this small object and it will always be in my life.
Although my dad left some open wounds, I learned how to make them into scars and use them to my advantage. As scars are visible on skin, my wounds can show on me at times. I’ll start slacking off and withdraw into myself. However, I’ll still be able to see them and grow more than I ever thought I could. “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” This is the quote I will forever hold on to since it helped me change how I viewed the world.
* A.K.N. To all 2020 graduates: we made it. With all hardship comes success! My parents are Palestinian/German but I was born and raised in the Bronx. My goal moving forward will be continuing to learn sign language and open an audiology clinic of my own. For correspondence, Email c/o: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2020 A.K.N. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.
Dominican Runaway/Life in 5BW
Nicole De La Cruz
Nicole de la Cruz’s compelling essay provides an intimate, clear-as-a-bell window into the daily life of her extended Dominican-American family in the Bronx. Her vivid description of life with her aunt and cousins evokes a much larger story. To give a student an assignment and get back such an artful essay is extremely rewarding. Nicole is now a 5th grade teacher.
I called my Aunt Yraida on a Tuesday morning while on my way to school and told her that my mom had kicked me out of the house, and I was going to go stay in her house. This happened a lot. My mom would routinely kick me out when she was annoyed with me, when I didn’t follow her erratic rules, or when she felt she couldn’t control me.
Aunt Yaya would never ask me why I was coming over; she never lectured me. She would always just say "ajaaa" and right away, she’d give me responsibilities. You couldn't stay at Yaya's and do nothing. She didn’t care what your plans were, what your schedule was, or what life you led. If you stayed at her house, there was always something for you to do.
She would generally say, "The kids come out at 3:20." I knew that meant I had to go into big-sister mode, and pick up at least five of my younger cousins at school. They would always be excited to see me, and would go right into catching me up on their lives. So we would walk home telling stories, yelling like lunatics, and laughing. We'd stop by the store, or the pastelito stand, or the ice cream stand, and spend all of our money (usually mine) on snacks.
We'd get to the apartment building and greet our friends the drug dealers, who would stop the kids and ask them how their day went in exchange for a dollar, while flirting with my older cousin and me at the same time. To this day, they are the friendliest, most polite gangsters I’ve ever known. They would even help Yaya take up groceries to her fifth floor walk-up!
Once we got to the fifth floor, if no one forgot their key, we'd fight our way into the three-bedroom apartment for the only bathroom in the house. My older cousin and I would always let the younger ones win this race; but only because we didn’t want to clean up after them if they had an accident while waiting.
Then, routine. We would all start our chores. My older cousin would start cooking, two would clean the bathroom, three would take the bedrooms, and one would sweep and mop. I would help the younger ones do their homework. To avoid the belt, certain things had to be done before Yaya got home at 6 p.m.
Once she arrived, she would inspect. If we got the seal of approval, we’d live. Then, off to eat. A typical meal would be rice with chicken and beans, salad, fried plantains, and avocado. Since I hated most of these foods (I am the pickiest eater in America), my aunt would make me eggs or sausage with rice instead.
After dinner, it was often my job to do the dishes with one of my younger cousins. The rest would be picking out clothes and ironing them for the next day. After all of these routines, we would play Parcheesi, cards, Uno, or Blind Chicken until our telenovela started at 9. Pasión de Gavilanes was about three brothers who posed as laborers to win back the land that had been stolen from them. We would watch as a family in Yaya’s room, and of course, have a detailed discussion after.
Finally, we'd go to our rooms and talk some. But after three bangs on the wall from my godfather who was in the room next door, we’d get ready for bed. Needless to say, we'd all wake up fighting for the bathroom in the morning.
* Nicole De La Cruz graduated from Lehman College with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Education. She is currently a 5th grade teacher in a Christian private school. For correspondence, email: email@example.com
© 2020 Nicole De La Cruz. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited
Fearless from the Fourth-Floor Window
As a child, Delilah Ortiz Hassarath did most of the household chores, but she was beaten and neglected anyway. Delilah was valiant in her writing and turned those painful experiences into clear, artful stories. This essay describes how she often escaped up the fire escape to the roof where she would draw the life she wished she was living. Her story is compelling, not relentless.
Summer in Brooklyn was like a movie. I watched the kids on my street clamor for their vanilla and chocolate swirl cones from the ice cream truck and play with each other in the heat, running, jumping and singing loudly through the splashing water spraying from the hydrant. When night came, I gazed down from the fourth floor window at the children as they played with an everlasting energy, as if they were praying for the day not to end.
For me, I would pray for the night to come as fast as it could, because I couldn’t enjoy what they could. Not even for a moment would I have the pleasure of being a normal kid. I was never allowed to be a part of anything that included a smile, instead, I had the joys of being a house slave and if I were to leave a speck of anything, I would see black, blue and red. Hours and days slowly drifted to emptiness. I felt as if years and centuries had passed before my eyes and I stood there, stuck staring at time in slow motion.
When I was ten years old, I loved adventure and hated being stuck in the house. I would climb out fearless as can be from the fourth-floor window stretching to the left onto the fire escape and on to the roof. I had no fear of falling, the thought never crossed my mind. I jumped from roof to roof, off to my own world to freedom, my little secret spot, where I would draw the places I could imagine, scenes I only saw on television. I watched the sunset, hoping no one would figure out I was not around. All my chores and cleaning were done, the floor was scrubbed completely so they had no reason to look for me. I loved my double-sun and moon drawings, which meant seeing life in a better way. I enjoyed my world with the angels above guiding my every move, the joy of feeling the sun and getting the love I craved filled my heart. At ten, I wasn’t living a normal life, but I sure learned how to love and appreciate it a young age.
* Delilah Ortiz-Hassarath has been studying Healthcare Management at Lehman College while working two jobs and raising her children. She plans to graduate in 2023 and pursue a career as a Registered Nurse. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2020 Delilah Ortiz-Hassarath. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.
Listening to Los Bukis, Over and Over
[Estefania, wearing overalls, and her siblings after they returned to New York.]
Estefania took a rigorous approach to her academic work and her writing. Her classmate, Angel B., praised her writing in his online comments to her:
“I loved reading your memoir. Your introduction was rich and filled with fantastic cultural references and universal appeal. The story about your mother being deported was handled with grace and was heart breaking. That passage flowed wonderfully into your story about your father's motivations towards a better life, and tied into the struggle that you subsequently wrote about. Ultimately, you articulated the theme of loss with a powerful sense of emotion and used dialogue to tie it all together. Fantastic work.”
In December of 2003, my family and I faced our biggest obstacles to date – my mother's deportation.
We were on our way back to New York from our first family road trip to Jalisco, Mexico. It was the first time I had vacationed in my parents’ homeland. I met family members for the first time, made lifelong friends in my parents' village, El Quiringual, and traveled to my favorite place, Guadalajara.
I had the time of my life in Mexico, but sadly, it was time to go back to school. My parents packed all of our belongings, fixed everything in the trunk of my father's pickup truck, and set the alarm to go off at 3 a.m.
In the morning my father tugged on my shoulder. "Levantate mija, ya nos vamos." I was half asleep but somehow I managed to get out of my bed and walked to the truck with my plush blanket in my hand. I knew that the drive to the border would be long, so as soon as I put my seatbelt on, I laid my head on my mother's shoulder and went back to sleep.
The drive to the border took 11 hours. I fell in and out of sleep so often that my mom joked that I was practically dead and that I only woke up for food and to use the restroom.
When we arrived at the border, I remember the clock read 5:18 p.m. We stopped and a border patrol agent asked my father to show him all of our passports. While that agent scanned our passports in the scanner, other agents inspected our car with large guns in their hands. A few more agents arrived, this time with dogs, Belgian Malinois, who walked around the car, sniffing every inch.
The agent who held our passports came to our window and gave my father our passports but told my mother that she needed to go inside for questioning.
"I'll go with you to translate," said my oldest sister, Maria, as the agent opened the door for my mother. Maria was only ten and had been my parents' translator for pretty much anything – parent-teacher conferences, doctor appointments, phone calls, etc. The agent hesitated for a second but agreed to let Maria accompany my mother.
Soon after, one of the agents asked my father to open the trunk of his pickup truck. After noticing lots of items in the trunk they told my father to pull over to the side. While we waited for my mother, four border patrol agents removed everything from our car, inspected and opened our personal suitcases, while the dogs sniffed around our belongings. The agents immediately opened the leaking suitcase that contained the smelly Cotija cheese. They next opened the suitcases that had visible powdery debris. To their surprise, the powder came from Mexican bread called Conchas. My father was also importing Tequila, candy, chips, and cheese to sell -- no drugs or weapons or anything suspicious.
My father explained to us that he had experienced this before. It was a consequence of the 9/11 attacks. The States tightened up its border patrol to prevent future acts of terrorism.
It seemed like hours had gone by before Maria came out of the building crying. My father asked her what was wrong but she couldn't reply. An agent accompanied Maria to the car, and turned to face my father, "Sir, we had to bring your daughter out. She isn't allowed inside. We have a translator on the phone for your wife."
"Where's my wife?" asked my father. He didn't give the agent enough time to reply because as soon as the agent started talking, my father was already running through the door.
While we waited for my parents, the agent tried to console Maria but she wouldn't stop crying.
"What happened Maria? What did they tell you? What did you see," asked my other sister, Cynthia.
"Mom. She was handcuffed. I couldn't go in the room with her but I could see through the little window. I think she did something bad," replied Maria with more tears. Maria was in fifth grade and was probably more aware of the situation than the rest of us kids.
A million thoughts raced through my head. My mother was a good woman. What could she have possibly done to be in the building for so long?
When my parents came out of the building, they thanked the agent for having watched us. They got in the truck, put on their seatbelts and didn't say a word. Finally, we're going home I thought, as my father turned on the car.
"Dad, I think you're going the wrong way," said Maria, as she unwrapped the Snickers bar the agent had given her. Out the window, I saw the sign, "Return to Nuevo Laredo." Why was he driving back? He had just driven for 11 hours to get to the border. This makes no sense, I thought.
"Did you forget something," I asked. "No," he replied and turned on the music to his Mexican rancheras. The music was loud, the kind of loud that made the body vibrate with every beat. "Can you lower the music? Junior is trying to sleep," said Cynthia as she rolled her eyes. My father ignored her. He didn't say a word.
The next few hours we spent listening to the same CD by my father's favorite band, Los Bukis, over and over – a CD that was probably older than me. Every song they sang was either about love or heartbreak. And after we listened to the album in its entirety the first two times, I memorized some of the lyrics. "Yo te necesito, a cada momento solo pienso en ti…," I hummed ("I need you. At all moments I only think of you”). But no matter how much I hummed the songs, the car ride was still boring.
I turned around and saw that Maria had her headphones on and was listening to her own CD player, Cynthia was writing in her diary, probably about how she was still mad that my father had not lowered the music, and my younger brother, Rafael, was sleeping soundly despite the loud music. Letting out a slight sigh, I adjusted myself in my seat and stared ahead. I saw nothing but the road in front of us – a road that seemed vast and endless. My father focused on driving and my mother stared out the window. I suddenly realized that my mother hadn't said a word since the border patrol agent brought her back to the car. She wasn’t her usual self. She was expressionless, she was quiet, distant. It was as if being at the border had sucked the life out of her and left her empty. Empty like the road before us.
Every minute of that ride back to El Quiringual felt like an eternity. I couldn’t listen to the same CD or sit still for one more second. Only five hours into the journey back and I was on the verge of losing my mind. I tapped my mother on the shoulder and asked her why we were going back to Mexico. Her eyes became glossy and, I knew she was holding back tears. My mother didn't answer my question, but she grabbed my hand in hers. She squeezed my hand as a tiny drop fell from her eye and landed on her cheek. With my free hand, I wiped the tear away. She didn't answer my question. I laid my head on her shoulder and not long after, I finally fell asleep.
In the late '70s, my father left his homeland for a better future for his family. He left behind what he knew to discover a land completely unknown to him. All he knew was that America was full of opportunities, had a great education system and that he wanted the famous “American Dream.”
My father's decision to immigrate to the United States wasn't just spontaneous; it was fueled by various factors and consisted of months of deliberation. Political turmoil in Mexico, mainly government corruption, increasing and the lack of a stable economy were main factors.
Jobs were scarce and only given to those who had some level of education or had learned a trade. Thus, it is no surprise that my father, along with other immigrants from Mexico, decided to embark on a treacherous journey to the United States in search of better opportunities.
My father was born on October 21st, 1964, in a small town known as Cotija de la Paz, Michoacán, Mexico. He grew up in a household of 15; he had 12 siblings and his two parents. His father, my grandfather, was never around. My grandfather traveled between the United States and Mexico, spending the majority of his time in the States. When my grandfather returned to Mexico, he would impregnate my grandma and then returned to the United States to "work." My father's older siblings grew tired of their living situation; my grandfather sent them little to no money. From a young age, they had the responsibility of providing for a growing family, which caused some of my father's siblings to drop out of school to look for jobs. They had to find jobs in the neighboring fields, which proved to be a difficult task since no one wanted to hire minors; if they did hire children, they required the minors to have some sort of higher education or a special skill – both of which my family members did not have. My father's oldest siblings grew angry and frustrated. They were angry that my grandfather spent most of his money on his friends and other children that weren't his own. Slowly, my father's brothers began leaving Mexico and crossing over to the United States.
As each sibling crossed over, my father's responsibility to provide for his family increased. My father eventually dropped out of school in 6th grade to look for a job. He wanted to be able to buy his younger siblings toys (they didn't own any) so that they wouldn't have to ask other children to borrow theirs. My father tried for months but was unsuccessful at finding a job; he either lacked the education required or was too young to even be hired. One day, my father spoke to my Uncle Jose, who resided in California, and was convinced to relocate to the United States. My Uncle Jose explained to my father that there were plenty of jobs in California and that he could stay with him while my father settled in. Then, at the age of 14, my father's oldest brother, Juan Luis, sent my father enough money so that he could cross the border.
My father's first journey to California in the summer of 1978 lasted three days. My father has described his experience as "the worst days of his life." Along with ten complete strangers, he had to walk the "desert of death" as my father calls it. Before crossing the border, the group was advised that they could only bring a few items with them; most chose to only carry their gallon of water and leave their belongings behind.
Originally, the trip was only supposed to last a few hours, a day at most. However, the trip was interrupted when the group heard a helicopter overhead. My father recalls that that night they arrested three people who were in his group, one of these people had been the person crossing them. Scared, tired, and hungry, my father and the remaining few walked through the desert hoping to find the vehicles that were scheduled to pick them up. They walked and walked, sometimes in circles. No one had any idea where they were going. They continued like this for another day, unsuccessful. The third day came and most had given up. They were fatigued, hungry, dehydrated. My father encouraged the others, he told them that he believed that they were close. And they were. A few hours after walking west, my father came across another group of strangers. Luckily, these people knew where they were headed and took my father's group along. The cars picked them up and the individuals were taken to their final destination, California.
My father eventually brought my mother to the United States a year after they were married in December of 1991. My father, along with his siblings, was motivated to cross country lines in an attempt to provide for his family, for a better future, and a stable income. Since having immigrated, my parents have learned to assimilate to a new culture, a new language, and an entirely new life.
My siblings and I stayed with our mother while my father returned to New York and tried to fix my mother's immigration status.
Living in Mexico was hard on my siblings and me, especially my mother. My mother had been married to my father for 12 years and had never been apart from him for more than a few days.
I was confused when my father dropped us off at my grandmother's house in El Limon instead of our house in El Quiringual, Jalisco. It was about 9 a.m. when my father dropped off our suitcases, kissed us goodbye and drove off. We didn't see him for another eight months.
"Is he coming back, mom? Why didn't he drop off his suitcases too?" asked Cynthia. "Yes, he'll be back soon," replied my mother as she tried to keep her composure. My grandmother Esperanza escorted us inside her house and showed us where we would stay. My sisters and I shared one room, while my mother and brother shared another. My grandmother's house was enormous. It had six bedrooms, had two full bathrooms and a guesthouse. It was a sharp contrast from our small apartment in New York that had only one bathroom, and no space to play.
The first day at my grandmother's house was fun. I roamed the property, curious to see what I would find. I walked for about five minutes from the house and found a pig sty. My grandmother raised pigs in her backyard! A few yards away, I heard the chickens and roosters. I'm going to have so much fun feeding the animals, I thought. I ran back to the house to ask my grandmother if I could feed them but stopped before reaching the kitchen. I heard my mother crying. She told my grandmother that she wasn't sure how long we would stay; that my father had to fix her legal issues before we could go back to New York. What problems could she possibly have?
For the next few weeks, my mother barely spoke. She waited by the phone for hours, waiting to see if my father would call with good news. He didn’t. My mother’s eyes would light up with a tinge of hope, but that would disappear just as fast as it appeared. Whenever he called it was just to let my mother know that he had sent us money, to ask how we were doing, and to tell us that he missed us. Every time my father called, I would hear my mom cry at night.
When my father called us, my siblings and I would run to the phone to see who would pick it up. I was always the slowest. My father asked us about school, he asked us how we liked Mexico, and he would tell us that we would be back in New York in no time. My father called every week. But after a few months of telling us the same thing, I began to question him. I felt as though my father had abandoned us. He continued to call religiously every week but I wouldn’t speak to him. I resented him for leaving us in Mexico and for making my mother cry.
My father had to work extra hours in his landscaping business so that he could afford the immigration lawyer and also to send us money. My mother’s case was hard to win, but with a good lawyer and five thousand dollars out of my father's pockets, my father accomplished it. In total, I lived in Mexico for eight months and even graduated from the first grade there.
After years of battling my mother’s immigration status, she was granted residency in the United States on November 2008.
* Estefania Valencia graduated from Lehman College in 2019 with a BS in Chemistry. She currently works in a Virology lab at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, which focuses on understanding the entry mechanisms of several viruses. She plans to pursue a career as a medical scientist. Email: ESTEFANIA285@gmail.com
© 2020 Estefania Valencia. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.
Because You Loved Me
A.P. soldiered through to write this essay – it is a triumph to write so clearly and artfully about such trauma. She’s also a memorably warm person who helped create a cohesive atmosphere in the class by offering supportive comments to the other students and organizing a group bowling trip.
There she was lying on the floor, back against the wall, legs straight out as she was ready to let go. My mom held a piece of glass to her neck. I cried, begging her to put it down.
"Momma, don't do it. Momma please don't do it." I thought to myself that day, if I lose my momma then my life would never be the same. My Dad has hurt her and now emotionally he has hurt me too.
I had been very close to my father. He was my best-friend and my teacher. But he turned from my best friend to my worst nightmare.
I remember having a beautiful struggle. Mom got back with Dad after his disappearing act when she gave birth to me. I was around six years old when we got a comfortable apartment and my mother adopted one of her family members, Coco. Coco’s parents weren’t stable enough to take care of her so Mom took her in. She was five years older than me, taller, lighter, and had really long Pocahontas hair that I enjoyed playing with.
I knew Coco very well even before she moved in. She lived upstairs from us with Auntie Sheryl. Coco and I were destined to be sisters before God ever made it official. She would watch me when Mom couldn’t. We had experienced and witnessed so many things that were hard to see. Because Coco was always a part of my rough childhood, I never felt alone. She was there when I first fell off my bike down a steep hill and when a bully threw bleach in my eyes and the doctors thought I would never see again. But there was more drama when we caught Dad putting stacks of crispy 100 dollar bills wrapped in aluminum foil into the deep freezer.
I was young at the time and didn't know why he did it but I did know for sure he was hiding it from someone. My first thought was, “Oh My Gosh my Daddy’s rich,” I never said a word to Mom until one day she was cooking Sunday dinner for us and I heard her slam the pot on the stove saying, “Lord, why must he keep on doing this!!” Every time Momma talked to God it was either something really good or something really bad. And this time it was bad. Coco and I ran to see what mom was so angry about. She had opened up the aluminum foil and had a stack of $100 crisp bills in her hand.
She stormed out of the house without a coat. It was cold that night and all Momma had on was a silk nighty that was short enough to see her panties. We screamed and begged for her to get back in before anyone saw her. Thankfully no one did. Mom threw the money into the garbage while Dad was hollering over the phone that it was fifty-grand. She informed him that she was throwing it away. Dad came quicker for that money then he would do for any of us.
When we moved to our new apartment, all of Dad's bad habits eventually had to end. Mom couldn't keep bailing him out of jail. So in order for the relationship to work again, she decided that it was best for her to get a job while Dad stayed home and watched over me and Coco.
Dad always made sure the house was cleaned, chores and homework were done, and my sister and I would get in the shower by 7:30 pm so we could get our butts to bed by 8. Mom sometimes worked day and night so we didn't get to see her much. The tables had now flipped. The more days we spent with Dad the closer we got to him. The fewer days we spent with mom the more distant we became.
Waking up felt like boot-camp. Not only on school days; we had to wake up at 7 a.m. Saturdays too. Mom was off on Sundays so Coco and I could sleep longer. Dad would cook his butt off and breakfast was his best. Dad sometimes would over fill us to the point that we couldn't eat anymore, but he refused to let us leave the table without finishing our plates. If we did, we would get a whooping.
One time Coco and I were eating dinner and she didn't finish her food so she shoved all her food onto my plate begging for me to eat it. I was at the kitchen table all alone with both, my food and hers, staring at the plate like it was going to eat itself. I couldn't even finish mine. How in the world would I be able to finish hers? As bad as I wanted to snitch her out, I didn't. My dad wasn't the nicest, he lacked sympathy, so when he said don't move he meant it. Dad was pacing back and forth through the kitchen to see if I was done, his rolled up blunt in his hand. He took a pull and said in his strong Jamaican accent, “Yu betta finish yuh plate dem, if yuh don't den u affi stay deh.” He was saying if I don't finish my plate then I will have to stay there.
“Wake up!!” Momma said. I noticed my mom as I picked my face up from the pile of food. She was confused and worried. I was also worried and didn't even know I had fallen asleep. She told me it was 1a.m. in the morning and that I needed to go into my bed. I remember crying because I was scared that if I moved from my seat I would get hit from my father. But she noticed the fear in my eyes and she would save me from the whooping.
A few months later mom got pregnant and Coco moved out. Mom later found out that she was having another girl. I was excited not because I was going to be a big sister but because mom would stay home with us more. Dad always wanted boys but God gave him girls.
Dad wasn’t the nicest but he was very intelligent and loved money more than he ever loved himself, kids or his woman. Although Dad was the biggest dealer ever, he was also very skillful in other things. He was great in math, did carpentry, retailing, and is a great driver. He had the mind of an artist. He could draw a house and then build one from the ground up just like it. My Dad helped renovate houses for families. I remember going with him to work one day and a lady came up to me saying how lucky of a daughter I am to have a father like him.
He became great friends with someone who eventually helped him get a job with Bellevue Hospital in downtown Manhattan where he transported blood to other hospitals.
Dad was now the provider again and Mommy was the home parent. Things went so well although Coco moved out. I was Mommy’s little worshipper and I enjoyed every little moment of it until one day we got an uninvited guest. Mom’s feet were swollen and I had to get the door. I remember getting the foot stool so I could step on it to reach and look through the peep hole. As I looked into the peep hole there were three girls conversing loudly with rapid body movements. I opened the door and they asked, “Where is your Mom?” I pointed at the direction of the room that she was in and they barged in without even asking to come in. I was scared for my life and for mom’s. I ran behind them. I realized from Mom’s face that she didn’t know them. They started cursing at her asking her questions.
“WHERE IS TONY? HE NEEDS TO COME SEE HIS DAUGHTER OR ELSE IM GOING TO PUT HIM ON CHILD SUPPORT!!”
“I don’t know where he is. Please don’t hurt my child or me; I’m pregnant.” Mom continued to hold and protect her stomach.
“THIS BITCH IS PREGNANT AGAIN,” one of the ladies said to the other one.
“YOU LUCKY YOUR ASS IS PREGNANT, BUT IF YOU SEE TONY MAKE SURE YOU GIVE HIM MY MESSAGE.”
I started to cry after they left. I knew I was in big trouble. In grief, I thought if I hadn’t opened that door none of this would’ve happened. But because I did, truth had been revealed.
Dad had now become my enemy. I happened to have a sister I didn’t even know about. Mom and Dad were together for as long as I could remember. How in the world did my Dad find time to make another child? Is this the reason why he’d been away for so long? To see the tears falling down my mother’s face asking God how could he have done this to her, showed how hurt and disappointed she was. My mom had been nothing but good to this man and he just continued to hurt her pure soul.
She waited that night and somehow got out of the bed with her swollen feet for him. She paged him on the beeper but he never called right away. Hours later Dad buzzed the door from the lobby and less than a minute rang our apartment door bell. Mom stood there shaking not with fear but with anger. Her face was red; her hands were balled up into a fist. She opened the door pulled him in and started kicking and punching him. They always fought but with the advantage of her being pregnant, this time she won. He screamed begging for her to stop and so she did. Mom then walked to the living room and strained but successfully picked up the fish tank and threw it at him. I didn’t know where any of this strength came from especially if she was supposed to be resting. But I guess when a woman is fed up, she’s fed up for real. I remember looking at the two fishes named after my parents, flopping on the floor. I was a child and although I saw what was happening between my mom and dad I thought about my fish too. So I filled a bag with water and picked those fishes up with my bare hands to save them.
Dad left and Mom was still there, on the wet floor. She screamed at me and told me to not come out into the hallway because of all the broken glass. I was hardheaded but smart at the same time. I didn’t listen to her. I got some slippers out my room and still went anyways to help her.
Bang, bang!!! “OPEN UP!! It’s water everywhere in my apartment.”
Linda, from downstairs was at our front door. The door was already unlocked, but I knew if I had opened the door my mom probably would have slit her throat. Linda kept knocking then eventually turned the door knob. She instantly knew something was wrong and closed the door behind her. It almost looked as if mom gave birth that’s how flooded the house was. Linda knelt down at my mom and said “WHATEVER IT IS, ISNT WORTH IT... Give me the glass” (mom had it facing towards her neck). Mom refused and held the broken glass so tightly in her hand; she started to bleed a little. Linda screamed and said “DO IT FOR YOUR DAUGHTER GOD DAMMIT!! SHE IS SCARED.” Mom looked at me and dropped the broken piece. Linda called 911 and said that she needed help. After my mother had dropped the glass, Linda still called the cops. I didn’t understand that what I was witnessing wasn’t healthy. An ambulance came and took her. Linda asked me do I know any family member that would come and get me, I quickly responded “Grandpa!” He would come for me in a heartbeat.
My grandfather was the ideal father in my eyes. I stayed with him and his wife while mom was still in the hospital. I got dressed one time because I was going to leave and find momma on my own. Grandpa gave me anything I asked for, but said “no” when it came to questions about my mom. I cried every night. He said she never called but I knew it was lies because I overheard them say on the phone that she couldn’t see me because she wasn’t well.
Being with my grandfather was great and all but it was nothing like being with my mother. One time I stayed by the front door of his house thinking she would walk in. But she never did come. Grandpa handed me his radio, explaining that it was a gift from his brother who had died from lung cancer. I remember only meeting my Great Uncle-Larry once. That was his favorite brother and he cherished that. Uncle Larry told him that if he was feeling down just play the radio it would make you feel a lot better.
I sat by the door with the radio in my hand that night in the same position my mother was in when she was ready to take her life. I played with the buttons trying to find a station that was clear until I got frustrated and put it down by my side. Then I heard a woman sing,
“You were my strength when I was weak
You were my voice when I couldn’t speak
You were my eyes when I couldn’t see
You saw the best there was in me
Lifted me up when I couldn’t reach
You gave me faith ‘cause you believed
I’m everything I am
Because you loved me….”
I cried because I understood. I ran to Grandpa’s room. I knew it was late at night but I didn’t care. I kissed him up. I begged and begged him to buy the CD for me that sang. I didn’t know what her name was but good thing I remembered the words so I sang it to him and he told me her name was Celine Dion. I made a promise to myself that I would practice that very song over and over and sing it to my mother and unborn baby sister. He agreed and said he would get it first thing in the morning. I was so happy.
Riding in Grandpa’s station wagon I felt a sense of ease. Moodies Record (cd store); had tons of cds everywhere, and posters on the wall. I followed Grandpa through the aisle and there she was, a beautiful white woman with gracious god given eyes. I couldn’t wait to get back to Grandpa House so I could listen to it and sing along with it over and over. Grandpa had a cassette radio in his car so I couldn’t even listen to it in there if I wanted to.
I noticed we drove in a different area. There the happiness just suddenly stopped it. Grandpa got out of the car and I saw my father. I was nervous as heck thinking was this Grandpa’s nice way of throwing me off back to my Dad’s (he bought the CD for me now he’s dropping me off to a man who hurt my mom and who had another child. Oh no.) I just couldn’t have gone back. I was prepared to fight. I wasn’t going to let him leave me with ease.
I tried hard to not jump to conclusions so I rolled down the window just enough to see if I could hear. Dad said, “She’s in labor right now. She’s ready to give birth.” I was confused because I knew that pregnancy was nine months and mom was only six months. I’m like, how could this be? I was young so I thought the earlier the better. Dad didn’t get in the car but he did wave goodbye.
Back at the house I took off my shoes and ran upstairs. At first I had trouble opening the cd, but with the help of my pointy, long, sharp nails I ripped the plastic open. I put it in Grandpa’s wife’s CD player and went to track # 2. It had a different start to it than when I listened to it the first time but I went along with the melody and played it over and over until I got the song. Grandpa came up the stairs and looked at me and started to laugh. I couldn’t hear him because of the headphones I had on, but I knew he was laughing the way his belly shook. He walked to his room as I spun around like a ballerina. I sang and sang with my squeaky voice until I eventually fell asleep.
Next morning, I felt different. I almost forgot that the pain was still there. The phone rang and this time I ran for it. I knew I wasn’t supposed to pick it up without my Grandfather’s permission but I had a strange feeling that it was Momma calling. I was right. “Hi Mommy, is it true? Is it true? Is Peaches finally here?” I nagged. “Baby girl there’s no Peaches.” Then there was a steady dial tone. Momma hung up and I was confused. I couldn’t call back. Grandpa was sitting on the recliner reading his newspaper he told me to come join him because he needed to speak to me.
“A---, sometimes bad things happen to good people, but what I’m about to tell you isn’t going to be easy…..Peaches died, the doctors couldn’t save both of them it was either your mom or her.” My chest was pumping as I tried to suck up all the air in me. At six years old this wasn’t something you wanted hear, but I heard it. I blamed my father after this one. His stupidity caused my mother’s depression and therefore she lost my sister.
After the miscarriage, my mother was in the psychiatric facility for quite some time. She eventually got better and came home. I knew that she was suffering inside so I wanted to do something to make her feel better. I got her attention by putting the Celine Dion cd on and sang “Because You Loved Me.” As I was close to done, Mommy ran to the bathroom. She came out with a tissue in her hand and squeezed me tight saying, “Thank you, thank you. I haven’t felt like this in a long time.” I knew she meant “happy.” And I had given her that. ____________________________________________________________
* A.P. graduated from Lehman College in 2019 with a degree in Psychology. Correspondence should be sent c/o Email: email@example.com.
© 2020 A.P. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.