Living in Bushwick

I loved New York. The screeching subways, the sidewalk Mariachi band members wearing shoes made of real alligators, the shopping in SOHO, the twenty dollar drinks at the hole-in-the-wall pubs, and the high-paying jobs by Midwest standards, the good, the great, and the crazy: I loved it all, at least for the moment.

Our first place in New York was a railroad style apartment, which means one room follows the next in a very open style, long and narrow. The apartment had end-to-end original pine floors, exposed brick, twenty-foot ceilings, and it sat on a slant. Like such a bad slant that round things often rolled from one end of the kitchen to the other. The tile in the bathroom had little pink roses on it and was probably the worst feature of our apartment at first glance, other than the four kitchen cabinets we had to cram our things into.

Bushwick, where we lived, was predominantly a Hispanic area renamed East Williamsburg to gentrify it and attract more young, white people. I liked Bushwick better. East Williamsburg mocked the hipster-friendly Williamsburg, where posh restaurants shared walls with dive bars and boutique clothing stores, nestled under the famous blue Williamsburg Bridge. My neighborhood wasn’t anything like Williamsburg.

We bought our vegetables and fruits from cash-only stands on the side of the street. We walked our dog through Maria Hernandez Park where guys played handball and girls watched from outside the court, laughing and chatting. Hands slapped balls, sending them thumping into the cement wall. Back and forth, they played all day long. Sneakers squeaked. Dogs barked. Upbeat Hispanic music blared from boom boxes. 

A thin, elderly man with leathery brown skin who often perched himself on the stoop next to ours became my first New York friend. He always smelled like tequila and cigarettes. Originally from Puerto Rico, he vowed to teach me Spanish. 

“Say hola.”

“Oh-la?”

“Spanish for hello.” He nodded and pulled a Marlboro Red from his linen shirt pocket.

“Hola!”

He struck a match against the brick building and lit his cigarette, taking a long, slow drag. “Muy bien,” he said through a cloud of smoke. He reminded me of a gangster from an old movie: so cool without trying.

More often than not, he told me stories about Bushwick.

“They used to call this street Vietnam,” he said. “Garbage cans with fires in the middle of the street. Drugs. Killings. Muy mal.” 

“Moo-ey mal?” 

“Very bad.”

“I see.” I tried to imagine the streets of my new neighborhood on fire, but I couldn’t. Instead, I saw a stream of people walking by. Some on their way to work, others out shopping or on their way to the bodega: hard-working, middle-class folks trying to make it in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Dreams can come true in New York if your skin is thick enough.“Why’d you stay?” I asked. 

He shrugged and squinted his eyes toward the park. “It’s mi casa.”

Photo courtesy of Niv Rosenberg on Unsplash

Advertisements

Sticky Notes

I bought some sticky notes today, a lesson I learned from Mom.

***

When I was in my early twenties, she worked ten-hour shifts as a hospice nurse. Before that, she worked in the Transitional Care Unit as the Activities Director playing balloon volleyball and chair yoga with sick folks. And before that, she folded and stocked women’s clothes at a discount clothing store. Even earlier, she was the night manager at Video Connection where she got to bring home life-size cutouts of Dick Tracey and Roger Rabbit. Mom worked hard.

She also attended every home varsity basketball game so she could watch me dance, and every football game to see my sister twirl her flag. For dance competitions she made matching bows for all my teammates.

Our tiny house would have been in shambles had Mom not managed it with the precision of a surgeon. She swept the floors twice daily, folded my stepdad’s shit-stained underwear into perfect squares, hand-washed the dishes to a pristine shine, and often she yelled.

Her temper short-circuited daily. She ripped the phone cord from the wall after I dragged it into the bathroom to talk friends one too many times. She threw bills into the air, chain-smoked her menthol light one hundreds, and cried.

She cried too much, but I didn’t know how to stop it.

My mother’s mother and father had both died, so she put everything she had into us, her job, and the house on Custer Drive to keep herself busy. But she wasn’t great at delegating chores, or maybe we just refused to listen to her. I would rummage through the pantry for pretzels and Pop-Tarts, forgetting to close the cabinet and leaving a trail of crumbs that led to the couch. Jim would leave his dirty dishes on the living room end table and used undershirts balled up in the corner of the bathroom floor next to his wet towels. My sister never filled the toilet paper when she emptied it. Instead, she ’d rest the new roll on top of the old. Just writing all this stuff makes me cringe.

This lack of respect and help went on for as long as I can remember, until one otherwise normal day when I walked in from the bus stop two long blocks away, seventeen and too lazy to get my license. I tossed my backpack in the middle of the living room floor next to one of our three miniature Lhasa Apsos, and bent to rub her belly. That’s when the first note stuck to a case on top of the DVD player came into the corner of my vision. Put away after watching. “Huh?”

I stood and walked into the kitchen, at the time decorated with flying geese, Mom’s latest kitchen craze. In the midst of all the geese, yellow notes with permanent marker scribbled on them clung to everything. Throw me away after you drink me on the milk inside the fridge. Don’t leave me open on the pantry cupboard door, and don’t leave your junk here on the counter, cluttered with unpaid bills.

In the bathroom, replace me when empty above the wooden toilet paper holder and flush me on the toilet with the cracked seat.

Take things up with you on the steps, next to my pile of clean clothes. 

“My mom has lost it,” I whispered. But before finding her, I reconsidered my decision to drop my crap in the living room, jogged back to grab it, then scooped up a pile of clothes on my way upstairs and placed them on my unmade bed.

“Mom?” I hollered.

“In here,” she called from her bedroom, the room next to mine.

I found her clipping hot rollers into her hair in the master bath, a cloud of smoke surrounding her and a cigarette burning in the filled ashtray on the back of the toilet.

“Where are you going?”

“Out for dinner with Dad,” she said, smearing burgundy lipstick across her lips.”

“On a date?” They never went out. Especially on school nights.

“Yes. A date.” She added mascara to her eyes, applied some rouge to her cheeks. “You’ll watch your sister. We won’t be long. I need some…time.”

“You okay?”

“Yep. Just great. Why?” Mom sprayed a bit of perfume.

“Oh, you know…the yellow notes. They’re everywhere.”

“Those? Oh, nope. Just tired of yelling.”

Photo by G. Crescoli on Unsplash

Teenage Escape Plan

I woke to warm, gooey air smothering me even though the ceiling fan was spinning on high. Dangling lightpulls smacked and banged the glass globe with each rotation of the blades. The base of the fan swayed and groaned, ready to jump from its screws in the drywall any second.

I blinked, trying to focus on my alarm clock. One forty-five. No doubt everyone in my house was sleeping: Dad on the couch with the remote resting in his hand, Mom in her room, reading glasses still on her nose, and my sister here or at a friend’s. Mom was more lenient with her. First daughters always have it the worst.

Moonlight seeped between the tree branches and into my bedroom window, providing the only light. Clothes were strewn about in piles on the floor. I rolled my eyes because Mom would make me clean them up tomorrow.

Until then, they would stay in heaps.

I spent hours buttering breadsticks and cooking pasta at work all day. And the day before. And almost every day since I turned sixteen. I had to pay for my own sneakers and shampoo unless I wanted what Mom could afford to buy.

Anxious and unable to return to sleep, I tossed the sheets onto the floor with the rest of the mess.

I glanced outside my second-floor window. It reminded me of a photo: so still and quiet. Below, blades of grass held their breath. Above, Stars burned brilliantly. I wanted to be part of it instead of sitting in my sticky room, to climb outside and get some fresh air.

I pulled the screen out – the cheap, removable one Dad bought because mine got ripped away in a thunderstorm. I had never been on the roof before. The excitement made my heart hammer in my chest so loud I worried that someone else might hear it. They can’t. They’re sleeping.

I stepped through the window and sat on the shingled porch awning. It scraped against my legs like sandpaper, so I curled them into my chest, using my bare feet as stability against the decline.

Street lamps illuminated the gray pavement, making it shine like the silver moon. Thin shadows crept between them, swelling into giants.

I could see the end of the block in both directions. I looked left, then right. In the distance, the neighbor’s Caddie swerved back and forth toward me. His headlights danced, his tires grumbled. His car came to an abrupt stop in front of his house, one tire on the curb, and he staggered out, likely drunk again. He slammed his car door shut, piercing a hole in the quiet, jingled his keys, and stumbled inside.

Silence returned.

A thought to climb off the roof and run entered my mind. To where? I didn’t know. To do what? No clue. What would Mom say? I knew If anyone caught me, I’d get grounded. Or maybe they wouldn’t even miss me.

Whatever.

I turned over on my belly to shimmy feet-first to the edge.

I needed the corner of the roof where the twisty iron rod connected the porch floor to the ceiling. I knew if I could find those supports, I could lower myself down it like a ladder. I would be free, at least for a little while.

So, I wiggled and inched along with sweat beads forming on my forehead. I looked over my shoulder and a rush of excitement swelled my chest. I looked at my toes, inches from the edge and my skin tingled from the danger.

Then I thought about climbing back up the iron posts and scaling the roof. I thought again about Dad or Mom waking. I thought about someone seeing me; a neighbor who would tattle, or a stranger who would hurt me. I thought about falling and being alone, barefoot and broken on my driveway. I looked back at my window, then down at the street, and back at the window once more.

I got to my hands and knees and crawled like the child I was back toward the house. I slipped inside and secured my screen back in its place, holding air deep within my lungs. I gathered the sheets from my floor and laid in bed, smoothing them over my dirty knees.

I closed my eyes, knowing how close I was. In the moment, it was more than enough.

Photo courtesy of Thom Oudhuis/Unsplash

Ashes to Ashes

The cliff juts out below like razor blades slicing up the angry water. I kick a rock over the edge.

I hate this place. You didn’t.

I pull the cardboard box from my jacket and choke back tears.

All we have left are memories.

I open the box and dump the contents on the place you proposed. When I do, a breeze blows in. The ashes fall lightly on me. I smile.

Perhaps even now you will never leave my side.

***

Photo courtesy of Stocksnap.io.

In response to this week’s microprose challenge over at Yeah Write.

Grandpa’s Garden

Before his stroke, Grandpa was my favorite. I would sit on his belly, round like Santa’s, and ask him if the battery above his heart hurt. I’d lightly press my fingers against the square shape protruding from his chest, and Grandpa would smile wide, toothlessly.

“Naw, Baby Girl. That’s my ticker,” he’d say. I imagined a tiny clock inside his chest, sort of like the Tin Man.

Grandpa was a self-proclaimed botanist, without using so many words. He planted tomatoes and other vegetables, mostly for canning to keep Grandma and him fed through the harsh winter months when the junkyard didn’t need his help sorting metals. I used to walk behind him. I watched Grandpa whisper to his green babies and touch the leaves carefully. He taught me about them, but I can’t remember his lessons.

After my grandpa’s stroke, between first and second grade, we moved in with my grandparents. They owned a duplex, and we lived on the second floor so my mom could care for him.

There were times I wanted to climb back on his belly, but Grandpa’s new oxygen tank made my belly do flips. I thought I could catch whatever was making him so sick. If I get too close, I’ll need one of those tubes in my nose too.

I don’t have a single picture of the stairs in my grandparents’ house, but I remember them perfectly in my mind: hand carved wood painted the same shade of red as fallen leaves just before they turn brown and crumble. I wasn’t allowed to play outside, so when I wanted to get away from everyone I would sit on the landing. I could hear my mom on the phone above and my grandparents’ television below. I sat there playing with dolls or staring at the cracks and chips in the yellow walls pretending they were a part of a roadmap to someplace magical where Grandpa wasn’t ill.

His ticker stopped that autumn. I was in school when it happened. He was there when I left and gone when I got home, crumbled and blown away with the leaves.

All I kept thinking was that I didn’t get a chance to hug him once more, or to really listen to his lessons.

This year, I planted an herb and vegetable garden. It’s nothing like Grandpa’s, small in comparison. I thought about him while I was out there with my hands in the dirt. I touched the plants with care like he used to. Small bits of food have managed to grow, regardless of my natural knack for killing anything green. Although, some of them are limp, hanging on for dear life. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, or right for that matter. If only I could remember what he taught me.

If only we had more time.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Over Breakfast

Eat her pancakes (no butter, how you like). Devour every fluffy bite doused in sticky maple syrup from Vermont. Savor the crunch of bacon, barely burnt around the edges. Drink two glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice.

Once your plate is barren, admit it’s over.

Smile, walking out the door.

Photo courtesy of Brigitte Tohm/Unsplash

***

This is in response to this month’s microprose challenge at Yeah Write. Interested? Go over at give it a go! Voting starts at 10pm tonight =)

Flight of the Monarch

I was asleep on a bench outside my mom’s hospice room when someone startled me awake by lightly tapping me on the shoulder. It was Easter morning five years ago. I opened my eyes and saw my dad’s best friend hovering over me. He said nothing, but the sadness in his eyes told me everything I needed to know.

My mom died.

My knees knocked together and stomach acid raced up the back of my parched throat. As I put my feet on the floor, the ground swayed, so I half-stumbled, half-ran down the hall to my mom’s room. I pushed my way past twenty somber faces, stopping between my sister and my aunt.

I stood over my mom’s body and waited impatiently for her next breath to come. Waited for her chest to rise and fall. Waited for movement of any kind, but nothing happened. Her body was still, too still. Minutes passed and I knew that there wouldn’t be another exhale from her cancer-stricken body.

The vice around my throat and the fist against my gut forbade me from breathing. And I couldn’t hear anything except for my heart thudding against my ribcage. Then there was the sudden ringing in my ears. Or was that my imagination? I couldn’t tell. My mind was scattered. Nothing was real and everything was wrong. 

The walls of the hospice room spun around me and the ringing in my ears intensified. It was too much too handle, so I screamed. I grabbed my sister and together we tumbled onto the icy tile. I gripped the back of her head, holding a handful of her silky hair. “It’s just not fair!” I shouted. I buried my head in the crook of her neck, rocking us back and forth. “Not fair,” I repeated in a whisper.

My entire world was crumbling around me like rubble after an earthquake. I would never again hear my mom’s voice, see her dance, or smell her perfume. She was gone. Gone forever and I couldn’t make any sense of why. Why her? Why would God take such a beautiful soul? Why would He cut her life short? My mind was grasping for the answers to questions that I’ll never understand. 

After four long years of chemotherapy and weeks of knowing the end was near, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I don’t know if anything could’ve prepared me enough for her death.

Later, when the tears finally stopped falling I mopped myself off of the floor and went outside to collect what was left of my sanity. I looked up to dry my cheeks under the April sun.
It was the kind of spring day that was warm enough for a light jacket and open windows. My mom loved days like those: where the breeze would gently blow her hair around, where we could work in her garden without breaking a sweat, or swing on her porch drinking lukewarm coffee and talking about whatever crossed our minds.

It was the kind of day my mom would have hand-picked as her last.

I looked at my sister, the only person in the entire world who understood exactly how I felt in that moment, standing beside me. Her face was tightly drawn and her vacant eyes stared at some point in the distance, but she said nothing. I wanted to be strong for her because that’s what big sisters are supposed to do and that’s what my mom would have wanted, but I couldn’t be strong. I was much more unraveled than she looked.

I took a deep breath in through my nose and closed my eyes. It smelled of fresh-cut grass and pond water. I exhaled and opened my eyes to see three Monarch butterflies fluttering in the distance. My mouth tugged at half a smile, because they reminded me of a lesson my mom had once taught me.

In second grade, my teacher brought in small caterpillars for the class to have as pets. We raised them, fed them, and cared for them. The caterpillars eventually wrapped themselves in a chrysalis, went through metamorphosis, and turned into colorful winged creatures.

On the last day of school, we released them back to nature and I was heartbroken that I would never again see them. After school, I ran off the bus, down the street, and into my mom’s arms. She held me tight. Then she wiped my tears and said, “oh, sweetie, setting them free was a good thing. Butterflies have to spread their wings and fly. They will never be truly happy while trapped in a cage.”

My mom wasn’t much different than those butterflies. Sickness caged her, preventing her from a career she loved. It kept her on a regimented twice-monthly chemotherapy schedule that she despised. The constant debilitating pain drained her energy and made it hard for her to remain hopeful for recovery.

It may sound crazy, but I believe those Monarchs were a message from her. Cancer and pain and chemotherapy couldn’t hold onto my mom anymore. Yes, I would grieve. I would scream and punch and curse because she wasn’t there on solid earth with me anymore. But somewhere she was smiling.

My mom was free.

Photo courtesy of Mathias Reed/Unsplash