I stood in front of the stove seasoning my son’s chicken. He loves my arroz con habichuelas y pollo frito. Eric sat at the kitchen table doing homework. It was our normal after work routine. He’d sit at the table I bought used for forty dollars from a co-worker who was moving overseas to Shanghai or Singapore, while I made dinner.
“Mom, why are you and dad not together?” The question eased from his mouth as he erased an error on his page of mathematical problem solving. He was proving to his teacher by showing the work that he got the correct answer following the order of operations. He was in the gifted in talented program where the work load for mathematics was double that than a regular student load.
Fuck. What the hell am I going to say without implanting my personal feelings for his father in his head? I always knew I’d have to tell him, but I can’t tell him.
“Well, Gordo, we’re not together because we fought a lot. And I didn’t want to raise you in that type of home where mommy and daddy always fought.”
To which he responded “But T and daddy fight all the time.”
“Understood, but I can’t make life decisions for your dad and his wife. I can only make decisions that are best for the two of us. Now get your homework done so you can eat. Dinner will be ready soon.”
I turned back to face the stove. My hands got busy and began to cut the boneless chicken breast into the bite size pieces as I paid close attention to the little life that sat behind me tapping his number 2 pencil on the glass table top. I hoped and prayed he’d leave the issue alone. Please don’t ask anything else. Lord please change the direction of this child’s curiosity.
I scooped a spoon full of homemade sofrito into a simmering pot with oil, added a dash of vinegar, some tomato paste, and a can of Goya pink beans. The flavors jumped off the stove and began to hang in a low fog like manner in the kitchen. It made love to my taste buds and I couldn’t wait to get a bowl of white rice that was covered in a thin layer of bean broth.
There used to be a time that I couldn’t a meal to save my life. I once lived with my son’s father on High Street in Newark NJ, in a small 2 bedroom apartment with his heroine addicted mother and her addict boyfriend whose skin was a burnt brown and eyes a glossy tar black. It was my only refuge after I gave birth at 19. That was until I woke one day and decided to leave for fear of my child having to either live as an orphan or becoming like all the other children on the block, visiting one of his parents in prison for murder. Or end up with something worst, foster care. A life I know all too well.
One night he climbed the stairs after work. He took a shit, showered, dressed and left to the apartment building across the street. He had plans to play a game of spades and smoke a few blunts. He said he’d be home later but not too late. I was never allowed to go. I was his good girl and with a baby I should stay in the home.
By ten pm that night I began to pace the floors. I knew what he was up to. I knew exactly where he went. I knew the chick’s apartment number and by 3 am when he stumbled in with the stench of beer on his breath and a mark on his neck that he swore was not a hickey, I had already made up my mind. While he slept a solid slumber, I left the bedroom and returned with a carving knife that I placed at his throat. And just when I was about to slice him wide open, my baby cried from the middle of the dark corner where the crib was placed. I pulled the blade back. I ran to the bathroom. I dropped the knife in the sink and sat on the toilet seat as I cried and rocked back and forth. This is my mother’s life. Not the one I planned for me.
The next morning I called my mother from the pay phone after I kissed my man on his dry chapped lips and told him to have a good day at work.
“Mom, come get me.”
Mommy pulled up in front of the building by ten am and the room that was ours was left empty.
The hot oil popping in the frying pan spat a small drop on my arm and startled me back to my dinner simmering on the stove.
“You almost finished Gordo?”
“Yeah. I want some chicken mom.”
“Food is almost done. Go shower and get your pj’s on.”
How could I possible tell my baby what life was like with his dad? He’s too young to understand that I left not because I didn’t love his father but I left because I loved my son so much more. His father wasn’t just my boyfriend, he was my best friend.
I remembered what is was like the first year after my disappearing act as I placed the finishing touches on the rice, swirled the beans and removed the last of the chicken bits out of the pan. I used to visit to my son’s father’s home with my heart beating a song of hope and reconciliation. I was not yet even 20 years old and my little family was already broken. I was engulfed in thick, heavy glue like depression. I couldn’t remember nights with dry eyes. During the day I’d put on my armor. I fought the day’s deep sadness with diaper changing, breast feeding, and appointments to the welfare office. I was lost in a life whose cactus like needles were felt on every inch of my skin.
I’d have to climb the five flights of stairs alone after spending 15 minutes on the side walk yelling Eric into the cove allowing the hollow space to carry my once alto singing voice into open windows. The building didn’t even have buzzers. I’d eventually have to haul the carriage, baby still in it, and baby bag with a change of clothes, formula, pampers, and baby wipe when I couldn’t locate him. I took each step one by one to the fifth floor. It’s said that once upon a time this dwelling did have an elevator that was now shut down and hidden behind the cement walls on the side of the building that held no apartments.
At the top of the fifth flight, I’d drop the carriage and tried to catch my breath. The white hallway was tinted with a hint of pine sol. The super must have mopped the floors attempting to remove the stale piss smell who acquired a permit residency.
I walked into the dimly lit living room of his heroine addicted mother’s apartment. There were two windows with shear lace dingy curtains that were once white. The presence of heavy cigarette smokers was evident in the paint on the walls and the stale air that you inhaled. The left side of the wall was decorated with the three tier shelf that held trinkets Lucy found in the trash as she rummaged for cargo to sell for her next hit. They were all caked in a layer of dust and right beside an angel laid a used grey rag and a purple bottle of Mistolin. Someone planned to wipe it clean but never got to it.
Sister, boyfriend, cousin, grand-mother all were bunched in the apartment. They were walking back and forth talking about what’s going down that night. I inhaled the commingled smell of beer breath and the pernil roasting in on the oven since early afternoon glazed in the Puerto Rican mixture of fresh garlic and basil. My stomach sent my brain a memo that I ate close to nothing that day from the nervousness of coming back to this place.
My son’s paternal aunt, was getting her clothes together and fidgeting with her hair pulling it this way and that way. She’d moose this end to that end wishing verbally that she had enough time to put her hair to the iron to straighten it. Literally. She was a beast of a girl. Voice was loud and filled the room when she spoke. The floor shook under her tank size feet. The element of surprise was not a skill she would ever possess. The hood boogers on the block feared her. Yet she had this loving persona about her and my son was a spoiled fat boy under her supervised care.
These were the days where apt 4A had the weed, Apt 5C had the alcohol and by the end of the night 2B was where you got pussy before you went home to your wife or baby momma or girlfriend in 5D. These were the days when everyone woke up in a haze and no one went to work. Not remembering what happened the night before but reliving the events while passing the blunt around the circle never bubbled to feeling embarrassment or remorse. Not even feeling disgusted at the fact that you may have slept with your cousin. Your blood cousin.
He was finally getting himself together when he walks to us and kisses the baby and then kisses me. He hustles back and forth. They decide that 4A it is.
“Dude I just got here. You haven’t seen your son in weeks and you’re deciding that now this is the time to go get high? Don’t you do that shit every day with these people?”
An argument ensued. Names were thrown back and forth and ours were the only voices in that apartment. Everyone one else decided to be bystanders and observe how far this was going to go. I was 19 and he was a year younger. Almost five years together and the harder I hung on to keep us together, the worse the fighting got. We have been known to have a few public displays of our growing hate for each other.
“You ain’t shit!”
And smack. Right across the left side of my face. The force was great enough to have the crack of each vertebra in my neck echo in my ears. I held on to my son close and braced myself on my size 6.5 feet so that I don’t fall on top of him. I saw it coming. But I did not move.
He stormed out yelling, “You always push me to this point, why don’t you just leave my son and go back to your mothers?”
I was left standing with the sting on my cheek that was intensified with the salty tears from my eyes that trampled over the welts. I hung my head in embarrassment. No one helped me. No one consoled me. No said a word to me. Instead, they marched on to 4A. Blunts had to be rolled. Mad dog 20/20 had to be consumed. Who the fuck cared about me? I didn’t care for myself then either.
“Tu tienes que dejarlo hacero que el quieres. El es el hombre Jane.” His mother was the only person to speak to me once the apartment was cleared of the human clutter. She approached me scratching her neck. Her speech was slurred and the Newport 100 sat on the tip of her lips burning to nothing. She didn’t even inhale it but occasionally removed it from her mouth to flick the ashes in the tray. She hated when they fell to the floor.
Later that evening I sat on a mattress on the floor of his room. My son and I did not partake in the night’s festivities. I don’t even think that I ate dinner. I don’t remember counting my blessings either. I watched my son crawl to the night stand and pull himself. I watched as he opened the top drawer and grad a baby fist full of junk and throw it to the floor. Once the drawer was empty, he’d look me as if saying mom I’m done but I want to do it again. So I scoot over to him and place the junk back in the drawer so that he can repeat. The second time it resulted in a little giggle, the third a laugh and by the fourth time I grabbed and embraced him in my bosom. I cried.
The next morning I woke before the roosters started their alarms. I turned on the TV to a low hum while I changed Gordo’s pamper. The light from the TV casts a sheet on the opposite side of the bed where the sperm donor slept. He just got in the house and he definitely won’t be up for at least another 12 hours. Gordo is cleaned and then placed in the walker. I walked to the bathroom, pissed and turned to brush my teeth when I noticed that some purple eye shadow on my left eye lid did not come off with last night’s facial cleansing. So I repeated the ritual. But it didn’t come off.
“I don’t remember wearing any make-up last night” I said to no one in particular. I just felt the need to have the words occupy that space with me. I took my left pointer finger and poked the darken space on my eye lid. It didn’t hurt. I rubbed it. Still no pain. I then scrubbed a little harder when it dawned on me. Oh shit. He bruised my face with the smack he gave me last night. Now granted, that it wasn’t the first time he has ever placed his hands on me. It was easy to get up the next day and move on but not forget. But this was definitely the first time I was left with a physical reminder. The first time that I now have to show the world what goes on behind closed doors. The verguenza was now written on my face like a tattoo on my forehead labeling me a battered woman. I was never bruised before. All of the other hits from arguments where he pulled my hair or held the upper portion of my arm firmly only left me sore. He never left a mark.
I was then startled by the little man in his walker crashing into the side of the bathroom entrance. The elevated floor wouldn’t allow him to push into the small bathroom with me. He was smiling, as always. His baby blue eyes and the way their corners smiled eased my tension. I made a mental promise to him right then and there that I was going to get us a better life. I was not going to let this part of my history repeat itself in his future.
My son began to scream my name from the bathroom spinning me back to reality.
“Mom! Mommy! Mother! I need a towel!”
I threw a recently washed blue towel through the crack in the white bathroom door.
“Hurry up. Dinner’s ready.”
I returned to the kitchen and began to fix two plates and placed them on the table. Eric ran to a seat at the able, began to pick up pieces of breaded chicken from his dish and stuffed as many as he could in his mouth. He managed to utter in between chews, “You make the best chicken mom.”
I watched his little greasy fingers fumble with his food and a smile curl at the crease of his now green eyes. I don’t regret anything.
© 2017, Lopez. All rights reserved.