Raquel I. Penzo
I fumble with my keys, looking behind me in terror. I’ve practiced this terrified look in the bathroom mirror many times. C’mon, c’mon, I whisper. The jingling of my keys will give me away if I don’t get this door OPEN! I’ve used the wrong key, and the lock refuses to turn. I can feel Pop, the creepy guy from next door, peeping through the door at me. “You okay?” he says from inside his apartment. This heightens my anxiety. I have to get out of the stairwell. Pop may be one of the bad guys. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken those caramels from him last week?
This is Day 3 of practicing my serial-killer-victim, mad-dash-to-the-door. The keys are new. Yesterday, I banged on the door screaming, “Let me in, let me in,” but Nana didn’t appreciate it. “Niña,” she yelled. “¿Estas loca?” She had sweat dripping from her brow from the heat of the stove, no doubt, and a crazed look in her eye. She hadn’t had time to put on her shades. Her brown eye glared at me in frustration. The green, bruised one was confused.
“Sorry, I was just playing,” I mumbled to myself.
“Play-ing?” she asked in her broken English, mocking me. “This no funny! Entra, ya, before they call police!” she whispered while pointing to Pop’s door.
So today I choose the classic horror movie key fumble. I think for sure no one would hear, but I forgot about our nosy neighbors—they hear and see everything we do.
I finally get the door open, slam it behind me and turn all the locks. I brace myself against the door taking quick victory breaths. Made it! “¡Niña, por Dios, no estrayes la puerta! ¿Que te pasa?” She’s getting fed up with my entrances. Tonight she will tell my mother. I feel it.
I walk down the hallway toward her, head down, whispering, “Nothing’s wrong with me. I’m just acting.” Nana puts her hand up to stop me.
“Oye, Yadira ees esleeping here, okay? So callate la boca.”
“What’s she doing here?” On a Thursday? Didn’t she go to school today?
I nod at my grandmother and tip-toe into the den. Yadira is lying on the full-sized bed, the one that used to be Elenita’s, the one that used to be in Nana’s bedroom before the bunkbeds took its place. She is on her stomach, her face buried in the pillow, with orange-red hair is spread out across her back, just reaching her naked upper thigh.
Yadira is wearing Elenita’s Ice Cream is Brain Food nightshirt. I recognize the lavender trim on the cap sleeves. This is going to be a problem later, for sure. If I know my cousin, she’s gonna catch a fit that Nana allowed Yadira to wear her clothes.
I follow Nana into the kitchen, putting my book bag on the little brown school-chair that is also Elenita’s. It occurs to me, suddenly, that nothing here is mine. “What’s wrong with her?” I whisper to my grandmother as she stirs the beans with one hand, and adds flour-coated eggplant slices to a pan of hot oil with the other.
“No te preocupes. Go do you homework,” she instructs.
This smells of a scandal. Whenever I “shouldn’t worry myself” over something, it means the grown-ups will discuss it later. I hear Nana curse under her breath in Spanish, something about ginger.
“Agarra aquí,” she says, calling me back and handing me the spatula. I despised fried eggplant, and now she wanted me to help her cook it? Nana wipes her brow on her housecoat, the white one with the blue flowers and the missing buttons. A few stray salt-n-pepper strands of her soft hair remain pasted to her forehead. “I go to the store,” she declares, and leaves me in the kitchen.
“Going,” I call after her. “I’m going to the store.” She sucks her teeth, walking through the long hallway towards her bedroom to get dressed and go.
When she is gone, I transfer the eggplant to a plate covered with layers of paper towels and turn off the flame. The rice, beans and London Broil smell done, and I turn them off, too. Quietly, I inch over to the entryway of the den. Yadira is now lying on her side. Sections of redness have fallen over the side of the bed. I notice that she’s blinking, staring at the white molded ceiling of Nana and Papi’s third floor walk-up. Even her eyelashes are orange, seeming almost like they are not there. She is covered in red freckles all over her pink skin.
Yadira is curvy, with large breasts for her age. The first of us girl cousins to grow up. She is fifteen now, but had been this voluptuous for three years. Voluptuous. I learned that word last week. I liked the way it rolled off my tongue. I long to personify the definition. Personify was yesterday’s word. Elenita and I are still in training bras.
“Are you awake?” I ask her quietly. Wherever Nana is, her senses are telling her that I have awakened her patient.
“Yeah.” I walk over to the bed and sit next to her hair, gently running my hand over it. It feels rough, like straw.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“You’re too young to know,” Yadira doesn’t look at me. She stays fixed on the moldings. A tiny roach crawls up the wall next to the bed and we both follow it on its path up to the ceiling with our eyes. “God damn this fucking house and the fucking roaches!” she complains. She covers her face with a pillow and sobs.
“Don’t cry, Nana will make you feel better. I think she went to get ginger for your tea.” It was her cure-all: ginger tea with orange peels.
“What the fuck do you know?” Yadira stops crying and grabs my arm. “You’re just a stupid kid with no problems!” She lets go of me and I yank at her hair.
“Well then fuck you, too,” I yell. That is going to cost me three Hail Mary’s tomorrow. “And I’m not stupid, you are.”
“That’s right, you’re the smartest thing alive, no? You want to know what’s wrong, smarty pants? I just got kicked out of my house.”
“Why? What happened?” My anger for her leaves. What would cause Tia Frida to throw her only daughter out of the house?
“Because Sammy got me pregnant, and I got an abortion. There. Now you know everything.” She throws her face back into the pillow. “Go look that up in your brainiac dictionary. You know you want to.”
There is a thick pause between us. Instantly, I no longer crave her curves. I suddenly want nothing to do with breasts and hips and vaginas with pubic hair. I want voluptuous out of my memory bank. “I don’t have to, I know what it means.” I stare at my hands. Planned Parenthood ladies had already visited my fourth grade class to talk about our changing bodies and the consequences of those changes. The nuns added their own piece on treating our bodies as temples for Jesus. “You know you can go to hell for that, right?”
“Fuck you and your fucking priests! You think I believe in that shit?”
“It’s not shit!” Damn! More Hail Mary’s! I am letting her get me in trouble. Where is Nana already?
I turn away from Yadira towards the hallway to the living room. I don’t have to take this.
“Wait. I’m sorry, Muñequita.” She looks up at me with puffy red eyes that almost match her hair. “Please sit with me till Nana gets back?” I sit at the edge of the bed and stare out the window at the head of the bed, while Yadira returns to her moldings. “I know I’m going to hell. You think I don’t know? I been going to hell. This abortion ain’t gonna make no bigger difference.” We sit in silence some more, neither one looking at the other, until she decides to change the subject and lighten the mood. “How’s the acting going? Elenita told me you got in trouble for dirtying your uniform?”
“Yeah. I’m practicing being chased by a killer. Day before last my throat was cut on the steps before I could even reach the door to bang on it. I had to crawl the rest of the way, gurgling for help.” She laughs at my recounting of Day 1 with this new study. “I managed to tap weakly on the bottom of the door, and then Nana opens it and says ‘¡Ay Dios Mio!’” I do my best impression of my grandmother, throwing my hands up in the air, sending Yadira into full-on laughter. “You’re getting all dirty!” I use my best Nana-English, and Yadira is in hysterics. “Then she made me wash my uniform in the bathroom sink, by hand: jumper, knee socks, vest and shirt- the whole thing! Nana doesn’t understand modern cinema.”
“She understands, but you know that your mother would have beat your ass if your uniform had come home dirty on a Tuesday.” Yadira pauses to wipe tears of laughter from her eyes and stares at the ceiling again. “Nana understands a lot.”
“Yeah, I guess. She never told on me.” I look back out the window. For a second I think I see a shadow pass by the window across the alley from us, the window of the third floor of the abandoned building. I hate that window. “What does it feel like?”
“Sex? Or the abortion?”
“Both, I guess.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’re too smart to end up like me. You’ll probably marry some great Catholic guy and it will be painless and perfect.”
“When you’re a girl, everything hurts.”
“Oh,” I peek up at the moldings for a minute. I try to find what Yadira is looking for, help her out in the spirit of Jesus. Save her soul. Then I hear Nana’s heavy footsteps on the stairs, her key in the lock, her breathing in the doorway. I lean over the side of the bed and say “hey” to her as she shuffles towards the den. Her scowl sends me upright.
“You in trouble?”
“Yep. I better go do my homework.” I get up, grab my book bag from the chair in the kitchen and begin walking towards the living room, again. I keep my head down to avoid Nana’s glare.
“Muñequa,” Yadira calls after me as I pass the bathroom. “What’s your word today?”
“Jesus Christ! What the hell does that mean?”
I walk back towards the den. “It’s an adjective. It means ‘being present everywhere at once’. Like God, you know, omnipresent.”
“You’re nuts! When are you ever going to use that word?”
I sit at the edge of the bed again, thinking. “I don’t know.”
Yadira laughs her hearty laugh that draws me into her. “Go do your homework.”
When Papi walks in it is exactly 4:30, just like every day. He is wearing his navy blue work pants with the black sneakers he bought last week on Bushwick Avenue. I run to him, as usual, and jump in his arms. “Bendición,” I say, kissing his cheek. I am almost as tall as he is. I wonder if I will pass him.
“Dios te bendiga, Muñequita,” He kisses my forehead. I hug him, placing my head on his chest. He smells of Old Spice, and his beard is prickly with the day’s growth. “Yadira is here,” I whisper to him. “Tía Frida kicked her out.”
“¿Quien dijo?” he asks me, frowning. Papi dislikes gossip. “Yadira vino porque está enferma.” He scowls. She must have come last night—he already knows.
We walk the hallway together into the den, arms linked. I notice he’s holding a red and white striped paper bag, stapled shut. “What’s that?”
“Ees fo Nana.”
“What is it?” We enter the den, where Yadira is sitting up in the bed now, watching TV and finishing up her tea.
“Her medicine,” she replies. Papi sucks his teeth and rolls his eyes at Yadira. This is something I’m not supposed to know. “What? You think you can hide stuff from this one?” she points to me. “You might as well tell her.”
I look from Papi to Yadira and back. He also is covered in freckles, but his are brown, like a pinto bean. His hat is still secured to his head, but his jacket is now on the back of a chair. Yadira begins to stare out the window, shaking her head. I feel nervous all of a sudden and walk into the kitchen to look Nana in her face. “Nana, are you sick?” I open my eyes as wide as I can push them. I want to take in her whole figure while I wait for her answer.
“No, no. Son vitaminas.” She doesn’t look at me while she speaks. She busies herself serving Papi’s plate of food: the largest piece of London Broil cooked in tomato sauce with chunks of potatoes, a heaping mound of white rice, roman beans, and three hefty slices of the fried eggplant.
“She has diabetes,” Yadira yells from the den. I hear Nana curse under her breath. “Go look it up, Muñequa.”
Diabetes. I don’t know it. I’ve heard about it, but I don’t think I really paid attention. Something to do with sugar and needles. Needles. I look at Nana, and she looks the same as always. It’s something inside her body. I walk out of the kitchen quickly, avoiding eye contact with my grandparents and cousin. “¿No vas a comer?” Nana yells after me.
“I’m not hungry.”
In the living room, I grab my dictionary from on top of the mantle, stopping only to stare at the large mirror attached to the wall. My hair is in two French braids today. I do my own hair now that I’ve learned how to braid and my mom is too busy with the new babies. My shirt is not as white as it was on Monday. Tomorrow after school I will be made to scrub it clean by hand, just like I do every Friday. The eyes looking back at me wink. “Leave us alone!” I yell at it. “Just leave us alone!” The shadow behind the winking eyes does not retreat, so I do, and sit on the plastic-covered couch.
I hold the dictionary tight to my chest with my eyes shut. Most of the words in it are underlined or highlighted, words that I’ve looked up and forced into my vocabulary. Diabetes, such a simple-sounding word, is not one of them. I find the word, but the definition means nothing to me: inadequate secretion or utilization of insulin. I need a medical book, like the one I saw at the bookstore on Flatbush Avenue last week. Or answers.
Sweat accumulates on my back. With my stomach grumbling quietly, I get up and walk back to the den. Nana, Papi and Yadira are eating and watching the news on Channel 47. There are men in army attire holding large guns and running all over the street. Nicaragua, I think. Maybe Columbia. They’re always fighting over there.
“I can get my plate.” I look at Nana. “Are you okay?”
“Ay, si, m’ija. Ees jus my shooga. Estoy bien.”
I nod in agreement, as if I understand and go to the kitchen to get some dinner. Justhersugarjusthersugarjusthersugarjusthersugar.
I sit with them at the table. Nobody is talking, just watching the news. We are all waiting for the novelas to come on. Even the shadows from across the alley, from the window I hate, are still.
I look into Nuno’s smokey, brown eyes. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
But I love you. Don’t you understand?
“Please. It can never work between us. You’re always on tour.”
You can come with me. The band won’t mind.
“Nuno, don’t be stupid. I have to follow my dreams to Hollywood, and you have your music. You just need to forget me.” I turn my head to the side when he tries to kiss me. “Just go.” My tears gather, ready to slide down my cheeks.
“Who are you talking to, baby?” A brown, wrinkled hand with long, yellow fingernails peeks out from Pop’s door. His wife, so thin and petite she hardly looks real, questions me with her shifty eyes.
“Just my…secret INVISIBLE lover,” I whisper huskily in my best Kathleen Turner voice.
She looks at me in shock, hand over her mouth, and slams her door shut.
“That’s right old lady,” I put my key into the top lock. “Go back to your window seat and mind your fucking business.” Once inside, I’m grabbed into Nana and Papi’s room before I can even lock the front door. “What the fuck?”
Elenita puts her hand over my mouth. “You don’t want to go into the den.”
“Why not? Let go of me.” Elenita used to be much bigger than me, but now that we were in our teens our heights match up, and she can’t really boss me around like she used to. We’ve become more like sisters and best friends than cousins.
“Trust me, don’t go over there.”
“What is going on?” I adjust my leather jacket, the one that says GUNS N ROSES on the back in red and yellow letters, a large skull in a top hat underneath, one of Elenita’s cast-offs.
“Pedrito is here,” Elenita reveals, her brown eyes nearly popping out of her head.
“Oh my god! And Papi knows?”
“Yup. Nana says he’s been here since the weekend.”
Pedrito is our third cousin, named after my grandmother’s brother who died in Santo Domingo before she came to New York. Cousin Pedrito was the son of the daughter Tío Pedro had unknowingly left behind, exalted by Nana above everybody else. He had his grandfather’s striking features, almost as if he were Tío Pedro reborn: dark as tar with the oddest, bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. They remind me of California swimming pools- or at least what I imagine California swimming pools look like, and I loved when he would come over and play the staring game with me; I’d fall into his eyes every time.
Two years ago, the day after I graduated from junior high school, Nana got a call from his mother that Pedrito was in serious trouble, hooked on drugs and living on the street. She couldn’t find him. Anywhere. Then one day, driving back to Brooklyn from the Washington Heights bakery where we buy our pastries, there was Cousin Pedrito covered in soot, offering to clean our windshield for a dollar. My stepdad waved him away, and my mother nearly had a heart attack. Pedrito was so messed up that he didn’t even recognize us. He just reached into the car, snatched my mother’s purse, and took off into traffic.
Now here he was in my grandmother’s den.
“What is he doing here?”
“Detoxing, and boy is he sick! It’s so bad, that Nana told your mom not to bring Livvy or Panda-bear over today.” I roll my eyes at hearing my sisters’ nicknames and at my mother’s insistence on treating them like delicate porcelain figurines. Yet here I am, in the middle of detox central.
“He looks real bad. Wanna see?” Elenita adds. Shoving me back towards the hallway. We tip toe towards the den like we are kids, like we are 10 and 8 again trying to steal handfuls of ground coconut while Nana makes bread pudding.
Nana peeks out from the kitchen and catches us in mid stride. Elenita and I freeze and grin wide, Cheshire cat grins. Nana holds her finger to her mouth, menacingly, and goes back to cooking after we nod in agreement. We continue our walk down the hall to the den, where a couch has been added, along w/ the full sized bed, table and chairs, refrigerator, food cabinet and TV that are already there. Cousin Pedrito is lying on that couch, his body protected from the black leather surface by Nana’s old quilts. I make a mental note to not use those quilts ever again.
I can’t see what he’s wearing – he’s tucked all the way in under the heavy blanket, but I can see the sneakers he came in placed neatly in front of the couch. They are barely shoes anymore, barely white anymore, the Nike logo barely visible anymore. The soles are coming apart forming an evil grin in his barely sneakers.
“Look at him- I can hardly believe he’s related to us,” Elenita whispers in my ear. He is sweating a lot and swaying under the blankets. Suddenly he gets up and pukes a thick yellowish liquid into a bucket carefully placed by his head. Cousin Pedrito looks up at us and smiles. Some of his teeth are missing. His face has craters that weren’t there before. The sweat is overpowering his face.
“Muñequa, Elenita, how are my two favorite cousins?”
“Fine,” we say in unison. I look at Elenita nervously.
“I’m not in school anymore, Pedrito. I work.” Elenita says flatly.
“It’s been a while,” I say. Since we last saw you. When you stole my mother’s purse.
“I guess.” He pauses to wipe sweat from his brow and throws up again. “Sorry you have to see this.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “I throw up when I’m sick, too,” and Elenita nugdes me.
“Whatever.” Elenita turns to walk back towards the living room. “Payback’s a
Last year at my quinceañera, as we smoked up in a bathroom far from the party, Elenita told me about her and Pedrito in his mom’s bedroom. She used to like to go to their house because they had cable, and Tia____ used to stock up on American junk food, stuff we were not allowed to have in Nana’s house. “We were eating Sugar Babies and watching videos, and he asked me if I had ever seen a dick.”
“No!” I said, beyond shocked and on the verge of losing my buzz.
“Yes. And when I laughed and said no, he pulled it out.”
“NO!” I had an immense vocabulary, but ‘no’ was all I could muster.
“YES. Then he asked if I wanted to touch it.”
“Elenita don’t tell me anymore. I’m gonna be sick.”
But she continued to describe how Pedrito finally got her to touch it, and so much more. Stuff that I try to forget I’d ever heard, everyday. She was only 12 that year.
“Okay, niñas, leave Pedrito. You,” Nana points at me. ”You mother say you
report card ees bad. Go do you homework. Ahora!”
“Yeah, I’m going. Bye Pedrito,” I say to the thing that used to be my cousin, and
start that long walk again. Always the same walk to the living room.
“Hey Muñequa? Do you still look up words all the time?” he asks before I make it to the door.
“No, I stopped a long time ago.”
“How come?” He is looking at me from down the hall now, and his blue eyes still sparkle. There is hope for him yet.
“They all started to mean the same thing.”
“Is she gone?” Pedrito has been hiding under the blanket for about an hour, ever since Nana received a call from his mother and took Elenita with her to Manhattan to advocate for his return home. He emerges drenched in sweat, still shaking.
“A long time ago. That shit you’re on has you buggin out, dude.”
“What you been smoking?” He sniffs the air around me. I ignore him and keep changing the channels on the 20-inch TV that has lived in the den for as long as I can remember. Most of the knobs are messed up. There are pliers by the set we use to change the UHF channels.
“You’re crazy, man.”
“And you’re holding. You think I can’t smell that weed all over you?”
I do a quick air check around me, and notice the shaky amusement on Pedrito’s face. He gives me a toothless grin. “Gimme some.”
“No, man! You’re supposed to be getting clean.”
“Just to take the edge off.” I shake my head no. “C’mon, I’m freaking out here. I NEED something.” He’s shivering like a small child in the snow with no coat. Just some weed. It’s not crack, I guess…
“Okay, but you have to help me air the place out afterward.”
“Cool, Muñequa, whatever you want.”
We decide to light up in the kitchen so that we can blow the smoke out onto the fire escape. The window faces overgrown trees and shrubbery, what used to be a lovely garden I am told. I give Pedrito his own blunt, not wanting any of his crack cooties, especially after watching him throw up all afternoon. He takes hits off of it like a fiend. I notice that after a little bit he doesn’t shake so much anymore and he’s thinking clearly. We talk gossip about the family.
“…So finally, Yadira just had to call the cops on Sammy, and now he’s doin’ three years at Rikers.”
“Bullshit? I thought they was the next Luke and Laura.”
“Yeah, if Luke was a two-bit thug and Laura was a two-timing whore.” We laughed for a solid three minutes at the foibles of our relatives. The higher Pedrito got, the more fun he was becoming, missing teeth and funky b.o. aside.
“So what about you? Who you two-timing?”
“Didn’t you hear? I’m a fallen woman, now.”
“Word. The way Nana tells it, I’m fucking the whole junior class at school.”
“I thought you were at a school for nerds?”
“Shut the fuck up, I’m not a nerd. Besides, what, smart people can’t fuck?”
“Hey, cuz, you tell me.”
“There’s a guy. We kind of hook up sometimes, but you know, I’m keeping my options open.”
“For when I finally get out of this shitty borough and move out to LA.”
“Oh yeah, now I remember. You was always trying to get your mom to move out west, walking around talking to yourself.”
“I was acting!”
I notice the shadow from across the alley floating through some of the trees. It winks at me and gives a throaty laugh. It keeps floating, doing loop-de-loops through the air and giving me the thumbs up. I have to stop lacing my blunts. Then it occurs to me what a huge mistake it was to give Pedrito that smoke after all. Angel dust can’t be good for a crackhead trying to detox.
Meanwhile, the shadow comes closer to my window, and swimming pools appear. I lean back on the windowsill, and am on a hammock overlooking the pool that overlooks the Pacific. Nuno sits next to me strumming his guitar. Sing my song.
The one you wrote for me. The one that made Axl jealous. He puts his guitar down, leans into me and sings a capella.
Saying I love you/ is not the words I want to hear from you/ It’s not that I want you/ not to say it but if you only knew/ How easy…
We kiss and the shadow is there, over the pool, watching us. Nuno smells like weed. We’ve been smoking all morning. It’s the only way he can write, and it’s the only way I can rest. I undo my robe and he squeezes my breasts. That last tour was a long one. He misses me. It’s not long before he undresses us both, and I’m thankful for the cool breeze over my naked body. Nuno watches me wait for him and I see he’s hungry for me. Next time he goes on tour, I’m going with him. We can’t be apart for this long again. Before long, he turns me over and thrusts into me. We are like this for a long time thrustingdancingsingingthrustingdancingswimmingflying. The shadow outside the window laughs and laughs. Fucking voyeur, I think. It starts to beckon me.
Come here with me, it says into the wind. I close my eyes and float out to meet it. “What do you want from me?” I ask.
What do you want from me?
“But you called me over.”
Because you asked me to. Don’t you like it here?
“Yeah, it’s nice. How long can I stay?”
How long do you want to stay?
Oh no, not that long, just long enough for your grandmother to die. She’s sick, you know, in a lot of pain.
“When you’re a girl, everything hurts.”
Did you notice your grandfather brought home more medicine last week?
“Yeah, vicodin. I like that one.”
Sure, it’s good stuff, just for you.
“Muñequa, hurry, put your clothes on. Someone’s at the door.” Pedrito’s voice is behind me, and just like that Nuno vanishes with the shadow from across the alley. I turn over on my back and Pedrito is zipping up his pants. “Girl, get the fuck up!”
“What, where are my pants?”
Pedrito throws them at me just as I hear Papi call out, “Do I smell rice burning?”
“Are you excited about today?” Ana sits on my nightstand, bouncing a handball and chewing gum.
“I’m a little scared, but yeah, I guess excited.” I empty the contents of my waste paper basket into a large trash bag. “I hear Papi’s new place is nice, across from a Portuguese bakery. I’m excited about that.” Ana continues to chew and bounce, ignoring me, not looking me in the face. “Are you going to miss me?”
One of the newer nurses taps on my door before peeking in. I knew right away it wasn’t one of the vets; they never knock. “You almost ready, dear?”
“Almost,” I call back, locked in a gaze with Ana, whose shocked and hurt expression is one I had hoped to avoid today.
“Okay, dear. Well, the doctor is waiting in her office whenever you’re ready.”
“Thanks, I’ll be down in a minute.”
Ana stands and plants herself between my luggage and me. “You’re not bringing me?”
“No,” I say staring at her bare feet. She tries to come closer to me, arms outstretched, but I walk around her, grab my bags and close the door to my room behind me. Muffled sobs follow me down the hall, into the elevator and through the lobby until I reach my doctor’s office.
Dr. Echeverria’s office is always a bit dark and today is no exception. She keeps her curtains drawn all the time, and during my first few weeks at the hospital, some of the other patients tried to convince me that she was a vampire. Even though they kept me pretty drugged up, I knew no such thing existed. Still, I never liked being in that dark office, talking about my feelings, alone with the creepy lady doctor.
“I have set up our appointments for Saturdays at three. Is that good for you?” Dr. Echeverria does not look up from her appointment book as she speaks.
“You tell me; isn’t that why my mom is paying you for?” In the three years that I have been her patient, Dr. Echeverria has never laughed at any of my jokes. Today is no exception and I tire of trying to lighten the mood. She doesn’t seem to have picked up on my sarcasm. “Yeah that’s fine. I’ll be here.” I stand there in front of her desk, waiting for her to say or do something. After a moment, she looks up at me.
“Did you want to tell me something?”
“Oh no, I just thought, you know, you wanted to tell me something before I go?”
Dr. Echeverria closes her appointment book and sits back in her large leather chair. She has long dark hair that she always holds back with a black headband that matches her hair exactly. Over the years I’ve had many opportunities to study her face: the sharp edges of her nose and chin, the pronounced cheekbones, the clear smooth skin. “What would you like me to tell you, Maribel?” Her detachment was something I could never get used to. That and how she always called me by my given name and not the nickname I’d answered to my whole life. Nobody else did that but her.
“Nothing, I guess. I’m just gonna go, then. See you Saturday.”
“Three o’clock. Make sure you’re on time.” Dr. Echeverria doesn’t even look up to wave goodbye.
I head back into the lobby, where one of my favorite nurses is waiting to say goodbye. Nurse Palmer holds her arms out to me and brings me into a tight squeeze. “Now you be good out there, you hear me, girlie? I don’t want to see you back here.”
“Don’t worry. The memory of this crappy food will keep me straight.” I kiss her cheek and leave before the lump in my throat gives way to tears. Nurse Palmer was the only thing that kept me sane in the hospital. She would sneak in some of her mother’s curry and roti for me to share with her when I had ground privileges. She would tell me about carnival in Trinidad and about her grandmother’s house in Tobago. I never understood why she took to me so, but I appreciated every moment of it.
Outside, my mother’s town car waits with the motor running. She couldn’t even come inside. I take a few deep breaths and walk towards the car. The driver, a new guy that I don’t recognize, gets out and opens my door for me and takes my bags.
My mother is in the back, talking into the little recorder she gives to her assistant every morning.
“…please review the contracts and get back to me…sincerely…fill in my name and CC Patrick and Jamie.” She clicks the off button and looks me dead in the face. “Is this the last time we do this?”
On cue I respond, “Yes.”
We drive all the way to Nana and Papi’s new house in New Jersey in complete silence.
The house is nice, nicer than the railroad apartment where we grew up. It has a large porch and a backyard. In her letters, Elenita told me the basement holds a full laundry room and the kitchen is big enough for a dinette set. I suppose this new faux suburbia is their version of the American Dream.
“¡Muñequita!” Papi yells from the porch as my mother’s town car pulls up to the driveway. “¡Ven aqui pa’ darte un abrazo!” He pulls me into the tightest hug just like when I was a little girl in two French braids. He smells like Old Spice, just like I remember.
“I missed you so much,” I whisper into his neck. “How’s Nana?” Papi furrows his brow in a way that tells me she’s not okay.
“Esta bien. Ya sabes…a little sad but she’s okay.” Papi dances around mentioning the sadness that has surrounded the family in the past three years since I’ve been away: my cousin Evie’s suicide; my other cousin Sahdi refusing to speak to anyone after her parents’ car crash; Elenita MIA since last month and Yadira back in Florida trying to divorce her husband.
“How is her memory?” Papi gets uncomfortable when I ask this.
“Why don’t you just go inside and speak with your grandmother yourself,” my mother interrupts. “I’m sure she’s been cooking for you all day.”
“Si, si…entra,” Papi says, ushering us into the large living room. The furniture is the same from the Brooklyn apartment, but the plastic has been removed. There is a small yellow cat sitting in the windowsill. For a minute I think I’m the only one who can see it, but then Papi walks past it and scratches its head. That’s new.
“Since when do we have a cat?”
“It’s a stray Olivia and Amanda picked up. Your grandmother refused to get rid of it. You know how she likes to spoil your sisters.” I notice my mother’s English seems different. Better. As if she’s been taking lessons. But I know better than to ask her. I’ll just ask the twins later. “They should be home shortly.”
Nana peeks out of the entryway of what must be the kitchen, the room she always seems to occupy. “¿Muñequita? ¡Muñequita!” She comes over to hug me, and her familiar scent of agua florida washes over me. I feel nine years old again. “Food ees almost feenish.”
“Gracias, Nana. I can’t wait; I miss your food.”
“Ven, to see your room,” Papi says when I stare too long at Nana. She’s aged; lost some weight. And her eyes looked…different. He leads me to the staircase that leads up to the four bedrooms of the house. My room is supposed to be mine and Elenita’s, just like when we were little, but I figure with her gone I’ve hit the bedroom jackpot.
“It’s gorgeous, Papi! Thank you,” I hug him again and he leaves my luggage at the door before he heads back down. I plop down on the bed and stare up at the ceiling, a habit from the hospital that I suspect will be hard to kick. “I thought I said you couldn’t come home with me,” I say to Ana, who has made herself rather comfortable in the far right corner of my new room.
“Yeah, you did. But we both know you weren’t serious. You could never leave me behind. Not in a million years.” She gets up from her spot in the corner and joins me on the bed. “I’ll always be here.”
Ana is the spitting image of Pedrito with her dark skin and bright blue eyes, but she has my long, thick, jet-black hair. She is all limbs—just like I was at her age—but she’s more graceful about it. She doesn’t trip as much. And she’s smarter. Ana doesn’t look up words in a dictionary like I used to, but she knows them all just the same. Words that even I have forgotten the meaning to.
“Does your mom know I’m still around?” Ana knew the answer to that, but I suppose she wants to hear it from me.
“If I tell her that, I’ll have to go back to the hospital for good. You remember what the nurse said. As long as you’re around I’ll have to stay at that place.”
“So I have to lay low here, too? I can’t even meet Nana? She would love me, I know it!” She gets impatient with me and I don’t blame her. Ana is young; she shouldn’t have to hide out. She should be allowed to run free and play. “And I suppose meeting my dad is out of the question?”
“Don’t ask me stupid shit, okay? You know the rules so stop being a baby. If you don’t like it you can always just leave!”
“But then who will love you?”
I get up and grab my suitcases. I attempt to unpack them when I hear a school bus pull up, the twins coming home from day camp. I go to the window and watch them walk up to the house, Olivia in front and Amanda shuffling behind her. They look so different! Have I been gone so long?
I abandon the luggage and run down to meet my sisters at the door. It’s a weird feeling, missing them so much, but nothing a huge hug and kiss for both won’t cure.
Olivia sees me first. Her hair is in one long, black ponytail and her skin has begun to break out in pre-adolescent acne. Amanda comes in and, upon seeing me, pushes past Olivia to wrap herself around me. I almost can’t believe her transformation, the weight she’s lost, the slight pep in her step. “I’m so happy you’re cured,” she says.
“Yeah, me, too, kid! Olivia? Hi.”
“How long are you home for this time?” She was never one to mince her words.
“No more dead babies talking to you?” She asks about Ana just to piss me off, and I decide that maybe I didn’t miss her all that much.
“I’m home for good, Olivia,” I say sternly.
“Yeah, Olivia. Shut up and leave her alone!” Amanda was always my favorite. The twins exchange a look before Olivia walks towards the kitchen in a huff. “C’mon, Kito,” she snaps and the cat saunters out of the living room behind her. “We’ll be in the yard,” she says to no one in particular. Amanda and I just laugh.
“Let’s go upstairs.” Amanda tugs on my arm and we head up to the room next to mine. The twins seem to have put up an imaginary wall in the space: Olivia’s side has movie posters and books everywhere. Amanda’s side just holds a few family pictures and a laptop where the pillow should be on her bed.
“Bye the way, thanks for all your letters and emails, Panda-bear. Don’t know how I would have ever kept up with the family gossip without you.” I sit on her bed to get a better look at the baby pictures of Elenita and me on her wall. “So where is she?”
“Nobody knows. Yadira thinks it’s a boy, but Papi thinks maybe it’s drugs.”
“With Elenita? Could be either one. So she just waltzed right out after dinner?”
“Yup, just got up, brought out her suitcase and said she was leaving for a bit.”
“That girl always had the biggest cojones I’ve ever seen on a female!” We stay silent for a minute. “I miss her.”
Amanda looks down at her feet. “Me, too.”
Nana serves all my favorites at dinner, and I eat it as if I’d been in jail instead of a hospital. I fix myself a plate three times and before I go for dessert my mother gives me the eye. “Cake, too? Now I know where Amanda gets it from.”
“I can’t have cake?” I don’t want to fight. I just want cake.
“No, Maribel, you can have whatever you want. Isn’t that the way it works?” says Olivia.
“Please, no fighting at the table,” Papi interrupts. “Sisters don’t fight.”
Nana gets up from the table and motions to me. “Come, Elenita, we wash deeshes and then you have cake, OK?”
“Nana, I’m Muñequa, not Elenita.” My mom sighs in frustration and Papi looks concerned.
“I know that!” she scolds. “¡Ven, a lavar, ahora!”
Everyone leaves the table as Nana and I gather the dishes and bring them to the kitchen sink. All this suburbia and still no dishwasher? I think to myself. Nana grabs the sponge and digs right in.
“Everywhere you go, Ana go. She always go with you everywhere.”
I stare at her, soapy dish in my hand dangerously close to falling. “Ana? Did you say Ana?”
“Si, you baby, Ana. She never leave you.”
“How do you…”
“She jus like you, when you a chiquitita. Skeeny, bella. Like you.” I don’t know how to respond to her. She takes the dish from me and rinses it herself. “Yo te la cuido, I take care of her. No te preocupes,” she says and hands me another soapy dish. Nana looks past me and smiles. “I take care of her.”
I look behind me and Ana is there, propped up against the wall, bouncing her handball and chewing gum. “See,” says Ana. “She likes me.” I rinse the dish I’m holding, and continue helping with the dishes in silence. As long as we’re silent, we can stay in this moment where I’m not crazy and Nana is alive and Ana was never here. I decide that silence will be our home from now on. It’s the only place where no one is sick.
Raquel I. Penzo is a Brooklyn, NY native who has carved a career for herself as a writer, editor, and literary event curator. She hosts the New Voices Reading Series each quarter in NYC and works as a copywriter at Brooklyn Public Library. Raquel authored the self-published “My Ego Likes the Compliments…And Other Musings on Writing,” and the short stories, “Grey Matter,” published online at Blue Lake Review, and “Perspective on a Murder,” published by Mason’s Road. An anthology of works from participants of her reading series was released in 2014. She can be found online at RaquelPenzo.com.