Who were we? Puerto Ricans stuck in a drift, still moving from an American haunting howling on The Island, howling in us.
Lookpicture green mountains over there instead of the church—this is how the mist moves in AreciboI will take you someday, nene, so you can see. Vente
To be a man is to be a pig. Pigs belong in a pot over a fucking flame
The flames were small suns in our black eyes, dots of hungry light. The fire looked like an animal, alive, eating its way out of the old black Crown Vic. My mother’s fingers hard as bullets digging into my forearm, us jaywalking across the traffic. My neck snapped back when I heard a pop, the blaze beginning to clamor. Stop looking over there, she hissed.
That looks like your car.
She didn’t respond. She had a car, once in my whole life, a beat-up Crown Vic with a steering wheel that reached her chin. Cheapest car on the used lot. Still had payments. One day it was here, one day it was gone. Se fue, she had said, rolled down the hill because she forgot to park it right.
Our eyes were dim when we made it to the restaurant she worked at; Mi Pais. The cursive neon name glowed blue at night, sitting in the middle of a block-length strip. Two mustard pots at either side of the door held hibiscus bushes, braided at the trunk, the red, crinkled flowers in bloom. The wood chimes made music when the glass door opened and closed. The air was dense with smells sailing from the kitchen, lifting from the metal food wells—spices, vinegar, garlic, onion, peppers, and well-cooked meat. Twelve tables spread out in the small space, covered in plastic with white mundillo tablemats beneath, meticulous works of lace. The small details of a people hung on the red walls—The Island in a frame, prints and paintings by Tufiño and Olga Albizu, boxing gloves, and jibaro hats. The large Puerto Rican flag with a sky-blue triangle on the wall behind the counter, watching over everything.
I sat in the corner table closest to the counter and began my homework. When I finished, I drew green aliens with flat-topped crayons worn down to the paper casing. The long hours waiting for her to get off work filled me with syrupy fatigue, a denseness felt in my bones. She would be done at six, maybe seven, whenever the closers came in. I was thinking of the burning car when Mirlande walked in.
I smiled. Mirlande was someone I wanted to speak like. She spoke several languages, spoke in story, with wit, like everyone was her friend. She could make my mother smile, too—like she was now, coming out of the kitchen, sweat a thin glow on her face, hair wrapped in white cloth, a stained apron clasped to her body. She brought a blue bag full of foam takeout boxes to the countertop, tied with a tight bow, the contents taut against the plastic.
Their hands touched when my mother handed her the bag. They bathed in some light. There’s enough in there for you and the whole house, querida. Mirlande responded in her survival Spanish, dotted with romantic endearments, stretching each word obnoxiously, something that made my mother roll her eyes with a smirk. I took a picture in my head. I wanted a copy of anything that could make her soft, anything that showed the world was not itself.
Are you doing okay?
Same shit, and this pendejo is telling me he is cutting wages because the rent is going up, what do you want me to do, m’ija, less pay or we close, m’ija, like I’m his child, pendejo.
Tell me if you need help, Benni.
Ay, I can’t ask that of you, we live in the same world.
Don’t be big headed.
Big headed, how is that big headed? I’m being realistic.
Anyway, next time you’re off we should get the kids and go to the lake, I can borrow Nadine’s van. I have burgers and hot dogs, we can throw them on the grill. It would be nice, we can sit and look at the water, let them run around and leave us alone.
I have to see.
Make it happen, just bring the charcoal, oh, and those potato things.
I’ll think about it.
Keep saying that, but thank you again, love, call me later.
She stopped at my table, Good Man, how’s my Good Man?
Bored, I said, a smile still on my face.
You’re almost out of here kid. Take care of your mom for me, okay?
I nodded. I’ll tell Mia you said hi. The door chimed as she left. My mother’s gaze lingered there a moment before she returned to the kitchen.
The recipes came to her in dreams. She’s told me before, It’s weird, we’re at the table, she’s my mother but she’s not my mother—younger, her hair down, a woman who could still write her name.The kitchen with the pink walls, the old fan propped in the window, orchids floating in a bowl of water, something on the stove. Her mother would write on yellowed index cards, the ink bleeding through. When her mother passed her a card, she’d wake up, rushing to turn on the light to write what she could remember. This was why Mi Pais was nothing without her, nothing without her hands and her recipes. Still, the old man who owned the place paid himself more than he had to. Naturally, nothing could be done. Passion doesn’t stop you from being underpaid. All it took was dozens of small decisions to dictate a life.
My chin was on the table, staring at the mundillo mat, a small stitched maze of a sun. She sat down with an exhale, placing the blue bag with our dinner between us. Lift your head, the women who made those didn’t starve for you to lay on them. They came from Moca, from underpaid seamstresses with generations of women in their hands, weaving for a pound of rice, for legacy, their fingers slim and agile as spiders. I tried to fathom how they held the design in their heads then pulled it out with lace. She had bought them when she was younger with the hopes of placing them in her own restaurant; she settled for their placement here.
Are we gonna catch the bus? I asked.
No, it’s gonna rain and I’m too tired for a bus, I called a taxi.
I felt a spark thinking of the smooth ride, the nicotine sunken into the seats, the small freedom of being picked up and dropped off wherever we needed. I stared out the window waiting for something gold to bring me home. But when I looked back at the blue bag full of our dinner, all I wanted to do was sit and eat with her. To have a meal on porcelain plates, just us, not out of boxes, not late at night in one of the many places we called home. She grabbed the picture of the alien I drew.
You know, when they came to Arecibo to build the telescope, they said they were trying to find aliens and listen to the stars. The Americans took the farmland they needed, como siempre, and built a huge disk on top of a mountain. Looked like The Island grew an ear, tilted towards the sky, sat there listening. All I could think about was food, what would aliens think of our food? But what if they didn’t eat like us? What if they ate the sun, like plants? How weird would it be that we ate our food? Planted, grew, and raised our food, turning it into a million things. Maybe they would be amazed by us, she paused. Nothing, nothing connects to food like we do.
I wanted her to keep talking, but the taxi came, golden, splitting the dusk. We packed up and left. Soon, we passed the lot where the car had been burning, only a dark spot left on the ground now. I found her face tired, beyond physical, that fatigue of repetition, that awareness of no way out, tomorrow again. I watched the red numbers climb on the dashboard, trying to find the math in their jumps, until drowsiness, until my eyes closed, the gentle smell of smoke lifting from the fabric, everything black, empty, only the smooth glide over pavement, the sound of my mother’s lungs: opening, closing.
We were evicted once. The notice hung heavy on the door, vivid as an oil painting. I thought I’d see it on all doors, that thing that said this is not yours, never was, nothing is. We had to hurry getting everything out, before the sheriff came and put a lock on the door, before they got to keep all of our stuff. My shirt clung to the sweat on my belly as we moved. I felt a pale man with pale eyes and a badge looming over my shoulder. The whole time I was terrified, worried I’d turn around and find a man grinning, ghost body shed, alive in a fullness that could change a whole life.
My mother started missing the box when she was packing the dishes, throwing them to the floor. I found her in the kitchen, the copper light of coming dusk in crisp bars across her body. These fucking men can do whatever they want to us! Cuz of power, cuz of money, cuz of fucking paper. And no one, no one, not one son of a bitch is coming to help you! The shards of glass a maze at her feet, the sharp tips slanted towards her, lingering on the depth of her skin. I bent my head, scratching the top of my hands until they turned maroon, a shaking in my chest like a bird stuck on its back. She stared out the window. That distance between us so vast, her body unreachable. I started taking the boxes, the black trash bags, and the junk out to the curb. We waited there, all our belongings on display, all our failings open, bare, bright for everyone to see, waiting for Mirlande to come in that beat-down faded gold van with the wood paneling on the side.
We kept moving. During the spaces between steady homes we stayed with friends on their pull-out sofas, with distant cousins and aunties, in motel rooms if we had enough money and no one to burden. Sometimes we had to separate. She dropped me off at a cousin’s house, people I’ve never met before. She didn’t sleep under the same roof as me for weeks. I had no idea where she slept, I only saw her when she came to bring conversation and plates of food for everyone. I started waking in the middle of the night, my eyes adjusting to the dark, working my way with silent feet towards the window, my breath tight. I stared out into the blue-black night, down into the narrow, snow-lined streets, waiting, hoping for her to appear, her brown skin reflecting the drowsy orange light of the street lamps, the darkness small and manageable at her feet. But she was never there, outside that window.
We found a place we could afford. Then Mirlande moved to Miami. Her father was sick. When she and my mother said goodbye, it was ugly. The ceiling fan in the kitchen kept chopping the light, flashing harshly on their skin. They faced each other, a short gap between them that threw me back to the lake trip those years ago, when I found them in different light, a softer space between them. I had wandered off, the shirt I wore to cover my body soaked a darker color, sticking to my skin, the dew heavy in my curls. In the distance, they were facing each other, the ash trees dropping the sunlight on them in fragments, their mouths touching, a kiss like the whole world was emptied, save for them. I turned around and went back into the water believing I had seen something outside of our bodies. The world, as I knew it, was not telling the whole truth of what it could be, what we could be, what I could be. I dove down into the murky water, holding my breath until my lungs burned, that image a photo in my head, until I heard my name skating across the surface with a tint of panic. I rushed up and saw my mother standing at the shore, waving me over, Mirlande behind her. I had let another self slip from me there in the water, a shell sunken to the muddy sand at the bottom.
She wouldn’t leave her bed, a tired creature wrapped up in sheets. I had to call the old man from Mi Pais and lie, told him we were in the hospital, that she couldn’t hold any food down, that she had trouble breathing, that she needed a lot of rest. She got better, but something changed. Something inside her a different color. Routines returned, the restaurant, surviving, the moving, too. Collecting cash for moving fees and rent deposits was a marathon. She tried part-time jobs on the side but they became too much. Something would slow in her, a depression that grew and pulsed within her like an ulcer. I thought it would be simple for her to cook somewhere else, find another restaurant. But the freedom at Mi Pais, the small pieces of customers she held dearly, the exchange of Quiere cafe? Quiere comida? and how they always replied Ah, por favor. When would she have time to look? What would she tell the old man if he found out, if he kicked her out, then we’d be on the streets, that purgatory between Earth and some hell for our people, Puerto Ricans, still searching for the American bodies and homes promised with decades of assimilation, still finding homelessness and poverty and a rabid anxiety needed to stay afloat. The worst thing for us was to be without home, food, or beliefs; that had all been taken before, tightly between white teeth.
Then she came home one night, sat at the edge of the mattress, and wept about quitting another part-time job.
I can’t do anything outside of food. I can’t.
You can do anything, anything Mami.
The pause tightened around our necks, silence, a border laid bold between us, the bass of blood thumping in my ears.
No, I won’t do anything else. No more. I’ll kill myself, you hear me?
Her dark eyes lingered. I saw my face—we had the same color, same full lips, same sadness sunken into our gaze.
For what? For what? Cooking is all I have, I lose life without it, I’m nothing without it, and I won’t become nothing! Wasting my life by giving it to people richer than me! I’m tired. I’m fucking tired.
She locked herself in the bathroom, sitting on the cold tile, her shadow peeking through the thin space at the bottom of the door. I’m okay, I’m okay, she would say every few minutes, but her wanting of death was looped in my head, a shapeless feeling I couldn’t fit into words.
The world, as I knew it, was not telling the whole truth of what it could be, what we could be, what I could be.
After she came out, I watched her sip Bacardi from the bottle until it lulled her to sleep. When her breathing evened, I went to the bathroom to get aspirin ready for her when she woke up. I dropped the bottle and blue pills scattered across the dark floor, several eyes staring back at me. I thought of the photo hanging on her mirror, the one with faint blue lights at the bottom, blurry bodies with white teeth carved into the night like soft quarter moons. The bays in Vieques glow, papa, I have to take you one day, she had once said. Nothing could seem further. I’m fifteen, realizing death wasn’t something you had to wait for. It was a palm full of pills away, soft as rice in the mouth. It was inside you, patient, your body not red and pink within but the color of a hole that had no end, that swallowed everything, even suns. You too could be that big. You too could make it all stop, just like she wanted.
I started dreaming of her handing me photographs, each a deep black like the bottom of the ocean.
We’ve been dreaming since the first people fell asleep on The Island nene, the Taino, los Africanos, she said.
A navy gloom passed through the window. I couldn’t sleep, my skin too hot and damp beneath the blankets. I snuck out quietly to not wake my roommates. I stood on top of my apartment building, waiting. Light, cement, and dusky trees blurred into one color. I was watching the fire in my hand, the light at the tip of a joint. I saw my mother’s fingers. I held it the same way she did, her, waving a dot of fire around in the night, on a balcony, outside the door, in the bathroom with the window open. I pushed the red tip into floor, letting the last bit of silver smoke leave me. There was a missed call and a voicemail on my phone. Then a tightness in my chest, near the base of my throat.
There was a valley between us, all those heavy years a river eroding the ground, dividing us, the carving stronger and stronger since the night she told me she wanted to die. We found comfort in silence. We spoke less. We ate less. We looked at each other and saw the same anger in different bodies, two mirrors facing each other. Anger for a world that would not stop eating us and everything around us. For that somber hunger for death we found in ourselves, brought on by fatigue and inheritance. Poverty had eaten us from the inside out, little by little. We compensated awfully. How I cut the hair we shared, those curls tight to the scalp. How both of us disappeared at night. The quiet between our bodies. On and on, several decisions that lead to an anxiety that grew between my teeth trying to talk to her. How could we speak with this history between us there?
We stopped knowing each other. And our bodies did fight against it, in small protests, the way she wept when I left for college, like losing a limb she had said, a brief laugh through her grief. The way I told her it would be okay, one less body to take care of, that I would call her, that I would send money back when I could. And now what lay between us but a dark field, crops we didn’t know the name of, the foliage cloaked in night? Come home, her voicemail said, I want to have dinner, nene.
I went to school with kids who were raised by nannies, who didn’t understand the absence of money, who lived in a fantasy that superseded the real world. I dropped out. Went back. Almost left again. I was 24, trying to get money, writing grants for my senior photography thesis, attempting to archive the relationship of people and food, to profile the cuisine of Puerto Rico and its people—the science, the magic, the continuum. I wanted to take pictures of their hands, their faces, the people they came from, and the land that sat in us all. I still had never taken my mother’s picture.
I drove home the next morning as a grey light filled the sky. I felt the urge to look left and see the whole world reduced to a blur. I put on the news to keep me focused. The governor of Puerto Rico was calling for statehood again, American mouths were talking about it. My mother had shown me a picture of herself once, standing beneath a waterfall, said you have to go to before they turn it into a state. It will never be the same. A country is always changing, but one that stops being itself becomes invisible. Your abuelo said that, that nacionalista, that dreamer. I didn’t know if he wore black and white, his arms cradling a wooden rifle, or if he held his ideologies pressed against his chest, reading books, changing the world in his mind. I still hadn’t been to Puerto Rico. She was all I knew of The Island. She was The Island.
A fog began to loom. A car cut me off, their back bumper holding a crater, making the trunk bob up and down as the car drove; the maw of an animal opening and closing until it disappeared in the grey. I pulled over and put my hazards on. The anticipation of what waited for me sat on my chest. This dinner, which at one point was all that I wanted. I left the car, the hazards a heartbeat lighting up the fog. I walked to the edge, where the grass turned to woods.
There was too much she would never know about me. I solved the terror of my eyes, my mouth, and every other little fire set across me by a history of hands. And I wanted to tell her about this body—a body that was a continuance of her own, and all those people who sat in us with pieces of themselves missing. I wanted to tell her how it had no name. How being called a man could make me float gently outside my skin. How sick it made me that strangers came to my body with knowledge of it I had never given away. The loudness of gender and how I wanted to find a quietness in myself, outside two pillars. How I wanted to stop performing. The bodies I found myself loving, bathing in some light. My body didn’t make sense until I had the eyes for it. And I see myself now—I wanted her to see me too.
I got back in the car and kept driving. The fog lifted. The trees began to thin as the geography changed, until there were flat farmlands void of movement, until the trees returned, and the shape of the city sat on the horizon. Going back to that place where that kid was still frozen in time, a fossil firm in the sediment of the city. Small body stuck in revolving rooms, revolving faces they couldn’t remember, but beds, and sofas, and all those belongings, all the things the people owned, bright as crystal.
It was inside you, patient, your body not red and pink within but the color of a hole that had no end, that swallowed everything, even suns. You too could be that big.
My mother wasn’t the same. It had been over a year since I last came home. I picked her up at Mi Paisand found her thin, the color falling off her. Her bones softer when she hugged me, a small woman on her toes kissing me on the cheek. A nerve, dead in my center, tender, trembling with each pulse of my heart, questions swimming in my mouth. But nothing came out besides: how’s this, how’s that, and how is the old man treating you. That viejo is retiring! And guess who’s taking over? A joy deep in her face, strong as gravity. His kid passed on the opportunity, but a win is a win,nene!
With me gone, she found a steady place she could decorate, subtle colors of her everywhere. I wanted to take pictures of her, of her hands, and the food, every ingredient she worked with, but I only found the courage to ask to cook with her. What did Google teach you about cooking, nene?
We made mofongo. Sofrito sizzling in a pot, we made arroz con gandules. A salad—avocado and cabbage and tomato and onion and cilantro and vinegar and salt and pepper and fresh pressed garlic with a squeeze of lime. Our hands smelled of citrus, our bellies full. We sat at a small cherrywood table she got at a thrift store. My camera sat in my bag. What bodies did we shed, from there to here, past to present? Who were we? Puerto Ricans stuck in a drift, still moving from an American haunting howling on The Island, howling in us. A forced migration a hundred years old. Still moving. Still moving. Still unable to ask her anything, to tell her anything.
I have to tell you something, she said, it’s going to be okay, okay?
My mother is an ouroboros, her body swallowing itself. They found something on her lung. It could go either way. I know the sickness can summon her everywhere. In dreams, all the spaces light collects, in the texture of my hair as I began to grow it out. Months after our dinner, I was running on a trail in the woods. They had begun to chop the trees down to make way for a new road, the wood limbs laid dead on the side of the pavement, the fresh, raw scent spilling from the severed stumps. There, amidst the thin trunks in the distance, I thought I saw her—hands holding her lower back, stained apron clasped to her body, that coy smile on her face she would save for Mirlande. I stopped—my legs, my lungs, my whole body burning. I know light is trickster. I know we carry everyone inside, so even in the end she will be beyond a body, finding eternity through me, healing through me. My mother, an ouroboros, a small forever.