12 January, 2021
IT STARTED THAT SUMMER with Bookie & Reynaldo’s mom, the one with blonde hair who looked like T-Boz from the R&B group TLC. The boys and their mom lived in an apartment down the street from us until one day their windows were boarded up and they were gone. My friend Nina, who had a crush on Bookie, told me their mom had been selling drugs and now she was in jail.
“Their mom sold drugs?” I heard her just fine, but I was having trouble believing the news.
I stared at their building and wondered how people could disappear while the world kept moving along without a pause.
This was the summer I was twelve years old. I had first met Nina a few weeks prior when I was in the corner store getting candy with my younger sisters Ann and Emerson. Nina looked to be about my age and also had two younger sisters with her.
Nina and her sisters watched how we placed our orders with Pam, pointing out our selections behind the glass counter that displayed rows and rows of brightly colored candy. The labels competed for our attention. Made with real strawberry flavor! Lucky Lights, the candy cigarettes that are just like Dad’s! We paid with food stamps because candy counted as food.
Rosie, the owner and store’s namesake, was a rotund woman with hair the color of a ripe tomato. She sat with her legs up in an armchair all day while she barked orders at Pam. Pam was plain with short gray hair that she always covered with a hairnet. She ran the cash register and cooked on the store’s grill, behind which Rosie had placed a sign that read, Please don’t embarrass us by asking for credit. I didn’t understand because nearly everyone in the neighborhood had a tab.
“You girls must be new,” Rosie said to Nina and her sisters.
“Yes. We moved here from Puerto Rico,” Nina said.
“Rhode Island’s a long way from Puerto Rico,” Rosie commented.
Outside, the youngest sister walked up to Emerson. She wore sparkly pink jellies on her feet and reached into her bag to offer my sister a piece of candy.
“Hi, I’m Chelly.” she said.
We started hanging out all the time. We would meet them outside Rosie’s in the early afternoon to buy a snack then retreat to their bedroom to hide from the sun and watch Spanish language soap operas. Nina would tell us the back story and translate each of the scenes as the gorgeous actors screamed and cried and kissed one another.
“She was kidnapped and that’s her husband and she thinks he saved her, but he was really behind the kidnapping the whole time,” Nina explained as she bit off a piece of candy necklace.
I loved to look through their closet at the carefully arranged outfits, each pair of shorts with its matching top and sometimes even a headband. My sisters and I had stopped wearing matching outfits years earlier, but Nina and her sisters often coordinated theirs. Pink one day, plaid another.
We would walk to the local park that had a couple of playgrounds and a pond everyone referred to as Social Ocean or we’d sit on the steps outside their apartment building. Our new friends would play in our yard from time to time, but we never invited them inside our house. There was too much inside that required explaining, like why our baby brother Johnny screamed in his high chair for hours in front of the television or why Mom was sleeping at two o’clock in the afternoon. Dysfunction was to be guarded like a family recipe.
Just before we met the sisters, we were watching television one night when blue lights began to dance along the living room walls. When I peeked out the window to see what was going on, I saw Mom pulling the car into the driveway with a police cruiser behind her.
My sisters ran to the window to join me. We watched as the police and Mom spoke.
“Let’s open the windows.” Emerson moved to slide the glass up.
“No, shhh.” I pushed her hands away. We could only watch so long as we went undetected.
As Mom turned toward us, I expected her to walk up the driveway and the police to drive away but instead they placed handcuffs on her and led her to the back of the cruiser. My younger siblings cried and screamed and asked why they were taking Mom away, but I had no answers for them. I only had questions. Why couldn’t the cops let her go? Did they know she had children? If so, did they care if there was another adult home to care for us? Wasn’t getting into the driveway like being safe in a game of tag?
In response to Mom’s DUI, Nana sent Uncle Cliff to stay with us under the pretense that he would help out. Although he was over six feet tall and in his mid-twenties, his immaturity and freckles made him seem younger. I doubted his utility from the start, and as the days passed, I learned that I was right in this assumption. He didn’t actually do anything to help. He didn’t cook when Mom forgot, he manipulated my younger siblings into doing him favors, and he never helped feed or bathe Johnny.
When I went into the basement where Uncle Cliff had set up a cot to sleep, I was looking to take out my new purple 10-speed bike for my first summer ride. It wasn’t there. I raced upstairs ready to murder one of my siblings for riding it without my permission.
“Where’s my fucking bike?” I demanded. They barely moved their heads away from the television program. Uncle Cliff, however, smirked like he had a funny secret.
“That was your bike?” “Yeah, it’s mine.”
He laughed. “It’s not anymore. I sold it.”
I wanted to punch him in his face. Instead, I decided to get Mom after him. Then he’d have to go home. I ran to the dining room.
“Mom, did you hear that? Uncle Cliff stole my bike!”
“He did?” She looked at me blankly with shrunken pupils. “Mom, what are you going to do about it? He stole my bike!”
She mumbled something that was apparently a threat to her brother as her chin fell to her chest.
I tore through the living room and hurled myself up the stairs two at a time. I wouldn’t give Uncle Cliff the satisfaction of seeing me upset. I slammed my bedroom door shut and flung myself on my bed. I cried hot, angry tears. I envisioned punching and kicking my uncle until he bled and cried. I was even more pissed at my mother for her failure to take action against him. What was wrong with her? Since when didn’t she protect her kids? I wanted to shake her awake and force her to protect me.
Ann came upstairs later to tell me that Uncle Cliff had bragged that he spent the money from my bike on prostitutes and crack. He taunted me later when I came back downstairs to watch The Ricki Lake Show.
“Did the little baby have a good cry over her bike?”
“Fuck you, Cliff.”
I fell in love with Nina’s older brother the first time I saw him. My sisters and I were lounging around in Nina’s room when Gabriel rushed in to give his sisters a few dollars.
“For lunch,” he said gruffly and hurried out.
He was only a year older than me, but he had a way of rushing around like he was overwhelmed as the man of the house. I wondered if his dad had told him to take care of things or if he just fell into that role. I didn’t even know where their father was, but I didn’t ask because I didn’t think it was polite. Plus, I didn’t want to have to explain the absence of my own father.
I was always on the lookout for Gabriel when I was in Nina’s apartment. I craved a glimpse of him. I thought only of his brown eyes and the scent of his cologne. I started taking special care with my outfits and applied my mother’s Covergirl foundation and mascara to look my best. Most of the time he wasn’t even home, and when I did get lucky enough to see him, he largely ignored me. Still, I lived for those times when he did appear. A smile or a nod from him provided me with sustenance for days.
One evening, my sisters and I were listening to music in Nina’s room when Gabriel showed up. Instead of running in and out like usual, he sat on the twin bed, nodding his head to the music. I froze, stopped singing along, and focused on breathing.
As Soul for Real’s “Candy Rain” played on the radio, Gabriel reached over and ran his fingers along my shin. Thank God I had started shaving my legs.
“So smooth,” he said, smiling.
I was never leaving.
“It’s getting dark out. Shouldn’t we go home?” Emerson asked me.
“It’s fine. We can stay a little later.”
There was no clock in Nina’s room, but it must have been close to midnight when we finally walked home. There were no lights so I figured we had lucked out and could sneak upstairs and Mom would never know what time we actually got home.
“Where have you been?”
I couldn’t see my mother in the dark, but the cherry of her cigarette glowed. She was sitting in the rocking chair waiting for us.
“We were at Nina’s.”
“You’re all grounded for the rest of the summer.”
“But Mom! It was Kristin’s fault.” Emerson had no shame in calling me out. “Go to bed.”
We headed upstairs. There was no point in arguing with her. Mom didn’t have too many rules but being home before dark was one of them. I had always hated that rule, had thought that nothing fun happened until nighttime, had wanted to be grown before I was even a teenager. Yet, a part of me was buoyed by the fact that she had stayed up to wait for us. It meant she still cared and that there was still hope.
After three weeks of complaining, Mom relented and our curfew was restored to dusk. We made sure to be on time, even when she started going out at night.
Mom sent Uncle Cliff home after he stole her Firebird and crashed it into the side of someone’s house. After that, I watched her retreat. People say that eyes are the windows to the soul and Mom’s eyes were different. It was as if part of her had disappeared deep inside and we were getting only the small part that it took to get through each day.
Nina introduced me to two girls who lived in an apartment above Rosie’s store. Rita was the older sister but appeared to be no more than ten. Her small stature, combined with short, unruly hair and teeth that were crowded like a shark, made her an easy target for neighborhood bullies. Her sister Maria was beautiful with long, wavy hair, but more than anything, she was her sister’s protector. No one could talk shit about Rita if she was around. Plus, if she couldn’t stop the bullies, the sisters had a bunch of older brothers that could be alerted if needed.
We rarely saw Maria and Rita’s mother, but she made herself known when she was around. If our windows were open, we could hear her screaming at her boyfriend from their balcony. Their grandmother would try to calm her down but once she was on a roll there was no stopping her. One time, she threw his clothes onto the street. Jeans and boxers and sneakers rained down and covered the cement. I wondered what he did to piss her off like that.
When a new convenience store opened down the street and the prices were cheaper than Rosie’s, we gladly spent our money there. I didn’t think anything ever got Rosie out of her armchair, but she came out to the street screaming at us whenever she saw we had bags from another store. We’d run past her on the other side of the street, laughing our asses off, not stopping until we rounded the corner out of sight.
The store sold candies I’d never seen before and Nina introduced us to quenepas, a fruit the size of a grape with a green outer shell and a pulpy center. We used to sit in the shade and crack the shells open, suck out the edible part, and spit the seeds into the street. We had a competition to see who could get them to go into the storm drains. In these moments when we were free to savor the tangy sweetness of the fruit, it didn’t matter who our mothers were or who they weren’t. It didn’t matter that we bought the snacks with food stamps we stole from their purses. We were just girls passing time in the middle of summer.
In those days, we saw Dad sporadically. Once a date was set to take us on a visit, he’d ramp up the telephone calls in advance. Sometimes Mom would let the phone ring and ring and other times she would pick up and I’d listen to her side of the conversation.
“But they need new school uniforms.”
“No, I can’t afford to buy them myself.”
“What guys? I’m fucking the mailman? I can’t deal with your shit today.”
My body tensed during these phone calls and I felt a rush of energy within the depths of my guts. I hated what he did to her and wished for him to leave us alone forever.
Dad arrived one afternoon, pulling his latest dilapidated vehicle up to the house. It was a truck with a covered bed, haphazardly spray-painted a red that almost matched the color of the rust eating away at the body.
“Make sure you hold on when we get on the highway,” my father said as we climbed into the back.
Dad drove through the neighborhood streets on the way out of town. We threw Boston Baked Beans out the back and watched them bounce along the cement roads. In between tosses of the candies, Emerson told my father that Mom had promised her a new toy if she was good at school.
“Your mother is a cunt.”
Emerson said nothing in response. I doubted she even knew the meaning of the insult. It was the worst word I knew.
I felt a wave of hot lava run through my body.
“So is your mother,” I said.
I didn’t really think that about her. We barely knew our grandmother. She had taken Ann and me to the ballet in Boston once and bought us giant pretzels. I remembered that her house was immaculately clean and smelled of potpourri.
My father pulled the truck over onto the side of the road and turned to face me. “What’s wrong with you? he sneered. “You’re a jerk. Get out.”
I grabbed my backpack and jumped out of the truck. My siblings knew better than to say anything. Whoever did would be Dad’s next target.
I walked through the front door about an hour later.
“Dad kicked me out of the car.”
“Where is he?” Mom looked over my shoulder like she feared the rest of the kids being sent back too.
“In the car. I walked home.”
I hovered there, waiting for something more. Anything. She said nothing.
“I guess I’ll go rent a movie. Can I have your Blockbuster card?” I asked.
She gestured toward her purse. I took the card and some money.
“Is there anything you want to see?” I asked, hopeful for a movie night with her. We’d crank the air conditioner up high and snuggle under throw blankets while eating popcorn.
“Get whatever you want.”
I walked down to Blockbuster as the sun made its nightly departure, the sky the color of raspberry sherbert. I meandered through the aisles, ditching the kids’ movies in favor of dramas. As I stepped around a guy decked out in head-to- toe Red Sox gear, I spotted a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, my favorite heartthrob. Ann favored Jonathan Taylor Thomas and had woken up every morning staring into his face—okay, to a poster of his face— until someone had stuck gum over each of his eyeballs. No one ever fessed up. I didn’t care for JTT, but I would watch anything with Leo in it. After pausing to stare lovingly at Leo’s image, his sultry pout and messy hair in contrast with his prep school suit and tie, I flipped over the cover to read the description of Basketball Diaries. Based on a true story, the movie promised to tell how Jim Carroll went from rising high school basketball star to drug addict. Yes, this was the movie I needed to see.
I grabbed the lone copy before someone else snatched it away from me and headed to the checkout. Mom was one of those parents who didn’t put any restrictions on the account so there was no need for me to show any identification to rent an R-rated movie. I grabbed a box of sour candies that I knew were overpriced but I bought anyway because I was high off the power of having five dollars in my pocket to spend.
At home, I slid the VHS into the player right away. I watched my precious Leo maneuver his way across the basketball court with the grace of a ballet dancer. As he coped with a friend’s death, the pressure to succeed, and the advances of a pedophile coach, Leo’s character went from experimenting with drugs to performing sex acts for heroin within the first hour. I was enthralled. At school, D.A.R.E. had taught us the dangers of drugs but I was greedy for the real story. What did someone act like when they were high? What did it look like to be addicted to drugs? How did someone ever come back from an addiction? These were the details I was craving but that I couldn’t ask my mother.
She was sitting in the next room, never making the move from dining room table to couch to join me. About two-thirds through the movie, as Leo heaved up vomit and sweated profusely from withdrawal, she called out to me.
“Does that impress you?”
I paused for a moment, surprised by her question.
“No,” I replied.
Truthfully, it did impress me a little. Hollywood had combined Leonardo DiCaprio and heroin and somehow made it sexy. However, I thought of my selection as reconnaissance. Watching this movie was my subtle way of letting my mother know I was on to her.
Neither one of us said anything after that and I resumed watching the movie. If her question was an opportunity for a real discussion, my mother and I missed it.
The thing I remember most about Nina’s mom is that she was always on the telephone.
“She misses Puerto Rico,” Nina would explain. It made sense to me. If I was far away from my family, I’d want to talk to them all the time too.
One morning, Ann and I took a ride with Nina, her mom, and a guy who Nina said was her mom’s friend. He drove while we sat in the backseat and watched the buildings whiz by as we drove to an unfamiliar part of town. When we finally parked, I wondered if we were still in Rhode Island or had crossed the nearby border into Massachusetts. Graffiti covered the walls of buildings and people stood around on the corners. We waited in the car.
The leather seats were slick against our thighs and the air was thick without a breeze. After about forty-five minutes, Nina, Ann, and I got out of the car and sat under the shade of a tree on the sidewalk. We watched people walk by, and each time, I wondered if this was the person we were waiting for.
There were only so many games we could play before boredom set in. Still, we waited. Nina’s mother gave us a couple dollars to go buy a snack. There was a payphone outside the corner store and Ann took a quarter to call Mom. We thought she’d be worried about us. The phone rang and rang and rang but no one picked up.
We eventually got back in the car and left. I don’t know if Nina’s mom ever got what she was waiting for. It was dark by the time we got back to our neighborhood.
“Do you think they were waiting for drugs?” I asked my sister.
“No way. She’s a mom.”
She said it so assuredly, like I was silly for even suggesting it.
We arrived home and Mom was sitting in front of the television, which wouldn’t have been so odd if there were a program playing and not the fuzzy black and white scramble of no signal.
“Mom, we tried calling you, but you didn’t pick up,” Ann explained.
She looked up at us like she hadn’t noticed that we had been gone.
“Where were you?”
“We went for a ride with Nina’s mom,” I answered.
“Don’t do it again.”
She should have at least grounded us.
A few weeks later, I went down to Rosie’s to buy Mom a pack of cigarettes on one of those sweltering days when being out in the sun seemed like a punishment. I handed Pam the dollar bills and she grabbed some quarters to feed the vending machine in the corner of the store. She slid the quarters into the slot, pulled the lever, and handed me the red packet.
“Put them in your pocket and go straight home,” she whispered. It was the same routine every time.
“Those girls upstairs. Did you know their mother died?” Rosie asked me.
“Rita and Maria’s mom died?” I asked.
“Yeah. Speedballing–you know, heroin and cocaine together. Gets ‘em every time.” Rosie took a bite from her giant sandwich, unperturbed by the death.
Pam added, “All I heard last night was the little girls crying out for their mother.”
I walked home from the store contemplating the news. I didn’t even know their mother did drugs. I wondered if Maria and Rita had known and if it had made them sad. Had they asked her to stop?
It probably shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me. At least twice in the past few months, I had seen a SWAT team rush silently past our house, guns perched on their shoulders as they headed into the alley to raid another neighbor’s apartment. Those buildings now stood empty and covered in spray-painted tags. We cut through there as a shortcut on our way around the neighborhood, careful not to get broken glass in our flip flops, the same broken glass that Nina and I used one afternoon to become blood sisters.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the death of Rita’s mom. She was way too young to die. I wondered what would make a mother choose drugs over her children. In the books I was reading in the library, there always seemed to be a character willing to sacrifice herself for something else, a notion that I found enticingly romantic. Oftentimes, this character was a woman or a mother. That must be love, right? The idea of taking a bullet for someone else seemed to me the ultimate act of selflessness.
“Mom, if someone pointed a gun at you and said you can save your child or yourself, which option would you choose?” I asked her.
“Myself,” she answered without hesitation.
Too stunned by her response, I didn’t ask any follow up questions or challenge her. I had been so sure that she would choose to save one of us. Wasn’t the role of the mother to sacrifice for her children? But since she chose herself, didn’t it mean that she wanted to live, and by her living, we would continue to be okay?
Gabriel came by our yard with his sisters one afternoon with a bottle of perfume, a bowl, and a book of matches. We watched him as he placed the bowl on the ground, poured in the perfume, and lit a match. I anticipated the blaze of the flame, but instead of dropping the match in, he blew it out.
“Almost forgot.” He jumped over the bowl from front to back, then jumped over it once from side to side, making the sign of the cross.
“We have to protect Mommy,” he explained for his sisters’ benefit, then lit an- other match and tossed in in the liquid. Blue flames licked the edges of the bowl. We stared at the fire, mesmerized, until the perfume burned off and the flames disappeared.
I wanted to laugh at him, to challenge the idea that he could do anything to protect his mother, but I knew I was no different. I prayed to God regularly, begging him to protect my mother. I avoided cracks on the sidewalk. I would have lit perfume on fire if I had thought of it first.
The following week, as August winded down, Ann and Emerson went by Nina’s apartment to find it boarded up, just like Bookie & Reynaldo’s had been earlier in the summer. My sisters reported this information to me, along with the scoop from Rosie.
“Nina’s mother was arrested for selling drugs,” Ann said.
“Where are the kids? I asked.
“They went on an airplane,” Emerson said, eager to supply useful information.
That night, I sat on my bed and picked at my cuticles until the skin around all ten of my fingers was red and raw. Mom could be the next to disappear.