Undertow

A year later, I felt that I looked like an idiot, shedding two single tears in a Golden Corral.

un atardecer de enero en Ponce

A year later, it was Monday night, toward the end of a family vacation. I mean, it wasn’t the end end of our week-long trip; we wouldn’t fly out of Orlando until Thursday, but by Monday night we had reached that moment when the joy of reunion in a place other than home begins to wear off and unresolved antagonisms creep their way back to the surface. We had gone to Disney’s Animal Kingdom that day. The whole trip was mother’s way of reliving a time when her two children were actually children, and, through that return which was no return, of coming to some sort of agreement with time about the fact that her children were no longer children. Standing outdoors in winding lines for long stretches of time, I distinctly remember the sun grabbing onto my skin, onto my neck, my naked arms with a deadlock grip. Father decides to kill time by sparking a conversation. He makes no note of the weather. That would have been counterproductive under the unbearable heat. No, he brings up Puerto Rico, Oscar López, FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña), terrorism, Latin American leftist politics…

Earlier that morning, a year later, I had expressed desire to visit Pulse, to pay my respects at the site where 49 dancing, drinking, performing, slaying, shady lives had been forced to pass away on Latin night. I doubt, however, that my wish was what prompted father’s selection of small talk for the day. Whatever the reason for his insistence may have been, I repeatedly declined the invitation to engage, warning him that whenever we talk about these things, we always end up fighting. And I did not want to fight. Remember, it was hot; and I was wearing my usual black jeans in a family amusement park full of screeching strollers on the eve of the anniversary. Again, I did not want to end up fighting about all that.

A year later, after dinner…well, you already where this is going. My fortitude had been melting away. The “high ground” I clawed at had been eroding with each bead of sweat dripping down my tanned back. Maybe it was my embarrassment at the fact that I had to sit through dinner with jeans ripped right under the crotch. Maybe it was my annoyance at the fact that father had paid a handsome price for a buffet dinner — since when has Golden Corral, second only to Ponderosa as far as low budget Puerto Rican dining goes, gotten so expensive? — only to waste his first helping on some undercooked chicken. “Pai, no te comas eso. ¡No!” No, I refused to accept any ethical claim by Goya, JetBlue, The Yankees, and especially the NYPD to judge Oscar López and FALN. Father, who in the 80’s had fled Guatemala’s civil war, exploded in response. Detonating. “Tu lo lees, pero yo lo viví…yo lo he vivido, Emmanuel.” Out of reflex, I retorted, “Pues no leamos ná, siguiendo en lo mismo.”

That night, a year later, the truest and most lasting response I actually wanted to but could not give him leaked in the form of two single tears, which I did not shed while facing him. “Shed” isn’t the right word; it was more like those two tears escaped. They had managed to splash over a dam, a well-fortified dam, a calcified dam. Mother saw them flee, though. I know she saw them because some were about to run away from behind her eyes too. With a cheap brown paper napkin, I quickly wiped away fugitive tears and with them any fleeting hope of being able to explain them, of detailing their fullness, how anger, longing, loneliness, sadness, and despair trickled from them.

A year later, at some point past midnight, father walked into the room and told us — my sister and I — that no matter what we had to stay together. “Podemos discutir y nos podemos enojar, pero tenemos que guardarnos las espaldas. Si no lo hacemos nosotros, quién más.” Silence. Exit. I resumed and ended a phone call I had placed on hold. After debating with my sister whether mother had sent him — she believes it was all him — I tried to explain: theory has kept me afloat. Her eyes grew open, pushing eyebrows upward — that “oh” you give when you realize something hidden in plain sight — just as they had opened a decade ago when I asked her what she would do if she happened to have a gay brother…But my words weren’t quite right. They didn’t quite hit the mark that my tears might have hit if I had let them fall instead of wiping them away. Are there words large enough, precious enough, precise enough to describe the feels, to bind them as if by spell, to chop and chisel boulders down to stones? Which combination of words is it? What is the word? Unclaimed corpses of closeted Puerto Rican faggots; our mental baptized in terror; the undertow widening the distance between a truck driver and his bookish son; abuelo — all of it surged at once, condensing on the inside of a surface stretched taut, which held, moored at bay until those two damned tears betrayed me.

Regardless, a year later, it was too late. The moment had passed and not even the trace of a salt trail remained. My sister brought up a six-pack of Coronas from the fridge and the next day I took my copy of The Black Jacobins to Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

**

Hortense Spillers recently described her writing career as one of interruptions, as one always responding to interruptions. And I ask myself, how many interruptions can my writing hand keep up with? Popular wisdom advises, “Choose your battles wisely,” but what happens when they come knocking at your door? When they barge right through the front door, leaving nothing but lifeless bodies and endless tears in their wake? How many interruptions, which you soon learn are not interruptions but “just the way things are,” the terms and conditions with which brown bodies are leased a living — how many can my scribbling hand annotate? Lactic acid builds up between sinews and tendons. Sooner or later, cramped hands, too, cry, exhausted from all these interruptions.

Words; words; words. How many can I attend to? From crisis to crisis, from call to call — and to think I have chosen this as my livelihood. “Publish or perish” is my line of work’s version of “el que no trabaja, que no coma.” Words. Words: “Hands up!” “Don’t shoot!” Bang! (I can’t) breathe. Words working working words, working against breath, choking breath through breath gasping for breath (be)fore breath. Breath besieged and bespoken. What is the word? And then there are tears.

A year ago, an old, short, dark-skinned woman shuffled into the laundromat up the street from where I live. Wisps of gray curls peek through her knitted hat. I can still see them playing in the wind. And her black sweater jacket gives way to a flowing, blue sunflower print skirt. Worn out keds match the faded blue. Como dicen, “Pentecostal de la cabeza a los pies.”

“¡Jelou!” Se sienta a esperar. “¿Hablas español?” She asks while she waits.
“Sí.”
“¿De dónde?”
“Mami es de Puerto Rico.”
“Mira, pues yo también.”
“¿De qué parte?”
“Santurce.”
“Mami nació en Río Piedras…¿Piensa regresar?”
“No.”
“Ajá…que pase buen día.”
“Muy amable, igual a usté.”

I turn away from her, back to drafting my term paper on an old, short, dark-skinned Dominican character named Doña Ana that I once read in a short story…

Wayment. A year ago?

Was she really there? In a place she had never been? But I knew she was there, in that place I knew her to be. And she was never there. I was there. I saw her handle her business and shuffle away. On a hot, summer, sunny Sunday morning, I was there. I saw her there. Overwhelmed by the scene, I was there. The deluge of police lights; the youthfulness of the dead; the silence of the floor. I saw the woman cry. I saw her cry. Sit, sit and cry, in a place where I never was, but I must have been before. I heard her cry. I heard her call. I heard her cry call. Ring. On the silent dance floor. Ring. On the bloody dance floor. Ring. From among the dead that plank the floor. Ring. The washer unlocks and I dig the dripping clothes out into the dryer.

**

“¿Aquí? No, aquí no vive nadie…total, ¿cómo?”

Habiéndose despedido, Elisa cierra la funeraria de nuevo con doble llave. Desde adentro y con leve jorobo se le queda viendo al cartero. Siempre llevaba una tos seca, pero — ¿trayendo cartas personales a la funeraria? — la enfermedad tuvo que habérsele trepao por la cabeza. Definitivo. Sus espaldas astilladas por el sol de estío — ¿qué rayos significa verano en el Caribe anyway? — se desparraman más y más como caramelo derretido por una de las alcantarillas de la calle McCleary. Así mismo es; el sol azota todas las vías asfaltadas de Puerto Rico, tanto la de McCleary como la de Loíza. Y pa’llá va el cartero, pa’ la calle Loíza, a pie, sudando toda esa dulzura enfermiza, buscando algún parentesco a refugio bajo los recovecos sombríos. Dos perros le siguen.

“Monga, full, y en pleno verano, ‘dito, concho,” lamenta la anciana.

Colándose por tejidos gruesos, canosos hilos juegan con el aire acondicionado que da justo en la entrada de la funeraria. Da fuerte, como si al darte la bienvenida te dijera, “Por fin, haz llegado; de aquí en adelante no sudarás más, sino que te frisarás.” Aquel vendaval abanica el olor a vinagre con que la portera hace brillar los pisos losados. Para las secciones alfombradas usa un polvo aparte, difícil de encontrar, o mejor dicho, carísimo, porque en el Caribe las alfombras solo aplanan los hoteles y las funerarias, y también algunas iglesias, mega iglesias — es que la atmósfera isleña mareada por la sal por todas partes deja las telas encagriná.

Con rapidez de vieja — es decir, a paso lento apurao, ¿verdad? — comienza a mapear las escaleras que suben enroscadas hacia los baños y el comedor. Todo tiene que quedar impecable. Que se pueda comer del mismito piso, especialmente los pisos del baño, por supuesto que los pisos del baño porque los que andan en duelo también comen y cagan. Ella había escuchado por allí que la nena se murió sofocada bajo una estampida de universitarios, quienes al escuchar sonar las sirenas policiales acercándose a la entrada principal de la iupi salieron corriendo como sólo puede un enjambre huyendo. Dicen que ella también fue parte de la estampida, pero que un resalto se interpuso y que se la llevaron enredá. ¡Imagínate! Un guardia tumbao terminó con su vida.

Era hija única de la profesora que tiene fama de siempre andar con estudiantes patos, los cuales, como sabes, siempre atraen unos cuantos moscos golosos. Pasan horas hablando de cómo traducir “queer,” que si la traducción era necesaria, que si al perder los puertorriqueños la ciudadanía se casarían con gringos o con españoles, que si entonces los dominicanos se irían a Cuba por mar o por vías haitianas. De más está decir que ninguna de estas sandeces se discuten sin darse unos palos. Eso sí, la profesora solo toma Presidente y maví. Puede ser que la nena haya muerto durante una de estas reuniones. ¿Quién sabe? Digo, no lo digo yo. Bueno, aquella funeraria se va a convertir en una jaula de plumas y lloriqueos, y no se sabe si vendrá el ministro al caer la noche.

“Si no buscaron del Señor en vida, pues que no me busquen por muerto,” había dicho el reverendo al escuchar la noticia de la difunta.

De cualquier manera, la portera — feligrés a fin de cuentas — canta el coro avivao de la vigilia de antenoche mientras escurre un trapo. “Ríos de agua viva…él está aquí, él está aquí, el santo — ” tac tac tac. El embalsamador, vestido completamente de blanco, con la punta de una llave color oro toca el vidrio de la puerta.

“Ábreme, Elisa, que está a punto de caer un aguacero.”