“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” —Nelson Mandela
The moment I saw the Exxon sign, I knew I had arrived. Though the gas station’s name had since changed–its original I cannot remember–what it represented had not. I felt it. It resided in my body: inside the tissue that lined my red flesh, was written into my bone marrow, and etched its tapestry into my skin. There was no mistaking that familiar street. It beckoned and tugged at my hand, as if asking: Remember. Remember? Instantly, I became five again: my sister holding my mother’s left hand, and I, as always, her right.
As we approached Willoughby Ave, and soon Vanderbilt Street, I became that child again, expecting to see the gas station’s neon sign burning bright, beaming, like a welcome home sign.
Fifteen years had passed since we moved from Brooklyn. Unlike the many nights I crossed these streets with my mother and sister, the three of us side by side, this time I traveled alone. Well not completely alone, but rather with a who I had met on a gay hookup site only weeks before, who had a ridiculous, unidirectional crush on me. But when he heard my story, he suggested and offered me a pilgrimage ride, in his beat up white jeep, back to my roots, I accepted. I had returned–just not with them.
As he drove down Vanderbilt Street, passing through the underpass that lead onto Hall Street, my heart began beating so fast, I kept my mouth closed just in case it decided to crawl out.
I wanted to revel in this moment. Capture each scene, each second, each moment, like a photograph. But with no camera in hand, I would have to remember and rely on my memory instead.
There it stood. 83 Hall Street. The four story building I grew up in. Our 2 bedroom apartment still directly facing the park across the street, overlooking the swings and trees where Asia showed her vagina to 6 year old me–the first and last I would ever see face to face. Overlooked the monkey bars, two slides and the enormous basketball court which took up significantly more space than children’s side of the park.
It was during these formative years that I enjoyed a luxury I would not know of again until I moved into my first apartment. I had my very own bedroom.
We parked and remained seated in the car. The silence of strangers sat as a third passenger between us. Cushioned, desireful and curious.
My eyes shifted its gaze and focus back to 83. Traveled its length. Felt for its texture and scale. Assessed its change. But it had not. My eyes then climbed to the second floor, where our apartment had been located, but now was occupied by someone else. Some other family. Not my own. My focus then shifted and became fixated on the window that belonged to my old bedroom. The fire escape–the cold, black iron bars–still remained outside, cradling the window in its ribcage, connecting the bedroom to the kitchen adjacent to it.
I closed my eyes and attempted to remember the details of my old room: rectangular in shape and medium in size, with a singular closet, neatly tucked in the back, which held the Boogyman and all the ghosts that at night desired to play. My bed was placed right in the middle, adjacent to the window. As a child, I always feared and had a reoccurring nightmare of someone–a bald headed, pale skin man with blacked out eyes–would climb up from the fire escape and crawl inside my bedroom through this window, and do us harm. Do harm, first to me.
It was a constant fear; a fear that made me double and triple check at night that all of the windows were locked before resigning to sleep. It was too, this fear–which would follow me as an adult–of having a bedroom next to a fire escape, or be seated in the emergency exit window seat on an airplane. The enormous responsibility of alerting others that an emergency was taking place.
The first and only emergency we had to use that fire escape for was the one time my sister lost the keys to our apartment while at school. She was a chronic misplacer of things. My mother, at work, would call us, like clockwork, every day after school at 3pm sharp to make sure that we had gotten home alright. That particular day we had not. I remember my sister having to ask her classmate and best friend, Ivan, who lived on the fourth floor with his nuclear family of four, to help us get back inside. Of course we would have been able to wait it out in his apartment, his parents and my mom being friends and all. But we feared most missing our mother-call. If we were not on the other end to receive it, her mother-fear would kick in, full gear, imagining we had been kidnapped, or worse.
I remember Ivan looking at me suspiciously, his eyebrows raised, as if asking without asking, “Why can’t José Alfredo do it? Boys should able to do this.” His eyes–like the countless the male eyes I would continuously encounter throughout my life–scanning, questioning, assessing, accusing. Scaling my maleness up and down, measuring back and forth. Eyes that have no warmth or depth, with no desired attempt to understand or empathize. The expectation and assumption that, of course, I would not be able to–rather dare to–venture out and onto the fire escape stairs. “He’s just a fag,” they said without saying.
But because Ivan had a crush on my sister, he of course would not miss the opportunity to impress her or turn this favor down. In a matter of minutes, we watched Ivan crawl out from the his apartment window, onto the black, iron bars, climb down the fire escape until landing one story below to ours. He pressed the palm of his hands upon the kitchen window pane, until the glass gave away and lifted upwards, and allowed enough room for his body to crawl inside. He levered his legs until they were firmly anchored onto our window sill and slid effortlessly inside. From upstairs we could hear his footsteps thumping below, as he ran across our kitchen and through the living room, the sound of the front door bolt give away and unlock. His voice traveled up the stairs to us, announcing: “It’s open!”
I had a twin sized bed frame, made of light and smooth pinewood. It had four posts, one for each side of its frame. On top of each post carved wooden bulbs, the size of really large apples, sat perched. Stickers of all shapes and sizes lined the bed’s headboard like soldiers. Stickers I had collected throughout the years. Whenever I was given one at school for reading the most books or for having perfect attendance, I would save it in my book bag, anxiously waiting for the school bell to ring so I could get home and place it on the headboard.
Eventually one day, my mom being upset about something I can’t remember, forced me to take them off all of. “No quiero que me dejes ni uno ahi!” The smallness of my fingers worked and searched for the in-between space between stickers, glue and wood–for removal–using my fingertips and the smooth edge of a butter knife. Gorilla-sized-tears streamed down my face at the loss.
I remember a feeling entering and lining the pit of my stomach as I watched my mother move back and forth from the refrigerator to the stove. A feeling I could then not name then but would continue to follow me throughout my life, and one day reveal its name to me.
Every night, after washing dishes from that night’s dinner and before going to bed herself, my mom would make it a habit to visit my bedroom to check and ensure that I was actually asleep. With my quilto pulled up to my chin, I would quickly close my eyes as soon as I heard her footsteps traveling on and between the peach plastic kitchen floor tiles that always seemed to creak and crack no matter how much one avoided shifting their weight to avoid making noise. My mother would then pry my bedroom door open, a sliver of fluorescent kitchen light streaming inside, spilling onto my bedroom’s wooden floors in silent drifts.
Sometimes what she saw would suffice: silence and stillness. Satisfied, she would close the door and retrace her steps back to the bedroom she shared with my sister. Most of the time, however, mami would step into my room, not satisfied with just seeing the outline of my body nestled beneath and within the folds of my blanket. She needed to know. She needed confirmation.
She would gently whisper and call my pet name out into the dark: “Alfredito. Alfredito?” It was more of an assurance than a question. “Alfredito? Alfredito.” Even if I was awake, I wouldn’t dare answer her back. Afraid of being scolded or getting her upset.
The air would give in and shift. The weight of her body negotiating and compromising with the limited availability of aire that inhabited my room. She would then place the palm of her hands–never too cold, never too warm, surprisingly always cool–upon my cheek, as if checking my temperature, before residing and kissing me goodnight. Other times, she would choose one of the other pet names in arsenal: bebe, bebsito, mi niño, mi gordito, and my grandmother’s favorite: mi perrito.
I was nine, my sister 10, when we moved from Brooklyn to Queens. It was during the month of November, a month known for its susceptibility to change. As the fall leaves began to adjust to new shades of color, I too faced the biggest adjustment in my life. Unlike the two-bedroom apartment we had in Brooklyn, we now shared a one bedroom apartment: my mom and sister sleeping in one bed and I in the other. Although it was a spacious bedroom, able to fit two beds side by side, I was used to having own bedroom. I was used to having my own privacy, behind the safety of a closed door with a lock that actually worked. The way my mom positioned the beds reminded me of how Lucy and Ricky Ricardo had their beds arranged on the show: distant enough to not be sleeping in the same bed, but close enough to hear the other’s breathing. It was during these years, and because we were in the same room, the ability to be reassured that we were sleeping without having to physically check in on me me in another room, is what I think my mom enjoyed most.
Years later, my sister and I decided to rearrange the bedroom as a surprise mother’s day gift. After school one day we worked hard throughout the afternoon and into the early evening to achieve this. We pushed the enormous mattress and box spring off each bed and positioned them against the wall. We dragged the heavy bureaus and bedroom furniture across every corner of the room, trying to figure out where they would look best. We finally agreed on where everything should go and eagerly waited for my mom to get home so we could show her how talented we were. We waited. We then heard her keys jiggling in the hallway and the familiar click and opening of the door lock as she entered the apartment. We hid behind the bedroom door, and giggled with excitement, as the sound of grocery bags that she was carrying were lowered onto the kitchen floor. “Niños,” she commanded–not asked. She walked into the bedroom and we yelled, “Surprise!” But the look on her face was not of excitement or of particular interest. She simply said, “I don’t like it. Change it.” And that was that. I felt crushed, to say the least.
Throughout her life, my mom suffered from sleep deprivation, and once asleep, she could not be awoken or else it would take hours for her to be able to fall back to sleep. Because of this, she insisted that we all slept at the same time. That our bodies and sleep schedules would magically synchronize. With time, my mom’s senses became extremely hypersensitive. Each stir, each movement, even the slightest irregular breath from either of us, registered on her radar. If not synced, in her view, correctly, produced a reprimand. “Estate quieto.” Be still and stop moving, was a phrase so commonly used it began to be my new pet name.
We continued to share that bedroom until I became an adolescent. Once puberty kicked in, I think it finally clicked for her that we, in fact, did not have the most adequate sleeping arrangement. I began sleeping in the living room, on the thin and hard sofa bed mattress hidden inside the largest couch. It was part of a three piece, peach colored living room collection set. I remember as a child, really hating the color. Perhaps this is why I still despise the color peach or pink or any color that resembled the color of those couches. It wasn’t the same as having my own bedroom, but it would be the most privacy that I could get at that time.
My mother was chronically cheap, or what she would referred to as “carefully budgeted.” When she decided that we needed new couches she contracted one of her friends, who reupholstered for a living, to strip off the peach cotton fabric from the couches and replace them with a deep purple/lavender leather-faux material. In her mind, reupholstering would be much cheaper than actually buying new furniture. This might’ve been the case. Nut what was a “guaranteed” two month project turned into a project never completed. Instead, she faced months of unanswered phone calls and missed appointments. This led a friendship of many years to slowly but surely go sour. To ferment.
In the end, the couches ended halfway complete, with the exteriors of the arms and chest replacements installed while the back of the couches left emptied and hollow out. The foam of the cushions too remain uncovered, exposed and bare. For years, my sister and I were forced to tuck bed sheets over the naked and unfinished foam cushions, a time consuming, dreaded task that always made me late for school. At times, I did not even want to even sit on the couches, and choose instead the seating of the cold floor, so I would not be the last one to get up and have to stretch and fix that week’s assigned bed sheets that covered the cushions. Of course my mom my mother would not have any of that. “What would people think of you–of me–if they knew you were sitting on the floor! I’ll tell you what they’d think: that I did not raise you well!”
My friends would always wonder why I would not invite them over for dinner or to watch a movie. One of the reasons was because I did not want anyone finding out that I did not have my own room, but instead, slept in the living room. The second was because I was too embarrassed of them seeing the ugly, unfinished couches in our home.
Years later, when my mom and her friend ran into each other at family gatherings, they would stand around and make awkward conversation. My mother, in true Christian form, was always polite and courteous. It’s what Jesus would do, right? This happened for quite some time, until that bridge of uneasiness was finally lowered and burned. They were able to turn this misstep into a something comical, and make the “sofa crisis” the life of the party. My mother’s friend would comment how difficult it was to find the purple/lavender colored faux-leather material my mom had picked out. He would say, “You know Rosita! It has to be her way or no way!” In my mind, I would think, dude you have no idea, but would never say these words out loud, in fear of having my face smacked and smeared against the palm of her hands. My mom would then take over the comedic thread, and offer up another stitch, and explain how for years we had to cover the unfinished cushions with bed sheets, her face turning beet red as she spoke. If only my mom would’ve turned to look at my sister and me, and seen the embarrassed looks on our faces. To understand what this reveal of information meant to us. How and why was she telling everyone this?
Eventually my mother gave in, years later, and finally purchased a new set of couches–overstuffed, olive green, velvet ones. Though none had a sofa bed mattress for me to sleep on neatly tucked inside.
As I sat in that white jeep, parked in front of 83, the hum of the engine rattling in its cage, I closed my eyes and pressed the back of head against the car seat. My heart began to contract, as the rush of these memories I had so long forgotten began to surface, and were asked to be reremembered. Remember. Remember?
It had been 6 months since I last saw my mother. 3 months since our last phone call. Since I had moved out of her apartment, yet again. Silence, the size of boulders, lodging gigantic-ness between us, yet neither of us budging to bridge the divide.
Tears streamed down my face, but I did not bother to wipe them away. Even during what should have been an intimate, private moment. I needed someone to bear witness. Someone, something, beside the stranger I hardly knew at my side, a person who could never understand how this moment felt or the profoundness of what it meant to return home. I needed my mother and sister by my side.
I didn’t care or bother to explain. But he took my hand into his, in an attempt to connect. He asked: “What’s wrong? Why are you crying?”
I removed my hand from his, as though his skin was a burning flame. Flesh ablaze. My voice escaped, and I heard myself request, “Let’s go.”
He asked: “But why? Are you sure you want to leave? We just got here.”
Questions upon questions. He heard me, but had not listened.
“I saw what I came to see and now I am ready to go home,” I replied.
The words reverberating in my ears. As though speaking them into the night, I was convincing myself of a truth I did not fully believe.