At the produce markets that populated Church Avenue, if someone cut in line or pushed her while trying to squeeze past, my mother would hurl the harshest obscenity that came to mind, “Fuck!” It was in fact one of her favorites because of the effect it had on people. That one and ‘cocksucker,’ which she had added to her repertoireRead More »
At the produce markets that populated Church Avenue, if someone cut in line or pushed her while trying to squeeze past, my mother would hurl the harshest obscenity that came to mind, “Fuck!” It was in fact one of her favorites because of the effect it had on people. That one and ‘cocksucker,’ which she had added to her repertoire after an elderly patient had used it to insult her for refusing his sexual advances.
That day she came home upset and told me someone had called her a name, had insulted her. She was unusually reticent to tell me what it was that hurt her so bad.
She whispered, “conch sucker.” I didn’t know what she was talking about and laughed because I thought it wasn’t a curse. A conch sucker was one who sucked on a conch shell and, as Haitians, we would feast on the conch shell’s meaty insides. It dawned on me later when she told me that this happened, during bath time. Choking his penis, he had actually said, “C’mon why won’t you suck my cock, cocksucker!”
My mom would make up ways to use the two curses; it didn’t matter that the situation called for something milder or that the combination of words wasn’t idiomatically correct. She’d say, “go fuck” instead of “go fuck yourself!” “You cocksucker fuck,” where a simple “fuck you” would have sufficed. I used to try to correct her quietly so as not to embarrass her while she was publicly staging a fight, but then she’d say in Creole, “Tout, se mem, tande.” It’s all the same; the sentiment is clear if not the phrasing. In Madrid, where they didn’t speak either of my native languages, I was becoming her.
I was studying abroad in Spain for six months and, after spending six years studying the language, I never dreamed that college would make it possible for me to go and live there practically for free. It was like getting a visa para un sueno.
Before the trip, my cohort had a couple of meet and greets where we did silly icebreakers, addressed important visa/passport stuff, and talked about culture shock. My eyes always glazed over a bit because this wasn’t my first time away from the United States. I had spent plenty of summers and winters in Haiti and knew that while it might be shocking to be in a place where there was no English spoken at all, I had faced more alarming scenarios. I dealt with blackouts, the suffocating stench of outhouses, and had bought rice from a vendor covered in flies. This trip was going to be a cakewalk in comparison, a chance at a college experience similar to my white classmates; sleeping in late, drinking, and sometimes bookending these activities with homework.
Looking around at others in my cohort, I realized that I was one of three minorities. While the other two were native speakers, I had a strong command of the Spanish language and my grammar was impeccable. I would recite Hail Mary’s—“Dios te salve, Maria. Llena eres de gracia…”—and practice common phrases to train my tongue, to avoid thinking when looking for the bathroom or for a street. I was prepared for conversing with people and finding my way around. I was prepared to order the right glass of wine with seafood. I was prepared to be very friendly when speaking to my host family, but I was not prepared for the way that Spain would react to me.
At an outdoor dinner on one of our first nights in Madrid, an olive-skinned, curly-haired waiter saw me sitting among my American friends, and shouted, “Africa!” He then pointed at me and said it again while passing by with a tray of food. I didn’t know what to say. My friends looked back at him and looked in my direction, over my head, wondering if he had seen something past me in the distance.
I contorted my face in confusion and settled on my default feeling. This was a racist act. He thought I was African and was calling out “Africa,” a synonym for nigger.
One of my friends asked if I wanted to leave and I assured him it was all right. I was going to serve the waiter when he got to our table. He approached our table smiling and I pounced in my best European-accented Spanish, “¿Por qué me llamaste asi?
“¡Porque yo soy de Africa, también!” he said with a plain smile and a hunch of his shoulders. Was he was trying to give me a shout out?
Still unsure and feeling defensive, I gave him my diasporic history. I told him about my Haitian parents, my Americ—being born in New York City. I had trouble saying that I was just American so I claimed a region.
He smiled as if not really caring about the details and said, “I am from Morrocco! I see Africa in you.”
I didn’t know what else to do. A fist had been rattling inside of me that lost its fervor and tapped in a tiny thump in my throat so I mirrored his smile.
Once, I argued with an ATM machine that processed my €50 request but then did not produce money. I banged on the machine and grabbed my receipt. I banged on the glass and howled, “¡Jode!” I was trying to get the attention of two attendants at the end of a shift.
“Esa puta maquina, me lo robaron. ¡Aquí! Yo tengo el recibo pero ¿dónde está mi dinero, anh? ¡No puede ser, non! No puede ser. Esa maldita injusticia eso es porque yo lo voy a cambiar mi banco. ¡Ya ves!
It was a glorious, lilting feeling, speaking out about my injustice and all boiling down to, “Give me my money!”
They unlocked the glass door, apologized, and gave me my money. I thanked them with a lispy, “Gracias,” at the end. It was genuine.
One night, I had trouble finding the right curses. I was walking through Madrid, stubbornly refusing to pay for a cab and determined to prove that I could find my way. The streets seemed familiar and I was particularly ballsy because I knew I wasn’t that far from the apartment. Anyway, there wasn’t much to rush to at my host family’s place. The family had two dogs, a tiny white one and a tiny black one. The black one would lose his doggone mind when I came in from my late night drinking. The first night while he was repeatedly ascending and descending my shins, my host mother appeared, surprised to see me home just after 1 am on a school night.
“¿Nina, no te divertiste? Son la una.”
I stumbled but managed to say, “El metro, ehm, se cierra a las dos.” The train, it closes at two am. Apparently, I was expected back after the trains re-opened for service at six.
I had some leftovers from my dinner waiting for me but that dog would start begging as soon as he heard the ding from the microwave. A whining dog, leftovers, and a low twin bed were waiting for me at the apartment. That bed was lonely but at least it was up against a wall so I could pretend it was someone’s chest against my back as I slept. I imagined a bigger bed made smaller by this person sharing it with me. Sometimes I’d place my two pillows along the length of it and sleep on crossed forearms. I’d wake up with a crick in my neck but at least my back was kept warm by the cushioning.
There were some boys on my trip but they were interested in sleeping with white girls or Spaniards with big butts and smoking habits. I had the smoking habit down but even that was subpar; I could only smoke three a day, any more and I’d feel sick. I was invisible to most of the straight men in Madrid. My friend, Jose, even deemed that my ability to attract gay men on the dance floor was better than his. It was like I was a good time, a person they could create a kitschy spectacle with. They’d often challenge me to dance during one of my favorite hip hop or reggae songs, either copying my every move as if this were a lesson or trying to outdo me with some outlandish dance that no one had ever seen before.
I was a good wingman for Jose. After the dance, he’d sweep right in. Instead of offering a hand to initiate a dance, he’d offer his pelvis and the guy would usually start doing the bump with him or a slow grind. I would slide away and find my two-step, the same one I did on campus basement parties when my girlfriends were summoned away by the gyrations of a fine brother.
I had to stop walking after a while because the streets were playing games with me. I chose to walk down one of the cross streets that I knew led to the apartment but it seemed to be taking too long for me to get there. Had I walked in the wrong direction? With doubt infecting my earlier confidence, I fumbled in my coat pocket for money. I had recently discovered a hole in one of the pockets. I made sure to dig my index finger in it and sure enough found another coin. I had six Euros which would cover cab fare if I was close to home. If I was farther than I expected then I’d have to ask the cabby to wait for me while I ran and got more money. Either way, I had to cave in and hail a cab because the balls of my feet were burning with each step. I waited for less than a minute before a cabby stopped right in front of me. I almost felt a bit lucky.
I rattled off my address and made sure to listen to myself. My accent was always the best when I was repeating things like my address or the name of the university I attended. It was like my brain kept them on an id card that I flashed at people. It never even felt like I was talking; it was effortless, as effortless as my dreams where I danced in between Spanish, Creole, and English.
“¿De dónde eres, guapa?” The cabby was an old Spanish man with gray hair in his ears. I wondered why he was still working at his age, let alone working the night shift.
“Soy de Nueva York y Haití.” I entertained his small talk because it was good practice and because I was happy I’d gotten a cab so quickly. He was looking at me through his rearview mirror. He began to tell me about a trip he took to New York when he was a young man and all the fun he’d had in Times Square. I smiled and allowed my head to lean on the cool window when I realized I was close to home. If only I had kept walking I would’ve made it. He continued in Spanish,
“Why is such a pretty girl like you alone tonight? Don’t you have a boyfriend?”
I didn’t quite know where this was going but I decided to be honest and not make up a boyfriend like I usually did to avoid the weirdos.
“I don’t have a boyfriend.”
His eyes locked with mine in the rearview mirror and I saw him smile to himself as if he was about to make a clever joke.
I continued, “But I like being single.”
As we pulled up to the building, I also added for good measure, “And I am not alone. I have friends.”
He put the car in park as if finally freed from the task of driving. I was reaching in my pocket for the money and he placed his fat, old hands on my thigh.
“Some friends can take away the loneliness. You need more friends like me, morenita.”
The leg that he touched was paralyzed but my hands, they were frantically digging in my pockets. I had stupidly put the money in the bad pocket and was now making the hole bigger in my haste. I shoved it in his face, as if this money was going to release my thigh.
“¡Aquí tienes, toma!” I had no curses for him. I just wanted out. How could I curse him out when it was my fault? I suddenly remembered my mother and that old patient. She had blamed herself for playing cards with him earlier in the day and making him feel comfortable. She made small talk with him and answered his questions too. Then around bath time, she thought she’d simply talk him through the movements, “Lift your arm, turn your head.” Small phrases, small movements that he’d need help with but still giving him enough dignity to let him attempt. Until he reached for his dick.
The cabby wouldn’t take the money so I dropped it in his cup holder. This released my thighs, and I leapt out of the cab.
As soon as my feet touched the ground they immediately began to hurt, but I ran to the door to get it over with. The cab driver was just sitting in the cab watching me. My keys were a lot easier to find than the money was. I opened the door and, out of habit, I turned around and waved to let him know that he could go on now. I was safe.
I ran up the stairs, and when I opened my door, there was the dog waiting for me.
“Jode,” I sneered, anticipating his barking and rise up my leg.
Are you a Black woman writer? We’re looking for short stories and personal essays to feature on our digital and print platforms. Click HERE to find out how to submit.
Luz had faked a pregnancy in order to get the attention of her ex-boyfriend Johnny Rivera and kept it going for six months. Not only had other students been whispering that she was full of shit, but now, in her second trimester, she was calling out of school on account of back pain and morning sickness. She walked around with an arched back, poking her belly out when the counseling staff decided it was time for an intervention. Truancy was a no go for this school. After all, kids ended up at this school because they were chronic cutters.
“Are you calling me a liar?” Luz asked, perching herself on the edge of the chair as if trying to square off.
I was sitting in my swivel chair, the one that lets the kids know that you are the counselor and they are the student.
“No…I think maybe you are not processing something more hurtful.” I look up at the bulletin board behind her, I look at her hairline, I look back at the bulletin board noticing that one of my posters was missing a thumbtack.
“What the fuck you tryna say, Vonnie. Yes or no? You calling me a liar?”
I sometimes hated my counselor speak. What the fuck was I trying to say? Luz was staring at me dead on. I felt compelled to turn away and begin absentmindedly typing notes. The students knew that I liked to log all of our meetings while they were in front of me. That way, I made sure to get them in on time. But I often said it was so they knew exactly what I was writing about them. I wanted to make sure that they knew I was on their side – I didn’t trust their teachers and the director of the program either. I was with them; helping them navigate through this crappy school system. Now, I did it to keep the plates moving, to not fall behind in my notes, to not have to look at them during difficult conversations.
“My own fuckin’ counselor calling me a liar.”
“Watch your language.” I chirped and turned around to log the time with her. It was instinctual but meant nothing. I was not really reprimanding, merely making note that foul words were uttered. Most of my students thought it was funny whenever we were in a group setting.
“Then what the fuck you calling me?” Luz pushed her seat back with so much force that the chair slammed into the wall.
What the fuck? My eyes darted to the fallen chair. Who was supposed to pick that up?
“I don’t care if people can hear me. I want everyone to hear this! Say it, Vonnie. Go ahead. Youse already thinkin’ it. Man the fuck up and say it to my face.”
I really didn’t like scenes and she was trying to make a scene. Luz was forcing me to look at her. She wasn’t the most attractive girl. She had a chipped front tooth that she covered up by pursing her lips in a grimace that read, “Sheeiiiit, it is what it is.” She never smiled. Instead, she would laugh at most things really dramatically, leaning her head back all the way. I doubted she knew the underside of that tooth was rotting. I doubted she knew how to smile. She definitely didn’t know how to lie.
Yes, I was calling Luz Ortega a liar and she was adamant about letting the whole school know it. She stormed out of my room. I instinctually fingered the dial on my hip as if it needed adjusting. Earlier that morning, Rich, my supervisor, told everyone I would be on radio silence. I didn’t even know we could do that. Our walkie-talkies were right near our clock-in stations, worn on our hips as soon as we entered. We did not remove them for a bathroom break, a lunch break, or a home visit, even if we were outside of the catchment area. They remained on our hip garbling static and early English, a constant reminder that your kids somewhere needed you.
Still in awe of the concept, I barely registered Rich’s marching orders toward the end of our daily team meeting. I was to stay with Luz for however long she decided to spin. If she walked out of the building, I was supposed to follow her. If she commandeered a stall in the bathroom, I was to stay near the sinks and wait it out with her. I made eyes at Jim, who was sitting across from me, and dramatically turned my radio on and off. I needed an accomplice.
Suddenly, as if struck with a genius idea, Jim blurted, “Let’s see her give birth…in class! You think she’ll make her water break in class?” We all laughed including Rich, who tried shaking his grin off his face before stating,
“No, gotta process before-.”
“Rich,” Jim interjected. “These kids are clearly yearning for a theatre program and she needs to be our STAR! That is, if she can pull off the in-class birth, of course.” I laughed so deep that it jostled the morning shakes out of my body, like when a chill courses through you and leaves as quickly as it came.
Standing in my office now, I realized that Rich had known for sure that Luz was going to flip her shit. This was going to be tiresome. I was on radio silence so that I could endure a beating, not to process an intervention. He set me up.
I turned on my radio and alerted security, “Yvonne to Officer Vixomar, student L.O. is coming down stairwell A, student may be attempting to leave the building.”
“Officer Vixomar, 10-4”
“Jim for Yvonne. Yvonne lives!” Jim always saw the silver lining. I mean a ten-year depression will do that to a man.
I was down the three flights of stairs before I knew it, and Officer Vixomar greeted me with her trademark head nod and said, “She went that way.” There was really only one exit and we both knew that this surveillance was ridiculous.
Luz hadn’t made it far, again cause her wobble was slowing her down. She turned back and said, “Leave me the fuck alone, Vonnie. I’m serious. Leave me alone!”
I wish I had grabbed my scarf. It was nippier than I anticipated. I would hate if this intervention ended with a sore throat. I caught up to her and resigned myself to my conditions.
“Ask me again, Luz. C’mon, ask me again.”
She gave me a side-eyed glance and sucked her teeth.
“Fuck outta here, Vonnie.”
“Go ahead. Ask me again. Because I don’t. I don’t think you’re a liar. Maybe you miscarried and it hurts too bad to admit it. Maybe…,” I trailed off, giving her a chance to save face.
Luz was lying, and I didn’t think it was because she was (as Rich had pointed out) hurting deep. It was because she was a manipulator and a bad liar. Shoot, if by month two Johnny didn’t come back to me, I would have moved on to an even more dramatic story, a miscarriage. Everyone would hate Johnny for leaving me during such a tough time. But nope, she chose the lie that was harder to keep up.
“You know what? Fuck you, Vonnie! I’m fucking pregnant. Look at my belly!” She lifted her shirt and revealed a pudgy but not pregnant stomach. “You see this!” She patted it and said, “I’m carrying low, so it’s gonna be a boy. You tryna deny that? My baby?”
I couldn’t believe how indignant she’d gotten. I wanted to threaten to call her mother. But knew that she might feel even more betrayed.
I just wanted a croissant. Why couldn’t I just go get one at the bakery across the way? I’d get her one too, and while licking our fingertips to catch the flakes that had fallen into our laps, we’d be honest. Like, “Damn this croissant is good. Hey, Luz, you know you not pregnant, right?” And she’d laugh with her head cocked back and I wouldn’t look at her rotting tooth.
Instead, I ended up calling Luz’s mom. Yes, I had every student’s contact information on my phone. It was much easier to do outreach this way. I called the more stubborn ones while I was on the bus into Red Hook and said, “Morning. Wake up call.” I was never able to translate humor in Spanish. “Buenos Dias, soy Vonnie. El wake-up call.”
I followed Luz well past the bakery and three blocks into the Red Hook projects. I lagged behind a bit because I didn’t want her to hear me talking to her mother at first. I brought her mother up to speed, telling her that Luz was very upset and was presently out of the building, but that I was with her.
“Don’t make her upset, you know. Cause of the baby.”
I resisted the urge to suck my teeth because her mother was caught up in this mockery as well. “That’s the thing; it’s about the baby.”
“Anh? Something is wrong with de baby?”
I heard her mother begin to panic, and I assured her that Luz and the baby were both fine. She just had something she needed to talk about. Luz was very angry but also very sad. “Ay, you know the pregnancy make Luzy very different. More sad she is now.”
Luz, started coming back towards me. We had walked ourselves into a dead end with three towers surrounding us, a New York City Housing Authority cul-de-sac.
“What kind of fucking counselor are you?” she asked as she was walking back toward me.
“I will call you back, she wants to talk now, Señora.”
“You called my mother?”
I shrugged my shoulders as if to say she left me with no choice.
“Oh my gawd. Ma, hang up! Hang up, Ma!” Her voice was bouncing off the buildings. “What the fuck? Bye, Ma!” She grabbed the phone from me and threw it on the ground. I could hear windows opening and closing. I immediately bent to pick it up, but she pushed my shoulders back, hard. I stumbled, and she did it again. I caught my footing and swung at her shoulder with one arm. It wasn’t my best attempt, but it was something.
“You not supposed to fuckin’ hit me, bitch.”
“Says, who?” I was feeling ready for whatever now. She wasn’t going to attack me out here. She wasn’t even really pregnant. I’ll say I had to do it. Her cell phone started ringing, and we knew it was her mom, probably nervously shuffling back and forth in her Sunset Park apartment. Something about the ringing phone and my ready stance made Luz give me one last weak shoulder push and cry into the same spot she had been trying to bruise.
Her sobbing body felt funny against mine. I draped my arms over her and hunched my shoulders. I wasn’t used to having my breasts be an altar for tears. We sat on a bench in the April chill for a while. It seemed I could hear the open windows closing.
After she was done crying and I had collected my battery pack and cell phone on the ground, we called her mom back. I revealed that Luz had suffered a miscarriage. “In the school?” Her mom sounded frantic and I quickly responded that it had been over the weekend. It was the closest Luz and I ever came to honesty.