Manhattan, Year 11

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Part I

I said, “It’s the Spanish pronunciation of jade.”

(Como la piedra—like the stone.)

I said, “My mother was a hippy, and my father was born in Mexico City.”

(She was staying in a house in Mexico City when he walked into the room, his hair wet from the shower. His hair was dark dark and curly. He flipped his head so the curls fell with a slap against his shoulders. They drove north through Mexico together and while she drove, my father lit two cigarettes at once, passed one to her. It was in the month of June.)

I said, “Oh no, they divorced when I was little.”

(Mexico was my father’s country, and the U.S. my mother’s, but they switched the summer after they met. She stayed on in Mexico, living with a friend in the jungle, and he traveled back to the Pennsylvania commune to which they both had ties. In September, she too traveled north to Pennsylvania and they began “courting,” she says. On October 8th, in a tent on the commune my father performed a ceremony to call me forward and they conceived me on purpose.)

I said, “I lived there when I was a baby.”

(Mexico was not a land I knew, I did not go there. My memories of it were only the stories I’d been told and so I remembered the old men who sat in the dust and laughed when my mother killed the scorpion. I remembered the avocado tree that was the fourth wall of the kitchen, and I remembered the girl named Mariposa who was my friend. Mariposa means butterfly. I know because my mother told me. And she, I remembered walking tall and blonde through the market. I’d sat on her hip and from her hand had dangled a small blue bucket to carry home the cornmeal. The bucket sat now in her bathroom in Brooklyn.)

I said, “No, I’m learning. I didn’t grow up speaking. I want to be able to speak to my cousins when I go.”

(Alone sometimes I read aloud from a book of Pablo Neruda poetry that my mother gave me, the cover torn. While I read into an empty room, I tried to pretend I didn’t need the English translation that appeared on the opposite page. I said the words in Spanish, but in Spanish they were beyond me. I fondled the syllables in my mouth, but I was too careful with each one, as if it were an egg beneath my tongue, and when I was done I sounded like an asshole.)

I said, “My cousins live in Puebla.”

(Their mother’s name was Luz, which means light, but she was dead now. When my father wrote to tell me, he said, “There are only a few of us left now.” And he was right, but how could I have written them? Wouldn’t they have been on his side? My mother was upset when I told her; she and Luz had been young wives together in the mountains.)

I said, “No, I don’t know them. It’s a bit of a reunion trip.”

(They didn’t know I was coming.)

I said, “Well, border politics are crazy. They can’t get visas.”

(I’d never invited them.)

I said, “They say I have the look of my father’s mother.”

(My mother said that but it didn’t count, she’d never met her. I didn’t know her name. In the one photograph she is lovely, wearing a tailored pencil skirt, heals, a blouse. She is caught in mid-stride, walking down a street that must be either Madrid or Mexico City. I let myself lose that photo, embarrassed by how much I wanted to see myself there. Not exactly lost, I could say with almost certainty that it was in the small blue suitcase at the bottom of my mother’s closet.)

And I spoke of him like this and it was more dangerous to me than lying because I could almost be convinced of these things I said, the implications of a family that did not exist.

In the long, narrow bar the size of a closet stretched into a thin rectangle, they watched me pour drinks and I’d make them New Yorkers, if they’d make me Mexican. I’d make them glamorous, if they’d make me his. I offered them this; a woman listening attentively. I offered them a sassy joke. I offered them a sympathetic nod. I let them look if they saw what I wanted them to see. If they saw him in me, I bought them a drink and was happy to see them the next time they came in. I remembered details of their lives and tossed them back at them. I asked about their trips to Paris. I told them about the time I ran out of money in Paris and walked for ten hours which was not really the story but they’d like it better. I told them about the art I made and we’d pretend that this was a fabulous life. It’d be two in the morning and we’d be having another round. We’d be feeling good now. We’d be listening to my friend’s unreleased album and tonight I’d close a little late. Together, we could make anything true.

Part II

I keep the bar dark. I slide the dimmer lower as the night goes on. The candles burn brighter as the wicks burn down. The customers can’t see when they push through the heavy drapes in front of the door. They blink—disoriented, grumbling—until they find a spot, drink a half glass of wine, their eyes adjust. They sense how their chilled skin looks in the candles. They relax and sit softer. They like the dim light.

A couple is kissing in the recessed seats at the back bar. It’s too early to clean. Regulars whom I like come in and it’s nice to see them and I speak to them; I listen to what they say. The ones I don’t talk to also listen. They sit in a row at the bar facing me. I eat almonds. I shake myself cocktails made with top-shelf liquor. Whatever my outfit looked like, it looks bad now. Four years ago I felt glamorous standing behind this bar. My new play list has turned out not to be good and I’m back to playing the one I always play after midnight. I wonder if anyone notices. Roberto’s doing coke again and it’s not his girlfriend who-he-does-not-deserve with him. He leans into the girl, “Do you want to see my studio?”. Fashion week’s coming. He’ll return when the lights are raised to order two more margaritas before I lock up. He’ll bring the glasses back tomorrow. He’ll leave a twenty on the bar. I’ll make sure to look at him and not the twenty. Brian is handsome in an offbeat way and I know he feels that in a parallel universe it’s possible we’d be in love. I should discourage him more, but I like our conversations and I can’t help enjoying him liking me. Every now and then I imagine us together. His best friend is a girl and she thinks that I’m stringing him along. I can never remember her name. The hip kids stumble in for a night cap and I envy them despite myself. We talk about art as if we’re on equal footing, but they don’t have day jobs. The woman I hate pokes her head through the drapes, but when she sees it’s me, she withdraws. I haven’t served her since she tried to run out on a check, which was my lucky break actually since it gave me my excuse to ban her. Last call.

“But it’s only quarter to.”

“We close at two. Four on the weekends.”

If they don’t resist and linger over the last inch of wine I can be out by 2:30, but that’s rare. When the last stragglers finally leave, I lock the door, hang the curtain and raise the lights. I put on an Elton John ballad. I sip a cold white wine but it’s not right, nor is the beer I open next. Sometimes at the end of the night nothing tastes good except for the cold apples from the fridge that we use for the sangria. I cut one into large chunks and eat them too fast. I try the white wine again and now it does taste good.

When I leave the cooks lock the door behind me. Sometimes Enrique sleeps at the bar. He says the train isn’t safe. I walk a half block and hail my cab from the corner of Broome and Broadway. There used to be a restaurant on that corner called Brises del Caribe, and though it’s long since closed, the plain white sign with the off-center black lettering still hangs from the building. My arms are sticky with sangria. I lean back into the vinyl seat of the cab.

“This place serves real Spanish food,” my father told me as we walked in to Brises del Caribe. “This is the best place around here for this kind of food.”

I paid attention. The food was arranged in heated metal trays behind glass. We pointed to what we wanted and the woman behind the glass heaped it onto our plates. When we reached the end of the row, she handed them to us. It was drinks next, and then the cash register. We sat at a table with a glass top filmed with grease. Around us were tables of brown and black men, many in uniform. Janitors and delivery men and cops. With my father, I could be comfortable because his brown skin was my Rosetta stone and with him my whiteness was read the right way and my brown eyes noted. The translation only ever happened with him.

My father spoke as we ate.

He’d driven all the way from California. I must go see the desert someday. I said I wanted to. He listened to his walkman while he drove through it at night—the stars, Jade!—but this was very dangerous, and I should never do it. I promise, I said.

After lunch, we walked through Soho. He wore worn woven leather sandals and wooden beads around his neck. Years later when I smell sandalwood I place it as the scent on him that mingled with the smoke and sweat. His dark hair curled to his shoulders. I liked being seen with him. He took me to a store that sold real skeletons. He took me to a toy store that looked like a forest where he sold his bamboo rain sticks. I knew that to make the rainsticks he filled long bamboo tubes with gravel and sand and sealed both ends. He collected the gravel from the commune where I was conceived. Then he hammered a spiral of small nails around the length of the tube. He tied colored thread at both ends. Turned over, they sounded like little waterfalls and my father did believe they could call rain.

My cab continues down Broadway, and over the Brooklyn Bridge. The Manhattan Bridge is faster by about two dollars, but I don’t object because the Brooklyn Bridge is so much more beautiful. We drive onto it and as I always have, I lean my head back and watch the round globes of strung lights dip away, cresting and falling, towards the Manhattan skyline. When I was young my mother splurged on a cab only when it was very late and I’d be sleepy against her, watching with my head on her shoulder. Only across the bridge, would I drop my head into her lap and sleep, annoyed when she woke me to climb the stairs to our apartment.

“You’re too big now,” she’d say, “for me to carry you up.”

On east 7th, there was an herb store where a man named Penny, who wore his hair in a long ponytail, poured dried herbs into small paper bags while I waited for my dad, sniffing at the dusty air. When I walk down e. 7th I don’t see the now-empty storefront. I see my father. In high school, when Brises del Caribe was still open and I passed it with friends, I’d point to it and say, “That place serves real Spanish food.” And I’ve been living for a long time in a city of half-true answers and imagined places.

My cab waits while I unlock the door. The cabbies that drive me home after work are always the nicest ones. Grandfatherly men with daughters back home, concerned with my late hours. Had I gone to college? Good. Education is the most important. And then I am home, and they wait while I walk in my door, and then they are gone. Only once, in five years of bartending have I had a repeat cab driver, which was, of course, amazing.

Inside, I climb the stairs and shower and fall into bed beside Mike, who’s been asleep for hours. I drape a scarf over my face to block out the grey light that I know is coming.

One Response to Manhattan, Year 11

  1. David Gonzalez says:

    The spaciousness of memory is here. So too the grit and glory of a 2AM cab ride over the Brooklyn Bridge, the lace of memory and dream, the urge to answer the question of belonging. Beautiful writing leaves room for identification — I did, thanks.