by Marilyn Urena
“Your skirt is bunching up,” she said as she quickly pulled her daughter’s skirt down. “You were showing everyone your behind!” she exclaimed.
The last thing she wanted was for anyone to call her daughter a whore, especially the meddlesome, elder women that lived around the corner. She saw them at every 7am Sunday mass, with their colossal golden and lavender sun-hats and their sanctified rosaries. These widowed women seemed innocuous. Their spirit and minds were on the Lord, but she knew the truth.
She knew that when Señor Luis lined up for holy communion, for that perfectly circular bread and tasty wine, the elderly ladies sneered and rolled their eyes. Señor Luis had been caught going down on the nanny just a few days ago.
When Doña Ana dipped her small, stiff, wrinkled index finger in the holy water at the entrance of the church and made the sign of the cross, the ladies giggled. Doña Ana almost certainly also made the sign of the cross as she left the local supermarket from where she stole.
When Maria’s daughter, Sofia, shook others’ hands and said “Peace be with you,” the ladies bowed and shook their heads. They knew—thanks to that loyal, juicy grapevine—that she was in anger management classes and on house arrest for violating her probation.
Of course, there was also Jezebel, who was rightfully named by her adulterous mother. Setting one toenail in the cathedral was already blasphemous for Jezebel. The ladies knew what she was up to, and it was the worse kind of sin: she was having wild, unprotected sex with the leader of a local band of drug dealers and, yes, she was pregnant with a devil bastard child. They wondered if he seduced her into smoking crack. Even if she never smoked crack, the thought of it made things scandalous, and so they looked for frog eyes, hallowed cheeks, dry, cracked, white lips, fine hair, a receding hairline, and anything else on her small, fragile body.
Soledad thought she would die if her daughter were the center of the latest gossip coming from the church ladies’ large mouths. She worried about this as her three year old daughter, Pilar, dragged her toward a mountain of clean, untouched snow one gray Christmas Eve.
The snow was a bright white. Soledad squinted. It looked cotton candy, the kind children imagined God ate in Heaven: an open, soft texture that slowly—sweetly—melted on your raspy tongue as you gently pressed it against the roof of your mouth. Each snowflake fell slowly and lightly so as not to hurt a fellow snow flake. This created the best environment for snow angels.
Pilar quickened her wobbly steps toward the mountain of snow. Soledad tried to stop her, but she didn’t want to hurt her. Pilar tried to toss herself into the snow. Soledad was holding her wrist, which caused Pilar to end up with her right palm and knee in the cool snow. She giggled, but whined at the same time. It was pleasing to feel the snow on her panty hose (it took away that awful itchy feeling that panty hose gave her), but her mother’s hindering hand and scolding voice annoyed her. She didn’t straighten up as her mother repeatedly demanded that she do. Instead, she let her body weaken so that her arms and knees were like wet noodles and she was dangling from her mother’s increasingly tight grasp.
“Get up!” Soledad squealed as she grabbed her daughter’s wrist tightly and yanked. “Get off the snow now! You’re embarrassing me!” Soledad didn’t want to jerk Pilar’s short, stubby arm out of its socket, but the idea of having to change her daughter’s outfit shortly before the arrival of the night’s guests made her cringe; there were many other things to do. She couldn’t waste her time finding a new outfit for Pilar.
Even worse, Pilar would want to choose her own outfit.
She’d kick the bedpost, and scream loud enough to cause Soledad to stick her fingers in her ears, and then Soledad would have to let her choose her own outfit. She’d choose an ugly one: green tights and a pink shirt with a large, red Elmo on the front. Then, Soledad would have to say no firmly and brace herself for the kicks and screams as she found her daughter a suitable outfit. She didn’t want to go through the hassle, especially since, sometimes, Pilar kicked Soledad, and Soledad’s outfit was too new and too pretty for kicks.
“Get up, get up!” Soledad’s tone was firm and her voice was low. There was a sense of urgency, but Pilar didn’t care.
She’s such a headstrong girl, Soledad thought, a headstrong girl with a poor sense of fashion. At least poor fashion translated into “no boys”, which meant that Soledad wouldn’t have to worry about the church ladies and their gossip or about waiting up for her party-girl daughter. After all, that’s the first sign of rebellion for a mother that has a daughter: fashion sense or interest at an early age.
At four years old, Soledad had refused to go to school because her shoes did not match her book bag, or so her mother tells everyone. “Pink shoes and a green book bag, Mamá?” Soledad had posed the rhetorical question with both hands on her shapeless hips. “No, I’m not going to do it,” she had finished and returned to her room. When Soledad had been 17, her mother had waited up until four in the morning, until Soledad had stumbled to her bedroom window and futilely tried to climb in.
Her mother had sat on her bed.
The lights had been off. It had been silent. Her mother had heard her heels tearing holes in the dry, brown leaves on the concrete just outside the bedroom window. Soledad hadn’t heard anything except the constant, nagging ringing in her ears. She had cocked her head to one side and banged on one of her ears, as if a large whistle would suddenly fly out and relieve her discomfort. Her mother had been expecting her to climb in through the window, but it had still shocked her when she had seen Soledad’s hand grab the bottom of the open window. Her mother had jumped and the old bed had creaked a little, but the ringing had been so loud in Soledad’s ears that she hadn’t heard it. Her second hand had reached over and grabbed the bottom of the open window, and she had yanked herself up using her hands to keep her steady and her feet to guide her up the side of the house. With her hands still on the window, she had let her feet in. Her heels had banged against the radiator that was right by the window. It had made a loud, hollow noise—as if someone had just had fun with a gong—but Soledad had barely heard it.
“You smell like boys,” her mother had said the instant Soledad had straightened out. This had scared Soledad. It had made her grab the pillow from her bed and place it in front of her as if it had been a tough, metal shield. Her mother had turned on the lights and quickly grabbed Soledad’s right ear. “You smell like you’ve left your legs open for a million men to have their way with you, you smell like a little puta!” she yelled.
“Mamá, I was just with my girlfriends, I’m sorry,” Soledad had pleaded. She had felt hot all over, and wanted to strip herself of her clothing.
“And you’ve been drinking!” her mother had cried out as she had let go of Soledad’s ear in dismay.
“No,” was the only thing that Soledad had managed to say, and with the silence that followed her weak statement came many clear implications: she had had too many shots of Brugal rum, she had opened her legs to a complete sweaty stranger in the bathroom of a smoky, humid club that smelled like incense, and she hadn’t been out with her loquacious, Catholic school girlfriends.
This happened because, at four years of age, Soledad had a sense of style and knew which colors matched, and that pink never went with green. Only children that start out this way—with a strange sense of style at such a young age—turn into uncontrollable, sexually addicted teenagers, into girls that let boys pull out, into girls that lie about their whereabouts, into girls that don’t know how to close their legs. Soledad thought she should be ecstatic that her daughter wouldn’t be able to choose her own pretty outfit for the night’s festivities, that she didn’t have a sense of what the word fashion meant, that she didn’t understand the things that Soledad had understood at her age, and so she let her play in the snow.
Pilar dipped her head further into the snow as she lay on her back.
“Snow angel!” she giggled.
She lay spread-eagled in the middle of a soft mound of snow on the sidewalk across the street from their building.
For a moment, the block looked peaceful, almost like a suburban block. Soledad couldn’t see the old formless pieces of gum that had become one with the jagged concrete ground. She couldn’t see where a homeless man had hacked up spit, or where a lifeless pre-teen had allowed the family dog to loosen its diarrhea, or where a middle-aged, menopausal woman had decided to leave her first used crack pipe.
Everyone was in their home.
No one was outside shoveling snow onto the street for cars to get rid of, or salting the sidewalks so that the snow would melt quickly. People were snoring in lazy boy chairs, leaving the oven on—and open—because the radiator wasn’t working, and they were taking hot baths that made them sweat. They were watching the evening news while eating a large plate of rice, beans, and chicken. They were cooing their babies while they changed a smelly diaper. They were washing dishes while showering their significant other with peck kisses, like a colorful, hungry parakeet searching frantically for food. They were reading the story of the birth of Jesus from The Bible. They were lighting candles that had saints, Jesus, and Mary painted on the outside of the glass candle holder. They were preparing dinner for a Christmas Eve celebration. They were trying to think of a way to make the holiday more America. They were doing anything but ruining the beauty that Soledad saw outside: white snow and a white Pilar.
“You’re getting your hair wet!” Soledad still had her small hands wrapped tightly around her daughter’s wrist, but she was closer to the ground than Pilar was to getting up. She wondered where toddlers got such strength, or was it that adults didn’t use all of their force so as not to hurt them? She thought that perhaps the latter was true for her, but not for her own mother, a woman that, with one yank, could swing a child across the room.
“Snow angel!” Pilar continued repeating in between giggles.
Soledad kneeled on the snow beside Pilar and huffed. A few of her heavy grocery bags were tearing, and she was tired, but kneeling on the snow brought instant relief. Her aching knees relaxed, her arms gave in, and the sharp, stabbing pain near her clenched jaw stopped. She sat on the heels of her feet and watched her daughter incessantly spread open her arms and legs. She thought about how right her mother had been; children do grow up too fast. She remembered the day she had given birth to Pilar and now, suddenly, there she was: three years old, talking, walking, and making snow angels.
Soledad remembered the first day she had seen snow; it had been much later in life, when she had been in her late teens and had only known the strong sun, suffocating humidity, relentless hurricanes, and the occasional breeze of the Caribbean. The snow had perplexed her. Its color and ticklish, yet wet, texture had been foreign to her. It had made her cringe whenever it first landed on her nose or eyelashes or lips or palm, but the feeling afterward—of coolness, of softness, of calmness—was always purely delightful.
Soledad now thought that these must be her daughter’s feelings. Why, then, intrude on her enjoyment of pure delight? Sure, her hair would need to be washed again, and her dress would have to be swapped with another one—which she still wasn’t sure she’d let her choose—but at least she was enjoying herself.
She was being a three year old.
Soledad’s earliest memory was from the age of three and it didn’t involve anything delightful. She had been carried home, asleep on her father’s shoulder, when the sound of gunshots had rung out and, suddenly, her chin had started banging against her father’s bony shoulders and her parents had started running home with one hand on her and the other on their heads, as though their hands were bullet-proof.
Yes, snow was better; creating snow angels in the middle of a New York City sidewalk was better.
“Come on now,” Soledad said softly. “My knees are getting wet now, and Papi is waiting for us to come home with all these refreshments for our guests,”
Pilar lifted her head and cocked it sideways as though this were the only way she could fully understand the words coming out of her mother’s mouth. She lifted herself up onto her elbows and smiled.
“Yes, snow angel … yours is so beautiful!” Soledad said as she got up. She didn’t realize that her hand was still around Pilar’s wrist. She wasn’t holding on tightly anymore—in that menacing yet motherly way—but she was holding on nonetheless.
Soledad had cried when the long-haired nurse—in a yellow top with crooked, painted teddy bears—had told her that she was going to have a little girl. The nurse hadn’t been positive and, after all, she hadn’t been a doctor and couldn’t confirm the news, but, from her experience, the baby growing inside of her had been showing it all, and she surely hadn’t been showing a penis. The doctor had confirmed the news days later and Soledad had cried some more. It was what she had feared, what her own mother had feared when she was pregnant, and, probably, what her grandmother had feared.
It’s what all mothers fear, isn’t it?
It’s the jaw-clenching, palm-sweating, heart-racing fear of having to talk, extensively, about closed legs, cancer-causing birth control pills, and pads versus tampons (the use of tampons was always discouraged as its use could potentially encourage young girls to finger themselves for pleasure or allow a boy to finger them or to stick his penis in this private hole).
Boys were much easier.
All you have to do is tell them to treat women with respect. This happens around puberty. Then, hand them a condom. This happens a few years later.
When Pilar had been born, Soledad had fallen in love and wondered why she had wished that Pilar had been a boy as her head had burst through. Pilar was gorgeous and innocent and could do no harm. This is the way she now felt as she watched Pilar make snow angels. This is the way Soledad now felt as she held Pilar’s tiny hands so that she could get up and wipe the soft, melting snow flakes from the front of her pink coat. She’s gorgeous, Soledad thought, but this daily thought was often followed by the horror that Pilar’s beauty was exactly what would give Soledad a heart attack. Forget the fashion sense. Beauty didn’t need to be accompanied by a sense of fashion in order to be recognized, and with beauty comes boys and late night phone calls and … sex.
As she guided her daughter to the front of the building, Soledad thought that she wanted—no, needed—Pilar to remain like a snow flake: unique in her tenderness, her softness, her openness, her whiteness, and her overall beauty, stemming from the intricate details that were her straight, extra-long eyelashes, which were curled at the very end, her square face that made her look handsome, and her thick, black eyebrows that made her look serious and yet strikingly gorgeous, like a mini-Frida Kahlo, only paler and with a finer nose and no mustache. The last thing Soledad wanted was for her daughter to become merely another suffocated snow flake in a heap of gray snow that got trampled by bitter New Yorkers with heavy boots.
That kind of snow eventually hardens and then melts away into the sewers.
“Slowly,” Soledad told her daughter as she helped her up the three flights of stairs to the apartment.
“I can do it!” Pilar said and continually tried to undo her mother’s firm hold.
by Marilyn Urena
Marilyn Urena was born and raised in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan in New York City. She is currently a Bilingual second grade teacher in the Bronx. She published has published "Guiding Light" with LatinGirl Magazine, “Estrella” in Electric Fire as part of the National Book Foundation, “135th Street” in Voices of the Brotherhood Sister Sol, “The First Quarter” and “We Live in a Beautiful World” in The Tablet at Columbia University, and “Trans-Forming America” in Altar Magazine. She participated in the National Book Foundation’s Summer Writing Camp. Marilyn now lives in the South Bronx, and enjoys writing, reading, and dancing. She is currently working on her first novel.
Monday, February 23, 2009
Posted by Roy Mitchell-Cardenas at 7:59 AM
Sunday, February 8, 2009
Desi Arnaz's Father and His Rubber Ranita
A doctor by profession, my paternal granduncle, José Navarro, had once held several high-ranking positions in the Cuban army. His closest friend was Desiderio (Desi) Arnaz, Sr., father of Desiderio (Desi) Arnaz, Jr., the Ricky Ricardo of the of the classic I Love Lucy television show. José and Desi, Sr. had fled Cuba in the same private plane at the outbreak of a revolution in 1933 with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and settled in Miami. According to other exiles, José had been accused of ordering the execution of five members of the opposition, while Desi, as former mayor of Santiago, the country's second largest city, and later a member of the Cuban Congress, simply had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of the conflict.
For a year José worked as an orderly at a hospital in Miami, until he learned English well enough to take the Florida Medical Boards, which he passed on his second try, at age 50, and started a private practice. Desi, for his part, an architect by profession, launched a successful career buying run-down houses, remodeling them, and selling them for a handsome profit.
José and Desi maintained a love-hate relationship for many years. Every Sunday they would get together for dinner to reminiscence on their heyday in Cuba. Their reminiscences, however, would invariably turn sour, and the two old Cubans would end up insulting and shouting at each other, while their sweet-tempered American wives—both men having since divorced, or abandoned, their Cuban spouses—did their best to maintain a civil conversation on the side. As the quarreling over the dinner table grew heated, The Arnaz's old Chihuahua, Dandi, a surly little thing in her own right, would scurry about under the table, growling and snapping at any hand that dared reach down to pet her. Fortunately, she had lost all her teeth. Come next Sunday, everybody would meet again for dinner and replay the same scene.
Eventually José closed his Miami office and moved with his wife into a coral stone house near Homestead, on a 50-acre scrub pine forest they bought for practically nothing from a retired New York stock broker who, after a year of bucolic boredom, couldn't wait to get back to the exhilarating hustle and bustle of the big city. José, on the other hand, considered himself a man of the land, a true-blood Cuban guajiro. He had 40 acres cleared for mango and avocado groves, planting and nurturing each sapling with his own hands, and reserved the other ten acres for an assortment of farm animals—chickens, geese, ducks, hogs, goats, and a milk cow.
José also fancied himself a humanitarian. Perhaps to atone for his violent past, he converted a cinderblock outbuilding behind the house into a clinic for tenant farmers and migrant workers. If his patients were broke, as was often the case, they could pay him with a few token hours of labor on weekends. José could have easily exploited those poor folk, held them in bondage for months, but to his credit, he never did.
The subject that usually triggered the quarreling arguing between José and Desi was politics, but what really got them fuming was the other man's wardrobe. José's usual attire, even when attending patients, were khaki work clothes, scuffed leather boots and, when outdoors, a broad-rimmed straw hat. By stark contrast, Desi's apparel was that of a grandee fop-- patent leather shoes, tailored gabardine trousers, silk shirts, socks and handkerchiefs, liberally dabbed with expensive French Cologne. When his suits, jackets and ties went out fashion, in whatever small detail, he would give them away and buy new ones. Jose's only suit, which he rarely wore, save to weddings and funerals, was a double-breasted linen job, the kind one sees in silent movies, so stiff from disuse that it could stand up by itself Their hands, too, were a study in contrast: José's sunburned and calloused; Desi's soft and well manicured.
One of the rooms in his the house José had set aside for his collection of firearms, a veritable arsenal, ranging from a pocket-sized Civil War Derringer like the one used by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Lincoln, to a rifle taken from the corpse of Japanese soldier in Iwo Jima who, rather than surrender, had honorably shot himself in the mouth with it by pulling the trigger with his big toe. Or so the story went from the Marine veteran who sold José the rifle.
Among the firearms in José's collection was an antique double-barrel shotgun that had belonged to the father of his American wife, a New England sea captain who, according to family lore, had once used it to put down a mutiny aboard his ship. That same year, 1902, the captain died of a blood infection caused by a bite on from his pet parrot, the bird having mistaken the thumb from a cookie.
Firing that antique 12-gage was easier said than done. One couldn't miss with it at 50 feet, but so powerful was its kick that it could knock a man flat on his back. For protection against intruders, though none ever showed up, José kept two loaded handguns, a .38 Police Special and a .45 Army Colt, the former by his bedside and the latter in his clinic. The double barrel shotgun, that piece he reserved for something more serious.
Like many otherwise fearless men, José had a phobia. His was a dread of frogs and toads. Other than the occasional killing of a rattlesnake, he used the double-barrel exclusively for blowing away the hordes of frogs and toads that during the rainy season invaded the farm. The powerful buckshot pellets would fairly disintegrate the hapless creatures, leaving nothing but a hole on the ground. The yard between the house and José's office was pockmarked with these holes. The early morning Blam! Blam! of the double-barrel had become a familiar and reassuring sound, a sign that old man was in good health and the rest of the day would get on according to schedule.
Somehow Desi got wind of José's phobia and, naturally, couldn't resist the temptation of using it against him the first chance he got. At a novelty store in Miami, he bought a realistic-looking rubber frog that wiggled when compressed and, grinning devilishly, waited for the right moment.
The moment came one May 20, Cuban Independence Day. José was hosting an outdoor dinner party at the farm for his Cuban acquaintances, regaling them with embellished stories about his military exploits in Cuba (the man was gifted story teller), charming the women, and, of course, casting an occasional dig at Desi's sartorial tastes.
"Pretending he had a cramp in his foot, Desi got up from the table, sneaked behind the chair where José was sitting and, subtly, without anyone noticing it, took the rubber frog out his pocket, compressed so it would wiggle, and plopped it on the table in front of José.
"Hey," he said smiling at the guests "Look at that little green frog. Isn't it cute?"
At the sight of the wiggling frog, José bolted up from the table and screaming,"Coño! Una ranita!," dashed into the house, followed by his wife, the even-tempered Americana afraid that her crazy husband might come out with the shotgun and blow away the ranita as well as any unfortunate invitado who happened to get in the way.
The invitados looked at one another in disbelief. Then one by one they starting smiling, then chuckling, then laughing, then all guffawing as one, with Desi the loudest.
The Arnaz's Chihuahua had meanwhile came out from under the table to sniff the black beans and rice that José in his panic had spilled on the ground, but not liking the smell, she snarled a disapproving snarl, and went back under the table to lay at her master's feet, sulking as usual.
By the time José returned to the party, the green ranita was in Desi's pocket. So José never knew that it was fake, and Desi never told him. From then on, though, when José started in on Desi's wardrobe, Desi would counter with the ranita incident and Uncle José, thoroughly subdued, would back off.
All Rights Reserved. 2008.