“… alright, college isn’t for you either,” Nomi says, “come see me, then. I don’t dance anymore. I drive a cab now, free rides up and down the electric strip, little sis.”
The connection on the phone was weak. The utility company doesn’t maintain these lines here. This is a war zone. Hazards of ghetto life. Naomi sounded like she was talking to me from a distant pulsing star. I imagined her engulfed in blinding white light. It’s grey and rainy in Camden, I heard a gunshot outside. There are never police sirens after the gunshots. “Seriously … come,” she said brightly.
“I want to,” I said, no longer tearing up, feeling stronger. “I almost have the truck running.” I was trying to fix a pickup I’d found with tools that belonged to my father who I’d lost.
“Really, es tan bueno! But be careful at that place, V,” Naomi says, meaning the junkyard, “watch your back, mi hermana.”
Naomi, who’d been lucky enough to get out of Camden, younger than me. Still … she’d been raped in a parking lot outside a daycare center in Glendale, California. Dusk. Night birds flying, scouting out the wayward insects beneath the streetlights.
“California?” I’d said aloud, hearing that. All I could picture was palm trees and blue skies. They could hurt you there too?
When I was nine years old, I was shot twice. Once in the lower back. Once in the wrist. Bullets passing right through me and the park. I still cannot make a fist with my left hand. It’s hard for me to put on my bra behind my back. Some days, I have to ask my grandmother for help. She’s disabled below the waist. I just can’t make a proper fist. But that’s OK, I carry a knife with me wherever I go.
I was using my paycheck from the New Jersey turnpike Taco Bell, to pull parts for a Chevy S-10 that I’d found in lower Merion. A nice neighborhood.
They let me keep the truck in the back of the junkyard. The dog there doesn’t even bark at me. He’s the only one that doesn’t want my blood it seems. I worked on the S-10 whenever I could. It was a secret. Like a lot of things, I didn’t want my abuela to find out.
She had dreams of me attending Drexel University. I had other ideas.
“My sister the ace mechanic, dios mio,” Naomi said, making sloppy kissy sounds into the receiver. We said goodbye, “I’ll see you in Vegas soon?”
She’d already sent me two hundred dollars in a birthday card.
“Si,” I said, setting the pink pony phone into it’s cradle.
I was afraid to leave. The desert was so far, so impossible. The projects kept me close. I’d never been anywhere.
I had a map of the United States tacked to my bedroom wall. It was hidden behind a poster of Miles Davis, he was bent all the way back blowing hard into a silver trumpet. I’d tack Miles Davis up, stare at the odd American map. I had a red sharpie. I wanted to mark all of the places that I’d been on the hidden map, all the roads I’d been on. There wasn’t a single mark. The map, too, was a secret kept from my grandma, Maria.
It’s existence would break her heart. I was her caretaker. I was her connection. I was her family. We were a team.
Philadelphia. That was her plan for me … she’d even sent out the application all filled out with my information. Take the train in and out of Philly, attend college there. Keep living in this hell hole? The ghetto? No. I didn’t think I’d survive. I wanted to be there with Nomi.
I also wanted to see America. It couldn’t all be like this.
My abuela had said to me when I came home with my driver’s license, “why would you have needed to go get that? You won’t need a car … it’s a quick train from here to center city …”
She’d never gotten her driver’s license. I’m supposed to be a good little Puerto Rican and just walk wherever I need to go. She’s afraid I’m going to leave her. I am.
There was a knock on my window.
It was Watt, he was wearing a tight leather jacket, a crooked red baseball cap, cause he runs with the bloods. His eyes were clear. He didn’t look spun, that was our deal. I wouldn’t see him if he was fucked up. I opened the window and let him in my room, but said, “shhhhhhhh,”
“I’ll shoot that bitch, I don’t care.”
“That’s no way to win a girl over, scumbag. Threatening to shoot her
He sits down on my bed. I sit on the chair, looking at him.
“You look good,” he says.
“It’s cause my tits grew,” I said, cupping them. They were heavy. They hurt.
“Oh, I know. I can tell. I shoulda kept a little notebook with all your measurements.” He’s a charming fuck. I secretly love him too.
“I got a little notebook with all your measurements,” I said, “It’s a very tiny notebook. Almost invisible.”
“You’re funny, that makes up for a lot of things.”
“I don’t know …”
“I need money,” I said.
“That’s a very original thought … you need money …”
“Wanted to talk to you bout something, kinda crazy … dunno if you’d be down.”
“If I give you a thousand dollars, what can you turn it into?” Crack. That’s what it comes down to. Watt sells it.
“Turn it into? You’re whacked. Don’t get involved in that. Any of that.”
“I need to leave here.”
“Leave? Really? No shit … you were serious?”
“Deadly serious, boy,” I said, standing up.
We’d grown up together, known each other since we were five. His mom had married my dad. Life is strange like that. He’d gotten me pregnant once. Nomi had taken me for the abortion in Newark, she’d pretended to be my mother, but our mother was dead. Our father was living on the streets somewhere or dead too. People were far scattered. Watt stood up from the bed and put his arms around me, he looked stupid with corn rows.
“You look stupid with corn rows,” I said.
“You’ll look stupid with a black eye.”
“Fuck, you kid,” I mouthed at him. He kissed me deep. There was a knock on the door. She was out there calling for me.
The door was locked, there was a chair against the doorknob.
We sat back down on the bed, indian style facing each other.
“I’m not hungry,” I said to her.
“I hear voices in there, who’s with you?”
“The TV,” I said, switching on the TV. “It’s just some annoying reality show.”
“Food’s on the table,” she said rolling off in her wheelchair.
“Alright,” I said.
Watt fished out his lighter and his bowl. He wanted to smoke.
I shook my head, revealed a cigar box from under my pillow.
“This was Romo’s” my dad, Romario. “He did two good things for me. He taught me how to change the oil in his Buick when I was little, and he stashed this away for my college education when he just got back from the service.”
I opened the box, it was packed with twenty dollar bills, that still smelled like the strawberry cigars I vaugely remember him smoking.
“She gave it to me yesterday on my birthday,” I said, pointing through the door into the cell of the apartment, “take it, it’s yours. Buy what you can with it … take your cut, give me the rest. Think I can double my money?”
“You’re out of your mind.”
“And hopefully out of the projects in a month. I need cash to travel, I wanna do it right. Maybe you’ll even come? Motel rooms, drinking, dancing, fun … laughing at things that we see out the window. Weird towns. Strange people … hicks, cowboys …”
“What makes you think I wanna see a cowboy?”
“Ok … cowgirls.”
“That’s more like it.”
Watt took the box, set it down between his thighs, looked down at the money.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
You’ll die here, I wanted to say, but this wasn’t a movie and I was worried that he’d take it the wrong way. I wanted him. I didn’t wanna repel him. I wanted him closer. I wanted him to be mine. It was impossible here. Too many fucked up little whores. Too much blood. Bullets.Crack. Stoops. Weed. Busted out streetlights. Saggy jeans. Rap through busted out speakers. Dog fights. Garbage strewn across front lawns. Buildings collapsing. Structure fires. Youth didn’t happen sweet. It was hard to sleep. Something seemed to be always on the verge of coming for you.
He pushed the cigar box back to me.
“You’ll stay,” he said, “Put the cash in a bank, bitch. And, don’t talk to me about money again, not like that.”
“My bad,” I said.
“No, you’re cool …”
He kissed me, we fell back onto the bed. I grabbed his back, he pulled my hair, turning my face, kissing my neck. There was another knock on the door. He laughed, said, “Fuck you, Maria!” pulled his pants down, as I kicked my shoes off.
As I closed my eyes, all I saw was palm trees. Mountains. Cold rivers. Highways peeling away from the east coast, and all of it’s death.
But, he did take the cigar box with him when he left out the window. I sat at the kitchen table eating cold mofongo: green plantains crushed into pilon, wondering what Graceland was really like.
My abuela didn’t say a word out in the living room.