I went into the room that I shared with Danielle until dinner was ready. I did not want to be bothered. I was mentally, emotionally, and physically drained. I turned on the television and climbed onto the top bunk of the beds my parents had recently purchased for us. As I lay in bed I began thinking about the ordeal I had just suffered through and how I almost lost my little sister in the park. I thanked God that Danielle was ok and it was then that I also realized how good my life was.
My parents provided not only the necessities, but often gave in to our requests for luxuries, that is, as long as we did well in school. I looked around the room and took a quick inventory. We had brand new beds, a color TV set, VCR, a stereo system and closet full of clothes, shoes, sneakers, everything. Materialistically, we had more than any of our friends.
Sometimes I would think that mamí and papí spoiled us with material things to make up for not being there. Mamí loved hanging out and was hardly ever home and papí worked 14 hour days, often not getting home until after Danielle and I were asleep. They showered us with gifts, there was no denying that, but if we failed in school or misbehaved, papí had no problem taking the luxuries away.
Our parents were a few of the only couples still together. Most of our friends were growing up in single family homes where the moms barely made ends meet. They didn’t work but instead were supported by the government and tax payers throughNew YorkState’s welfare system. The dads were every other weekend dads or didn’t exist at all.
Danielle and I never wanted for anything. We had everything we needed plus more. New clothes every beginning of the school year, the newest video games, we were treated to 2 and 3 vacations a year. We were the definition of ghetto fabulous. We always looked fresh to death but had to share our home with rats and cockroaches. As I lay in bed looking at all of our possessions I realized how I would trade it all just to have my parents around all the time. I wasn’t being ungrateful, I know Danielle and I were blessed, but I hated that papí had to work so much and that mamí preferred dancing all night at the Copacabana than being home with us.
Danielle is 3 years younger so the responsibility of taking care of her often fell on me. I fed her when she got home from school, made sure she took a bath, I helped her with her homework because mamí, although she finished high school, always found our schoolwork to be too difficult.
“Aye why do they give you girls such hard homework? I didn’t learn this when I was in school”, she would say.
Where I was tall, skinny, and awkward Danielle was the complete opposite. She was “la nena linda”, the pretty little girl. She had long beautiful hair that she flaunted in my face every chance she got partly because I had short, very dry and curly hair. Danielle took after mamí, she was small and cute. She had a gap in between her two front teeth that she hated, but I always thought that made her unique and made her even more beautiful. Danielle was small for her age. But what she lacked in size she made up for in attitude. She always made her own decisions and did what she wanted. If she didn’t want to do something she didn’t do it. This trait followed her all throughout her life and was the cause for many arguments and disagreements between her and our parents later on in life.
She was definitely the prettier one in the family. I remember when people would describe us they’d say “Danielle’s the pretty one” and “Natalie is the smart one”. It wasn’t that I was ugly, but I just wasn’t as pretty as Danielle was. I didn’t realize what it was doing to me, but subconsciously I know that as a result of trying to live up to the persona of being “the smart one” I always put a lot of pressure on myself to do well in school and not disappoint my parents.
Danielle marched to the beat of her own drummer. She was tough, opinionated, and stubborn but she was also very warm, caring and loving. She was loyal and all she ever wanted was to be around her older sister. I took her for granted because that’s what older sisters do. The thought of almost losing her was too much for me to bear. However, her constant tagging along and wanting to be around me only strengthened the relationship we had. I guess my parents did know what they were doing after all.
My dad, Carlos, was a store manager for one of the major men’s shoe stores in New York City. He’s a natural born leader, the type of man that you would go to for his opinion or advice. This is a trait that I have inherited from him. He was great at managing and getting the best out of people. He demands respect but he also respects everyone he interacts with. One of the many lessons he taught me was to treat others how you would want to be treated. This rule didn’t seem to apply to mamí though because sometimes he wouldn’t treat her very nice, but we’ll get into that later.
He is very wise despite the fact that he only has a high school education. It’s ironic that he never pursued further education because for as long as I can remember obtaining a college education is something that he envisioned for my sister and me. It was never a topic open for discussion. Danielle and I were going to college no ifs, ands, or buts about it. He wanted us to have a better life than he did.
“You girls are going to college so that you never have to depend on any man for anything”, he would say.
I always found this to be strange because mamí depended on him for everything and that was how he wanted it.
My dad reminded me of Clark Kent before he turned into Superman. He always wore glasses and everyday he wore a shirt and tie to work. He stood 5’9” tall and was very fair skinned. He had a mustache and occasionally grew a goatee. I hated the goatee because it would scratch my face whenever he gave me a kiss, but I loved his kisses. His eyebrows connected in the middle to form what we called a “uni-brow”. This was the one thing I hated inheriting from him.
Papí loved us. There wasn’t anything that he wouldn’t do for his baby girls. Papí worked a lot of long hours and his job didn’t allow for much time to spend with Danielle and me. By the time he got home, ate dinner, and relaxed it would already be time for Danielle and me to go to bed. We had a 10 o’clock bed time on school nights but he tried his best to make it home in time to tuck us in for bed and kiss us goodnight. Those few minutes he would spend with us before going to sleep weren’t much but they meant a lot. As kids we don’t realize these small things. It’s only as adults that we learn to appreciate the small things.
My mom, Nina or Teeny as she is called is exactly how her name implies, small. She has the softest, smoothest cinnamon brown skin I have ever seen. She is 4’ 11” tall and weighs about 100 lbs. Her big chestnut colored eyes contrasted perfectly with her honey blond colored feathered hair. To me she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She looked like Farah Fawcett from Charlie’s Angels only prettier because she had a permanent tan. Her skin glowed and you couldn’t get that glow from being laid out in the beach all day. It was natural.
Mamí was very glamorous and fashionable. 5” heels for her were like sneakers. She wore them all the time. In fact, she told me that she even wore heels to an amusement park once. Mamí’s crazy. I can’t believe she wore tacos to a park. My father spoiled her just as he spoiled Danielle and me. He bought her any and everything she wanted. She had enough jewelry and diamonds to open up her own jewelry store. To describe her as fabulous would be an understatement. He pampered her and took good care of not only her, but her family also.
My grandmother, uncles, aunts, and even cousins benefited from papí’s big heart. His big heart however, would often fall victim to his temper. As kind and giving as he was he could be just as mean and hurtful when he was angry. Sometimes it was like living with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Despite this flaw I worshipped him. I made myself believe that his double personality was just an adverse affect of the constant pressures of being the man of the house. In my eyes my parents were the ideal couple and represented what true love was. Or at least that was what I believed, even when they argued and his fist accidentally made contact with mamí’s face.
“Where do you think you’re going?” papí snickered as he took a gulp out of his favorite mug. It was full to the brim with Budweiser and papí always enjoyed drinking a nice cold one with his dinner. Dinner was ready and mamí called out for Danielle and me to come eat as she finished getting ready for another night of dancing.
“Aye Carlos, you know Thursdays are Salsa nights down at the Copa”, mamí said. “And tonight El Gran Combo is going to be there directo de Puerto Rico”.
“I haven’t seen them play since the last time you knocked out that guy at Broadway 96. Remember that? Aye dios mio, I almost couldn’t believe it. The only thing he did was offer me a drink after we danced.”
“Natalie, Danielle, dinner is served”, yelled mamí. I jumped off of the bed and ran into the kitchen that was also our dining room. The kitchen was small but still mamí managed to fit a dining room table and a washing machine in it. Don’t ask me how she did it but she did. Danielle followed behind me and sat in her usual chair directly opposite from the old white now yellowish-brown Frigidaire refrigerator. The refrigerator was next to the stove and every time mamí fried food the grease from the frying pan ended up on the refrigerator.
The Mets game was on TV and the only thing that papí loved more than a cold beer was The NY Mets. If the Mets were playing and losing the best thing to do was to disappear from papí’s sight. When the Mets lost, papí always took it so personal. He’d get angry, curse, call them bums and then unleash his wrath on whoever was around him. I just didn’t understand it. Tonight they were losing 7-3 and if mamí had plans to go dancing she’d better hope that the Mets made a comeback.
I sat at the kitchen table eating the arroz blanco, habichuelas and chuletas mamí cooked for dinner and listened to mamí tell her story. I knew that it must have ended badly for whoever “the guy” was. Papí was a traditional Puerto Rican man. He’d let mamí dance with other men because he too loved salsa and didn’t see any harm in dancing. But a man offering to buy another man’s woman a drink was a sign of disrespect, a sort of unwritten rule, an imaginary line that you just didn’t cross and if you did then you suffered the consequence.
I don’t know if “the guy” from Broadway 96 knew that mamí was papí’s woman but from the story mamí was telling it didn’t matter. He should have known.
“Tonight, I’m going to dance all night just like that pink little Energizer bunny. Are you sure that you don’t want to come?” mamí asked excitedly while refilling papi’s mug with another beer.
Her tone reminded me of the wishful tone in mine and Danielle’s voices whenever we asked papí for something that we really wanted and knew we weren’t going to get. As if saying it in this manner would somehow trick papí into thinking that he should get us whatever it was that we wanted.
By her tone and the sparkle in her eye I knew Mamí was hoping that he’d say yes. She loved dancing and especially loved dancing with papí. She always said he was her Fred Astaire. I’ve never seen Fred Astaire dance, but the way she talked about him he must have been a really good dancer. I loved watching mamí and papí dance. When they danced it felt like the entire world stopped, opened up its mouth and sucked you in. Transporting you to a place far away from Brooklyn to a place where everything was colorful and bright; a place where good witches, fairies, ruby red slippers and yellow brick roads existed like in The Wizard of Oz.
Mamí’s feathered hair lightly swayed in the air as papí would guide her with his hand into the dance position that he wanted her to go in. Gliding effortlessly on the dance floor he led and she pleasantly followed. The twists and turns in their dancing were intricate yet whimsical. The type of dancing that could only be seen in a fairytale. Mamí’s body would flow so easily and her dress would open up catching the wind underneath its wings like a bird in flight. When they danced it always felt like they were the only two in the room, but as soon as the music stopped so did the fairytale.
“I’m not going anywhere and neither are you”, papí scowled. “Get in there and make sure the girls finished eating their dinner and get them ready for bed. They have school tomorrow”.
Danielle and I sat in the small kitchen quiet as mice, motionless because we didn’t want to bring any attention to ourselves. I knew this was coming. The Mets lost and Papí was not in a good mood.
“But Nene, you said last week that I could go”, mamí said in a child like tone that made her sound more like his daughter than his wife. She began clearing our dinner dishes and said to me “Natalie take your sister and get ready for bed”.
I got up from the table and did as I was told because I knew this wasn’t time for a debate. If papí said it was time for bed then it was time for bed. Danielle, however, was not as understanding. “But ma, it’s only 8 p.m. and our bedtime isn’t until 10 o’clock”. She said it so matter-of-factly as if this was a democracy and she really had a say.
“I don’t care what time it is, go to bed now”, mamí said. We walked quietly and quickly into the living room, scurrying into the sala, similar to the way cockroaches do when you turn on the light in a dark room. We had a lot of those and I always found it funny to see them dash to the safety of the nearest crack or hole in the wall. Papí was still sitting in his favorite Lazy-boy chair in the living room. He refused to get rid of it even though it was falling apart. That chair must have been older than me. It was torn and stained everywhere. The seat cushion was covered with an old black and red plaid pillow case that mamí tore apart and then sewed back together. It smelled of old musk and tobacco. A combination of papi’s old spice cologne and his cigar smoke was embedded in the fabric. It stuck out like a sore thumb. It was the only item that didn’t match our newly purchased living set. We gave papí a good night kiss on the cheek and although he was visibly not in a good mood he gave his baby girls a kiss and a hug.
“I will come tuck you girls in, in a few minutes”, he said. That’s one thing about papí, no matter how upset he was or how late he got home from work he always tucked us in.
We went straight into our bedroom and I closed the door. Although I knew it was pointless. The door was not thick enough to block out the sounds of the next WWF match that was about to take place in the next room. Mamí and papí argued all the time and although papí didn’t like hitting mamí sometimes he had to remind her that he was the “man” of the house. At least that’s what he used to say after each of their matches. He would always tell Danielle and me “Make sure you girls get a good education that way you can create your own lives and you don’t have to depend on a man for anything.”
Whenever they got into it all I did was hope that mamí would keep her mouth shut. If she remained quiet it would all be over fairly quickly. Papí just liked to feel powerful. He wanted to feel respected. After all, he was the man in the house and what he says goes.