Because words on paper are angels enough to guide a lost soul through whatever forest they might find themselves in, and lead them home. But no one never really knows they’re lost.
We left the Bronx, in June 2007, I was a recent high school grad unsure if I wanted to go to college or move to Hollywood. Actors didn’t do college nor did they need it, right? Everybody on the block knew I was ambitious, “Chesca is gonna be famous” they’d say. Everyone except my mom, my very Dominican mom.
“You haven’t read any of these books,” my mom said as she cleared the bookshelf and packed away what she deemed worthy for our new apartment. “Actors at Work,” I read the title as if I didn’t know which books she was referring to. “Of course, I read it. And will read it again.” No point in explaining that in those moments when she asks about money and demands that I get a real job, that I turn to this very book for inspiration. Actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman to Meryl Streep sharing stories about craft, studying, being, doing – existing. She grabbed the tape to seal the box filled with my acting books and four editions of her ‘Remedios Caseros’ books. As far as this Dominican was concerned and Mama too, Vicks Vapor Rub was the plug, the heck with all of that. Junior walked into the house with sweat dripping down his fore head dribbling a basketball thinking he’s the next Felipe Lopez. He looked at all of the scattered books “We making money off this?” he asked. “Let’s set up shop in front of the building.” He grabbed one of them, “An Actor Prepares,” he mocked. “I bet J.Lo never read this. Diddy prepared, she just followed.” “Spoken like a true machista.” I retorted. “They train them young, huh?”
My little brother chuckled and walked away. By way of encouragement, he said that I wouldn’t have to do any of that because I have real talent. Mom stopped him before he could go too far, gave him a hug and put him to work; he had to do some heavy lifting like the rest of us or like most of us. Junior was the only one who still got a hug from Mom; a true momma’s boy. I discovered more items in the discard pile. I spotted my black and white composition notebook buried under more of her cure all books. Ella no sabe que lo que me cura a mi son palabras. That my writing took me into a world that was my own; finally someone I could talk to. Those blank pages were like the mood rings that turned your finger green; they would let you know how I was feeling. I wrote about whether my crush smiled back at me or ignored me. How my teacher didn’t understand my essay because well, he was a white man. I wrote down hip-hop lyrics, I connected to that world. It was all a dream, I used to read Word Up Magazine. Biggie had bars! I opened the notebook and the inside flap read, Franchesca: Actor/Writer. On some days, I felt like I had to pick, that I couldn’t be both. The reality was that both were pipe dreams in my culture so what did it even matter. I flipped the pages and came across my Dear God letters, which were really prayers unbeknownst to me. I copied poems from Teen Magazine, The Roses are Red ones.
I heard the wind chime by the door which was silly because the closest thing to a breeze we got in that apartment building was when the ceiling fan was on. Papi walked into the house and smiled at me. There goes my princess, he’d say. He kissed my forehead and I smelled the beer on his breath. The stench was coming out of his pores. Budweiser. I only knew that because of our trash can, leftovers and Budweisers. Papi mostly drank outdoors but every so often he’d have a couple at home. He thought we didn’t know he had a problem. My dad was supposed to be home three hours ago to help pack but he was preoccupied with hanging with the fellas in front of the corner bodega. He walked into the master bedroom where my mom was packing their clothes all by herself. This was candela pura especially since this wouldn’t be the first time he hadn’t shown up. A couple of years ago, he missed my mom’s college graduation because he overslept at his “friend’s” house. That was also the first time Papi hadn’t slept in his own bed. I bet he did that on purpose, there was a part of my Dad that didn’t want to see her liberated. Educated. You know, island mentality - he’s the man of the house. She decided to go to college when she realized that my dad’s vicio was costing the entire family. My mom wasn’t a yeller, she had a finesse about it; she knew how to cut you where it hurt without so much as raising her voice. Maybe it was the School Principal in her coming out. I drowned out their arguing, those voices that have become the soundtrack to my childhood, and continued flipping through a few more pages of my notebook. Another Dear God letter, I know God hears prayers but is he reading them too?
“Ya ta bueno, Chesca. Stop daydreaming. Move on to the next thing,” my mom told me as she walked past to get more empty boxes. She carried on as if she and Papi did not just have a heated debate.
A week later, we’re up to our knees with boxes, maletas and even garbage bags. The Dominicans are here, disturbing the peace in a quaint town in dirty Jersey. My brother found a neighborhood park for his daily runs and high intensity workouts. His coach told him he has to stay on top of his fitness. My dad didn’t have the corner bodega; he was home drunk more often than not these days. We had philosophical conversations on how he didn’t finish high school when he left the Dominican Republic. He raved about how he supported the family and put Junior and me through Catholic School while working at a factory. That was a sore spot since mom no longer needed his financial assistance. Our connection got stronger, so did his drinking. I enjoyed being able to talk to someone in my family - albeit an intoxicated parent. Papi wanted to tell me about his Casanova days (read: mujeriego) and how the white women in New York loved a chocolate brother who spoke Spanish. They weren’t sure if they wanted to go all the way black so Dominicans and some Ricans were as far as the experimenting would take them. I had to stop Papi. I didn’t want to know if he was with other women while with mom. I wanted to dialogue but not about that. Over the next few days, Papi and I continued our chats. He encouraged me to keep acting. “I’ll see you at The Oscars someday,” he’d say. The tension in the house was thick. He only had me to talk to and I in turn only had him.
I watched as my mom went straight to organizing, she didn’t have time to entertain nostalgia. She needed order; she avoided memories like the plague. So, this is what moving on up feels like, the Dominican version? Forget the Jeffersons, this was real life. As she tackled her last box labeled ‘miscellaneous’, she pulled out an old tattered pic. Her eyes became fiery daggers as she stared at the photo. Mom realized I was watching and laughed it off. Not knowing what to say, I asked to see the photo as if she would agree. She said it was none of my business. She stormed into the kitchen and grabbed the first thing she saw, one of those aluminum cups from DR. You know the ones where they engrave your name on it. The one where they spell your American name, the Dominican way. My cousin Jennifer became Yennyfer, her wannabe gringa behind was not happy about that. That’s a whole other issue. My dad walked into the kitchen, probably to get another beer, completely clueless. The timing was impeccable, I thought I was in a friggin’ Telemundo novela. She hurled the open side of the cup at my dad’s face and caught the right side with precision. He had a small but deep cut near his eyebrow that started bleeding. Funny thing was that my dad tried to dodge it forgetting he had a six-pack all to himself. Maybe it was more than a six-pack, his reflexes were slow. “VIEJA!” my dad yelled at her. He worried about me being there to see it. I wondered if this happened before. “Vete de mi lado,” she yelled back. “Get away!” He walked over to me and kissed me on the forehead as he pressed down on his cut with his index finger. He whispered, “Don’t worry princess,” and made his way to the bathroom. “Mami … you okay?” I asked her nervously.
It was the first time my mom showed emotion. It was the first time I saw the queen of the house shaken. She didn’t say a word to me. She wiped the tears from her eyes and ripped the photo up. My mom went right back to organizing. I’m convinced she is the Marie Kondo of her era. Except this didn’t look like it sparked joy, this looked like hell. Like an escape. I knew all about that but my mom was like one of those water balloons we used to fill up at the fire hydrant on the block, ready to pop. You didn’t need a PsyD to figure that one out. The doorbell interrupted my thoughts - that’s right we had a doorbell now. I assumed it was our neighbors bringing over some warm chocolate chip cookies. Suburbia 101. I opened the door and it’s a pissed off Junior.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Those racist fucking cops,” he said. “I’m riding my bike and they followed me.”
“Did they put their hands on you?!”
“No. They asked me for ID and questioned why I was in this part of town.”
Junior was a straight A student, not because he wanted to be but because he had to be. He needed college scholarships. His involvement with cops was little to none.
“Junior, we are not in the Bronx anymore. We don’t look like them,” I reminded him.
I tried to talk Junior through racial profiling and the fact that he’s a black male when my mom walked in on us. She realized she still had toilet paper in her hand for her sniffles and quickly disposed of it so that Junior wouldn’t see it. Her eyes looked watery but she’s used the visine line many times before. Supermom - to the rescue. Dad, nowhere to be found. “Que paso, mi hijo,” she said as she rubbed his back. I walked away and rolled my eyes. It didn’t call for all that. Junior needed to be informed not coddled. She got amnesia quick when it came to him. She was trying too hard to make sure he didn’t become the man who didn’t know how to love because he never received love. She didn’t want him to become the man she married.
I walked into my new bedroom; it looked like organized chaos thanks to my mom. I picked up my black and white notebook and I got lost in my writing.
I can’t do this anymore; I’m out to Hollywood.