Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Halsey Street, An Excerpt from a Novel

This excerpt from my novel-in-progress Halsey Street was selected as a winner of the Margaret Lamb/Writing to the Right-Hand Margin Prize for Fiction in April 2012. View the original publication in The Fordham Observer.

Mirella could not rest. It was too quiet in the residence, too far from the road. She heard only the humming of the generator downstairs, the crickets tuning up their legs. Her lover breathed hard beside her, his hands on the back of his head as he slept, facedown. He slept this way every night, and every night Mirella thought he looked ridiculous. Was he under arrest? Was he blocking out the sound of nothing? Of their seclusion here in the residence, where there was no one but other expats, Mirella, and the watching-man at the gate?
They had been to the beach that day, running through the surf as if they were half their age. They drank limoncello then stretched out on their stomachs to eat pasta. Mirella picked the oregano from her garden that morning in short shorts and her bathing suit top, while Marcello complained in her kitchen that Dominican beef was too tough for ragù.
He was badly sunburned now, his skin bright red and peeling. Tomorrow Mirella would cut a spear of aloe from the yard to rub over his back. For nearly a year this had been their routine: trips to the beach, quiet dinners with cold wine, sex, sunburns, and sleeping in Mirella’s bed. She refused to sleep in his house after having paid so much for her own house, her own bed: a four-post caoba frame sent from the capital. She still had family in Santiago, a few distant cousins and great aunts, but she had moved far enough that none of them would visit her. She stayed in their apartments when she first left her husband Ralph in New York and had nowhere to live in the Dominican Republic. When she finally found a house, she rented a truck, packed it with her belongings, and drove across the island. She left her cousins a small bundle of U.S. dollars tied up in a handkerchief. It was her good-bye.
Mirella slipped out of bed, and Marcello didn’t stir. She walked down the stairs to the kitchen and sat at the counter. All of her appliances—copper pots, the bamboo cutting board, and Mr. Coffee Machine—were wedding gifts from Ralph’s friends. It was as if they expected her to spend her married life cooking in a stuffy Brooklyn kitchen. When she found herself back in DR, forty-five, and cooking for just one, she wasn’t sure what she liked to make for herself. Most nights she wanted only a glass of wine and dark chocolate from the German bakery down the road. She laughed to herself during these dinners and thought that if her mother, Ramona, weren’t dead, she would be horrified at how she was eating— a little piece of chocolate, like a beggar, and a glass of liquor, like a puta.
Marcello didn’t know that Mirella’s mother had lived in the mountains in the south of the country, in a village where the red earth stuck to your legs and your hair. He assumed she was from Santiago like her cousins. He didn’t question why she had chosen to live in the residence full of European ex-pats: a few Germans, an Englishman, and another Italian like himself. They had all come to DR for the same reason. Here, they could live like the people they had envied in their own countries. They had pools and Jeeps, servants, time.
Mirella was the only resident without a staff. She worked all day in the garden, checked the fuses in the generator, and climbed onto the roof if one of the skylights was leaking. “Why don’t you hire someone to clean for you?” Marcello was always asking. “Your house is enormous.” Mirella hadn’t told him she spent years cleaning much larger houses in New York: brick townhouses with cream-colored carpets, lofts with what seemed like miles of windows.
The Dominican woman who cleaned for Marcello was a slender Santiaguera named Ariane. Mirella often invited her for coffee, but she never accepted. They spoke over the gate around Mirella’s house, and Mirella cherished their short conversations, the relief of Ariane’s husky, melodic voice, from Marcello’s flippant Italianate Spanish. Ariane must have been at least twenty years younger than Mirella; she was Penelope’s age.
Mirella and Penelope had spoken English for so many years in the house on Halsey Street that Mirella couldn’t remember the sound of Spanish in her daughter’s mouth. As a child, Penelope had been fluent, until Ralph ordered her to speak English at home so he could understand what they were always chattering about. Soon, the only times Mirella heard from her daughter in Spanish was in cards for her birthday and Mother’s Day. When Penelope was a teenager, they fought in English, and Mirella always said the wrong thing. In English, Penelope had the upper hand, so Mirella yelled and threw things to keep up. Maybe that had been their problem. English was for Ralph and Brooklyn and the rich ladies whose houses she cleaned; it was never meant for her daughter.

Mirella reached into one of the cabinets underneath the counter. She felt the rim of an old, chipped cup, and set it on the counter. Inside the cup was a folded-up card. She unfolded the postcard and saw the smudges from all the erasing she had done, her handwriting in the faint gray of pencil lead.
Hija, she had written, then a few lines, and her signature. When she first arrived in DR, Mirella had thought, briefly, that maybe her daughter would visit her. Maybe things would be better in this big house in the north of the island than they ever were in Brooklyn or in the mountains where they spent summers when Ramona was still alive, and Ralph was too consumed with the store to miss them.
Mirella had never mailed the postcard because she didn’t know Penelope’s address in Pittsburgh, and she didn’t want to mail it to Ralph to forward. They hadn’t spoken since she had left him, after the closing of the store and his accident. She had been threatening to leave for weeks, while she washed his back with a sponge, or pushed him down the street in his wheelchair to pick up a prescription. He cried every day, whether over his spine or the store, Mirella was never sure. He had never cried over her or the years they had spent silently maneuvering around each other, as if they were both simply features of the house, a wobbly table or a fragile vase that should be avoided. When he cried and wanted her to take care of him, Mirella felt herself suddenly able to speak aloud the thoughts that had been circling her mind for decades: This is not why I got married, and This is not why I came here.
When she started shipping the boxes to DR, Ralph asked her if she would really go and abandon their life together. She stayed for two weeks after the boxes were gone, just long enough for them to arrive in DR. While Ralph was asleep one night, Mirella put on a scarf and gloves, not bothering to take her wool coat, and slipped out of the house on Halsey with her suitcase. She hated to leave her plants behind, but there wasn’t any way to ship them. She walked to Bedford Avenue and hailed a cab to the airport.
She had thought of Penelope as she drove away from the neighborhood she had moved to when she was a girl, eighteen and fresh from the red-earth campo, looking for life. How will my daughter find me? she had thought as the taxi plunged farther into Brooklyn, and then she remembered that Penelope hadn’t been looking.
Mirella put the clip, the porcelain pieces, and the folded-up postcard back inside the cup and in the cabinet. She walked back to the living room, unlatched the gate and opened one of the sliding doors onto the patio.
It was warm in the garden, the air damp and clean. Mirella felt as if someone had thrown a shawl over her in the dark. She stepped off the breezeway, and the earth gave under her feet. The crickets were louder outside.
Mirella loved her days here in the garden, tending to the banana trees and vegetable patch, picking the avocado and papaya and lemons that fell in the breeze, uprooting weeds and killing snakes that had slipped through the barbed wire around the perimeter of her land. She loved her birds of paradise: the magenta beak of the buds, the yellow and blue petals like a crown of feathers, the slender green stalks. She could have never grown flowers that bright and intricate in Brooklyn.
You would like it here, hija, she thought. Penélope.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Beach

"The Beach" was selected as a winner of the Margaret Lamb/Writing to the Right-Hand Margin Prize for Fiction in April 2011.This short-short story was first published in The Fordham Observer and later in the Fordham Prizes Anthology. View the original publication here.
The Beach

The beach was a short drive from Kathy’s house. The shore was all flatland, white sand broken up by iridescent rocks and patches of yellow grass.
“I told you it was beautiful,” said Frank, as he and Kathy spread blankets on the ground.
Jessica didn’t agree. The beach was clean and the water was blue, but it was not beautiful. It was better, at least, than Coney Island, where Frank had taken her on her first night in New York. That beach had smelled like burnt hot dogs and cigarettes, garbage left too long in the sun.
“I bet it’s nothing like the beaches in your country,” Kathy said.
“It’s not that different,” Jessica replied.
Frank uncapped a bottle of suntan lotion, and Jessica reached to help him. He waved her hand away.
It had been three weeks since Jessica came to New York to be with Frank. On the morning she left Santo Domingo, her family had gathered at the airport gate, dressed in their church clothes. Jessica’s sisters looked solemn, carrying red bunches of framboyan, her favorite flower. Hernando, the youngest, slurped loudly from a cup of guarapo Jessica had bought to appease him. Jessica’s father did not come to say goodbye. Her mother refused to embrace her. She wept instead, darkening the collar of her dress and muttering, “This is someone else’s dream. It was never supposed to be yours.”

Frank and Kathy ate oranges, the pulp sliding down their arms, as they gossiped about old classmates from Brown. They had done the same the night before in Kathy’s backyard, when Jessica and Frank arrived for the weekend. They discussed whose children had been admitted to private schools, which women were gaining an unseemly amount of weight, and whose husbands were cheating with the help. Kathy had laughed at all Frank’s jokes, sloshing wine over her lawn chair, a red flush creeping up her neck. 
Later that night, in Kathy’s yellow wallpapered guest room, Frank had not wanted to make love.
​“I’m tired, babe,” he had said.
Most nights Frank woke Jessica by shaking her by the shoulders, yanking at the clasp of her bra, and whispering, “Despiértate mamita.” But in Kathy’s guest room, he would not be moved.
“I’m turning off the light,” he had said with finality, and then the room was dark.
Making love was the most attention Frank showed Jessica most nights. Usually, he came home and graded papers over dinner, never thanking her for the rice and pernil that were the greatest accomplishments of her day. If she brought up looking for a job, he advised her to wait until they were married. It was harder to get a job in New York, he said. She was only twenty-one, and not yet a citizen.
Sometimes, Jessica was so lonely after Frank came home that she went out for walks, claiming she needed to buy more celery or soap. She got lost every time, her years of English lessons proving useless. Her mother had paid for the lessons with the money Jessica’s father sent monthly from his own house, in a better neighborhood, elsewhere in the capital.

“Would you like an orange Yes-ee-ca?”
            “No thank you, Kathy.” 
            “I packed sandwiches, too.” 
            “I’m not hungry.”
“No wonder you’re so thin. Your women always have such beautiful figures. What’s it called, Frank? An hourglass?”
Kathy touched Frank on the shoulder and waited for him to answer. Her hair tossed in the wind. It was long and pale, the color of the sand. If it were not for the lines at the corners of her eyes and around her mouth when she smiled, she could have been Jessica’s age.
Frank helped himself to a sandwich. “Did you hear about Connor? He and his wife had to give up the house.”
“I heard! And it wasn’t even in that great a neighborhood…”

Jessica had turned down a job at the university in Santo Domingo to follow Frank. She was offered a research position working for the professor who had introduced them. When Frank arrived from New York, Jessica had given him a tour of the capital. She had liked Frank’s clumsy Spanish, the way he asked her opinion on things, the pressure of his hand on her back when they walked down a narrow street. It was easy to say yes, when after a few months, he asked her to follow him.
            “It would not have been much of a job anyway,” Jessica had told her mother while they packed her things. “Nothing in this country moves forward.”
            Jessica’s mother had warned, “Don’t believe everything a man promises. Look at me.”
            “He’s not Papi,” Jessica had answered, zipping her maleta shut with a sound like tearing.

“So, Yes-ee-ca. How long will you be in the United States?
            “As long as Frank wants to be here.” 
            “What’s your plan?”
            “Plan?” Jessica repeated.
            “Are you going to look for a job? Are you going to go on living with Frank?”
            Jessica looked at Frank for an answer, but he did not look up from his sandwich.
            “Our plan is to get married.”
            “Married? I had no idea. My congratulations.”
            Jessica waited again for Frank to say something or take her hand and prove what she had said was true. He tossed aside the crust of his sandwich and stood up.
“I think I’ll go for a swim. Do you ladies want to come along?”
“Frank, you know I only come to the beach to tan,” Kathy said. Jessica shook her head.
“Suit yourselves.”
Frank took off for the water, kicking sand up behind him.
“Just us girls now,” Kathy murmured, pulling apart an orange rind with her teeth.

Before they left for Long Island, Jessica had cleaned Frank’s study, where he spent most of his time. The room had not been properly cleaned in years. Jessica washed the windows and clapped the curtains together, dispersing clouds of dust into the air. She wiped coffee rings and ink stains from the desk. It took hours, but she did not mind the work. The day did not drag as it usually did, and Frank came home early.
            When he saw the study, he raked his hand through his hair and frowned.
            “Why did you do this?” he asked.
            Jessica thought it was obvious. “I was trying to help.”
            Frank sighed and dropped his briefcase into the chair.
“I’ve lived in this apartment for ten years. I know how I like my things.”
“Well, I’m here now,” Jessica had said, the sound of her voice surprising her.
            “Don’t make this any more difficult.”
            “I was trying to help,” she repeated and then left the room to pack for the trip.
            She did not cry as she packed, although she came close. She had not been so close since the day she was accepted at the university in Santo Domingo. She had walked to her father’s house in La Plaza Colonial to tell him the good news, but he did not answer the door. She could hear him inside, laughing and eating dinner with his other family. Jessica kept knocking, the acceptance letter crumpled in her hand, until his maid came to the door and said Don Amado was busy and to come back another day.
            When Jessica laid their things out on the bed: Frank’s swimming trunks and socks, her underwear and yellow bathing suit, it seemed like the evidence of their life together. She assured herself that Long Island, the beach, would help. Soon, they would be married.

Kathy did not speak after Frank left for the water. She and Jessica ignored each other; they watched other people read and tan, come in and out of sleep.
“I think I’ll go join, Frank,” Jessica said after a while. Kathy did not reply.
The sand was sticky between Jessica’s toes. It was not warm and powdery like the beaches in Samaná, where Frank had held her hand as the waves broke over their bodies. After those days at the beach, his skin would be covered in a dry white film and taste like salt.
Frank was already far from the shore when Jessica entered the surf. She tried walking toward him, but the water resisted, pushing her back. The distance between them grew quickly as Frank glided over the waves. It had been quiet on the beach, but out in the ocean, Jessica could not hear anything above the roar of the water. She wanted to call after him, but instead she kept wading, until the water swept her back to where she had been standing. Jessica had never been a good swimmer, and the waves knocked her knees out from under her, dragging her away. The salt stung her eyes. When she surfaced, she could not pick him out from the dozen other pale figures advancing against the tide.
“Frank! Frank!”
She kept calling, but he never turned around.

Brooklyn Bridge Park

You can see the undersides of both bridges. The Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge are twin structures, one blue and one brown, stretching across the water toward Manhattan. The bridges form a triangle around the park; a field of grass and you are the center. You can hear the rumble of traffic and trains, the quiet lapping of water where the grass ends and slopes down to the East River. On the few yards of rocky shore, children hunt for stones to hurl across the water, in the direction of Manhattan.
On the Fourth of July, there are fireworks. You can watch the fireworks burst over the water and beyond the silhouettes of both bridges. You can run over the endless grass, under the open sky. There is only one tree in the whole field, but its branches so expansive, you can play under it for hours, climbing and shouting, convinced you have found a forest that is thriving in secret at the edge of Brooklyn. 

This prose poem was originally published by The Fordham Observer in December 2010. View the original piece here.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

coney island

The beach. Hot dogs. Salsa on the boardwalk. Funnel cake. The Cyclone. A dazzlingly diverse and loony crowd of folks that could only be found in Brooklyn... This is the magic of Coney Island! 

Beyond the rides and food and trash and lights of the amusement park, Coney Island is remarkable because of its story as a New York City neighborhood and landmark. Over the years, Coney Island has faced the threat of gentrification, a steamrolling force that is transforming New York City neighborhoods with soul and history into communities that are wealthy, white, and inaccessible. It is a struggle across the city for neighborhoods to keep their identities (and longtime residents) in the face of such rapid change.

I am not a resident of Coney Island. As a child, I visited the aquarium on school trips. I have taken family members there to marvel at the sharks and fish, the illuminated underwater tanks. As a young woman, I've had many unforgettable nights at Coney Island. For me, summer in New York has become synonymous with Fireworks Fridays at Coney Island, where the fireworks displays are dangerously close to the crowd. The burnt scraps of paper fall down all around you on the beach. You can smell the ash and smoke. Like much at Coney Island, the experience is visceral, exhilarating, and probably not all that safe.

I wrote this vignette a few years ago after a particularly memorable evening at Coney Island. It's not fully formed, but it is an impression of the sights and smells of Coney Island. I think it captures how instrumental place is in our construction of memories. Here you go! Copyright and all that! 

The white surf broke over the rocks and the water did not look so far below. It seemed close, reaching and surging for us. The boardwalk came alive as vendors flicked on neon signs across the beach. Old men sold glow sticks, and young couples crushed cans of beer into sad discs to fling into the ocean. The kids were quieter now as they were tucked into carriages and cars, arms. There was the smell of popcorn burning and the sudden tragedy of someone’s last arepa falling in the sand. From this far and through the haze of tears, I could not discern the turning of the ferris wheel. All I could make out was the golden word printed in midair: WONDER.

Wonder Wheel at Coney Island and fireworks.
Photograph by Linus Gelber. View his photostream here

Monday, April 26, 2010

another round of poems

April is National Poetry Month. Poets and poetry-lovers alike are celebrating in a myriad of ways. There are conferences and festivals, slams and open mics, contests and challenges, like  NaPoWriMo.

Over here at Zafatista, I know the least I can do to celebrate is post another list of some of my favorite poems. I created the first list back in September, and it is certainly time for another. I dug up many of these pieces in my Norton Anthology of Poetry, which I read in a high school English class. The book is a treasure, although it does not represent nearly enough women poets or poets of color or women poets of color.

Each poem tells a unique story. Read and comment as you see fit. Preferably, before NPM is over. :) 

The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop 

Dream Variations by Langston Hughes

El Chicle by Ana Castillo

Ars Politica by Julia Alvarez

When I Have Fears by John Keats

I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud by William Wordsworth

This Is Just To Say by William Carlos Williams

The Wrong Kitchen by Nikki Giovanni

Mirror by Sylvia Plath

Crazy Bunch Barbecue by Willie Perdomo

The Promise by Sharon Olds

Poets from bottom to top: Ana Castillo, Nikki Giovanni, William Carlos Williams.

Friday, April 23, 2010

dancing in the streets

I don't have much to say about this video besides, "Huzzah! I love it!"

"Thinking 'Bout Somethin'" is the first single from Hanson's forthcoming LP, Shout It Out!, and it is irresistible. The Hanson brothers are no strangers to the process of writing excellent pop songs and this track is a cheery, infectious, big-band pop-soul gem. 

The video is delightful, too, with choreographed dance numbers in the streets of Hanson's hometown Tulsa, Oklahoma. Isaac, Taylor, and Zac aren't shy at all in this clip --- they join the masses at the very end of the song to shake their tailfeathers in solidarity. As if that wasn't enough to make you smile, there's a cameo by Weird Al, who appears gyrating and playing a mean tambourine. 

The concept for the video was inspired by the Ray Charles scene in the 1980 cult film The Blues Brothers. "Thinking 'Bout Somethin'" isn't the first time Hanson has played tribute to The Blues Brothers and Ray Charles. On their first world tour over a decade ago, Hanson covered several Blues Brother songs, and their song "Georgia" from the 2007 release The Walk is an obvious nod to Ray Charles's "Georgia On My Mind." 

Hanson has always had a knack for writing good pop music. For over a decade now, they have been the only band that can put me in a better mood, no matter what. Their music does not rely on the shallow, artificial peppiness of bubblegum pop. There's a much deeper, dynamic joyfulness to a Hanson song. Taylor Hanson has called Shout It Out! an "unapologetic, bright, melodic thing" --- that sounds like a pretty accurate description of much of the boys' oeuvre. 

Watch "Thinking 'Bout Somethin'" --- I dare you not to tap your foot or smile. You will. 

You can file this video under one more reason to love Hanson despite what naysayers and the ill-informed may have to say about these young men. If you need further proof, check out Hanson's work to fight HIV/AIDS and poverty over at Take The Walk.  

See? They're the best.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

love's philosophy

Nothing calls for a love poem quite like spring! Here's one by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The photographs above were taken by yours truly last year in Fort Greene Park

by P.B. Shelley 

The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of Heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single,
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle - 
Why not I with thine?

See the mountains kiss high Heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea - 
What are all these kissings worth
If thou kiss not me?

As far as the Romantics go, Keats has always been my favorite, but Shelley ain't bad here. Not bad at all! 

Although I studied Shelley in college, I did not discover this poem until years later in the wrapper of a chocolate bar. Needless to say, I fell in love with this poem instantly. 

I am not so crazy about the line, "No sister-flower would be forgiven/If it disdained its brother" for the clearly antiquated anti-feminist message it conveys (Ain't nothing romantic about the absence of consent!). However, overall, the poem is beautiful and its images do speak to the harmony and union possible in love and physicality. 

Just look at the use of the word "clasp"! The waves clasp one another! The sunlight clasps the earth! Oh! Love it!

And then there is the final couplet! Who could ever forget these lines? "What are all these kissings worth/If thou kiss not me?"

The poem seems especially appropriate for springtime. The pear tree blossoms outside my window are kissing each other! The sunlight clasps the pavement! The bus kisses the curb and nearly runs us over! I will be walking around Brooklyn, identifying all the things that are kissing and clasping each other all season long. 


don't steal words! don't steal images! if you want to borrow something, ask.