With fists, with words, with kindness
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When both of us were fourteen days clear of getting over COVID, I left our New York apartment for the first time in a long while and quickly became alarmed. No one was on the street. This was in April, when tourists normally descend on Manhattan in flocks, even in our off-avenue neighborhood. But this year a tumbleweed would not have been out of place.
Earlier that same afternoon All-Star slugger Dave “The Cobra” Parker had revealed to me the secret of hitting: “Hit the fucker hard, and hope it goes far.” I keep this revelation enshrined in the same chamber of my heart where my rabbinical ancestors kept their favorite Scriptures.
A man with the right scruffed-up beard and breadth of chest swaggered into the S and M dungeon that was my place of business, and twenty minutes and one grand later had my chin — still soft with the downy fluff of teen-girl skin — held steady in one paw while the other one flew at my face so hard and fast that I ceased to exist as the same collection of matter I had been the previous instant.
The scar in the turf in front of her headstone has long since healed. Her death date was blank at her funeral, reflecting our disbelief. It now reads, Sept. 11, 2010. Beside that is another blank for my father.
I can say I’m Puerto Rican, and no one can refute that, but I don’t know what it’s like to feel Puerto Rican. I don’t know what it’s like to see the flag of Puerto Rico and feel something that resembles pride.
I pretended to be busy on my computer until she leaned so close to me I had to sit back and look up. She had my attention now. She smiled with one side of her mouth. “That was my mom,” she said. “Fucking Wicked Witch of the West.”
I think of that ancient time when the sea was cut off from the ocean, how low it sank, the way the rivers carved canyons to replenish it. Such beauty often requires a kind of devastation. Maybe the saddest landscapes are always the most beautiful.
My father tells me about the ghosts. He tells me about lying on his stomach in a trench and falling asleep and hearing the voice of a friend who had just been killed shouting, “Brina, look out!”
“Richest dirt in the world,” my dad is fond of saying. As I crumble the clammy soil in my hand, I think, If it’s so rich, why are we so poor?
The cows showed up just as the world began to end. They were there when I returned to Minnesota from Manhattan, where I’d gone to pick up my older son after his spring 2020 college semester had been canceled.