The funny thing about memories, they haunt you, sneak up from behind. Perhaps I have kept certain memories a secret from myself, all along. Hopeful that in the dark they would grow weak, and never make their way back to my consciousness.
Then on short car ride through Sunset Park you saw a Peruvian restaurant. Called out to your son, how tasty the rotisserie chicken looked. And you point to the picture of the chicken with floppy hair next to the name of the restaurant, Pollo A La Brasa.
“You like Peruvian food, Mama?” Rubencito’s asked from the back of the car.
“Yeah, it’s really good. They season the chicken,” Red traffic light, a steady pulse. I turned back and rubbed my hands, and thought of the juicy and flavorful chicken. “You can get it with yucca frita or these papas they make that are really spicy.” I thought of the first time I ate papas a las huancaina, the spicy creamy sauce that made my mouth hot and eyes water. My ex boyfriend’s mom had made them one night, held a dish of potatoes covered in an orange-yellow sauce, sliced eggs on top, and red specks of aji everywhere. And, like I did for her son, I feel hard for those potatoes.
Let’s call him Carlos, I met him through my ex best friend junior year, Sally. Carlos was Sally’s lab partner, she bragged over the fact that he had a crush on her, but busted her sides laughing that he couldn’t spell triangle. I chuckled, but wondered why boys didn’t like me the way they liked Sally. At the time I was sure it had to do with my glasses, my thick thighs, and the fact that I hid behind baggy clothes. I skipped over the facts that I spent most of my free time in the library, kept my eyes to the ground, and pulled my curls over my face like a stage curtain. Never did I consider that I walked around with an invisible do not disturb sign held out to the world. That revelation came later.
It was late in the fall of junior year that Carlos asked out Sally. Met with a firm no, Carlos moped through the hallways the next few days. With no classes in common the only time we saw each other was lunch, and on those days after his failed attempt with Sally, Carlos sat next to me.
“So, is it true?” Carlos asked. His head hung down.
“What is?” I looked up from my book.
Carlos glared across the cafeteria. “Sally? Is she with Frankie?”
“Why do you even care? That’s what I heard.” I rolled my eyes. Sally had dumped me for her new boyfriend. No time for me. Frankie and straightening out her bangs seemed to only matter to Sally now. Gone were the countless hours we watched Jean-Claude Van Damme movies together, listened to Tribe Called Quest, and ate grilled cheeses loaded with mozzarella cheese.
“I thought she was into me,” Carlos shook his head back and forth.
I shrugged my shoulders. “Sorry,” I smiled.
“But we could still chill, right?” Carlos smiled back.
And for a second he didn’t look so sad. Then for the briefest moment I didn’t feel so sad either.
Lonesome for company, Carlos filled all the empty spaces that took up residency inside of me. It was more than just losing my best friend at the time to a pimply boy, who wore his pants real low. Like those chain reactions that are illustrated in science text books, Sally’s abandonment triggered all the sadness that existed before. The one in the shape of Papi who came home late and drunk every night, and when he was home, well he was far away. Behind a wall of newspaper, hand written notes, a type writer, and a stack of white paper. The noise of univision or telemundo on, and the endless phone calls between him and his buddies, filled the silence that crept through our apartment. And while Mami was in bed most days by ten in the evening and only drank water and coffee. She had left a dent too. Punched in deep by her fits of rage, and the ache Mami carried around.
The day that Carlos asked me to be his girlfriend I felt relieved to finally be liked by a boy. Didn’t matter that he had asked out two of my friends. Nor did it matter that he was two years older than my sixteen and in the same grade. That he couldn’t spell triangle, that I was in honor classes, and he wasn’t. It wasn’t Carlos fault. Placed a grade behind when he came to America from Peru, and held over another year, he was older than the seniors.
Our first date was to see the Tom Hank’s movie Philadelphia. Later as we walked towards the bus he pulled me to an alley where we kissed for a long time with the snow beneath our feet. Soon after we spent all our time together at school and on the weekends. And hours on the phone when forced apart. I made mixed tapes of my favorite songs for him, wrote him letters in pretty pink stationary, and beeped him besos late at night. Carlos held my hand, whispered he loved me, and sang me old ranchera songs. I loved feeling wanted. So, I thought I was in love.
“Mama, the light,” Rubencito screamed out.
Green flashed in front of me. “Calm down,” I said to the car that honked behind me, my son, and to myself.
“Everyone was honking,” Rubencito said. “What were you doing thinking so hard,” He placed a small hand on my shoulder. “How was work?”
“I was just thinking about someone from long ago.” I placed one hand over his, while the other gripped the steering wheel.
It was the end of junior year of college that Carlos began to drift away. Together five years, Carlos was prone to small bouts of sadness and quiet. But, this was longer, darker, and distance claimed its place. Worried. I pestered for an answer, enraged by his silence I threw a colossal fit. Carlos sat on his bed, and I was on the swivel chair that was part of his makeshift desk.
“What is it?” I bounced my knee, unable to keep still.
“I have something to tell you,” Carlos took in a deep breath.
I braced myself. Certain that he was breaking up with me. Unsure why, we seldom fought, and when we did it was about my insecurities. Afraid that I would be left one by one by everyone that I loved, I clung to Carlos. Needed to feel tethered to someone at all times, as if alone I could not exist. “Ok,” I managed to whisper, my throat dry. I composed a list in my head with examples that made me an amazing girlfriend. It was his loss.
“When I was a kid…” Carlos trembled.
I stared at his face. The lamp in his room cast a shadow over him, he was hidden.
Carlos took a deep breath. “When I was a kid. I was raped. It was my cousin.” His voice steady and calm as if he spoke about someone else.
Those words were the start of our breakup a year later.
“Who mama?” Rubencito’s voice pulled me from my memories. We were a few blocks from home.
“My ex boyfriend,” I answered.
“Oh. He was Peruvian? So, that’s why you like Peruvian food.” Rubencito said. He moved up to the front seat as I stopped on a red light, and waited.
I spoke. “It’s really good. We need to eat it one day.” Memories like chewing gum on a shoe refused to peel away from me.
“Why did you break up?”
“He cheated on me.”
I knew months before I confronted him that he was cheating. He had grown distant. Avoided me. I blamed the social worker at a Manhattan Catholic Charities Office we spoke to. She turned Carlos against me, made him see my weakness and all the uncertainties. Days after Carlos revealed his sexual abuse I sought out someone for him to talk to. He went, but was reluctant. I spoke most of the time. At first it was about Carlos and then it became about me. Mami. Papi. My shop lifting. Complusive lying. And the fires too. It all spilled out of my mouth. And, when it was time to leave, the social worker reached for my arm. Carlos was at my other side.
“I understand you came here to support Carlos. But, what happened to him while terrible, he has dealt with somewhat, and is dealing with. But you…”
I shook my head.
“However, it’s my professional opinion that you speak to someone about your own issues. You seemed to have a lot of undealt trauma.”
“I’m fine.” I felt the heat rise to my neck. Angry. Ashamed. I turned towards Carlos and linked my arm with his. “Let’s go.”
“Carlos, here is a list of support groups you might find helpful.” The social worker shoved pamphlets in his free hand.
I was quiet the train ride back to Brooklyn. My mind seethed as the social worker’s words replayed back to me. And, I hated Carlos right then and there. Because though he was raped as a kid I was still more broken than him. And when I finally spoke, I said: “I’m sorry Carlos. I’m sorry that lady couldn’t see what happened to you is so fucked up. But, I do.”
I was twenty-one at the time, and for nineteen years I believed that I could hide my broken behind the shards of others. But, that works as much as trying to hide the sun with your hand.
Later when I found out Carlos was talking to a handful of girls through chat rooms on AOL, and even went to visit one in California. I was sure it was because of me, I was not enough. Only now can I see that Carlos had to prove something to himself with his conquest of online women.
But, yes. We were both broken at the time.