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The Law of Progress

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June 17, 2013

My mother’s mother used to say that it took four generations to get the black out.

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Image from Flickr via D. Sharon Pruitt

My mother’s mother used to say that it took four generations to get the black out; I’m the fourth generation so who I mate with will determine if our family racially advances or goes back. Atraso, that’s what Mami says whenever she sees light-skinned people with black folks and their mixed babies. And get this, she swears it was a law in Cuba. For real. Abuela called it la ley de atavismo. You can’t make shit like that up. If only she knew that I’m dating a Haitian dude. Not even fifteen fucking generations will get that black out!

Good thing Abuela’s dead; the shock of seeing her muñeca con ese negro tinto would kill her for sure. She’s probably rolling in her grave all the way back to Cienfuegos where all their people are from. I could just hear her now: We left everything so that you would never have to struggle and what do you do but go with un hatiano? Dios mio! You don’t know what you’re going to endure! Don’t you know how you, how your children are going suffer?

Abuela was hardcore and never held back. One time when I was ten and playing jacks out front with Shelly and Lisa, the sisters from across the street, their mom and dad were teachers for chrissake. So Abuela’s looking out the window and starts hollering: “Niña, ¿que tu haces con esas negritas? Hazme el favor de entrar ahora mismo y deja esas negras.”

“What she say?” Lisa was the smartest girl in fifth grade and Shelly had already skipped a grade. I was so scared they’d understand I started yelling back and causing a ruckus.

“Abuela! ¿que te pasa? I swear to God, porque tu dices eso? I can’t believe this…”

“What’d she say? What the hell did she say,” Shelly was poking me even though she was younger. “She’d better not be saying nothing bout us.”

“Ya, Abuela, voy, I’m coming, voy.”

The sisters were giving me the evil eye and I was breathing hard. I grabbed up the jacks and flew up the stairs without looking back. Abuela was still talking shit; thank God it was in Spanish.

I miss her but not her crazy-ass backwards thinking. For sure Mami’s not gonna be pleased about Vital; she is after all Abuela’s spawn. But Papi’s harder to figure. Who knows what Papi’s liable to do—just hope he doesn’t put me out. We’ll see.

My sister Neli, who’s only fourteen months younger than me, laughed her ass off when I told her I was thinking of bringing Vital home.

That’s something Papi always put in my head from when I was little; Hija, he’d say, in this country you can be your own boss. I don’t have the language or the years so I have to work for someone else. Pero you, you can accomplish anything.

“Girl, have you lost your mind?” She advised me to keep him to myself. She can say shit like that because she’s a lesbian so no man will ever “spoil” Papi’s little girl. Bitch didn’t even get a hard time from my parents when she came out. Mami was all crying and shaking her head but she didn’t cuss her out or disown her or nothing. And what came out of Papi’s mouth just blew my mind (and made Neli run over and hug him tight). Something like that guajiros always say that a woman who goes with a woman first will never go with a man. Believe that shit?

Now she is the apple of their eye, always treating her tender, like she’s so frail or something. But truth is she’s getting over on them. At least I think so because she quit school her senior year, saying she was so traumatized, pobrecita. Started working in a bike shop on the boulevard for her girlfriend who’s older by twenty years (Mami and Papi sure as hell don’t know that part) and Neli doesn’t even pay rent or give money for food or nothing.

It’s not like Vital is the first black guy I ever dated. But I guess it doesn’t count because, of course, I never told my family.

Me, I got my own car that I paid for (granted it’s a piece a shit but it rolls) and I’m going to school days at Jersey State and I work nights and weekends at Bonus Office Warehouse on route 441. I started giving my parents half my paycheck when Papi was laid off. Mami says I shouldn’t and that they’ll pay me back when Papi goes to full time again but I said no. I pay my cell, all my school stuff, the car insurance, clothes, all the incidentals. I’m so glad to have my own room and not have to worry about doing laundry, cooking, or buying groceries. Seriously, I hate the thought of all that boring but necessary work. My goal in life is to have enough money to pay someone else to do that shit for me. I’m not even thinking marriage or kids. Just starting a business where I reap what I sow. That’s something Papi always put in my head from when I was little; Hija, he’d say, in this country you can be your own boss. I don’t have the language or the years so I have to work for someone else. Pero you, you can accomplish anything. Work hard and nothing can stop you, hear me?

*                      *                     *

It’s not like Vital is the first black guy I ever dated. But I guess it doesn’t count because, of course, I never told my family. I knew it was more trouble than it would be worth and none of them were candidates for meeting the family anyway. Mami liked it when I brought home the pale-eyed Polack or otherwise nondescript, unethnic americanos. Funny how blacks aren’t considered americanos to them, as if to be American, you gotta be white. And of course, we’re not americanos either. Now that’s what I call atraso.

“Dreamboat. Don’t you know what that means?” We had already had sex a couple of times and I was feeling that thrilling high from skin and sweat and slick sweetness.

I’ve waited five months. Two months before I even let Vital touch me though I wanted him to, really bad. It’s not even that he’s so fine; he’s kinda skinny but has the most amazing smile. Maybe his teeth look so white because he is so freaking dark but even in the bright sunlight, his smile dazzles…and his face…oh, his face changes and it changes me, draws me in. Mami’d say that his face is llamativo; well, she might say it if she gave him half a chance. Vital’s old school, no tats or earrings; shit, his hair is even shaved down close to his beautifully formed head. No facial hair and no baggy clothes. And oh my God, he’s Catholic! If he weren’t so dark, I’m sure my family would love him.

Love him like I wanna love him. It’s gotta be love. Why else would I risk it all by bringing him home? He’s so respectful of me, calls when he says he’s gonna call, shows when he says he’ll be there. Dude is a dreamboat. I called him that and he was like, What?

“Dreamboat. Don’t you know what that means?” We had already had sex a couple of times and I was feeling that thrilling high from skin and sweat and slick sweetness.

“What is this?” he blinked his sleepy, almond-shaped eyes and slid his hand over my cheek.

“It’s like…ah…aw, hell, I don’t know how to explain it. Someone who’s like…perfect. The perfect guy.” He just grinned. He didn’t tease me either but leaned over to plant a wet one. Then he put my face in his hands and said something even I understood.

“Je t’aime, mamacita.” I had to laugh at that because of the time when I was walking toward him on campus, and one of the hoodrats who thinks he’s all that tried to get my attention, calling out, “Ay, mamacita, dame un pedacito.” Which made me turn my head to laugh in his face, which led to him saying, “Bitch, why you do me like that?” Which led to Vital, who’s not built but impressive because he’s tall, getting up in dude’s face till he backed off. I guess if his boys were around it mighta turned out ugly. But right now I have this great guy, black like an azabache, telling me he loves me, in freaking French, no less.

What I’m supposed to do? So I repeat but add my own twist. “Te quiero papi chulo.”

So we go on doing our thing for a few more months, all good, and soon enough it’s Thanksgiving. Thanksfuckingiving.

And we both bust out laughing now.

So we go on doing our thing for a few more months, all good, and soon enough it’s Thanksgiving. Thanksfuckingiving. Shoulda thought that one through. After all, Neli doesn’t bring her ladyfriend to the house. As far as they know, she’s a virgin and will always be one. She encourages that kinda thinking too but that’s my sister’s prerogative.

I’d asked Mami if I could bring a friend, un amigo, from school who doesn’t have his family here and was alone for the holiday and as soon as I said that she gets all sentimental, “Ay, pobrecito. , , bring him.”

Vital was a little worried but I was all happy because Mami had said yes. Of course, I said friend, not boyfriend.

“Your mother, she’s okay with me going?” He raised his eyebrows and the skin on his usually serene forehead folded into three rolls.

“Yea, yea, she’s cool. I said I was bringing a male friend.”

“So, you didn’t clarify that we were dating?”

“No, not yet. I think it’s best to take it slow. Once they see how wonderful you are, they’ll accept you.”

“Accept me for what?”

“Like accept you to be my boyfriend?” I was starting to get a little nervous and Vital was still frowning and had narrowed his eyes.

“I’m not sure this is a good idea.”

Thank God he didn’t stay in Florida or we’d be hicks like my cousins in Hialeah, talk about atraso.

“Naw, don’t worry, it’ll be all right. You’re just a friend who goes to school with me and who’s all alone for the holiday.” And even as I said that it sounded like a stupid made-up story like so many lies I had perpetrated on them: I was sleeping over at my best friend Ivette’s the nights I was with Vital (or before him, any of the other tipos I was getting with). Or even going back to times in high school when I was ditching school and going to the city or just eating shit all day at the mall. Or the smoke on my clothes was from all the workers in the warehouse where it was still legal (Mami nailed me on that one when I left a crumpled pack in my hoodie pocket). Or any of the times when I didn’t have to lie but felt like it because I just didn’t want to tell them where I was going or what I was going to do, even when it was harmless. It all came to a head on Thanksgiving.

Mami’s sister Julia and her family, all eight of them, always came because even though their house is bigger, we had the biggest table and enough chairs and plenty parking on the side. Tiá and Tió, Tió’s mother, their three young brats, and their oldest Yalisa, who’s Neli’s age, with her baby (the baby daddy was MIA as soon as she got pregnant so he fit perfectly into the desgraciado role). No one could mention his name even though Yalisa named the baby after him, so the baby will always and forever be Junior.

No one from Papi’s side ever came. His family stayed en el campo in Cuba; he was the only one who left the little town near the little city of Remedios in Las Villas. It’s not called that anymore; Papi said that after the revolution Fidel divided up the island into a bunch of provinces that didn’t make sense. Before, Santa Clara was the province next to Las Villas, but now his town is in Villa Clara. Once Papi started talking about Castro and the stinking revolution, it was hard to shut him up. He accused his five brothers and sister of being Communists for staying, but Papi was the only who had gone all the way to the capital and then gotten himself on a boat during el Mariel. And even though Papi’s a guajiro who loves his plants and nature and shit, he wasn’t allowed to stay in Miami because there were too many of them. He and forty other unsponsored guys were bussed to Jersey where he and Mami met in a factory. Thank God he didn’t stay in Florida or we’d be hicks like my cousins in Hialeah, talk about atraso.

Our parents faced us as we sat in the backseat of our car, away from the relatives including Abuela—it was the only place of privacy.

One time we drove down there to see Tío Saúl, Mami’s brother, and his family; stayed with them for almost the whole summer. They wanted to check it out, to see about moving. I couldn’t believe how a city in Florida, which I thought was a jungle, could look like a city in Jersey but without the advantages of sidewalks or places to hang out except for a boring mall without any decent stores (Neli didn’t really care about clothes but even as a twelve-year-old I could tell everything was already out of style). I didn’t mind sharing a room with Neli and my cousins Yeny and Alisa because we were older and cooler and told ’em all kinds of nonsense like where babies came from and why penises were sometimes flat and other times sticking up or that they spit out stuff that looked like ivory dishwashing detergent. Nights were fun and nice and cold—there was a window AC we could control and we froze every night to make up for the blazing days. Hialeah was all we ever saw that summer and it was ugly, hot, humid, full of mosquitoes, and enormous, I mean freakishly huge, fucking-flying roaches. Me and Neli begged our parents to please please please never ever ever even consider moving there. I’m sure Papi was sad he wouldn’t get to cultivate his mamey or mango or aquacate or whatever, but luckily for us it didn’t happen. Me and Neli were ecstatic about the “news” they sat us down to hear.

“Niñas,” Papi did the talking for both of them. Our parents faced us as we sat in the backseat of our car, away from the relatives including Abuela—it was the only place of privacy.

“Your Mami and I have been really trying hard to make it work here,” he said, then bit his thick lower lip. Neli was banging her knees together real fast and I pinched her to stop.

“I wanted us to move here, to la Florida, but there aren’t any good jobs and without jobs, we can’t take the chance.” He looked at Mami to see if she wanted to add something.

“And besides that, your Papi and I wanted to buy a house,” she smiled out one side of her mouth. “Abuela has a little money to help us but she doesn’t want to stay here.”

I was surprised to hear that, because Abuela was always talking about how much she missed her son and the twins but, hell, she was on our side, for once.

“We know you girls didn’t want to move but you’re still young and you would have adjusted quickly. New Jersey is all you know; it would have been an adventure pero,” he shook his head and massaged his neck, “it’s just not the right time.”

Right time? That worried me a little. Made me keep up my guard so that at the end of every school year, I’d listen carefully to them talk about summer to catch wind of any plans on heading south, but it never happened. Thank God, the saints, and all the angels, amen.

*                      *                     *

Thanksgiving dinner at my house was a production, because usually, a regular everyday dinner was rice, beans, and some kind of meat—picadillo, thin steaks, chicken, and every once in a while we’d have fish because only Abuela liked fish. Neli was charged with setting the table and I made the salad. Papi always brought home a loaf of day-old Italian bread—that was Mami’s dessert. Pretty simple meals. But Thanksgiving Mami made a big American roasted turkey and also turkey fricasé because Papi thought turkey was too dry. I asked her to make stuffing like I saw on TV but she didn’t know what it was so I showed her the box in the store and then we always had it. Gravy, two kinds of cranberry, American yams and Cuban boniato, store-bought pumpkin and apple pies. Instead of our typical rice and beans, Tía Julia always brought her famous moros y cristianos—black beans cooked with white rice. Tía had a running joke about how the whites, the cristianos, liked the Africans, the moors, a little too much, and we’d all laugh. But not tonight. And that was the beginning of the end of our happy Thanksgiving dinner.

There was a racket, like always, because that’s how we are and any other day I wouldn’t have noticed but today it seemed like everyone was amplified and I thought I shoulda warned Vital, who, of course, arrived right on time and wearing a nice dress shirt and jacket; he looked better than the rest of us put together. I made sure I was near the door so I could be the one to get it when he rang the bell.

“Hi,” I said and looked back to see if anyone had followed me down the hall.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” he said and gave me a bunch of red, burgundy, and yellow flowers and had another bunch left. His dazzling smile steadied me as he crossed over the threshold into Casa de Locos.

“Everyone’s here.” I rubbed his arm and motioned for him to follow me. “Don’t worry, we talk loud but it’s fast so if you don’t understand, give me a sign.”

Vital lifted two fingers and I punched his shoulder and then we were inside the front room set up with the big table.

“Oye familia, this is my friend Vital.” It was just a split-second pause but long enough for me to know. He said hello but it was real low and I think only me and Neli, who was sitting at the end of the table, heard.

Mami walked over to him first. He handed her the other flowers, even bigger than my bunch, smiling that smile, and she smiled back, then lowered her head in a weird bow. “Oh, thank you.”

“Vital speaks French and Spanish,” I rushed in before anyone said anything else. I wanted them to know that he’d understand if they started talking shit.

“Ah, that’s good, que bueno,” Mami’s eyebrows lifted. Papi stood and reached out to shake Vital’s hand.

“Hello, hello,” Papi’s big hand covered Vital’s, shaking hard.

“Buenas noches, señor,” Vital kept flashing the smile, Papi kept shaking his hand. “Gracias por la invitación.”

Tía mumbled to Tío something in Spanish about who invited him. Mami turned and gave her the don’t-go-there look.

“Please, please, come and sit down.” Papi steered him toward the other end of the table but Neli jumped up.

“Oh, no, come sit here next to me, I’m her sister, the younger, smarter one.”

I didn’t need any foolishness, especially not now.

“Very funny, Neli, but he’s going to sit next me. I saved him a seat between me and Mom.” She shrugged her shoulders and Papi continued moving Vital.

“I don’t want these beautiful flowers to dry up. Excuse me.” Mami rushed to the kitchen and I felt like going after her but my feet were stuck so I put my flowers on the back of the couch.

“Go on then, go sit with your guest.” And she took the flowers to the kitchen.

I shot her a look as she passed me. Vital was pulling a chair out for me and the rest of the family was looking at me so I forced one foot in front of the other and made it to my place.

Tío reached over to shake Vital’s hand. “Hello, I’m Joaquin,” he motioned to his left, “my wife Julia, her aunt,” and then motioned to his right, “my mother Lupe.” Both of them nodded and weakly lifted a hand. “Those little animals are our kids.” Tío always called Brian, Quique, and Carlitos his animalitos and they lived up to it. Then he stood to introduce his blameless princess, “Yalisa, and my nietecito, Junior.” He lifted his hands and the baby reached out his fat arms.

“Ay, que divino,” Lupe said while Tía cooed. I thought maybe the baby would keep them entertained with his gurgling and rapid-fire raspberries. Neli was already sitting and Mami easing into her chair with Papi at the head of the table.

Then Vital said, “What a beautiful baby! Where is the father?”

Neli stifled a laugh and I gasped. Tía turned toward Tío and mumbled for him to walk the baby, just go. Yalisa bit her lip, the animalitos giggled, and Lupe said, “Ay, Dios mio.”

Every time Vital spoke in Spanish it made them all even more uncomfortable.

“He gone, dead.” Tía’s angry frown confused Vital. I leaned over and whispered to the floor that he left my cousin.

“So, so sorry, lo siento,” he tried to fix it but it was too late.

It was the longest, most miserable, most god-awful night. Nobody cracked jokes like we usually do, making fun of Papi’s fricasé and all the carbs and the lonely exquisite salad I made that nobody ever touched. We usually ignored the bickering little kids but tonight the adults took turns yelling at them. We ate fast but without audibly savoring the meal; I missed Papi’s ooohing and ahhing over every single thing. And every time Vital spoke in Spanish it made them all even more uncomfortable.

So Tía’s moros were passed around without comment and Tío put Junior into the playpen but never returned to the table, not even when we said thanks to God for the food. Nobody asked Vital anything about Haiti or his family or what he was studying, or if he liked the food. Nothing. He was the black elephant in the room and I was the big pile of elephant shit.

When it was time for dessert, Vital stood to help pick up the plates. “Por favor, quiero ayudar.”

“No, no, please. Don’t!” Mami was a little too insistent. I bit the inside of my cheek and brushed away a hot tear that popped out. Neli took the plates from the end of the table and I took the ones from the front. Even Yalisa stood and gathered up the forks and knives.

Papi says, “You are a guest, you sit.”

By now I’m pretty sure everyone figures Vital is more than my friend. By now his smile has lost, like, 90 percent of its wattage and I’m saying a prayer that we get out of this without anymore damage.

Brian, Quique, and Carlitos were banging their now empty fists on the table and asking for pie, pie, pie. From out of nowhere, Tío appears and slaps two of them at a time in the back of the head, causing them to ricochet, and then again to get the other one, and the unlucky one twice. The youngest one starts bawling and Tía reprimands the kids and Tío while Lupe tries to calm them all. Yalisa rolls her eyes and says, “Here we go.” This sets Tío off and he lays into her.

“What are you complaining about?” Yalisa seems genuinely surprised to see how annoyed he is, then shocked when he lunges toward her and shakes her shoulder. “Go take care of your son. He’s your responsibility.”

No one makes a sound now until Mami comes back from the kitchen with two pies. She surveys the room, places the pies in front of Papi, and asks how many want café and how many want coffee.

I’m responsible for the coffee so I get to work while Mami’s violently packing the espresso down into the stainless-steel basket of the coffee pot. My tongue feels like sandpaper, my head a bowling ball, and I could kick myself for thinking this all would have worked out. Mami’s giving me the silent treatment; Abuela would have been cursing me, my Haitian, and my mulato nappy-headed brood by now and I almost wish Mami would say something; she’s twisting the lid so hard the veins in her neck ripple. I see no way out. No way to get Vital in. Nothing but hardship, and I ask myself, Why in the hell would this, us, work, when all the evidence pointed to the disaster it became? I feel myself rehearsing the lie I’ll perpetrate on him later. How we’re too different and that I planned on moving to the city with Ivette, that I was transferring to CUNY. How much I will miss his dazzling smile. How he’s too good for me. Later, I’ll cry when he wants to soothe me to make it better.

G

Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés was born in New Jersey to Cuban parents and writes fiction and poetry. Her debut collection of stories, Marielitos, Balseros and Other Exiles (Ig Publishers, 2009), was followed by Everyday Chica, 2010 winner of the Longleaf Press Poetry Chapbook award. She lives in Orlando where she teaches and is currently working on another collection and a novel.

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3 comments for The Law of Progress

  1. Comment by Daniela on June 18, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    Good work.

  2. Comment by Esperanza Cintron on June 19, 2013 at 12:36 am

    Good story! Very honest and vividly told. The narrator is real and the reader is allowed to feel her desire to rebel and her need to be comfortable. The complexity of character structures the plot taking the reader on an intense and very enlightening journey.

  3. Comment by Paula Nuguid-Garcia on June 23, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    Soooooooooo good. Flows so naturally, so beautifully. The hope, joy and optimism in the beginning is as palpable as the discomfort and despair at the end. Loved it.

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