By Victor Manuel Ramos
Mom didn’t know why she wanted to go to New York. She had seen her sisters and brothers leave, driven by some blind ambition that she didn’t share, and she was the last of the siblings in that neighborhood of fine yellow dust and cats that made love—loudly, like whining babies—in the alleyways. I remember the day when we went to the municipal building to get her passport—the long hours sitting on uncomfortable chairs, pressed together in a hallway where many waited, breathing each other’s humid exhalations.
I asked her about it then, maybe because I feared that afternoon would never end.
“Why are we here?”
“I need a passport.”
“So I can get it stamped with a visa.”
“To go to New York.”
I didn't ask any more until we were returning home, riding in the squeaky back seat of a public transportation car.
“Why do you want to go to New York?”
Her answer was not really an answer.
“Everybody wants to go.”
I realize now that my mother was optimistic. Not only did she get the passport before she had any arrangement to apply for a visa, but she took it for granted that she would get that visa and she believed that this would lead us—her and me—to a better future. It was all worked out in her mind, as things often are in the minds of mothers.
The next time my oldest uncle called I caught bits and pieces of their telephone conversation. I was playing in a corner with toy soldiers of different sizes that I had collected over the years. They were the type of artillery and assault squad figures that stood on little islands of plastic and were frozen in some permanent gesture of aggression.
“You need to get someone who is near my age,” she had said.
There was a long pause.
“I don’t care who he is,” she had said later. “For love or for business. Either way.”
Months later, a tall bald man showed up while my grandparents, my mother and I ingested boiled plantains and salami slices for dinner. He announced himself in an unusual way.
“I’m Bertilio Díaz,” he said. “I’m the man.”
He said he worked with my uncle at an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn and that he was doing this mostly to help his friend. They had become like brothers sweating through busy shifts in that kitchen.
“We have to help one another,” my grandfather agreed. “That’s what God wants us to do.”
Mom asked him a strange question.
“Why are you still single?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t had time.”
After a while he stepped out and rode away with the man who had taken him there on a motorcycle and we sat in the small living room, saying nothing.
My mother woke up every morning at a very early hour. A neighbor, Luisito, would tap on the wood shutters of the room where she and I slept on the same bed—facing each other’s feet—and where my grandparents shared another bed next to ours. The rest of the house was empty, since all the others had left, but we turned off the lightbulb every night to go to sleep in this one room, as we had when the rest of the house had been occupied by my aunts and uncles. Luisito would tap, one, two, three times, which is why to this day I wake up when I hear tapping. He was doing that as a favor because he and my mother were machine operators at the same free trade zone where Korean and American companies had their brand clothes stitched together in long assembly lines, and she had told him that she had trouble waking up on time because she didn’t own an alarm clock. He had shown off his Casio wristwatch, which he said was not only waterproof, but had an alarm, and he made it beep to show off its piercing technological scream. His sister had brought it to him from New York and he was never late because of it. He said he could walk by the alleyway and tap on the window because he had an earlier start at his factory.
“Brunilda,” he would say every morning. “It's time.”
She would get up and drag me out of bed, guiding me by the shoulders and walking me through the narrow confines of our living room. I usually made it to the outhouse just before peeing on myself. She readied to go to work while I found my way back to bed, stumbling with the same rocking chairs every morning. She would be gone around sunrise, rushing to start her shift sewing one spongy cloth tongue after another onto the carcasses of Reebok sneakers that she couldn’t buy me. She worked hard, pressing the machine’s pedal and pushing fabric under needles for hours on end. She often wore adhesive bandages in the fingers that took sharp stabs by accident, and by mid-afternoon, when I returned from school, I would find her lying on the bed with her legs up on the wall, which she said would let the blood flow back into her body organs. By early evening I was done with homework, my grandmother was finished cooking and my grandfather was back from strolls around the neighborhood, an old man reduced to errand boy.
All we had left was time. Time to sit and wait for sleep. Time to watch dubbed television shows from the United States—Sanford would grip his chest and scream, the sound of laugh tracks mocking his tragic life: Este es el grande. ¿Me oyes Elizabeth? ¡Vengo a reunirme contigo, querida!—and melodramatic soap operas from Mexico, where the handsome poor man who worked in the stables finally got the girl, and the inheritance, and they lived happily ever after. We had time to talk about nothing, especially when we sat to the flickering light of a candle during power blackouts.
Uncle Ariano arrived from New York and the house filled with the festive air of Christmastime, even though it was the middle of a steamy summer (the day of the event he had all the chairs moved to the edges of the wall, he placed the dining table in the center of the living room, had a two-storied cake brought and installed a stereo system to play jolly music—all the neighbors were invited to come, drink, dance, pose in group photos, eat cake and toast to the happy couple). He had been involved since they had that phone conversation when I overheard my mother say: “I don’t want to be the only one left to breathe dust here.” He would take time after work every one or two weeks and would write love letters to his sister, assuming the persona of Bertilio Díaz. She was to answer every letter, send birthday and Valentine’s cards and she was asked to tell neighbors and friends that she had this boyfriend in New York.
“How did we meet?” she asked my uncle during one of his calls.
She told me later what he said. They had met at a wedding. During the man’s last visit, she had gone to a wedding where he was a guest. He invited her to dance and they danced all night and then... they started writing to each other. She had explained this to me because I had to be in on the plan, in case the people at the consulate investigated. I was going to be added to the visa application alongside my mother. He was going to be the stepfather I never had (That meant I also needed a passport. It meant I would wear suit jacket and tie for the first time, borrowed from a neighbor who was at least two sizes bigger than me, so that I could look respectable in the mug shot. We had to go back to that government building and spend two afternoons, first waiting to file the application and then to get the booklet where my visa would be stamped. The first day my mother leaned close to my ear and said: “This is for your future.” I gazed into her eyes and sensed that she didn’t really know what she was talking about, that this “future” was shapeless in her mind, but that somehow she believed it would better than what we had).
Uncle Ariano had arranged for her American boyfriend and my mom to go to a photo studio and take some pictures together. He had them go to a restaurant on a different day and take some more casual photos. The letters started arriving shortly after the guy returned to New York. She would ask me to read them to her as she lay on her bed with her pale legs up after a day’s work.
Dear Brunilda, I miss you already. I returned to work last week and things have been the same at the restaurant. I have to wash a lot of dishes every day, but I am doing it for you. The chef has started teaching me how to prepare salads and I hope to learn to take the assistant’s place when he calls in sick. I want that to be my job someday. I have started preparing the apartment where I live for your arrival. I bought a table the other day and I plan to get some chairs so we can someday have dinner together. We'll be happy together.
And she replied, imagining herself one of those soap opera heroines:
My love, I was very happy to hear from you and to know that you did not forget me. I did not forget you and I dream of you every night, beautiful dreams. I would be very happy to have dinner with you on that table. God willing, our prayers will be answered and we can be together forever, like two little birds.
This went on for months, until the return of Bertilio Díaz, dressed in black suit, riding on a rented carriage, pulled by two ridiculous white horses that would take him and my mom to the municipal office. A photographer followed all along, snapping pictures of them getting on and off the carriage, standing before the justice of the peace, signing a ledger where marriages were recorded and giving each other the first marital kiss. I don’t know why I felt this way, but when I saw her in the fluttery white dress that my uncle had rented, and she flashed me a smile from behind the veil, I wanted to cry.
Not before long we were sitting in front of a consular officer. I felt stupid in the matching white chacabana, one of those loose fitting and elegant shirts of the Tropics that Bertilio Díaz and I were wearing. This guy who was supposed to be my stepdad had not spoken to us on the way there (he had looked out the window of the bus until he fell asleep and snored like a sick animal), but he and my mother had agreed on what color underwear they wore on the first night they were intimate; they had talked about what side of the bed each slept on; they had rehearsed the story of how they met and my mother had later instructed me to say that he had become like a father to me.
The American guy behind the teller window adjusted his thick glasses and looked through the wedding photo album, without stopping much with any of those overacted photos. He asked for her passport. He asked for my passport (In the portrait photo I appeared wearing the jacket and tie we had borrowed and nobody could guess that under those I was donning colorful Bermuda shorts). He asked how old I was in his contrived Spanish. Eleven, I said. He asked my mother if she had been married before. She said no. He asked the same question of Bertilio Díaz. The guy said no, and, being an American citizen, he dared an explanation in English that to this day I remember, even if I didn’t know then what it meant: “I only had time for work.” The consul guy nodded. He took the passports and stamped a couple of their pages. He handed those back. He asked my mother a question that took her by surprise.
“Mrs. Díaz, how soon will you be flying to the United States?”
She seemed to struggle finding her breath: “As soon as I can.”
We had been dreading that last morning. We stayed up late the night before, trying in procrastination to stretch the hours into eternity as we packed our lives into two suitcases. We talked about meaningless things, such as whether or not we should wrap some cassava bread in clothing to take to my aunts and uncles. My grandparents stayed up, sitting on the bed, seeing us pack, probably wondering if they would ever see us again (they would not). We heard the cats having intercourse in the alleyway and ran out of excuses to keep the light on.
She placed our two passports, now stamped, over the luggage.
“What's New York going to be like?” I asked.
“I don't know. Everyone says it's big.”
I thought about the biggest thing I knew.
“As big as the sky?”
“Nothing is as big as the sky.”
I saw my mother take a look around the room before turning off the bulb. The bed squeaked as she lay down. I was staring at nothingness until the dark became a panorama of deep blue shapes.
We woke up hearing the taps on the shutters. My mother stood up. I sat on the bed. So did my grandparents. She opened the shutters and we all looked at Luisito, skinny, of sunken eyes, startled by the unusual response. He smiled nervously.
“For how long have you been doing this, Luisito? Tapping at our window?”
“Ahh, I don’t... I don’t know. Maybe two years now. Since you started working at the factories, remember?”
“I want to thank you,” my mother said, “and to say I will not need you to do it anymore.”
He looked back at us, confused. “We haven’t told anyone in the neighborhood...”
My mother paused.
“We are leaving. Julián and I. We're leaving today.”
“Leaving?” he repeated. “Where?”
My mother shrugged, as if apologizing: “New York.”
I heard a rooster crow in the distance. Luisito smiled.
“That’s where everybody wants to go,” he said. “I wish you the best.”
He looked at his wristwatch and back at us. My mother nodded. He waved and stepped away. We watched him walk down the narrow alley one last time.
Víctor Manuel Ramos is a bilingual writer and journalist on Long Island, New York. A native of the Dominican Republic who came of age in the islands of New York City, his narrative style merges a multiplicity of voices and characters whose lives unfold between the outlandish Caribbean and the impersonal American landscape. He won in 2010 the first literary award from the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española (or North American Academy of Spanish Language) for his novel La vida pasajera (roughly “The fleeting life”). His short stories, written in English and Spanish, have appeared in several literary journals.
Photograph by Juergen Warschun CC 2.0.