Like a convention of drunks, we weave our way from car door to church door, navigating islands of relative dryness among seas of sunken grass and slippery clay. The women struggle with sinking heels, even while working hard to maintain the appearance of not working hard at all. I remind myself to care about staying clean, to quell the impulse to puddle jump and become one with the filth. Mamita’s tight grip on my upper arm reinforces the reminder.
and guns and moving the furniture in front of the peg-board wall displaying his collection of knives. With the green recliner creating a barricade in front of the bayonets and machetes, she stops in the hallway and stands there, not moving but not quite still either. Like she’s part of a cadre of soldiers on the battlefield nervously staring each other down, waiting for the signal that sets chaos into motion. Only whatever enemy she is facing, it’s not visible on the field.
The woman from the island has called again. She has visions of me, arms outstretched, barely one, smiling and teetering toward my father.
I am marked.
She calls again: My father dressed in uniform in the Korean jungles. My father boxing for the Army.
He is marked.
It took some time after we moved in with Frances for me to get used to being watched. When school started back up, I was dropped off and picked up, often by Frances’ teenage daughter. On occasions when I couldn’t be picked up right away, arrangements were made for me to stay at a friend’s house with her and her parents until Dad or Frances could get me. And my evenings on the roof were replaced by Frances turning off my bedroom light, telling me to sleep tight, and closing my bedroom door. It was strange and made me feel like running.
The first house we moved into together was at the end of a red clay road. When it rained, as it did every summer afternoon, the clay became slick and fast and far more fun than a slip and slide. Frances, who I would be calling mom soon, made it clear that girls didn’t get dirty. But that glorious clay was irresistible, and I knew I wasn’t meant to be categorized as a girl. So I learned how to hose off after practicing my best slide moves and hearing that imaginary crowd roar as the also imaginary ump yelled, “safe!” Technically, I wasn’t dirty. For whatever reason, Frances didn’t push the issue and that clay became my haven.
From the moment my father returned from his trip and discovered that I had been abandoned, I was shuffled from family member to family member like a hot potato with everyone praying that the music did not stop. It was clear that I was different from my family, although I did not yet know why. With my freckled skin and hair that fell somewhere from reddish blonde to chlorinated-pool blonde, I stood out among my…
The plane lands in Puerto Rico, where I will spend the next three months. I’m staying with my tía, who doesn’t speak much English. She has scars where one of her breasts once was and yells at me when she discovers that I’ve used her scar cream on myself. Realizing what I’ve done, I fear that I too will lose my left breast, even before it has had a chance to develop.
The night that our father died, I watched my brother Grant sit on the couch next to our dad’s hospice bed and pull our stepmother over to him. He held her while she sat there, her head resting on him, exhausted and too numb still for the grieve to fully sink in. It was one of the most tender acts I’ve ever seen Grant perform and, given the history of the Garcia family to my stepmother, it was a stunning gesture that I’ve never forgotten.
A year before the house with the animated inanimate objects, I’m on the jet-way in Orlando, excitedly nervous for my first flight. It’s summertime, the plane is stuffy, and despite the adventure of flying, I’m fighting tears. The stewardess checks on me, bringing an unnecessary blanket, as I stare out the tiny window towards the terminal at the hazy silhouette of my father waving a white handkerchief. He has made arrangements for me to stay with an aunt on the island. For my own safety, he is sending me away.
The first time the toilet flushes on its own, I dismiss it as an issue with the plumbing in the new-to-us house. I have other things on my mind: navigating our newly integrated family, figuring out what to call the woman who is not yet legally my mother but who doesn’t get hung up on such technicalities as she lays down rules and seems to be aware of my every move. I’m leery not only because I don’t want to lose my freedom but also because some of the rules — such as being in the house by sunset — are contrary to my survival instincts.