What was once a red dirt parking lot has become a slick clay pit, transformed by relentless summer storms. But that doesn’t keep it from filling up with station wagons, Trans-Ams, Thunderbirds — all proudly adorned with the Puerto Rican flag hanging from rear-view mirrors or shiny flag stickers on chrome bumpers. Some sporting both.
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.
On the patio, a shoreline of men bend over or crouch down, while a wife or mistress digs her hands into his shoulders — a human balance beam — as she waits for one shoe to be cleaned and returned and then the other. Then upright, with jackets straightened, the men escort the women inside.
Papí and my brothers are not with us and we barely stop long enough to wipe our feet before heading in. The wooden floor is only slightly slick by the entrance. Mamí forges a path through the quickly filling space to a row near the back. This isn’t the subdued reverie of St. James. It isn’t the paved parking lot, 1000-parishioner capacity, high-vaulted ceiling cathedral. It isn’t the hushed “God bless you”s and slight head nods and padded kneelers. This church fills with voices, loudly greeting each other, and an overabundance of bracelets jangling as women hug each other, sometimes a bit too aloofly, and hug the men sometimes a bit too tightly.
I don’t see any other children but my view of anything other than belts and purses is highly obscured. I’ve never been here before and, based on the averted eyes and lack of hugging, I might as well not be here tonight. My light skin stands out like a pink scab against a room turned various shades of brown and olive and black with shoulder-to-shoulder worshipers. Before long, a woman begins to speak at the front of the church. I am someplace else, someplace I’ve become accustomed to visiting whenever my physical body is experiencing something I do not want to participate in. I would tell you where if I could remember.
I don’t know how long I’ve been gone when I’m brought forth gradually by the sound of bees. Grateful to be invisible, I make my way towards the end of the row, guided by the sound. Unsure of what I’m seeing, I blink until my eyes focus in the dark candle-lit space. The buzzing becomes louder. Shapes become form. I finally understand what I am seeing: a woman, two women, more in the aisle. The women previously composed, even calculated in their actions, now move as if controlled by epileptic puppeteers. The women’s mouths are moving.
The buzzing of bees is coming from them. The air fills with a sound I do not understand.