Maldeamores (Lovesick) (Heightsbound #0.5), page 1
Table of Contents
About the Author
Copyright © 2015 by Mara White. All rights reserved.
First Kindle Edition: 2015
Cover © Daniela Medina
Editor: Leanne Rabesa
Formatting: Streetlight Graphics
Epigraph from Cien sonetos de amor (1959) by Pablo Neruda
Published by University of Texas Press, 1986
Used with permission
All rights are reserved to the author. No part of this publication may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. The unauthorized reproduction for distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be scanned, uploaded or distributed via the Internet or any other means, electronic or print, without the publisher’s permission.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
For Diana Rosa, who proves every day that beautiful flowers grow in the Bronx.
Te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras,
Secretamente entre la sombra y el alma.
(I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.)
Cuando el amor no es locura, no es amor.
(Love without madness is not love.)
—Calderón de la Barca
There ain’t too much that can shake me. I was born into the belly of the beast on a blazing hot day in July. A heat-wave scorcher that brought the caps off the fire hydrants and everyone out on the street. Old men pulled their wife-beaters up over their bellies to cool off and the girls wore even less clothing than normal, which ain’t much, in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx. Air conditioning was a luxury afforded to the rich; the only place to cool down was either at the hospital or the car service on the way there. Just don’t bleed out from a bullet wound before they get you through the lobby.
My ma says her water broke while she was walking back up the stairs to take a piss. Being that I was her first, she thought for a second she’d peed her pants. She hobbled back out onto the street and yelled for somebody to get her a cab before she gave birth to her son on the makeshift corner domino table.
Ma likes to say that she carried so big with me that she could barely walk—that she knew I was macho from the very first kick in her gut, knew that she’d call me Luciano after the first light of the morning sun.
Like I said, ain’t too much that can flap me. South Bronx, Spanish Harlem, then to West Harlem and the Heights—I’d seen it all by age ten. Seen it all and then some. I ain’t no stranger to violence.
But war is different when it moves from rival blocks and gang-claimed school yards to open desert or caves and tunnels dug two miles deep into a mountainside. Out here you’re not fighting your own war. You’re part of a machine that is unimaginably bigger than you are. When you’re out on a mission, you pray with each footstep that the machine will take care of you.
One thing is for certain—whether you’re ready or not, the machine will make a fucking man of you.
Out here under the white-hot sun, I think about that scorching day in the South Bronx in ‘89 when my Ma brought me into this world. And who knows if she was ready, but she struggled alone, like a roach on its back, her whole life just to take care of me.
The sky is empty and an endless, deep blue. What I wouldn’t give right now for the propeller beats of an army chopper to break the monotony. My warm, sticky blood seeps through my fatigues and the sand soaks it up like it’s been waiting its whole goddamned life to get a drink of me. Alls it would take is a single sandstorm for me to get buried out here forever—no record, no closure, no body to recover and fly home for an honorable funeral service.
So I think about how she would describe to me the day I made an entrance: hot, sleazy summer. Beaches too polluted—no swimming, no air but the devil’s own to breathe in the city. She swears the bachata music stopped when she hit the street and screamed she was in labor.
That the old men upset their domino game as they all stood simultaneously in attention.
That the sky momentarily lit up with a flash of heat lightning. She thought for a second, rain, but then realized the sensation was only her own water dripping down her legs.
That the temperature broke one hundred and five on that day. She said the heat made labor easy, that it helped to loosen all of her muscles. She said she knew I would be a boy and that the heat would make me just as stubborn as I was strong.
And she knew that I would take care of her—that we would take care of each other.
My ma told me the story whenever there was a heat wave passing through the city. Nothing could ever compare to my heat wave in her head. I couldn’t know that day better if I’d been there to see it. My Luciano’s heatwave was worse, it was better, we were lucky we survived it. That the heat was a blessing disguised as a curse, that her boy would be hot-blooded and naturally drawn to the fight. But my ma wasn’t scared. She clenched down on her teeth instead of screaming in pain.
In Spanish, for giving birth, they say, giving light. My ma swears up and down that I was born to save her life. Luciano, she named me, the giver of light.
That night a five-alarm fire burnt down almost our whole block. Faulty wiring, they said. Six people died, all of them in our rundown building. Everything she owned became ash. The only reason we weren’t too was on account of my spontaneous entrance.
We moved less than a mile away into a tiny apartment my Tía Betty shared with their uncle. A year later, Belén was born, and from that moment on, we slept in the same crib. It seems like my whole life my cousin has always been right next to me. I would wake up when she’d cry and drift back to sleep as she did.
Now I lie on my back, wounded, probably mortally. Alone, unarmed, in prime enemy territory. What I wouldn’t give to be by her side now.
Belén. My cousin. My own heat wave. The flame to my fire.
The grease pan is crackling on top of the stove and the noise brings us into the kitchen. We pull out our chairs to sit. Luciano and I are good at waiting for pasteles. I like them with cheese; he likes them with meat. Our feet don’t reach the floor so we giggle and swing them as we wait for our treat. Titi isn’t in the mood for talking so she doesn’t turn around from the stove.
We know not to go n
Luciano squirts a blob of ketchup onto my plate first and then on his. He does lots of things for me even though he’s not even a year older. Nine months, Mami says. That’s why everyone in the family calls us los primos hermanos. ‘Cause we’re so close in age.
Mami will pick me up tonight after work—late, after everybody is already asleep. When I stay here, I sleep next to Luciano and that’s why I like it. Titi gets angry faster than Mami and sometimes she throws things. Luciano never cries, but he goes into his room and closes the door. We play with his trains and his superheroes. I don’t mind playing with his boy toys. I like the sounds Luciano makes with his mouth. Sometimes he gets spit on me from making train noises. It doesn’t bother me, though. I don’t know why. Maybe it should. Spit is supposed to be gross.
When Abuelo dies Mami gets the call in the middle of the night. She makes me put on two layers of everything before we stuff some clothes into a bag and grab a gypsy cab off of Broadway. She cries into one hand and holds me close with the other.
She says things in Spanish to the driver and he says he won’t charge her. It’s not too far to Titi’s house—at least not like when they lived in the Bronx. Now we’re all in Harlem, Mami and me in West Harlem and Titi and Luciano in East Harlem, but they all call it Spanish Harlem and I don’t know why because everybody on the West side speaks in Spanish too.
Luciano is still sleeping and Titi’s face is red from crying. Her and Mami start up again as soon as they see each other. They’re howling and yelling and I jump when they shout things. They don’t even seem to hear me when I ask over and over again, “Where’s Luciano?”
“Durmiendo,” my Titi finally gets out.
I run to his bedroom and push open the door. He’s lying on his mattress in a white tank top and underwear. I’ve seen him naked before. I’m already eight but I still remember taking baths with him not so long ago. If it were another boy I’d be scared, but I’m never scared of Luciano.
I step on the heels of my shoes to peel them off and unzip my jacket. I have sweats on top of my corduroys and a sweatshirt over my sweater. Luciano would tease me if he was awake, and I smile when I think about it. The air is cold in the apartment even though I can hear the radiators banging, so I lie down beside him and pull the covers up over us. His eyes pop open and he looks frightened, but then he smiles. I smile right back at him.
“Is it time to get up, Belén?”
“No, but Abuelo died. We have to fly to Santiago in the morning.”
“All of us?”
“I don’t know if Hemi is coming.” I squeeze my eyes shut and sort of pray that Hemi stays in Staten Island because I already know I don’t want to ride on a plane with her and all of my cousins. My Titi Jimena has four kids and they’re all “desgraciados” like Mami says. Raymond and Ramón are the older two, they’re twins; both born on the island, Annalise comes next and Briana is the baby. My cousins are crazy and they aren’t afraid to swear or run their mouths off at grown-ups. Even at teachers and policemen—they’re not scared of nothing. Mami says Titi Hemi’s kids’re gonna end up in jail and she says Raymond is already helping Hemi’s boyfriend run numbers.
Luciano and I don’t cry, even though we can both hear Titi and Mami crying and shouting things that sound sad, like they’re yelling at God for taking Abuelito. We look at each other and I stare hard at his scar. I examine his eyebrows and the spot right over his nose. His eyelashes twitch because he wants to sleep. I look at his cheeks and his chin. Luciano has a button nose that looks a lot like mine. He falls back asleep while I’m still watching him. His mouth falls open and I can see the edge of his bottom teeth. His breathing is raspy and I listen to it as I slowly follow him into sleep.
It’s summer and we are ten and eleven. Too old to play on the playgrounds but we do anyway. Luciano always picks me for his team. He picks me first, even before the boys who are probably better at the game.
“Belén,” he says, and he smiles at me. He doesn’t care what the other kids think, he only cares that we stick together and they can say whatever nasty thing to his face. I know Titi tells him to look out for me whenever we leave. Mami tells Luciano that I am his little sister in God’s eyes and that he should take care of me. But that’s not why he does it. Luciano and I are the same. We’re different from everybody else, but me and him are the same.
We play for hours, but then stop when the sun starts to wane. Lots of the kids’ parents come and find them, stomping and pissed off because they didn’t show up for dinner. Luciano is sweaty and he takes off his T-shirt. He wears a rosary that his daddy gave him. I know that it’s special to him. I know that he wishes he had a dad who could live with him and Titi and play baseball with him on the playground.
I leave his group to go stand with the girls. Yaritza from school is there, showing off her new ear piercing; she now has two in one earlobe. The other girls I’ve seen before but I don’t know their names.
“This is Belén,” Yari says and I say, “Hi,” very quietly.
“Your brother is hot,” says the taller girl, and her pink tongue darts out to lick her lips. She has braces and a little bit of a mustache and a gold crucifix on a thin chain hanging around her neck.
“Cousin,” I say, nodding my head. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to agree or disagree so I look to Yari for help.
“He is so cute, Belén. You’re lucky you get to have sleepovers.”
I feel my face flush red and heat pours through my body. Luciano is beautiful, but not in the way they’re talking about. I know about boyfriends because Titi and Mami have had plenty. I don’t like what boyfriends do, which is forget to call when they’re supposed to, make you cry all the time, and show up really drunk on weekend nights and take up the bathroom Sunday mornings because they have to puke in the toilet.
Luciano is nice and he always lets me go first; he shares his fries and even his sundae from McDonald’s. He waits for me after school and he holds my hand in the winter when it’s icy to keep me from slipping. His laugh is like a birthday party where the music is turned all the way up and all the balloons are popping.
I’m staring at him now, thinking about how much I love him. He kicks a soccer ball back to some kids who lost it. Then he looks up and sees me staring and he winks at me. Luciano and I have a secret. We are best friends and we don’t care what anyone thinks.
“Did you ever kiss him?” the tall girl asks as she pops a huge bubble with her blue gum. She snaps it back into her mouth and I wonder how she does it without getting it stuck all over her braces. Her lips look swollen. I wonder if anyone has ever kissed her.
Yari nudges me in the shoulder and whispers, “Answer Mina’s question!”
“What?” I say, coming out of my daze. “Luciano is my cousin. It’s not like that.”
“She’s never kissed anybody,” Yari says, rolling her eyes. I press down on her foot as hard as I can with my own.
“Youch!” Yari says and stomps back on my mine. I’m just about to let her have it for leaking my secrets when we get sprayed with an ice-cold burst of water and everyone starts screaming. Luciano has his hand across the spout of the sprinkler and he’s aiming the water right at us and laughing. The girls all squeal and scatter and the boys start to chase them. The water arches and fans into the air. Luciano’s aim is good, but the water stops just short of me. I reach my hands forward a little and let my fingertips graze it. The wall of water makes rainbows
“What’s wrong, Belén?” he shouts, taking wide steps toward me. I quickly wipe the tears from my face and smile weakly as he approaches. He’s out of breath and he leans down to put his hands above his knees.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” he says, jerking his head in the direction of home.
He takes my hand and leads me out of the park and onto the sidewalk. He doesn’t say goodbye to any of his friends because Luciano doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him.
“Did they say something to you? Someone hurt your feelings?”
I look up at my cousin and the tears are falling again but I’m too scared to tell him that they thought he was my boyfriend. And I’m too sad to tell him that I don’t have and I haven’t ever had one, and that maybe I want one.
“I’m scared of growing up,” is all I can manage.
He throws his arm around my shoulder and gives me a silly side-hug.
“Belén, you’ll be the best grown-up there ever was. I don’t doubt it at all!”
I smile and nod, wiping away the tears with the back of my hand.
“I think you’ll be better, Luciano,” I say, and I really do mean it. Things come to him easily and he already seems way more grown up than me.
“Well, I’ll always be here when you need me, Cuz,” he says as he pokes me in the ribs.
“Promise?” I ask and sort of dread his answer.
Luciano stops dead on Fort Washington and puts his hands in his pockets. He faces me and grins, but he’s not really making fun of me.
“Belén, I promise you on the grave of Abuelito and on Mami’s bible, that I will never leave you alone, for as long as I live. I’ll always be hanging around bugging you.” He tugs on my ponytail and pulls me into a hug.
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