It’s the first weekend of the month, a cause for celebration. Mom gets her welfare check the first of every month and throws a sort of party come the weekend. I’m not invited. The only people allowed to celebrate are her and whatever Flavor-of-the-Month motherfucker whose arm she’s hanging on to. This one’s on his fifth month, a bit of a record. Of course, the fact that he just moved us out of New York and into Nowhere, Baltimore County, Maryland improves his chances. It means Mom won’t be meeting any new Flavors any time soon. Anyway, it doesn’t bother me not to be invited—her little parties have a way of getting out of hand.
I haven’t had a chance to make any new friends, yet. I don’t go to school my first week here. Besides helping unpack and settle the only pair of my shoes that made the trip are some snow boots. The weather here in Nowhere is spring-like compared to the frigid city, and I’m too embarrassed to wear them. Thankfully Mom springs for a pair of Sikes, kind of like Nikes but with the swoop going the wrong way.
The next two weeks are awkward—teaching people how to pronounce my name, clarifying my race. Nobody in Nowhere has ever met a Porto Reekin before, or anything remotely close to one. They’re curious to hear me speak some Porto Reekin until I tell them it’s no different from the Spanish class we all take every day during fifth period, except for the teacher’s grammatical mistakes. I’m seen as a true oddity.
I’m used to moving—lucky to complete an entire year at one school—but never to a place where I’m watched curiously, like some ape in a cage expected to start throwing its shit at any moment. I’m not sure whether to resent these kids or be flattered by the attention. I am, however, one very pissed of Porto Reekin. We left New York on a spur of the moment, practically on impulse—no chance to say goodbye to my friends, never to learn the results of my audition to the School for Performing Arts—the so-called Fame school. I spent the first few nights in Nowhere crying myself to sleep. I felt stranded.
Tonight, I’m still stranded. I watch The Flavor carry in a case of Red White & Blue, and I shake my head. Mom comes in behind him carrying a brown bag, Bacardi—Ron Rico if she’s pinching her pennies. The winter sun’s going down already, my cue to retreat to my room. As they begin playing cards, or dominoes, I start reading Thomas Covenant, a novel about a modern day leper who gets transported to a dying land where he is the only one who can restore its magic. I envy him, leprosy and all.
I don’t know how longs it’s been, but I hear shouting from the other side of my door. I stop being Thomas Covenant and listen. Mom and The Flavor have started to argue, if you can call it that. The neighbors would call it screaming, and the police would call it disturbing the peace. I’m used to it. As a matter of fact I won’t even leave my room unless—¡¡¡FUCK!!!
¡He starts hitting her! ¡Motherfucker! I storm out of my room and try to come between them. “¡Please, stop! Don’t hit my mother,” a line I’ve been practicing since I was five. There are cards all over the floor. One of the beer cans is spilled over leaving some of the cards in a bubbly, pale yellow puddle. He has the collar of her blouse in one fist, smacks hers in the face with his free hand. He stops for a moment to shove me away.
My mother stops wailing enough to yell at him in Spanish. “¡Don’t touch my son you sonofabitch! ¡¡I’ll kill you!! She swipes at his head, catches his face with her long scarlet nails. He winces, puts his free hand to his face, feels the blood starting to trickle.
“You fucking whore,” he shouts as he throws her to the floor, redoubles his efforts to beat the shit out her. I jump on his shoulders, try to yank him off her. He shakes me off, whips around and cracks me in the head. Had I not tried to duck the blow, if he were any less drunk, he would have caught my ear.
My head’s reeling. I’m in shock. Not one of my mother’s flavors had ever tried to hit me for protecting her. There have been some who, in their effort to play Daddy, have swung a belt at me. This—this is unheard of. He’s stops hitting her, starts to drag her into their bedroom by her hair. Mom’s hanging on to his fists, kicking as she slides across the floor. I go out the front door.
One big difference between Nowhere, Maryland and New York is trees. While New York is not known for its fauna, at least not in the neighborhoods I came up in, I’m able to step out the door and in little time I have a branch I can barely lift. I storm back in, straight into their bedroom. He has her pinned against the bed. His back is to me. He’s wielding a pair of utility scissors, the ones with the big orange handles, and he’s trying to cut her nails off. “You want to scratch me?” he shouts, “I’ll teach you not to scratch!” My mother, like many Puerto Rican women of her generation, takes great pride in her nails, always keeping them long and painted—complains for hours if she breaks one. He’s managed to cut off three of them.
With tears in my eyes, I raise the branch as high over my head as I can get it and swing it down across his back. I’m about to strike him again when he turns to look at me. He has this look of pure hatred on his face, enough to fill me with fear. I drop the branch. He rises, I turn around and start running. He’s too drunk to catch me, but I can’t run forever. He’s also too drunk to know when to stop chasing. Trees. Again they come to good use as I choose a particularly tall one and climb.
He makes a few attempts to climb up after me, but I don’t think he would have been able to even if he were sober. On his last attempt he makes it about three feet up and falls onto his back. Mom’s outside by now. She runs to him. “¡Oh my God! ¿Papi, are you okay? ¿Can you get up?” She helps him to his feet, walks him back to the apartment.
I stay in my tree for another ten minutes or so when mom comes back out. “¡Ricardo, get back in the fucking house!” she orders. I follow her in. I can hear The Flavor snoring from their bedroom. Mom locks the door behind us, stands in front of me, and smacks me. “Don’t you ever do that shit again,” she tells me, “¡What me and him do is none of your fucking business! ¡Stay out of it!” With that said, she strolls into her bedroom and slams the door closed behind her.