It’s All Relative (& other stories)
by MonaLisa Ortiz-Rosa
When I was a kid I thought my Spanish Harlem cousins were rich because they lived in the projects. Their high rise building had an intercom, elevators and flat walls with doors on all the rooms with doorknobs. Our sixth floor floor tenement on the Lower East Side was a broken tiled walk up where white bulbous nosed Bowery men slept curled with their bottle behind the stairs. Where the wrought iron banisters curled way up to the top where junkies shot up by moonlit skylight.
Our apartment had peeling walls, and big fat claw foot bathtub smack dab center of the kitchen. You could see straight through each room to the back. But we did have a fire escape. I’d imagine my poor cousins just helpless looking out windows waiting to be rescued if a fire actually happened. Everyone knew fire ladders only went so high. Where we could open our windows, tumble over each other down the outside iron stairs to safety.
There were indoor-outdoor rodents in our neighborhood. The same rats we’d see scuttling through garbage bags and up trash cans outside had cousins living inside. After school we’d scurry up five flights making sure never to step on a crack, lest you break your mothers back and they would zigzag up too.
When I was a kid my father challenged a rat who stood up on two feet and bared it’s teeth. This was inside our apartment! In his sleeveless T-shirt, perfectly pressed trousers and family-familiar belt, my handsome father tried to chase it, trap it, drown it. I’m telling you it was a hullabaloo. There they stood in the perfect square kitchen, a face off. The rat had a family too, I’m sure but it was our name on the lease. We paid the rent and here was this no-count subtenant holding his own black square like a vicious chess piece on our checkered linoleum.
It was as if the room had lungs and a stop watch. It was on! We were all holding our breath and rooting to win
We Didn’t Tell the Children
We didn’t tell the children it was okay to play tag in the funeral parlor, running round the mourning room, heavily draped… giggling. They knew to play.
We didn’t tell the children that the dog was defective, wasn’t good enough to keep, we were afraid they’d identify with it and wonder whether they too could someday wind up in some strangers home. We just got another one. “This one’s good right“ Jay said, agreeing.
We didn’t tell the children the hospitals policy sucked and that’s why they couldn’t visit their mother. We were too busy keeping vigil, getting schedules straight defying doctors. They thought it was because they were bad.
We didn’t tell the children the real reason grandpa was so mean or why they had to respect him anyway. They just looked at us like we were crazy and talk smack when we weren’t around but followed orders.
We didn’t tell the children when they hid laughing under the chenille blanket in full view that we could see them, huddled, hands round ankles, knees to chin, backs curved, boney shoulders bouncing, forehead to forehead. That would have spoiled their superpowers.
We didn’t tell them that we had lost our superpowers and couldn’t protect them from broken hearts.
But we did tell them they were wonderfully and powerfully made. We told them about Puerto Rico and Albizu Campos and Ramon Emeterio Betances y El Grito de Lares. We told them in Spanish that Spanish es una maravilla and not to lie because they’d be hurting God who trusted them.
We didn’t tell them the cousins were moving in after Titi died because they had a heartless bastard of a father. But they watched us bristle whenever his name came up like a turd in the East River.
We told them never to steal, always ask for what you want even if you don’t get it so you can be proud of yourself for doing the right thing. We told them never to laugh at their cousin Eddie for playing with dolls. We said not all boys like tractors and trucks.
We told them girls are very special and should be protected and cherished. So sorry they didn’t have a sister we told them.