Life in the Bronx is hard to describe.
The first time, I didn’t even know we were moving to New York until we were about to board the plane. I traveled a lot as a kid, mostly with my grandmother, and had no reason to see it as more than just another trip. Some of my childhood pictures were taken at airports. There are pictures of me barely two years old, in pretty dresses posing in airport terminals. I have pictures I remember were taken after a trip; of weddings I attended during a weekend trip to Puerto Rico, of Christmas presents opened in January after I’d come home from vacation at my grandmother’s.
Some of my best memories, and most vivid, are from riding on planes. The most immediate and vivid memories are, of course, from when I got violently sick. Once after having nothing but a big cup of fruit punch before an early morning trip, I got so sick on the plane that to this day I can not smell fruit punch without getting nauseous. It also did not do wonders for my relationship with my aunt either. Another time I ate half a can of un-reheated Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs after Dominican customs opened it. They were really thorough about their searches back then, and it seemed like such a waste. So I ate the congealed pasta with my bare fingers, dug for meatballs, and wiped my fingers on my new dress before deciding it wasn’t worth the effort.
At one point I had the American Airlines Safety video memorized. Every time I boarded a plane, I always searched that backseat pocket for a barf bag and a set of headphones. And yes, I loved airplane food. It was delicious and it was different and it came with a dessert. I knew that the first time the carts rolled by was for drinks, and the second time was for food.
But I also know what it’s like to step out of an airport into a shouting crowd of people, eager to see you. Most often strangers, but once in a while there’s a face in the crowd, beaming at you because they’re oh, so happy to see you again. I know what it’s like to watch the carousel and recognize your luggage, to clap as your plane lands safely, to watch the ocean and shores fly beneath your window.
Before the move, I remember traveling to the United States once before. I remembered the cold being crisp, and seeing a lot of greenery, and a lot of beautiful houses, and liking it there. It was nothing like the bitter cold and the congestion of New York. And the entire time we lived in the Bronx, I absolutely hated it there.
When my parents spoke to me about going to New York, in my immature mind, I didn’t grasp that we were moving indefinitely. As I remember it, everyone told me we were going to New York. I am sure that no one used the words moving or living or never coming back . Even the topic of switching schools or learning another language was not addressed after the move. I watched my parents pack and sell off the furniture, and I still I didn’t put it all together. It wasn’t until I was about to board the plane and my favorite aunt hugged me, and then wouldn’t let go, that I realized something was up.
I sunk into an immediate depression in New York. The first couple of days were brutal. I just spent the days sitting in the small bedroom, staring at the walls, wondering why everything was different. I couldn’t go outside. I couldn’t even see the sun. The windows faced other windows, and at night one the neighbors would sing Karaoke to the same song. Over and over.
The hardest part to adjust to was everything. It was the new weather. That first winter my lips got so chapped they bled. It was dealing with wearing coats, dealing with a runny nose for the first time and leaving my coat sleeve covered in snot. Birthdays were also much different here. All celebrations were. Back home, when there was something to celebrate your family and neighbors joined you in a jovial mood. Holidays were nothing but one block party after another, and you usually knew someone there. It was the new language, the new television, the new bed, the new place, even the new family structure. There were no aunts and cousins here. Just mom, dad, and sister.
It also didn’t help that I had to think of this place as home. It wasn’t until years after we’d settled in Connecticut that I stopped thinking of Puerto Rico as going back home. A big part of me resisted the assimilation. In my mind, I already had a home and this place was not it.
In those first couple of weeks, I spent a lot of time hanging out at the restaurant my aunt worked at. This place was the definition of a cabaret, but I don’t remember it that way. It was a cabaret in the same way that the 80’s were glam: there were cracks in the veneer, the furniture was cheap, and children hung out there. It was the kind of place, I’m sure, that today would still be stuck in a time capsule or completely lost in the past.
As of now, I can only formulate about three incomplete memories of my time there, but it was frequently enough that they knew my favorite order were arepas, a Dominican cornmeal bread that is better homemade and incredibly hard to find unless you’re in the right neighborhood and go to the right bakery.
But this place had a jukebox that I was obsessed with. Because I only enjoyed playing two songs, and there were three songs to a dollar, I learned very quickly that picking the same song back to back got you robbed a song. So I developed a simple formula of sandwiching a song between the other and feeding the jukebox a dollar at a time for maximum song play. It also meant that for an indefinite amount of time, the smallest person at this bar had complete control of this jukebox, and she was playing the same two songs over and over.
I’m sure I never had much money, if it helps.
The first song I loved to play was a favorite of mine at the time. It was an upbeat salsa with a positive message, the kind of song every artist puts out after kicking a nasty drug habit and turning over a new leaf. The second song was a favorite of my aunt’s, a melancholy bolero that to this day I only remember the first line, “Vuelve al cabaret donde te encontre bailando.”Come back to the cabaret where I met you dancing.
My mother hated that song, said that it was crass and scolded me for singing it, even if it was just that one line. I liked the song and found it fitting. I was a dancer, after all, and danced in a cabaret, so I saw no harm in singing it and didn’t understand what it meant. But she’s still my mother, and but default, won, and I found myself purposely singing the words wrong so that I could “forget” how to sing it.
And I was there frequently enough that I was known there for my dancing. You see, I loved to dance. You couldn’t turn on a stereo before I started dancing. It was a way to pass the time, to escape. A way to feel special without directly asking for attention. I remember how the parents of other girls would sometime make the back-handed comment that their daughter- most often my friends, and to me the furthest thing from rivals- would sometimes skip dinner because she wanted to be a model someday. Yes, the pressure to be thin was palpable even as a third grader, but by then it didn’t matter. I had already internalized that models were stupid. Dancing took skill. Some kids at parties pass the time by playing, I danced.
I danced so much at my aunt’s bar that they had a two night event that summer, and I was listed as the headliner on the promotional flyers. I remember my mother holding that yellow paper and having to explain to me, after the shock wore off, that my nickname was printed at the very top of the announcement. Andreina.
That, I think, was the last straw. It’s funny how when you look back, how different things are when you consider other perspectives. That place was a few of the links that I had to my previous life. It was nostalgic even though I was barely ten years old.
It all culminated one day when that song came on the radio. I had not seen my aunt in months. At the time, she did not have the best relationship with my parents, and so when the song came on the radio, and then when it came on again and again, each time being sung by a different artist as an homage to the original band, I could only glance at my mother awkwardly for some sort of reaction.
Finally my mother surprised me by handing me the phone. “Call her,” she said. “Its her birthday and you know you miss her.” And I looked up at my mother and did what I do whenever I am faced with a complex set of emotions that I cannot verbalize. I cried my eyes out.
I did not know how to say to my mother that calling my aunt felt like I was betraying her, that it wasn’t so much my aunt that I missed, but that small bar with the mints that melt in your mouth and the jukebox that was never fooled when I fed it napkins, no matter how hard I tried. Oh and the arepas, the wonderful warm arepas that were crumbly and thick and sweet with the occasional raisin.
I didn’t know how to say this to my mom, so I cried, and after about three seconds she let out a sound of exasperation and took the phone away. And that was that.
I don’t think I went back to the cabaret again.