“Can I Play with You?”
Nineteen eighty-five. It was spring, and cherry blossoms fell when the wind blew hard. The gay feathers and asters were in bloom, and I smelled the sweet, dizzy scent of honeysuckle fumes, which rode on the shoulders of the wind, along with that dazzle of newly shorn pink and white cherry blossoms, and the white wisps of dandelion seed heads. It was the season of yellow jackets, those sluggish wasps that were always hanging around trashcans and soda bottles. A yellow jacket stung me on the tip of my nose when I was three, and my nose swelled to twice its size; ever since, my mother had fiercely hated them.
“Get out of here!” she yelled, waving her hand at the yellow jackets that had come, unannounced, to our picnic on the lawn at Liberty State Park with my parents’ friends Maria and Pedro, and their son, Jeff.
Poppa collected a bit of Pepsi on the tip of his plastic straw and set the straw atop our green-and-red beach blanket. The wasps all rushed to the straw and Poppa grinned.
“You see, I solve problems with common sense. They like sugar, and as long as that soda is there, they will all stay by that straw. Right, Keesy?”
Poppa began to call me Kissy (with his Spanish pronunciation he said “Keesy”) as a toddler, after he taught me to kiss his cheek goodnight and, for a while, I went around kissing everything: all my dolls and stuffed animals, even my own reflection in the mirror. Only when Poppa was pleased with me did he call me Keesy and, occasionally, Baby Bow. Whenever he was angry he didn’t call me anything; he spoke of me in the third person. Poppa rarely used my first name, Margaux (pronounced Margo), though he had named me himself, after a 1976 vintage French wine he once drank: Château Margaux. He never called my mother Cassie, and he never kissed or hugged her. I didn’t think anyone else was different until I saw other parents kiss, like Jeff’s, and to be honest, I thought they were the odd ones.
Maria was my mother’s best friend and my occasional babysitter. Jeff was seven, a year older than I. At Jeff’s house, if he agreed to play Stories, I’d agree to play G.I. Joes and Transformers. War got tiresome for me, and Jeff hated to play Ladybug and Lost Dog, because those stories didn’t include toys; these deals made our friendship possible.
Mommy and Maria were talking about the usual things mothers talk about: the benefits of vitamin C, the child snatched from Orchard Beach, the boy recently killed on a roller coaster. “Such a shame,” Mommy would say, and “God works in mysterious ways.” Mommy kept a small spiral notebook, in which she recorded, among other things, every single disaster she heard about on the radio or TV. That way, she’d always have something important to talk about whenever she called or visited friends. She referred to the notebook as her Fact Book. Poppa hated the Fact Book. Whenever my mother got sick, she started talking about starving children and other horrible things in the world. At home, she’d constantly play her album Sunshine, a chronicle of a young woman with terminal bone cancer who made tape recordings of her final goodbyes to her husband and daughter. Mommy found it romantic.
I heard Maria say that I needed more chicken and yucca in my diet, and my mother scribbled this in the Fact Book. They couldn’t decide what was more fattening: chicken or beef. Poppa, elbowing Pedro, said, “What do these women know? I know more than them. Don’t give girls too much meat or the hormones from the cow get into them. Black beans and rice, fruit, spaghetti; that is the way to go. You do not want a too skinny child, because people assume you are starving your child. But you do not want a little girl looking older. So do not give girls too much steak or pork. Seafood—okay. Boys, on the other hand, need to get strong. Sons—you feed a lot of pork. Maybe you are feeding yours a little too much pork.” Poppa smiled; he had a way of insulting people and still staying in their good graces. “Myself, I eat salad. I eat a lot of pistachio nuts and, occasionally, a papaya. Vitamin A. I am not saying your son is fat. I am saying he could afford to lose a few pounds; I hope you do not take me wrong. I tell my friends the truth. But he is a strong boy, a healthy boy, a good-looking son!”
Jeff leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Skinny-skinny chicken legs. Bock! Bock! Bock! Bock!”
“Bock! Bock!” He flailed his arms. “You run just like a chicken, too! Bock! Bock! Bock! Bock!”
Chicken legs didn’t bother me much, but when he said I ran like a chicken I slapped his face. “Shut up, fatso! You can just die and go to hell!”
Everyone looked at me, and when Maria saw my eyes, she turned away.
Poppa broke out in a grin and said, “All boys, beware of my daughter!”
“Louie!” Mommy yelled. “Don’t teach her to hit!”
A yellow jacket buzzed right by Mommy’s face and Jeff, playing hero, tried to shoo it away with a stick. He smacked the wasp, and with a loud happy whoop he charged at the other yellow jackets, whacking at them. The wasps turned on him and he dropped the stick. All the adults started yelling, and the wasps, now maddened, began to go after everyone. Yellow jackets landed on my head, arms, hands, and chest. Poppa looked me in the eyes and said, “Stand still, Keesy, stand still, or they will sting.” I felt their tiny black legs, their underbelly down. I obeyed. Poppa and I were the only ones not stung that day.
For the first seven years of my life, my parents and I lived in an orange brick building located on Thirty-second Street. Our tiny one-bedroom apartment was infested with roaches, which, despite arming himself with cans of Raid and Combat roach hotels, Poppa could not get rid of. “They come in from other people’s apartments. They come through the space under the door. The people in this building are savages. All dirty savages at this end of town. In upper Union City, it is better. Here, the drug addicts, the lowlifes. I cannot wait to get away from here.”
Poppa hated graffiti, fire escapes, the abandoned lots filled with trash, the whistling and hissing teenage boys, boom boxes, the way that people constantly littered. But he liked walking a few blocks to Bergenline Avenue to get his espresso and buttered roll (bits of it he’d hand-feed me, even allowing me to sip his espresso). He liked that most everyone spoke Spanish, because he found it extremely humiliating to mispronounce a single English word when ordering food. Back when they were dating, my mother once playfully teased him about the way he said “shoes” (choos) and he wouldn’t speak to her for the rest of the day.
Poppa never encouraged my mother and me to learn Spanish, which she thought was intentional. He didn’t want us to listen to his phone conversations. I begrudged him this. Not knowing Spanish meant you wouldn’t be able to read most of the storefronts or order at local restaurants and bodegas. In Union City, people always assumed I was from Cuba or Spain because of my light complexion, not half Puerto Rican. My mother was a mix of Norwegian, Swedish, and Japanese. I had black eyes that I assumed were from my half-Japanese grandfather, a heart-shaped face, plumpish lips, and straight dark brown hair.
When I was very little, I would punch random women riding on the bus or walking down the street, which my mother said was because I had watched her being hit by my father. She said I witnessed him break a large picture frame over her back at three, but I was too young to remember. What I do recall is that my father used to turn the lights on and off to poke fun at my mother’s mental illness. My mother, father, and I slept on a giant king bed because I had constant nightmares and was terrified of sleeping alone. To help him sleep, my father wore a piece of cloth cut from one of his old undershirts over his eyes, and I thought he looked like a bandit with his auburn beard and longish auburn hair. In the mornings, if feeling cheerful, he would tell me stories about a mischievous monkey, an evil frog, and a stoic white elephant set in Carolina, Puerto Rico, where he’d grown up. Or sometimes he’d tell me about his boyhood. He used to climb the tall coconut trees by wrapping his entire body around the tree’s rough hide and hoisting himself up by the arms, inch by inch.
My father loved to tell stories. He liked to exaggerate and use his hands. He did all the cooking and cleaning in our household, saying my mother was only capable of taking our clothes to be laundered in the basement of our building, and grocery shopping at the nearby Met; she brought the food home in a little red cart because she didn’t drive. But she always overbought and overspent, which Poppa would yell about.
Poppa was such a high-strung man that I never understood how he could tolerate a job that required him to sit still all day. He was a jeweler who specialized in design and manufacture. He also cut, set, and polished gemstones, in addition to repair work. In the eighties, jewelers didn’t have ergonomically correct workbenches and they spent all day uncomfortably hunched over.
When Poppa came home, he was so excitable he’d act like a dog let loose from its leash. Sometimes, it was a happy excitement and he’d pound Heinekens as he whipped up dinner, singing as he removed the spices from drawers and cupboards, later offering me samples of his cooking to taste on a spoon, or handing me the rice pot so I could scrape out the slightly burnt, crunchy kernels stuck to the bottom, which Poppa called “popcorn rice.” He’d touch my nose a lot, if he was feeling cheerful—his way of showing affection, since he rarely kissed me. My mother would be in the bedroom listening to her 45s of John Lennon, the West Side Story soundtrack, the Sunshine album, or Simon and Garfunkel. She wouldn’t come out until dinner was ready. She knew that as soon as he saw her, his mood would sour. Once, my mother told me she was undressing by the window and Poppa said, shutting the drapes, “You’re not a pretty baby, you’re a fat cow, and no one wants to look at you.”
Whenever Poppa came home in bad spirits, I’d scramble into the bedroom with Mommy and turn up the volume on her Gibson record player, surrounding us with pillows in a kind of mini-fort and throwing the quilt over our heads. Inside our makeshift tent, I would (even at five and six) suck on my plastic pacifier and hold close to my face a yellow stuffed dog whose gingham ear was ripped from my constant tugging. Poppa would yell about how his boss demeaned him, or about how bad the market was. Poppa was usually out of work at least once a year, since the jewelry business got slow after Christmas. After a while, his tirades would gather momentum and turn into uncontrollable rages that often lasted for hours at a time. When he was this way he was like a man possessed and we were terrified to go anywhere near him. He’d scream that we’d cursed him with a life of misery, and he would never be free again, that God couldn’t send him to hell because he was already in it, and that he wondered what he’d done to deserve being cursed with two burdens: a sick woman for a wife and a wild beast for a daughter. Often, I wished he would yell in Spanish so we couldn’t understand what he was saying.
We were still living on Thirty-second Street the summer I turned seven and had to walk several blocks to get to the Forty-fifth Street pool. It was heavily chlorinated, had dead bugs rafting on its surface, and was only about four feet deep. Older kids called it the Piss Pool. I’m ashamed to admit that I contributed to its name, nonchalantly drifting to the blue borders of the pool, casting glances to make sure no one was looking.
The pool water was a clear, light, wide-open blue that spread itself to take in my wet, bulleting body, my body with its closed fists and feet pressed together and legs arched like long fins; my mouth clenched so I could hold the air like a purse snapped shut; my mermaid self, my goldfish self, my dolphin self, myself without weight. When I rose, bursting my head up, to slurp the air, I felt my brain grow light with pleasure. After a few seconds, I would look to my mother, sitting with the big black purse strapped to her neck and shoulder. She never took it off for fear of thieves. What I did sometimes, when my private games got boring, was stand in the middle of the pool and gaze around me. When I stopped and looked about, it was as if all the people—kids in groups, mothers with tube babies, kids with plastic floaties around their arms to hold them up, boys diving by the no diving sign—leaped out from nowhere. Sound came on, all of a sudden, the sounds of splashing, shouting, whistles blowing, the sounds of birds and cars from behind the green slatted fence.
On the day I met Peter I saw two boys and their father wrestling at the other end of the pool, splashing and laughing. One of the boys was very handsome. He was the smaller of the two, maybe about nine or ten, skinny, with longish brown bangs. He wasn’t just handsome; he exuded happiness. There was brightness in his face and skin, supple quickness to his legs and arms and hands, and a gentle quality to his eyes and face that was rare for a boy. His older brother looked happy too, but not with that same vividness.
Their father had bowl-cut sandy-silver hair with sixties bangs like a Beatle. He had full lips, a long, pointy nose that might have looked unattractive on someone else, but not on him, and a strong, pert chin. When he looked in my direction, I saw that his eyes were vigorously aquamarine. He smiled at me, his face full of lines—on his forehead, by his eyes, and around his jaw. I knew he must be old, to have lines and graying hair and loose skin on his neck, but he had so much energy and brightness that he didn’t seem old. He didn’t even seem adult in the sense of that natural separateness adults have from children. Children understand the distance between themselves and adults the way dogs know themselves to be separate from people, and though adults may play children’s games, there is always that sense of not being alike. I think he could have been lined up with a hundred men of similar build and disposition and I could have pulled him out from that line, and asked, “Can I play with you?”
I crossed the length of the pool and asked just that. He answered, “Of course,” and then immediately splashed my face, frolicking with me as though I were his own child. I splashed the boys’ faces and they mine, for these boys didn’t seem to mind playing with someone so much younger and a girl to boot. At one point the handsome boy gently dunked my head, and when I rose, I laughed so hard that for a moment it seemed all I could hear was my own laughter. Then the father lightly took me under the arms and whizzed me around, laughing like a big kid. When he stopped, the world was off balance and a strange burst of white flooded his features, like a corona.
Later, when the lifeguards called everyone out of the pool for closing, the father, whose name was Peter, introduced us to a sweet-looking Hispanic woman named Inès, who had been wading by herself in the shallowest part of the pool while we played. Peter teased her about her need to be close to the pool’s edges and joked to my mother and me that Inès was nervous about things no one thought to worry about, such as going on carousels or riding a bicycle. Inès had an awkwardly pretty face, drowsy, sun-lined eyes, long curly hair that started out dark but midway changed to a dyed apricot shade, and the mild, disoriented look of a wild fawn. She had purple press-on nails; two had gone missing, and the rest had tiny black peace signs painted on them.
Peter told us everyone’s names: the older boy, Miguel, looked about twelve or thirteen and the younger boy, Ricky, only a couple of years older than I was. By the end of the day I’d forgotten all the names but I remembered the first letters of the parents’ names: P and I. I kept thinking of them, P and I, and their promise to invite my mother and me to their house. A few days passed and nothing happened, so I forgot them.
I might have permanently forgotten, except for some vague stamp of joy that the incident left on me. We were in Poppa’s 1979 Chevy when Mommy said they had called her up, or, rather, Peter had called.
“We’re invited to go to their house. Isn’t that nice?” When Poppa said nothing, she continued. “Peter and Inès. And the boys, Ricky and Miguel. Miguel and Ricky. Such nice boys. Well-behaved boys, not rough at all. Such a nice family.”
“Their house? It is around here?”
“Not far. On the phone, Peter said Weehawken, right where it meets Union City. I just wanted to run it by you. See what you think?”
“Going there. On Friday while you’re at work.”
“I don’t care.”
“Well, I thought I’d run it by you.”
“I don’t care. These people are not ax murderers, right?”
“They’re a very nice family. Very nice people. A lovely family.”
“Everything is so nice to you. Everyone is so nice. Everything is so lovely.”
“So it’s set, then,” said Mommy. “For Friday at noon.”
TIGER, TIGER Copyright © 2011 by Margaux Fragoso