Kati had turned the corner, past the bodega, when she saw it. A paper plane, spiraling on its graceful descent. The little flyer with one last burst of energy from a wintry gust dove straight to her feet. She bent down and stared at it for a few seconds before picking it up. It was not the standard paper plane every child learns to make, the type paper-folding enthusiasts would call “the classic dart.” Her trained eye—she was a recently graduated graphic designer—appreciated the subtleties of this particular paper plane. It was done in two-colored paper, with the red side forming the plane’s bottom. What she liked most was the long pointy nose, how sharp and clean it was folded. Its wide wings were also carefully creased. She looked up again, wondering who had created this wonderful design, but saw no one.
Someone had put too much work into the plane to throw it away, so she carried it up the South Bronx street, past the closed stationery now only a warehouse, and up to her stoop. Her mother came into her mind as she approached the five broad steps leading to her building. Sitting down on the stoop, she caressed the paper plane, dreading the thought of facing her mother after another unsuccessful job hunt. Six months of filling applications, interviews, and test taking had made her adept at reading the interviewers’ signals to know it had gone bad. Her graduation, a bright moment of triumph and happiness, seemed so distant now that Christmas was approaching. Her mother did not understand how, with a college degree, she could be unemployed. “I have no school,” she would say, “and I have job.” The worst part was when she accused Kati of being lazy, of not wanting a job. If she wasn’t employed, her mother expected her to wake up at dawn and clean the house, cook, wash clothes, and do the shopping. Kati did all of this, without complaints, and wondered how this made her lazy. Mrs. Ruiz was upset with her daughter because Kati had followed her dream of being an artist, while she had wanted her to do something practical like nursing, teaching, or be a dietician like titi Magda. Granted, Mrs. Ruiz didn’t know what a dietician did, but her sister had always worked to make a life for herself and her family.
As the blanched sky turned dark, some people lit their Christmas lights and these brightened the fire escapes and tenement windows. The young woman lifted her tired body up from the stairs, still holding on to the paper plane, stifling an impulse to launch it. On reaching her landing, the aroma of cooked beans hit her. She had to knock on the door because her mother refused to give her keys. A turning of locks, the sliding of the steel bar, and Iluminacion Ruiz stood in front of her, all five feet of her. Iluminacion, a mouthful even in Spanish, meant illumination, a name Kati found old-fashioned, and in her mother’s case a misnomer. Thank God, Kati would often think, that she went by the nickname Lumi, and that the urge had never possessed her to pass on the name to her daughter. Doña Lumi’s sharp eyes scoured her daughter’s face. “Nada?” she asked. “Mami, can I come in first?” Kati responded. Mrs. Ruiz went back to the stove, stirring the rice with vigor. She was walking to her room when her mother saw the paper plane. “What’s that,” she asked, pointing to it. The reply was a distant “nothing.”
“Aah, si. Nothing. You go for job and come back with this, nothing.”
“You know what, I’m not going there, mami.”
“You go nowhere, that where you go.”
Kati walked toward her room, the little woman behind her. “Eight months looking, Kati, por favor. Where you go all day? You have boyfriend?”
Kati turned. “What the hell is wrong with you? I’m trying, all right.” Doña Lumi’s response came before Kati could realized her mistake. A long wail, followed by calls to the saints and Virgin, then the table pounding as she held one fist over her heart. The daughter reeled back and scrambled to open her room’s door. Once inside, she threw herself on the bed and began to cry. The mother could have marched in and continue her harangue, since the lock had been removed, but for some reason Doña Lumi preferred to stay outside the door screaming.
Kati had heard it all. How she struggled, almost dying, to give birth to her, that she raised her alone because her father had the audacity to die of a heart attack and leave them without a penny, that she was working herself ragged for the bare necessities, that she put her through college hoping that one day she would find employment as a nurse or dietician. Something useful rather than some starving artist who at the end of the day comes home with paper planes; and having said that Doña Lumi tore the origami flyer into pieces and threw them in the garbage.
Kati knew she would not stop for hours. The shouting sometimes reached higher decibels, and would waft through the tenement walls and neighbors, like the small boy next door, could hear the relentless yelling. But the boy tuned it out, as he did other nights, and returned to the book in front of him and this new design. He worked on the colored paper, reading the instructions over, carefully folding and creasing until his creation came alive. Putting the last touches on the head to form the “eyes,” the boy beamed. Just like in the photo, it resembled a fly.
With the finished masterpiece in hand, the boy cracked open his bedroom window and hurled the plane toward the back alley to navigate through a spider web of clotheslines and flapping underwear. The wind lifted it, making it swerve in circles, then carrying it down until it bounced off the window of a bedroom where another woman lay in bed, her face sunk in a pillow. Her body, tall and plump, had the curves of a figure that once caught the attention of men and the envy of women. Her big, almond-shaped green eyes were red from sobbing. She cried almost every day, not for the man who left, but his words that would not as easily vacate the premises. “Look at you,” he said, “you’re disgusting.” Most of the times he didn’t have to utter a word. He would get a nauseous look while she ate, or from the corner of her eye she would see him make faces as she walked naked from the bathroom to her room. Months past and he would not touch her, not a caress, not a hug. A physical fitness fanatic, he was the type who spent a fortune on fitness magazines he rarely read, expensive running shoes, and too much time shopping at health stores to stock on power bars and foul-tasting drinks. Worked out all the time in his exercise machine, which to her relief, he took with him. He jogged religiously, ran the New York marathon every year. Ate all the right foods and got on her case for not. Going out with him became a pain. She couldn’t order anything without hearing him comment about fat, cholesterol and carbs. Worse, she would see how other women stared at them, as if to think, “what does he see in her?’ And she knew he would sneak sly looks at other women. The son of a bitch looked good, too, she had to admit, especially when he wore those little shorts. Then he found someone who shared his obsessions. Both of them could run circles around each other for all she cared, make love with their wonderfully chiseled bodies, eat tofu until they choked. She would eat another cannoli.
The winter light broke through the window and fell on her swollen face. Melba had fallen asleep with her clothes on again. The clock read ten and in her confusion she jumped up, thinking she was late for work, until it hit her it was Saturday. She threw herself back onto the bed and looked up through the window. The brightness made her eyes squint. She didn’t want to sleep. It was a sunny winter morning, and she needed to get out.
Outside, the air was invigorating, almost balmy for December. At first, meandering towards St. Ann’s Avenue, she came to the corner and, since it was such a lovely day, she walked to St. Mary’s Park. Only a handful of people inhabited the sidewalks. A few women struggled with two-wheel carts, back from buying groceries or on their way to the laundromat. The mail carrier made her rounds. A flock of teens played with a basketball, taunting the junkie everyone knew as Choco. Doña Luisa yelled up to Doña Vista, the block gossip, who peered out, like an oracle, from her window, two stories up. Two men, talking in front of the liquor store, stared at Melba as she walked by. Were they attracted, or like her ex, just wondering “what a shame.” More likely they were saying the usual: “but she has a pretty face.” Because men still looked at her face, that sudden scanning of her features that pulled them in, until they looked at her body. A stunning face it was. The green eyes, ojones or Mega Eyes, an ex-boyfriend used to call them; the cheekbones not as prominent now that she had put on a few pounds; the soft mocha colored skin; lips that screamed “kiss me,” and brown hair worthy of a TV commercial. But it was all about the body. What a pain in the ass it is, she thought. And it wasn’t like she didn’t know what it was to have an attractive figure. She was never waif-like, or a model-like anorexic, not that she wanted to be. Forty pounds lighter, she had been voluptuous. Then, men surrounded her, and she recalled with a bit of shame, how she had played them stupid, received favors and gifts from them when she was younger and not as vulnerable.
At the St. Ann’s entrance of the Park there is a curving line of benches, a few of them destroyed beyond use. Sitting on one of the better ones was a young woman, wearing a big round hat and reading the New York Times. Melba found this odd; not too many people read the Times in the South Bronx, and certainly not wearing that hat. Melba sat down on a bench next to the young woman, who was thumbing through the want ads.
“Looking for a job, huh?” Melba asked.
Kati looked over the paper and towards the pretty woman with the friendly, green eyes. With a sigh, Kati dropped the paper down on her lap like if she had been doing curls with it. “Yeah, but I’m not having much success.”
“It’s tough out there right now.”
“Tell that to my mom.”
“Ay, mothers. You can’t listen to them, m’hija. You gotta do your own thing.”
Kati laughed, but she couldn’t help it; soon she started crying.
“Oh, did I say something stupid?”
“No, no,” answered Kati, wiping her nose on her sleeve. Melba took out some tissues from her purse, walked over to Kati and handed them to her. This made Kati cry even louder.
“Ay, nena, you’re in bad shape.”
Kati nodded vigorously as she blew her nose. “Yeah, I know.”
They both laughed, and Melba sat down next to Kati. They sat in silence for a while, staring at the Boys and Girls’ Club that stood over the hill in front of them, observing the drab birds flying from tree to tree in this urban oasis. Eventually, they struck up a conversation and after an hour they both had puffy eyes and not a tissue between them.
“All this crying made me hungry,” Melba said. “C’mon, Kati, let’s get something to eat, my treat.”
At first, Kati politely refused, but Melba insisted, and they headed to Mamacita’s for lunch. As they walked, talking loudly and laughing, they didn’t see the man talking on a public phone across the street. Slumped against the phone booth, arm slung over the top, Frankie Leon nodded mockingly as he rolled his eyes. “Zulma, they laid me off…I know you don’t care but it’s hard to pay bills without a job…unemployment is running out…right, court, fine.” As he turned around to exhale, he saw it coming down. Frankie was a religious man, as his crucifix chain attested, so the paper plane gliding towards him became a sign of sorts. What it meant, he didn’t know, but standing there in the shining light, his ex-wife’s words distant as if in a dream, the moment seemed surreal, a revelation, an epiphany. Before it could hit him in the face, Frankie grabbed the paper plane. In his other hand the receiver vibrated with Zulma’s heated words. “Yeah, I’m listening…I know Christmas is coming…yeah, my lazy ass…bye….” He hung up the phone while looking up towards the sky, up to the tenement buildings, scanning the opened windows. He had never seen a paper plane like this. The wings were large and dipped down to form rudders. He marveled at the intricacy of the tip, how it folded out from underneath. Frankie stared at the beautiful, heavy colored paper, amazed at how someone had transformed it. “Que chevere,” he muttered to himself, tears forming in his eyes. Before he started bawling on the street corner, he gathered himself, sniffed a couple of times, wiped his nose with the back of his hand and marched the two blocks to his apartment.
He centered the paper plane on the dining table. From his recliner, he stared at it from different angles, and smiled. Frankie Leon was not without a sense of aesthetics or an appreciation for art. He was, after all, a musician. A Salsa musician, which these days amounted to high unemployment. The Salsa recording industry was hurting and all the kids were into hip-hop. The Salsa circuit, the famous ‘Cuchifrito Circuit,’ was now a string of a few venues, and drying up, and the older masters were dying without anyone stepping up. Like other Salsa musicians Frankie had to keep a daytime job. A jeweler. He had worked at the same jewelry store for years, but his boss laid him off a few months ago. Business was bad. A jeweler who didn’t like jewelry. He avoided the gaudiness that made some Latinos look like guido wannabes. He did have the DA haircut that hopelessly dated him, but when it came to jewelry he sported only the crucifix and his high school ring, which held sentimental value. Frankie didn’t like flashiness. A skinny, quiet guy with chicken legs, he let his trumpet speak for him. And it did, beautifully. Some people thought he was the best trumpetero in Latin music, better than Arturo Sandoval and Perico, the next Chocolate. But music didn’t pay much and he still depended on setting stones and tinkering with gold to pay the bills. And child support. That’s what hurt most, letting down his kids. Zulma didn’t understand. For her it was never enough. She married him assuming he was going to make a lot of money as a musician. “False advertising, that’s what you are,” she said, when she broke the news about the divorce. He could never convince her he was trying his hardest.
The kids would get Christmas gifts, but he would fall behind on the rent. An unemployment check just didn’t go far, especially at this time of year. Everyone was cocooning these days; avoiding the clubs, the night scene, staying home to watch videos and TV. That meant fewer gigs and a cash flow problem. These worries almost made him drift into a nap, when it came to him, a jolt that catapulted him out of the recliner. Taking the tiny paper sculpture, talking to it, he said, “If the mountain can’t come to Mohammad, Mohammad will go to the mountain.” Then he flicked on the stereo to the Salsa station and danced around the apartment, his thin legs moving faster than chopsticks at a hungry man’s feast.
As Kati turned around, her arms hugging the box containing the last of her limited belongings, Doña Lumi slammed the door before her daughter could say goodbye. Melba had come up to help and caught the moment. She froze as she stood behind Kati staring at the door and holding the box for what seemed forever. Finally, Kati turned to leave, and Melba saw her friend’s pained face. She reached out for the box but Kati shook her off and descended down the stairs.
After hearing the problems Kati was having with her mother for the last week, Melba could not stand it anymore. “Just move out,” she had told her new friend, “better yet, come live with me.” Kati covered her mouth. “Take el difunto’s work-out room,” Melba said. (Melba referred to her ex as “el difunto,” the deceased.) “You pay nothing ‘til you get a job. Straight up.” Katie hesitated, then extended a hand.
Doña Lumi was not pleased. She accused her daughter of turning lesbian, which to her was almost as bad as not having a job. Unnatural acts would be punished by God when the time came, but unemployment would lead to disaster here on earth. It had been difficult trying to gather her stuff while dodging her mother’s tiny, flailing body, and trying not to respond to the string of insults hurled at her. Kati was shocked that her mom, a Christian woman, had such familiarity with the vernacular variations on lesbian. She seemed most fond of “tortillera,” or tortilla maker, as she used it in every other sentence. Fortunately, Kati didn’t have much to pack.
They sat on the sofa, sharing a bottle of cheap burgundy that Melba had opened to celebrate Kati’s “liberation.” Kati looked at the three boxes that contained most of what she owned. She had brought her clothes first and those fit perfectly in her new bedroom’s closet. Kati’s only extravagance was her collection of hats, started in college, a combination of her artistic flair and necessity to control her wild curly hair.
“Everything I am is in those three boxes, sad ain’t it?”
“Kati, you have so much going for you.”
“Thanks, Melba, but I just don’ t feel it.”
“Well, all things must pass, baby. Look at me, you think I’m sitting here feeling grand?” They sat in silence, sipping their wine.
“A life make-over, that’s what I need, you know?” Kati nodded and toasted to her friend’s new resolve. “And I should start with this dump.” Kati looked at the big wall facing the sofa. Melba did not have one decorative piece on it because she always had wanted to do something with the entire wall, a mural representing something from Puerto Rico, she had said, a pleasing and refreshing scene. The idea came to Kati then to do the mural as a gift. She needed money for supplies that right now she didn’t have, but it was a goal. As soon as she received some money she would paint a tropical rainforest, El Yunque, in her living room, a scene that would ooze tranquility and life.
Melba took out the neon orange paper plane out of her big brown shopping bag. It looked like your typical paper plane, but at closer inspection even Melba observed that it had different creases, especially at the wings. She kept turning it around in her hands, impressed with the workmanship, wondering how it got in the bag. “Que cosa,” she whispered, then noticed something printed on it and that the plane had been made out of a flyer. She opened it and read:
CELEBRATE THE HOLIDAYS
A REAL LIFE PARRANDA THAT COMES TO YOUR DOOR!!!
CALL US AND WE’LL PLAY ALL YOUR XMAS FAVORITES.
LOS PARRANDEROS DEL BRONX
Now she had seen everything. After the initial laugh, she remembered the visits to the island during the holidays, before the crime wave and car jackings, when people did not hide behind steel bars on windows, when everyone had fun going on parrandas or asaltos. Caroling, Puerto Rican style. A group of people, that grew in number with every house they visited, and with a variety of instruments, sometimes traveling from one corner of the island to another, playing and singing up-tempo holiday tunes like “If you don’t give me something to drink, I’ll cry” or “They robbed my suckling pig.” By tradition, the “victims” had to invite the parranderos into the house. If asleep, people had to wake up and attend to the rowdy bunch. During this time of year a household could go bankrupt feeding and providing drink for these revelers.
The phone rang and Melba picked it up to hear the voice she had forgotten for weeks. The difunto, she couldn’t believe it. It was like a voice from the grave. He blubbered something about wanting her back. He was drunk. “You shouldn’t be drinking, it’s fattening…yeah, right…tell it to your skinny bitch.” And with that, she slammed the phone. Before she could begin her breathing exercises, the doorbell rang.
Melba looked through the peephole and saw a little woman. As she opened the door, the woman glared at her with intense anger and hatred. Melba started scoping for the phone.
“Leave my Kati alone, perversa! I call the police.”
When Doña Lumi wagged her crooked finger and took a step towards her, Melba closed the door. The woman screamed and banged the door a couple of times to punctuate her insults. Her back against the door, Melba could hear the woman’s loud voice diminishing as she slinked down the stairs. Flustered, Melba sat down on a stool, then rushed to the refrig, but she fought the temptation and closed the door. While rubbing her temples, she saw the flyer again. Man, we could use a little cheer around here, she thought, especially poor Kati. Imagine having a bruja like that for a mother. She quickly thought of calling her own mom to tell her “I love you, thank you.” But first she dialed the number on the flyer. A young woman with a heavy Bronx accent answered “Parrandas.” Christmas Eve was booked, and so was New Year’s. Melba had to settle for the 27th. It was pricey but how many times can you have a parranda in New York City. It was the holidays, she had a job, a good new friend and for the first time in a long time she felt like getting up in the morning.
On the day of the parranda Melba thought Kati had returned from an interview, again depressed at the prospect of not getting the job. But Kati’s sad face was a result of going to the art supplies store and seeing how expensive it would be to paint Melba’s mural. Her intentions were noble, but the money was just not there, and the usual despondency came at not having a job and realizing the bleak prospects. She wondered if it was time to consider clerical work. Four years of art school, for what?
When the musical explosion came, Kati was about to go to bed, the wine taking its toll. Melba insisted on staying up longer, and Kati guessed the surprise as the parranderos broke into the traditional “Saludos, saludos.” She had seen the gaudy flyers plastered all over the neighborhood, but didn’t connect it to anything until Melba smiled.
Melba went to the door, sporting a Cheshire cat grin. Kati stood there, hands gleefully together, and Melba thought her friend was going to start jumping up and down. Melba threw the door wide open, with the flourish that such an event requires, but suddenly the trumpet faded like an old siren, and the trumpetero stood gawking at Melba. The other parranderos thought there was something wrong and stopped playing. For a moment Melba was angry at this poor professionalism, ready to demand a refund, when she took a good look at the paralyzed trumpet player.
The guy held his trumpet close to his chest, a silly grin on his long face and Kati swore that he was about to cry. He regained his composure and waved the others to continue playing and as they did he ushered Melba to the side, absorbing her face in a mixture of wonder and love. What a sight, something out of a classic black and white film. The parranderos were cooking on the second tune of their repertoire, the guiro scratching away, the chorus singing “wepa, wepa, wepa…” and Melba and Frankie hugged each other by a corner, wailing the blues.
“We were high school sweethearts,” Frankie explained later, after he had instructed the band to proceed to the next venue without him. He sat on the stool, rubbing his trumpet’s mouthpiece with his thumb. “But then I had to move,” Melba chimed in, “ and we lost touch.”
“The worst point in my life,” Frankie added, a distressed expression on his face. Melba smiled and cupped his hand.
Kati felt she was watching a re-run of the same movie, and decided to go to bed, and let the lovers get re-acquainted. They did that, and more. From her bedroom, Kati heard loud lovemaking. As she listened to them across the hallway, she found herself wanting a lover. Suddenly, that and getting a job, finding an apartment, even forgiving her mother, seemed possible. Closing her tired eyes, she recalled making pasteles with her mother during Christmas. Wrapping the pastel in plantain leaf, folding the paper, tying the white string around it, her job. Her mother scraping more plaintains, green bananas, sometimes knuckles. Seeing her mother smile, throw a kiss as they worked together through the night.
On a Sunday when the sky did not hold a patch of blue, the three friends sat on the new sofa, admiring the mural. Melba had cried when Kati and Frankie surprised her with it, after the two lovers had returned from a getaway weekend in upstate New York. They had not uttered a word, satisfied to lose themselves in the tropical rain forest Kati had transplanted to the wall. They sipped their rum and tonics, concocted in celebration, and traced the small cracked lines in the wall interwoven into the painting’s vines, searched again for the three little coquis that Kati had hidden among the various shades of green foliage. The coqui, that noisy little tree frog that Puerto Ricans say dies from nostalgia if taken away from the island.
As Frankie put on a CD featuring the “natural sounds of the rain forest,” Kati glanced through the window and saw that it had starting snowing, rather large snowflakes, she thought. Focusing a bit more, she saw it was not snow, and she rushed to the window. Her sudden move made Melba and Frankie wake from their daydream and they followed her, asking “what’s wrong?” They all looked out the window. Melba gasped. “Que chevere,” Frankie said, smiling. Squadrons of white paper planes, coming down like sheets of snow, each flying on a course of its own.
On a rooftop, a cadre of boys giggled as they hurried to hurl into the brisk air the last of the paper planes from hundreds and hundreds of stacked milk crates and large cardboard boxes. They ran down the stairs, spilled into the street and with their hands lifted to the sky marveled at their work.
From The Family Terrorist and Other Stories, Arte Publico Press.
Photo by Steen Jepsen: Pixabay.