Rip and Reck into That Good Light
The Bronx, 1995
I hit him once. Not one of those little nalgazos in the butt when he was a kid. I backhanded him when he cursed at me. I ain’t having any of that. He respects me and his moms and anybody older than him. Period. Looking back, I should’ve slapped him a few more times. Koki, with all her psych bullshit ideas, thinks you can’t spank a kid for nothing. She’s read too many books written by people who don’t live in the hood and think everyone sees the world with the same eyes. Try living in the South Bronx like we did and see how far those fancy ideas get you. They’ll get your ass handed to you, that’s what. My life wasn’t messed up because my parents slapped me once or twice. I can’t say I didn’t have it coming, to be honest. I gave them trouble and made life hard for my moms, even after my dad left. Instead of helping her I made it worse. She slapped me, yeah, and she handled the Puerto Rican mother’s weapon of mass destruction—la chancleta—like a ninja. That slipper would fly and wham, hit you in the head. Or she’d whacked your ass with it like she was playing paddle ball. I never felt abused. It’s not like if you smack your kid once in a while it’s abuse, you know. Unless, you have no idea how abusive it is to grow up in a neighborhood like ours.
Kids today fall apart for any silly shit. These streets will eat you up if you weak. And they were even worse back when Koki and me walked them. You best toughen up if you intend to survive. And now what? Are we supposed to ground him? That’s a laugh. He’s never out anywhere. Take away the phone? You kidding me? We can’t afford phones for ourselves and we don’t believe every teen needs a phone. You get food, a roof that don’t leak over your head and clean clothes on your back and you thank your parents every day for your blessings. If you ground him, it’s a chance to read the books he stacks in a corner or to listen to that crazy rap music. You take that away, he finds something else to do. Like that one time Koki grounded him—no music, video games, or books—solitary confinement—for breaking curfew and he wrote lyrics for an entire album. This kid lives off being alone. Meantime, the Vice Principal of the school, Puerto Rican cat named Rosa, tells us Xavie’s acting up. He and his posse of nerds, he calls them. Writing shit up on school walls. “How you know it’s him,” I asked. “They’re tagging lines from famous poems or rap lyrics,” he answers, with a smart-ass look on his face.
Fuck the theory; bougy ideas don’t mean a damn thing out here. They’re like prayers with no postage. You better make your kids toe the line before their attitude lands them in jail or gets them killed.
I should have given him more time, more attention, more nurturing. What did I know about being a mother? I was sixteen, a child myself. Our little freak, that’s what we called Xavie. He would do things everybody in the family found strange, like reading every line on a cereal box, or my dad’s Daily News from cover to cover when he was only four. He started speaking in sentences before two. Drawing amazing pictures of faraway worlds when he was in second grade. He was always scribbling. He used to draw and write stories that he bound together, like books. We had no idea how truly intelligent he was. When they tested him in elementary school and told us he was gifted, we didn’t know what that meant. T.J. was actually upset because he thought they were checking out his privates. The school wanted to skip him a grade but we said no because we thought other kids would make fun of him. There were no schools for gifted children near us so that was the best they could do. They were trying to challenge him, that’s what the principal said, because he was bored and restless. For me, struggling day to day, I couldn’t understand how more challenging life was supposed to be, and how that was supposed to be a good thing.
Only my mom, she knew from the start how smart Xavie was. Because she really raised him those early years. “He’s a genius, you just don’t understand him,” she would say to us, and we’d laugh. T.J. and me, stoned and buzzed from cheap beer after hanging out at one of the club’s hangouts. Stupid old woman, I used to think. She only went as far as third grade; everyone’s a genius to her. A hick from the island, like my dad. I couldn’t stand them back then. Old school, strict. A girl’s not supposed to be hanging out in the streets like a “macho,” they’d yell at me. I couldn’t go out anywhere. My two brothers went anywhere and did anything they wanted. Then they moved out and left me with my parents who were waiting for me to marry so they could move out and return to the island. That was their plan. That and I had to take care of them hand over foot. It was like I was holding them back from their dream. When I hit sixteen, I said enough and started going out. I’d return late or sometimes the next morning and get slapped and hit. But I didn’t care.
We were wild, all of us, searching for our own space, and the streets called us. We turned our backs on parents and found family in the clubs. That’s what we called them, not gangs. Like they were an organization you joined for socializing rather than bopping. The Reapers controlled the territory around Crotona Park, where we lived. So that’s who took me in. That’s how I met T.J. At a club party in a dark basement. Everybody respected T.J. He had cred. He studied martial arts and even boxed professionally for a while, until he found it more rewarding to beat up on rival gang members. Every girl wanted him; he had the charisma, the body, the cat-like green eyes. The poster child for a bad boy. Everything that’s important to a teen girl, right? He hit on me something fierce, but I thought he was too conceited. He also had a temper, which I didn’t like. But the more I got to know him, the more I realized he was actually old school, gentleman like, even, with me at least. And his temper flared most when something was unfair or wrong. He was a fighter; always had your back. That’s why the Reapers made him War Counselor. I knew he was getting it on with other girls, but he didn’t have anything serious going on with any of them.
I fell in love. It’s that simple. Fell hard because he treated me with respect and after a while I knew he loved me, too. Love as young love goes, anyway. Two young people desperate for attention and a little t.l.c. It got to the point I hung out with club members just to see him. We started chilling together; sharing a joint and just talking. It was an escape from all the negativity surrounding me. By Christmas, a little after my sixteenth birthday, we were celebrating in Papo’s crib, an apartment in an abandoned building, one of many the Reapers used to avoid police harassment. And they did harass us. They’d stop us walking in our own neighborhoods; take our denim gang jackets. Beat anyone who spoke back or had the nerve to look at them in the eyes. Sometimes they’d break into a club’s main hangout and round up members.
So, we were always looking for a place to just chill without being harassed from family or cops. That Christmas Eve, Papo was staying with Margie, his girlfriend, and let us have his crib. We were already high from smoke and Colt 45. We danced slow jams, made out and smoked some more. We had our own little Christmas party, and T.J. gave me a Christmas gift, a bracelet with heart and skull charms. I felt so bad because I didn’t have anything for him. He told me all he wanted from me was to be his girl and I melted.
We made love for the first time on a musty mattress lying on a rotting wooden floor. I was a virgin and frightened but also excited. He was gentle and went slow, asking me if I was ok every step of the way. In the background, Bobby Caldwell was singing “What You Won’t Do For Love,” as T.J. whispered he loved me in my ear. I could have died right then and there.
In a way, maybe I did.
Koki’s too hard on herself. We were both young and stupid back then. We fucked up getting pregnant, but it happened and the folks were not helpful at all. My moms went crazy. She told me flat out not to bring no baby to her house. That she wasn’t about to raise no kids after fucking up with me—she said it just like that. Told me and Koki to get an abortion but she wouldn’t pay for one cause it was against her principles. I get into a fight with her about her fucked up attitude and she throws me out of the house. No shit. “Go be a big man with your little wife,” last thing she tells me as she slams the door on my face.
Koki’s parents were all bent out of shape too. Her moms slapped her right in front of me, started pulling her by the hair, tossing her head this and that way. Had to twist her fingers out of her hair. Swear to God, if it wasn’t her mother I would’ve decked her ass. So much screaming, my god. For nothing, cause what’s done is done. They told us we had to have it, gave all this religious shit, so I says ok, let’s do it. I’m in and I’m down to marry Koki, too. I moved into her parents’ apartment, into Koki’s room, which didn’t go over big with her father. We should be married to share a bed, he said. How stupid is that, right? He gave us crap all the time, but mostly directed at me. “You’re a piece of shit,” he would tell me. “You ain’t no man. A man takes care of his wife and kid.” And on, and on.
One day I came back from the club stoned and wasted. But he jumped all over me just cause I grabbed something to eat from the fridge. Munchies, you know? “I pay for that food and this roof over your lazy ass,” he tells me. The way he said it just ticked me off. “Fuck you,” I said, and he comes at me. Now, I’m not going to let this old motherfucker touch me. No way. So, bam! One punch to the face and he goes down. So Doña Luisa starts yelling at me. Even Koki’s screaming “why you hit him.” They both trying to resuscitate the old geezer. I walked out and slept over at Papo’s.
Things didn’t get any better after Xavie was born. Koki and me got married which made her folks happy, but we were still living at their place, eating their food and fuckin’ in their bed. We kept living the gang life. Getting stoned, partying and banging. Coming home late, high and sometimes scarred and bloodied. The old man would throw us some shade, but pretty much kept to himself. The old lady calmed down a bit, too. All that mattered to her was Xavie. She loved the baby and taking care of him. Truth is we had no clue about being parents. Yeah, Koki changed Pampers once in a while, and fed him, but her moms pretty much raised Xavie. The Reapers owned us and we were ok with that. But that was the past and I ain’t got time to cry about it.
Now, we got this situation with the kid. Besides vandalizing the school, he and his homies are roughing up other kids, too. Xavie’s got my build, and he’s even taller than me already. So, on top of being super smart, he’s learning to push his body around. Never have liked bullies and my kid being one is something I’m not ok with. Rosa says Xavie’s bored on account of being some kind of fuckin’ genius. “He’s got so much potential,” he keeps saying with that sad, constipated looking face. But I’m thinking my boy is not such a genius if he keeps doing stupid shit. And if he gets his old man really, really angry, he’s maybe not using his intelligence much.
That whole conversation with Rosa was a big waste of time. Bad enough I had to take off from work, lose money, to listen to Koki and Rosa sound like they’re on some radio talk show discussing “feelings” and “inner self” and other psycho-babble bullshit. Manny, my boss, is telling me “dude, let your old lady take care of that.” Cause I’m the shop supervisor and it’s a busy month. He don’t like anyone taking off for what he considers shit. And on the other side I’m getting Koki giving me this guilt trip: “He’s your son, T.J. We both need to get involved.” Jesus. I’m between a rock and a fuckin hard place and it’s all a no-win for me. So, I go and after spending an hour with this Rosa guy, we got nothing resolved. Basically, we were warned that disciplinary action will happen if Xavie continues. Tell me something I don’t know. Suspension, expelling him, whatever. Meanwhile, he’s listening to that hip-hop music driving all these kids loco. They all gangsta wannabes now. What a joke. They have zero clue what that shit’s like. One thing, though; I know Xavie’s acting up. But they’re also blaming him for all kinds of stuff happening at that school. A window breaks, it’s Xavie and his boys. Someone clogs the toilet with paper, that’s the Islas’ kid. That’s bullshit and I’m not down with that.
We were in a deep, dark place. Gang warfare was getting heavy. In the early days, if we’d fight, even the girls, we smeared on Vaseline and went at it with our fists, our bodies. It was always easy to get a knife or knucks but then everyone wanted a gun and they were easy to get. With guns and the drugs, it got bloody. And for the first time I was scared. You don’t understand death until you see someone you played Double Dutch with in the streets, who would come over to your house to eat and hangout—to see that person with a big hole in her head. Or so jacked up you got to take someone’s word it’s your friend in that coffin. Fear and anger drives you to crazy things. I beat up people good back then. I’m ashamed to admit it; but it’s easy to condemn unless you understood everything going down. We were not sociologists or psychologists studying youth gang violence and culture. We were living it. Kids, just kids, living in neglected working class neighborhoods, trying to survive long enough to become grownups.
It didn’t help that the media made it worse. I remember that photographer coming around, staging those fights, like the one with the knife. I saw it in the magazine and wondered how people could be so stupid not to notice us laughing in the photo. The few white folks who did thought we were laughing because we loved the violence, like we were savages, but we were laughing because the guys were going all ghetto for the camera, all for show. Those photos didn’t give the whole story, which outsiders didn’t want to hear anyway. They couldn’t understand with all the problems this was still our community, our people, our home. The majority of the people were living normal lives on the little they had while a lost minority raged war against each other. Killed each other instead of battling those bringing the war on us. That story? Never got told.
I was one of those teen soldiers, and I felt like I was going through PTSD. I sunk deeper into darkness. T.J and me, we were each other’s lifeline; we clung to each other to save ourselves from drowning. But we were really helping each other sink. The Reapers did not tolerate drugs. Many people think we were all druggies. In the beginning, because we modeled ourselves after the Lords and were really down to help our communities, no hard drugs was one of our rules. We would drink a little and smoke reefer, but nothing like smack, cocaine or the crack that came later. No stealing, either. We were supposed to have the community’s back, their respect, and we couldn’t achieve that being drug addicts and thieves. Not all the clubs followed that code; but the Reapers did.
But the only code I was following was the one that got me through the day, and that meant a little smoke and coke. When crack hit the scene, it was cheap, and the high put its claws on me. Got to the point where I couldn’t hide it from anyone who wasn’t blind. T.J. talked to the club leaders but they were all military when it came to the rules, all hooah hooah. So, they lined up, gaunt-like, and gave me my medicine. As I walked through that line they smacked, punched, and kicked me until I wasn’t anything more than a raggedy doll thrown to a corner. Six guys had to restrain T.J. He kept screaming he was going to kill them all. Papo, his best friend since childhood, our son’s godfather, stood in front of the biggest and baddest Reapers. “We got no use for junkies in the club,” he told T.J. “Leave and take your crack bitch with you.” They stripped off our denim colors. I was still bleeding and bruised on the floor when they ripped it off me. T.J. just stared at Papo, speechless. He nodded and looked away, tears in his eyes. That’s when I started crying. He picked me up from the floor and carried me out of that basement, and all I kept saying was “Sorry, baby, I’m so sorry.”
After that I knew things had to change. So, I got my GED and enrolled in Bronx Community. T.J. took a training in car mechanics and found a job at the garage. Everything was going fine, but it was still all about us. Mami was the one taking care of Xavie. She would look after him when T.J. and I were trying to get back on our feet. Then that day at the hospital. When papi called after I returned from classes, I flipped. He couldn’t tell me what was wrong, so I jumped on the bus and went to St. Barnabas Hospital. Mami was asleep on a chair next to Xavie. I walked up to him and grabbed his little fingers. He was hooked up to IVs and that’s when I lost it. I started sobbing and woke my moms up. “Carmen,” she told me, “no llores, m’hija, no llores,” and then she came over and hugged me, which only made me cry more. T.J. came a few minutes later and the doctor told us Xavie had a stomach virus and was a little dehydrated but would be fine. “Your mother saved his life by bringing him in when she did,” he said.
To see your child in bed like that brings it all home. From that moment on, T.J. and I swore to focus on Xavie. We moved into a nice apartment on the Concourse. We were both working, making decent money, and happy. We believed we were finally a real family.
Taft High? I’d describe it like a jungle, but that’d be an insult to ecosystems everywhere. At least a jungle’s organized for a purpose—here, it’s just chaos. When you go through those metal detectors any shit can go down. Niggas selling squares or even some yayo; shorties blowin’ trees in hallways. Gotta wait til someone finishes getting head to use the stall, and they don’t even have the decency to wipe skeet off the toilet seat. The worst minds of my generation wasted by too much Mortal Kombat, dragging their shitty drawers through corridors, talking back to punk-ass teachers cause they can. At the end of the day, no one’s learned a damn thing, so what’s the purpose ‘cept to warehouse us, keep our asses in seats and pour bs into our heads. I’m tired of being locked up to learn. Nas be right: an incarcerated mind dies. Man, you don’t know how tired it all makes me feel.
The teachers, they mostly don’t give a fuck. Clock in; clock out. They think we all losers; they only here for their check. That’s all. They talk to us like we’re morons; like we been deprived. Screw them all. Only Mr. Levin awright. He cares. His old man is this rich dude, head of HBO, but he’s down with us. He goes the extra mile. He’s ok with us rappin in class, breaking down rhymes as part of the curriculum. And his literary chops are keen, man. He’s feeding us Shakespeare. Boom! The Romantics, the Lost Poets. Bam! The others, they a joke. It’s stupid easy, dude. I been blowed out of my mind before taking their tests and aced them. Sometimes I wonder how these motherfuckers even get accredited, you know? I mean, they follow the book to the tee, and then if I quote something from somewhere else, that I know is right, they tell me stick to the book. The worst one is Mr. Klavan. Oh my god. That is one racist, flag-waving, chauvinistic, asshole right there. I argue with him all the time. Moms tells me to chill it with him, but I can’t cause he’s spewing that nasty, ethnocentric garbage he calls history, but it’s his-story, you know what I mean? And my homies, they need to hear our story.
The dukes be ragging on my ass for the shit going down in school. They gangbangers gone straight who think the entire world changed with them. They’re in this little rose-colored, white-picket-fence, you-can-be-whatever-you-want-to-be, American Dream bubble that I’m always bursting. Pop! There I go again, making it real for the parental units. Man, this shit out here is no better than when they were my age. It’s probably worse cause it creeps up on ya. Taft is bullshit, the teachers—except for a few like Mr. Levin—are deficient mental criminals who should be sued for intellectual malpractice, and only fools believe things be getting better. Wu Tang talked about “You best protect ya neck” and they out in Staten Island. That’s like the ghetto minor leagues.
So, I stay alert, keep my eyes on the prize, cause the prophet Tupac was right: there is death around every corner, holmes. “Me against the world,” you know what I’m saying? I’m gettin’ mine when I can—bring on the cream. School’s a fuckin’ waste of time, my daddy and momma’s dreams won’t see the light of tomorrow’s darkness, so Ima gonna rip and reck into that good light. They say I’m smart and treat me stupid. Say the world’s my oyster, but trap me in a brick box. It’s too ironic for rhymes, bro. Too tragic even for Shakespeare.
Rosa called and told us we had to talk. This time he wanted to meet on a Saturday morning at the Cosmos Diner, which Koki and I found strange. When we got there, he was sitting at a corner booth at the end of the diner. He had to tell us something he couldn’t tell us on school property.
“Right now, I’m not the VP of Taft High. I’m a friend worried about your son.”
“Just tell us,” I said. So, he broke it down. Xavie, or “X,” as he wants to be called now, may be selling drugs in the school.
He leaned toward us and whispered, “I found this in his locker.” He slipped me a Ziploc bag of weed under the table. “I’m supposed to report this, but I can’t. I just can’t. I want to give you a heads up before it gets worse.”
He had this painful look on his face, and I couldn’t look back at him. I was ashamed. Pissed. But I was also liking this guy. He’s old school. As we’re having our coffee and breakfast, he pulls up his sleeve and shows the tat of a skull with crazy red eyes wearing a German style helmet. The Savage Skulls logo. We all looked at each other, laughed and shook our heads, because our gangs had nasty fights back in the day. We called ourselves mortal enemies.
Right before he left, he said, “You know Xavie’s potential. And I know you know how this can play out. Please. Save your son.” He picked up the tab and split. Koki and I sat there for maybe another ten minutes, drinking coffee and looking out the window in silence, until her sniffling began.
When I got home, I headed straight to Xavie’s room. “Wait til he wakes up,” Koki said. But, I’m like “no, let’s deal with this shit now.” These kids act like they invented every single trick in the book. I dragged him out of bed, and he started bitching about his privacy. I overturned the mattress and found a big bag of weed and another of pills. Searched the closet and in an Air Jordan box: six hundred dollars, mostly in twenties. And a Glock.
Son of a bitch, I keep yelling, walking around the room like a wild man. Koki told me to calm down but that made me angrier. He was on the floor, sitting against a wall, half asleep, half bored. So, I picked him up by the collar, and stood him up.
“What’s this?” I asked, shoving the bags of weed and pills in front of his face.
“You know what it is,” he answered, real smart-ass.
“Why you doing this, Xavie?” Koki pipes in.
“The name’s X,” he said.
“Don’t bullshit us, Xavie. Why are you selling this shit at school?”
He wouldn’t answer. He stood there and smirked, like we’re lame idiots. So, I grabbed him by the throat. “You think this is funny, you little prick?”
“Let him go,” Koki said, so I pushed him back, hard, and he bounced off the closet door.
“Xavie, this is serious. They’re going to expel you from school, arrest you if you continue.”
My wife, the voice of reason, right? But the kid looked at his mother and said, “At least I’m not a crackhead like you were.”
I once saw Koki stomp a girl unconscious, after she had dug her nails into her face, and punched her to the ground. The demon that possessed her then came back. She jumped at Xavie and started slapping him, threw him down to the floor and I had to peel her off him. She was breathing hard and crying. “You little shit,” she said, and ran out of the room.
My son was staring at me like he we’re about to fight to the finish. But I shook my head and started toward the door.
“Yeah, best get out of my fuckin’ room, old man.”
I turned around, took the Glock from under my belt and tee. Pinned him against the wall, one forearm against his neck, the gun pressed hard on his forehead.
“Is this want you want, huh? ‘Cause this is how’s it going down for you.”
He didn’t know I emptied the magazine. But he stood there, eyes locked on mine.
“Go ahead, press the trigger, nigga. It’s always the good ones gotta die.”
I looked into his eyes. The same ones I used to look at when he was a baby. Back then they’d be all over my face, and he would smile once he knew it was daddy. Now, I couldn’t find anything there, not even anger. He was looking through me to some place I could never see, wouldn’t want to see. So, I backed away.
Koki was in bed, crying. I sat by her, squeezed her shoulder, stroked her back. Just when we were about to call it a night, Xavie turned on the stereo and started playing his music loud.
My parents exiled me to paradise. Paradise, that’s what they think. That was the big idea for saving me. Send the kid down to Puerto Rico. Instant redemption for everyone. Cause in their minds, everything’s awright with the island. What can be wrong where there’s palm trees, sunshine and jibaros. ‘Cept palm trees drop coconuts on your head, dude. This brutal tropical sun will turn your skin into cancer bait, and the jibaros are rude hicks who don’t give two fucks for Nuyoricans like me. Nah, man, this is no paradise; ain’t no gangsta paradise, that’s for sure. A pastoral nightmare is what it is. The flip side of the American Dream. And that’s what the dukes done sentenced me to.
Yeah, I was slinging—so what? Making serious money, too, til the old man flipped out. Nasty scene with moms. Didn’t mean it the way she took it. But it’s the truth; better to sell than use the shit. I mean it’s too pragmatic for the parental units to grasp. Dude, I was only dealing weed, X, and bennies, no big deal. Stacking Benjamins for college. But they went all ape shit on me. Now I’m stuck in this island prison, sentenced to heavy mental labor trying to figure out these island niggers. It ain’t easy, let me tell you, trying to understand this colonial bullshit. The colonized mind is some fucked up shit, man. The folks think it’s better here? That’s a joke. The school I go to is even worse than Taft High if you can imagine. I can pass the tests blindfolded. Shit, I can probably teach the class. I have to correct the English teacher all the time. They’re doing math I was doing two grades ago. It’s sad. You should see the school—right out of Little House on the Prairie, I swear. Sure feels like the frontier out here.
I’m in the middle of nowhere, in an island going nowhere stuck in the middle of nowhere. Sucks big time, dude. Las Marias. That’s the name of the town. Who the fuck were the Marias? Who cares? This is my grandparents’ hometown, so the official caregivers send me down here. The abuelos decided to move to this shithole ‘cause the Bronx was a jungle. Now, they’re like in a real jungle. The irony never ends with these Ricans, I swear. I love abuela. I’d give my left arm and kidney for her, I would. If I make it big rappin’ gonna buy her a big house on the biggest mountain in PR. I help her out around the house, too. Going to the supermarket with her, cutting the gargantuan weeds around the house. But, man, this is a sorry-ass, mountaintop solitary, one road-get-me-the-fuck-out-of-here, raggedy, shoot-me-now-before-I-die-of-boredom town. I’d say it’s god forsaken but that would require a Supreme Being giving a fuck about this place enough to know it exists and to then say fuck it. Maybe, that’s the idea: lobotomize my frontal lobe with boredom. Numb me into submission.
But a playa’s gotta play, bro. I spend my tropical days and nights just chilling with a few other Nuyorican kids who are into rap like me. The exiled like me with no home to call our own but a song to sing. The abuelos too tired to bother. They’ve been sucked into that vortex of stupidity called the idiot box. So, me and my crew hang, we blow a little, break down our lines to the waves on the beach or from the cordillera to the wind. We try to cop some señorita’s drawers. Mainly, we pass the time hitching rides. We see a nice ride we like and we hitch it. Who knew they be Ricans with enough cream to buy a Lexus or a BMW? We nationalize it in the name of the Nuyorican National Army. Ride around til we tire of it, then torch that motherfucker. Dump it over a hill; let that shit roll, trailing smoke and fire all the way down. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.
You think I’m some type of monster? Judge me all you want, cause I don’t give a fuck. The world gave up on me a long time ago, so why should I care about what it thinks of me? You don’t hurt my hurt; you don’t shit my shit. From where I stand, the world’s fucked up beyond repair. Why should I think it cares?
Yeah, you can take the kid out of the ghetto, motherfucker. But you can’t take the ghetto out of the kid. Ghetto for life, son.
They had him at the morgue in Mayaguez. T.J. and I flew into San Juan on a rainy weekend. Had to rent a car and drive hours to the west coast. Papi called to give us the news. It was hard to understand him because Mami was crying hysterically in the background. We were supposed to identify the body. When they unzipped the bag, it took us a minute. His body was bruised; his face swollen and partly burned. I looked for scars and beauty marks; those that weren’t burned. I spotted the one shaped like a kidney bean by his left hip. It was our Xavie.
But we already knew. I felt it, anyway. Even when we decided to send him down to PR. He was a gift that we didn’t deserve; that we never should have gotten. He was better off with my mother. The island was quiet and it would settle him down. That’s what we thought. When they told us he stole the car, it was the first time we heard. Mami would tell me he liked to party and hang out with his friend, but she didn’t know what was going on either. And he never wanted to talk to us over the phone. He told us the day we put him on the plane that we were dead to him. Every rebellious kid says things like that growing up. He’ll mature and one day thank us, I thought. But I couldn’t help feeling, coming home from the airport, that I might never see him again.
We flew his body back home. Because we didn’t have a plot, we decided to cremate him. One of his friends suggested a little ceremony in Crotona Park. That’s what we did. Invited family and friends to scatter some of his ashes near the park’s amphitheater, where he once performed. Some of his friends rapped in his honor; other people came up and said sweet things about him. How he was a loyal friend; how he would give you his last dollar, the shirt off his back. T.J. whispered, “He was better to friends than his own parents.”
T.J. wants to try again. Have another child. “We’re still young,” he says. But I feel old, like I’ve dried up inside, every part of me. I don’t think I have another kid in me. Maybe God doesn’t want to give me another chance. T.J.’s too dumb to notice I haven’t been using anything for years. Something is wrong, but maybe it’s really right.
It’s been only a few weeks since we said goodbye to Xavie, but I can’t really see him. I look at photos when he was a baby, a toddler, his crazy teen years. And I can’t see him. It’s like he was always a mirage. I used to look at him and think he wasn’t really our son. They switched him at birth, I used to tell T.J. Somewhere, there’s some dumb kid living with parents—doctors or lawyers, scientists—who are wondering what went wrong. And we killed their kid.
Published in Hayden Ferry Review, Issue #60.