I sit hugging my knees against a brick wall in an alley, hidden by the shadows of two crumbling buildings. The pills in my pocket could mask the feeling for a little while at least, but I’m afraid it’ll get worse. A flickering street lamp worn away by the negligence of a neighborhood that doesn’t care creates long shadows from the garbage that lines this alley. The shadows reach for me. In utter desperation, I stand, heels against the wall, trapped with nowhere to go. In defeat, slouched and bug-eyed like a losing boxer, I think about the pressure I face to succeed, and the shadow claws its way up my leg onto my chest. Just as it’s about to clamp on my neck, I break free from its grip. I need to get home. Pills fall from my pocket and scatter all over the street. I bought them after school, hoping they would give me the energy to guide me on my journey home.
I dash out of the alley and into the avenue under the train tracks above, and the night’s breeze makes my clothes come alive. Pressed on my chest my tank top makes a flapping effort to break free behind me. My mom has always put these tank tops on me and when they’re fresh out of the package they’re skin tight and don’t move an inch even while playing basketball. At the park we called them ghetto Under Armour. But for me, they just remind me of how protective my mom is.
She’d say in her Dominican accent, “Who do you think you are walking around the house without a shirt on?”
I’d say, “Ma, but it’s just me and you here.”
Her stare sent goosebumps down my back that made me rush into my drawer for a fresh one. The one I’m wearing now is far from fresh. It’s stained by the cold sweats of anxiety and sags off my shoulders. My mother would cry into prayers at the mention of her baby taking any type of pills if they weren’t Tylenol or Advil. As I’ve grown older I appreciate how much she cares for me. Even though it can get annoying, having a parent there for you is better than not having any at all.
My shoes feel like they’re running ahead of me. I wear them untied just like my brother did when they were his. He’s in college and will soon graduate to work a meaningless office job where it won’t make a difference whether he’s there or not. I will be forced to go to college, too, after this final year of high school. Although I don’t know what I want to do with my life, and can hardly imagine a future, the pressures to follow in his footsteps haunt me tirelessly. I’d be an idiot if I said I didn’t want to succeed.
Summer’s suffocating heat has had the best of me this year. It’s mid-September and there hasn’t been any rain for what seems like a month now. The only thing that’s kept the streets cool is the fire hydrants’ bland imitation. Usually, a fight breaks out on a weekly basis. Coming home from school I’d sometimes see two humans-turned-hounds scuffle. I’d stop, clench my lunch box with one hand and halt my rolling Spider-Man book bag with the other. My eyes wide open, I watched those fascinating primal encounters as if they were new episodes of my favorite television show. After a season or two, the conflicts presented me with the two options I battle with today: to remain suppressed by the troubling circumstance of living in the inner city or to cultivate my potential and make it out.
Metal grinding metal brings me back. The train adds to the noises of the neighborhood that sometimes go unheard. Babies crying from the loudness of house parties and police sirens’ frequent passing, letting each block know they’re late to the scene, yet again. For a second, the train and I travel at the same speed before my lungs desperately beg for air. At almost five stories high, held up by steel pillars on either side of the avenue for what seems like every few steps, the train’s speed breaks through the few stars that shine in the night sky. It continues its path towards the city, while I hunch over to catch my breath.
The muddy puddle between my feet formed by the steady drops of rust-infused water from the tracks above reflects my father’s features, the coarse hair, the thick eyebrows. The older I get the more I look like the last time I saw him. I can’t remember much, but my 6-year-old memory always replays him screaming at my mom before leaving the apartment and never coming back. I stomp on the muddy puddle destroying the image. The dirt doesn’t make a difference to my already filthy shoes.
From the corner of the street, Tony and the rest of the drug dealers call out for me,
“Ay, little man, you good?”
The tears only allow a shivering “yeah” to come out. Tony went to high school with my older brother and because we come from the same neighborhood, he tends to show a caring side to me. He and my brother took Adderall to study and stay focused in school. Tony was always anxious. He had ADHD, and that was how he got his pills. He comes toward me followed by one of his goons. Before they leave their post, they look both ways as if about to cross a busy street and pull up their baggy pants initiating their first steps. They may have had heartfelt concerns and probably thought I was tripping off of the pills that scattered in the alley, the ones they sold me earlier, but I didn’t want to stay to tell them I hadn’t taken them yet, so I run.
I stop after three blocks to breathe again. This time I rest on the sidewalk between two street lamps where the lights pucker their lips in an attempt to kiss but can’t manage to reach. In between them, I lean on a wall that seems to sink in like a leather sofa. I don’t want anyone to notice me. The dim lighting and the wall provide me with the cover and comfort I need to remain in peace.
I think about how if I were to follow my stereotypes, I’d end up similar to Tony, selling weed and occasionally pills like the Adderall he had sold me earlier, to maintain a crappy apartment and worse, to assist a “stress manufacturer,” what he calls the mother of his child.
Instead, I battle every day to be different by going to school, keeping my grades up, and staying out of trouble, but it feels like everything around me eats away at itself. Where I’m from people don’t aspire to improve anything or to leave. Most of the time I want to leave and never look back, but something in me always makes me look over my shoulder. This meltdown could’ve happened any other day, but today the counselors at school flooded my ears, telling me about college applications. They mentioned how recommendation letters and my community service as a helper at the elementary school could make me stand out from all of the other 17-year-olds who are just trying to hold on to childhood. But I’m trying to hold on too. I enjoy helping those little kids with their math worksheets and looking after them while they run around carelessly in the playground. I don’t do it to impress the college admissions office that will probably start the review of my application by saying, “Wow, another Garcia?” I do it because I am capable of managing them. It’s a part of my life where I feel in control. I’ve been an active volcano waiting to erupt for as long as I can remember – the heat just hasn’t been this high. It takes a toll on a person to conceal such pressures, not only those that tell me what not to be, but also the ghostly whispers of my family, friends, and Mom saying, “You’re the one out of all of us who will make a difference.”
I feel myself sinking further into the wall. I look up and try to see both the world I’m being pulled into and also the familiar, and I surrender. I close my eyes and let myself fall in. I glimpse the vibrant, shining colors under the dim street lamps before I close my eyes. I am tugged into this masterpiece, and it feels good to disappear into it, graffiti painted where no one can see it. Protected in this womb, my phone rings and I answer.
Mom says, “Hey are you home? I’m leaving work now.”
I tell her, “Yeah, just watching TV.”
I come back to my senses, panic, and push myself off the wall and start speed-walking home. So she won’t notice the outside noise, I cup the phone with my hand. I rush the conversation, “Okay Mom, I’ll see you soon… the commercials are done… the show is coming back on … see you in a bit.” Luckily, she buys it and hangs up.
She works from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. in her office and then from 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. teaching day care providers. I’m alone a lot, and I usually keep myself occupied with homework or video games, but tonight, no distraction can divert me from facing my truth. Before turning the corner towards my block, I look back at the graffiti that consumed me. In bold 3D letters, it says THE BRONX. As if it has a spotlight on it, I see all of its details. The kids of all different ethnicities surrounding the B and the R, the dominoes and maracas that made up the O and the wildness of the beautiful flowers turned into cable lines at the roots with hanging shoes that were once the flowers’ petals around the N and the X. A tear runs down my cheek as I turn my back to it and make my way home.
I turn on the TV and go into the shower to clean myself up before my mom arrives. In the shower, I hear her open the apartment door and whistle for me. I whistle back from the bathroom to let her know I’m home. It’s this thing we grew accustomed to doing because when I was little, we played hide and seek, and I would whistle to help her find me.
I come out of the shower a few minutes later and there she is in the kitchen already making dinner for us. Before she notices me, I stand and admire all the tiny details no other man in her life has been capable of acknowledging. The way she moves is so graceful yet contains so much power. In her navy blue suit, holding her phone against her ear with her shoulder, she goes from one side of the kitchen to the other, never dropping a plate or making a spill. Her brown hair tied up in a ponytail swings wildly when she sees me standing in the hallway. The birthmark between her nose and lips is one of the imperfections that make her perfect.
She says, “Don’t do that, you scared me.”
I tell her, “I’m sorry Mom, it’s just been a long day.”
As she glides over towards me, she finishes her conversation with a student who needs extra help to pass her class and hugs me tight. Muffled by my neck, it seems like I’m the one hugging her shorter frame.
She says, “I will never let anything happen to you.”
We eat a dinner of sweet plantains, perfectly boiled, and mashed with butter which she serves with fried salami and cheese, and watch her favorite novela on TV. When the show finishes, she says, “Let’s clean up so we can go to bed. You can’t miss the train for school tomorrow morning or you’ll be late again.”
Because of her I hold myself up to a certain standard and she reminds me whenever I slip up. It has only been a couple of years since she stopped calling me from her office every day at 5 p.m. to tell me to start my homework. When I was younger, I’d wait till later, distracting myself with cartoons and cereal, and when she would find me with pencil in hand hunched over a math worksheet at 9:30 p.m. her words cut sharper than anything in the world: “I cannot believe you waited till now to do what you were supposed to! How could you be so irresponsible?”
To prevent any of that, once its 5 p.m. it’s always homework time.
In my room, I look out my window into the night. The city’s glow is cast over my neighborhood masking its details by making it nothing more than a silhouette. My heart begins to beat faster. Cold sweat comes out of my pores. I don’t see when she comes in, but I feel her aura. She lies down with me and I tell her how I’ve been feeling. She says, “The pressure is on you because we know you can handle it. The question is do you believe you can handle it?”
The night suddenly becomes day. I must have fallen asleep. The smell of eggs creeps under my door and into my stomach. I get up and walk towards the kitchen to find her making my plate. Sometimes I wonder if she’s superhuman, and other days I wonder if I can ever be like her.