When your cousin, Vanessa, doesn’t show up to the AA meeting in Booker T. Community Center at the time she said she would meet you, you will be calm. At first. You won’t start praying. No, not yet. Because the meeting hasn’t started yet. There will be 15-20 people sitting down talking to each other. You will stand in the back alone, leaning against the snack table, drinking bad coffee and waiting for her to show up. You will tell yourself that she operates in a different time frame than other normal people. You will imagine Vanessa rushing in like a breeze, her long braids making a soft wisp sound in the air, giving a sweet apologetic smile to the room as she walks to sit in the front. This comforts you. Her spontaneity is predictable to you because you know her better than anyone else. Your Tatie Gina and Tonton Robert took you aside last weekend after Vanessa announced she would go back to AA. “Nou konte sou w pou w fe li ale,” they said in a hushed tone. They were kind, but their eyes said you had no choice in the matter. Tatie has soft anxious eyes and weariness has formed dark circles around Tonton’s eyes. They are who your parents would have been if your father was alive and your mother had come to America with you. Sometimes you wish that their concern was directed towards you, that you were their wayward daughter and Vanessa was the straight-laced niece who was responsible for making sure you stayed sober. But you’re not. And she’s not. So you said yes, you’ll make sure she makes it. And you forgave them when they smiled sweetly and mistook “you’re good a kid” for “I love you.”
At this point, someone at the meeting will approach the table for a refill while carrying a cup that is noticeably still half full. Who would pretend to want any more of that god awful coffee? Experience will tell you that this determined individual is usually a sponsor or an AA veteran. As this AA vet/sponsor fills his/her cup, slowly (as slow as possible without being obvious), he/she will make an obligatory joke. Chuckle, this will make him/her feel comfortable. You will be asked if this is your first time. This is like being asked your major in college. It’s part of the script. You’ll say yes, because it is easier to explain and you don’t really want to spend any more time talking. You try to appear nervous when you say it. AA vets and sponsors walk on eggshells around new members; they are afraid to scare them away. If he is a man, he won’t linger. If he does, he is trying to come on to you and the nervous act won’t work. Make your answers clip, border on abrasive. If that doesn’t work, walk away. Go outside even though it is cold. In the beginning of spring, after it rains in Tampa, there is usually a day or two of cold before the humidity and heat return. Hug your jacket closer, look at the street and hope to see Vanessa’s yellow Volkswagen car speeding towards you.
If she is a woman, she will linger, but she will not push. She will lean her back against the table in silence. You will wonder if it is because she has learned the value of silence and is offering it to you. When she walks back to her seat, with her full cup of coffee, she’ll smile at you as if you are someone she used to know. A dead loved one, maybe. Or a younger version of herself. She seems stable; this will comfort you. Vanessa used to sneak alcohol in high school, but it wasn’t until college that she started drinking heavily. Nessa’s still young, though, you think. She has time to change.
You’ll still be standing in the back when someone (probably the AA vet/sponsor who approached you) stands in front and invites everyone to sit down. Your phone will ring. It will be Tatie Gina. Do not pick up the phone, she’ll be able to smell your guilt. Put your phone on vibrate and text her instead: ‘Hey, Tatie, the meeting is just starting and Vanessa is sitting right next to me.’ She won’t text back, because she doesn’t know how but you’ll know she receives it when your phone stops vibrating. Text Vanessa immediately after: ‘Where are you, cuz?’ Do not expect her to text back immediately. She never does.
Go sit down, even though it is the last thing you want to do. Sit in the back. If there is no seat on the edge of either side of the row, settle for the middle. Make sure to save a spot for Vanessa, like you always did on the school bus in elementary school, middle school and high school.
Stay calm. While the AA vet up front is talking about the importance of anonymity, start rubbing your right earlobe. It does nothing to soothe you, but it will remind you of your mother. How she used to kiss you behind your right ear. How, as a kid, you would press your nose into her collarbone as you hugged her; she would smell like rain, sweat and dust. When you think of Haiti, you think of her smell. She calls you once a week to pray with you. Last night, you told her you got laid off from another temp job. She sighed, Mwen gen espwa ke Jezu ap fe yon bagay mèvéyé nan la vi w. “I have hope that Jesus will do something wonderful in your life.” You didn’t believe her half as much as you usually do. But it sure sounded nice. Espwa. Hope sounds more beautiful in Creole.
You try to conjure your father’s smell. But, you don’t remember it. You want to believe that he would have smelled like your Uncle Robert, whose clothes always smell like sweet cologne, whose hands smell like wood, whose breath smells like coffee and mint. They were one year apart and looked like identical twins. So it’s easy enough to pretend. Keep rubbing your earlobe.
Someone stands up to say the Serenity prayer. The whole group joins in unison: God, grant me the serenity (you’ll imagine Vanessa buying some booze at the store) to accept the things I cannot change, (drunkenly pressing herself against a stranger) the courage to change the things I can, (Vanessa driving fast, so fast she is making zig-zags) and the wisdom to know the difference.
The coffee in your hand will start shaking. It will feel like there is a stampede of elephants marching in your belly. Put the coffee down on the ground or you will spill it on your jeans. Take a moment to pray. Jesus, please protect her wherever she is and bring her here safely. The images will slowly fade, but your heart will continue pounding.
When they ask for first-time visitors, look down and hope no one notices you. While various people stand up and read various passages about sobriety, your feet will be tapping furiously. You’ll periodically look at your wristwatch, look towards the entrance, and check your text messages. Not necessarily in that order. They will introduce a speaker named Luís.
The room will be silent, save some coughing and seat-shifting. He will emerge from somewhere in the middle of the room. You’ll be staring at the back of his head, as he walks slowly to the front. Check your watch again.
When he reaches the front, he will stand for a moment, with his back still to the group. You’ll barely contain an exasperated sigh. His shoulders will lift and fall as if he is gathering himself. Then he will turn towards the group.
You will recognize him immediately.
“Hi, my name is Luís, and I’ve been sober for four years.”
Luís, the blue-eyed Mexican.
During freshman year of high school, Vanessa used to bring him to your place to hang out. Luís, the blue-eyed Mexican. You all went to Palmetto High School together. He lived in the same low-income apartment complex as you, but you never talked to him until Vanessa (who lived in a more upscale neighborhood) brought him to your place. You would all watch TV for a while, eat some leftovers from your grandma’s fridge, then, Vanessa and Luís would go into your room. They’d come back half an hour later, with bright eyes and wet lips. They’d try to reestablish the light mood for a little bit before they left one at a time. You all hung out together for only a couple of months, but you remember him. Luís, the blue-eyed Mexican. It’s so strange that he would end up in Tampa, ten years later. In the same city as you and Vanessa.
Luís starts talking about his father. Oh yes, you remember that, too. Everyone at Red Oaks Apartment knew that his white dad was a big drunk. The man could be found sleeping in a slide at the park mid-afternoon or could be heard at night swerving around the corner, driving endlessly around the apartment complex until someone (usually a new neighbor threatened to call the police).
Feel guilty when you are not surprised that Luís is now a recovering alcoholic.
He will seem different now. It’s not just his face; he wears a trim beard now (when you knew him he sported a thin goatee). Or his eyes, which are now a deeper but quieter blue. Or his clothes; he has ditched the tank top and basketball shorts for sport coat and jeans. Or even his voice, which now seems to come from deep in the back of his throat. No, that’s not it. There is something about him, something intangible that draws you.
Seeing him will remind you of the years you lived with your grandmother in Red Oaks. Sometimes at night, when Granny worked the night shift or was sleeping in her room, you would follow the movements of the young couple upstairs, whose apartment was identical to yours. You imagined you were the wife. You imagined your belly swollen with life, shoulders drooping and ankles weary from a long day. You followed her heavy steps to the kitchen and washed dishes with her. You and she became one, a “we.” We brushed our teeth in the bathroom. In the living room, we watched TV (we liked the celebrity specials on TV Guide). After a while, we retired to bed, and fell asleep only after we heard our husband’s footsteps enter the apartment and stop at the bedroom.
You will sigh. (This memory will visit you again, in your mid-thirties. It’ll come to you as you are getting an ultrasound for your first child, when your husband kisses your cheek and says, ‘That is us in there, babe.’ And you’ll respond with a different kind of sigh.) The person nearest you will smile and nod, misunderstanding your sigh. If she is a woman, she’ll feel the need to whisper, “He’s a good speaker, huh?” Nod. Look at the time on your cell phone. For some reason this is the exact moment you will know that Vanessa is not coming. Would it be rude to leave now? Probably. Stay. Hold on to the frail hope that Vanessa will change her mind and come at the very end just as everyone is leaving. Imagine her smiling and saying, “Well, I said I’d come, didn’t I?”
Turn your attention back to Luís. “Anger was something that was always there, you know,” he is saying. “Humming just underneath my skin. I didn’t know what to do with it.”
You learn a lot about him in the next forty-five minutes. You didn’t know his dad used to beat his mum. Or that he would lock the door and scratch poems on his walls. Or that he was afraid to come home at night. That he would feel guilty every time he left his mum alone in the apartment.
He shares a humorous anecdote about running away from police. Everyone laughs. He gives a warm self-deprecating smile. You’ll remember a time that you saw him, long after he and Vanessa stopped hanging out. It was at a soccer game at the Lincoln Soccer Field in Palmetto. All the Haitians, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans were there, including most of the neighborhood.
As usual, something went awry. One of the Mexican refs had called the police because some drunk twenty-something Haitian guy kept stumbling in the field and he threatened the ref, when the ref told him to leave. When they heard the cops were coming, some of the underage guys jetted out of there. Luís was one of the guys you saw running. He glanced at you as he jogged past, beer in one hand while holding on to his falling basketball shorts with the other. You had immediately recognized his blue eyes.
You’ll be at edge of your seat when he talks about standing on the Skyway Bridge at midnight. “I can’t believe I walked so far just to go kill myself on the bridge. Never underestimate the determination of a suicidal drunk, huh?” he chuckles wryly. Scattered laughter in the group. “I remember exactly the moment I decided to jump. How windy it was, the sound the cars made as they raced past me. But after that I honestly don’t know what happened. All I know is I woke up the next morning on—you know that area, right before you get the bridge where people fish and stuff?” The crowd nods. “That’s where I woke up, on the grass. I don’t know how I got there. I know that I was definitively too drunk and depressed to change my mind. Maybe, someone carried me down or something. It didn’t matter how it happened. When I woke up and saw I was still alive, I was so overwhelmed with this feeling that my life was worth something to somebody, you know. I realized,” he shakes his head in wonder. “Man, Jesus must really love me. ’Cause he saved me from myself.”
You lift an eyebrow when he says Jesus instead of God or “higher power.” (AA speakers usually try to steer away from specifically talking about religion.)
His path to recovery will enthrall you. If Luís, who came from a tumultuous childhood can achieve sobriety, you think, then surely Vanessa, with loving parents and successful siblings, can too.
“I can’t explain it. It’s like His love just illuminates the darkest corners of me. And—” he exhales and looks down, “He’s so patient with me. It’s such a freedom to know that I’m not where I’m supposed to be. No, not yet. But at least—” he looks up, his eyes scanning every face. You shift uncomfortably when his eyes land on you briefly. “At least I’m not where I used to be.” He continues, “I still struggle sometimes, and my heart still needs some work but I’ve reached a point in my life where I can say, you know what? I will make it.”
When he is done talking, you will leave before they say the Serenity prayer again, throwing away your coffee on the way out.
Outside, you watch the street, remembering the day Luís stopped coming over with Vanessa. “Where’s Luís?” you had asked in between TV commercials. She shrugged, smacking gum in her mouth.
“Oh. You guys don’t—” You had tried to find a word to describe their relationship.
She shook her head. “Nah. But that’s life. When it’s time, it’s time.” She seemed so much older than the two months gap between you. You nodded even though you didn’t understand. At the time, teenage hormones was like a disease to you—you knew about it, and seen some people catch it, but you were immune to it and hoping to stay that way. Still, you took a mental note of everything Vanessa told you about her experiences.
She continued, “You just collide hard enough for it to feel good, you know, and when it’s time for you to leave …” She blew a big pink bubble, then sucked the air out of it with one sharp inhale. You watched transfixed, as she dragged the deflated pink mass into her mouth. “You just hope they don’t take too much outta you so you can give some to the next guy.”
You nodded again. She turned back to the TV. Friends was on. You both watched as Monica and Chandler tried to keep their affair from Joey. When she left, you wrote what she said in your journal. Even now, you can’t figure out what was sadder; what she said or the dispassionate way she said it. Even now, that’s the way Vanessa continues to view relationships.
A vibration in your purse will interrupt your thoughts. Tatie Gina. She’ll want to know how the meeting went. Don’t pick up. Text another lie. People will start to come out of the AA meeting. Walk quickly to the parking lot, before some enthusiastic member catches up with you. You’ll feel someone behind you. From your peripherals you’ll see Luís. Keep walking like you haven’t seen him and hope he is not parked next to you. Oh, God, he is but thankfully, on the right side of your car, the passenger side. You’ll try to avoid his eyes as you search in your purse for the keys to your outmoded grey Corolla.
He will clear his throat. Ignore it. He will say, Marlena. You’ll look up. He’ll be leaning against the driver side of his car. How does he remember your name? Marlena. You like the way it sounds like the name of a flower coming from his lips. Marlena. What beautiful name, a wholesome name. It should belong to someone else. Someone whose grey Corolla doesn’t rumble as she drives. Who isn’t wasting their Poli Sci degree, drifting from one temp job to another. Whose wardrobe consists of more than just gradations of black and white. Who hasn’t been living in the same apartment since college graduation, with no roommates, except the roaches.
You’ll find yourself inexplicably out of breath. Smile, have polite chit chat. Make exclamations like: “Oh yeah, I thought you looked familiar,” “Yes, I remember that” and “Man, our neighborhood was wild.” Then there’ll be silence. Try to look anywhere else but his blue eyes. You’ll hear his keys jingling.
“How’s your—uh, your cousin?” he’ll ask.
He squints his eyes as if unsure of the name, “Uh, yeah.”
For some reason you simply cannot understand, you will tell him the truth. “I’m going to look for her,” you finish. He will offer to help you search. Decline his offer. Open your car door. He will suggest taking your car, “if that makes you feel more comfortable.” You’ll shake your head firmly. He will say, “I promise I’m not a serial killer. Look,” he’ll take out his wallet, “it even says so on my driver’s license.” You’ll surprise yourself by laughing. But, you’ll get into your car. He will come to the front passenger window, lean in and say, “It’s nighttime and it’s dangerous for you to be wandering alone looking for your cousin in bars and clubs.” He’ll be chewing on his bottom lip, frowning. He seems sincere. “Get in,” you’ll find yourself saying. He’ll say hold on, get something out of his car and stuff it the pocket of his sport jacket.
You’ll pass by Vanessa’s apartment. Her yellow Volkswagen won’t be there. You’ll go to every bar and club you know. Luís will be by your side, silent as a bodyguard, as you speak to bartenders and push past sweaty clubbers. If he thinks a bar was “too shady” he will not let you out of the car. Your heart will drop every time Luís comes out, grimly shaking his head. In between locations, he will try to lighten the mood. If he makes a joke, laugh. It will make him feel more comfortable. If he asks you questions about yourself, answer briefly. You live in Tampa? Yes. How long? Six years. You ever go back to Palmetto? Sometimes. Do you ever say more than two words at a time? (Smile) Yes. Somewhere between Ybor city and the SO-HO district, you’ll learn about how he became a licensed contractor, that country music makes his ears bleed, and he collects Spider-man paraphernalia.
“… ties, underwear, pens, you name it.” “At your age?”
“What you mean, at my age?”
“Uh-huh, that’s right,” he lifts one eye-brow. “Don’t insult the man who stood between you and Mr. I-got-a-little-present-for-you-in-my-pants.”
Mid-laugh you’ll think of Vanessa and stop. Who’s standing between her and the drunken creeps?
When PM turns to AM, drive back to the community center. He will offer his apologies. Before he gets out of the car, he pulls out some pamphlets out of his sport jacket and hands them to you. “AA stuff. For when you find her.”
“Oh, thanks,” you stare at them.
He leans in close (he smells faintly like lavender and citrus) and lightly taps one of the pamphlets in your hands. “That one is Al-Anon. It’s a group kinda like AA but for people who have loved ones who are alcoholics.” He points to an address. “That’s uh, the one I go to, it meets on Monday nights.”
Keep your eyes down at the pamphlets as he talks, because he is so close that if you lift your head slightly, you’ll inhale his breaths. Your second thanks will sound more like an exhale than a word. He lingers for a moment before moving away. You’ll hear a faint vibration in the background. It’ll seem so far away.
An uncomfortable silence falls between you. Watch his hands. One is tapping on his thigh, the other scratching his chest. (Later, you’ll find out he has three cigarette burns on his left pectoral. He scratches it when he is anxious, nervous or unsure of himself. When you’re married, you’ll learn to soothe him by kissing the left side of his chest as you hug him.)
You look up and find him watching you. The street light will do wonders to his blue eyes. You will want to touch him or be touched by him. The desire will gut you. But don’t give in. It’s not the time for that. You’re not ready. Flex your hand on the wheel, look straight ahead and say good night.
The car door opens and closes. You’ll hear the vibration again. You’ll think it must be the sound of your heart rattling your ribcage.
“Marlena.” He bends his head to leaning into the window. “You and her. You’ll both be okay.” He continues to absently scratch his chest as he walks away.
Ten years ago, and couple of days after the soccer game fiasco, he came around your grandma’s apartment.
“Vanessa’s not here,” you said. By the time, it had been over a year since he had hung out with Vanessa.
“Oh, ok.” But he still stood there, in his typical tank top and loose basketball shorts, scratching his chest. You invited him in.
He walked in. You closed the door and leaned against it, unsure of your next move. You felt kinda awkward because Vanessa was your mediator. You remembered that he mentioned Pablo Neruda once. “You, uh, still read Neruda?” You thought saying his name like that would make you seem cool. Like you and Neruda were homies or something.
“Yeah, that man just knows how to write,” he stood in the small dining area, looking around the apartment like it was his first time. “You ever read a poet who just knows exactly how to say what’s in your heart? Pablo does that for me.” His blue eyes looked back at you intensely.
“Mmh, yeah, I know what you mean.” You didn’t, of course. (On your wedding night, as you lay next to him for the first time, you will ask him which poem he was thinking about that day. “Juegas todos los dias con la luz de universe,” he’ll begin. Then he will touch you in such a way that you will memorize the lines of the poem by the places on your skin his hands caress.)
Now, you watch Luís walk to the Booker T. Community Center parking lot. He looks back and waves at you before he gets in his car. You drive away, the memory still lingering…
“Where’s your parents?” He had asked, that day ten years ago.
“They’re not here. I live with my grandma.”
“Well, Vanessa and my grandma.” You pressed your back into the door shifting your weight. “She’s doing good, you know,” you added. “Who?”
“Vanessa. My cousin and your uh—” “Oh, yeah.”
“Yeah, yeah, she’s good people.” He scratched his goatee, like he was trying to rub some crumbs off. He looked around the living room again, before his eyes landed back on you. Now that you know his life story, you wonder what was going through his mind that day. The blue in his eyes was so soft, it was almost grey. He exhaled. “Well, I’m about to jet. Going to play basketball with my boys.” He leaned forward towards the door like he’s about to leave.
“Wait. You want something to drink?”
“Yeah.” His voice came out loud. He cleared his throat and scratched his chest. “Sure,” he said, real smooth and low. You can almost feel the word slide out of his lips.
You went to the fridge; there was only one can of Sprite left. Granny liked her Sprite after a long day. You took it anyway. Later, when she came home, you told her that you drank it by accident. He took it from you, but didn’t open it. It perspired on his fingers. He stood at the door but didn’t move. Was he was waiting for you to lead him out? You went to the door. Right before you opened it, you realized he was inches from you. You could feel his warm breath on your neck, your heart beating like it wanted to break out of your chest. You grip the wheel, now, as you remember how it felt. You didn’t turn around. You opened the door really wide. He walked out from behind you, slowly. So slow, you could feel his movements. He looked at you once before he disappeared past the stairs. You thought about stepping out to see him walk away but you didn’t. You went inside and turned on the TV. Malcolm in the Middle was on. You flopped down on the couch. While Lois yelled at Francis, your heartbeat slowly got back to normal.
It’s the same feeling. Ten years later. The same bone-shattering, breath-constricting tremor. Ten years later. And he’s different now, so different. He said in his speech, “It’s like His love just illuminates the darkest corners of me.” You wonder how it would feel to be illuminated by God’s love. Not just to know Him through your mum’s faith, but to know Him intimately. As you drive, meditate on Luís’ words. Let their echoes vibrate through you: You’ll both be okay. Okay. You and her, okay. His love illuminates the darkest corners. His love illuminates. Love illuminates…
When you arrive in front of your apartment, the parking lot is really dark. The security light on your apartment building is broken. Stay in the car for a moment. Slump your back into the car seat. Your bones feel heavy and your body is too tired to carry them. You will want to pray, but will find no words. His love illuminates the darkest corners…You’ll get out of the car slowly, like you are marching to your execution. You wonder how you’ll be able to sleep without knowing where Vanessa is. You enter your apartment, imagining the kind of lie you will have to tell your aunt the next morning. The kitchen light will be on. His love illuminates. You place the pamphlets Luís gave you on your kitchen counter and pour some Frosted Flakes into a bowl of milk.
First time Nessa told you about it, was sophomore year at USF. She had just finished throwing up. She was laughing, head over the toilet bowl. Her make-up smeared. “Shh… my dorm mates will hear you,” you whispered, pulling her braids into a ponytail. She looked up to you and crooked her index finger.
“Psst, Lenie I gotta to tell you something.”
“Tell me tomorrow, Nessa, it’s late. I was sleeping when you got here.”
You help her walk to your dorm room. She crawled into your bed.
“No, no take the pukey dress off, Nessa. Here’s a PJ.”
She didn’t move. She pulled the blanket up to her chin. Her eyes looked sad.
You lay down next to her, “What’s the matter?”
“You remember Doug?”
“No.” She shakes her head. “The guy from school. With the rainbow Mohawk on his head and the princess and knights birthday party and the big castle bouncy house and the—” “Nessa, that was fifth grade.”
“His older brother hurt me.”
Pause. “What did he do to you?”
“Dougie’s older brother.”
She stared at the ceiling. “Do you really wanna know?”
“No.” You turned off the light.
“Then I won’t tell you.” She said in the dark.
Another time, weeks, maybe months later: “He used his finger.” “Nessa, put your arm around my shoulder and get in the car.” “Lenie, you heard me?”
“Yep.” You closed the passenger door and got in the driver seat.
“He shoved his finger in me. In the bouncy house.”
Silence. What were you supposed to say to something like that? You clenched your hands around the wheel.
“Nobody wants me anymore.” You thought you heard her whisper. You’re not sure. You turned on the radio.
She stared out the window for the rest of the ride. You pretended she was sleeping.
You stare down at your soggy cereal, now. A cockroach is floating in your bowl. How did it get there? You pour the cereal down the sink. You will look through your phone, not expecting to find two text messages from Vanessa. Text 1: Yo I’m at your door where R U? LOL I am so drunk. Text 2: Nvrmnd, LOL found my copy.
Run to your room. Open the light and you’ll find Vanessa sleeping on your bed. She is lying diagonally on top of your covers, in a short, tight, glittery cocktail dress, her braids splayed over the pillow. Forget to be angry. Forget that you promised yourself you would choke her the next time you see her. Instead, take linen out of your closet and cover her. Close the light.
Luís is right, you know. Vanessa will be okay one day. There’ll come a time when you won’t have to worry about her all night long or trek up and down South Florida to rescue her. This is just part of her journey to wholeness and healing. And part of yours, too, Marlena. There will be a moment in your life when you will remember this night. And you will cry with a different type of tears than the ones you are spilling now. They will be those of victory, peace, and thanksgiving. Beautiful tears. The kind that can only come out of a deep well dug with pain, depression, and sadness.
His love illuminates the darkest corners.
Until that time comes, however, many of your nights will end a lot like this one. You’ll fall asleep on your couch watching TV infomercials. In the morning, you’ll wake with tear stains on your cushion.
Photo By: Sodanie Chea