The Southside Stories – Chapter 5

When I look at my wristwatch, I noticed that time had flown. I was going to be late. I hopped on the closest subway to go to Williamsburg. Oh, Williamsburg, Brooklyn – how I miss you but am glad that I live away from you. As the saying goes, distance really does make the heart grow fonder.

I stepped off the Lorimer stop on the L train and walked on Union Avenue to the other side of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (we just call it the BQE). In the Southside, there are two sides because the BQE divides them. For a long time I lived on the Northside of the BQE but then moved to the less gentrified version (at the time, in the nineties) of the Southside.

As I walked toward my aunt’s house, I noticed the high rise buildings, the lack of empty space, the new shops put in by hipsters, the boutiques, and the glass windowed buildings occupying my old neighborhood. Where were the Latinos moving to in light of the heavy gentrification in this neighborhood?

I observed the storefronts and the neighborhood folk walking past me; I barely saw anybody with a shade past a tan. Where the Latinos at?

A short ten minute walk later, and I arrived at my aunt’s house. It was the mother of Liz, my best friend cousin back in the day. But Liz wasn’t there. My dad told me she had married Javier (the cute Javier from the block) and moved in with him somewhere in Spanish Harlem.

Before I step into the corner apartment building on South 2nd, I stand outside and take in my old neighborhood. Across the street where there was a bodega with candy and is now a Laundromat. What’s happened to the bodegas in this neighborhood?

And right in front of me, the elementary school playground, which that I attended, had the gates open at all times for kids to take advantage of the space for kickball, football, or softball. Now, the gates are locked and it seems as if only are open when school is in session.

I shake my head to myself. What do the kids in this neighborhood have left to do for fun? I walk a few short steps to my aunt’s apartment building and notice the kids sitting on the stoop and playing handball.

Oh, that’s right. They’re doing the same shit I did when I lived on this block. Oh save them, please.

I step inside the vestibule and buzz my aunt’s apartment – 5C. I can’t believe it’s been so long since I’ve seen her. I don’t remember the last time I saw her. Maybe before I started grad school? I’m sure we’ll get into it.

I stepped through the glass door and stepped into the elevator. No renovations here. The elevator is still clunky and slow after many years. What the hell is the damn landlord doing in these buildings?

When I stepped off the elevator on the fifth floor, the smell of rice, beans, meat, and maduros filled my nose. I suddenly realized I forgot to eat something before I came down here. I’m sure there will be enough for me.

I looked at my wristwatch. Only 12:30. Yeah, not as late as I expected.

I pressed my finger on the black button for the door ringer. This as well has never changed. As well as the drab brown color on the door. Oh these nasty colors.

My aunt opens the door after a rustlin’ behind near the peephole (which I’m so used to, I don’t even notice it anymore) and embraces me in a hug.

“Sobrina, como e’ta?” she says.

“Bien, y tu?” I say. Doesn’t really work so well in Spanish with the rhetorical, “Hello, how are you?” The “Good and you?” just falls flat somewhere along the line.

I walk inside to the warm smells of food; my stomach growls with hunger.

“Hay, tia, tengo hambre. Queda para mi?”

“Claro, sobrina,” she said, with a warm smile.

My father stood up from the couch and hugged me tightly.

“How’d you sleep?” he said, his hand on my right shoulder, softly caressing me.

“I slept well enough. No dreams. Bien.”

I took off my coat and folded it out on the armrest of the gray loveseat couch which faced the TV. The living room was weird. There were three couches in the living room. There’s a large entertainment center made of wood – but not IKEA wood (this is way before IKEA even existed) with shelving. The TV is the main piece with pictures, ceramic objects, a videocassette player, and ceramic figurines cluttering the shelves including frames with my cousins’ pictures in them. The windows facing outside have the longest couch against them, a loveseat next to it, and another couch parallel to the window facing couch; the couches box in the entertainment center with some space in the middle, like a dance floor, but not.

The kitchen has a dining table big enough for only four occupants at a time with the rest filled with counter space and the other things kitchens occupy.

I sat down at the dining table as my aunt served me. My dad sat next across from me.

“Ya comi’te?” I said.

“Si. ‘Taba buenismo. Tengo un jaltura.”

My aunt placed the table with rice, beans, stewed chicken, and platanos maduros. Mmm…I took a bite of the orange sweet goodness, my mouth watered. I couldn’t recall the last time I ate some maduros. Not many Dominicans in my ‘hood in San Francisco.

“Tu te ve’ muy bien, Jazmine,” my aunt said, as she sat next to my dad.

“Gracias,” I said, before I ate a forkful of rice and beans. I had to slow down; I was ravenous.

“Que ha hecho, sobrina?”
I told her in the best Spanish I could muster since I don’t speak the language very often back home that I did a writing conference and I’m waiting on hearing about a teaching position. My dad knew all this. He interjected his knowledge of my career with beaming pride. I smiled at him. That’s why I love my daddy.

I ate my food slowly, savoring every spice, grain of rice, and bean on my plate. Eating this meal had me remember the brief good memories I had of my family.

There was a period from ages six to eight that I recalled my father, mom and I eating dinner at our dining table every evening. I felt safe and like a family. Even though I didn’t see many faces of color on the TV, I still felt my family life had the resemblance of TV families like on Family Matters and Step by Step. In hindsight, I thought of those families but at the time, the TV families were mostly atypical of TV sitcoms like Different Strokes, Good Times, and Silver Spoons.

Eating together became a habit and ritual I cherished as a child. Then when I got older, my mom’s drinking became more prominent and we separated as a family. I’d come home from school and head directly to my room, bypassing my mom in the living room.

My dad would watch TV in the bedroom. We were a family with a TV in every single room in the house. My present home only has the TV in the living room.

When I hear my classmates discussing their home lives including family game nights, vacations, get togethers, I wonder if I was missing something. I guess everything happens for a reason.

At the end of my meal, I told Dad we should leave. It was nice catching up with my aunt but I was over it. I wanted some quality time with my father. I asked him if he’d like to hang out at my hotel and then he’d be on his way.

He was actually sleeping at his brother’s house across the street so he preferred if we kept it local.

I looked at my watch. It was only 2:30pm. It wasn’t like I had much planned other than to hang with my dad.

I thought about where we could go to talk on our own.

I asked him if his brother would be home. He said yes. Then I suggested a coffee shop.

“Oh, eso e’ cosa de gringos,” he told me.

“C’mon Dad, let’s go,” I said.

He obliged me, we bid adieu to my aunt and went to the coffee shop on the other side of the BQE. The name of the place is Atlas Café.

The ambience is very much of yuppies/hipsters. A huge chunk (about ninety percent) of patrons on their Macs (very few PCs) tap tapping away with lattes, coffees, empty muffin or sandwich plates abandoned on behind their laptops. I knew this wasn’t the type of environment my father was used to but it was better than hanging out at a family’s home, where they were all in our conversation.

Surprisingly, at this time of day, we were able to find a seat. I was glad this place was still here. When I moved from the Southside to San Francisco five years ago, this place had just opened.

I remembered taking advantage of the free WiFi service many a time as I worked on my MFA submissions what felt like years ago. The map of the world on the wall as you walked in was inviting and the clientele were pretty friendly. There were a few regulars. Even a few cute regulars but I was always too engrossed in my writing to pay much attention enough to make friends there. A few friendly smiles of recognition were exchanged with the patrons as well as the employees there. At one point, I was on a first name basis with the staff because I frequented the place so much. There was a quiet but busy energy to the café I enjoyed and was able to let me work productively. At home, I just putzed around on the Internet and found ways to distract myself from the task at hand which was writing.

We sat down in a window booth; one of my favorite spots in the whole place because it was great for people watching when I needed a break from my computer screen.

I blinked to get me back in the zone and looked at my dad.

“How you doin’?” he said, taking my hand.

The touch brought me comfort.

“I’m okay,” I said. “I was thinking a lot about mom and the past.”

“Lo que esta en el pasado, dejalo en el pasado. Just think about the future.”

“I know,” I said, my gaze on the wooden table in front of me. “I haven’t forgiven her. This resentment is still raging strong, even more so inside of me.”

“Lo se,” he said. “But you have to try to get over it.”

“Dad, this doesn’t happen overnight,” I said, taking my hand back.

The gesture startled him.

“It’s not that easy. I’ve been carrying this around with me for years. I thought her death might make it go away but I feel heavy with it. It’s such a burden.”

“Just don’t think about it,” he said.

“It’s not that easy. I’ve been seeing a therapist for a year now and I thought I’d be able to handle this, but that’s not the case.”

Dad rested his chin on his hand.

“I just need time, Dad.”

“We both do,” he said. This time, I took his hand in mine.

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