Rosa Por tu Culo

Originally published in Vol. 3 of The Rational Creature

A slippery pink chicken breast sloshed around the kitchen sink. Mamí dropped it in – an accident – that would occur a minimum of three more times in the next few minutes, though it would not be unlikely to occur five, seven, even ten times while preparing dinner. Her arthritic hands, with their bubbled fingers swollen at each joint, often quit on her this way. Yet, my mother is more stubborn than her hands. Commanded by some inner strength unbeknownst to me, Mamí gripped that slippery breast with the force of an eagle’s talons, slapped it back on the cutting board, and began to press adobo into its flesh. Pollo de la gran puta, she muttered, smirking, as though the chicken – not her hands – was to blame. I imagine the universe, or God, heard this and thought now, that’s not right, and sent along the immobilizing cramp that then surged through her left hand as a reminder: you have arthritis, imbécil.

It seems to me that the universe has always been this way to my mother. Baselessly bitter to her self-preserving humor, unrelentingly harsh even in mundane moments. Mamí likes to say that there are some people born into this world with a blossomed rose up their ass, such that even their shit is pretty, perfumed. My mother is not one of those people. She has learned to be hard, unflinching, constantly on guard for the next whirlwind to uproot the few remaining comforts of her life. You must understand, then, that when the cramp seized her left hand and she burst into miserable tears, I was stunned. I sat, rigid, on the barstool by our counter, staring at my mother and, finally, at her left hand. I said nothing. I looked at her fingers, seeing their monstrosity clearly for the first time. They were terrifying – angry inflamed knobs that betrayed her without care, without reason. Daily. It dawned on me, suddenly, how deeply unfair this life had been to her. Had the world itself not betrayed her enough? Must her own hands, her body, betray her too?

Mamí once had hands like mine: soft, nimble, thin. While hers could never quite grasp the sweet pluck of guitar strings that mine can, they had a dexterous flair of their own. Queen of pressing empanadas shut in less than three seconds, typing faster than any clerk when the office finally got computers, and snipping, shearing, thinning, and clipping across blades of hair with her stainless-steel stylist scissors. Her talent of the latter was so monumentally exceptional that Mabel, an old white woman and friend from her office – whose hair Mamí had cut for years since they met – decided, upon retirement, to make my mother’s dreams come true. On her final day at the office, Mabel joined my mother in the breakroom, her breath reeking of canned tuna like it always did.

“Angie – Ange! I got a little something for ya. Here – take it. Wouldja look at it already?”

My mother, I imagine, was dubious. She is wary of unmarked envelopes, like the kind Mabel had shoved in her face.

“Uh. Yeah, sure. Of course, Mabel. Let me see it.”

Inside was a glorious check – addressed to my mother, signed by Mabel – for ten thousand dollars.

“I – what is this? You’re not dying, are you?”

“What? No!”

“Oh – I just thought – nevermind. But what is this?”

“I know you been saving all these years, and with this, it should be enough now. You’re gonna open up your salon, Angie. And you’re gonna open it on the Upper West Side, preferably within a ten-block radius of my apartment, so I can strut in and out of that place looking like a brand new woman every three weeks. And, obviously, I get cuts on the house until I either move to Florida or die, but you already knew that –”

Mamí screamed so loud that the entire office fell silent. She continued screaming as she threw off her itchy blazer, kicked off her heels, and marched over to her boss’ office to quit her job. She squealed through the taxi-ride home from FiDi to the South Bronx, a luxury she had not once afforded herself during her thirty-two years of life. She picked up my brother, then 7 years old, from his babysitter and took another cab to City Island, where the two gorged on oysters – my mother’s favorite – for two hours. They sat on the dock together as the sun set, toes dipping in the bay and bellies full, so full. Peach and pink and swirling hues of lilac filled that summer sky, and for once in Mamí’s life, the universe outstretched its arms and said yes.

I often wonder: if the universe had remained kind for long after this moment, would my mother concede that she, too, were born with a rose up her ass? Could it have been enough to make my mother call herself lucky – that thing that only other people get to be? Perhaps it would have leveled the playing field of her broken soul, balancing off the flood of moments that ruined her: Her father with a gunshot wound to the face, brains splattered across the concrete floor of their garage. Her sister, aged 3, head shaven, bulbous, oozing, 702 staples holding flesh taut across her body – the aftermath of a hit-and-run that Mamí could have prevented, had she only held tití’s hand as they crossed the road. Her best friend, Daisy, coked up, frozen dead in the alley behind her apartment. Her brother, “June” – Júnior – cold body pierced with rubble, glass, choke-wrapped in a failed seatbelt one Christmas Eve. Her other brother, Freddie with the ‘fro, withering away in a hospital bed, AIDS suffocating his last breath –

I do not know how she learned to live with joy once again. How she could open herself up to the kind of blissful luck she had never dreamed of, as she learned too early in her tortured life that, for her, luck was not luck without consequence, without a tradeoff, without an irreconcilable loss to follow. This is not something she forgot as she finally opened her little salon on the Upper West Side, where the old white ladies like Mabel would tip her hundreds for their two-inch trims. She would come home to my father, bills rolled up fat under a rubber-band, and she’d say to him:

“You don’t think it’s wrong? I tell them not to give me so much – this lady, all I did was color her hair today – no toning, no lowlights, nothing – and she gave me one-fifty on top of the thirty I charged her. I counted it back to her – and she says, keep it honey, and I say, I can’t possibly, and she just walks out! Is that right, Vic? I don’t think it’s right –”

“It’s right, Ange. It’s fine. Why does it bother you? They’re rich! Consider it reparations.”

“I don’t think it’s right. I think – I think karma’s going to get me.”

“Karma? Get you? C’mon, Angie. You ain’t done a single thing bad for karma to get you.”

“You don’t always gotta do something bad for this world to punish you.”

When I was but a thought in the back of her mind – a girl, what if I had a baby girl? – my mother often worried that the thought alone was a greedy indulgence. Would wishing for me bring some devastating harm upon my brother? In hoping for a girl, would she be welcoming the world to steal away her son? Mamí lived in fear of her own desires, much like I do today, though without her reason. I am a testament to the strength of her worry: so severe, so palpable, it has managed to seep down the bloodline – my unwillingly inheritance. Yet I am reminded that worry serves its wicked purpose: it forebodes, preparing you for the inevitable downfall, as there always seems to be one.

Four years in, Mamí – somehow – forgot to worry. Foolishly swept up by her success, cooing over me – the new baby girl she dared to wish for – and reveling in the naïve joy carried by that big brother of mine, Mamí basked in her paradise. Her life now resembled a supernova: beaming, bright, reeling up, up, up, whereupon the peak of its ascent, all the beauty she knew would meet its certain, explosive end. In true fashion, it would only make sense that the fallout hit her the hardest way it knew how: afflictions of the body, since her mind and soul and heart were so battered already. The arthritis crawled its way into her joints, swift and suddenly – she always recalls that morning that she failed to recognize her own hand holding the haircutting shears with a certain wonderment – how was it that only the night before, her fingers were still like mine: soft, nimble, thin? It was as if the nasty cosmic energy reemerged, awake for the first time in years, and was hungry for her suffering.

Clutching her cramping left hand, Mamí could no longer flit her scissors across the soft crown of a person’s head. Her salon – long gone – was again her life’s distant dream. She knelt on the kitchen floor, sobbing in her broken, hiccupping way, slippery pink chicken breast sloshing around the sink once more. I sat there, rigid, on the barstool. She caught me staring at her terrible fingers, ceased her tears, and finally said: I’m lucky, mija – I still have hands.