I bumped into your uncle recently. I was with Mami, walking from the parking spot on the corner of our old block to my building and minding my own business, when I saw him walking toward us. I thought he was going to slip into his building just a few feet away. After all, your entire family stopped speaking to me decades ago. I was sure he’d avoid me again. Or simply be too far gone into his afternoon drink to recognize me.
Imagine my surprise when he stayed on track toward me, wavering only slightly from the alcohol, to yell, “Pero ¡mira quién es, carajo!”
He was all affection at first. Uncomfortably so. Sadly, even at my age, I still balk at correcting my elders. I should have stopped him cold. Instead, I politely listened.
And it was fine until it wasn’t. Without more than a “si” or an “a-ja” from me, from one sentence to the next, your Tio’s expression went from pink smile to hot red scowl. He suddenly turned his greying auburn 70s coif on Mami and blamed her for our breakup.
“¡Lost muchachos rompieron por culpa tuya!” He even pointed his finger at her chest.
We were dumbfounded. Cemented in our spots by the insolence.
A sentence or two later, the breakup was now my fault.
“Por querer estár con otro y ser libre y andar por ahí,” he said, hand flailing in disgust with that por ahí part. As if I’d left you for an underground prostitution ring.
As if it were any of his business where I’d gone, during you or after you.
The last of his tirade included news of you, that you were married now, happy and with family. “Un padre y esposo ejemplar.” And then I guess that word of my still-single status had somehow gotten around to him, a man who hadn’t spoken to me in decades, because he said, “Mi sobrino lo tiene todo. ¿Y tu qué tienes?”
The question stung, as it was meant to, even though it came from someone I no longer care about, whose life I don’t emulate, and whose tribe I don’t miss even a little bit.
As I walked away from this onslaught and tried to gather my bearings, all I could think was, this explains everything. The fury from your entire family, the old neighborhood friends I bumped into from time to time, telling me you were still mad about the future we didn’t enjoy together.
And it boggles my mind. My words back then have had almost 40 years to simmer. But not a single syllable seems to have survived the poisoned stew in your head. Age did not offer you the gift of accountability or empathy. Your mother truly ruined you.
But let me try this again:
What I did not tell your uncle is that I don’t remember much good from our time together. You were my first boyfriend. We were kids and we were together for three years, which is a long time for teenagers, and I feel like that innocent exchange should bear some sweet fruit, render some happy memory. But somehow, I’m hard pressed to find any.
That’s not all your fault. In those years, I was bearing the shock of my father’s death. The days and years following those dreadful words, “Tu padre murió, mijita,” are something of a blur. If nothing else, I’m grateful that my time with you tethered me to something other than a loss I didn’t know how to navigate.
But E, you should know, you have to know, that you and your mother, two perfectionist peas in a Cuban-American, high-maintenance, superior pod, were sometimes hard on that sensitive, simple, 16 year-old girl. I was never good enough for you. And your ornate home, with its red velvet, gold-trimmed couch and its sparkling chandeliers, was as appealing as a snake pit.
Do you remember when I smiled at a theater usher and you pushed me, actually put your hands on me, to keep me from chatting with another guy? Do you remember your prom night and the months of endless shit that you and your mother gave me about my “place” as a girlfriend, because I’d danced one song with another friend? Do you remember those first months in college together, how you expected me to spend my free time in a chair next to you while you did your homework? Do you remember how you stopped me in front of the library to button my blouse all the way up to my neck because my chest was “hanging out”? Do you remember your parents’ nickname for me? It was Trozo de Hiélo. Chunk of Ice. These were the kindest words they could offer a grieving kid.
So yeah. I had to leave you. Because I could not – and did not want to – be what you needed. I couldn’t fit the mold of young, humorless, demure, dependent girlfriend. I didn’t want to be your mother.
Thank you, G, for a mother like Mami, my real-life Gladiator, who did not push me to stay or go with any boy, who never intervened or pressured me to be a married girl, who let me figure it out on my own, and only ever encouraged me to grow. Only to grow. A superarme.
What do I have to show for leaving you? Maybe not the things that fit in a portrait. Things your Tio or your parents could never imagine would matter to an 18 year-old Cuban girl, like college classrooms and libraries and theaters and dance parties…like new friendships and new loves and curious paths to discover.
What I did not tell your uncle is, my life exploded with joy after you. And despite your lingering bitterness, I hope that yours did too.
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