What to say about Blanca? She was the woman Tío messed with around the time I learned what “messing with” meant. He’d been with other women, joints from the North End—Jamaicans, Bajans, Trinis. After he punched out from work, over by The Ave, near the Caribbean social clubs, he’d drink beer, play pool, and gamble away what we lived week to week on for a chance with whatever unfortunate woman caught his eye. These women had for-real accents that wrapped around your ears. I’d hear them before I’d see them. Listen to the rhythm of their words, the things they’d say to Tío late at night. Like, Weh yuh ah seh? How you doing? And Tío? He never said nothing back. But I could picture him and his forever sunken face. Heavy with lack of sleep, booze, and regret.
Maybe these women thought their questions came out wrong. Like maybe that’s why Tío didn’t respond. But that wasn’t it. Tío was just an asshole.
It wasn’t long before these women figured it out, too. Or that’s what I assumed. They came and left like the circus.
Blanca was different. She stayed around. Learned more about her than what her perfume smelled like dancing down the hallway. She had large, watery eyes, like they’d leak if she blinked. Una morena with a frail frame that looked no older than the girls in my sixth-grade class.
When I first heard Blanca through the threadbare walls of our apartment, there was no headboard knocking or loud, squeaking beds. Only her screams, her sharp cries—like she was in pain—which left me confused. That year, my boys and I began talking about the things our parents did at night. I didn’t know if Tío was fucking her or beating her, or both. I mean, I knew Tío, a big dude with a pregnant stomach who could be as violent as a bowling ball striking pins. But when I described the noises to the older boys, they didn’t sweat it. They said women sounded like that because they liked it. You only knew you were handling your business if it sounded like it hurt.
Before I knew it, Blanca lived with us, in our cramped, ramshackle apartment tucked inside Frog Hollow, the Puerto Rican hub of Hartford, with its bakeries, salons, and restaurants filled with folks who spat the same language, shouldered similar backgrounds, and got old and fat off of the same sazón-laced food. Tío worked the overnight shift at an adult group home, so Blanca and I spent most afternoons together. She was usually home when I came back
from school, watching her soaps or painting her toenails. Other days she strolled into the apartment in the early evening with groceries or new clothes from the thrift store off Broad Street. From what I knew she never worked no regular job, but her chaos of a purse was sometimes full of cash she earned from her side hustles—selling food in the market, pawning jewelry, a monthly check she received from a lawsuit she won against the city.
“Hola mijo,” she’d say with all the comfort in the world, cheesing like her picture was being taken.
“I ain’t your son,” I’d snap back.
“Well, I know that,” she’d laugh.
I’d sink my head low, go to my room, and slam the door so she heard it.
That’s how those first weeks went. Sometimes I camped out for entire afternoons in my room, listening to burned CDs or oiling my baseball glove. Other times, after arriving home minutes before, I’d duck back out without saying shit about where I was headed, returning long after the street lights came on, hungry and dirty and smelling like the twelve-year-old boy that I was. Blanca, with a drink forever glued to her hand, would be in her same spot on the couch, the left end, where it dipped from the springs I broke using it as a trampoline the previous summer.
“Have fun?” she’d ask.
I’d ignore her, walk to the kitchen and scrounge up a meal from whatever wasn’t expired.
She followed me one night. I’d just made a ham and cheese sandwich stuffed with barbeque chips I saved from lunch. She asked if she could get a bite, her hand hovering over my shoulder like a fly.
“What you doing?” I said, swatting her away.
She laughed, leaned against the chipped Formica countertop.
“I figured it’d be a yes.”
She watched me take a bite while the kitchen furnace kicked like it was holding a victim hostage.
“Listen,” she said. “Your tío left some bills before he went to work. How about we get a pizza?”
I finished chewing, watching her the entire time. “Only if we get it with olives.”
We ate in the living room, made small talk. Like why she was named Blanca when she was darker than me.
“Mira,” she said. “You see that streak?” She gathered her dark, waist-length hair and lifted it so I could see the nape of her neck. “That white streak in the middle of all that mess?”
“Well, it ain’t my government, but that’s why they call me Blanca.”
“You look like a skunk,” I said.
“You smell like one,” she laughed, in what I’d learn was typical Blanca. The child she could be.
She grabbed her empty glass and walked to the kitchen. She took orange juice from the fridge, went to the counter, and pulled a small, metal container from out of nowhere. She unscrewed the top, poured what looked like water into her glass, topped it off with the juice, and shuffled back.
After she gulped down half of it, she leaned toward me, and, inches from my face, slipped her index finger under the gold chain with her name in bubble letters that she never took off. She ran her finger across her neck like she was giving orders for an execution.
“Blanca,” she said, her breath sour and sweet. “B-L-A-N-C-A.”
I can’t remember a time I didn’t live with Tío. He’s Ma’s younger brother, came to the States with her from Puerto Rico when they were kids. Fast forward to when they’re adults and Ma, after giving birth to me, is on a plane back to the Island to hunt down my dad. He’d left to check in on his parents, never came back. Ma caught word through cousins in the barrio that he’d shacked up with some joint barely old enough to drive. Ma wasn’t having it. She copped the first flight she could afford, parked me at Tío’s, and went to drag my dad’s ass back. That was the plan. But you know what they say about plans. No less than an hour into the return flight, life intervened and decided I’d be an orphan.
There weren’t any bodies to recover. I don’t even own a photo of Ma and me that proves we existed together. Before Blanca, I’d tell you I didn’t miss Ma. You can’t miss what you never had, right? Wrong. Blanca was like the aroma of a hot meal after you swore you weren’t hungry, after the stomach pains had passed. After not even the taste of a crumb occupied your mind. Blanca showed up and let me know I was starving.
Tío was a top baseball prospect when I became his burden. He was forced to give it all up when he took me in. Tough playing minor league ball, living on chewing tobacco and sunflower seeds, while traveling with a breathing thing you didn’t ask for. I think he thought I stole it from him, his shot.
By the time Blanca came into the picture, I was a pro at reading his moods. The smallest thing would set him off. Once, I whipped up a grilled cheese while he worked an overnight shift and forgot to put the cheese back in the fridge before knocking out. The next morning, as he slept and I got ready for school, I went to grab milk for cereal and found a bike lock chaining the fridge shut, a sticky note on top: Want to waste my food? Then you can’t eat my food. He kept the lock there for a week. I was eight.
A few years before that, when I was five or six, he came home in the early morning, hauled me out of bed by my earlobe, and marched me to the bathroom.
“Take a shit,” he said.
I stared at him, unsure if I was dreaming or not.
“Are you stupid?” he asked, clocking me in the head with a closed first. “Pull down your drawers, sit your ass on that toilet, and take a shit.”
“I don’t gotta go.”
He glared at me, ran off words under his breath.
“Whatchu do after you go to the bathroom?”
“Wash my hands.”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re goddamn right. You don’t know.”
Tío left the bathroom and came back with a pair of my Space Jam underwear, shook them in my face.
“Whatchu you see?”
The underwear was inside out, and there in the middle were faint yellow-brownish streaks.
“You think I want to come home and clean your shit?” he yelled. “That’s what I do every day, Mikey. I take care of guys twice my age and clean their shit. I feed them and dress them and bathe them. The same guys who shit their pants and laugh. Laugh at me. Learn to wipe your goddamn ass or you’ll be using your hand from now on.”
Blanca and Tío were already a couple months deep when she first saw that side of him. I should’ve warned her, but they had made it through the honeymoon phase without any hiccups, even though he wouldn’t do the little things, the cute things, not even the “As long as it don’t hurt my wallet” things. It probably helped that for folks who were supposed to be together, Blanca and Tío hardly spent time together. With Tío working nights and all, most days they clocked only a few hours of face time.
The night Blanca saw the Tío I knew, she came home with fried chicken and jojos she copped from the Quickie Mart on New Britain Avenue. I grubbed while she told me how Tío and her met—at A.A., housed in a church located just before Park Street becomes Park Road, the difference between struggle and comfort. I couldn’t tell you how we got into it, except to say that Blanca never hid shit from me. Never treated me like a kid, not really. She showed me movies that went over my head, blasted music I knew my friends’ parents would never allow. I didn’t know what A.A. was or that Tío ever went anywhere besides work, the social clubs, and home. But Blanca said he could be sweet in there. Said that among other things, he talked about Ma and me.
Blanca was fresh to the program when they met. She liked how honest he was, how when the group had breaks and the two of them huddled together outside, sharing a cigarette, he was straight with her. It was the first time in a long time anyone had been. It’s what she liked most about him.
“I asked him to become my sponsor,” she said. “It ain’t exactly allowed, sponsors of the opposite sex. But it’s only a suggestion in the leaflet. So here we are.”
“Here you are,” I responded, not knowing what else to say.
“He really listens, you know?” she said, and I didn’t have the heart to explain to her the difference between Tío listening and caring.
She sighed. “But we been slipping. I mean, we still go to meetings, but only when we can go together, yeah? Like how it was when we started. When it felt like we were on our own little island. Our own little Caribbean island.”
“You ain’t Caribbean,” I said.
“Yeah, I am,” Blanca said.
“No, you’re not. Where’s your accent?” I shot back.
I gave my best impression and Blanca covered her mouth, trying not to laugh.
“You know you’re Caribbean, too, right?”
“We’re from the Island.”
“An island in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island. Not one of the islands you’re talking about, but one all the same.”
“No shit,” I said.
“No shit,” she replied, smiling.
Blanca pulled out what I by then knew was a flask and splashed gin or vodka into her soda.
“What else has your tío kept from you?”
We heard the thud of his boots on the stairs before we saw him. Inside, he let his body crash into a seat at the kitchen table, huffing through chapped lips and waving an envelope in his hand.
“Let ’em suspend me,” he said. “Like I care.”
“What happened?” Blanca asked.
“The agency. The goddamn agency. They’re looking into my treatment of a client.”
“What’d you do?”
“What’d I do? I restrained him. I snatched him up. That’s what I did. Like we’re trained to do.”
“But what happened?”
“One of the guys. I was eating my dinner, my Chinese, and one of the guys kept grilling me. So, I stared him down, too. I stared at Richard, that’s his name, Richard, and I said, ‘Yes?’ And Richard kept grilling me, even stood up, and finally said, ‘I want some.’ And I laughed at the idiot. Said, ‘Richard, this here is my lunch. You got your own. You ain’t getting any so sit your ass back down.’
“Next thing I knew, the idiot charged me and I had to sidestep his ass. He slammed into the wall. I said, ‘See. See now, Richard. Now calm the fuck down.’ And you know what he did next? The dimwit got up and came at me again. At that point Tracie, Tracie with the big tits, she called the cops. And I mean, that’s our training. I ain’t blaming her. But I ain’t have no time to wait for no help. I threw Richard in a headlock until he calmed the hell down. By the time the cops showed up Richard had bruises crawling up his neck. The other half-wit clients gave their side of the story and now I’m in the wrong. I’m in the wrong and suspended, possibly fired.”
Blanca said nothing, shaking her head.
“Well, you probably ain’t supposed to do that,” I said, licking my chicken-greased fingers. “You know, with their problems and all.”
“What’d you say?” Tío sneered.
I sunk into my seat.
“Read the letter again,” Blanca said, standing up. She went over and massaged Tío’s shoulders. “I’m sure you misread it.”
“It’s right there on the damn table,” Tío said. “It says it plain as day. Look. Suspended until the investigation closes.”
Blanca peered over the paper like it was a map or puzzle, not knowing where to begin.
“Show me where it says that. Point to it.”
“Right there,” he said, running his fingers over the words.
Blanca’s face made me laugh. It reminded me of a kid in my social studies class who thought staring at our textbook like he had X-ray vision would help him.
“She can’t read,” I said out of reflex, snickering.
Blanca glanced from me to Tío, and the look she had on her face wasn’t hurt, but more like disappointment. Like I sold her out. She started to say something, but before the words formed, Tío’s fist fell from the sky and I was on the ground writhing in pain, clutching the outside of my right eye.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Blanca shouted.
“He needs to learn some damn respect.”
“And that’s how you teach it?”
Blanca grabbed ice from the freezer. She put it in a ziplock bag, lifted me off the ground, and guided me down the hall.
“Aye, I’m talking to you!” Tío called from the kitchen.
Blanca paid him no mind. She kicked closed my bedroom door.
Blanca didn’t talk to Tío for nearly three weeks, which was tough for a yapper like her, and made harder with Tío around more because of his suspension. Tío, for his part, tried to act like he didn’t care. He shifted around the apartment like we were ghosts. He looked past us, through us, but made a point to be in our faces so we knew it was intentional. That first week, though, once or twice, I caught him in the living room trying to grab Blanca’s eyes.
Next came the threats. Who pays the bills around here? You gonna use my lights, eat my food, run my water? Then you gonna acknowledge me. I’ll change the locks on you, I swear to god.
Blanca doubled down. She cooked more food than she or I needed and trashed the rest before Tío could make a plate. She made me scribe notes to leave on the kitchen table that told Tío where he could find his meals. She left his clothes in the hamper when she did our laundry that weekend. Tío made a scene about it, so when he went out, she gathered as many clothes of his as she could fit into a trash bag and dropped them off at different places: the Goodwill in the North End, the VA on the Wethersfield town line, the Big Brother Big Sister bin in the library parking lot.
“Are you fucking stupid? Have you lost your goddamn mind?” Tío yelled when he got home, realizing what she did. “Touching my things? Wasting my hard-earned money? Do you think I’m rich?”
“A child. Such a child,” Blanca said, which was funny coming from her. “You ain’t welcome in my bed tonight either,” she added.
But Tío didn’t cave, said, “I paid for that bed. If you don’t want me in it then you can sleep on the couch.”
And that’s what she did. Didn’t make no fuss, either.
Tío was stunned. But instead of getting angry, he became pitiful, needy. Over the next couple of nights, he tried to slip beneath the quilt Blanca slept under. I knew because I could hear her tell him to get his hands off her. He pleaded, declared how he missed her. But Blanca was steel.
In the middle of the second week, Tío left. Three days passed. When he finally came back, Blanca and I were in the living room finishing up an old episode of Wheel of Fortune, one of Blanca’s favorite shows. Vanna White wore a dress the color of a quenepa’s flesh. It was long and flowy at the bottom and form-fitting at the top, and I felt a stir in my sweatpants. Just then I heard the front door unlock. Blanca turned her head. Tío slumped in. I tucked myself in my waistband.
Blanca checked Tío, then returned her attention to the television. She started shouting her bonus round guesses as if Pat Sajak could hear her through the screen.
“You not gonna ask where I been?” Tío asked.
“Blanca. You not gonna ask where I been?”
“Don’t matter where you been.”
“Fuck you then.” The door closed.
Thing is, Tío never asked if I cared; he didn’t understand that was part of the problem. Blanca wasn’t looking for him to apologize to her. She wanted him to say sorry to me.
I didn’t know much, but I assumed Tío was probably going to one of his old joint’s spots.
“You ain’t worried about him with other women?”
She wrapped her arm around me and pulled me against her chest, real maternal-like.
“Because his dick don’t work,” she said, pointing her head to where mine had freed itself from my waistband. “His can’t do that,” she laughed.
It was right before Christmas, that third week, when Tío came home. He sauntered into the apartment as if everything was good. He had a haircut and was clean-shaven, revealing the sack of skin beneath his chin, like a water-damaged ceiling about to cave in.
His check flannel shirt was tucked into a pair of oversized Dickie’s with no belt, the hem of the pants spilling over his work boots. In his left hand was a still-wrapped-in-plastic Rawlings baseball that he lobbed to me. In his right hand were flowers, the cheap kind from the corner store.
“We’re going out,” he said.
“Going where?” I asked, peeling off the plastic, touching the leather stitching on the ball as if it’d unravel if I pressed too hard.
“Nowhere,” Blanca said. “We ain’t going nowhere.”
“C’mon, vieja. Look. I’m trying here. It’s the holidays.”