Plant of Contradictions

Puerto Rico

Tiphanie Yanique
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

Papa’s hands are in my mouth. The pliers are frigging deep. He always starts at the back. That makes it worse at the end, which is the front. All confusing, but he’s that kind of bastard, my Papa. He twists the pliers. The pain now is in my gums, but it is also up in my jaw, in my ears. Sometimes it’s like the pain is in my actual skull. Like I am the pain.

The suction pump inhales all the gross spit, and then screeches whenever I swallow. Scream, scream is what I need to do, but I never do. Never scream. Instead I grip the chair arms and hold tight, dig my nails in. Papa glances down at my hands, gripping. He’s checking to make sure I don’t mess up his chair. Then he gets back to work. I never ruin the leather. Not even close. I wonder if I’m ever going to get that bag of teeth.

See, right now I look like a torture victim. But usually, when I’m not in this chair, I look Jewish. But I also look Puerto Rican. Which tells you something about what kind of sense all that how you look stuff makes … none. Though maybe it’s also saying that being a Puerto Rican Jew is being a torture victim. Anyway, I could easily be a Muslim or an Arab or a half-black kid. And whatev. A Jewish kid is the same as a Muslim kid. Same damn people. And Puerto Rican is just another way of saying half-black. That’s what Angelo Torres Daniels says, and his father is proper black–from the States. It’s all the same, Angelo says. And I agree. I usually agree with Angelo.

He also says that how I look is like how all people used to look before we left Pangea, or wherever. This also means that I look like how all people are gonna look in the future, when we get back to basics. Blond and blue eyes is a mistake, a hiccup–like what Papa says about homosexuality. Papa isn’t totally homophonic or whatever. He says it’s not the gays’ fault, but that it’s a genetic dysfunction. The world will set it right, and the blonds and the gays will fade away.

But Papa is the real black one. Negroni. A big lick of the tar brush. But he’s also actually the proper Jew. Kosher all the way. See, Mom is the real Jew, which she says doesn’t mean shit, but Papa says it means everything. Hear that? I cursed just there. Real cursing. I’ve been cursing lately–me and Mama both. It’s because of Auntie Mermaid and cousin Maristela coming.

Anyway, Papa is proper because he’s not real. He converted to marry Mom, ocean mikveh and everything. That mattered to Mom then, though really I can’t imagine it ever mattering to her. I can’t see anything mattering to her more than our lime trees. And me. And maybe the bag of baby teeth she carries around her neck. Me and Ma, we matter a lot to each other. But I think Papa has a problem with his complexion. It matters like way too much to him. Me? I don’t see anything wrong with being really brown. I mean, I didn’t know the president of the United States could be white even. We’ve had a brown one, like, almost my whole life, you know?

When I’m in his chair, Papa sometimes talks to me, asks me questions while he’s deep in there. I usually answer all garbled, but he always-always understands. It’s maybe the one thing special about us, I guess. That he can understand me even when my mouth is stuffed with his hands and his tools. But today he doesn’t talk. I know why. I don’t talk either, but for a different reason. I can’t talk, because he’s making the molars so tight. I can see him looking at my chest where my new pendant is, and he is really twisting, reaching for the wire, twisting from the elbow. I feel it and keep my mouth open wide. I don’t want my teeth to touch. I won’t be able to eat for days. That’s the point, I suppose. All the food ordered for my party. Papa picked out everything. Kosher, of course, even though Mom and I don’t give a fuck. Whoa. Big cursing now.

People say that Mama’s father’s family here came before the Inquisition. But that history is shady. No old synagogue, no ancient cemetery. They’d be Marrano. Or maybe not. Who the hell knows for sure? Anybody in Puerto Rican history named Solomon or Isaac or even Sarah is claimed as Jew. Last name da Costa or Gomez? Secret Jew! Rabbi Luís has us all supposing. Whatever. Or maybe Mama’s people came after the Spanish-American War. A tribe of Jews came then.

The women in the orphanage told Mama that her father was a Yankee serviceman in World War II. But not only the women said. Everybody says, still. People remember him–my grandfather. People remember a Jewish but still Yankee serviceman exactly. He and a group of other Judes in the army. Jewish dudes. Mama’s mother? A Marrano for sure. I think. Her family had straight hair, passed for regular white. Came over from Cuba. Scuttled out of there after Castro. They say Mama’s mama rolled cigars in a factory in Key West. But then came to the base here to nurse soldiers during the war. People say that. But so what? Dead, the both of them–Mama’s parents. And that’s all we know for sure. The dead part. Some people say one thing, other people remember another thing. Saying and remembering. What’s the difference either way?

I can’t see anything mattering to her more than our lime trees. And me. And maybe the bag of baby teeth she carries around her neck.

So fuck history. Right now? I’m in Papa’s office. Which is right on the edge of our farm. When you turn onto our road you see both of our signs: Rivera de Castro Limas y Arboles de Limas/Dr. Rivera de Castro Ortodoncia. Papa’s office smells like mint. But not fresh. Stale mint. Toothpaste mint. Like the kind of mint you want to get out-out of your mouth and nose. The office is all mint color, too. He says it’s lime colored, but it’s not. It’s too pale and pasty and it smells like mint puke–not like limes. The chair I am in is hard. Even the cushion part is hard, the vinyl of it bumps with ridges. Like comfort is un-allowed in his office. No comfort. Not even for the moments before he comes at me. So the chair is hard. The smell is straight awful. And then there’s the pain.

But to be honest, even our lime trees don’t smell like limes. Lime smell is a hard one. Our trees mostly smell like water, like dirt. They smell like soap sometimes. They smell like Mama. They smell like me.

My father puts metal on people’s mouths for a living. My mother sucks limes. But not for a living. She does that for joy. She sells the lime trees for a living. She and me, we do that together. Papa barely spends a second in the greenhouses. Mom and me, we practically live there. Beneath the trees. Mama is beautiful, Papa says. And that is why he fell in love with her. But she’s also difficult. Bipolar, Papa says, even though he’s a dentist and not a proper doctor. She’s a good wife, he says, too, but not a good mother. Which I never understand. Because I am the one who can say if she’s a good mother and she seems real good to me.

Papa is a real asshole sometimes. And it’s not helping right now that I’m wearing a crucifix around my neck. As a real Jew, I can do that, though. Makes no difference. Got it today, actually.

So Auntie Mermaid is here because her husband is healthy for the first time in years, and she was happy to have a reason to go on a fucking trip for once. That curse is her word–she uses it free. Her husband gets sick-sick, she says–not crazy sick like my mom. But blood pressure sick and coughing sick and bumps inside your butt type sick. Auntie Mermaid is also here with us because her daughter, Maristela, which means Sea Star in Spanish, and Sea Star’s so cute boyfriend could all afford a flight to San Juan this weekend. A cheap fair online. It was, like, perfect for us, too, given the celebration. Auntie Mermaid said, “My sweet motherfucker is turning a corner finally and can be left alone for a few days.” And wow. She just cursed her husband and loved on him at the same time. “Maybe all that sickness and hypochondria fuckery is behind us.” Auntie Mermaid curses like cursing is regular talk. Since she’s been here, Mom has started cursing. Me, too. But for me it’s only in my head. Papa looks at Auntie Mermaid and Mama both when they curse, and he grits his teeth. Grinds them. Which he knows not to do, he being a dentist and all. But he can’t help it. He gets so mad. His teeth will all fall out some day. Any day now, I hope.

Well, the real reason Auntie Mermaid and cousin Sea Star and the cute boyfriend are here is for my bat mitzfah. Oh well to that. Because me? I refused. Which is weird to say. Because it’s not my mitzfah if I refused it. Never was, I guess. Which is why Papa isn’t talking to me right now. With the pliers in my mouth. This morning at breakfast, when we were all there eating, before the greenhouse with Maristela and Earl, before the Auntie gossiping, Mama passed me the box with this crucifix. “From your abuela,” she said. And Papa just grunted.

See, Papa is like the head choppers in the Inquisition. Which I know all about because I’m a Jew. Sort of. Not a mitzvah, but Jew enough to know. When Papa is in my mouth he covers his own mouth with a surgical mask. He covers his head with a surgical head cap. Covers his eyes with goggles. The goggles have a light at the head, like he’s one of those deep-water angler fish. Sound like angel fish, but not. Opposite. Jaws full of teeth, those anglers. I mean, really, this is my own father when he’s closest to me. Closer than Angelo has ever been, except in my dreams or something. That is what I am looking at now, that angler light burning my eyeballs until Papa tells me to move my tongue, and I have to close my eyes to focus. I can barely figure out where my teeth and tongue and gums are. It’s all just pain, pain, pain. Which makes me feel more adult than any stupid tradition could.

There are more Jews here in Puerto Rico than anywhere else in the Caribbean. Even St. Thomas, or Curaçao, which have the oldest synagogues in, like, the whole world–outside of Europe and the Middle East, I guess. But who gives a shit about those crumbly old places, anyway? I’m a New World girl. That’s a thing. New World Girl.

Mom says she’s new, too. Because she doesn’t know her past. She says, “I don’t remember being a Jew. The women told me that. All I remember were the lime trees.” Mom doesn’t remember her father or her mother or even exactly where she was born. “One of the saints,” she says. “San German. San Sebastian.”

So the thing I was supposed to study and speechify on today in synagogue for my mitzvah was about the sea. The splitting. Drowning out the people who were not G-d’s people. Oh, and the manna. It’s Exodus. So it’s all bad Jews, dumb Jews–but worse and dumber everyone else who isn’t a Jew. And G-d is the Father who feeds the Jews–and everyone else can starve to death. The end.

I hate it all.

Here is a thing I love. My lime tree. It’s just started to bear. It’s fourteen years old, and I’m thirteen. Mom planted it before I was even conceived, she says. Which means she planted it before she and Papa had the sex that made me. She fed the earth, dug the hole, nestled the seeds. It takes that long for a lime tree to bear from seed. But it’s been growing. It’s taller than me. My older sibling, in a way. Sister or brother, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s both, like a trans plant, or something. That’s funny. Transplant. Like the Jews.

Mom is deep into the limes. Into the farm. She grew up here, when it used to be a home for kids with no parents. But it’s backwards now. I have two parents. But no kids for me. No siblings. Just the gay lime tree, I guess. Me, I love the limes. When Dad dies, which I hope will be any day now, it will be me and Mom and the limes.

Now Papa is working on my molars. The weird thing is that it actually feels kinda good. He tightens them hard. But it’s like how flossing feels good. Painful, sure. But also like you needed it. Like a release and relief. Like okay, thank you for that. Like it maybe feels when a guy is having sex and the girl scratches her nails down his back? I know about sex, of course. Because I’m thirteen. I know that people make love until it hurts.

When Papa is at my molars I hear myself moan. I swallow the sound, I cough. The suction screeches.

So back to cousin Sea Star and her cute boyfriend, whose name is Earl but he asked me to call him Fly. I didn’t even know I had a cousin. I mean, she’s not really my cousin even. But her mom and my mom grew up in the orphanage together, so she’s the closest thing to a proper cousin I’ve got on Mama’s side. I don’t know my Catholic cousins from Papa’s side.

But Maristela was sweet to me from the get. Her boyfriend was kinda funny acting, but Maristela says that’s because he’s shy. Though she says I shouldn’t use that word, shy, around Fly, because he thinks shy means weak. I don’t think it does. But sometimes with older people, it doesn’t really matter what younger people think. Angelo can be shy until you get to know him. To me it means he’s paying attention, because, you know, people can be real pains in the ass. How will you know if you don’t hang back first? Anyway, from the second they arrived I tried to be friends with Sea Star and Fly. But I also spied on them. I wanted them to have sex, so I could see. I know that sounds creepy, but Papa won’t allow the internet so how am I gonna learn?

But then Mom and Auntie kept on like, “Get water for Auntie Mermaid, get tea, sit and listen to the stories of when we were kids, hear how Auntie Mermaid learned to swim at the beach right down the hill, hear how Mama kissed her first boyfriend in that same sea.” I mean, yeah, cool. But there are actual young adults here. I wanted to go hang with them. Duh.

Right now, Papa is at my front teeth. Which means it’s almost the end. But it’s also almost the worst. It feels like Papa’s taking my whole face off. Which is maybe what he wants to do. When he is being sweet he tells me I look like Mom, but he tells me that same thing when I’m being a bitch too. To Papa the biggest bitch, the real puta, is his mother. My grandmother on his side. She gave this crucifix to my mother for me. I opened the little box at breakfast this morning, and then Papa was at my side, lifting the gold, 18 carat it said, right out of my hands, like it’s something obscene. “A man dead and naked,” he grunted in English for Earl’s benefit ’cause the rest of us all speak Spanish just fine. “Entre tus senos! No!” Gold is expensive, though, so I don’t for a minute think he will throw it away.

I just want to say that family is weird. Papa hates his family, me included, more than anything else. And all he would have to do is, like, move to Florida and get away from us. But would he ever do that? Never. Family is like the core of the earth. We are all like gravity bound to it or something. And it’s weird how it doesn’t even matter if it’s proper family. As long as it’s like real family.

You can tell that Auntie Mermaid and my mom aren’t properly related. My mom is white looking. Her hair still holds the blond, though mine turned brown before I could walk. Auntie Mermaid calls my mom Darleen, which is Mom’s name. But here in Vega Baja everyone calls her Señora Rivera y Castro, and Papa calls her Darling. Which sounds almost the same in Spanish as Darleen, but isn’t. Mom says Auntie Mermaid was her sister when they were girls. Which means they are sisters still, really.

When they first saw each other I could almost imagine they were lesbians by how they held on, like really held on, so tight to each other. Not that I know about lesbians. Papa would never let me know, really know, anything about that.

Usually, like when we don’t have aunties and cousins and cute boyfriends visiting, usually Mom lies down beneath my tree. Just lays there alone. Sometimes she is face down, “talking to the dirt,” she might say later, though it looks more like she’s trying to bury herself. She doesn’t talk at all then actually. “That’s how dirt likes to talk,” she’ll say. All no-talk talk. Other times Mom looks up at the leaves, holds her bag of teeth at her throat, and sings. That’s how leaves like to listen, I guess.

My tree is on a raised area. So that the water can drain out. Runoff here is slow, which is really good for cane, but not so good for lime. Our surface soil is dark. “A plant of contradictions,” Mama says about lime. Lime trees need water, but also the water has to drain off. So lime trees need a hill, but the hill can’t be a mountain. I think the English word for this might be persnickety. Or nitpicky. Something like that. In Spanish I’d say jodón. Which is a really good curse word.

When Papa is at my canines that is when he takes the most time. These are the ones that hurt the worst. He wants to take away that animal part of me. That violent part. It’s now that I start to cry, always. I cry loud with my mouth wide open. I fight myself to not push him away. I hold myself. I don’t want to make him do the wrong thing. Like accidently pull out a tooth. I put my hands up to my mouth, but his hands are in the way. The suction takes away all the slobber and sound I muster. I am yelling, crying and yelling. I think I am, anyway.

I wish I could tell Papa that I’m a gay who’s in love with a blond blue-eyed gringa from Nuevo York. I want to tell him so badly. But I can’t, because it’s not true. The gringas all live in Viejo San Juan. And I’m not gay after all. I wish I was just to fuck with him. I have to say, I think I really like cursing. And besides, I’m in love with Angelo.

The other thing is that Mom and Auntie Mermaid just recently reconnected, so they aren’t really lesbians. That’s just how real sisters get when they haven’t seen each other in a while. They don’t get shy, like friends do. Or like Fly. “Your Auntie Mermaid married the boy I loved,” that is what Mom said when I secretly helped her find Auntie on Facebook. At school, they teach us how to research on the internet, so I know how to use Facebook, Google, and The New York Times online. When Mom and Auntie got on the phone, Auntie said that Mom’s first boyfriend, Martin, was dead. Long time dead. But that Auntie Mermaid and him had had a baby who was all grown up now–Maristela, Sea Star. And so Mom invited them both to my mitzvah straight away. Like they had that man keeping them apart all those years. And now that he was gone from Mom and dead to Auntie, it all was fair. They could be proper friends, real sisters, again.

But, wow, when Maristela came yesterday. Mom just like stared at her. Touched her face. Traced her own fingers across that Sea Star’s face, like how sculptors do when they want to get the cheek bones right. At least that’s how I’ve seen it in the movies–Papa only lets me watch PBS, so there’s lots about art, and lots of other stuff about seaweed.

Papa. Right now Papa is using the clamps. And so I’m not really crying anymore, just yelping like. Or screaming maybe. Papa pulls each rubber so tight, it’s like he’s pulling the tooth right out of my head. If Mom gives me the little bag of teeth, I can add this one to it. But then that would make it nineteen teeth, not eighteen, which is the proper mitzfah number. Anyway, my tooth stays in my mouth. And I stay. In this chair, leaning backwards, my mouth open with the clamp so I can’t close it. I think I saw a picture in the synagogue library about how this is the exact way the Crusaders used to torture the Jews. I don’t dare touch the crucifix hanging from my throat. Dad might drill me in the neck if I do.

Because Papa didn’t throw it away, the crucifix, of course. All I have to do is go into my parents’ bathroom and open a few of those little plastic cases for keeping retainers. There it is. Easy as a finger in a pussy. Angelo told me that line. I can’t take the credit for that one. But what I’m saying is why does Papa care about any bat mitzfah or gold cross with some sexy dead dude on it? That bat is a scam anyhow. We don’t even get to read from the Torah. Papa said I had to read from Humash because I’m a girl. Fuck him. You know? Fuck. Him. And the mitzfah? It’s not real adulthood anyhow. All those shrimpy bar mitzfah boys. They aren’t men. I have seen a man. Fly, I mean. Cute! Handsome, I mean, since he’s a man and all. And a woman? That is Sea Star. I have seen adult, like what Sea Star and Fly do. Real adult. Because I saw them. Doing it. Sex. I saw it for real.

But Jesus Lord, fucking finally. Papa is ripping his gloves off. Snap, snap. Turns off all the machines. He turns away to take off the mask and the goggles. With his back to me he steps on the lever of the can so it pops open. Throws his gloves and his mask into the trash. Peels the goggles and their angler light off his head, and rests it so gently on the counter. Walks out without turning to me. The door swings to slam hard, but pulls back on itself just before. Closing gently at that last moment. I lay back with my mouth open. It hurts too much to close it. Which is to say that, yeah, I just wore the crucifix to fuck with Papa. I can feel in my mouth that it did the trick.

There is just so much to figure out. Like why is Mom weird sometimes, and will I get weird when I’m a woman? It’s true that I wanted to hear what Mom and Auntie Mermaid have to say about growing up orphan. I heard how everyone, even the Hindu girl, had to go to Catholic Mass when they were at the home with the women. Auntie Mermaid says that that is how she became Catholic, because she wasn’t anything before. Married Catholic to that man Mom loved. I hear Mom say that she’s always been Jewish. Known it because the woman told her when they took her in–the bag of teeth already on her neck. That’s not how Mom told it to me. So, yeah, it was interesting to listen in and all, but the real people to spy were Sea Star and Fly.

Got the chance when Mom had asked me to take them through.

Our trees aren’t in a grove, they’re in a greenhouse. When he saw the greenhouse, Fly kept saying the trees should be free and outside. Which is stupid. Because if they were outside they would get sick whenever there was a sickness, and then Papa would have to put some more braces on some more preteen loser kids just to keep us three fed and clothed. The only tree out in the open is my tree. A solitary grove. And Mom takes real special care of it.

“That tree right there is the only happy one,” Fly said.

Which, who knows? Maybe it’s true. Though I always think that tree, my tree, seems lonely. Anyway, I took Sea Star and Fly to get sprayed down. Fly didn’t want to go. “Pesticides,” he said. I told him it’s not pesticides. “It’s like hand sanitizer, but for your whole body.” I walked through first. “See?” I said. “It doesn’t even hurt your eyes.” I felt adult talking to him like this. Sea Star walked after me. “It’s refreshing, like a mist,” she said.

“You know? Thanks, but no thanks?” He said it all like a question. Like he knew he was being weird, but was gonna be weird anyway. He even laughed all the sudden, like just laughed when there was nothing funny. Sea Star was waiting, too, looking at him. He looked at us both, his face so brown and smooth and glowing like gold or something. “I mean?” he started, still smiling and all. “In twenty years, I’ll have an extra eyeball in my face and I won’t know why? It will be because of this?” he opened his hands towards the spray down cubicle.

Sea Star said, “It’s too late for me. I’m going in.” I couldn’t tell if she was serious or if he was serious. Because the whole idea is that the spray protects the plants from us. The ones in this greenhouse are smooth and green–babies. I wonder if all dudes are afraid of stupid stuff. Angelo says he’s afraid of me.

Right then, I felt like I’d hit on something really big, but I didn’t have time to think on it. I wanted to go to my lime tree, and lay under it and think about fear, and what it keeps us from or what it keeps us going towards. But instead, Sea Star and I went into the greenhouse. It’s warm and wet inside. “These are about two years old,” I said pointing to one. “Because they are grafted they will bear in about three years.”

Sea Star looked at them like she was sad, “Gotta keep them fucking safe,” she said. So I knew she got it.

When we walked back out to the yard, Fly went to her and held her hard. I stared at them hard. I mean, she was only gone a few minutes, but maybe that is what love does. She held the back of his neck in her palms. He kissed the middle of her forehead. “No extra eyeball,” he said. And she laughed.

“I’ll go in,” he said. Like it was a brave thing to do. So we sprayed up again and all went in again. Just for him.

Fly asked a lot of questions. “Do you have to prune them all. That’s work, right?”

“No. They are self-pruning. They know how to take care of themselves. Caribbean limes.”

Fly looked at me like he was mad at me for saying that Caribbean part. I forgot that he is a gringo himself. We’re speaking English of course, but it’s hard for me to tell the difference in Sea Star’s accent and his.

“Sorry,” I said.

He nods and goes on. “But you have to, like, water them all the time. Work? Backbreaking?” Like he wanted it to be backbreaking.

“It’s not slavery or anything,” I said, trying to figure what I should say. “They need water but not too much water. It’s not an everyday thing.”

He didn’t like the slavery thing. We all got quiet for a bit.

Then he started up again.

“Well this is sad, right?” Fly asked, when I point out the graft. “It’s been forced to mature too fast.” It’s a good graft, Mom does them all. No weeping at the wound, no sap leaking at the fissure. I never thought of it like he says. That it’s a forcing. True, this is the part that Mom likes the least. Fly touched the stem, which was okay, because that one had the bark lines to show that it was hardier, could take his touch.

“Well,” said Sea Star. “Maybe it’s not sad. Not all the way sad.” She was making her voice sad-like, and I could tell that she was doing that thing that Mom says insecure girls do around boys. Pretending. “I don’t pretend with your father,” Mom says. But you know, even I can see that that’s why Papa doesn’t love her that much anymore. She could pretend to be happier, I guess. Fingir hasta que los hagas, is what Papa says. Fix it until you are it–he says that, too.

We walked out of the greenhouse. Sea Star smiled at me and said, “Those are some cool braces. Must be nice to have braces.” I don’t know what my face did when she said that, because I can’t figure out how having braces could be nice. “It’s nice,” she said “to spend money on beauty. In my house, all our money is always going to Dad’s doctor.” She looks over at Fly, like she’s nervous. Then she looks at me again. “Dad is really good now, though. His old age will be the healthiest time. It’s like that for some people.”

But me? I’d never thought about anything the way she thinks about things. That braces are about beauty making? Papa was just fixing me. My teeth were so messed up it was a sickness. Papa said so, sort of. And he is the best orthodontist in our area. Kids come for miles. Even from San Juan.

We walk to my lime tree because Fly wants to see it up close. He reaches and holds one small hard lime hanging from one of its skinny branches. I swallow my own words, try to eat up my desire to tell him to stop. Stop, stop, I want to say. I want to shout it. He is touching the fruit, holding it so that it disappears in his hand. “They’re not ready to pick” I say, quietly. He quickly pulls his hands away, puts them both in his pocket. We three are quiet. Then Fly asked, “You have something to do,” but there’s was no question-marky-ness in his voice.

“Not really,” I said, but I felt weird, like he was asking something more, but I’m too stupid.

“Homework,” he said, like he could make homework appear. But it was Christmas break still. No homework.

Sea Star put her hand on his back. Like she was calming him. “Don’t worry,” Sea Star said to him, though I think she should’ve been saying it to me, because I felt worried and weird. “Everything is going well,” she said. “Everything is fine.”

Was it me? Was I making it not go well?

“I think my Mom even likes you,” Maristela said to Fly.

But, oooh, that was a lie. I’d been there when Auntie Mermaid called him “a man child,” which I know isn’t a good thing, not the way Auntie said it, anyway. But Maristela and Earl are in love, and maybe love makes a man a child again? Makes a woman like a mother? For my parents it’s kind of the opposite. Mom is the child, in a way. I want to explain this to Fly and Sea Star.

But I don’t. I also don’t say that the farm is how they met–my parents. Papa just out of high school. Working the farm. Back then the women who ran the orphanage were still alive. But Mom was the only one left. The only orphan. When the women died they didn’t really leave Mom the farm. It’s just that Mom was the only one left on the land. A lawyer, a good Puerto Rican, helped her. He was Jewish, and he encouraged Mom to get into her Jewishness–like he was a dad or something. And Mom, thankful, consented. That’s how she says it, “I consented for a while.” Found her faith in time to make Papa convert so he would marry her. Which makes me think maybe the Jew lawyer made him convert? Who knows. Either way, Mama sold half the farm to pay for Papa’s medical school, though somehow he ended up a dentist in the end. They sold the cows, planted the limes.

Dad is ashamed of all that history. Doesn’t talk about. “Tu madre era una rica heredera,” he says with a smile so large it’s fucking scary. Anyway, I never ask him about any of it anymore. It’s Mama who tells me, but only when we are alone … “I was the opposite of an heiress.”

“I gotta go get my braces tightened,” I say. Which was is sort of true. I was supposed to do it tomorrow, after the bat. But I was trying to find a reason to run on out of there. Which was how I ended up in this chair. But Sea Star and Fly were looking at the lime tree like it’s their baby or something. That was when I figured they would let me watch them. I backed up, started for Papa’s office.

My lime tree is Caribbean. Like me and Mama and Papa. Caribbean limes are the only true limes. They have the seeds. Most of the trees we grow don’t have seeds. Persians–we grow those. Ironic for a Jewish establishment, if you ask me. Me, I’m real, like the limes. But the seeds from real limes are bitter. Bad bitter. Like poison.

In real time, I’m still sitting in the chair in Papa’s office. I’ve swung my legs around. I’m getting ready to go out that swing door. It’s nighttime now and it’s still my mitzfah day, though it’s not. This is when I know Maristela and Fly are going to fuck. I get up to go find them. But Papa swings back in. His face is bare and I feel afraid of him. But also I feel brave, like, Fuck him. Like, Do something, nigger. I’ll fuck you up. All that, I feel.

“Los dientes de tu madre no estan en la bolsa,” he says, even though Mama always said it was her baby teeth in there. Ones her mother saved. The air in the room smells like my mouth, which also tastes like grout and rubber.

“No puede ser dientes,” he says. And then he goes on about how it’s practically impossible for anyone to save eighteen baby teeth from one baby. Babies mostly swallow their teeth. And now my mouth is just open, not only because I’m like in shock, or not sure what to say. But because I don’t want my teeth to touch. The pain.

Fuck him.

After he leaves again, I wait and I wait and I wait. I wait until I am so sure he must be gone. It’s dark. Our house is just across the yard, other side of the greenhouses. It’s dark, but our house is lit up, which means maybe that Auntie Mermaid and Mama are in there drinking coquito, which Mama says is too good to be only for the holidays. Sea Star and Fly will be under my lime tree. That is where I would be with Angelo if we got the chance.

But nope. It’s Mama there. She is singing I love you, I love you, I love you to our tree, but so quiet only the tree and me can hear. I lay down beside her. I can’t sing. I can’t close my mouth. The pain is throbbing. I pretend that she is singing to me. Her arms are out in a T, palms up. And I lay my cheek in one of her palms. My lips are at her wrist. She sings and sings. Then she reaches up with her free arm. Grabs a lime that is low, too low. It is tiny and hard, not ready for plucking. Might be the same one that Fly cupped earlier. But it’s true that this is something we do sometimes with the trees in the greenhouse. Sacrifice one lime, early, to make sure. Make sure the tree is fruiting right. It’s so green, it’s bright, and Mama bites into it. And she doesn’t pucker–though the sour has to be sharp. She hums her I love you song. She turns to me with the lime. I can’t bite the fruit, the pulp would even be too hard for me to chew with my teeth so tight. The lime is so tight the juice is only a drop, it can’t cry, but she squeezes a drop into my mouth somehow. And she keeps singing. A drop of fire, it’s so sour. It scathes my tongue.

Mama has the pouch around her neck. Me? Truth is, I have a full-on crucifix around mine.

Thing is, I’m a Jew no matter what I do. I can’t erase it. It’s always there, waiting for me if I want it. Like a curse. It’s just not like that for Papa. I’m a Catholic too, I guess. In the same kind of way. For Papa, the mikveh was the sea. He went down the beach, into the water and he walked back out a Jew.

Now Mama isn’t looking at me anymore. We are elevated a bit, on the hill with my lime tree, in the dark. I look where Mama is looking. And there they are. I sweep my eyes over his entire body, and then hers. I can’t tell if they are wearing clothes or not. But Maristela is on top of Fly, that I can tell. And he is moaning, even though I thought that was the thing the girls did. He leans up to kiss her and I watch them kiss. They use their whole mouths. He doesn’t put his arms around her, like I had supposed. She seems alone up there on top of him, riding him like maybe she’s a torera. It’s dark but I see this. And it’s quiet, so I hear this: “You on top now?” It’s Sea Star’s voice, quiet and sweet. “Not yet,” he says. I feel his words burning inside me, but a cold burning like someone put an ice pop in my vag. I hate it, the feeling. But I want it. I look at Mom looking. I lick my braces.

My braces are a train track. A rail going somewhere deep into my mouth, though the way Papa’s does it, tells it, it’s straight to my soul. A straight track that will set not just my mouth but my whole life on the correct path. Papa wants me to be beautiful like Mama, but he doesn’t want me to be like Mom: “Nobody wants that for you.” But what about what I want? I don’t want to be beautiful. I want to be a bull dike. Which is like a lesbian but a strong handsome one. I want to be a bull. Truth is that Angelo is the gay one. He told me so, and then he made me swear not to tell. But I wanted to tell him that he can’t be gay. Because I love him. I would be bull for him.

Then I hear Auntie Mermaid calling. She is calling for all of us. “Where the fuck is my family!?” She calls. Sea Star stops moving, but then Fly finally holds onto her, so they don’t stop. “Family people!” Auntie Mermaid calls into the darkness. I don’t know why but I take my crucifix off, hold it and the necklace of 18 carat gold in my fist. I can’t tell if Mama hears Mermaid, but Mama takes off her necklace with its bag of teeth. “Family!” Mermaid keeps calling. Maristela and Fly keep fucking. Mama passes me the teeth and I take it, but I don’t give up the gold. “This fucking family,” Mermaid says now, changing it up. “This fucking family of mine.”

Tiphanie Yanique is the author of four books, including Wife, which won the Bocas Award for Caribbean Poetry and the UK’s Forward Prize. Originally from the Virgin Islands, Yanique is associate professor of English and creative writing at Emory University.
Originally published:
July 1, 2018


Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre


Renaissance Women

A new book celebrates—and sells short—Shakespeare’s sisters
Catherine Nicholson

Fady Joudah

The poet on how the war in Gaza changed his work
Aria Aber

You Might Also Like

Four Japanese Stories

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Ryan C. K. Choi

Eternal Return

Sergio Troncoso

Pretty Things

Virginie Despentes
Emma Ramadan


New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.