Lessons

Justin Torres

1. WE WANTED MORE

We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats, we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.

When it was cold, we fought over blankets until the cloth tore down the middle. When it was really cold, when our breath came out in frosty clouds, Manny crawled into bed with Joel and me.

‘Body heat,’ he said.

‘Body heat,’ we agreed.

We wanted more flesh, more blood, more warmth.

When we fought, we fought with weapons – boots and garage tools, snapping pliers – we grabbed at whatever was nearest and we hurled it through the air; we wanted more broken dishes, more shattered glass. We wanted more crashes.

And when our Paps came home, we got spankings. Our little round butt cheeks were tore up: red, raw, leather-whipped. We knew there was something on the other side of pain, on the other side of the sting. Prickly heat radiated upward from our thighs and backsides, fire consumed our brains, but we knew that there was something more, some place our Paps was taking us with all this. We knew, because he was meticulous, because he was precise, because he took his time.

And when our father was gone, we wanted to be fathers. We hunted animals. We drudged through the muck of the creek, chasing down bullfrogs and water snakes. We plucked the baby robins from their nest. We liked to feel the beat of tiny hearts, the struggle of tiny wings. We brought their tiny animal faces close to ours.

‘Who’s your daddy?’ we said, then we laughed and tossed them into a shoebox.

Always more, always hungrily scratching for more. But there were times, quiet moments, when our mother was sleeping, when she hadn’t slept in two days, and any noise, any stair creak, any shut door, any stifled laugh, any voice at all, might wake her – those still, crystal mornings, when we wanted to protect her, this confused goose of a woman, this stumbler, this gusher, with her backaches and headaches and her tired, tired ways, this uprooted Brooklyn creature, this tough talker, always with tears when she tells us she loves us, her mixed-up love, her needy love, her warmth – on those mornings, when sunlight found the cracks in our blinds, and laid itself down in crisp strips on our carpet, those quiet mornings, when we’d fixed ourselves oatmeal, and sprawled on to our stomachs with crayons and paper, with glass marbles that we were careful not to rattle, when our mother was sleeping, when the air did not smell like sweat or breath or mould, when the air was still and light, those mornings, when silence was our secret game and our gift and our sole accomplishment – we wanted less: less weight, less work, less noise, less father, less muscles and skin and hair. We wanted nothing, just this, just this.

2. HERITAGE

When we got home from school Paps was in the kitchen, cooking and listening to music and feeling fine. He whiffed the steam coming off a pot, then clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly. His eyes were wet and sparkled with giddy life. He turned up the volume on the stereo and it was mambo, it was Tito Puente.

‘Watch out,’ he said, and spun, with grace, on one slippered foot, his bathrobe twirling out around him. In his fist was a glistening, greasy metal spatula, which he pumped in the air to the beat of the bongo drums.

My brothers and I, the three of us, stood in the entrance to the kitchen, laughing, eager to join in, but waiting for our cue. He staked staccato steps across the linoleum to where we stood and whipped Joel and Manny on to the dance floor, grabbing their wimpy arms and jerking them behind him. Me he took by the hands and slid between his legs and I popped up on the other side of him. Then we wiggled around the kitchen, following behind him in a line, like baby geese. We rolled our tiny clenched fists in front of us and snapped our hips to the trumpet blasts.

There were hot things on the stove, pork chops frying in their own fat, and Spanish rice foaming up and rattling its lid. The air was thick with steam and spice and noise, and the one little window above the sink was fogged over.

Paps turned the stereo even louder, so loud that if I screamed no one would have heard me, so loud that my brothers felt very far away and hard to get to, even though they were right there in front of me. Then Paps grabbed a can of beer from the fridge and our eyes followed the path of the can to his lips. We took in the empties stacked up on the counter behind him, then we looked at each other. Manny rolled his eyes and kept dancing, and so we got in line and kept dancing too, except now Manny was the Papa Goose, it was him we were following.

‘Now shake it like you’re rich,’ Paps shouted, his powerful voice booming out over the music. We danced on tiptoes, sticking up our noses and poking the air above us with our pinkies.

‘You ain’t rich,’ Papi said, ‘Now shake it like you’re poor.’

We got low on our knees, clenched our fists and stretched our arms out on our sides; we shook our shoulders and threw our heads back, wild and loose and free.

‘You ain’t poor neither. Now shake it like you’re white.’

We moved like robots, stiff and angled, not even smiling. Joel was the most convincing, I’d see him practising in his room sometimes.

‘You ain’t white,’ Paps shouted. ‘Now shake it like a Puerto Rican.’

There was a pause as we gathered ourselves. Then we mamboed as best we could, trying to be smooth and serious and to feel the beat in our feet and beyond the beat to feel the rhythm. Paps watched us for a while, leaning against the counter and taking long draws from his beer.

‘Mutts,’ he said. ‘You ain’t white and you ain’t Puerto Rican. Watch how a purebred dances, watch how we dance in the ghetto.’ Every word was shouted over the music, so it was hard to tell if he was mad or just making fun.

He danced and we tried to see what separated him from us. He pursed his lips and kept one hand on his stomach. His elbow was bent, his back was straight, but somehow there was looseness and freedom and confidence in every move. I tried to watch his feet but something about the way they twisted and stepped over each other, something about the line of his torso, kept pulling my eyes up to his face, to his broad nose and dark, half-shut eyes and his pursed lips, which snarled and smiled both.

‘This is your heritage,’ he said, as if from this dance we could know about his own childhood, about the flavour and grit of tenement buildings in Spanish Harlem, and projects in Red Hook, and dance halls, and city parks, and about his own Papi, how he beat him, how he taught him to dance, as if we could hear Spanish in his movements, as if Puerto Rico was a man in a bathrobe, grabbing another beer from the fridge and raising it to drink, his head back, still dancing, still stepping and snapping perfectly in time.

3. THE LAKE

One unbearable night, in the middle of a heatwave, Paps drove us all to the lake. Ma and I didn’t know how to swim, so she grabbed on to Papi’s back and I grabbed on to hers and he took us on a little tour, spreading his arms before him and kicking his legs underneath us, our own legs trailing through the water, relaxed and still, our toes curled backward.

Every once in a while Ma would point out some happening for me to look at, a duck touching down on to the water, his head pulled back on his neck, beating his wings before him, or a water bug with spindly legs that dimpled the lake’s surface.

‘Not so far,’ she would say to Papi, but he’d push on, smooth and slow, and the shore behind would stretch and thin and curve, until it was a wooded crescent impossibly dark and remote.

In the middle of the lake the water was blacker and cooler, and Paps swam right into a clump of slimy tar-black leaves. Ma and I tried to splash the leaves away from us, but we had to keep one arm holding on, so they ended up curling around in our jetty and sticking to our ribs and thighs like leeches. Paps lifted a fistful into the air and the leaf clump melted through the cracks in his fingers and disintegrated into speckles in the water and cigarette-sized fish appeared and nibbled at the leaf bits.

‘We’ve come too far,’ Ma said. ‘Take us back.’

‘Soon,’ Papi said.

Ma started talking about how unnatural it was that Paps knew how to swim. She said that no one swam in Brooklyn. The most water she ever saw in one place was when one of the men from the block would open up the johnny pump, and water would rush and pour forth. She said that she never jumped through the spray like the other kids – too hard and mean and shocking – but instead she liked to stand further down, where the sidewalk met the street, and let the water pool around her ankles.

‘I had already been married and pushed out three boys before I ever stepped into anything deeper than a puddle,’ she said.

Papi didn’t say when or where he had learned to swim, but he generally made it his business to learn everything that had to do with survival. He had all the muscles and the will, and he was on his way to becoming indestructible.

‘I guess it’s opposite with you, isn’t it?’ Ma called back to me. ‘You grew up with all these lakes and rivers, and you got two brothers that swim like a couple of goldfish in a bowl – how come you don’t swim?’

She asked the question as if she was meeting me for the first time, as if the circumstances of my life, my fumbling, terrifying attempts at the deep end, the one time at the public pool, when I had been dragged out by the high-school lifeguard and had puked up pool water on to the grass, 700 eyes on me, the din of screams and splashes and whistles momentarily silenced as everyone stopped to ponder my bony weakness, to stare and stare, waiting for me to cry, which I did – as if it had only just now occurred to Ma how odd it was that I was here, clinging to her and Paps, and not with my brothers who had run into the water, dunked each other’s heads down, tried to drown each other, then ran back out and disappeared into the trees.

Of course, it was impossible for me to answer her, to tell the truth, to say I was scared. The only one who ever got to say that in our family was Ma, and most of the time she wasn’t even scared, just too lazy to go down into the crawlspace herself, or else she said it to make Paps smile, to get him to tickle and tease her or pull her close, to let him know she was only really scared of being without him. But me, I would have rather let go and slipped quietly down to the lake’s black bottom than to admit fear to either one of them.

But I didn’t have to say anything, because Paps answered for me.

‘He’s going to learn,’ he said. ‘You’re both going to learn,’ and no one spoke after that for a long time. I watched the moon break into shards of light across the lake, I watched dark birds circle and caw, the wind lifted the tree branches, the pine trees tipped; I felt the lake get colder, and I smelled the dead leaves.

Later, after the incident, Paps drove us home. He sat behind the wheel, still shirtless, his back and neck and even his face a cross-hatch of scratches, some only deep red lines and broken skin, some already scabbing, and some still glistening with fresh blood, and I too was all scratched up – for she had panicked, and when he slipped away she had clawed on top of me – later, Paps said, ‘How else do you expect to learn?’

And Ma, who had nearly drowned me, who had screamed and cried and dug her nails down into me, who had been more frenzied and wild than I had ever known her to be – Ma, who was so boiling angry that she had made Manny sit up front with Paps and she had taken the middle back, wrapping her arms around us – Ma replied by reaching across me and opening the door as we sped along. I looked down and saw the pavement rushing and blurring beneath, the shoulder dropping away into a gravel pit. Ma held open that door and asked, ‘What? You want me to teach him how to fly? Should I teach him how to fly?’

Then Paps had to pull over and calm her down. The three of us boys jumped out and walked to the edge and took out our dicks and pissed down into the ditch.

‘She really clawed you up like that?’ Manny asked.

‘She tried to climb on to my head.’

‘What kind of…’ he started to say, but didn’t finish. Instead, he picked up a rock and hurled it out away from him as far as he could.

From the car, we heard the noises of their arguing, we heard Ma saying over and over, ‘You let me go. You let me go,’ and we watched the big trailers haul past, rumbling the car and the ground underneath our feet.

Manny laughed. He said, ‘Shit, I thought she was gonna throw you out of the car.’

And Joel laughed too. He said, ‘Shit. I thought you were gonna fly.’

When we finally returned to the car, Ma was up front again, and Paps drove with one hand on the back of her neck. He waited until the perfect moment, until we’d settled into silence and peace and we were thinking ahead, to the beds waiting for us at home, and then he turned his head to the side, glancing at me over his shoulder, and asked, all curious and friendly, ‘So, how’d you like your first flying lesson?’ And the whole car erupted in laughter; all was okay again.

But the incident itself remained, and at night, in bed, I remembered how Paps had slipped away from us, how he looked on as we flailed and struggled, how I needed to escape Ma’s clutch and grip, how I let myself slide down and down, and when I opened my eyes what I discovered there: black-green murkiness, an underwater world, terror. I sank down for a long time, disoriented and writhing, and then suddenly I was swimming – kicking my legs and spreading my arms just like Paps showed me, and rising up to the light and exploding into air, and then that first breath, sucking air all the way down into my lungs, and when I looked up the sky had never been so vaulted, so sparkling and magnificent. I remembered the urgency in my parents’ voices, Ma wrapped around Papi once again, and both of them calling my name. I swam towards their bobbing mass and there under the stars, I was wanted. They had never been so happy to see me, they had never looked at me with such intensity and hope, they had never before spoken my name so softly.

I remembered how Ma burst into tears and Paps celebrated, shouting as if he was a mad scientist and I a marvel of his creation:

‘He’s alive!’

‘He’s alive!’

‘He’s alive!’

Portrait of My Father
Portrait of My Father