Sitting on my fire escape, I could see up the avenue past the Baptist church to Manny’s building – where he sold weed – and down past the bodega to the sneaker store two corners away. It was a good spot to see the mailman when he turned onto St. Nicholas Avenue. I’d been watching him for two weeks now.
“Bajate de alli! You make me nervous sitting out there,” Mami yelled from the living room. “He’s not going to come any faster by you watching him.”
She was pulling a long piece of yarn from the tablecloth she was knitting, where apparently she’d messed up the stitching in the last row. I couldn’t pry myself away from the fire escape though, at least not until I saw the mailman appear at the corner.
“What difference does it make whether you check the mail now or later in the afternoon?” She shook her head.
It made all the difference in the world because my life was going to change with that letter and I wanted it to change now. I knew this was the only way, since that day in Ms. Giulio’s office, months earlier.
“Okay kid,” Ms. Giulio had sat down across from me after closing the door to her office, “like what’s going on with you?”
She opened a file on her desk. “You’re in the top five percent of your grade. Your teachers have like, nothing but good things to say about you. Yet, here you are. Cutting class, hanging out with older boys from the neighborhood and now Ms. Sanchez caught you smoking? I don’t get it.” She closed my file. “Is there like something going on at home?”
“Not really.” I stared out the window at the yard where the boys were playing basketball. “I just hate being home sometimes. I can’t really do anything.”
“I don’t know. Just stupid small stuff everyone else gets to do. Like hang out after school or go to a friend’s house. Go to the movies or a birthday party. Walk somewhere by myself.”
“Like, why can’t you do those things?”
I sighed. “Because my mom says hanging out is only for delinquents like my cousins and it’s only safe to go to a friend’s house if there are no men there. You know, no fathers, no brothers. And God only knows what we do at birthday parties or who’s there and it’s dark in the movies. She says nothing good happens to a girl in the dark.”
Ms. Giulio sat back in her chair and blew a lock of her short, curly hair out of her face.
“I understand you feel like…stifled,” she reasoned out loud. She was one of the young teachers, still willing to look for angles and solutions. “Why don’t you try applying for boarding school? It’ll get you out of the house but on good terms.”
“I don’t know. Even if I did get in…”
“Of course you’d get in!” Ms. Giulio was animated now.
“Even if I did get in,” I started again, “my mother’s not going to go for it. I can’t even go down the block by myself, she’s not gonna let me cross state lines.”
“Like, why don’t we both talk to her?”
The next morning, Mami was sitting across from Ms. Giulio wearing her white Sunday blouse and aquamarine skirt. She eyed me suspiciously. On the train ride to the school that morning, Mami had been vacillating between complaining and threatening me. There was no convincing her that the teacher wanted to see her for anything good because they could have given her good news over the phone and let her get to work on time.
Ms. Giulio was doing fine with Mami right up until the point she told her where these private schools were located.
“Adonde? Connecticut? Mira muchacha de mierda, tu ‘ta loca?” She turned in her chair to face me. Ms. Giulio was clearly unprepared and sat there with her doe eyes wide open. “Absolutamente, no.” She began rummaging in her purse for I don’t know what.
“You act like it’s that far! I could come home for the holidays,” I protested.
“What fourteen year-old doesn’t sleep in their house? I don’t even know what type of people are over there, what kind of supervision there is…”
“Oh the faculty is like very experienced and there’s a small student to teacher ratio,” Ms. Giulio chimed in.
Mami stared at Ms. Giulio as if she were from another planet. “And you,” she said to me accusingly, “plotting behind my back.”
Tears welled up in my eyes. “I want to go, Mami.”
“The only thing I ever wanted when I was a girl was to be home, tranquila. Not to worry about some strange man convincing my parents to marry me off to him or the police disappearing my brothers in the middle of the night or where I was going to steal the next plate of food from.” The crows feet around Mami’s eyes were so pronounced that I had to look away. She looked hurt and tired all of a sudden. “You think it’s better out there?” She pointed outside the window. “Ta bien,” she nodded. “Go.”
I should have been happy.
Every application that I filled out brought me closer to the day I would leave the prison tower of Mami’s love. It didn’t matter anymore that I couldn’t go to the movies with everyone on Friday or talk to a boy over the phone because I was leaving and never coming back. I was just biding my time and boarding school would only be the start. After graduation, I would go away to college and after that I would get a job and my own apartment. I had the next ten years of my life mapped out.
And my life – my real life – could start as soon as I got that letter.
“Mami, can I get the keys to the mailbox?”
She continued knitting, her long brown fingers dancing with the needles. “You know where they are.”
I climbed inside my room and walked over to the coat hooks by the front door. I dug my hand into one of her jackets and pulled out the set of keys. She had one of those laminated photo key chains with one of my baby photos inside. As I tugged on the front door (the humidity always made it expand), my heart began racing.
I waited while the mailman dropped the mail in all the boxes. He hated when you asked for your mail directly. He’d ask you for ID and shoot you an irritated look.
He finally finished and locked all the boxes up before I dared to put Mami’s key into the lock. There was an electricity bill, a clothing catalog, and behind those, the letter. It was a slim regular envelope. Too slim. It definitely wasn’t big enough to contain a color brochure, financial aid forms and an acceptance letter.
My throat tightened until it hurt and I couldn’t see the stairs clearly. I opened the front door with a sob and Mami dropped her knitting into the bucket she kept beside her with the next roll of yarn. She opened her arms instinctively and I threw myself into her embrace although I must’ve looked ridiculous sitting on her lap with my long legs dangling over her and touching the floor, like a kid that’s outgrown a stroller but sits in it anyway. She wiped my tears with her hand and reached into the pocket of her bata for a tissue.
“Dejame ver.” I handed her the envelope and she read it carefully, slowly translating the English into Spanish in her head. “What is a ‘quo-ta?’ No entiendo. How can a big school be filled up?” She looked at me confused. I couldn’t stop crying long enough to form any words.
“Ay mija,” she said, sighing. “Didn’t I tell you?”
I was defeated. I had applied to five boarding schools and this was the fifth letter to arrive. In the fall, Mami would time how long it should take me to get home from school and yell at the top of her lungs if I called her at work a minute late. She would listen in on my phone conversations from the kitchen receiver. Another year of not being allowed to go to parties or hanging out after class with the girls. Everything would stay the same.
Mami tucked the letter into her knitting bucket. I silently climbed back out onto the fire escape and watched the mailman zigzag his way up to Manny’s building, where he was already outside in a white tank-top. The pastor’s sons were fighting in the church yard and up the street in the opposite direction, there was a teenage girl leaving the bodega sipping from a can of soda and digging her fingers into a bag of chips. The guys in front of the bodega whistled and hollered at her, then called her a bitch when it was clear she wasn’t going to pay them any mind. I looked back inside the apartment to see Mami re-knitting the last row of the tablecloth. Inch by inch, it draped into the knitting bucket until I could no longer see the letter.
previously published as "Cartero, Bring Me No More Blues" in the September 2009 issue of The Acentos Review.
Cybonn Ang lives in New Zealand where she spends a lot of time bird-watching, climbing hills and looking into rock pools. Visit her at www.cybonn.com.