Killing Time by the Sea at the Edge of the World
By the Rockpool
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.
THE 5 A.M. BITCH LIST
Michael Martin wasn’t a hoarder in the typical sense. His single bedroom apartment wasn’t overflowing with crusty plastic milk gallons or yogurts five years past their expiration that he’d try to convince guests were still good. There were no stacks of old newspapers stacked to the ceiling. Hell, Michael was so clean and tidy he didn’t even have a trash can, preferring to walk his trash directly to the dumpster. The trash can was like a middle man, and Michael just saw it as impractical.
But Michael Martin hoarded, only he didn’t know it. Everyone else did, and perhaps that was either life’s greatest gift or harshest punishment for Michael - that everyone else knew his greatest flaw and never breathed a word of it to Michael. He hoarded at the grocery store and he hoarded at the gym. He hoarded at the post office and anywhere else he went.
Since Michael's obsessive gathering wasn’t material and since he was always clean-shaven and put together in the way most single men are - fairly clean with the same standard Costco-inspired wardrobe, he raised no red flags to those who didn’t know him. It wasn't like he was pushing a rickety shopping cart overflowing with mangy cats or humming creepy showtunes at the park. To the untrained eye, he was just a clean, normal looking old guy who was aged just enough to get the senior respect--the door held an extra few seconds, a nod from a passing stranger.
Perhaps no one knew about Michael's obsessive hoarding more than Jason, who lived three floors below Michael in the apartment complex and seemed to share the same schedule every weekend.
Whether it was the grocery store or gym, Jason was always one of Michael’s main targets. Most recently, Jason was trying to get a third set in on the leg extension equipment, work his divorce out through self-inflicted pain--the only way--when Michael ambled over, dry towel draped over his shoulder and an obscenely large water bottle in tow.
“It’s all yours,” Jason said, not looking up.
Michael didn’t say anything, but leaned against the shoulder press machine next to the leg extension, physically blocking Jason from rising.
“Oh, hey, Mike, how’s it going?” Jason asked, glancing at his Timex.
“Good, good.” Michael exhaled. Jason thought about shimmying over the foam bars directly in front of him. Or maybe limboing underneath for a quick escape.
“I was just working the chest today. Trying to decide if I’m going to get some legs in too. I don’t know.” Michael never broke eye contact the entire time. Jason moved to get up, but Michael made no motion to slide over.
“You see the new Men’s Health?” Jason didn't bother telling Michael he didn’t read those, since he had balls and all, and didn’t need advice on the essentialness of manscaping or how to make a woman quake for 15 hours, even though he’d never met a woman who listed that as one of her prerequisites.
“No, haven’t seen that,” was Jason’s reply.
Michael moved his hand. Water from his five gallon bottle sloshed everywhere, blowing Jason’s notion that Michael just carried an empty water bottle around for show. “They’ve got this great new method of fat burning. Like really great. It focuses entirely on the midsection, you know, the love handles and all that shit.” Michael grabbed one of his love handles with his other hand, squeezing it ‘til it looked like it hurt, oblivious to how loud he was saying “shit” or the stares that followed.
“It’s a fat blasting workout,” Michael continued. “All that cardio shit they’ve been slanging is obsolete because of this. You see all those hags sweating like pigs on the elliptical? Waste of their fucking time.” Jason glanced at the row of women pumping in near-unison, figuring they couldn’t hear over the whirr of the handles and the shitty Maroon 5 that was probably blasting out of their headphones. Marissa’d always listened to them.
“I’ll have to try that,” Jason said.
“Nah, you don’t need that. Are you kidding? You look incredible. Your body’s a machine. And I don’t say that to sound, you know, like that,” Michael said as he made his wrist limp and pursed his lips. “I’m just saying, maybe you saw it ‘cause you were interested. I know you’re into that shit.”
Jason had never been into that shit. He wasn’t a fitness buff or someone who even put that much effort into exercising. He kind of liked the feeling of pain and it was better than playing his Xbox everyday after work.
Michael repositioned his arm against the shoulder press machine. Jason was still on the leg extension, wondering if he’d leave an imprint on the seat when he got up. He could feel his warm muscles tightening. He thought about looking at his watch again, but he knew he was in for at least a few more minutes.
“Anyway, I’ll bring you the article later tonight. I think you’ll really dig it. They got some pretty good pictures in there too, if you know what I mean.” Michael laughed and Jason looked down at his knees in embarrassment, cursing himself for not being able to just stand up and get off the machine. He pictured himself rising, giving Michael a shoulder to the gut, and moving on to the leg press machine without a word exchanged. But then he thought about Michael and how everyone looked the other way when they saw him coming, how sometimes he could watch Michael wander the gym from the free weight room to the cardio deck with no plans to exert himself physically in any kind of way. Jason felt a mixture of pity and disgust, perhaps the two lowest qualities in the human spectrum of emotion.
“So you’re gonna be around later tonight?” Michael asked. “Sometimes I come by to drop something off and you’re already sleeping, and I’m like how’s a young guy like you sleeping when an old fart like me is still putzing around, bringing you some softcore porn wondering how in the fuck you’re not waiting outside your door for it.”
Jason felt the need to clarify the whole porn thing, especially since some kid was now looking at the two of them like they were the same nasty person. He’d never asked Michael for porn, but Michael considered any kind of health magazine with women in bikinis in those testosterone-boosting ads to be pornogrpahic, so he kind-of-jokingly-but -mostly-seriously considered himself in a one-sided porn-swapping covenant with someone half his age with a wi-fi connection.
This was always the part in the conversation when Michael started to get carried away. Usually there was some natural interruption for Jason, since he lacked the balls to just get up and say he had to keep it moving. But if he didn't do something now, Michael would probably start talking about some sidepiece he had, a term he most likely picked up listening in on someone else’s conversation.
“I’ve gotta get to work in a few,” Jason lied.
Michael made a move to slide over, but not by much. “I might blast the back a little today too,” he said. “You still over at Lowe’s, in the appliance department?”
“Yeah,” Jason said all too quickly, picturing a visit from Michael, his coworkers bristling at someone he’d probably found on Craigslist in the “Pornography - for trade” section. He should have at least made Michael wander around from department to department for a while, then sheepishly say he’d been transferred back when Joey quit or Meredith had her baby. Coulda said anything.
“I don’t want to make you late,” Michael said. “But remember, I’m gonna bring that Men’s Health by later tonight. You’re gonna love the article and those chicks in the back, whoa. Page 76, I really mean whoa. They even got a Oriental girl in this protein mix ad. You’re gonna enjoy it, but I hope not too much ‘cause I’m gonna need that back.”
“Thanks, Mike,” Jason said, squeezing through the narrow entryway. Telling him not to bring it would be pointless, ‘cause then he’d just find another excuse to come down, saying he’d made too much lasagna and felt bad throwing it out, using that as an excuse to come in and crash on his couch while Jason played video games, trying to forget about whoever was fucking his wife. Ex-wife.
Jason knew he could have just said he’d already read the mag, but then Michael would have gone into an impromptu reading comprehension quiz like he was back in sixth grade and hadn’t done his assigned reading the night before.
In the locker room, Jason threw his clean clothes in his bag, pissed that he hadn’t even finished half his workout, and wishing his could just tell Michael to shut up and leave him alone. To go bother someone else. But it was that pity shit again coming back on him. Maybe it was his own father issues. Jason knew those probably manifested themselves more in his marriage. His fear of being his father turning him into a paranoid dick who couldn’t even sit through a movie without snapping about something. Besides, there was nothing fatherly about Michael, one of his only redeeming qualities. If anything, Michael was like the child in this relationship, the one who needed attention and didn’t care how he got it. Had Michael been fifty years younger he’d be the kid screaming for the lollipop in the check-out line.
On the way back to his apartment, Jason detoured into the run-down shopping plaza to pick up some frozen pizzas and a case of beer, but he ended up wandering the aisles, not wanting to go back to an empty apartment.
With over an hour in the store and only a half a cart of food, Jason knew he’d just wasted a tremendous amount of time. He could have volunteered at the food bank or done a spinning class or gotten through the playoffs on Madden. Anything would have been a better use of his time, however inconsequential it might have been.
Jason paid for his items and left. He thought about chatting up the cashier, who looked to be in his age bracket. She could also just be a heavy smoker and be way younger, he thought to himself. Not wanting to come off like Michael, Jason made no effort to engage in even the smallest of small talk He told himself to screw the weather, screw the crazy deal on saltines. Even if it was buy one get two free, no cashier wanted to talk about it.
It started to drizzle as Jason walked to his car. He thought about the meat lover’s supreme or the five-cheese option for the night, wondering why DiGiorno’s couldn’t just get crazy with it and add the six meats and five cheeses together into one crazy-ass pizza that would probably have him tripping harder than the time he thought he’d dropped acid in college but his roommate had only been duped into copping rubbing alcohol.
In the row of sad sedans and minivans years past their prime, Jason could see Michael standing in the rain, his trunk open, and one of the bagboys placing the bags in the trunk. Michael knew damn-well he could do it himself, but there he went hoarding again. Jason watched from the safety of his own aisle as Michael did the hand thing on the trunk, blocking the bagboy’s path so all he could do was stand there and get pelted with drizzle while he waited for an opening. Michael was talking about something, his other hand gesticulating wildly. Jason hoped for the bagboy’s sake he wasn’t talking about the Oriental in Men’s Health. The bagboy was avoiding eye contact, staring at the contents of the bag. He's probably getting the same line, Jason thought. Then he studied the bagboy’s face. He seemed like a good kid, probably still in high school, probably scraping some cash together for college or his girl or his crummy tricked-out car with floor lights and subwoofers that took up the whole trunk.
Finally the kid, who maybe wasn’t such a good kid, turned and walked away, leaving Michael and two bags of groceries in the shopping cart. Michael watched the bagboy leave, appeared to do some sort of shrug, and stooped to put the last of the bags in his trunk. Jason thought about returning his cart, but knew he’d be in Michael’s line of sight, and figured the rain could pelt him for another minute.
As Michael turned, his love handles hanging out gloriously in his tucked-in workout shirt, now soaked and probably the only time it’d ever been wet, Jason watched as the bottom of Michael's bag broke. It was like slow-motion on ESPN as the bottom of the bag gave way and his gallon of milk free-fell to the wet pavement. It splattered silently, the milk slowly coating Michael’s shins and running shoes, which always looked brand new, before settling in the grooves of the asphalt and diluting itself with the rain as it trailed towards a rusty sewer grate. Maybe it wasn’t rusty, Jason thought, leaving his cart behind the minivan next to his beat-up Camry and reversing out of the lot.
He figured Michael was probably watching what was left of his milk escape him like everyone else had. All sewer grates are rusty, Jason thought. They had to be.
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.