Read Part 1 of I am the Commonwealth, a short story, in yesterday’s post. And now for part 2…
The way I figure it, the price of freedom on the island was its potential. That potential was traded in for Ford factories, pantyhose plants, and a quick political science lesson in democracy, free since we conquered you and all. It is funny how I will bash imperialism while being a child of its forefathers, a product of America. I imagine that is why it is my Latina that is awake past midnight and my gringa that sleeps soundly through this inner turmoil. I hate to see the poverty and how the viejitos stress over the younger generation’s embrace of MTV and all the other evils they deem American. It seems, lately, that America is barreling down on la isla as if it were the end. Terminal. And Lord knows what the word terminal can do to one’s system, once its finality is understood.
What my Latina does not understand is the sacrifice of femininity on that island and, sometimes, even here in my America. Perhaps that is my fear: that I will sacrifice my identity in marriage. That the price of the union would be me. I’ve never noticed a man who gives up his art or his games to run the kids to soccer practice or dance lessons (especially dance lessons)– not if the wife is around to take care of it. Unless, of course, he is my Papito, and then he must because Mamacita speaks broken English and cannot drive standard transmission. My Papito chaperoned all those school trips with other kids’ moms. Those kids used to whisper that he didn’t have a job and that’s why he could come. I knew that wasn’t the truth, but I didn’t argue it, especially once we split into groups, and everyone wanted to be with Papito because he was the most fun and playful.
Now Mamacita thinks I should be worrying about my own little one’s field trips. That is fine except that I do not want to become a full time cook and maid and beauty queen. Now, in that hospital room, I can be assertive, direct, and even pushy.
“Ma’am, she is experiencing pain. Gossiping at this nurse’s station is not an option. Your option is to give her medicine or my option will be to report you.”
Mis hermanos trade off beaming to blushing, proud that they have made me this warrior yet embarrassed that I am not like their wives, complying and soft-spoken. And while I love those women– they are syrupy sweet and wonderful, giving wives– I hate who my brothers allow them to be in their presence. I hate that some Hispanic formula of femininity coupled with the American cult of domesticity made these women into pawns, and that they have no idea what hit them, or that they’ve even been hit at all.
It is not that the hermanos do not treat them well. They, like Papito, shamelessly spoil these women and their children. It is that they do not understand these women, their complexities. I would rather be observed at some romantic distance and marveled at than united in a marriage and made malleable or resented for my lack of malleability. The hermanos think I am the exception, the experimentation of a last born nenita among boys in a country we are all struggling to understand. They believe that since I was the one who learned English along Spanish (rather than a quick crash course after a turbulent plane ride and a ridiculous struggle to find housing and a car, the basic American dream), and since I never really knew what it was to be laughed at for a thick accent or traditional Puerto Rican fashions, then I am this anomaly that is no one’s fault for being created yet everyone’s shame because she is so unique.
I insist to them that every woman is saccharin and salt, beauty and brawn, gentle and sharp. This truth is the very essence of womanhood because of what we must be and how we must protect ourselves (especially on late night streets or when passing construction sites; and, heaven forbid, we wear that skirt– you know the one– because then someone might assume that we are “asking for it” although we never do, but he gives it to us anyway). The hermanos do not see this truth. They tell me they will protect their mujeres. I know that they will, but at what price to the mujeres? And, all sassy and feisty, I whisper to mi novio,
“I wonder if those women even know what they have lost.”
He smiles, small and sweet, and pulls me in, whispering,
“You cannot make everything turn out the way you want it.”
That is not fair because, up until now, I could fix almost anything. I could erase my discipline referrals for sarcasm with a quick manipulation of my personality and my ability to drop the right words
“Yes, Sister Frances, I accept full responsibility.”
I could do the right translating to keep the family in the house. I could stop the bill collectors from pestering us too much since Mamacita and Papito never paid much attention to the mail and the bills would go unnoticed. I could call and have the hermanos’ credit cards closed since they were enjoying college a little too much via Mamacita’s and Papito’s finances. I could talk them into removing earrings at the dinner table so Papito would not throw a fit and make all of us miserable. And I could always get them dressed up handsomely for Sunday Mass and keep them seated and content with my made-up lyrics to the church hymns when they would rather be at home, shooting hoops or talking to all the gringas that called those three Don Juans. Those things truly were fixable and cancer is not. Not when it is terminal, and I look in my Mamacita’s eyes, and I know that the only reason she is hanging on is to see me accounted for and married. It becomes my will versus hers, but neither of us will speak these words because of shared respect and trust and years of past baggage where she flinched when I mentioned never having children because of how dangerous the world is, and I flinched when she celebrated my manicured nails after friends sent me to a spa for a day of proper care and feeding.
* * *
I cannot fix the cancer. Moreover, I am terrified of giving her what she wants: my left hand with a diamond ring and all that it implies. It means I would lose what I want for myself, and I would lose my Mamacita because she could allow herself to join Papito knowing that I would be in the good hands of my “fine young man.” But in not doing it, not giving her this final wish, I evince that I am no longer the fixer. Instead, I am the selfish one. The hermanos eye me and whisper to each other about who should approach me and what should be said exactly to get the spitfire nenita to comply and quit raising Cain so Mamacita can rest and be with her Papito.
Read Part 3 (the end) of I am the Commonwealth tomorrow