Sprawling fields of grass. My bare feet stomping through, with beads of dew bathing me up to my calves. A mushy squelch with each step. The lawnmower, whirring in the distance. This is morning. This is summer. Sprawling fields of grass, stretching so far I see no end. Laying my body out flat, starfish-style. Sinking into the earth. This is childhood. This is freedom. This is anything could happen.
Fingers of smoke poking the air. My mother, holding the sage with her eyes pressed and lips open. A chant, a prayer emerging. Shuffling to each corner of the room, banishing spirits. I welcome the good ones back, burning sweetgrass with a match. This is New Year’s Day. This is hope. This is tradition.
I am seven years old. On the kitchen counter is an open envelope. I pick it up and peer inside. There is cash. I pull it all out and begin to practice counting my 20s, my 50s, my 100s. I finish counting. I look back inside the envelope. There is also a bill. The amount charged does not match the amount I counted. I count again and again it does not match; my math must be off. I run to my room. I pick up my pencil and notebook. I run back to the kitchen, set my supplies on the counter, and triple-check my math—by hand this time. Again, it does not match. My mother is short on the bill. This is worry. I scan for a date. It was due two weeks ago. This is anxiety.
The 6 train lurches uptown. Sharp curve after 138th street, everyone sways left in a subway dance. The hum of the tracks rumble out from under me, around me: a lullaby. My eyelids droop shut, slow like syrup off the end of a fork. I sleep for five stops. I wake. My head is on the shoulder of a stranger. This is embarrassment. I apologize—he laughs a big echoing laugh. His daughter does the same thing, he says, so he doesn’t mind being someone’s shoulder. This is kindness.
A 1964 issued permanent residency card sits in my father’s wallet. One afternoon, he is summoned for jury duty. He ventures downtown to explain that he is not a citizen, only a permanent resident. This is simple. He is excused. Letters in the mail arrive for him soon thereafter, warning that failure to serve as a juror is a crime. He goes to the courthouse down by City Hall to fix this. They send him to the USCIS building across the street. They don’t help with the jury summonses, though he learns his card is expired. He must renew it. To do so, he needs to renew his passport first. The process will cost over $1,200. This is policy. He curses his Puerto Rican mother for having birthed him in the Dominican Republic. This is America.
Men in combat uniforms patrol Grand Central Terminal. Camouflaging with nothing as marble walls expose them. Machine guns clutched tight. When one of them makes eye contact with me, I dart my glance elsewhere. This is power. This is also weakness.
Olives wiggling off branches. Tip-toeing in the orchard, careful not to step on those peppering the ground. I catch one as it falls, plop it on my tongue and chew. This is unfamiliar. This is peace.
Oil fizzles on a stovetop pan. In go the platanos, flattened into dozens of discs. They fry—my golden, greasy tostones. Edges crisp. Ridges crack like the rings of a tree. A pinch of salt. A pink sauce dip. This is delicious.
Marlboro menthols seduce my lover. He pulls one out of its cardboard casing and taps it on the countertop. He looks to me. He asks for permission. This is senseless. A few miles away, my father lies still in an MRI machine. It clinks and churns. A technician observes the image: A lung, my father’s lung, is missing a chunk. This is where the cancer was before they removed it. This was luck.
My aunt in a hospital bed. Face tinged pale. Chapped lipped. Eyes sunken in their sockets. She heaves out a vat of phlegm into a vomit dish. Her breath rattles as she wipes her face. This is death creeping in.
Spring. I sit outside a French bistro to drink my morning coffee—book on lap, pen in hand. A breeze bristles my pages. I cannot focus. I glance up, gasp. A praying mantis is perched on my water glass. This is miraculous. She wipes her bulbous eyes to see me clearly. We stare. She is perfect—a thing of nature’s geometry. Her legs, little protractors, leap for me. I want to keep her. I want her to live forever. Neither will happen. This is reality.
A monk parrot named Maggie. She is buried in Central Park beneath a weeping willow. I keep one of her tail feathers plastered in a book of pressed stamps and foliage. Sometimes a winter wind will coo like her call. Maybe. I can’t remember her sweet warble. This is how memory goes.
Abuela’s jade earrings sit on my dresser for my birthday. She is over one thousand miles away in Puerto Rico, sitting in a rocking chair on her porch. She watches her chickens mill about, pecking at the ground, picking fights with each other. She cannot call me often—her village remains without power, without cell service. Yet she drove two hours to the nearest working Post Office, jade earrings in a box to travel here to me.
She wore these every day. I told her I loved them once—the way they looked like serenity. They came with a note—porque tú, mi nieta, eres más serena que yo. This is selflessness. This is love.