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Fiction

The Undercurrent

We were a house of women first. My older sister Gina, Mami, and me. Men never stayed in our cramped apartment on 183rd Street in the Bronx. Not the man who hung out in front of the bodega, the one I was told was my Papi, or my sister’s father, who apparently lived in Jersey somewhere, and that was fine. We had each other, and it seemed enough until Gina celebrated her fifteenth birthday by running away with Ray from down the block. It didn’t matter to me. Gina and I were never tight. The seven-year difference between us was like a chasm that couldn’t be breached. She seemed so desperate to break our triangle. Mami couldn’t stop her no matter how hard she tried. There were curfews and punishments, but Gina always had her eyes glued to the door until it was left foolishly ajar.   

When Gina left, Mami broke down. She couldn’t function. She stopped going to work as a nursing assistant. Sadness engulfed her. No matter what I did—sing, make funny faces, give novela breakdowns—I couldn’t snap her out of it. 

Mami took what little money we had and fled back to the island. I was left at my Titi Luz’s house. Every Sunday, Mami called to tell me how hot it was on the island and that she would be home soon.  

“Te quiero,” she said before hanging up. She sounded so happy. I wondered how happiness could be found so far away from me. 

Months later, Mami returned with a deep tan and a protruding belly. She didn’t speak of her island days. Never once mentioned the name of the father. It would take years before she could finally recount how she spent her days, and nights, but by then Mami would be unable to differentiate dreams from reality. 

“Se parece como un angel!” the neighborhood Mamis exclaimed at my newborn brother. 

At first, everyone praised the baby boy with piercing brown eyes and brown curly hair. They swore he was a gift from the gods, the miracle Mami needed to forget how lonely she was. What I saw was a wrinkled old thing, but he brought Mami back to me. It was enough of a sign for me to love him fiercely. He was a blessing. I believed it. I still do.

Everyone called him Javy and not his real name, Javier. The name Javier was meant for his future self, the one that was certain to work in construction, have a wife and a couple of kids, a side chick when he craved reassurances. He would never get the chance to grow into his name.

Maybe Javy latched onto her breast too harshly, leaving Mami bruised. Maybe Javy’s tiny fists pounded on her chest and on mine when I tried to calm him down. The only thing that pacified him were warm baths in the kitchen sink. 

“He’s a water baby,” Mami said. We laughed when his chubby fingers caressed the water. He was so gentle. Hours spent in the sink. Unlike my mother’s hand, Javy’s skin never bunched up like craters no matter how long he stayed submerged.

When he was two years old, Mami and I packed his bathtub toys and boarded the crowded Bx12 to Orchard Beach. Everyone crammed in that bus with their beach chairs and radios. A man got up and offered Mami a seat, but his smile made him seem as if he wanted more than just a thank you. Javy’s face turned red when the man reached over to get a closer look at him. Javy didn’t stop screaming, not when we got off the bus, not even when we were walking toward the ocean. Javy stopped only when Mami gently dipped his toes in. 

“See?” Mami said. “He was meant for the water.”

Dueling boomboxes competed for soundtrack domination. Bachatas and rap songs. I made friends with a girl missing her two front teeth. We built a sand castle while our backs burned. Mami and Javy never left the water. With the sunset, Mami whispered promises of returning while Javy’s shrieks increased with each step we took toward the bus stop. Finally, from sheer exhaustion, he rested against her chest. 

After that, we went every weekend to the beach. When it got cold, Mami bundled us up. As I got older, I stopped going with them. When Javy wasn’t near the ocean, he became unrecognizable. 

It was a slow build. At three, he rammed a toy truck into the head of a cousin. At four, he overturned a pot of boiling water onto the cat. At five, he found the knives.   

Mami swore the only way to get rid of the demons driving my baby brother was to submerge him in freezing water. 

“Ayudame,” she said, directing me to take hold of him again. Javy kicked and screamed as we dragged him across the hallway to the small bathroom. His eyes were red with fury. I could make out the Spanish curses he yelled, the motherfuckers too, but there were words I swore he made up right on the spot as if he were speaking another language.

“Calm down, Javy!” I screamed. 

The water was frigid and Javy howled like an animal when we placed him in the tub, clothes and all. Mami recited the rosary—the “Ave Marias,” the “Ten Piedads”—while our next-door neighbors banged on the walls. The neighbors never called Child Services on us although they always threatened to do so. They’d witnessed Javy acting out in public. They knew what my mom was up against.  

Javy looked possessed but not like in the movies. It was something more animalistic. His face would contort. He would appear sinister and old. Mami never seemed to notice his transformation, or maybe she ignored it. 

Eventually, the howling stopped. The only noise that remained was the pelting of the cold water from the running faucet. I can still see him there, curled in the bottom of the tub. His skinny arms wrapped around his knees. His Yankees t-shirt pressed against his skin to reveal tiny ridges from his ribs. 

“Mami?” he said with the shyness of any five-year-old, confused as to where he was or how he got there. 

I handed Mami the large towel and she wrapped his thin frame in it. With another, she dried his hair. Javy’s breath returned to normal. His face no longer full of rage. His brown eyes searched for understanding.

“Clean the bathroom,” Mami said as she lifted him up.

It was on me to wipe down the puddles of water that spilled from the tub. It was also on me to clean up the mess that had started the attack in the kitchen. I got down on my knees and soaked up the bathroom floor with paper towels. In the quiet, I tried to piece together what provoked him. Was it the wrong answer to a question or a song he hated? Did we do something different this time? There was never a pattern. 

“It’s okay, Javy. Mami’s got you.” 

The scratches Javy left on my arms are permanent. I can still trace them like a map that leads to each of his outbursts. The time he pushed a cousin down a flight of stairs. The time he bit a kid’s leg for no reason. I was always nearby, dragging him away and in the process suffering from it. Each scar tied me to him forever.

There were nights when Javy would sneak into my bed. The tips of his tiny brown hands were always cold. He smelled of salt. When I caressed his cheeks, I felt a sensation of otherness. I can still feel it deep inside me.

“I love you.” I whispered this in his ear. It felt as if I was confessing to him, as if this was our little secret. I could look past the fears of the others and protect him. Mami wasn’t capable, but I was.

“Can we go to the beach tomorrow?” he asked over and over. “I need to go. They’re waiting.”

I joked and told him that the seaweed and dirty diapers floating by would still be there. I tried to tickle him, but he never laughed. 

“If you don’t take me, I will hurt everyone.” He said this with an even, calm voice. Not a threat. A fact.

“Why?” I asked. 

He answered with a smile.

While he dreamed, his body jerked as if he were searching for something. What was he searching for? 

*

Mami is weak now. The nurses work hard to make her comfortable. There are days when she doesn’t recognize me. There are other days when she remembers everything as if it just happened.

“Get the bath ready for Javy.” Mami grips my wrist tightly.

“Javier is no longer with us. Remember?” I say, handing her a glass of water to sip.

She slaps the glass from my hand. Her eyes go wild. Mami is going back in time and recalling the day, fifteen years ago.

“It was your fault! It was your fault!” 

Mami screams until the nurse returns with a pill to calm her. This is a routine that occurs every time I visit. The guilt tears me up, jolts me out of my bed, leaving my lovers wondering who the fuck is Javier. This will never end. Mami’s accusations are just part of our castigo, our punishment. 

My sister never visits. She came to Javier’s service but didn’t stay long. She lives upstate somewhere. Sometimes she sends money to take care of Mami. Not always. 

The nurse brings Mami dinner and I sit to feed her.

“Mami, you have to eat a little. Keep your strength up.” She listens and takes a couple of bites. Her wrists are so dainty, not like when they held back Javier’s hand from slicing her with the knife. When she is done eating, I sit behind her on the bed and brush her long white hair. This is when she feels young again. This is when she usually recounts her days on the island.

“Fue la Noche de San Juan. Everyone was out dancing on the beach. It was mesmerizing. I had a beautiful dress, one I borrowed from my sister. It was the color of the flamboyan. No one could say a thing to me. I was my own person. You understand?”

“Yes, Mami.” 

“When you have children, you forget who you are. Back on the island, I was a woman, not a mother.”

Mami caresses her hair. 

 “I didn’t notice him at first. I was too busy dancing. He took his time. Waited for me. At the stroke of midnight, when everyone on the beach was meant to walk backwards into the sea, he appeared beside me. He held my hand as we entered the ocean,” she whispers. Mami begins to tremble. “His voice was all honey and culantro, like an angel. I didn’t know who he was until it was too late. He goes by so many different names.” 

She cries. 

Mami said the man in the linen suit came to her at a moment when she was in her weakest state, when she doubted God and all that was good. He preyed and what came forth was Javier. 

“He fed me dirt. That’s why I couldn’t leave that night,” she says, crying. “Me entiendes?”

The nurses tell me there are not many days left. Was the man in the linen suit real, or is this a nightmare that plagues my mother’s mind? What happened the night I found her in her bedroom, blood pouring from her arm? Javier with the knife above his head, ready to wield it again, until I pulled it away.

“What did Javy tell you that night, in your bedroom?”

 “He said he didn’t belong to me. If I didn’t let him go, he would stop me from breathing,” Mami says. “Javy was mine. He was mine. My baby boy. He was mine.”

I wrap my arms around her. I hold her until she stops shaking. 

“I wasn’t supposed to leave the island,” she says between sobs. “The baby kept growing inside. I couldn’t let him take him away. I couldn’t.”

“It’s okay, Mami. I got you.”

*

Mami passed away today. The nurse said she died peacefully in her sleep, but I doubt it. No one ever really sleeps in this family. It’s been days. My clothes no longer fit me. I’m wasting away in sorrow. 

“Just donate everything. There’s no point in keeping this stuff.”

Gina’s hair is turning gray. She looks more like Mami than I ever will. When I picked her up at the airport, her hug still felt cold, like she was bothered. Her and Ray didn’t last very long. There were others that followed. A guy who drank too much. Another who hit. Gina said they were all bums. On the drive into the Bronx, she complained about how there was garbage everywhere.

“Don’t you want to keep a piece of clothing for yourself?” I ask.

“Why would I do that?” She sits on the very edge of the sofa as if at any moment she will run out the door and flee like she did so many years ago. 

“I was thinking of going to the beach.”

“For what?” she says with disgust. “You were always too sentimental, even when we were young. What are you going to look for there?”

“I don’t know.”

“Playing martyr won’t bring her back. We all make choices. You’ve been caged up in this apartment. That’s all she ever wanted from us, to be trapped here.” 

As Gina continues to scold, the walls seem to close in on me. We were a triangle until I was left alone. Now this ghost has returned to the house and she is speaking to me. I can’t take it.

I walk outside. There is no one on the bus. It is too cold to go to the beach. The ride takes about thirty minutes. Not long. I zip my bomber jacket and pull the hoodie up. The wind pierces through when I get off. The air hints of snow. 

“There’s nothing happening in Chocha Beach today. It’s too cold,” a homeless man yells. I nod and keep walking. 

It’s been years since I’ve come to the beach. Everything seems so much dirtier and smaller. I always felt this beach was filled with magic. Now it just seems old and run down. 

The day flashes back to me. How Javy kept singing, “Today. Today.” Mami’s arm covered in bandages. We both ignored it like so many other incidents. That day, Mami asked me to take him to the beach. She didn’t get up from her bed to see us off. A sign I should have heeded.

It was a warm day, not the usual scorching heat. The summer was almost ending. Javy was so calm, so happy. I paid for his fare and we walked to the back of the bus until we found a seat. He stared out the window, drumming his fingers on his lap. 

In the ocean, the water was cold at first. Javy kept wanting to swim further, away from the crowds. 

“More,” he said. His legs no longer touched the sandy floor. Neither did mine. I held him tight.

The lifeguards started to blow their whistles, calling everyone in. 

“Get out of the water,” they yelled. Javy kept pulling me. I held on, but the current pushed against me. I held on to him with everything. 

“Javy,” I yelled, while swallowing gulps of water. “Don’t let go.”

He whispered in my ear. “They are waiting.”

I dug my nails into his slender back. His arms no longer around my neck. Suddenly, he pushed away.

“No! Wait!” 

It was so hard to speak. So hard to breathe. The undercurrent was pulling us down. Javy wasn’t afraid. We went under again, and his cheek was no longer aside mine. I scrambled to reach him. Trying to see in the murky water. 

His smile. I saw his smile. 

Then, darkness. 

Why didn’t he make another scar in my arm? Another to keep us together. 

Minutes, or was it seconds, passed before hands yanked me out of the ocean. The screeching noises of the ambulance were deafening. Cops. Questions. And me in this despair. The dread of Mami coming to the hospital and all the wailing when she was told the truth. 

“Where were you? You were supposed to take care of him!” The nurses dragged her out of my room. 

 Here I am again, standing by the shore. He was a water baby, and me? I am stuck here. 

*

El Dia de San Juan is in two days and the island pulsates. Every June, there’s a tradition on the island to celebrate St. John the Baptist. At the stroke of midnight, you walk backwards into the ocean three times. It was on El Dia de San Juan that Mami met him so many years ago. I now retrace her steps and try to track the moment she fell. Back to the mountain of Corozal where she was born. Back to the beach. 

Before she left, Gina told me to get a life. When I told her I was visiting the island, she shook her head. 

“You are as stupid as Mami was back then. Men are the devil. You think you are different because you were the helper in this family. You’re just dumb.”

Titi Luz takes slow steps with the help of a walker. There is a weariness to her. Luz is the last of the sisters. Retired, she left New York years ago. The city is no place for a woman to live by herself, she says. This is a warning. 

“Why stay there?” she says. “This house is empty. You can live here.”

Luz has three grandkids of her own. The girls sit in front of a large television, shoulders pressed against each other. The lineage of women continues. 

She leads me to the room where Mami slept during the months she lived in this house. The bed is made up, but there is a thin layer of dust covering the dresser. A small picture of Mary the Virgin is held on the wall with a single nail. There is a framed picture of the sisters taken when they were young. The color fades from the print. Their young indigenous faces glare seriously at the camera. Curls held up with ribbons. My aunt points to my mother. Unlike her sisters, my mother doesn’t face the lens. Instead, she looks to the left with such urgency, as if someone has called to her.

“See, she always wanted to be somewhere else,” Titi Luz says with a slight chuckle. “Your mother always had her leg raised. I thought she was going to marry Miguel from church, but she didn’t. Instead, she went out every night. She didn’t care what the people in town said about her. How she left you alone in New York. They said the most vile things and then when she got pregnant—”

“Who was Javy’s father?”

Titi Luz purses her thin lips. She takes the framed picture and gently places it back on the dresser. The outline of dust shows its past placement.

“I don’t know,” Titi Luz says. She doesn’t meet my eyes. “I never met him.”

In the distance, her granddaughters laugh. 

“I would stay here in this house,” she says. “Don’t go looking for things that aren’t meant for you.”

At night, I lay my body on the mattress while the circulating fan makes a humming sound. The mattress is old and the springs dig into my back. I try to imagine what my mother’s thoughts were back then. There was a time when I hated her. All those days wondering what she was doing. If she found another daughter to replace me. Instead, she must have been thinking of the time before my existence. 

Unable to sleep, I walk barefoot across the cool tile floors, past my aunt’s bedroom. She keeps the door open but doesn’t stir in her bed. She is as awake as I am. Still, I creep quietly. I stand on the porch and wait. I’m the same age Mami was when she came to live here. Did she feel the pull of the oscillating waves? I feel nothing.

*

The bar plays a fast merengue on the jukebox. I’m up to my third Medalla. A man at the far end invites me to take a shot of rum. I do, and he immediately orders another. In his car, I let him yank my hair. He asks my name, but I stay quiet. When I ask about the man in the linen suit, he calls me crazy. 

It is El Dia de San Juan, and the streets are filled with people. Bodies rub up against each other. I hand an old lady my crumpled dollar bills. She wraps a paper towel around the cold Medalla before handing it to me. Strangers caress my arm as I walk past, urging me to join them. A surge of energy rises. It is about to be midnight. I wear a dress the color of a mountain. If I allow myself to drown in this crowd, will I find solace? Nothing can fill this hole. 

The crowd forces me into the water. We link our hands, strangers and lovers. Once. Twice. Each time I walk backwards, I laugh until the tears flow. Did the same thing happen to Mami? Will the man appear to me as well? Enchant me with his words? Force me to stay?

There is grief, and then there is what I am doing. I want to be smothered. I want to continue to walk into this ocean while staring at those dancing on the beach until there is nothing. 

The water covers my legs, goes up to my knees. I keep walking. The water now reaches my waist. I call out his name. 

“Mami died. She’s gone,” I say. “Are you there, Javy?” 

The water reaches my chest. Everything is numb. 

“Where are you? Where did you go?”

I move further in. Up to my arms. My neck. Creatures float against my legs. They nibble on my skin. I close my eyes and let the water cover me. There is only the blackness of the ocean, eager to drag me under. My lungs can’t bear it for much longer. Soon. The pressure mounts. It weighs on me and I succumb.

Minutes, or days, later, I open my eyes to the full moon. 

“There is nothing out there for you.” 

A man speaks. He stands before me and his voice is like honey. He bends down. The angles of his face shift against the moonlight. I’m unable to place him. There is no noise. No one left on the beach. The man wraps a blanket around me and tells me I’ll be all right. 

“What is your name?” he asks.

“Marisol,” I say.

“Encantada, Marisol,” he says. “Encantada.”

It is him and he’s ageless and I am following in Mami’s footsteps. I’m fearless. He will not do what he did to her because I am different.

Later, he will slowly peel my clothes off. His hands will feel gelatinous, twisting and coiling around me. The words he utters will have no meaning. The lidless gaze of his black pupils will fill me with dread, but I will be unable to name it. Sharp beaks will pierce my skin, scraping and pulling. The sound of the waves breaking against the rocks will be heard, but not my screams. Only then will I understand what happened. Only then will I understand how Mami fell. The man in the fading suit will place something in my mouth, and my teeth will grind the pebbles down. 

Behind him, Javy will stand. I will know him instantly by his smile. The man in the suit has taught him how to keep it down. How to scrape the skin from his lips. Javy will stand motionless with a smile plastered on his face. He will not recognize my pain. 

But first, there is this moment. 

The man holds his hand out for me. I don’t want this sorrow. Will he take it? He leads me slowly to the cavern. There is a strong pull that guides me. It is the same pull that made Gina walk out the door, the same that led Mami here. I will not repeat their mistakes.

“Are you ready?” he asks at the entrance.

I pause and turn to him. 

“I am not like the others,” I say.

Lilliam Rivera is an award-winning author of children’s books, including her latest young adult novel "Never Look Back" (Bloomsbury). Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Elle. A Bronx, New York native, she lives in Los Angeles.

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