Mami likes to say that I was an easy pregnancy but a terrible kid. Papi tends to be more gentle with his choice of wording, often describing my younger self as adventurous or mischievous. Not Mami. Mami has always been a straight shooter.
“No, no mija – tu era TERRIBLE,” she says exaggerating the TEH before rolling her “r” with a smile on her face that insinuates it was funny now but not then.
Some of the incidents that have lead her to label my childhood as terrible I can remember, others I have constructed memories of from how many times I’ve been told the story.
I tried to run away at my first birthday party. My earliest memory in life is of me half walk half wobbly running in the scratchy material of the frilly pink, tutu dress Mami put me in. I remember too many people in the house and trying to find a way to escape the attention and the noise. My uncle caught me as I tried to make my way out the swinging back door of the house.
When I was three years old, Mami was pregnant with Chiquita and I found myself … exploring in the house. Mami was sick and in bed. She likes to say that Chiquita was a terrible pregnancy but a dream of a kid until cancer hit, which wasn’t really her fault. Papi was practicing coritos on his guitar and he said he got nervous after a minute of silence. 30 seconds of silence was my record up until then.
Papi found me soaked in blood sitting on the white tiled bathroom floor with a broken mug in hand. He said there was so much blood he didn’t know where it was coming from. His description makes me think of the horror movie Carrie after a bucket of pig’s blood gets poured over her head. Mami and Papi swear they were so terrified that they drove to the hospital with pajamas and no shoes and ran every red light they came across. I believe the pajamas and running red lights but struggle with the no shoes detail. The doctors gave me seven stitches on the ridge of my nose. The scar is still visible today.
When I was four years old, I was riding my tricycle around the backyard and onto the sidewalk in front of the house for about thirty minutes. Papi says they took their eyes off of me for one minute when they then realized that I was out of sight. (Writing this essay I can’t help but wonder how they didn’t realize what I was capable of in one unsupervised minute after the bathroom incident.) They had been searching for me for fifteen despairing minutes when I came riding back down the block like nothing had ever happened. Papi says Mami was not a happy camper and declared the rest of the story chancleta time.
When I was seven years old, I was sitting in the passenger seat of our dusty blue Toyota Cressida with Papi in the driver’s seat. He must have forgotten something in the house because with the promise of returning within ::drum roll please:: one minute, he ran into the house and left me in a parked car with the keys in the ignition. To be fair, I’m sure plenty of parents have done this with no consequences to note. But plenty of parents didn’t have me for a kid. The curious side of me moved into the driver’s seat and shifted the lever into drive as my feet dangled in the air over the pedals. Per Papi’s account, the car was off but parked on a slight hill, so it started moving forward and was stopped only by the parked car directly in front of ours. The car incident led to the first and only time my father ever disciplined me physically. That kind of discipline was typically reserved for Mami. I can’t remember if he used a belt or a chancleta though.
The Memorial Day before my summer into seventh grade, I was jumping rope in the backyard listening to Radio Disney on a small black portable radio. I remember landing on my foot wrong and feeling a snap that threw me off balance. I limped my way into the bedroom I shared with my sister and sulked for a few minutes before I was called to the living room by Mami. My cousin had told her about the incident and she asked to see my foot. There was no swelling so she rubbed my foot with Vaporú and put some ice on. “Eso no e na” she advised me with a smirk on her face. Then I overheard her tell my aunt that knowing me, she would have to come get me from school the next day.
In the morning, my foot was swollen and looked as though I had attempted to soak them in grape kool-aid overnight. My mom helped me get my socks on and shoved my inflated foot into my dirty white sneakers. On a mission to prove her wrong, I hobbled around school the entire day despite many adults asking me if I wanted to call home. She took me to the emergency room after school but the machine was broken, so I hobbled around for another school day before we finally got my foot x-rayed and the doctor put me in a cast from the knee down to my toes to treat the fracture in my right foot. Mami apologized in the form of all my favorite foods for the next week.
Two weeks later on Father’s Day, we were all dressed in our Sunday best and getting into Mami’s metallic blue Toyota Previa mini-van – the one with the sliding door in the back that she used to carpool neighborhood kids to school. The one they liked to call “the little egg” because of its structural shape. My crutches were already in the second row of the backseat and Papi was behind me helping me hop into the passenger seat. Chiquita didn’t see my hand gripped onto the frame in between the passenger door and the sliding back door. She slammed the sliding back door right onto my wrist. I passed out and woke up in Papi’s arms.
Mami was screaming like someone was being murdered and banging at Tio’s window, who at the time lived in the basement of the house next door. The window panes floated right over the driveway cement that the two houses shared. Tio came out with a baseball bat in hand, unaware of the actual circumstances but prepared for a fight.
The drive to the hospital was an epic hot mess. Chiquita was crying because she thought she broke me. I was crying because the pain that initially blacked me out was now starting to kick in and I couldn’t move my hand. Mami was crying because we were both crying. And poor Papi was just trying to navigate the screams, tears, and highway traffic to get us to the hospital. I left the hospital with a cast on my left arm, opposite my casted right leg. This made it difficult to use the crutches in the second row of the backseat so they also gave me a wheelchair to spend the summer in.
The summer of 2001 was memorable, to say the least. Frizzy hair I had not yet learned to tame in the humid heat, braces that scratched up the insides of my gums and two casts on either side of my body that I had to keep dry as my limbs healed. Sometimes Mami would take Chiquita to the pool so that she didn’t have to suffer the summer in the same way I did and Papi was left to feed and shower me.
I had a white plastic chair with silver metal legs that I would sit on in the tub. My left arm was wrapped in a black garbage bag and I held it up while my right leg, also wrapped in a black garbage bag, was resting on the toilet seat next to the tub. I scrubbed the soap on and off with my working right hand. Papi would pour pitchers of water over me while looking away from my naked pre-teen body, never wanting to make me feel uncomfortable. This meant that he missed a lot of spots and had to fill a few more pitchers. Again – funny now, but not then.
When I ask Papi to reminisce on the adventures I invoked for our family, he continues to be kind with his wording. He says that I was independent and that I probably tried to solve the bathroom incident on my own and only started getting scared and screaming when the blood wouldn’t go away.
Despite acknowledging how many of these incidents rendered him with feelings of terror, impotence and even a sense of neglect; he still stands by the fact that I was a unique child, a tough cookie, a challenge. He claims it gave them the greatest sense of accomplishment to witness my success.
With my luck, I’ll be blessed with some kind of tough cookie traviesa conglomerate one day. Hopefully, I can remember that even when things aren’t funny at the moment, they may serve as comical relief and testimonies in the future.