“According to him, Madrina has been getting offers for years. Someone came to him with a deal he couldn’t refuse. All cash. Look, Zuri, keep your head up, my daughter. I used to be like you, you know—getting pissed at the world when this or that didn’t go my way. But you know what opened up my eyes and my heart? Your mother and five beautiful daughters. The world could fall apart around me, but we are still a family. It doesn’t matter where we go. Bushwick will come with us. Don’t let your pride get in the way of your heart, mija.” He turns to look at me.
With every word he says, the tears start to well up in my eyes again. I keep blinking them back, but my face is wet.
“Hey, mija,” Papi says, holding me by the shoulders so that he can look me straight in the eye. “I knew it would be you to take it the hardest. It’s a lot, Zuri. First Madrina. And now this. But you gotta grow up. It’s a big world out there.”
I can’t help but laugh a little, even as tears roll down my cheeks. “That was corny, Papi.” And then I let it all out. I hang my head low, and the tears fall like rain. I cross my arms.
“No, no, no,” he says. “Not out here, and not like this.”
We’ve walked about ten blocks, and I realize where Papi’s going. He’s headed for the library on Dekalb and Bushwick—our favorite spot. This is where he’d take me when I was little. I’d disappear into the kids’ section, and he’d disappear between any and every aisle of thick books. But it’s Sunday, and we can tell from the tall and wide windows that the lights are off and it’s closed.
The gate leading up to the front steps is wide open, though, so we walk in and sit there.
“You don’t wanna leave that boy?” Papi asks. “Darius?”
“Papi!” I say. “I don’t wanna leave our hood, our building, our home!”
“And that boy,” he says.
Papi knows me through and through. So I hide my face in my hands, not wanting to believe that he’s right. “It’s more than the boy,” I mumble. I look up at him. “Papi, if we could just live on only one floor of his house.”
“It’s not our house and it’s not our life. And who knows? Maybe being here was a tough decision for them too. I mean, it’s not like they fit in, you know? And maybe with that buyout money and all, we’ll be the new rich kids on the block. Entiendes?”
I laugh a little again. And Papi places his arm around my shoulders and I lean in to him. He kisses my forehead, and his beard grazes my skin. I have always thought of Bushwick as home, but in that moment, I realize that home is where the people I love are, wherever that is.
AS MY SISTERS begin packing, I spend as much time at the library on Bushwick Avenue as I possibly can. I sit in corners, at tables, on dirty couches, and on the front steps, getting lost in the pages of books. But most important, I work on my essay for Howard University.
College is the one true thing I can hold on to. It’s going to happen no matter what. But I can either stay here in Brooklyn and go to a community college, or one of the City University schools, or go away. And the only option I’ve given myself for going away is Howard. I have to make this happen for myself. If I get in, then I’ll know that people like me have a say in how our lives turn out. Even if we’re thrown away by people with more money, we can always climb our way out of the messiness and the brokenness of our lives.
Because the thing about sharp corners is, the right turns can bring you back home.
I print out my five-hundred-word essay just as the security guard announces that it’s five minutes till closing. I don’t write a poem after all, but poetry has helped me get my feelings out. My broken words helped me make sense of everything, so that when I pieced them back together in an essay, my truth was clearer.
I place everything in a folder on my thumb drive with all my other application materials for early acceptance. But before I close it, I start a new document and get some last words out.
by Zuri Benitez
We were not supposed to be proud. We were not supposed to love these things so hard: the chipping paint, the missing floorboards, the gas stove we have to light with matches, the cracks in the windows, the moldy bathroom tiles, the mice and the roaches.
But I’ve never known anything else. These broken things all spell home to me.
They are like the many worn sheets and blankets Mama and Papi brought with them from their childhood. They are older than us, and there are stories lodged in their cracks and crevices, their stains and their tears. And if I listen closely enough, I can hear the whispers of the ones who came before us. They’ve left these holes for us to fill.
Ambulance sirens at night put me to sleep. Cars honking and neighbors cursing at each other let me know that love lives here. We care enough to be angry and impatient. Sometimes I wonder . . . if my neighborhood ever floods or breaks in half, and someone throws me, only me, a lifeboat or a lifeline, will I take it and leave everyone and everything behind?
This college is a lifeboat and a lifeline.
But my neighborhood is not flooding or splitting in half. It’s being cleaned up and wiped out. It’s being polished and erased. So where do I reach back and pull out memories as if they’ve been safely tucked away into a trunk or an attic like the people on TV who have enough time and too much space? Where do I call home? Where can I place a layer of brick to use as my platform, and hold my head up high to raise my voice and my fist?
Sometimes love is not enough to keep a community together. There needs to be something more tangible, like fair housing, opportunities, and access to resources. Lifeboats and lifelines are not supposed to just be a way for us to get out. They should be ways to let us stay in and survive. And thrive.
I pause in my typing and look up. All around me, a slight breeze brushes past the back of my neck, and my whole body tingles. It’s not like Darius’s touch at all. It’s more like a presence of something or someone on another side of this reality. And that’s when I know for sure that all of Madrina’s stories about los antepasados are as real as breath. She is still as real as breath. She is love. She is with me. Me, daughter of Ochún.
WE DON’T KNOW how to move. We don’t know how to pack up our lives into small, medium, and large cardboard boxes.
Mama wants to keep every single thing: baby clothes, our drawings from kindergarten, our cheap Barbie doll knockoffs.
Papi wants to throw out everything. And he does it. But behind Mama’s back, so that each time she thinks a box is full and ready to be taped closed, she goes off somewhere and comes back only to find it half empty again. And the last few days have shown me what our family is really made of: we are our memories, our love, and our things.
It’s the last day before Janae goes back up to Syracuse. She’s taking a box of her favorite things with her, afraid that Papi will throw them out. Me, Nae-nae, Marisol, and the twins are squeezed together on the front stoop. We used to all fit on one step, with our thin thighs and shoulders touching. Then, on two steps.
Now Layla sits on the step below, with her head resting on my right knee as I cornrow her hair. She digs into a small bag of sunflower seeds and spits out the shells on the ground next to the stoop. One lands on Marisol’s arm, and she smacks Layla’s knee. That would usually turn into an argument, but today, we all know that we don’t want to spend this last moment arguing.
It’s unusually quiet for a Saturday afternoon, but part of me wonders if the whole block is a little sad that we’re leaving. Charlise has already left for Duke, so she’s not here to crack jokes and cheer us up a bit. People have come in and out of our building, saying their goodbyes to Mama and Papi, and paying their final respects to Madrina’s basement. And maybe this quiet, sunny, warm Saturday afternoon is a long, heavy sigh. And that’s exactly what I do as I finish Layla’s final braid. In that same moment, the front door to the Darcys’ house opens up, and I pretend not to notice, even as all my sisters turn to watch my reaction.
But it’s Ainsley who walks out of the building, not Darius.
Ainsley comes over to us the same way Darius usually does, with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders slightly hunched over. But he doesn’t share the same hard jawline as Darius. His smile is crooked, his eyes are bright, and his fresh haircut makes him look kind of nerdy. A cute kind of nerdy. In that moment, I realize that Ainsley just might be perfect for my sister Janae.