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A smack stings. My cheek burns. My arm screams from her pinch.
Porque le dijiste cosas a tu abuela, she yells, scanning the room for something strong and steady. I hide under a pillow. It’s safe here. Safer than my grandmother. I thought I could tell her things. She promised she wouldn’t say anything to anyone.
No le dijas nada! I hear it before I feel it. Don’t tell her anything! It slices through the air. A training kali stick crashes down on my exposed body. I used to cry and wail and beg but there was no use, so I keep the emotions and each blow I keep in my memories.
Nunca quenta las cosas de la casa, she says, each strike rage-fueled, until it’s over and my father comes in.
No games or TV, he says, yanking all the machines from the wall, turning off the light, closing the door behind him, and leaving me on the bed to heal, to remember. Trouble is I don’t remember what I told my grandmother. But I remember she had promised to never tell. How did they know?
She must be magic.
The music is blaring. She holds a knife in the air, snapping her free brown fingers, and gyrates her broad hips to the feverish beat of bongos and trumpets. And the skillet screams for attention. And she goes on as horns, oil, platanos, ancestors all wail with el Grupo Niche.
Cali, pa-chang-ero. She shouts, off key, shaking the source-nest of my rich black curls, and with a careless joy, like she was saying, let the flames burn the house down but at least I got to dance, she lines a plate with paper towels.
She twists and twirls, and grooves back to flip the platanos and set the crisped caramelized ones on the plate, her feet keeping the rhythm. And as the music fades, screeching oil momentarily dominating, another comes on, and she changes.
Soy dulce como el melao, alegre como el tambor, a ardent voice blasts out, and softens and quickens, llevo el ritmico tumba’o.
‘Ey, my mother’s stout boyfriend waddles into the sleek white kitchen clapping to the rhythm. My mother settles. He mock-plays the bongos on the edge of the stainless steel stove. He shouts, mi negra fea, l’adoro! Why did he call Celia ugly?
His arms slide over my mother’s waist, who is now so entranced by the food and its conclusion that cares all returned. Prepara la mesa, ya sta lista, she orders, shifting in his pale, fatty arms and turns to me, escoje un vino.
The man’s words stay with me. My mother is not much different from Celia Cruz. Her skin tanned from half a lifetime in Miami, the other in Cali, and lines bearing memories of a far-off land she will live off again, and an innocent beauty she knows how to command. So was Celia. So why the nickname? Why ‘la negra fea’?
I study the wine like I have any idea about quality. I pretend I’m so well versed in the ways of enology I can deduce the subtle notes to pair well with the picadillo. I grab a Malbec. I like Malbec.
Oh that’s a good bottle, he says like he has any more clue. He sets his mat down, then my mother’s, and readies their plate and knives. My mother glides over and does mine, any chance to care for her wayward son. I grab plastic wine glasses from a glossy cabinet, pour them enough to cover the bottom and myself a little more, and we settle down for dinner.
Only he speaks. He asks a question, you respond, he offers the right one between bites. He admonishes the young, regales the old Cuba, offers coffee and takes his plate to the kitchen. Quiet. My mother smiles. Different. Tempered.
The platanos are cooked perfectly. I don’t know how she does it. There’s some witches brew she must use to coax the slices into shelled crabs of heavenly, yellow goo. No one makes them like her. I try and fail every time. It’s her magic.
Contempt is all I remember offering my mother. Childhood haunts me. An acquired instinct comes over me to boast. I tell my mother about my time at school, interesting stories I’ve accrued for moments such as these. She holds me, silent, in brown eyes, glazed and nodding, like she already knew because her magic sees into my life whether I like it or not, and from the kitchen, my father was a chemist, he interjects.
Ah si? My mother says, and he takes over with a story of his father traveling the Cuban countryside with a donkey-drawn cart and glass vials—some shit like that.
Tu nunca hablas con migo, she says later over his snores piercing the three walls that separate the living room from the bedroom. No se nada de ti de tu vida, she adds, head down, disappointed.
So, I share another story from Baltimore, a time I went to a restaurant with a friend. She nods, glazed, estoy cansada, she says, kisses me good night and vanishes into the snores.
I am accused of over sharing. My date simply asks how my day was, and he didn’t need a huge explanation. Good was the right response, he says.
The man has a charm. When he’s sweet, he draws few flies. A smirk curls the beard his cheekbones keep at bay. Some say it’s patchy and I explain it’s how we grow ours, and I ask about his day.
Good, he grins, see how it works. He takes a bite of mashed potatoes. He can say what he likes, do what he likes, as long as he comes home with me like always so I can peel away the intrusive slacks I watch fold in all the right places when he saunters to the bathroom, I don’t care. He sent me pictures of it. It’s from Cali, he had said. It’ll be worth it, I bet.
Stuffed with platanos, we rush to my apartment. I pluck the martini off his lips, traverse his nearly frail body, bones padded by black hair, and my nose tastes a cologne-blended musk as I pay the toll before turning him over. It’s really hair, not so plump in this lighting. He was done in two minutes. He joined the others on the towel I keep in the corner. We lay together, his face pricks my chest, as my hand still searches for what the picture promised, we should go to Cali one day, he says, my family can meet my new boyfriend. I nod politely. LA’s not that far, he says. What?
I never saw him again.
I’m afraid of flying right now, I say to a static buzz of water flooding my car posing as my mother that the last time I was coming into Baltimore there were really heavy winds and it’s shaking the plane a lot. People were panicking, someone yelled oh my god and was really scared and legit thought we were going to die. It just traumatized me and I really don’t want to get on another plane. Plus COVID is really scary so I just want to stay here and not go down to visit this year.
Dishes clang together. The water stops. Okayyy, my mother says in her mocking English, pero habla con alguien. Te mando el dinero para el vuelo.
Again, I explain why I don’t want to fly and again she offers two solutions, and the cycle continues until neither position is ceded and boredom and a string of fading byes ends the call. She never listens. I vow to set a boundary. Until she listens I am not going back down to Miami.
My boyfriend comes into the room, phone in hand saying, your mother called me, how did she get my number? I shrug and explain she’s magic. She has powers. He says, she wanted me to convince you to come down. I’ve given my reasons. I’m not going down there.
Christmas comes again. And another. And another. And another. With each passing holiday, the guilt withers away. She calls asking questions with follow ups, until the real ones come and she nods mhm with solutions and options. I stop offering the stories. Only when asked do I give them, blunted and bland, and she wonders where her magic went. Who knows.
Kevin (he/they) is a gay, Latine fiction writer, and cardiovascular research scientist. His fiction work appears (or forthcoming) in Dark Matter Presents: Monster Lairs, If There’s Anyone Left, Idle Ink, Medusa Tales Magazine, Pyre Magazine, and more. He is Editor/Publisher of Tree and Stone Magazine (Twitter/Instagram: @treeandsonemag), and an HWA/SFWA/Codex member. Find more of his fiction and science writing at https://www.kevinmcasin.com/