Homeward

by

03/12/2017

Neighborhood: Manhattan, Washington Heights

Homeward
Photo by Angel Eduardo

“Lemuel,” my mother cried out to me. “No puedo ver.”

I looked up. Her eyes were shut, her grip was tight around my hand, and she was telling me she couldn’t see.

We had been walking home, enjoying the lull that comes over Washington Heights at the end of the day. I was six and relished any chance to be outside our apartment, especially in the summertime. I had accompanied my mother on her errands, holding her hand as we walked back from the bank, soaking in the breeze as the sun slowly vanished behind the buildings in the distance. I had been daydreaming. My mind trailed off, as it always did, with the sounds of cars honking and Latin music blaring from open windows. I heard the sizzle of pans on a stove and envisioned women who looked like my grandmother—wearing a bata and chancletas, hair in a bun, skin reeking of Bengay—stirring together sancocho or arroz con guandules. The aroma was soothing, putting me into a trance as I stared out into the darkening sky—but I snapped awake when my mother stopped and cried out to me.

“No puedo ver. No puedo ver.”

I stood transfixed as I watched my mother let go of my hand and reach out in front of her, as though probing for something. This was strange. My mother had never had trouble seeing before.

“¿Mami?” I asked. “¿Qué pasó?”

She turned towards me, eyes still closed, arms out, and didn’t answer my question. An exaggerated frown formed on her face. Her feathered black hair fell back as she pointed her chin up, looking up at the sky as though completely disoriented. She stood slightly hunched, reminding me of zombies I’d seen in comics and cartoons. When she spoke next, her voice trailed softly through the air between us, a kind of whine tinged with fear.

“¿Dónde ‘tamo’?” She asked me where we were.

I looked around. The Heights looked the way it always did. Identical brown and red brick apartment buildings lined each side of the street. Fire escapes zig-zagged down their faces like iron tears, the setting sun slicing through the thick black bars and casting shadows in the alleyways. Cars slowly buzzed by at the intersection. A bodega sat on the corner, and a few old men in faded tank tops sat on milk crates in front of it, playing dominoes on a fold-out table.

“¿Dónde ‘ta la casa?” my mother asked, just as I began to wonder about it myself.

Where was our apartment? Where was home?

I shut my eyes and tried to remember. P.S. 115, where I had gone to kindergarten, was back where we had just come from. I always noticed its red brick face on the corner whenever we passed. I pictured the route home I’d take when I got picked up by my mother or father every day after school. It was a short walk with only a few turns. We couldn’t be far. I could handle this, I told myself. I could take my mother home.

“Ven, Mami,” I said, taking her hand and tugging her forward.

I knew the way.

*

It had never been my job to know where I was or where I was going. In fact, getting lost was an old hobby of mine. Even at six, I’d already heard plenty of stories. My mother would tell me of a visit to the Dominican Republic when I was three, where I snuck out of my grandparents’ house and ran off into the countryside. She said she spent hours looking for me, wandering the dirt roads of Los Alcarrizos, peeking into the trees, shouting my name, fighting back tears and hysteria. I finally turned up more than a mile from where my grandparents lived, playing with a bunch of kids in the front yard of a house whose tenants were moving out. “Who knows,” my mother would tell me. “They could have packed you up and taken you with them.”

I got lost again at a mall in Manhattan around Christmas a year later, when I was four. I had a habit of letting go of my mother’s hand and running off, always keeping her in my line of sight while I played. That day, though, the crowds were so thick that I lost track of her after only a few seconds. By then, we had established a protocol. Hours of Sesame Street, as well as my mother’s constant reminders, had drilled into my head that if I got lost, the best thing to do was to stay put and wait to be found. That day at the mall, it was only a minute before I got a smack on the back of the head and a scolding before being taken by the hand again. The admonishing tone was familiar, but the voice was not. I looked up and noticed that the woman dragging me along wasn’t my mother. A moment later, she looked down and realized I wasn’t her son. She gasped, apologized, and ran off, leaving me behind. Again, I stayed put. I got two smacks on the head that day.

I could never help wandering, but I had begun to get better at keeping my mother in sight. I made a game of it, memorizing her outfit, learning to recognize the top of her head or how she walked. This worked great in department stores and restaurants, but the one place we didn’t kid around was when we were out on the street. The city was dangerous, my mother always told me, and it was important to stick by her. I took her warning seriously, never letting go of her hand when we walked anywhere. I held on tight as she guided us all over the neighborhood, and when I couldn’t wander, my mind did instead. I’d only ever paid attention to my surroundings by chance, and suddenly, that summer evening in our neighborhood, I had to navigate them on my own.

*

We passed our doctor’s office and I tugged on my mother’s hand as I guided her around the corner. “E’perate,” she said, pulling me back a bit, her eyes shut tight, her tone still a fearful whine. “Yo creo que e’ por acá.”

I looked at my mother quizzically, then peered in the direction she suggested we go. “No, Mami,” I corrected her, “e’ por aquí,” before yanking her back the right way.

My confidence grew with each familiar place we passed. They had become landmarks to me, burned into my brain, even though I’d never noticed: the corner store that sold ninja swords and race cars, the tiny video store with the big Spider-Man cardboard cutout, the church with the gold-trimmed dome and pastel colored diamond design on the bell tower walls. Then, off in the distance, I saw the two puke green high-rises with terraces covered in Christmas lights and drying laundry. I remembered seeing those buildings from my parents’ bedroom window. I knew we were close.

“Ya, casi ‘tamo en casa, Mami,” I assured my mother as we turned one last corner.

“Okay,” she said, sounding unsure.

I looked out and suddenly recognized our block. I didn’t know how long we had been walking, but it had gotten dark and the streets were nearly empty. My mother and I were the only ones around. Three apartment buildings, lined with black iron fencing, stood in a row in front of us. Each had steep concrete stairs leading up to a big main door made of wood and glass. Our building was the gray one in the middle. There was a single tree in a patch of dirt out front, next to a fire hydrant. Just above the building’s glass door was a big, gold-painted 88—our address. I carefully guided my mother up the stairs, hanging onto her tight so she wouldn’t fall over. When we got to the top she asked me if we were home.

“Sí, Mami,” I said confidently. I looked over and noticed the red curtains of my parents’ bedroom window, which was next to the front door and faced the street. Yes, this was definitely it. We were here. I’d taken us home.

My mother opened her eyes and smiled down at me, as though her vision had miraculously returned. I stared, still unsure as to how I should react.

“Bien hecho, mijo,” she said. I’d done well.

She leaned in and kissed my forehead, then knelt down to my level. Her eyes were the same as always, chocolate rings with widening black spots in the center. Nothing seemed wrong with her at all. She told me she had been testing me, checking to see if I knew my way home, if I could find my way back if I ever got lost—and I did. A smile lit my mother’s face and I stared back at her, proud but still a little perplexed. A grin began to creep its way across my face as well, and I asked if this meant I was now allowed to go out by myself.

“No,” my mother said. Not yet.

 

Angel Eduardo is a writer, musician, and photographer from Northern New Jersey. He has been published in The Caribbean Writer and Label Me Latino Journal. He graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing for Memoir at CUNY Hunter College in 2016 and is working on a book-length memoir project. More of his work can be found on his official website, www.angeleduardo.com.

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