by Carolina Abreu
August 17th, 2002.
I opened my eyes and stared up at the abanico that was barely hanging from the ceiling by a couple of cables for the last time. It’s funny how you start to miss the things that are right in front of you once you realize you may never see them again. Same thing happens with people. I wasn’t afraid that the ceiling fan would fall on me because it had been hanging like this for all 11 years of my life. Plus, I had bigger things to worry about like saying goodbye to Mamá, my grandmother from my mother’s side who had been taken care of me for the last two years.
“Llegó el día” I sighed to myself.
The day that I get to reunite with my parents and my sisters. I never thought that the first time I got on a plane it would be on a one-way ticket to the supposed land of the dreams. I always wondered what that meant, was it the land of the dreams because you were allowed to dream on it or did your dreams actually come true? I soon discovered that it really should be called the land of what you make it.
To be honest I don’t exactly remember any of the events that took place on this day. I later on learned that when your brain doesn’t want to relive something it stores it away in a dark and dusty area that you can’t access on your own. I do however remember feelings. I remember the sadness I felt that day knowing that I would say goodbye to my family, without knowing when I would see them again. I landed in New York at night and for a moment, it felt like I had landed right back in the Dominican Republic, or maybe that was just a wish. It slightly felt like home, but I denied the feeling.
As I made my way out of the gate, I could see a group of people impatiently waiting behind the barricades. I desperately searched for familiar faces. I saw a young woman run into the arms of her lover and passionately kiss him. I wondered what their story was. Did they meet on the internet, fall in love and this was his first time stepping foot in the United States? Or did he travel to the Dominican Republic on a 3 months mission to help the less fortunate? I was so caught up in their life that I forgot about the excitement of my own. By the time I had tuned back in to reality, my mother was already standing in front of me smiling with her arms wide open. For a second, I felt as if I didn’t recognize her, the last time I had seen her was a year ago. My mother was a short woman with very strong features. She always kept her hair in a short bob and lightly colored. As intimidating as she looked, once her lips parted to reveal her big, beautiful smile, you felt her warmness run through your body. This time her hair looked darker and her eyes deeper and as she hugged me I began to feel bad because I had no idea what could’ve caused her eyes to change. Behind her, my two sisters stood staring at us. Milagros and Luz were always very close to each other and I wasn’t sure if it was because they were closer in age or if it had something to do with me. It was their turn to hug me and almost robotically they both moved forward and hugged me so tight I thought I would explode. My father joined in on our hug and placed a wet kiss on my forehead.
“Que bueno que estas aqui mi muchachita linda,” my mother said as she grabbed my right shoulder and pushed me back to look at me up and down as if to make sure I wasn’t too skinny.
“Mama Santa no te dejo pasar hambre, eh?”
“Una pela al que no come” I replied.
We all laughed. I immediately felt the pain of missing my grandmother who thought it was okay to have 3 lunches in one day. “Tu sabes cuanta gente anda pasando hambre? Asi que agradece y come” she would say as an excuse.
“I can’t wait for you to see all of the lights in New York City” my father chipped in his deep voice while nudging us towards the exit.
“The amount of lights in Times Square could light up our entire country!” my sister Milagros exclaimed almost too excited.
I couldn’t help but wonder why one city would need enough lights that could light up a whole country when there are people in the world who have never experienced electricity.
“How much does that even cost?” my question was more serious than I intended it to be.
Thankfully everyone was so caught in the excitement of my arrival that they didn’t hear me.
The car ride to my new home was inescapable. My father decided to take a long detour through the city to show me around. My mother excitedly asked my sisters to tell me all about their new
“Tell her about your afterschool activities. Luz, did you forget you are captain of the Volleyball tea- oh! Milagros, tell her about your friend Hannah and her new dog! You know how much Beatriz loves dogs!” she pressed on.
My mother would sometimes jump in to tell stories of her own. I felt like an exchange student would upon meeting her host family for the first time. The stories seemed to have no end. Were they really having this much fun without me? Are they closer to each other than I ever will be because of all the time I wasn’t around? I heard my sisters laugh over one of their silly stories and I joined in as if I hadn’t missed a second of the conversation.
“And you see that building over there, the pointy one? That is the Empire State building,” my father continued proudly. Anything he said was drowned out by the voice of my mother and my sisters. He didn’t seem to mind as he was in so much awe at what he was looking at that for a moment I thought this was his first time in New York City too. This must have been the way he looked when he actually walked this city for the first time in the late 1960s after being exiled with his mother, sister and two brothers from the Dominican Republic following their persecution and the murder of my grandfather by dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina and his Army back in the Dominican Republic. After the trauma of seeing his father’s brain laying on the floor next to his lifeless body and finding himself having to fill in the shoes of the man of the house in an unknown country; my father always made sure my sisters, my mother and I took endless hours of English classes when we lived at home.
“Uno nunca sabe lo que puede pasar” My father would say as he sipped his coffee after I begged him to let me stay home and play outside. After all, what 7-year-old wants to spend most of her summer afternoons in a classroom learning a language that seemed useless at the time?
“Do you see how tall it is?” My father’s voice brought me back from my daydream.
“Wow,” I barely whispered.
“Cooo-oool!” My sister Luz said loud and slowly as if I was half deaf, “You can say it’s cool.”
I turned to look out of the window again.
The truth is I was impressed, I just didn’t want anything to do with this new life of theirs. I really wanted to not think that the city was the most amazing place I had ever seen in the entirety of my life, but I gave in the second my father turned onto Times Square. At this time, it didn’t matter how much it cost to keep those lights on. All that mattered was that moment, looking up at all the lights with my face squished against the window and both palms flat on the glass as I imagined feeling the heat radiating from the lights. I began to believe the reason this place was considered the land of dreams. I looked at all the people walking along the sidewalk. I wondered where everyone was rushing off to. It was 11:00PM and it looked as if everyone was late for work.
“Where are they going?” I asked quietly.
My father suddenly stopped short and I bounced off the back of my mother’s front seat and my own.
“Estupido” my mother said bitterly.
“Dios mio!” my dad yells. “Everyone okay?”
“Yes.” my sisters reply in unison. I say nothing because I haven’t been okay since the day my parents left and took my sisters with them.
“That’s the one problem with driving in the city. Cabs think they own the streets. They will cut you off and stop short in front of you without a care in the world. As if they are not putting everyone else in dang-“
“LOOK! The naked cowboy!” my sister Luz exclaimed, pointing at a man standing in a corner, holding a guitar and only wearing a cowboy hat, boxers and cowboy boots. I rubbed my eyes and wondered if I was dreaming. There is a semi-naked man standing in a corner playing his guitar and people are giving him money for it? We stopped at a red light right next to the naked cowboy who happened to be on my side of the car. I stared at him and wondered about his life.
As my father’s car moved forward and I fell back to my seat, the naked cowboy made eye contact and smiled at me, I smiled and waved.
I thought about how happy he looked. The words “The land of the dreams” repeated itself in my head. A place where anyone can be who they are and do what makes them happy. I smiled. As the ride went on and my sisters talked to each other, I stared out of the car window and saw things I had never seen before. I saw women with hair colors I thought were only acceptable in cartoons. Men wearing really baggy clothes and other men that looked like the dads in most of my favorite movies; dressed in suits and shiny shoes, walking around on their cellphones while puffing on a cigarette. I saw men selling food from carts every couple of blocks and I wondered if they were all the same since I had no idea where I was and my dad kept going around and around so that I could see the lights over and over again. I loved him for this, I knew that he would do whatever he could to make me happy, whatever the definition of that word was for him.
At some point, I must have fallen asleep. I woke up to the sound of car doors slamming. I heard my door open and felt my father’s hands pick me up. He held me tightly as he walked towards my new home. Ever since I was a little girl, I would fall asleep until the car stopped and then I would pretend to continue to sleep so that my father would carry me inside. The breeze was warm enough to make me feel as if it was one of those days back at home. I woke up the next morning to the smell of pancakes and eggs. Ever since I can remember my mother wakes up earlier than everyone on the weekends so that we can wake up to the smell of breakfast. I was wearing pajamas that were unknown to me, but the smell of my sister was very familiar. I was in an apartment I didn’t recognize but I didn’t feel any fear. I followed the smell of the eggs and the sounds of faint laughter and made it into the kitchen. There they were, my family. They hadn’t noticed me yet so I stood behind the table and I watched them. They looked just like they had before back at home. My sisters were whispering and exchanging things under the table. My father drank his coffee and read the newspaper, his chair was pulled back so that he could cross one leg over the other. He was always too big to fit at any of our dining room tables. My mom was in the process of setting up the table running back and forth from the cabinet where she kept the fine china she only used on special occassions.
And it was. It was the day I realized how much I missed my family. It was the day I realized how upset I was at them for leaving me even though they had to. It was the day I realized that no matter what, I would love them with all of my heart and that it didn’t matter how angry I was this is exactly where I needed to be.
“Buenos días!” my mom turned around in her robe and flashed her big smile at me.
I ran over to her and hugged her the way I should’ve when I first saw her at the airport. At this moment, we both knew I was home. I sat at the table and looked at my sisters. I felt something touch my knee and I reached down for it, my sister handed me her toy make-up palette. I picked it up and began to pretend I was a fancy older woman and puckered my lips as I picked up my head and put fake make-up on my eyelids. My sisters began to laugh uncontrollably and so did my dad. My mother turned around, put her hand on her waist as she tilted her head and looked at us and smiled. I was home.
About the Author
Carolina Abreu is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She looks to create a space of vulnerability, self-love, liberation and acceptance through her writing. Her goal is to inspire her generation and the future ones to believe in their authenticity while watering the roots planted by their ancestors and the ones they've planted themselves; to take the strength of the past and their present voice and use it to create a new path that is paved with inclusivity and kindness.