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Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronxby Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Jessica lived on Tremont Avenue, on one of the poorer blocks in a very poor section of the Bronx. She dressed even to go to the store. Chance was opportunity in the ghetto, and you had to be prepared for anything. She didn't have much of a wardrobe, but she was resourceful with what she had — her sister's Lee jeans, her best friend's earrings, her mother's T-shirts and perfume. Her appearance on the streets in her neighborhood usually caused a stir. A sixteen-year-old Puerto Rican girl with bright hazel eyes, a huge, inviting smile, and a voluptuous shape, she radiated intimacy wherever she went. You could be talking to her in the middle of the bustle of Tremont and feel as if lovers' confidences were being exchanged beneath a tent of sheets. Guys in cars offered rides. Grown men got stupid. Women pursed their lips. Boys made promises they could not keep.
Jessica was good at attracting boys, but less good at holding on to them. She fell in love hard and fast. She desperately wanted to be somebody's real girlfriend, but she always ended up the other girl, the mistress, the one they saw on the down-low, the girl nobody claimed. Boys called up to her window after they'd dropped off their main girls, the steady ones they referred to as wives. Jessica still had her fun, but her fun was somebody else's trouble, and for a wild girl at the dangerous age, the trouble could get big.
It was the mideighties, and the drug trade on East Tremont was brisk. The avenue marks the north end of the South Bronx, running east to west. Jessica lived just off the Grand Concourse, which bisects the Bronx lengthwise. Her mother's tenement apartment overlooked an underpass. Car stereos thudded and Spanish radio tunes wafted down from windows. On corners, boys stood draped in gold bracelets and chains. Children munched on the takeout that the dealers bought them, balancing the styrofoam trays of greasy food on their knees. Grandmothers pushed strollers. Young mothers leaned on strollers they'd parked so they could concentrate on flirting, their irresistible babies providing excellent introductions and much-needed entertainment. All along the avenue, working people shopped and dragged home bags of groceries, or pushed wheelcarts of meticulously folded laundry. Drug customers wound through the crowd, copped, and skulked away again. The streets that loosely bracketed Jessica's world — Tremont and Anthony, Anthony and Echo, Mount Hope and Anthony, Mount Hope and Monroe — were some of the hottest drug-dealing blocks in the notorious 46th Precinct.
The same stretch of Tremont had been good to Jessica's family. Lourdes, Jessica's mother, had moved from Manhattan with a violent boyfriend, hoping the Bronx might give the troubled relationship a fresh start. That relationship soon ended, but a new place still meant possibility. One afternoon, Jessica stopped by Ultra Fine Meats for Lourdes and the butcher asked her out. Jessica was fourteen at the time; he was twenty-five. Jessica replied that she was too young for him but that her thirty-two-year-old mother was pretty and available. It took the butcher seven tries before Lourdes agreed to a date. Two months later, he moved in. The children called him Big Daddy.
Almost immediately, the household resumed a schedule: Lourdes prepared Big Daddy's breakfast and sent him off to work; everyone — Robert, Jessica, Elaine, and Cesar — went to school; Lourdes cleaned house and had the evening meal cooked and waiting on the stove by noon. Big Daddy seemed to love Lourdes. On weekends, he took her bowling, dancing, or out to City Island for dinner. And he accepted her four children. He bought them clothes, invited them to softball games, and drove them upstate for picnics at Bear Mountain. He behaved as though they were a family.
Jessica and her older brother, Robert, had the same father, who had died when Jessica was three, but he had never accepted Jessica as his; now only Robert maintained a close relationship with the father's relatives. Elaine, Jessica's younger sister, had her own father, whom she sometimes visited on weekends. Cesar's father accepted him — Cesar had his last name on his birth certificate — but he was a drug dealer with other women and other kids. Occasionally he passed by Lourdes's; sometimes Cesar went to stay with him, and during those visits, Cesar would keep him company on the street. Cesar's father put him to work: "Here," he would say, passing Cesar vials of crack taped together, "hold this." Drug charges didn't stick to children, but Big Daddy cautioned Cesar about the lifestyle when he returned home. "Don't follow his lead. If anybody's lead you gonna follow, it should be mine." Big Daddy spoke to Cesar's teachers when Cesar had problems in school. Jessica considered Big Daddy a stepfather, an honor she had not bestowed upon any other of her mother's men. But even Jessica's and Cesar's affection for Big Daddy could not keep them inside.
* * *
For Jessica, love was the most interesting place to go and beauty was the ticket. She gravitated toward the enterprising boys, the boys with money, who were mostly the ones dealing drugs — purposeful boys who pushed out of the bodega's smudged doors as if they were stepping into a party instead of onto a littered sidewalk along a potholed street. Jessica sashayed onto the pavement with a similar readiness whenever she descended the four flights of stairs from the apartment and emerged, expectant and smiling, from the paint-chipped vestibule. Lourdes thought that Jessica was a dreamer: "She always wanted to have a king with a maid. I always told her, 'That's only in books. Face reality.' Her dream was more upper than herself." Lourdes would caution her daughter as she disappeared down the dreary stairwell, "God ain't gonna have a pillow waiting for your ass when you fall landing from the sky."
Outside, Jessica believed, anything could happen. Usually, though, not much did. She would go off in search of one of her boyfriends, or disappear with Lillian, one of her best friends. Her little brother, Cesar, would run around the neighborhood, antagonizing the other children he half-wanted as friends. Sometimes Jessica would cajole slices of pizza for Cesar from her dates. Her seductive ways instructed him. "My sister was smart," Cesar said. "She used me like a decoy, so if a guy got mad at her, he would still come around to take me out. 'Here's my little brother,' she would say. 'Take him with you.'" More often, though, Cesar got left behind. He would sit on the broken steps of his mother's building, biding his time, watching the older boys who ruled the street.
Jessica considered Victor a boyfriend, and she'd visit him on Echo Place, where he sold crack and weed. Victor saw other girls, though, and Jessica was open to other opportunities. One day in the fall of 1984, when she should have been in school, she and Lillian went to a toga party on 187th and Crotona Avenue. The two friends were known at the hooky house on Crotona. The girls would shadow the boys on their way to the handball courts or kill time at White Castle burgers, and everyone often ended up in the basement room. The building was officially abandoned, but the kids had made a home there. They'd set up old sofas along one wall, and on another they'd arranged a couple of beds. There was always a DJ scratching records. The boys practiced break dancing on an old carpet and lifted weights. The girls had little to do but watch the boys or primp in front of the salvaged mirrors propped beside a punching bag. At the toga party, Jessica and Lillian entered one of the makeshift bedrooms to exchange their clothes for sheets. Two older boys named Puma and Chino followed them. The boys told the girls that they were pretty, and that their bodies looked beautiful with or without sheets. As a matter of fact, they said, instead of joining the party, why don't we just stay right here?
Puma dealt drugs, but he was no ordinary boy. He had appeared in Beat Street, a movie that chronicled the earliest days of hip-hop from the perspective of the inner-city kids who'd created it. The film, which would become a cult classic, portrayed self-expression as essential to survival, along with mothers, friends, money, music, and food. Beat Street showcased some Bronx talent, including Puma's group, the Rock Steady Crew. Puma had cinematic presence, and he was a remarkable break-dancer, but when he met Jessica his career was sliding to the bottom of its brief slope of success. The international tour that had taken him to Australia and Japan was over, and the tuxedo he'd worn break dancing for the queen of England hung in a closet in its dry-cleaning bag. He'd spent all the money he had earned on clothes and sneakers and fleets of mopeds for his friends.
Jessica was glad for anybody's attention, but she was especially flattered by Puma's. He was a celebrity. He performed solo for her. He was clever, and his antic behavior made her laugh. One thing led to another, and next thing you know, Jessica and Puma were kissing on top of a pile of coats. Similar things were happening between Lillian and Chino on another bed.
Both girls came out pregnant. Jessica assured her mother that the father was her boyfriend, Victor, but there was no way to be certain. The following May, Jessica and Lillian dropped out of ninth grade. They gave birth to baby girls four days apart, in the summer of 1985. Big Daddy clasped Jessica's hand through her delivery. At one point, Jessica bit him so hard that she drew blood. The grandfather scar made Big Daddy proud.
Jessica named her daughter Serena Josephine. Lourdes promptly proclaimed her Little Star. It was understood that Lourdes would have to raise her; Jessica didn't have the patience. Even if she hadn't been young, and moody, Jessica wasn't the mothering kind. Lourdes wasn't, either — in fact, she wished she'd never had children — but circumstance had eroded her active resistance to the role. She'd been raising children since she was six. First, she'd watched her own four siblings while her mother worked double shifts at a garment factory in Hell's Kitchen. She'd fought their neighborhood fights. She'd fed them and bathed them and put them to bed. Now Lourdes's own four, whom she had been able to manage when they were little, were teenagers slipping beyond her reach.
Robert and Elaine had been easy, but Lourdes felt their fathers' families were turning them into snobs. Robert returned from his weekend visits with his grandmother smoldering with righteousness. Lourdes could tell he disapproved of her involvement with Santeria, but who was her son to judge? How holy had it been, when Jessica was pregnant, for Robert to chase her around the apartment, threatening to beat her up? Her daughter Elaine's arrogance occupied a more worldly terrain. On Sunday nights, she alighted from her father's yellow cab, prim in her new outfits, and turned up her cute nose at the clothes Lourdes had brought home from the dollar store.
Jessica and Cesar were Lourdes's favorites, but they ignored her advice and infuriated her regularly. When Lourdes stuck her head out of the living room window overlooking Tremont and called her children in for supper (she used the whistle from the sound track of the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), she was usually calling for Jessica and Cesar; Robert and Elaine were apt to be at home. Robert and Elaine worried about getting into trouble, whereas Jessica and Cesar had as much fun as they possibly could until trouble inevitably hit. Robert and Elaine were dutiful students. Jessica and Cesar were smart, but undisciplined. Jessica cut classes. Cesar sprinted through his work, then found it impossible to sit still; once, he'd jumped out of his second-story classroom window after Lourdes had physically dragged him around the corner to school.
Jessica and Cesar also looked out for each other. One night, Jessica went missing and Lourdes found out that she had been with an off-duty cop in a parked car; when Lourdes kicked Jessica in the head so hard that her ear bled, it was Cesar who ran to the hospital for help. Another time, during an electrical fire, Jessica ushered Cesar to the safety of the fire escape. Jessica knew how to appease Lourdes's brooding with cigarettes and her favorite chocolate bead candy. Cesar, however, had fewer resources at his disposal. He had learned to steel himself against his mother's beatings. By the time he was eleven, when his niece Little Star was born, Cesar didn't cry no matter how hard Lourdes hit.
For Lourdes, Little Star's arrival was like new love, or the coming of spring. As far as she was concerned, that little girl was hers. "When I pulled that baby out — Jessica was there — the eyes!" Lourdes said. "The eyes speak faster than the mouth. The eyes come from the heart." A baby was trustworthy. Little Star would listen to Lourdes and mind her; she would learn from Lourdes's mistakes. Little Star would love her grandmother with the unquestioning loyalty Lourdes felt she deserved but didn't get from her ungrateful kids.
Meanwhile, Jessica made the most of her ambiguous situation. She told Victor that he was the father: she and Victor cared for one another and he had attended the delivery; he also gave Jessica money for Little Star's first Pampers, although his other girlfriend was pregnant, too. Secretly, however, Jessica hoped that Puma was the father, and she was also telling him that the baby was his. Puma was living with a girl named Trinket, who was pregnant, and whom he referred to as his wife; he also had another baby by Victor's girlfriend's sister. Despite the formidable odds, Jessica hoped for a future with him.
Publicly, Puma insisted Little Star was not his. But she certainly looked like his: she had the same broad forehead, and that wide gap between her dot-brown eyes. The day Jessica came home with a videotape of the movie Beat Street, Lourdes had heard enough about this break-dancing Puma to go on alert. She settled on her bed with Little Star, Jessica, Elaine, and their dog, Scruffy. In one of the early scenes of the film, a boy who looked suspiciously like Little Star did a speedy break dance at a hooky house. Then he challenged a rival crew to a battle at the Roxy, a popular club.
"Hold that pause," shouted Lourdes. "That's Little Star's father! I will cut my pussy off and give it to that dog if that ain't Little Star's father!" Jessica laughed, pleased at the recognition. Puma could say what he liked, but blood will out.
Puma's confidante was a short, stocky tomboy named Milagros. Milagros had known Puma forever and considered him family. Puma was the first boy she'd ever kissed. Kissing boys no longer interested Milagros. Puma's stories of Jessica's sexual escapades, however, intrigued her; Milagros had noticed Jessica as well, when they both attended Roosevelt High School. Milagros knew that Puma still saw Jessica, but she kept it to herself. Meanwhile, Milagros and Puma's live-in girlfriend, Trinket, were becoming friends.
Milagros and Trinket made an unlikely duo. If a river ran through the styles of poor South Bronx girlhood, these two camped on opposite banks. Milagros, who never wore makeup, tugged her dull brown hair into a pull-back and stuck to what she called "the simple look" — T-shirts, sneakers, jeans. Trinket slathered on lipstick, painted rainbows of eye shadow on the lids of her green eyes, and teased her auburn hair into a lion's mane. Trinket was looking forward to becoming a mother, whereas Milagros proclaimed, loudly and often, her tiny nostrils flaring, that she would never have children and end up slaving to a man.
In the fall of 1985, some of Jessica's friends returned to school. Bored and left behind, Jessica became depressed. She would page Puma, and once in a while he would call her back. Sometimes Jessica went looking for him in Poe Park, a hangout near Kingsbridge and Fordham Road, where the Rock Steady Crew occasionally performed. Usually, though, she found Puma at work, standing on a corner not far from the hooky house. Jessica had little chance of running into Trinket at his drug spot because Puma urged his wife to stay away. Alone with Puma, Jessica broached the touchy subject of what was between them: "Give time for her features to develop and you'll see, it'll look like you." She thought the space between Serena's eyes was a giveaway. On the small span of her infant face, the gap made her look as though she'd landed from another galaxy. Jessica also thought that Little Star had Puma's magnetism. "There's something about her that brings her to you," she said.
Jessica harassed Trinket with crank phone calls. The calls were Jessica's trademark: she would whisper, "I have Puma's kid," and then hang up. Eight months into her pregnancy, Trinket decided to confront Jessica. Whoever was or wasn't a baby's father, the business of claiming love tended to be a battle between girls. The next time Jessica called, Trinket told her she wanted to see the child. Jessica gave her Lourdes's address. Milagros went along as Trinket's bodyguard.
"Where's the baby?" Trinket asked. Serena hung forward in a baby swing. Her enormous head seemed too heavy for her scrawny body. Jessica propped up her baby girl to give Trinket a better look. She also produced additional evidence — "Love" and "Only you" written on photographs of Puma, in his own hand. The assessment took less than fifteen minutes. Milagros said good-bye to Jessica and hurried after Trinket, who burst into tears once they were safely back on the street.
Privately, Trinket didn't blame Puma for fooling around with Jessica. "Jessica had this sexuality about herself and her domineering ways," Trinket said. "I was so closed-off." Trinket attributed her inhibitions to having been molested by one of her mother's boyfriends. Jessica had also been sexually abused, by Cesar's father from the age of three, but Trinket didn't know this. Jessica seemed so comfortable in her body. She flirted easily with girls and boys, men and women, alike. Jessica appeared to have no boundaries, as though she were the country of sex itself. Puma told Trinket that that baby could belong to anyone; he said that Jessica had been with everybody; she was no one's girl. Trinket consoled herself with the thought that maybe Jessica's promiscuity had resulted in a baby that had features from different boys.
A month later, in January 1986, Trinket gave Puma his first son. Her position as his wife was secure.
Jessica then began dating Puma's brother, Willy. Willy and Puma were often together, but Jessica claimed she didn't know they were related until Willy took Jessica to his mother's apartment and she spotted Puma's photograph on a wall. In fact, the brothers shared a striking physical resemblance: Willy looked like Puma with a mustache, although instead of Puma's wiry expressiveness, Willy had a bit of a hangdog look. Both had a way with the ladies, though; Willy, who was twenty-two, had already been married, and had fathered four kids.
That winter, Cesar's father called Lourdes — he was broke, homeless, and heroin sick — and Lourdes took him in. The family treated him "like a king," he recalled, but he soon left, unable to resist the drugs.
Jessica's depression grew. She started gouging small cuts on her inner thighs. Nobody wanted her — she had been neglected by her own father; then by Puma; and even by Willy, her second choice. She said, "I was never loved the way I wanted to be. Nobody in my family ever paid any attention to me." That spring, after receiving a vicious beating from Lourdes, Jessica tried to kill herself by swallowing pills, and Big Daddy whisked her to Bronx Lebanon Hospital. The drastic action worked, but only briefly. "They paid attention to me for about two days afterwards," Jessica said scornfully. After she had her stomach pumped, the doctor informed her she was pregnant again — with twins.
Jessica claimed that Willy was the father, but once again, there was no way to be certain. When Jessica had been carrying her first child, Lourdes had indulged her cravings, buying her the orange drink morir soñando — "to die in your dreams" — and preparing her oatmeal with condensed milk, vanilla, and fresh cinnamon stick. This time, however, Jessica's pregnancy didn't grant her special status in the household.
Jessica and Willy tried to get ready for the babies. Jessica's older brother Robert got Willy a job at the paint store where he worked; Jessica sold clothes at a store on Fordham Road. If a man came in looking for an outfit for his girlfriend, it was Jessica's job to model it. Jessica generated so much business that her boss let her keep some of the clothes. Her best-selling item was called The Tube. "You could roll it down and wear it as a miniskirt, and if you roll it up and hook a belt, it could be a dress," Jessica explained. "Or a tube top if you fold it, or if you twist it, you could make a headband." Day after day, men came in for an outfit for their women and departed with three or four, fully accessorized. Many of the men asked Jessica out. Her boss started bringing her into the back and asking her to model the new lingerie; he rewarded her with a gold-nugget necklace and matching earrings, and took her out to eat. Before long, Jessica had to quit.
Willy had left his job as well, and soon they were both back to their old ways. Willy's girlfriends included one of Trinket's cousins, a schoolgirl named Princess. It was Princess's turn to receive Jessica's calls.
"I'm pregnant from Willy," Jessica said.
"You're a ho," said Princess. Next call, Princess snapped, "You're pregnant from that bum in Poe Park," which was worse than saying the baby's father was an immigrant.
Willy may have lacked Puma's lightning energy, but that September he quickly agreed to put his last name on the birth certificates: Brittany arrived at 5:01 PM, several weeks early and two minutes ahead of her twin sister, Stephanie. They were scrawny, with that prominent forehead, a tuft of thin, black hair, and a sweeter trace of Willy's hangdog look. Jessica had a C-section scar; Puma was an uncle; Willy was a father; Serena had two baby sisters; and Lourdes was a grandmother again.
Jessica and the twins moved in with Willy at his mother's, but even with the babies, Jessica had no legitimate place. Her relationship with Willy's family was shrouded in shame. Puma's mother accepted Serena, but some of his sisters considered Jessica a home-wrecker, and privately called her worse. She holed up with the babies in Willy's bedroom, and he sometimes got physical when he was drunk. Trinket paraded through with Puma's precious son, trailed by Milagros. Milagros said, "Jessica was always sad and alone. She would be in the room by herself. Nobody talked to her. They all loved Trinket. They knew what Jessica did." Milagros made a point to stop and say hello. Sometimes she visited without Trinket, and she and Jessica started becoming friends.
Puma ignored Jessica around his family, but they still got together on the sly. Once, he slipped Jessica a note. She met him at a nearby bus stop. He bristled: "Hearing you with my brother, don't you know how bad that feels!" Jessica was moved that Puma cared. Puma discouraged Willy's affection, though:
"Why you going out with her? She's a slut."
"You picture her the way you want," Willy would reply defiantly. "I'll picture her with me." But it was hard for Willy to hold on to his private image of Jessica when the real girl had such wide appeal.
By November, Willy had also become involved with a girl who lived upstairs. One rainy night, after an awful fight, he kicked Jessica out. Desperate, Jessica called Milagros from a pay phone: she was standing with the twins, drenched, on the street. She had two plastic bags that held all of her things, two two-month-old babies, and no welcoming place to go.
The call didn't surprise Milagros. Plenty of people moved house to house — she had herself — and girls with babies had it extra hard. They would move in with boyfriends and their mothers, but more people created more problems, and the welcomes wore out when the money thinned at the end of the month. Mothers' husbands or boyfriends' brothers or grandfathers and uncles couldn't stop their roving hands. Or a boy could get too possessive when a girl moved into his bedroom and mistake her for a slave, or the mother-in-law wanted a baby-sitter for her other children instead of a daughter-in-law, or the family was just plain mean. Some grandmothers were unable to tolerate another crying baby; some had already lost their own babies — young ghost mothers gone to crack. Or they resented the young lovers, especially if they had no love of their own.
Sometimes girls turned to men like Felix, a friend of Lourdes's who lived on Mount Hope Place, just around the corner from East Tremont. Lourdes would send her daughter to Felix when she needed cash. Occasionally Felix gave Jessica money as well, but Jessica hated going there alone. Sometimes Lillian went along, but Felix drank, and the girls would have to fend him off. Worse-off girls stayed in abandoned buildings, with other teenagers and adults on the run from other crowded apartments. But even for a girl who gave up what she had to — sex or pride or the mere idea of independence — the rate was unpredictable, and for gorgeous, sexually untethered girls like Jessica, the length of the welcomes at other women's apartments seemed especially short. It didn't help that Jessica wasn't in any hurry to clean or cook. Girls with attitude discovered that the shirt your man's sister gave you suddenly turned into a loan, and when a twenty went missing, nobody said it but everybody was staring at you. Even if your man backed you up, you were left in the house while he went to the street. A little brother or sister or nephew or niece might bring you a plate of food or keep you company, but it was impossible to feel at ease.
That night, Milagros did what she'd done for other girlfriends countless times: she took Jessica in. Milagros was living with Puma and Trinket, but she told Jessica to take a cab and meet her at her mother's apartment, in Hunts Point, where Milagros had been raised. Hunts Point was a heavily industrialized area, even rougher than East Tremont. Streetwalkers worked the barren blocks after the warehouses shut. Career junkies dragged themselves to Hunts Point when every other option failed, nine lives lived, waiting to die. Milagros waited for Jessica outside her mother's building and paid the driver. She scooped up the babies and led Jessica up two flights of stairs. She fed Jessica and the twins. The twins fell asleep, but she and Jessica broke night. Milagros's bedroom window overlooked the Bruckner Expressway, and cars and trucks rushed in and out of the city, headed west, to New England, or upstate. They talked till the sun rose, their voices mixing with the traffic din.
Milagros readily devoted herself to Jessica, and Jessica didn't discourage her. When Jessica retreated to Lourdes's a few days later, Milagros offered to keep the twins so that Jessica and Willy could try to work things out. Trinket knew Milagros well enough to recognize the foolishness in such an offer. "Here she comes with her big ass to save the day for another unstable person," Trinket complained. To Milagros she said, "You're making Jessica's life easy. How responsible is that?" Milagros's mother worried that Jessica might take advantage of her daughter's generosity. On the other hand, she herself had been effectively raising a little boy from the building named Kevin, whose mother spent her time running the streets. Milagros assured her mother that she was watching the twins only temporarily.
Things at Lourdes's were getting out of hand. The apartment was filling up — a sure predictor of trouble. A friend of Big Daddy's named Que-Que, whom Lourdes claimed as a long-lost brother, was regularly crashing on the couch. Lourdes had been partying heavily with him and a woman downstairs who practiced Santeria. Willy occasionally brought money for the girls and spent the night with Jessica. Milagros also stayed with Jessica, on the weekends or after work. She had a job as a teller at a check-cashing place. Elaine had moved back from her father's, after a male relative had molested her, and Lourdes ridiculed her for having thought she could survive away from home. Elaine had briefly dated Willy's brother, until Jessica brought her to the hooky house and introduced her to Angel, a wily drug dealer with a good sense of humor and a moped. No one had much time for Cesar, who was running wild.
The line between having fun and getting into trouble wasn't always clear. Lourdes and Big Daddy had always partied on the weekends, but now Lourdes was using during the week as well. She'd also been shirking her wifely duties, and Big Daddy was getting fed up: she disappeared for hours, then whole afternoons, and then it got to the point where she sometimes stayed away all night. She returned in the morning just in time to cook Big Daddy's breakfast and send him off to work, after which she took herself to bed. There were other danger signs: Lourdes, who was vain, cared less about her appearance; her house was no longer spotless; cereal and SpaghettiOs replaced cooked meals.
Big Daddy was a good-looking young man with a job, and he felt entitled to the privileges of his advantages; he'd tired of acting like a husband to a woman seven years his senior who was behaving more like a teenage girl than a wife. He did not mind that Lourdes used cocaine as long as she still had sex with him five nights out of seven, but now she gave excuses; he remembered asking, "You mean I gotta give you twenty to cop to give me some?" Lourdes saw it differently. She needed money — every woman did — but his touch felt unbearable. Although he denied it, she was convinced that he'd cheated on her, and she was sick and tired of serving him.
Big Daddy found better-paying work as a janitor. For a while, he was also dealing cocaine, but he quit because he said that Lourdes kept dipping into his supply. According to his calculations, she was snorting a gram or two a day; she insisted that she knew how to pace herself and that she never used more than half a gram. When Jessica and Milagros wanted to go out, they gave Lourdes cocaine to baby-sit.
By the spring of 1987, the house was packed: Besides Jessica, Serena, Cesar, Robert, Elaine, Lourdes, Big Daddy, Lourdes's alleged brother, Que-Que, and the guests, there was Elaine's boyfriend, Angel, and Shirley, Robert's girl. Elaine was pregnant. Shirley was also pregnant, and her father had kicked her out. Ordinarily, Lourdes used her welfare benefits to pay the basic bills, while Big Daddy covered all the additional necessities and any luxuries. But with the company and the drugs, they could not keep up.
That summer, Big Daddy finally issued an ultimatum: the drugs or him. Lourdes physically attacked him as he began to pack his things; she then went into a seizure, but Big Daddy still left. Lourdes assured her worried children that the separation wasn't permanent — she just needed time to herself. Jessica, who had been sleeping out on the couch, moved into Lourdes's room. Soon afterward, Cesar returned from school and found a man stepping out of the bathroom in a towel. His mother was combing her long black hair, which was wet. "What about Big Daddy?" Cesar asked, devastated. "He only left three days ago. That's not even enough time to work it out!" Jessica was sent back to the couch, resentful and furious. She said, "Big Daddy really loved my mother. My mother left him for an asshole who didn't even pay the rent."
Milagros took the twins for a while, but Little Star stayed behind. Days could pass without her seeing sidewalk, even though lots of people came and went — everyone who was living there, their friends, and friends of friends. When Lourdes was out of bed, she badgered her daughters to take the child outside — both to give her a break and Little Star some fresh air. Sometimes Jessica brought Serena with her on her rounds: to the bodega, to the pay phone, to Puma's drug spot. If someone offered Jessica a ride, though, she left her daughter with whatever friend was willing to keep an eye on her.
That summer, Serena started to cry whenever she peed, and after a few weeks, Lourdes threatened to hit Jessica if she didn't bring Serena to the hospital to be checked. When Jessica and Elaine finally took her to the emergency room, the doctors discovered that she'd been sexually abused. She was two years old. Jessica was detained. A police officer interviewed her and explained that he could not release Serena into her custody. Lourdes had to sign for her.
At home, anger shouted down the sadness: threats sailed; guilt was leveraged; everyone and no one was responsible. Serena had been unsupervised in the company of so many different people it was impossible to know whom to blame. There was that dark-skinned friend of Cesar's who was simple and liked to play with the girls when they were in the tub, and the family friend's brother who'd taken Serena into an apartment to use the bathroom one night while she was hanging around with Jessica on Crotona. How about the boyfriend of Lourdes's who would go into the bedroom at night when the girls were making too much noise and hit them until they cried themselves to sleep? Lourdes ordered the young men who came in and out of her apartment to the hospital for physical inspections. Underneath all the indictments and posturing, however, bad mothering was considered the true culprit: Lourdes blamed Jessica; Jessica blamed herself. And somehow, Serena got lost in the noise. All the women in Serena's life had been sexually abused at one time or another, and their upset seemed to be less about the child's trauma than the overwhelming need, precipitated by the crisis, to revisit their own.
Soon afterward, Lourdes ran away. She made it only as far as Que-Que's brother's girlfriend's, but at first the children didn't know where she was; later, they often couldn't reach her. Elaine got a job at C-Town, a grocery store across the street. She cleaned, cooked, and attempted to retain control over what remained controllable. Robert was still working in Manhattan as a paint-store clerk. On weekday evenings, he took a plate of whatever Elaine had prepared and shut himself in his room with Serena. "The twins had each other. Serena had no one," Robert later said. Lourdes would pass by Tremont when the welfare check arrived, but she refused to come upstairs; Elaine would meet her down by the mailboxes in the lobby. Lourdes kept the small cash allotment and gave Elaine all but $50 worth of the food stamps. Even so, everyone was getting skinny — except for Robert, who stockpiled food in his bedroom and padlocked the door when he went out. Jessica cajoled the girls' fathers to bring by Pampers and milk, but they didn't always come through.
For a time, Cesar and Jessica grew closer. He remembered that "Elaine, she be in her own whole world. My brother was in his little world. Me and Jessica was in the same world." Their world was the street. If she was in a good mood, Jessica was beautiful. She generously shared whatever she had. She set Cesar up with her girlfriends and gave him pointers on how to please women. They had sex with their dates in the same room. "We was real open with each other, it didn't bother us," Cesar said.
At the end of the summer, Lourdes returned home. Que-Que, no longer a long-lost brother, now slept in her bedroom. Robert and Cesar each had a bedroom because they were male; Elaine had reclaimed Jessica's old room, with her boyfriend, Angel; Little Star had a daybed in Lourdes's room; Jessica was still on the couch. When the twins were there, Jessica put them in a crib next to her; they both cried a lot.
Without Big Daddy's contributions — $500 a month in cash, in addition to a running tab at the bodega — Lourdes had to scramble again. No woman with four children could survive on welfare, and now Lourdes also had four grandchildren, another on the way, and a drug habit to support. Jessica and Lourdes fought, ferociously and often. Both women wanted to be taken care of; neither wanted to baby-sit. The cocaine helped Lourdes, but there was never enough of it.
Life at Lourdes's now moved in lockstep with the life of the street. The first week of each month, after the welfare check came in, was best — a time to buy things, to feel some sense of agency. Outside, the drug dealers also enjoyed a surge in business. Lourdes stocked the shelves with food and bought what the house needed from the dollar store — King Pine for cleaning and cocoa butter for healing scars and the comforts of air freshener and hair conditioner. She clanked around the kitchen, blasting Latin oldies, cooking rice with gandules and frying her pork chops seasoned with the fresh herb she called the Puerto Rican leaf. She cooked well. Friends and neighbors dropped by, and Lourdes fed everyone.
Everything changed toward the end of the month when the money ran out. Lourdes took to bed. Elaine cooked rice, which Cesar flavored with ketchup. He stole fruit for his family from a nearby Korean market or snatched bread from a grocery store's delivery bin. Milagros brought the children diapers and food. She remembered seeing Cesar drink their Similac, then refill the bottles with sugar water, as he'd seen his sisters do. For longer and longer stretches, Milagros lugged the twins back to her mother's, one under each arm, their skinny limbs dangling.
That winter, in 1987, Lourdes hit bottom. All the jewelry was in the pawn shop. The phone company shut off the phone. Usually, Lourdes managed to pull things together at holiday times. As far back as her children could remember, she had prepared dozens of pasteles, her specialty dish, which the bodega by the Grand Concourse would sell for her. She'd spend the extra cash on food and gifts. She would buy each of her children a brand-new outfit, and on Christmas Eve, they would all dress and take the subway to Manhattan to have Christmas dinner with Lourdes's mother, uncles and aunts, and their kids. It was a happy night.
That Christmas, however, they remained in the Bronx, with Lourdes curled up in bed. Even the birth of Elaine's baby boy — Lourdes's first grandson — barely roused her spirits. Occasionally, she shuffled out of her room and made coffee and peed. The dog's messes dotted the narrow hallway, and if Lourdes stepped in a puddle, she'd yell at her children, then call Scruffy sweetly. Scruffy would run with such excitement toward her that he would skid into her legs when he tried to stop. She'd punt him down the hall. By January, Scruffy had learned to cower at the sound of Lourdes's voice.
At the lean end of the month, Elaine's boyfriend, Angel, set Jessica up on a blind date with a drug dealer named Boy George. Jessica was Angel's gesture of thanks to George for giving him work. Angel had met George years earlier, on Watson Avenue. Angel was selling crack then, doing pretty well, and George was just coming up. But Angel, like many neighborhood kids, had enjoyed the lifestyle that accompanied dealing and had started using drugs. Then the money couldn't come fast enough, and now Angel had Elaine and a baby son to support. Boy George, however, had been disciplined. He never touched his product; he rarely drank. In the midst of the hype of the crack boom, he'd had the smarts to concentrate on heroin, and his business was thriving. Years later, looking back, Jessica said, "That was the date that changed my whole way of life."
Copyright © 2003 by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
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