By Michelle Moraitis
“Let’s just play one more game of hide and seek! Please!” I begged Rico and Javier, pressing my palms together. We already played six games, but my cousins didn’t come over very often. If only Rico wanted to play badly enough, then we could convince the older one to join in. It wasn’t fair being the youngest cousin. I always had such little say in anything, and if Rico didn’t support me, I had no chance.
Rico shrugged. “I’m up for another game,” he said.
I squealed, hopping in excitement, “Yes! What do you say Javier?”
“It’s 1:30 in the afternoon and I am ready for lunch. I’m taking Rico home,” Javier answered.
My heart sank. “What? No! Come on, Javier.”
“No, prima. Stop begging,” Javier snapped. “I’m getting hungry. Let’s go, Rico.”
“We can do something else! Tag maybe? Please, I don’t want to stop playing with you guys. We had so much fun,” I said with a sniffle.
“Sorry, Iva. We had fun too, but we have been playing all morning,” Javier said with a sigh. “Come on, Rico. Let’s go.” He motioned to his brother and they started toward their bikes on the edge of the lawn.
“Bye, Iva!” Rico said, looking back over his shoulder to wave.
I clenched my fists. “Fine! Don’t play with me then.” Spinning around, I ran across our tiny front lawn and yanked open the front door, my heart pounding angrily.
“Hija, is that you? I’ve made you peanut butter and jelly!” Mom called from the kitchen.
Stepping out of my sneakers, I entered the kitchen where my mom stood drying a pan with a towel. The appearance of the sandwich and carrots next to a tall glass of milk almost made me forget that my cousins abandoned me.
“Thanks, Mom,” I mumbled. Stomping my way to the counter, I sat down hard and took an angry bite of sandwich.
“Ivelisse, my dear, what’s the matter?” I looked up slowly and met Mom’s warm brown eyes, her face etched into such concern that the tears burst from my eyes.
“They left!” I exclaimed, throwing my hands in the air. “It’s not fair, Mom, I’m so mad!”
“Didn’t the three of you play all morning?”
“Yes, but…” I sniffled, thinking. “They finally came and played after so many months of not coming over and they wouldn’t even stay for one more game of hide n’ seek with me.”
Mom set down the pan and the towel and hurried around to the other side of the counter to wrap her arms around my shoulders. Leaning away from my stool toward her, I hugged her waist. “You’re hurt more than angry, Iva. You don’t have any siblings, your cousins live a few miles away, and there are no kids around us for you to play with. It’s hard for Javier and Rico to understand your need because they have three other siblings.”
“They haven’t come in so long and I was getting afraid they didn’t want to see me anymore,” I said, my voice quivering. “And I had so much fun that I didn’t want them to leave.”
“Look at me.” I looked up at my mother who was staring warmly down at me. The brown waves of her hair framed her pretty face and I was always proud that my brown skin matched hers perfectly. I always imagined that our smiles were the same too, even though Abuela always said I had my dad’s smile.
“Iva, everyone struggles with the tension of wanting to be cared about by others. We just have to be strong when we do feel alone. We can do that, Hija, you…” she said, poking me in the stomach as I let out a giggle, “…and me both,” she finished, pointing to herself.
Already feeling better, I gave my mom a brave smile and wiped my cheeks. “I will be strong!”
Mom laughed, grabbing the pot on the counter and crouching to put it away under the sink. “If we had another car, I would take you to your cousins more often. Plus, if I get a job soon, like I am hoping, we might have to get another car.”
“Yeah that would be nice, and we could go to the park,” I added. My stomach rumbled and I gladly finished the rest of my lunch.
“Why don’t you play with those blocks your Grandma Rosie sent for Christmas?” Mom asked as I guzzled down my milk. “It’s really a beautiful set. They aren’t those toddler blocks you played with when you were a baby. They are grown-up blocks for seven-year-olds like yourself,” mom said with a wink.
Setting down my milk glass, I spun around on my stool to where the half-opened box sat in a corner in the living room. I didn’t have a ton of toys, but the blocks never really perked my interest. I could maybe build something to impress my dad since he was a construction worker. I began to smile thinking of the pride and excitement on his face when he saw the little city I built with all its buildings and streets.
“What if I built something for dad? Do you think he would like it, being a builder and all?” I asked tentatively.
“Just have some fun and don’t worry too much about your father. He will probably like it,” Mom said with a sigh.
“He will like it,” I said, already convincing myself.
I decided to build my little city in the middle of the living room, but first I had to clear some space. There were shirts sprawled on the ground that I tossed on to the couch and some sticky cans that I grabbed with two fingers and flung into the corner, gagging at their rancid smell. Anything else that was in the way got pushed to the edge of my continually growing circle of clear carpet space.
I ripped open the box of blocks the rest of the way and emptied out its contents on to the little space I created. There were numerous red, rectangle type blocks that looked like miniature bricks. There weren’t as many of the other block types – blue triangles, green squares, purple tubes – but I figured it made sense because their shapes were more difficult to use.
My first three buildings were little houses made with four red bricks and a blue triangular roof. I sat there on my knees staring proudly at my work when another idea came to mind, “The kids in these houses need a park!” I said to myself. Using some of the funnier looking shapes, I set up slides and monkey bars that were across the street from the houses. Down the street from my houses I made a bigger building that stood for a library and a Kroger. I even created some “unnecessary” shops as my mom called them, such as a pet shop and an ice cream shop.
“You need restaurants that serve meals before you have an ice cream place,” my mom said, laughing.
“Meals? All a kid needs is ice cream, Mom,” I replied.
“What about the adults? Do they matter?”
“The adults just eat the ice cream too!” I said proudly.
“Well, I certainly wish we could live in this city of yours,” Mom said warmly, giving my cheek a gentle stroke with her hand.
I caught her hand in my smaller ones and squeezed it excitedly, “Maybe someday, Mama, we can live in my dream city.”
As afternoon approached evening, I added two new streets to my Iva City as I called it. Mom suggested I add a school since every city has one and education is “very” important, which I did build after much thought. I also decided upon a movie theater where they only played Scooby-Doo Movies and of course an arcade like the one we have in town.
I glanced anxiously at the clock. “Mom, Dad comes home soon, right?”
“Yes, in about half an hour,” Mom answered with her back to me as she stirred the steaming rice and pork together on the stove.
I was almost done but I had to finish before he got home. I quickly got pieces of paper and made some sloppy labels for all the places in my city and Mom told me how to spell most of the words out loud as she cooked at the stove. I even used the few action figures I had to put in the buildings and streets of my city.
Mom was just dishing out plates of food when the garage door was swung open. I jumped to my feet from the living room floor, excited and nervous all at once. Would Dad like it? Many times, he seemed like he did not care for my toys and games, but block building was like his construction job. I was doing what he did all the time so he must like it!
Dad walked in and threw down his bag on the floor before I could say anything. Tapping his finger on the can in his hand, he stared at my mom, ignoring me for the moment. “Really, Valerie? Rice and pork again? Do Puerto Ricans eat any other dish?”
“It’s your daughter’s favorite, Derek, and I haven’t made it in months because you don’t like it,” Mom replied calmly, bringing the dishes to the table.
I bit my lip nervously, but I wanted to speak. “Dad,” I said quietly.
“I’d rather eat the dirt from my boots than this Puerto Rican crap,” my dad grumbled, not hearing me.
“Dad,” I said a little louder.
“What?” Dad said, looking at the contents at the bottom of his can.
“I made this city for you with blocks… I thought you would like it because you build things too. See, look at the living room.”
Dad shuffled and even staggered a bit towards me, surveying my work for a brief moment. “Nice, kiddo. Now make sure you have it cleaned up before the game tonight. Robby is coming over for a beer.”
Dad drained his can and eyed the pile of cans I made in the corner of the living room. “I’ll add to the collection,” he said, shooting his can across the room; it landed on the others with a loud clang.
“Derek, she spent hours building that for you. Could you say anything else?”
Dad turned around sharply from me and I cowered against the wall as he wobbled toward Mom rather quickly. “What I said was fine, Valerie. Do you have a problem? It’s just a bunch of kid’s blocks.”
Dad stood nose to nose with my mom and my eyes flickered quickly between the two of them. Mom crinkled her nose, gagging. “How much have you been drinking? Derek, you need to stop coming home drunk and high,” she said exasperatedly.
Dad gave Mom a little push away from him and I whimpered, but my mom hardly flinched. “I will stop getting drunk the day you stop making that wretched pork dish, woman!”
“Forget about yourself for once, idiot. Your daughter hardly ever asks for your attention anymore and now the one time she does, you throw it in her face by hardly acknowledging her!”
“Don’t you call me an idiot, slut!” Dad said, his face getting redder by the second as my eyes continued to widen until I thought they would pop out of my head. “The block city is stupid; your food is worse!” He snatched a plate of food and threw it into the blocks. I screamed and my mom yelled “Derek!” as the plate broke in two and smashed all my blocks and covered the floor with rice.
“Seriously!” Mom was now shouting at the top of her lungs. “In front of Iva? Derek, you worthless piece of trash, she’s just a child!”
Dad stared at me for a long moment while my whole body began to shake. My fingers tried to grip the wall at my back, searching for a way to hold on from the terror and hurt happening before my eyes. How could this be my father? My imagination began to form my dad into the scary, slimy monsters on Scooby-Doo. He was a beast with sharp, menacing teeth that only threatened Mom and me.
“Children just get in the way!” Dad finally scowled. He lumbered toward the garage door again, kicking his bag that still lay on the floor on his way out, right into the wall. “I am going to get some fresh air.”
I dropped onto my knees, wailing as soon as the door closed, my sobs causing me to gasp for breath and the snot from my nose slipping down my upper lip into my mouth.
“Ivelisse, I’m so sorry. So sorry!” Mom tucked her hands under my armpits, lifting me into her arms as I wrapped both legs around her waist and hung on to her neck for dear life, my face squished into her hair.
Mom carried me into my room and set me on my bed, tucking Aslan, my stuffed lion, next to me on the bed and wiping my face with the tissues on my nightstand. She rubbed my scalp just the way I liked. “Shhh, I know, Hija. There is nothing to be afraid of. You’re safe here and your father won’t hurt you. I promise.”
“Why can’t it just be you and I, Mom? I don’t want him here!”
“I know,” Mom whispered. “But he is still your father. Remember that.” Mom patted my cheek pulling away. “I need to go talk with him.” Mom stood up, her face hardening in preparation to face the beast in the garage.
“Don’t leave me,” I whimpered.
“Be brave until I come back,” Mom said, giving me a final sympathetic look before she slipped out the door, closing it behind her and isolating me in the process, leaving me in the loneliness and fear that echoed in the silence around me.
“Block cities are stupid!”
My dad’s voice echoed through my mind and I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to forget those words.
“Children get in the way!”
A tear escaped by my right eye and ran down my cheek bone. My mother’s voice then came to flood out the pain of my father’s.
“We just have to be strong when we do feel alone.”
Leaning back on my pillows, I set Aslan on my lap and stared at his raggedy, fuzzy face, imagining that he really was the magnificent, brave Lion from the movies that I so loved. “You will help me to be brave, won’t you, Aslan? Just like a Lion?” I whispered, looking deep into the Lion’s beady eyes.
And then perhaps I only imagined it or maybe I was overly tired because certainly Aslan couldn’t talk, but another voice seemed to answer me in my mind, strong and steady, but soft like a gentle breeze…
“I will, Ivelisse.”
It was June, the month of my fourteenth birthday, of blooming flowers at Edgewater Park and cheering students as the school bell stopped ringing at Crossroads Jr. High for the next three months. June was the promise of life as the sun finally begins to warm your back after so many cold months; and the first month where the waves of Lake Erie are actually warm enough to enjoy rather than freeze your toes off.
A month that was supposed to be my favorite, but now was the worst of my life.
I stared blankly out the dirt-smudged window of the tiny square-shaped kitchen, that really wasn’t my kitchen, not anymore. The overgrown grass of the lawn was blowing in the breeze, swaying to the east and then rippling like a wave when a large gust of wind blew by, reminding me of all memories, some good but most bad, that played out on this small stretch of land. Moving my hands to the hem of my black dress, I straightened it the best I could, then I raised my hands to run my fingers through my loose brown curls.
“I want to look good for you, Mom. One last time,” I whispered so faintly that I hardly heard myself speaking. I wiped away the tear streaks on my face.
A rustling of feet and the turning of a knob from the master bedroom had me tensing up and clenching my teeth so hard my head started to hurt. My blood was boiling and ready to be coughed up into someone’s face, a very specific someone.
I turned around as Dad entered the kitchen. He was wearing a black sweater, with a stain on it of course, black jeans, and his work boots. By the hazy look in his eyes he had to be hung over or maybe half-drunk already; I couldn’t even tell the difference with him anymore.
“You couldn’t have dressed a little nicer,” I seethed, hardly keeping my cool.
He ignored my comment and cuffed the sleeves of his sweater, then reluctantly looked at me, almost bored. “Ready?” he asked, sounding sleepy.
“You sound like you’re ready for a nap,” I said coldly. “Don’t even come, Derek! Why the heck are you going anyway?”
Anger rather than grief seemed to snap him out of his fog and his eyes hardened. “You know she was my wife before she was your mom,” he shot back.
“She married you because she got pregnant with me! She wanted me to have a father, even if he wasn’t perfect!” I yelled, slamming my fist on the kitchen counter. “How was she supposed to know you were a monster? No mother or wife would have imagined how horrible you were!”
“Watch yourself, missy” Dad scowled, shaking a finger at me. “I put a roof over your head and food on your plate. I provided for you and your mother so don’t be an ungrateful little witch toward me!”
My whole body shaking, I lurched forward across the kitchen to where he stood in the hallway entrance, and shoved him with everything I had in my small frame. “Where were you!” I screamed madly as he staggered backward. I grabbed the front of his sweater and shook it with my fists. “Where were you when Mom was diagnosed? Where were you for all her treatments and hospital visits? Where were you when she lay dying in her hospital bed?” I slammed a fist in his chest. “You were sleeping with other women, being unfaithful to my mother!” I tore at his shirt with both hands as he tried to push me away. “You were drinking and gambling money we needed for mom!”
He had my hands clamped in his own and he held me at an arm’s length away so I couldn’t attack him. I thrashed in vain and eventually gave up, continuing to attack with my words. “And not once did I ever hear you ask if she was alright or even offer to help her out. You just continued to demand that she cook and clean and that was it!” I spit in his scowling face and he cussed, releasing me. I kicked him in the shin, and he howled, glaring at me savagely.
“That’s it you little…” he called me all sorts of fowl names and pushed me to floor, fist raised for the punch.
“I dare you! Do it.” I challenged him, staring at him unblinking, raising my chin high. “Touch me and my uncles will beat you to pulp. And you know it!”
“They’d go to jail.”
“And so would you. For illegal drugs and for beating up your daughter,” I said with a little smirk. I had him. He couldn’t argue with that.
He lowered his fist and both of us were frozen for a long moment, him standing there staring at the ground, me sprawled on the floor, propping myself up on one arm, the noise from the humming fridge and neighbor’s lawnmower, and the bloody, gaping wound that lay between my father and I, unseen, but felt by both of us and probably the foundations of the house itself. And neither of us cared or even desired to cross it.
I rubbed away the tears spilling from my eyes. “Derek, you have hurt me so many times. In more ways than just mom’s illness, and you know what I speak of. And there are things even beyond what you know… you made childhood a living hell for me.”
I strode out the door, chin held high. Walking towards Javier’s car, I imagined the memories of childhood growing smaller and smaller behind me until one day they were so shriveled that I could turn around and press them into the dirt with the heel of my boot. I wanted to forget this place. Let the walls cave in on the evil that soaked the tile of the kitchen floor and the carpet of every bedroom.
In the car, Javier and Rico sat silently, their eyes darting from me to the front door. “So-” Javier started to say.
“He isn’t coming,” I cut him off with my sharp words.
Without another word, Javier pulled out of my driveway and the car rolled in slow motion down the street. Driving away, I could feel that house dripping like the last droplets of blood from the corner of my heart; but now, I was to embrace a different world, one that was hopefully better than the last.
Before me, the city became a place I could build with red blocks and blue triangles. The houses on either side of the street became pet shops and ice cream stores for miles. Streets were not sad and vacant, but teemed with children and parents of all shades, talking amongst each other, laughing as the children licked Blue Moon and played with Scruffy. And of course, my mom was there, because I told her one day we could be.
“Someday, Mama, we will live in my dream city!”
She was standing in the street, her face aglow with warm sunlight. Her brown curls spiraled out from her head, blowing in the breeze and glowing from the sun that set her hair ablaze. Health radiated from her body and she was strong, no longer thin and weak. Her full face replaced the sunken cheeks.
“Hija, this is our place of peace, our city,” she said with an outstretched hand.
“Iva? Are you alright?” Rico’s soft voice pulled me from the imaginary city I was staring at through my window. I touched my face not even realizing that tears now soaked my cheeks.
“I don’t know,” I replied simply.
If Heaven existed, then maybe that city was possible for Mom and I, but until that day I was forced to walk these imperfect streets on my own. I had to hope that I would stumble into good places that resembled the blue triangular roofs of my city, a place that houses a fraction of happiness for me.