Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sister, Sister

Thirty-nine years ago, today, my older sister and I were sitting on the stoop on a warm, summer, Brooklyn evening, with our grandparents. That's what people did in Brooklyn back then. On summer nights, when darkness didn't come until well after 8pm, we'd all go out and sit on our stoops, or lean out of the window and watch what was going on outside. My sister and I would play jacks. My grandfather would read The Daily News evening edition. My grandmother would talk over the fence to our next door neighbor, who she'd been best friends with for years. It was a neighborhood.

On this night, July 26th, 1973, we heard the upstairs door open, and out came my mother and father. My mother was very pregnant. She was a small woman, and this baby had added a good 50 lbs to her. Getting around had become uncomfortable for her, especially in the summer heat.

"Do we have to come inside, now?" I asked.
"Just a little while longer, please?" my sister asked.
My mother took a deep breath. "No," she said, "you don't have to come in, yet. I need to stretch my legs. Daddy and I are going to take a little walk."
Ma and Daddy came down the steps, hand-in-hand. When they reached the bottom, Ma kissed first Lisa, and then me on the forehead. "Be good, babies" she said, "Abuela's in charge."
She looked up at my grandmother, then, who was seated on the step above me, trying to braid my thin hair, and said, "Mami -nos vamos."
My grandmother did that thing with her chin that Puerto Rican people do. (I do it, myself, these days.) Even back then I knew it meant "Ok."
My grandfather didn't say anything, Neither did my father. This wasn't man's business.

Dad opened the front gate and he and Ma started walking slowly up the block, holding hands. They always looked so funny together. Ma was short and chubby. Dad tall and lanky. More than a foot apart. That year, dad had let his hair - what little there was of it - grow, and it reached almost to his shoulders. His beard was really long, too. He always wore really worn jeans with a garrison belt, a white t-shirt, and a pair of Clark's Wallabees. He was in no way a hippie, but he looked a little bit like one. Like a really clean hippie. Ma didn't look like a hippie, at all. She just looked like, well, like my mother.
As they walked up the street, one of our neighbors called down from her window, "Hey, where are you two headed?"
"Taking a walk on the ave," Ma answered.
"A little hot for that, doncha think?," another neighbor chimed in from his stoop.
"I just feel like stretching my legs," Ma replied.
A second later the first neighbor, a feisty, older Italian-American woman who lived two doors away and was good friends with my parents, yelled out, "BULLSHIT! You're going to have that baby!"
My sister and I looked at each other, and then looked up at my grandmother. She smiled and said (in Spanish), "The new baby is coming." Abuela had had nine babies of her own, all at home, with only the aid of a midwife. This business was nothing to get worked up over.
My sister and I were allowed to sleep with Abuela and Abuelo. It was the first time in my life my mother would be away from me as I slept. The four of us piled into the big bed that night, and watched Channel 47 for a while before turning out the lights and falling asleep. Early the next morning, Abuela shook me awake, "Despiertate, mi gordita de oro," she said, "Your father's going to take you to see  your new baby sister."
Lisa and I got up, brushed our teeth, and put on the clothing Ma had gotten ready for us before she'd left the night before. We sat at the table in Abuela's kitchen, where we drank big mugs of hot cafe con leche and ate bread with butter. Abuelo peeled an orange and divided the wedges between us. Just as we were finishing up our breakfast, we heard a tap at the window. It was Dad. "Come on, let's go," he called out, "your baby sister is waiting."
We ran outside, and walked up the street, each of us holding one of Dad's hands. The early morning sun was bright. It would be another hot day. When we got to the corner, as we were waiting for the light to turn green, Dad looked down at me, "You know," he said, "this means you're not the baby, anymore."

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Of Sisterhood, Awards, and Other Blogs

The incredibly bright and talented Heidi Moore, who I've come to think of as "the biggest missed opportunity at a best friend, ever" has nominated The Superhero Lunchbox for The Sisterhood of The World Bloggers and the Tell Me About Yourself awards.

Better late than never - and I'm glad Heidi and I have found friendship and camaraderie, after so many years of being more acquaintances, than anything else. One of the sharpest, wittiest women I know, I'm constantly amazed by the grace and humor with which Heidi writes about some pretty heavy-duty topics that would have brought a lesser woman down, long ago. Check out her blog. Go back and start from the beginning. You will think about your own mortality. You will laugh. You will want to paint and write and eat vegan baked goods. You will wish you knew Heidi, too. Trust me on this.

So, the terms of this nomination require nominees to link back to nominator (seriously, don't skip the part where you check out HeidiWriting) and to write a list of : "Seven Things You Should Know About Me," and then to nominate seven other bloggers who are worthy of this award. This seems like a pretty neat way to spread the word about some of the great stuff that's out there for the reading. Here goes.

Seven Things You Should Know About Me

1. I identify as "culturally Catholic." I don't go to mass. I don't believe in 99.99% of what the church has to say. I eat meat on Good Friday. I'm a lesbian. BUT....I was raised Catholic and a lot of the stuff that comes with that has bugger all to do with religion, and everything to do with how a person moves about in the world. Also, my grandmother, who I loved A LOT, was Catholic, and I associate Catholicism with her. I respect your right to throw darts at the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but you won't be doing it in my house. It seems incredibly disrespectful to my grandmother and, truth be told, there's 1% of me that thinks you're going to burn in hell.

2. I have a freakish memory when it comes to words. At 45, it's not what it once was but, still and all - if we had a conversation 30 years ago about the merits of RC Cola versus Coke, I remember it. I may well remember it verbatim.

3. Conversely, my visual memory has always been crap. If I saw you this morning, I can guarantee I have no recall of what you were wearing. People say a lot of my writing is very visual. This is true. In cases where it's non-fiction, my memory is sharp and clear only because I internally processed what I was looking at, verbally, at the time I was looking at it. Possibly with the idea that I wanted to write about it, some day. Translating visual details into prose inside my own head makes it possible for me to turn details I'd easily forget into memories that I will never lose. I think a lot of people do variations of this sort of processing.

4. I'm from NYC, but I'm very proud of my mixed race, Caribbean heritage. My parents and grandparents were all born in Puerto Rico. My great grandfather was from St. Thomas, the son of former slaves. I've never been to Puerto Rico, but I always identify as Puerto Rican first, American second.

5. I'm also a citizen of New Zealand. Having a second passport comes in handy.

6. I'm the funniest person I know. This sounds so shitty, but it's true, and there's no point pretending it isn't. I may not be the funniest person that you know, but I crack myself up. And that's a pretty good thing to be able to do for one's self.

7. I have a deep love for soap operas. I don't mean an ironic, hipster, "OMG...this is so cheesy" love. I mean I grew up watching them and loving them, think serial drama is a literary genre and that it and the people who create it should get some real respect, and I think it's a damned shame there aren't any good ones left on daytime television. If you're rolling your eyes, ask yourself what the hell you're watching when you fawn over Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire or Downton Abbey.

Seven Bloggers You Really Should Check Out

1. Elegy and Irony - Notes from an Aging Hipster - Patrick Erwin writes about a lot of things - music, work, writing, family, sex, name it. He's just interesting, and one hell of a good writer.

2. Musings of a Manatee - I really enjoy free-form blogs, where the blogger isn't stuck with one subject, just because he or she said they'd keep a daily blog on the NFL or comic books, or whatever. Like Patrick Erwin, Shirley Suzuki writes about a variety of topics. One day she might be posting photos of the knitting project she's working on, a day or two later, she'll review a book she's just read or talk about her experiences homeschooling her two boys. I like lots of topic-specific blogs, but I really love this slice-of-life stuff the best. It's sort of the best thing about the internet, IMO - getting to know people when they invite you to be a fly on the wall of their lives.

3. Jenn Hayes' Poked With A Stick Studios blog is a feast for the eyes. Jenn is a really fine illustrator who does so much more than draw. She builds these amazing shadow boxes and creates elaborate paper dolls. This is a new blog for Jenn, so it's not heavy on content, but what there is is really something. I really love her work. When I was at my lowest, I bought one of her shadow boxes, just because it made me happy.

4. Art, wonderful, beautiful art and words about art, by artist and art history teacher, Kenney Mencher. I love this blog, because it basically gives me a chance to sit in on some amazing art history lectures, without having to pay tuition. And don't let the word "lecture" fool you - there's nothing dry about this.

5. Lost City is a virtual love letter to my home town. It's Gotham, when it was at its best. Catch it before it's all gone. It breaks my heart a little, every time I look, because there's so little of it left.

6. The Map of When - Hugh Eliot is quite something. You never know what you'll find. He'll post dance music videos for five days running, and then an original short story that makes your heart soar. You will never be bored. You may, however, ask yourself where this man has been all your life.

7. This is just silly, but I love it. Putting Weird Things in Coffee. I found this blog a few years ago when I started to wonder if I was the only person who put cheese in coffee. (I'm not.) I sort of fell in love. This guy...well...he puts all sorts of things in coffee, films it, and writes about the results. This will not change your life. You will not be a better person because you've bookmarked this blog. It may even be the biggest time-waster, ever. I find it irresistible, though. As topic-specific blogs go, there is none that brings me more ridiculous joy.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


"You coming?' she called out.
"I'm right here," I replied from a dozen feet behind.
The sun had gone down and the tall grass made it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead, even by the light of a flashlight. She stopped and waited for me to catch up as I moved in the darkness. When I reached her, she took my hand and said, "We're almost there," and we walked on. As we walked, we heard the faint sound of a band practicing in an abandoned barn a quarter mile away. Vermont was like that at night - an amphitheater for whatever dared cut through the darkness. On this night it was a Grateful Dead cover band, crickets, and the sound of our Sorels cracking through dry mud.

After a minute or two the tall grass gave way to a clearing where cattle had recently grazed.
"There," she said, training the flashlight beam on a lone maple about 15 feet away. It was a big, full tree. I imagined the cattle must meet in clusters under it on sunny days, as it would have provided the only shade to be had. We walked on and, when we reached it, she gave the trunk a pat with her hand.
"What do you think?" she asked.
"You were right. It's perfect," I said, taking off my backpack and digging around in the front pocket, "How did you ever find this spot?"
"Just taking a long walk, one day." she answered,  shining the flashlight into my bag to help me  in my search, "No one knows I come here. Except you. We share a secret, now."

I found what I'd been looking for, and pulled it out of my backpack. The day before, we'd gone to the general store and chosen the one that felt right. An old-fashioned canoe knife, with two blades. Having never done this before, we'd agreed that having two blades to choose from would be an advantage. The knife had just felt right when we'd taken turns holding it in our hands. There'd been that, too.
I handed the knife to her.
"You go first. I'll hold the flashlight," I said.
"You sure?" she asked, "This was your idea - you should go first.."
"Yeah, but it's your secret spot. You go first."
She handed me the flashlight and opened the pocket knife, looking at both blades.
"Which do you think?" she asked.
"The shorter one," I answered, "better leverage."
"That's what I was thinking, too."
She tucked the longer of the two blades back into the handle, and chose a spot on the maple's trunk.
She leaned in and pressed her cheek against the tree, closing her eyes.
"Sorry if this hurts," she whispered. Then, opening her eyes, she looked at me and we smiled at each other.
Even though the bark is thin, maple is a hard wood. It took a few tries before she figured out how to hold the knife and get the blade to cut, and cut deeply enough. Mere scratches, after all, heal. For our purposes, what she needed to do was carve deeply, not just scratch the surface.
The first letter took a while but, in the end, it was a clean carving, and a deep one. It wouldn't disappear over time. She stepped back and looked at her progress, brushing away bits of bark. She moved back in and got to work on the second letter, which went more quickly. She'd worked out a rhythm, figured out how much pressure to use. In another minute she was done. We silently swapped knife for flashlight, and she lit the way as I went to work on my portion of our masterpiece. My process was much the same as hers had been - scratching away the thin, easy bark, and then carving into and scooping away the hard wood underneath. It took elbow grease.

When I was done, we both stepped back and admired our handiwork. I reached out and traced the deep grooves of my initials and hers.
"How old do you reckon this tree is?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said, "Pretty old, though," she answered.
"And how long does a maple tree live?"
"A long, long time," she said, "Longer than people. We'll probably be long gone and our initials will still be here for someone to find."
"That's sort of a comfort," I said.
"Could you find this place, again, if you had to?" she asked.
I shrugged, "I guess. I don't know. Yeah, sure."
"Let's make a promise, then," she whispered, putting her arm through mine, "Whichever one of us dies first, the other will come to this spot. This is where we'll visit one another."
I thought about that for a moment. "What if we die together? You know you're a speed demon on the road." I asked.
She laughed and, after pulling me in close and kissing me on the cheek, said, "In that case, we won't have to visit, because we'll really be together once and for all, won't we? Did you remember to bring the hot chocolate?"

We sat down on the ground. She propped the flashlight up against the tree trunk so that the beam of light shot straight up, illuminating the branches and spring leaves above us. I pulled the thermos out of my backpack and poured a cup of cocoa for her.  As she drank,  I took her free hand, playing with it,   examining it. I wanted to commit to memory how it looked, how it felt. I was fascinated by how different we were. Her hands were bony, with long, slender fingers and neatly cut nails. My own hands, small and fleshy, my nails bitten down low. After a few sips, she put down her cup of cocoa and leaned back against the tree. I lay my head down on her lap, and she gently stroked her fingers through my hair.

"I don't think I've ever told you about the house my parents used to have in Bermuda," she said, "We spent summers there. I had a best friend who was from the island. Gina and I would spend just about every day together. Every August, when it was time for my family to leave, Gina and I would cry and hug each other. My father would roll his eyes and say we were being tragic, but I hated to leave her and she hated to see me go. When we were 10, we decided to become blood sisters. We cut each others hands with a razor, rubbed palms together, mingling our blood, and took an oath to always be best friends."
I looked up. Her eyes were closed. She was in Bermuda.
"Did you keep that oath?" I asked.
"When I was 14, my parents had money troubles, and decided to sell the house in Bermuda. It was our last summer there. Gina and I were inconsolable. Before, even though it had been hard to leave, we'd always known I'd be back. This was different. I would be leaving and not coming back. My father didn't have much time for the whole thing, and said we were just creating drama, but Mum felt bad for me. She arranged for Gina to stay at our house for the whole last week we were there. We were together all the time. At night, we'd lie on mats in the screened-in porch, listening to tree frogs until we fell sleep. And then my parents took me back to London, and I haven't been back to Bermuda, since."
"And Gina?"
"I never saw her, again." she said. Then she opened her eyes, leaned down, and kissed my forehead, "But that's really ok."

© 2012 Lana M. Nieves
Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Wish You Were Here

It is the end of spring in New England. Mud season is coming to a close and the vast puddles of the stuff are drying up. I am 20. I am walking along a country road. Not a back road, but a paved rural route used by travelers and truckers. Having spent the night before drinking shots of rum, and the better part of the morning drinking beer, I am very drunk. In my mind, I am walking a straight line along the wide, gravel-covered shoulder, safe from traffic. In fact, I am a swaggering drunk, teetering towards the middle of a windy road. Any car coming up from behind one of the many bends  will find it almost impossible to avoid hitting me. Luckily, there seems to be no traffic on this overcast day. 

I stagger like this, aimlessly, for more than a mile before I hear a sound. Two sounds combined: a diesel engine, and a horn. I turn around in time to see the truck coming up behind me from around the bend. Self preservation is a powerful instinct. It kicks in and pushes me out of harm's way, to the outer edge of the shoulder, as the truck cruises by. The driver yells out, "idiot!" And rightfully so. I'm in no shape to be taking a walk.

It's true that self preservation is a powerful force, but so is a night of heavy drinking. I make it safely out of harm's way, but I do not land on my feet. Instead, I lose my balance as I jump from the paved road to the gravel shoulder,  and end up rolling into one of the last vestiges of mud season. It isn't a deep puddle, and it's almost dried up, but it's muddy, just the same. Now I'm muddy, too. I stand up, but the slippery mud sends me back onto my ass. Common sense takes over and I decide that crawling out of the mud and back onto the dry, gravel shoulder on hands and knees is my best bet. In a reenactment of the birth of man, I begin my crawl out of the primordial ooze just as I hear a car pulling up on the road, about 15 feet away. I do not look up. 

"Do you need help?" the driver calls out. I recognize the voice. My heart soars, and then sinks, again. It's her. She's the reason I'm drunk, in the first place. And now she sees me at my worst. Rock bottom. (Hardee har har. You have a hell of a sense of humor, God). Still, I don't look up. I hear the car door opening and then slamming shut. I hear her footsteps on the gravel, getting closer. "Are you ok?"   She asks and then, close enough to see through the mud, "Oh - it's you!"  I look up, and take the hand she offers me, and pull myself upright.

"I was taking a walk." I say, smiling, as if this happens every day, "I fell. Mud season isn't quite over, I guess."
She smiles, and I lose my breath for a moment.
"Are you still drunk?" she asks.
I just give her a puzzled look.
"You don't remember, do you? You called me last night. You were drunk. When I couldn't find you this morning, I got worried." She takes my hand and pulls me towards her car, "Come on, turkey - I'm buying you brunch." 
(Who says 'turkey"? She does.)
We get to her Toyota, she opens the back door, reaches in and sorts through a bunch of clothing that's piled on the back seat. She grabs a towel and spreads it over the the front passenger seat. Then she hands me a wadded up blue sweatshirt and says, "There's no one around - change into this. It's not exactly clean, but at least it's dry."
She is tall and slender. A dancer.  
"Your stuff will never fit me." I say, handing it back.
She sucks her teeth, and says, putting the shirt back in my hands "It's my gym shirt. It's really  baggy. It's a little stinky, but it'll fit. Hurry, while there's no one around." 
I change into the shirt. She's right - it fits. She's right about it being stinky, too, but I don't mind. It smells like her. 
A moment later I am sitting next to her and we are driving down the road, in search of waffles and coffee, as I wonder what it is I said the night before when I drunk dialed her. 

We have been to this place many times together. It's a funny, homey, New England diner tucked away in an unlikely strip mall. It's got a name. The Village Cafe. Or Country Cooking. Something like that. We never remember what it's really called, because the sign just says, "RESTAURANT."  That's become our private joke: "I'm hungry - let's go to RESTAURANT." 

At RESTAURANT, we sit opposite one another at a table in the corner, away from most of the other diners. The waitress is busy, and forgets to take our order, or even pour us coffee. Neither of us says anything about it. I'm not even sure we're actually hungry. We just sit there, looking at each other, talking about nothing in particular, humming along to the  music coming from the jukebox. The Eagles: Lyin Eyes.

"Are you warming up?' she asks me.
"I'm fine," I answer, "This shirt is cozy. I might steal it from you. My hands are cold, though. I should remind the waitress we're here and get her to pour me some coffee so I can warm them up."
She reaches across the table and takes my cold hands in her warm ones, brings them up to her mouth, and blows on them.
"Poor baby." she says, and I think my heart will break through my chest. Surely, everyone else in the room can hear it pounding. 
Lyin Eyes finishes and we hear the jukebox shuffling through the 45s as it gets ready to play the next song. She is still holding my hands, transferring the heat from her body to mine, when we hear the record drop and the stylus make contact with the vinyl. The gentle guitar intro is unmistakable. 
"This song -" I say, before she cuts me off.
"I know," she whispers, squeezing my hands tighter, "Me, too." 

© 2012 Lana M. Nieves
Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves 

Monday, July 9, 2012


20+ years ago, I found myself traipsing around southern Spain with my uncle (who's more like a big brother) and we stopped for a few days in a sleepy, little fishing village. It was off-season, and we were the only tourists in town. In fact, we were the only guests at the town's one hotel. The only place to eat was a pub where the local fishermen would hang out at the end of a long day of work. We went there every day and every night, and made friends with the owner, a lovely man named Lazarus or, as he liked to be called, Lalo. On the wall of the pub was a gorgeous poster commemorating Carnaval. I really wanted it, and offered the pub owner $25 for it. He told me it wasn't for sale. I really, really wanted it, but didn't want to be a pushy American. I told him that, if he changed his mind, the offer was still good.

Every evening at 6 or 7 the boats would come in and the fishermen would bring something fresh to the pub: cod fish, sole, oysters. One night, they came in with a load of strange-looking little shellfish on ice. They looked like a weird kind of clam. So fresh. They dumped them into a giant, glass bowl on the bar. The clams were very much alive and very active. My uncle, a city kid who's most comfortable getting his food from a supermarket, looked at the bowl of clams oozing in and out of their shells, and become a little woozy. One of the fishermen made a joke, "Tapas!" he said.

I should note here that I was the only woman who ever entered the pub. I don't know about today, but in 1990, Spain was still very, very traditional about gender roles. This pub was for fishermen. Their wives and girlfriends did not come in. I was given the courtesy of being allowed in because I was a tourist. Because I had a Spanish name and spoke the language, I was also shown warmth, friendship and respect by the men of the pub. It was always clear, though, that this was a man's place, and I was just visiting.

I looked into the big bowl and asked Lalo (in Spanish,) "How do you prepare these?"

Lalo exchanged wicked grins with a few of the burly fishermen who'd sat down around the bar and were drinking beer, "Prepare? They're as prepared as they're ever going to be. Help yourself," he said.

The fishermen all laughed. "Or," continued Lalo, "Doesn't the little lady dare?"

My uncle jumped in.

"Don't do it," he said, "you have no idea what those are or what you might catch. Food poisoning. Hepatitis. God-knows-what. And they're ALIVE, for Christ's sake."

Lalo smiled, "It's ok," he said, "I'm just joking. I'd never really expect an American to dig in with something like this. And certainly not a lady."

"Do you think I won't do it, Lalo?" I asked. This was beginning to sound like a dare.

"I know you won't do it, Little Girl." he answered.

"What do I get if I do?" I asked.

The fishermen moved in closer. This was starting to get interesting.

"Go ahead, Lalo," one of them called out, "Make an offer. Let's see what the Yankee girl is made of."

Another laughed a hearty laugh. "Leave the girl alone. She'll never do it."

"Lana," said my uncle, "Forget this bullshit. Let's just order some ham and beer and get going. Just looking at those clams and their wiggling is making me sick."

"What will you give me?" I asked Lalo, again, "If I do eat them - what's in it for me?"

He looked at his fishermen friends, and then he looked at me, hardly believing a woman was taking him up on his challenge.

"What do you want?' he asked.

"The poster." I said.

"Ok, You eat a bowl of these, just as they are, and I'll sell you the poster."

"Bullshit," I answered, "I eat a bowl of these - as they are - and you give me the poster. For free."

Lalo hesitated. He was clearly beginning to think making this dare had not been his best idea.

"Just do it," called out one of the fishermen, "No girl is going to get past the first one, you know. Look at her uncle - he's nearly passed out from just sitting near them."

"Forget this," someone else laughed, "She's American."

I looked directly at the fisherman who'd made that last crack.

"Boricua." I said, not laughing. Looking back at Lalo, I proposed, "If I eat a bowl full of these, you give me the poster. If I don't finish the entire bowl," I said, "I'll give you $25 American. Either way, it won't cost you a penny."

My uncle groaned.

Lalo pulled a wooden bowl out from under the bar, scooped up a bunch of the shellfish, and pushed them towards me.

"You're on," he said.

When I'd sucked the last of the wiggly, little shellfish out of its shell and swallowed the last bit of meat, the fishermen cheered. They each came up and hugged me and patted me on the back, the way they would their own sons. Most of them bought me drinks. They laughed, too, at my uncle, who'd gone outside to throw up on the beach. Lalo quietly took the poster down from his wall, rolled it up gently and handed it to me.

"I should have sold it to you when you first made the offer," he said.

I felt a little bad for him. Lalo was a good guy. He'd have to see these fishermen every day for the rest of his life, and they weren't going to let him forget this.

I dug into my pocket and pulled out some money.

"I really do want to pay you for this," I said.

He gently pushed my hand away and gave me a brotherly kiss on the cheek. "Boricua." he said.