I sit on my loveseat watching Leaving Las Vegas and drinking a homemade martini. I take a sip of my green pick-me-up and wince. The cold hits my teeth and numbs my lips as the alcoholism and prostitution numb the feelings of Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue’s characters. I imagine my drink is just as strong as the vodka tonic Ben (Nicolas Cage) gulps and set it down.
They arrive home from the casino. Ben drunk and Sera (Elisabeth Shue) nursing him before returning to the streets to sell her body. Suddenly, she surprises me. I lean in closer to the television screen as she takes the dreaded step and says, “I love you.” He says he loves her also.
It is that simple.
My relationship with Elijah lacked the dysfunction of an alcoholic and prostitute pairing, but it was just as loving. There was a mutual understanding; he yearned for someone to love after his last heartbreak and I needed someone to love after years of living the single life. What was left was for us to verbally express that we loved each other – and what better time to do so than when meeting my mami.
We walked through Mami’s front door on a Saturday afternoon after a 2-hour bus ride from Philadelphia to New York City. While eyeing the apartments long corridor, my legs shook and pulse quickened. This was the first man I had ever brought home to Mami and the first that would spend the night.
Elijah and I stood by the front entrance. I anticipated Mami’s gleeful smile and soothing tone; he dreaded the possibility of not being adored. We didn’t have to wait much longer. Like a vision of The Virgin Mary, Mami appeared with a bright smile, full of light, love and serenity. She opened her sagging arms as she approached us…saddlebags swinging in mid-air…and gushed, “Pero que morenito más lindo!”
Mami stroked Elijah’s cheek and he sighed with relief. His mami thought my mami would reject him because he is Afro-Latino. But there was only love. Mami then hugged me, rubbing Elijah’s back simultaneously to reassure him he was con familia. Once released from her embrace she led us down the long hallway. We followed the trail of oregano, lemon and garlic that lingered as she walked. It smelled like home.
Mami shooed Elijah into the living room while I followed her into the kitchen. I nodded at Elijah and he obliged, taking a seat on an orange couch. In the kitchen now, I waited for Mami to say something. Mami was much like Elijah’s mami; if she didn’t have anything nice to say, she didn’t say anything at all. So, there I stood, eyeing Mami as she grabbed a pinch of cooked, white rice from a pot and stuffed the richness in her mouth. As she chewed, she tossed and turned the rice with a giant metal spoon.
“Me parece buena gente,” she said while placing the lid on the pot.
I relaxed. It thrilled me to hear Mami liked Elijah at first sight.
“Pero no van a dormir en el mismo cuarto,” she finished as she preheated the oven.
“Who says?” I spat out in English, too angry to care if she understood. Elijah was my boyfriend and I was an adult. I refused to sleep in separate bedrooms.
Mami turned to me with raised brows. She stood there, majestic. The metal spoon hung from her hand and I had a flashback of a time where she’d threaten to whack me on the lips with it if I were ever too mouthy. But I stood tall and unafraid, heart maintaining its steady pace. My forehead creased. I continued in Spanish.
“Somos novios! Dormimos juntos en la casa de su mama,” I retaliated, hands on hips now. If Elijah’s mami allowed us to sleep together in the same bed, Mami would have to as well.
I usually didn’t disagree with Mami’s rules and regulations, but having Elijah and I sleep in separate bedrooms was ridiculous.
I was a 26-year-old woman who’d been caressing Elijah’s hard chest and penis for months. He was my boyfriend, coñaso!
I was bringing my BOYFRIEND over for dinner, NOT my boy toy. But Mami didn’t budge. She stood there, lips tight. Her round eyes set on mine; her gaze steady, filled with determination. No matter my age I am still her youngest daughter. The one she coddled as a child. The one who’s mouth she stuffed with plátano sancochado time and again. I was still her bony, anemic daughter who’d cry when anything other than French fries arrived at the dinner table. The prissy, frightened child who ran away screaming if a fly so much as touched her cinnamon skin.
Mami’s decision was final.
In a huff, I stomped out of the kitchen and made my way to the living room, swinging the white doors open. The glass panes shook with my fury. It startled Elijah and my younger brother, Abel, whom sat side by side, conversing. As soon as they noticed my scowl, they shot up from the couch.
“What’s wrong, Babe?” Elijah whispered.
My brother lowered his head to hide his exasperated expression. The only boy and the youngest, he was raised by three women and thought we were all so silly and emotional. So, to avoid the drama, Abel shrugged his shoulders and said, “I plead the fifth!” before making a mad dash to his bedroom.
“We’re sleeping in separate rooms,” I stated flatly.
I told him the condensed version of the nightmare I’d experienced minutes before.
“But I won’t be able to sleep well without you. We haven’t slept apart in…” Elijah paused, counting the number of nights we slept intertwined.
“I know,” I replied, softer now. I reached for his hand to soothe his concerns and he linked his fingers with mine. “But it’s ok,” I continued, “just because I can’t sleep next to you doesn’t mean I can’t lie next to you for most of the night.”
Elijah smirked, lowered his head, and pecked me on the lips.
“Now, let’s go outside,” I said, nudging him playfully in the abs. Elijah took my hand in his and led the way though he didn’t know where we were heading. His confidence and comforting touch immediately washed away my anger and feelings of defeat.
The cold November air hit my chest. My body shivered. Elijah turned to me and motioned to the missing buttons on my black peacoat. I nodded, agreeing to take it to the seamstress for repair. We headed west and passed the corner bodega. Crates were stacked with green and yellow plantains, bags of red onions, and more than a dozen avocados. They even had crushed oregano imported from the Dominican Republic for sale.
Elijah and I continued strolling down the concrete pavement, stepping over dog feces and brown slush. I watched as he took in the city. He peered inside a Dominican beauty salon with curiosity. Women sat in rows with big purple rollers mounted on their heads. They waited for stylists to straighten their locks. Across the street was the seamstress, we crossed the avenue as a young woman ran for the public bus. Elijah and I walked in, hand in hand, giving each other googly eyes while waiting to be attended. The seamstress glanced over at us and smiled. She could tell we were in love, though neither of us had uttered those three-letter words.
Seconds later, she motioned us over and sewed on the buttons with speed and precision. Once finished, Elijah stood in front of me, tugging the buttons to guarantee they’d stay in place. The buttons stood strong, we were ready to go. Elijah swung the door open and a blast of cold air hit his dark, smooth face. I pulled him toward me with his free hand and he followed my lead as we crossed St Nicholas Avenue, a busy street where Dominican treats like pastelitos and kipes are sold from food vendors.
Once we hit 190th Street we walked downhill. (Washington Heights is one of the hilliest neighborhoods in Manhattan.) As we strolled past the first building, I noticed Elijah’s chest puff. His grip on my hand tightened as he surveyed the pack of men sitting on a front stoop. I, on the other hand, looked over my neighborhood with hope. Things had changed since I had left for Rowan University. Trees now lined the streets. And I didn’t see the usual broken Heineken bottles that once littered pavements.
“I’m going to take you to 181st to buy a hat,” I said with a new surge of energy.
I wanted to show him my neighborhood. These hills, this part of the Concrete Jungle is a part of who I am.
“That’s where all the shops are. It’s like the Dominican version of Times Square,” I said while waiting on the corner for the light to change.
He lifted a strand of my hair that had stuck to my glossy lips and said, “Do you need to get anything for yourself? Gloves? It’s really cold today.”
I smiled. I loved that he thought of me, that he protected me. I looked up at him and noticed his expression had changed. He stared at me, eyes set on mine. He lowered his lids. He gazed at me as he always did in the morning when we woke up in each other’s arms. He was admiring my essence. He was taking me in. And I loved him for it.
Still gazing, Elijah tucked the gold and burgundy Rowan scarf he gifted me that morning into my peacoat’s collar.
“You know what?” he asked.
“What?” I asked, heart palpitating with excitement. He paused and looked away for a moment.
He was going to tell me he loved me. I could feel it.
“Never mind,” he said.
“No, tell me,” I urged.
“I’ll tell you when the mood is right.” Elijah’s eyes twinkled while he caressed my cheek. I didn’t say anything, deciding to hold out for the moment he needed.
That was then. So long ago. Now, I sit here, envious of Sere and Ben and the guts it took to say I love you. Jealous of the abandon in which Sera and Ben love. I replay that moment with Elijah in my head and wish I had said something. I wish I had risked it all, turned the functional to dysfunctional, the safe to uncertain and the fear to surrender.
I wish I had said I love you. I wish I had loved like Shue.