My emerald-green Oldsmobile sputtered and coughed as I slowly drove into the parking lot of the Snappy Jeans Distribution Center. It was Friday, the first day of a new year and the first time me and my partner Kasandra were making a pick-up at the center. Usually, pick ups were made at the Colombian’s apartment in the middle of Yonkers, but it was New Year’s Day and the big bosses were off.
The Colombian stood in front of loading dock number nine with a frozen smile on his ruddy face. He was looking like he had swallowed a sack of volleyballs for lunch, smiling hard at us, and yelling something that I could barely make out.
As soon as I stopped backing into the lot, Kasandra jumped out of the car and ran over to the Colombian. She patted his back and encouraged him to repeat his nonsense. She repeated the sounds back to the Columbian slowly until she could make sense of what he was saying.
“Oh! Happy New Year!” She yelled back and celebrated this as if the Colombian had graduated from medical school or something. I was glad when a fat guy slid open the warehouse door and began dumping a few large cardboard box marked up with red X’s into my trunk. The fat guy was like a robot, but Kasandra was on a roll, she needed to get on his case now and see what his special talent was. I lowered my window all the way down, settled back in my seat, and watched Kasandra in action.
“Don’t you have a name?” She asked, batting her caterpillar lashes at him.
The fat guy continued dumping boxes like he was under a spell. I looked away from my rearview mirror back to Kasandra. She began walking over to the fat guy but the Colombian laughed and said something in Spanish to her. Whatever he said, she loved it. I began coughing hard. Kasandra should act more like a businesswoman and less like the Colombian’s best friend. When the fat guy slammed the trunk door shut, she finally gave the Colombian our money, blew him a kiss, and ran back to her side of the car. All this fake-ass affection made me want to throw up.
Before we left, the Colombian handed me a couple of denim jackets (para las princesas, he said) and on our way home, past Yankee Stadium, Kasandra modeled her jacket, attempting a sitting sashay from her seat. She said it made her look skinny but I only half-listened to her. I kept adding up numbers and thinking about how much we could sell a jacket like that for.
“These are real nice,’ Kasandra said. “Quality, not like the other shit he sold us.”
The label on the jacket had a big seven stitched on it instead of the Snappy Jeans smiley face. “Looks expensive, but it’s definitely a fake,” I said.
“Looks good to me,” she said.
Back home in Inwood, we double-parked the Olds in front of our building and took turns carrying up the three boxes of clothing. I left Kasandra upstairs in charge of organizing the merchandise while I went out to look for parking.
There were more junk cars in our neighborhood than people. After an hour and a half of looking, I finally found a spot by the projects. Not the safest spot but my 1977 Olds was a giant, tuna-fish can of a car. No one wanted to mess with it.
Back home, Kasandra was in the bedroom –or the “showroom” as we liked to call it — when she heard me come in. She met me in the living room. There, a red futon and three chairs we used for propping our feet up, crowded up the room. She listened patiently to my ramblings about the tiny space I had managed to squeeze the Olds into. In the kitchen, which was really a sink, stove and refrigerator shoved against a wall at the tail end of the living room, I asked her in between gulps from a glass of orange juice I left out that morning if she finished sorting through the merch.
“Yep, but I wish you’d stop using that word. You sound like a 7th Avenue garmento.”
Kasandra shook her head like she was better than me. She said she had finished her part of the job. “Stop wasting time and work out the money situation,” she said.
I looked underneath the kitchen sink for my notebook and began my calculations. I figured out what our overhead expenses for the month were, minus transportation, minus entertainment, minus total amount paid for the merch. That left us with a grand total of negative three thousand four hundred twenty-two dollars and thirty-nine cents. Next, I worked on what we needed to charge in order to make a profit.
“Seven times, why so much?” Kasandra asked a few hours later between yawns. She hated the numbers, hated anything to do with running the business. She wasn’t good at that stuff, so for the last three years she had been leaving the numbers up to me.
“We gots party favors to pay for.” I gave her a wink to remind her about the party at her mom’s last week. Her face got all red, no doubt remembering all those bottles of champagne we drank and the purple hickey left over from her hook up with some dude from Harlem. Her mom kept complaining all night that the champagne wasn’t good because it wasn’t sweet. That lady knew nothing about quality. Didn’t stop her from drinking three bottles by herself and passing out in the dining room.
Kasandra had inherited the business from her father three years ago when her father died of a heart attack at his day job. Don Francisco had worked twenty long, hard years as a packer for the Snappy Jeans Corporation. He had given up his youth for a measly paycheck, mediocre health benefits, and the promise of a hundred dollars a month check from his union. The Colombian had been Don Francisco’s supervisor and together they had developed a system for getting rid of “irregular merchandise”. When Don Francisco died, Kasandra moved out and took the family business with her. Her mother didn’t fight her. She never questioned anything, unlike my mother who still kept track of my periods even though she was living in Santiago.
For dinner, me and Kasandra ate a frozen pizza and some leftover chicharrones. We watched TV with the volume muted and the radio on. The hip-hop station was playing a freestyle mix from back in the 80’s and Kasandra was getting all hyped up. She began dancing in her seat and singing along to Brenda K. Starr.
“Remember when me and you use to do our little dance at your Papi’s house?”
I couldn’t stop running numbers in my head…
“All the adults would form a circle around us, remember?”
…planning out the next day…
“We were the coolest eight-year-olds ever.”
—and figuring out how much money we needed to bring in.
By midnight, Kasandra was snoring. It was the official start of the weekend and Lo would be fat, dumb, and happy tonight. It had been two weeks since I’d last seen him. Since he stole from Kasandra’s purse. Forgotten now, but I had to hear about it every morning and night for the last two weeks like that was going to bring her money back. It got so bad that I had to pull out some bills from our hidden stash just to shut her up.
I quickly threw the towel that was wrapped around my head on the floor and ran my fingers through my wet curls. When I heard the familiar knock at the door, I pulled on a red hoodie and slipped into a pair of flannel pants because I didn’t want Lo to get the wrong idea. It was going to be quick tonight. Just a short hello and fuck off.
We played games like these all the time. Me, making believe I hadn’t been waiting for him, and him, waltzing in at whatever time he pleased. We had been together since high school. He was bad back then and everyone knew it. There was a whole list of bullshit that he hadn’t outgrown yet, but there was this other side to him as well. He had always been loyal, always willing to beat someone down for me. He didn’t care who he had to fight off.
He knocked again. Kasandra shifted her heavy body.
“Sabi,” she mumbled, half asleep.
I slid out the door before she could stop me.
The sound from a loud television spilled out of a neighbor’s door. Lo stood by the top of the stairs with his head down. His black beard was all I could make out. Two weeks ago, he was all stubble, now his beard was thick. It looked tight though. Maybe he had it trimmed at the barber’s or maybe Maida did it for him. I wanted to be mad. I wanted to smack him for not coming over sooner. I wanted to kick him in his hard stomach for making me feel for him again.
I compromised. I sauntered over for my kiss.
Lo pulled my face up to his and let me breathe over him. Without a word, he pulled my hand and we walked down to the basement. In the laundry room, the heavy smell of burnt garbage mixed in with the sweet smell of fabric softener. There were two, tired washing machines on one side and two bright yellow dryers on the other. A concrete trough sat in the corner where balls of lint covered up the drain.
I told him I missed him because that was what he wanted to hear. He pulled back like a boxer dodging a fist and gave me a sideways grin.
I lowered the lid on one of the washers and pulled my ass up. The lid caved in a bit under my weight. Lo placed his hands beside my hips. The flannel bunched up as he palmed the sides of my thighs.
A day’s worth of sweat had soaked into his skin, making him look too hard for a twenty-one-year-old. There were new lines etched around his eyes. I wanted to trace them with my long fingernails. He looked up at the trembling fluorescent light; a halo of black dust made the yellow glow a hot gray. He dropped his gaze and stared at my mouth.
Can’t trust anyone that stares that hard, can’t let them think they have an in.
He was staring at my mouth like he wanted to slice it open. He lifted me off the washer and slipped his hands underneath my hoodie. He squeezed me like he couldn’t get enough of me.
“Easy,” I said.
He was broke again, plotting his next move.
Desperation made a man smell so good. “I missed you so much,” I said.
“You wanted a break, remember?”
“I don’t remember saying that.”
This was no good, yet I let it happen. When I heard the clanking of pots in the kitchen the next morning, I didn’t even have to turn over on the bed to know he was gone. My purse was on the floor. He didn’t even bother putting it back on the dresser.
Steam whistled from the radiator. The steady heat began to overtake the apartment, making it feel like I had a plastic bag over my head. I opened the living room window about two feet and stuck my head out. It must have been below zero outside. On the ledge sat a gargoyle, our good luck charm. I stroked the little demon and enjoyed the slap of wind against my face.
There was a knock and Kasandra ran to the door, stopped, and waited to hear the three taps that let us know it was one of our regular customers. Miguelina strutted in with her teenage daughter. She had just pulled her big hair out of soup-can rollers. The daughter had her hair pulled back tight in a high ponytail. Dots of dried up pimples were scattered across her prominent forehead. There were t-shirts and jeans stapled on the cracked, plaster walls. Kasandra liked to hang the outfits in poses, so that it looked like the clothes were dancing around the room. She walked mother and daughter around, making sure to point out looks that fit their personalities.
Inside the showroom, the daughter ran her eyes over the jeans stacked on the bed. She pulled out a few in her size. The mother held her wallet close to her heart but I reassured her. “Place a pair on hold,” I said on cue. “Pay me back in a few weekly installments.” This made the mother feel better.
Kasandra smiled and gave the daughter some more jeans to try one. The daughter modeled for us. Her tight ass looked good in those jeans, so good that the mother decided she wanted in on the action, so she tried on a pair. Matching t-shirts to complete their outfits and the mother couldn’t help but pay in full because life’s too short and they looked so good and why not walk out of here looking like sisters.
When we were alone again, Kasandra asked me about Lo. She kept bringing up last night, telling me I was acting stupid. “He’s a thief,” she said.
“He needed the money. He’ll pay me back,” I said. She rolled her eyes and told me he was sick and that I wasn’t helping.
More knocks and taps at the door — Kasandra straightened up what was left of the piles. Mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, even a couple of great-grandmothers arrived, settled their accounts before working up more credit. I wrote out receipts left and right, whipped out the accounts book and let the ladies know just how much they were still in for. Kasandra served Cokes and coffee. She was all smiles, giving the ladies tips on what to do with their hair and makeup.
We have known our customers for years. We grew up with some of them. Still went out dancing with some of them. Kasandra was the one they came to for advice. She hung out with them at the Laundromat and at the hair salon. She sat with them while they were getting their nails done. That’s how she learned about their family secrets. When they told her about their cheating husbands and ungrateful kids, she acted like she was shocked, like she hadn’t heard their stories a million times before. I admired her for that. I thanked God one of us was good at that. Without Kasandra we wouldn’t have customers. Without me, we wouldn’t have fifteen thousand stashed away under the bathtub.
We worked all day and when Kasandra took off to see her man, I kept going—adding up the numbers, working out payments, making sure each customer felt comfortable with the arrangement. Sometimes they wanted the clothes up front, promised me they would pay me later, bringing up something that happened years ago as if that was going to prove they were trustworthy. It was easy to break the bad news to them. Couldn’t give away the stuff until it was paid in full, but they could take something small, something they paid too much for anyways.
Lo threatened to call the cops on us. He still had snowflakes on his hair. It was Wednesday and I hadn’t seen Kasandra since Saturday.
“You’re calling me a thief?” he said, pointing a chewed out finger in front of my face.
I thought about my other life when he did this. Running over to the police lock and holding up the iron rod like I could stop Papi from coming at us, mad at us, mad at everything.
It was right after I graduated high school that my father announced we were going to move back to Santiago. Over the years, he had been talking about buying a house back in his island, but Mami and I never believed him. My father wasn’t a smart man. He liked to buy things he couldn’t afford, but when he won those $5,000 playing the numbers, he said it was time to get out of fucking Nueva York. That was Trujillo’s favorite saying when things went wrong. When the city was hit with the biggest blizzard in twenty years, fucking Nueva York. When his wife burned the rice for the third time that week, fucking Nueva York. When his daughter got caught stealing a pair of pantyhose at the 99-cent store, fucking Nueva York. When he found a fungus growing out of his big toe, fucking Nueva York.
Trujillo had lived in this rotting city for twenty years. He had wasted his youth fighting the INS for a green card, working at a bunch of menial jobs for sadistic bosses who didn’t mind breaking a good man’s back so that they could put more money in their pockets, living in a mice-infested apartment with a wife and daughter who needed to be kept up because if either of them looked shabby then his boys from the corner would laugh their asses off, talking about how Trujillo said he was a big man but he couldn’t even provide for a scrawny wife and an insect of a daughter. They would say he was sucking the women in his life dry, chupadas las dos. No matter what, Trujillo carried himself like a superman. He stood straight, shoulders back, like the good soldier he was trained to be back on his island before the civil war broke out and he had to switch sides.
The day before my father was going to buy our plane tickets; I went out with Lo and didn’t come back. When I called the next morning, Trujillo’s craggy growl overpowered Mami’s sing-songy voice.
“Don’t come back until you’re married,” he said. To him, I was a puta because I had dared to stay out all night with a man. It was how he was taught to think. How his father was taught to think. From generation to generation, the women in my family had to fit one of two categories.
I remembered stumbling away from the phone thinking I had made the biggest mistake of my life. My father wasn’t perfect but he took care of me. I had wanted to make my parents believe that I was leaving them for love. For some reason, I thought this would be easier for them to understand. Me and Lo. We were in love; we were going to make it. So corny now when I thought about it, but back then I still believed that everything would work its way out somehow.
I stayed with Lo and his mom for a few weeks, slept with him in his twin bed, held my breath whenever we made love so that his mother wouldn’t hear us through the thin wall between their bedrooms. Lo was in no rush to save money and me, I was still stupid, still believing that eventually we’d move out. When Lo looked me in the eye and told me what his big plan was, that he would play the numbers like Papi, I told him to go fuck himself.
Kasandra was a girl from around the way. We had been close back in grade school but after she got all pretty in the sixth grade, she was more interested in getting her cherry popped then playing a card game of Spit with me. When her Papi died, Kasandra and I hooked up again. She needed someone that was good with the numbers. She remembered me and how good I was at math. Kasandra was the best fucking salesgirl in the world, but she needed someone who could manage money like no one else.
From the beginning, we had agreed to keep a stash under the bathtub. If ever we needed to close down the business, we would divvy the stash up 50/50.
Kasandra met her man, Danny, about a year and a half ago. He lived in the apartment below us. He was a regular guy. He wanted to get married and have kids. Three nights out of the week, Danny took classes at Hunter College. He was majoring in laboratory sciences. Whenever he came over, he liked to tell us how hard it was to balance a full-time job with school.
I tried to listen to what he thought of as problems, but it was hard because everything with him felt safe. I asked Kasandra once what Danny thought about the business.
She said he understood our situation. “You know how Danny is,” she said. “You know how he talks. He says we need a black market to counteract the evils of a free economy.” She laughed then. Kasandra laughed at almost everything when it came to Danny.
One night, Danny came over during the weekend rush. He stood over the merchandise with the customers looking him over. He kept his hands crossed behind him, as if coming into contact with anything was going to get him in trouble. Even though he smiled in my face, I could see our life was too complicated for him.
Later, when Danny lectured us about security, about the importance of preparing for the future, I tuned him out. All I could think about was how we were going to sell off the last pair of jeans; the ones with the crooked seams, the ones that looked played out.
Before Danny, we used to spend Saturday nights counting our money. After the last of the customers walked out, Kasandra would wait for me to check the inventory, figure out how much we needed to buy from the Colombian, and how much we needed to put aside for the expenses. Whatever was left over, we added to our stash.
Last month, Danny moved out to Queens and now Kasandra was leaving early every Saturday night to spend time with him. I hadn’t seen her since Tuesday and I missed her.
When life fell into a pattern, I didn’t need Lo. Breakfast with Kasandra, phone calls to the clients, tostones and garlic for lunch, the afternoon appointments, balancing the books then picking up Cuban Chinese for dinner. No time for Lo’s bullshit, just me and my girl Kasandra doing what we needed to do to keep our place from falling to shit.
It was Saturday again and tonight after Kasandra left me to be with her man, I went out to look for Lo at the Blarney Stone. It was around midnight; the only other women in the dark bar were the old, Irish ladies. Widows who couldn’t afford to move out of the neighborhood. They didn’t talk to anyone, not even to each other. One redhead sat at the bar, her chin hovering over a shot of whiskey, it looked like without the shot glass she would fall to the floor. On the other side of the bar was Lo. He was falling all over Maida, his other girl, and she was clinging to him like he was made out of chocolate.
His boys spotted me first. They started yelling all kinds of shit to me. “Better get your ass home before Lo rides it there for you!” They yelled.
“Fuck you!” The redhead turned to look at me. She snorted into the shot glass before lifting it to her mouth.
Lo shoved Maida away and walked over to me. He shushed his boys with a wave. “Can you lend me some money?” He pulled my hair off my shoulder and kissed my neck.
The redhead tried to get up from the stool but she almost fell over. Lo caught her and shoved her pocketbook under her arm. I gave Lo a twenty and told him he was a good boy. He held it up to the light, not believing I could give him something so small.
He was scheming but I pulled him close anyway.
“What are you doing?” Maida cried, but she didn’t come to him, didn’t even make an attempt. She had tried to start with me once, bumping into me on the street like she didn’t know who I was, but me and Kasandra took care of her so now she knew better.
Lo pulled me out of the bar. We walked a few blocks to a corner liquor store. We walked to the back of the store, down the steep stairs, and into the basement. Down there, empty Heineken bottles were lined up against the wall and the smell of rotting vermin was everywhere. The only light came from a few red bulbs. Some guy stumbled over us ready to puke. His friend was right behind him, pushing him up the steep stairs, trying to get the guy out before he exploded.
We walked through the billiard room, the poker room, the fighting room where in the middle there was a boxing ring that stunk of shit; the smell was so bad it had a color to it. Behind the ring were the slots. Ten slots closely bunched up where the men’s faces glowed intently.
Lo sat down at attention. I looked around to see who else was down there, but I didn’t recognize any of the men. I sat there for a while, staring at the flickering lights. Lo called over a guy, he handed the guy my twenty and the guy handed him back a roll of quarters. I stood beside Lo while he fed the machine. After a few dollars, the machine went crazy and all these coins came rushing out.
After, when we were back at my place and the garbage trucks had broken the silence of the morning, I contemplated smothering him with a pillow, but that would have solved only one of my problems.
Kasandra told me she wouldn’t be back until Wednesday. I looked around the showroom. The merchandise was on the floor. I told Lo we had better put everything back on the bed but he was still snoring. His full lips were chapped. They felt rough under my fingertips.
We had decided to cut class and hang out at his mom’s. We lay topless on his twin size bed, with our skinny arms tangled together and our legs bent towards each other but not quite touching. His bed sheet smelled like fresh cut grass. He played with my bra strap, kissed my forehead and told me to relax. It wasn’t my first time but it felt like it was. I had wanted Lo to think it was.
He rubbed my back for what felt like hours and then he began to tell me stories about his father. How he was an apprentice for an electrician down South. How he hadn’t seen him in a few months but had written to him about me. Lo said his father wrote that I was the type of girl who would love a man for the rest of her life. That sounded so corny to me, but, at that moment, all I wanted was for Lo to keep touching me, so I kept my mouth shut. As I listened to him, my fingers wandered from his chest to his belly.
“Sabi,” he said, his rough hands stopping my progress. “You don’t believe me?”
He turned away from me and reached under his bed. He pulled out a bulky manila envelope. Letters spilled from the envelope onto the bed. The edge of one letter poked me in the thigh. I kissed his shoulder and reluctantly sat up. While he read, I admired his face, the dimples that deepened when he laughed, the lines that formed between his two thick brows when he frowned. He stretched out certain words, making them sound like they were the most important words I would ever hear. Out of nowhere, my father’s face appeared.
Certain words came up more than once. “My son–Remember this–Watch your back–You’re the man of the house now…” Stupid words from another stupid father. Lo was proud and that made me mad. I could have pretended I didn’t see the postmarks on the envelopes, but I couldn’t stand hearing his father’s lame ass words.
“Riker’s,” I said.
Lo stopped reading. He picked up all the letters and shoved them into the big envelope.
“Riker’s,” I said it again, this time I said it to be mean.
He pulled on his clothes and slammed the bedroom door. It bounced back open. I followed him out, pulling the bed sheet over my shoulders, yelling that word over and over again.
When he couldn’t stand it any longer, he pulled me by my hair and threw me out of the apartment. I stood outside his door, stunned. The hallway smelled like dog piss. I walked the two blocks to my family’s apartment. It was a nice day out and that was bad because everybody was out. Little kids called me out, old ladies hissed at me in disgust, the mailman wanted to take a bite out of me. I flashed them all my left tit and stuck out my tongue.
The next day, I barged into Lo’s homeroom and dropped the folded bed sheet on his desk. I ignored his teacher when he asked me to leave. Lo didn’t look at the sheet; he didn’t look at me. He only stared at the teacher.
When Mr. Gregor pulled me by the arm, Lo pounced on him. Knocking Mr. Gregor to the ground with one shove. He then rammed his fist into the young teacher’s face, breaking his glasses, making blood ooze from his thin nose. Security guards ran into the classroom, pulled Lo away from Mr. Gregor. One guard grabbed me. Red splotches appeared on his face as he yelled at me.
We got detention. We got suspended. I got into it with my father when he came home from work. The rest except was hard to remember, but after three long weeks of punishments; I met up with Lo after school. We decided to take a walk through Inwood Park. He grabbed my hand as we climbed up to the big C painted on the rock. When I slipped on broken glass, I expected him to laugh, but he didn’t.
We stared out at the Hudson and when the Circle Line cruised by, we made fun of the sucker tourists onboard.
I asked him if he wanted me to apologize. He opened his backpack and pulled the sheet out. He shook away all the folds. The musky smell of sweat, tears, and saliva slapped me in the face. He threw it over his shoulders and ran circles around me. The sheet flapped behind him making him look like some kind of superhero.
I yelled, “You’re my savior!”
He crashed down on me. His jagged hipbones poked the top of my thighs.
“Don’t move,” he whispered, “don’t say a thing.”
The pressure of his body made the skin on my chest feel tight like it was being pulled back and stapled to the ground. I tried to force words out of my mouth.
He looked like he was about to bite my lips off. Just as suddenly, he rolled off me.
“Sabi,” he said, like he wasn’t sure if that was still my name. I waited to hear words that would hit me with the force of a wrecking ball. I waited but the words never came.
Wednesday night and I was alone with Lo again. “Tastes like cough syrup,” he said. He handed me a jelly glass full of red, briny wine. We listened to what sounded like a pair of hooves trotting across the ceiling.
“She’s got her heels on again,” I said, pointing to my neighbor upstairs.
Lo slipped down the futon onto the floor and rubbed his beard against my leg. He tickled my knee with his chin. “So smooth,” he said, rubbing the back of my calf. “I don’t want to stop touching you.”
“So don’t,” I said but I was afraid. He once pinched the skin behind my knee so hard my ears started ringing.
He climbed back on the futon and we messed around. His tongue tasted sour and dry. We listened to shotguns in some foreign country. The anchorman on TV with the thick, Argentinean accent gave a hurried account. Lo knocked back the rest of the wine and I pressed my feet between the small of his back and the futon mattress. Lo promised to leave before Kasandra got back but I couldn’t let him go just yet.
Much later, I heard Kasandra pleading. Lo was pulling her over but she was fighting him. I got up and swapped his arm. Kasandra broke free and ran into the showroom. She slipped a chair underneath the doorknob.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” I said, but I was too drunk to do anything else.
Then it was morning and he was telling me to stop. He was slapping my hand away from his face.
I laid back down on the futon and didn’t stop him from caressing my face.
“You fucked up last night,” I said and all he could do was snort out like a hog.
He looked at me like he couldn’t believe I was real. “She can’t take a joke,” he said.
“Did you hurt her?”
“I was just messing with her. Why are you getting so serious?”
I watched him get dressed. The urge to whack the back of his head was there but I couldn’t commit. When he left, I heard Kasandra move the chair from the door knob. I should have gotten up from the futon and consoled my friend.
Kasandra kicked one of the futon legs. “He’s weak,” she said.
I stared at the cracks on the ceiling. I asked her if Lo hurt her. Not that I really wanted to know if he did. Kasandra didn’t answer me. She sat at the edge of the futon like she was waiting for me to hug her, but I couldn’t move.
“Listen up,” she finally said.
She pulled me towards her and lowered her head on my shoulder. I could feel her breath on my collarbone. She told me she was thinking of moving in with Danny.
“What about the business?” I said, but at that moment the business was the last thing on my mind.
“What about it?”
“Things are going good right now.?”
“We’re barely breaking even.”
I ran figures in my head. She told me I could run the business by myself.
“We’ll split our stash 50/50 and you’ll keep going,” she said.
I told her to think about it. Spend another night with Danny. “Ask yourself if he’s really the one.”
That night, when I saw Lo through the magic eye, he looked like a frightened boy. I opened the door and Lo pushed his way inside. He only had his drawers on. He ran into the showroom. He threw jeans and t-shirts off the bed. I found an extra large t-shirt for him to wear. He began to tell me what went down. He said he got his ass kicked by a bunch of punks from the projects. He began pacing back and forth, waving his arms. He told me how they took his chain, the one he’s been wearing around his neck since his first communion.
The words were coming out of his mouth so fast that I had to stop him a few times and make him repeat his story.
“I didn’t have anything left,” he said, but that couldn’t be true because punks only jumped you when they knew you were carrying.
“I walked out of the liquor store and the punks appeared out of nowhere,” he said.
He was almost in tears when he told me how they took him to the middle of the lot and told him to strip down to his underwear. When every pocket turned up with nothing, they got mad and kicked him in the kidneys. “I think they broke a couple of ribs,” he said, but when I offered to take him to the hospital, he waved me away. All he wanted was to sleep. He leaned against the wall and waited for me to move the rest of the merchandise off the twin bed.
For once, I wanted him to go away. I didn’t want to leave him alone in the showroom. I didn’t want him near our merchandise. I didn’t want to smell his fear.
He slept on top of the bed sheet Mami left me when she moved away. When one of my neighbors banged on the radiator, I was glad because there was no way he could fall sleep. The banging continued but once steam whistled out it stopped. The heat came in fast, taking over the showroom.
I sat outside on the futon. It would have been better if I fell asleep but I wanted to be prepared for the worst. If Kasandra came back, she would be upset. She would ask me for the hundredth time why I was with him and I wouldn’t have an answer for her. At that moment, I didn’t even have an answer for myself. She would say he was manipulating me. She would judge me because she thought she had found the perfect man.
The next morning, I woke up alone in the apartment. I looked out the window. Lo was standing across the street talking to his friend. He never looked up but he knew I was watching him. I leaned my forehead on the frozen glass and waited for it to go numb.
He had been talking about the number “583” all night. Yelling out from the showroom how “583” kept coming up in his dreams.
“I’ve got to play it, Sabi,” he had said.
I ran to the bathroom, the stash was gone.
I pulled on my red hoodie and a pair of sweatpants. I put on my Nike’s and ran out the door. His boy, Tojo was still outside. “Where is he?” I must have sounded real crazy because he pointed down the block quick and said Lo was heading to Hector’s. I ran down 204th Street and turned left on Sherman Ave. I ran to the empty lot on the corner where he got jumped last night. The ground was covered with weeds, broken bottles, and empty spray cans. Hector’s—a bodega shoved inside the only standing row house on the block—stood beside this lot. Overgrown weeds hugged the naked side wall of the building. A crooked awning hung on to dear life over the entrance to the store.
The neighborhood opened up in front of me. I looked into the apartments across the street. A man was yelling at his TV. A woman splashed water on her face from the kitchen sink. Pigeons danced on a fire escape. I stood outside the store for almost twenty minutes before I decided enough was enough. I had to get inside and find Lo. I walked into a store full of old shit-kickers in their whiter than white guayaberas. Some were chewing on toothpicks; others were gnawing on their stumpy cigars. Lo stood beside them with this smug look on his face. I knew that look, it came on when the green came in big, it was the look of newfound prosperity. The look my father had when he had won big on the numbers and told us to pack our bags.
Lo looked at me — alone, anxious, scared — and almost threw himself on me.
“Hey,” he said.
All I could think about was Kasandra and how she needed her money. She had found a good man.
I yanked my key ring out of my pocket. I braced the keys between each of my fingers. I squeezed my fist tight and waited. The metal pricked the palm of my hand. When I felt his beer-stinking breath on me, I clawed into his face. I inhaled his sweat and desperation.
He fell down on his knees. He didn’t scream or yell. He didn’t even try to reach for me. He held on to his cheek with both hands like he was afraid it would fall off his face.
I took off running. Outside, I squashed weeds, kicked spray cans out of my way, and felt the broken glass crunch underneath my feet. Cars drove by slow, cruising the street with intent. I thought one of them would stop and someone would grab me off the street, but no one did.
Back in front of my building, a couple of boys were playing bottle-caps. Two little girls jumped rope beside them. I ran by them almost trampling one of the little boys in my rush to get inside the building. The little boy yelled after me, “Suck my dick, estupida!” His high-pitched words had so much venom in them that I had to stop and look back. The boy stood up. He kept his skinny body still, only the mess of curls on top of his head moved with the soft breeze. Beyond the sneering boy I saw Lo walking across the street. He was still holding his bloody cheek with both hands. He shouted something at me but I couldn’t hear him over the taunts and sneers of the curly-haired boy and his crew. I opened the door and bit my lip to make it stop trembling. I looked back but Lo stood still a few feet away from the little boys and girls. The brats had already forgotten all about me and were back to playing their games.
I waited for a long time, but Lo never came up and Kasandra never came home. I began to make up a whole new life in my head. All I could see were piles of denim skirts, t-shirts, and blue jeans. All I could think about were the numbers and how much profit I would make as a one-woman operation.