The Promised Land

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May 11, 2010

After that first meeting, I kept going to AA with Nana. I felt bad, sneaking around behind Mom’s back. Every time we finished the Lord’s Prayer, which I came to know by heart, my hand flew to my throat and fluttered around my necklace. I brushed the tips of my fingers over the chai, offering a silent apology to Mom and God.

But my guilt disappeared whenever a speaker made their way to the podium. I fell into their story. I nodded along with the alcoholics, as though I was one and I had been there, at “rock bottom”, too. I laughed and I clucked my tongue at the right moments. Sometimes I cried. They were tears of relief. I was so happy to hear they’d made it to AA, to instant coffee and redemption.

What I loved best was that there were no closed doors. The speakers offered up their lives, ugly and simple. I wanted to sit, a notebook in my lap, and write down every detail. But Nana said that would be rude.

I listened as hard as I could, repeating bits in my head so I would remember them. Nana gave recovery forecasts as she drove us back to Bill’s house. “That one’s going to fall off the wagon with a thud,” she would say, or, “She’s a tough cookie. She’ll be OK.” When we arrived, I dashed to my room and poured everything into a letter to Ruti.

One afternoon, Nana came in as I was writing. She had a cup of instant coffee in her hand. With the other, she pointed towards my desk. “Give Ruti my address,” she said, “and come to Brooklyn with me for the summer.”

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been to New York. We hadn’t gone since I was old enough to cost a seat. I thought of flying without Mom. There was no way she’d approve.

“What about Mom?” I asked.

“She’s a newlywed. She’ll barely notice.”

Much to my surprise, Mom said yes. It would be good for me. I could meet Indian kids, Chinese kids, Arab kids, Puerto Rican kids, Jewish kids. I would see plays, art, and graffiti. I would see that there was more to the world than our small, church-filled town.

The subway. Teenage boys stood in groups, holding the metal bar overhead. Their long, thin arms swayed with every pitch of the train. They wore baseball caps, bills turned to the side, white tank tops, shoes without laces. An orchestrated sloppiness that showed they were sure in their skin. They hassled the girls sitting nearby, repeating a chorus of “hey girl.”

The girls were about my age, but they seemed so much older. They picked at their nails, ignoring the boys with practiced indifference. Not a peep out of them besides the shuffle of their tennis shoes as they shifted in their seats, tugging at their impossibly short shorts.

The boys kept on them. The girls answered by snapping their gum and sighing as they rolled their eyes.

Then there were the adults: Hasidic Jews in black suits and hats; old ladies towing buggies overflowing with groceries; commuters holding books and newspapers in front of them like shields; men hawking watches and sunglasses, their voices fading as they walked through the car; a beggar shaking a can, coins rattling in the bottom; an Indian woman in a sari, another not; a young man with a guitar strapped to his back; a suited yuppie, gripping a sagging bouquet in his hand.

There were accents, English wrapped in music. There were foreign languages, tongues like songs. I imagined it was the hum of the planet. I strained to listen to the lives swirling around me.

I felt even better on the subway than I did at AA. I wasn’t lying to Mom. She knew I was in New York. And in meetings, I was a kid tagging along with her grandmother. Here, I was just another girl on the train.

No one stared at us. No one stopped us to ask where we were from. In Florida, this had happened to my mom and me more times than I could count - strangers, stepping into our path, pausing us in the grocery store. “Excuse me, do you mind if I ask…?”

Most of the time, Mom smiled and said, “We’re Jewish.” But every once in a while she would say, “Yes, I do mind,” and we’d continue on our way, ignoring the “Well, that was rude,” that hit our backs.

After we got off the train, we walked a few blocks. The streets were lined with short brownstones. They were close together and full of windows. They reminded me of faces, one cheek pressed to the next, in a snapshot. The stoops looked less like steps and more like benches. Trees caught the sun, held it in, making a roof of green and light. I felt like the neighborhood was hugging us.

A group of boys, leaning on bikes, stood outside of Nana’s building. As we approached, one, the shortest and slightest of the bunch, stepped forward.

“Hi, Nans,” he said.

Nana laughed.

He offered his palm to me. “I’m Victor, Vic. But everyone calls me Betty Boop.”

“I’m Alma,” I said. I shook his hand. Vic smiled at me. His teeth were too big for his mouth, like he was still growing into them. His eyes were round, edged by long, dark eyelashes. Tufts of curly black hair peeked out from under his baseball cap. His skin was light brown and looked smooth, almost spread on, like frosting on a cake.

He took Nana’s duffle bag and slung it over his shoulder. He grabbed my suitcase, pushed open the door, and climbed the stairs, two at a time. The luggage was almost as big as his body. I was sure he would topple over and fall on us. But he didn’t. He went right up and set our bags down in front of Nana’s apartment.

When we caught up, Nana reached into her purse and pulled out some cash. “Your tip,” she said.

Vic held his hands up, palms open, before his chest. “No thanks,” he said. “It’s on the house.” He lifted his baseball cap off his head and gave a deep bow, folding himself in half. “Pleasure to meet you, Alma,” he said.

I watched him trot down the stairs, his feet going barump, barump, barump, like drums. He rounded a corner and I lost sight of him. The door slammed. I heard muffled voices below, talking, laughing.

“He’s cute, huh?” Nana asked me.

“Nana,” I gasped. “He’s too short and too skinny.”

“So? He’s a good kid. And he’ll grow.”

I looked away. I touched the tip of my nose, which sweated when I was nervous or upset.

Nana smiled. “I thought you’d like him,” she said.

I had Mom’s old room. I put my suitcase down and sat on her bed. The mattress sagged. I realized it was probably the same one Mom had slept on when she was a kid, when they moved out here, after Nana and my grandfather got divorced.

I looked at the desk, empty save for a coffee mug holding pencils, pens, and a pair of scissors. She’d sat there and done her homework.

I got up and went to the bookcase. Maybe this is what she read when she was about my age. I studied each title. Siddhartha, Fear of Flying, Catcher in the Rye. I would spend the summer with them, I decided. I would sit on the stoop. I’d wear short-shorts, roll up my sleeves, and get a tan as I read.

Vic would be on the sidewalk, leaning on his bike. He’d say “hey girl” to me and I’d play it cool, keeping my eyes glued to the page, snapping my gum. I wouldn’t give him as much as a sigh.

First, I needed to fix my jeans.

I peeled them off. I grabbed the scissors and a pen from Mom’s desk. I drew a line, high across each leg. I made sure that they matched and were straight. And I cut.

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