Last year, I set up the account but didn't feel like rushing my way through a novel; it seemed fragmented and not fun, but for some reason, it seems like a great way to detach from writing as a calling - this approach is akin to mopping a kitchen floor after a spill. I am removing the sinewy sticky alien creature tentacles of my ego from the writing process. Here is the novel I've decided to write in 30 days and knowing me, I will probably finish it sooner. No editing and lots of fast writing with no worries about tense or whether to make narrative anything in particular. Linear, nonlinear, fantastic, or plain brown bag writing. Here is four days of writing. Enjoy or not.
the edge of the river
by Odilia Rivera-Santos
The sun came in through the window so bright that it reminded me of where I was. The tropics again to go to another funeral again and sort through mildewed family albums and sip coffee in a living room where I seemed to be the only one sweating profusely -- no longer accustomed to the heat and lethargy of a small country town. The usual gang showed up: curious neighbors who rarely talked beyond a simple greeting on the day of my arrival and the chitchat reserved to speak of the dead. They always had the same wistful delivery and the same focus on what the dead had left undone and what they had wanted to accomplish. There were plates of food on every counter and we all did our best to please the hostess by nibbling away the afternoon. I ate salty crackers with fresh butter and took another sip of milky espresso with too much sugar because they were on the table farthest away from my father’s corpse. I could never stand the sight of a corpse -- prepped after death to look alive to then be buried and face the same decay as an unvarnished corpse. I kept tapping my foot to a nonexistent tune, nervous about conversations to come and praying everyone would just shut up and pray.
A Puerto Rican wake is not as much fun as an Irish wake -- the Irish celebrate, tell stories and avoid the whole death issue; they mourn without admitting it.
No one was dancing. And I alone attempted to stem the tide of misery welled up with every word. Every time someone offered condolences, I offered evidence that he’d lived long enough. But he was seventy! And had I been brave enough, I might have mentioned he’d done enough damage. This was part of Darwin’s plan: rid the earth of those who slow evolution or divert good intentions. He is deceased, I thought to myself, and he no longer suffers or dreams or wants, and isn't it a shame only death can bring such bliss? Why couldn't God empty us of all those desires that twist our lives in knots?
I stood in a crowded living room among people who couldn’t see me, because they focused on how I had lost my way with a move to the mainland, getting a divorce and staying away from the family. I had also accidentally packed red shoes instead of black, and a pair of black sneakers, so I wore the sneakers. It was a lose-lose situation. My aunt, whose religiosity I admired but never thought to emulate, eyed me from across the room and I prepared myself for her admonishment.
María, you take after your mother. Beautiful and defiant.
She pointed to my shoes.
Is that what you wear to a wake?
It wasn’t intentional.
It never is with you; you have to consider other people and how this looks to the family. I can’t remember one time you showed up at church in a decent outfit.
I only went to church three times.
That’s the problem. How could your mother be so careful about so many things and ignore the Lord.
She didn’t ignore the Lord; I . . .
Not going to the Lord’s house is ignoring the Lord! You don’t know anything, girl.
Well, Titi, I’m not a girl anymore. But, you’re right. I don’t know anything.
She loved me even though she couldn’t understand what the hell my life in New York City was about. Titi always asked what I did with all my spare time, because, to her, not having kids and a husband meant a lot of free time to daydream, climb trees and do other imbecilic things. And some of that was true. Had I settled into marriage and motherhood, my life may not have been a series of thrashing like an alligator from one context to the next. I was still trying to build a foundation from the scraps handed to me from my parents. Still learning to be part of this family at my age was an embarrassment and one of the excuses I used to avoid having kids.
The idea of family was nebulous; we were three sisters who had never been in the same room at the same time. The three Marías had made some people laugh uncomfortably, since we were the product of a philanderer and three unsuspecting women. Why he wanted his daughters to all be named María was a mystery and I couldn’t stop hoping we could be friends if not sisters.
The familial ties had eroded enough, so the funeral alone would not have brought me to the vortex of family. I only showed up in the hopes of meeting the third María, because there was nothing of me in this tribe anymore. I was the oldest and I had met the María number 2, but the baby María was elusive. I had traveled to meet her and nothing else. If one could say it is possible to outgrow a family, I could definitely have said it with eyes closed, falling back while playing the trust game with the universe. And the universe would have answered my call more logically than blood relatives. No more guava slices or white cheese or salty crackers. The heat was starting to get to me and here it was only eight hours since my arrival. I'd only had time to shower, take a short nightmare-laced nap and awake again to shower with the metal slats of the window open to the backyard and the chickens' squawk and curious eyes of the cow from next door. It was a kind of home, but not mine. The third María was the one who we always waited for at these gatherings and who never showed up. I was convinced, sitting there in my plain black dress and black New Balance running sneakers and somber facial expression, that she would show -- it was only fair for at least two of the three Marías to show up at their father's funeral. But it felt somehow as if it were my wake, standing instead of lying down and answering all the commentary. People I hadn’t seen since childhood walked up to pay their respects in their own way.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Prisila -- a girl my cousins and I had bullied as kids. She was grinning as she sidled up to me, a ham and cheese sandwich pinched between her index finger and thumb as if she had just wrestled it from a wild dog.
I wondered if she had forgiven us for being such assholes to her. They were poorer than us and we teased her for having only two dresses and for not having running water. I cringed at the memory and hoped we hadn’t caused psychic damage. Prisila and her family had always been prone to showing up wherever free food was available. We could never quite figure out what the problem was since they were a family of six working adults living rent-free. They were squatters, but they seemed content.
María? Is that you?
Yes, it is.
We exchanged light kisses and she smelled of warm mayonnaise. She was a middle-aged woman whose face never grew up even as her body grew old -- the chubby little shy girl was there, staring at me and asking uncomfortable questions.
And your sister? Is she coming?
I don't know. I hope so. She may not have gotten my letter.
Why didn’t you call her?
Her number wasn’t working. I guess I got the wrong number from my mother.
I lied, feeling suddenly competitive with Prisila because her family was intact and mine wasn’t. I couldn’t admit no one had my sister’s number.
Well, what can you do? You did your best to contact her with what you had.
So, you’re the divorced one, right?
Yes, I guess I’m the one.
Are there three of you or ... I mean, that you know of?
Ok, Prisila hadn’t gotten over the bullying, and I let her dig in and get her revenge.
Yeah, you’re right. He was a dog.
Oh, no . . . nothing like that. But you’re divorced?
Yes, still divorced.
I’m sure you’ll get married again; you’re still young. I mean nowadays, even older women get married.
Yeah, right. I’m gonna get my walker and go to some speed-dating events.
You’re still funny, María! You’re young. You look young.
How’s the sandwich?
Prisila took that as a sign to smooth down her dress and pat her round belly.
Your mother’s a great cook.
Prisila looked over her shoulder as if she had somewhere to go, and I stood still -- my eyes staring straight ahead. I let the conversation drop, and with it, any further comments deemed appropriate only here in our Bermuda Triangle of boundaries. Priscila kept squeezing the sandwich between her thumb and index finger and taking little bites and I quietly exited.
There was nothing to do but find another way to connect with María. Disappointed again after another attempt to bring my family together, I wondered what to do next. Her no-show was something I took as a personal affront. I had never met her but looking at her picture, I studied her features and she looked like a lighter shade of me with finer features and a shy smile. I kept the picture in my wallet and looked at it often as if it could yield more information through my careful study. Suddenly, the air felt stale, my chest began to burn and my heart raced. I could feel an anxiety attack coming on and headed to the bathroom. There was a line for the bathroom. I leaned against the wall with a hand on my forehead to avoid talking to anyone, and mercifully, no one spoke. The plumbing was acting up and someone was stuck in the bathroom, trying to make the toliet flush, so I left through the backdoor and stepped outside to inhale the fresh air with its array of odors: roses, the chicken coop, rotting mangos and cow dung. I did what my therapist had advised -- made a mental list of all the ordinary objects around me to assure my brain I was not in danger. It was my faulty nervous system getting nervous. The breathing returned to normal and the burning sensation subsided. I wiped the sweat off my face with a damp towel hanging on the clothesline, took a deep breath and begin to think of what lie to tell in order to take an earlier flight back home to the quiet of my city life with no responsibilities but my survival.
I came back into the house just as my mother walked across the room, parting the waters as she always did: elegant, beautiful and aware of her audience. Mami was the movie star who never got to be in a movie because she got tangled in the red tape of traditional Puerto Rican martyrdom. She would remain the benevolent goddess with a wicked sense of humor. Mami smiled and greeted everyone as if it were a regular party, except the fatigue and sadness of the last six months remained especially around her eyes.
The radiant smile did nothing to assuage the grief.
They made a dashing couple -- the picture on the mantle of my parents made me proud; her slim body draped in an evening gown, cinched at the waist, pressed against his and her chin tilted up to take a closer look at his face. His left arm was tightly wound around her, his eyes fixed on the camera and his right hand in the pocket of his loose white slacks. It looked as if he were ready to pick her up off the ground and run down the street.
Mami walked by and was about to greet me as if I were another guest, but recognizing me at last, she let her smile fade. We embraced and I made sure to not crush the rose pinned to her dress.
I will miss him, she said, and after a long pause, I do miss him
Every feeling fades with time, even grief
Your’re right, Maria. Always so sensible.
I try not to do it too often
Be sensible . . . it gets boring.
I was tempted to speak of my disappointment, not that Papi hadn’t recovered from his illness, but that María hadn’t wanted to meet me and her powerful absence. My dreams of re-connecting with the sister I had never met were dashed again.
You’re sad about your father too. I can see it.
Not wanting to spoil her moment, I agreed, using my sadness about my sister as a sign of grief for my father.
My mother squeezed my arm to signal the end of our communal mourning; she returned to her sanctuary, to make more sandwiches and slice large hunks of guava paste and white cheese into thin slivers, layering one guava and one white cheese slice on crackers with her usual grace and lack of appetite. She tasted a recipe and never ate a full meal. We always knew when to leave each other alone because we shared the belief that grief was private. I considered for a moment whether to leave a note and take an early flight, but decided against it. There was enough drama without my creating more, so I slipped away from the party, took off the dress and changed into running clothes.
To be able to breathe deeply again, I had to run away if only from a couple of hours. Once outside, standing on the porch by myself, I took the opportunity to look in at the crowd of people speaking in whispers about the deceased, and I held my memories of his abuse close. I let the sounds of hushed voices and the rising noise of coquis fill my ears so my thoughts were no longer significant, I headed down the narrow tree-lined road to the edge of the river to talk to ghosts and give up on the living. Talking to ghosts had always been a comfort.