Bandolera

He kicks her out in the morning.

Her aunt is into birds. 

She woke up to him texting the American. Frustrated. Anxious. He texted two more times and still no reply, begging in a way that he never would with her. She didn’t move, didn’t yet want him to know she was awake, because she was studying him by studying his room:

Their bodies on mattress on floor. Thin sheets. Carefully stacked jeans and boxers on a shelf, and across the room, a line strung up for ironed t-shirts—almost all bright white—on hangers. Clearly all his money went to his car and clothes and, at some point past, the gold chain still around his neck. The little brother who’d slept on a small mattress, rainbow bedspread, in the corner as they’d fucked, gone now. Two slender books on the dresser, the titles of which she was too far away to read. Water damage; peeling paint and faded brown stains on concrete ceiling. Besides the doorway that led to the hall, there was also one that connected his room to another—except that it had no door, just a bed-sheet tacked to the top of the frame. She didn’t know what was on the other side. His body at least eight inches longer than hers. Posters of Wisin y Yandel and Don Omar on the wall, both a couple of years old, curling at the corners. A room not unlike others she’d laid in. A room that served its purpose.

When he noticed she was awake, watching, he eased his body over hers, grabbed his pants off the floor, found his wallet, and gave without looking, a five-dollar bill as he checked his cell phone again. Distracted, he said, For car fare.

He motioned for her to go, though he didn’t know where she lived—had no idea if five dollars would ever be enough—and, as far as she could tell, he didn’t know her name. Didn’t remember, if he’d ever even heard, what she’d yelled at him last night.

The only option was to leave. She’d hoped for a morning round, but with the kid playing with a toy truck just outside the bedroom and someone in the living room watching TV, not to mention the texting, she knew it wasn’t going to happen. She had to walk home, or maybe catch a cab, but better to try and save the money.

Her too-short shorts that had already looked ridiculous on her in the club were even more absurd in broad daylight.  Her belly hung out over the top, and they did not flatter her thighs. When she hopped into them that morning, she squeezed the button shut and triggered the last look he would give her.

Un Domingo, el dia de cabron.

As she exited the second floor apartment, gently closing the door behind her, the woman watching TV, who she guessed was his mother, didn’t look at her.

In the hall, she stepped over a broken lamp.

The stairwell led her to an overgrown backyard. Her eyes balked at the bright sun and she paused briefly in the doorway to regain focus. The yard was a mess of scrub brush. The lack of landscaping provided a piece of rural in the city. It reminded her of the nightjar’s habitat, and she scanned for familiar signs.  Not that it mattered really, if she did find a bird here Tia Carmen would never believe it.

At the front of the house she recognized the spotless blue Explorer. She remembered how he had opened the sunroof and blasted Tego on the stereo. How she’d sat in the backseat silent while he dropped his boy off first, his friend who only looked at her once last night—up and down. Her head angled towards her feet, her eyes turned upwards, aware. She knew she would fail and she did. He smirked, and before she could catch his eye to make him see, quickly looked away.

Even so, for the briefest of moments she imagined how nice it might be to be dropped off in that Explorer, her block always watching, but the image—poof—went as fast as it came. She knew better.

 

 If interviewed, if asked how it felt to be in such a situation, Anita would report: 

“Everyone on the block knows what I do. They call me una Bandolera. Not the first, not the last.”

A familiar enough story, a quote at risk of being edited out.

 

The night before, she’d  kept track of him in the club. Though she made it out at least one Saturday a month, sometimes with a girlfriend or two, often alone, she didn’t recognize him. Tall, stout. He wore gleaming new white shoes, a crisp t-shirt, and designer jeans. His hair and eyebrows tightened, his jaw strong. He, like all the other Puerto Rican guys, was more put together than any of the girls. The contrast was stark. The girls looked as cheap, as busted, as they had been brought up to be.

Bass beat interrupted heartbeat. The lights flashed. The place, one of the most reliable reggaeton clubs on the island, was crowded as usual. The DJs gained traction. Everyone danced el perro: a guy simulates fucking a girl, often one hand on her back, bending her down in front of him. Most guys were off beat. Despite her detached interest, she sometimes found herself excited by a partner ramming into her like that. Her thighs tight, legs retaining balance, vision swirling. She knew she was good. Understood how repetition built momentum. She made even el perro look like dancing, and stayed on beat as if, by example, she could bring others to it. Meanwhile, other girls admitted the ruse and held onto a wall, or hiked a leg up for a surer fit.

She watched him flirt with the American tourist girls—so pale and different. They maneuvered for personal space when men stepped to them. Their clothes complimented their curves and didn’t show everything. She watched him get the pretty one to put her number in his phone as he continued to protest their leaving early. Then she watched him watch them leave. The whole club watched those girls leave.

Later, when the crowd started to thin, she positioned herself in his line of sight. He brushed off a skinny girl with acne scars who’d tried to get his attention by hanging her arms around his neck. She leaned against the wall near him, legs spread slightly, tried to look inviting but not desperate. She bit her bottom lip to make it bigger. He approached her. Gave her a half smile and asked her name. He probably didn’t hear her reply over the sound system.

Come with me, he said.

 

When asked by the interviewer if being chosen by the man with the Explorer made her feel good, Anita would brush back an intentional loose piece of hair, lean in, speak into the mic, and explain,

“Sure, I guess. But I didn’t get big about it. Everyone wants something.”
And she’d look straight into the camera and her face would convey no self-pity, no confusion, and no agenda. No joy. When finished with her statement, she’d look away.

 

She scanned street signs to figure out where in San Juan she was. It would be a long walk. She headed in the direction of her house. The sun was already strong.

Fuck, I forgot to look in the mirror. An afterthought as she walked past his neighbors, and felt their judgment. It made her skin hot. Fuck them.

Midblock she checked her reflection in a side mirror of an Oldsmobile.

Damn. Two black eyes.

She licked, then dragged, two fingers under each eye to remove the smeared mascara.

No one to call and she’d left her prepaid at home. Knew what kind of club it was. Knew how her night could end. She caught a ride there with five dollars in her bra. For emergencies. Nothing more.

As she walks she thinks about the night before—about putting him where she wanted him—about him saying, Good girl, repeatedly. About how they were satisfied for the moment. How he came on her stomach then handed her a thin towel to clean herself. 

No one bought her a drink and she hadn’t expected one. When she went home with him she was perfectly sober. He was functional. Because even when it was bad it was better than when she slept alone, in the room that she shared with her sister and the baby. Besides, she knew ways to make it right, so that she could put them where she needed them. Surprise them. She didn’t just lie there. She moved her hips  and grabbed them in the right places. Sometimes, two-handed, they placed her on top and said things like, You do the work.  She didn’t mind. They’d smack her ass and grunt and she’d rock and rock, pausing her hips only to prolong, until her blood and breath were shaking.

 

 An interviewer would be glad that Anita still remembered her first, Diego, because in the construction of narrative, firsts inform the following—the brief reminiscence would add to her humanity.

Diego was the first for half the girls on the block, and still, Anita had thought she was in love. She was heartbroken when he walked past her without saying a word. She’d had it so bad that she’d even turned to her mother for support—something she’d already learned not to do.

 “She put her hands on my cheeks, held my face and told me, ‘He don’t love you. He don’t love. You think he the only guy who is going to use you? Anita, yours ain’t shaped like La Virgin and soon enough I promise you’ll forget what his huevo look like.’ And you know what? She was right.”

 

And so, she stopped believing in love. And why should she? Not because of the father she never knew, only heard whispers about, rumored to be overseas in the military with a German wife and half-blond kids. Not because of her mother who couldn’t hide her bitter odor despite excessive cheap gardenia perfume.

Not the examples of her sisters, Maresela with her three kids with three dads. Lise, her “amor de mi vida” shot dead almost eight months ago, and still she won’t come out of her room. And her littlest sister, Mariah, sixteen and already living with Roberto and his family–and the bruises she fools herself into believing makeup can cover. Not Tia Carmen, alone and unpredictable, who maybe, like everyone says, really does only love birds. Even her abuela, long separated from her now dead husband, spits on the ground every time a man walks by.

It’s not just family—everybody. Maria Montanez next door pays boys on the block to fuck her. She’s that ugly and crazy. It’s not just the ugly. Despite strappy heels and a bank job, Lulu Cardenas, two doors down, pays all the bills for her man’s drunken ass to just sit there and watch that white-boy NASCAR shit go round and round. Hell, even her friend Daniella, who likes girls, will call and call and the phone will ring, even when she knows damn well it ain’t cute.

People lose their damn minds when they say it is love. Start screaming in the middle of the street, or run down the block half naked after a lover. And even when, even if, they pretend or temporarily believe, everybody she knows cheats on everybody she knows. She can’t help but notice that what matters doesn’t fucking matter. But yet, she still wants, deep down and in detailed observations—she keeps watch for possibility, for what she all but knows she can’t have.

All this knowledge repeatedly reminded her of something her abuelo had said sometimes: that the game wasn’t worth the candle. Which made sense for him because he’d lived in the Puerto Rico highlands without electricity. In her memory always sitting in that handmade chair by the window, watching time pass. Not waiting, no, he’d lived his life, but he still seemed to want something to watch beyond the trees and the swift moving island clouds.

Still, she takes hers.  She finished high school three years ago, straight Cs. And what now? The university is shit and she doesn’t have the money anyway. Still, she has on some level resisted making people say it just like that–You ain’t got no kids?

Like there is something wrong with her. Sometimes even unashamedly followed with–And you like men, right?

It didn’t occur to them that she’d followed her Tia’s advice and gone on birth control and she hid them under the mattress to avoid hassle from people like them; people who knew there were other islands out there but didn’t know their names, their relative locations.

Mom don’t want her to go to college anyway, You’ll be crazy like your Tia Carmen.

Carmen was the aunt that got out, who went to a university in the States, who got scholarships, who mom wouldn’t have nothing to do with because she was jealous. She’d heard her mom, drunk with tia Linda, talking that Carmen came back only once in all of those college years, just to tell everyone off, to say she was better than them, that they wouldn’t be anything ever. She found herself shaking in the other room as she listened. She’d wanted to think of Carmen as an exception. She got up to move and then heard them say that Carmen should’ve stayed in the U.S.

To top it off, Anita was not especially attractive, and not just because at five her mom had stopped telling her she was pretty. She wasn’t offensive, she blended in, neither jincha nor morena, the kind of looks that need a personality. And to most people, at least initially, she doesn’t seem to have one. She’s rarely the one asking questions, her flat responses are as low in skill level as her job.

She knew the corner store was getting her nowhere, but it was better than nothing. Mostly she sat on a high stool behind bullet-proof plastic, ringing up dulces, refrescos, cup o’ noodles, limbers and mini-bags of chips. For Senor Ruiz, who didn’t move so well cause he’s real old. His wife died and his son was in the States. Supposedly. She’s been at the store three years now and has never seen this son or heard of him calling. Again and again heard about how great he was though. Smart and a good job in Astoria, Queens, not the Bronx–as Senor Ruiz often noted.

Closed on a Sunday. Dia de Dios. Today. The day that she walked three miles home to save five dollars, and only because she’s able, mostly, to ignore the calls from the cars, from the porches,

What’s your name?

Where you going?

Give your little sister her shorts back!

One major mistake on the road home; she forgot that Spindalis Avenue had a church on it. St. Gabriel’s. Fuck timing. She crossed the street to escape but still passed young girls in starched white lace dresses, every hair on their heads trained with gel. White flowers. First fucking communion. Mothers moved in to shield, but the girls saw her; were scared of her. As if they knew. As if they would never grow old. She kept walking.

Finally, two blocks from her house. And then, incessant honking. She looked over to the street, where Tia Carmen pushed the horn and now screamed her name, beckoning her to the car.

 

In her hypothetical interview–as if somebody would decide to document a bandolera like they would in a Sympathetic Prostitute documentary–she explains:

“I wasn’t sure what to do. I was walking down the block and all of a sudden she was yelling at me—Neatie! Neatie! Across her empty passenger seat. And everybody on their porch and shit and that don’t fly. And she’s serious. Keeps waving me into the car sos I gots to get in. Everyone knows she my tia and what am I gonna do, ignore her? I get in. Once I’m in the car and we are headed to my house, she tells me she’s been looking for me. I don’t bother to say that she knows how to find me. I know she doesn’t like coming to my work, something about some lady on the block she used to know, and even more she doesn’t like coming to mom’s, but I ain’t hard to find.”

She pauses, looks at the camera, then back down at her feet, seems to be responding to a question as she continues,

“Once she asked me to come live with her, but I knew it wouldn’t work. She don’t live in my neighborhood—in Carolina, and I don’t know anyone where she lives. I did think about it though, there are some things it’d be nice to get away from, but she never offered again.”

A pause. Anita feels the need to explain further, to remember the good:

“Sometimes she’d say if she had more money she’d have sent me to St. Teresa’s, where I could’ve gotten a better education. I looked down. Let her say it. She says a lot of things and for a while it kinda bothered me that she didn’t do half of them, but now I know that that’s just how Tia Carmen is. More follow-through than mom, but still family.”

 

Between every stop sign, at which her Tia stops talking and looks both directions—her neck arching over the steering wheel, head close to the windshield—Anita listens to her aunt’s proposal.

You go in and change. Really, Neatie, it’s like you’ve got nothing on. While you do that, I’ll run to the bank. Then, I got an interview with this film crew from the States about the nightjar. It will be good for you to watch. We’ll get lunch on the way. We gotta get you off the block sometimes.

Without other plans, Anita half-heartedly agrees. She hasn’t been to Carmen’s work in months. And maybe Tia will buy her some new shoes at one of the stores on the way back. At her house, she hops out and goes inside to change. Ignores her mom’s question from the couch, Where you been? since she knows the answer. In Lise’s room she finds a pair of jeans that will work and a green t-shirt with a faded Kermit design; someone took her best sneakers so she wears the old K-Swiss that won’t go white anymore. In the bathroom mirror she gets the full effect of last night’s remains, eye makeup still under her eyes, hair disheveled, blotchy skin that she scrubs hard; she brushes her teeth harder and limits her makeup to a couple of layers of mascara and fragile lines of eyeliner. When she is done, she goes out to the porch to wait for Carmen. She pretends not to notice her mom’s stare from inside the front window, and thinks about how at least she made her ass get up once today. Señora Maria Victoria is watching from her perch—an elevated chair to give her short body more visual range—across the street, always staring, never waving. A man is pushing an ice cream cart, ringing his bell. There are weeds in the pavement that need pulling, but not today.

When Carmen returns, double-parking in the street, Anita jumps up before her mother can say anything and jogs to the car. Even after she gets in and has buckled her seat belt, Carmen looks up at the porch a few seconds longer. It is as if they both expect her ma to run out yelling, vocal guns blaring. But no, today there is no confrontation. Carmen pulls the ends of her jacket together and zips it up slowly, calculatingly, before putting the SUV in drive.

As they drive to the southwest side of the island, Carmen talks about herself. About her potential promotion at work. About the people she has to work with from the States and how they seem to play dumb with how things work here, about her upcoming trip to Atlanta for a bird conference where she will talk about not just the nightjar but other critically endangered birds she studies, how she doesn’t mind visiting, but there are reasons she moved back to Puerto Rico after college. Reasons she doesn’t say and that Anita thinks briefly of asking about. Instead, Anita just stares out the window. Listens.

Neatie, I am telling you, these conferences bring the geeks out for sure but I love it, everyone talks my language. And I am not talking about the Latin.

The topic isn’t new to Anita. She can’t always follow Carmen when she gets too scientific, but overall she’s picked up enough in her years of listening, of observing, that she can generally keep up. And as she half listens, Anita’s thoughts keep drifting back, in brief flashes, bits, to last night, to his hands on her back, and to other boys she has been with—moments of touch, of unexpected caress that she holds onto despite.

Soon, Anita snaps out of her daydreaming. Carmen is still talking about her birds like they hang out and have conversations with her, like they don’t fly away when they see her. Anita rolls her eyes and looks out the window again. Swears to herself that she will never understand this shit.

Three hours later, after a stop at a cart on the side of the highway where Anita and Carmen ate greasy fried pastelillos and platanos from a vendor who volunteered that his name was Enrique, they pulled off the highway and went down a narrow dirt road. Anita knew Carmen had worked for years to establish the small nature center out here. To Anita, it seemed like she’d been coming here her whole life, company for her aunt, a witness to communicate to the rest of the family who Carmen didn’t talk to and who didn’t talk to Carmen. After so many years of wandering la reserva, of sitting silently in meetings about what should be done next and funding needs,  Anita had come to think the project was a little hers too. Like today, when they arrived and the TV crew was already there, waiting by the three new white Ford Explorers they’d rented, she felt defensive of the place. She figured it probably didn’t look like much compared to the things they had in the States, and this caused her to look at it anew. Amateur tags on the back wall, scraps of trash on the ground, the peeling plastic sign that told about the center that someone had scratched their name into. Now, even the dirt road, which had never bothered her before, seemed second-rate.

Six men who shook hands and grinned. Who wore khakis and button-downs, their sleeves rolled up, ready for work. She noticed their shoes. One had a pair of dirty canvas sneakers, another guy could not stand still in his worn, but still obviously fancy, leather boots—all the others wore various forms of thick rubber soled outdoors shoes. Anita took their hands hesitantly, looking at their faces briefly, but long enough to think that they kind of looked the same.  Carmen introduced her as, My favorite sobrina, the only one who might do something some day.

Anita was visibly startled by this, rapidly looked at everyone again to see how they’d reacted and shot a glance at her Tia but was unable to catch her eye. The crew didn’t know what to say to that, so they didn’t–just smiled harder. The guy in the canvas shoes inexplicably winked and inquisitively looked her up and down. Anita wondered if her Tia was lying but why? Carmen, unconscious of the weight of her words, busied herself with explaining how the men really should go down the road and film her in front of the scrub brush,

Of course you won’t see them now because they are nocturnal, and there are so few of them, but it will give watchers the idea, a feel for where these niños operate. There will be other birds out and about singing their little songs.

The crew conferred amongst themselves, the director, the one in the boots, led the discussion as Carmen continued to chime in whenever she wanted. Anita noticed that they soon started to ignore her Tia. They let her talk but didn’t follow her lead. Instead, they discussed lighting and angles and issues of continuity. Carmen didn’t seem to notice though. She just kept talking.

Anita thought about what her Tia had said about her, how the implied judgment of her sisters and cousins had almost embarrassed her. And what did Carmen mean about doing something someday?

Finally, the director, exasperated, grabbed Carmen’s hand in an obvious effort to calm her down, told her that of course they would do everything they could to accurately show the nightjar in its habitat.

By the time they’d chosen a backdrop and set up the camera and lights, her aunt was vibrant. Excited to be acknowledged. Carmen pulled a tube of bright red lipstick out of her pocket that Anita didn’t even know she owned. The director went over what they were wanting Carmen to say, the way that she should speak as if she were talking to a high school audience, how she should be careful to not use overly scientific words. They’d even written out some cards for her to read, but when the camera started recording she stuck to her own script:

“Welcome to Puerto Rico! Today we are going to talk about a bird called Guabairo de Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican Nightjar. They’re called that because they only come out at night, and though the jar part refers to something else, I’ve often thought of it as a reference to how the birds encapsulate the Puerto Rican experience. Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. but can sometimes seem to be hidden in plain view—look at the brush behind me,”

With a wave of her hand, she instructed the camera to focus on the ground behind her then stepped aside, and continued,

“They are in there. We probably woke them up and they are in there watching us, even though we can’t see them. Because not only are Puerto Rican Nightjars nocturnal they are camouflaged too, with coloring like tree bark. They hid so well for years that people thought they were extinct. I like to say that they came back from the dead, but the official term for that is extant. Not too many left, about 2,000 we think, but with as good as they are at hiding I guess we could be wrong about that. We do know that they are only found here. That’s called endemic because nowhere else in the world has nightjars quite like these.”

And she went on, covering the nightjar’s natural habitat and how it needed to be protected, that there wasn’t much to be done about natural predator populations. Mongooses were particularly detrimental. Throughout most of the monologue Carmen’s arms hung straight down like she was a post stuck in the ground marking territory. Watching, noting that her Tia was talking forever, Anita realized she knew everything Tia was saying and, listening to her aunt go on and on, it seemed like more than just bits and pieces she’d picked up. It seemed like a lot. Always before just birds, something gente rara like her Tia were into.

As Carmen drove back towards the city to take her home, Anita tried to see the stars through the tinted glass and light pollution but they weren’t there. She’d said so little all day that her mouth felt locked.

Her aunt was mostly quiet too, satisfied maybe. She turned up the radio, an American music station, and hummed along slightly off beat. Anita couldn’t help but tap her fingers on the edge of her passenger side window, vaguely aware that she was trying to instruct her aunt on the tempo and that it wasn’t working.

And, for all her disbelief, all her lack of examples of exception, today, the Day of Our Lord, Anita looked out at where those stars would be and thought of him, still wondered about this one who—in some other world that didn’t include Americans to text, that didn’t include taking money for car fare but not a number—might be different.

When her Tia dropped her off she said something about how great it was that Anita got to be there to see the documentary being filmed. Anita agreed but politely refused to go back the next day,

Tia, I gotta go to work.

Carmen nodded. Then said, You won’t miss too much I guess—they’re going to be in the scrub searching for the Nightjar is all, something about setting up cameras that film on their own. I’ll be pretty busy with that the next few days, but I’m sure I’ll see you soon.

Anita figured soon meant a month. She thanked her aunt and got out of the car. Stood by the curb as Carmen pulled away, did a U-turn in the middle of the street and drove off.

She did not want to go in the house just yet, so she sat on the porch steps and watched cars drive past. She looked the drivers, searching for someone she knew, and listened to the music booming out of vehicles, identified rappers and singers like it was a game testing her knowledge. A game she’d played many times before. The night air was cool but she resisted going in to get a jacket.

 

Anita finishes her potential documentary with soft statements about birds and boys. Says to the microphone, still recording:

“Though I knew better, I kept thinking about the boy. The way he shut his eyes. The way he was surprised about how I talked, the way, maybe, he didn’t think I was so stupid when I told him he could do a bit more. He could be a little bit more. What if I saw him again? What if he saw me? He was my 61st. There’s no prize but I count.”

She stops, looks up past the camera, puts her hands in the pockets of her jeans, thinks about what she just said, then shakes her head and closes her eyes, pulls at the fabric inside of her pockets. A few seconds later, just long enough for a viewer to notice if they are paying attention, she opens her eyes. Then walks out the frame.