THURSDAY: A Solitary Mango Tree

BY MICHAEL J. PAGAN

Copyright is held by the author.

1.
MAYELIN RAISED her daughter the way one’s entrusted to raise a Halfie — piece by piece. Unfortunately for her, the life of her husband, Ilan, was snatched away when her daughter Anita was roughly about a minute short of her first birthday.

Mayelin was handed over a dream out of order.

She was Cuban while Ilan wasn’t — he was Jewish. She was also Catholic, therefore the entire Infante-Casado family — on both sides of the hyphen — was profoundly Catholic. Regardless, Mayelin still found herself falling forward — accent first — for Ilan: bent on keeping her arms cemented at her sly hips, where only Ilan could reach out to break her fall.

Therefore, Mayelin was a member of the Infante-Casado family until, as expected, she collapsed out of their favour, with Ilan also falling out of favour with his own. She’s more like a monkey without a tail, who fell, and you were the only fool with his arms extended, his mother had said to his back as he walked back to his car.

“I wish I had a tale,” Mayelin said to him as he settled into the driver’s seat.

“I prefer not to climb trees,” he said. A smile.

“That’s not what I meant.”

Neither bled. They were left alone and found themselves perfectly at ease with their conditions. Yet, roughly about a minute short of a year into their marriage — after Ilan was found faced down in a nameless lot covered in uneven white rocks, lying next to the shards of broken Heineken bottles, in some undeveloped corner of Little Havana — was the moment when Mayelin found herself left with nothing but abstractions: the smudged outlines left over of a former husband, an abbreviated marriage, unpolished dreams, and then nothing else.

Mayelin also found herself ill-equipped to pass along to her daughter the inheritance of her father’s character: his kindness, his elegance and his grace that made her choice to marry Ilan absolute. For Anita, Mayelin was left with only herself to put up with since her and Ilan’s families had rendered them alien and were therefore abandoned.

2.
“Anita, come here,” Mayelin called out as she stood huddled over the kitchen sink with her elbows embedded inside the bowl, paring a bundle of yuca roots.

Anita was six when Mayelin had decided then to engage with her daughter about her heritage and la patria. She’d finished rinsing away the bits of yuca skins from her hands, wiping them near-dry with an already moist kitchen rag before placing her hands on Anita’s cheeks and kissing her true across half-closed lips. And only after Anita complained about her mother’s bad-smelling hands — a mixture of yuca, Palmolive and stale tap water — did Mayelin sit her daughter next to her, by their tiny kitchen table.

She then pointed to one of her eyebrows: “Anita, I want you to look at my eyebrows. These are Cuba.”

“In your eyebrows, mami? Why?”

“Because, mi cielo, this is Cuba, for me: La céja del Caribe. The eyebrow lying across an eye as full and as magnificent as it is blue. Bursting with life.”

“I like that blue, mami.”

“But, what I’d like for you to learn is that very much like mine, or yours, she can’t help but let everyone know how they feel.”

“And how does Cuba feel?”

“It all depends on her eyes, Anita. If it lies across the left eye,” Mayelin began feeling over her left eye, “Cuba is heartbroken. And if it lies across the right,” she began again, this time feeling over her right eye, “Cuba is furious.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s just shaped that way, bent, like some of the handles that are loose on my cabinets.”

And that was exactly how Mayelin had always felt: pried loose then bent at the waist, just like her old-world dreams of marriage and a new, domesticated life in an adopted land. Her dreams became empty cabinets while she and Anita were left with only the rotted handles.

“Is it ever happy in Cuba, mami?”

“I don’t know anymore, Anita. It’s been a long time since I’ve been.”

“I wanna go there one day.”

“One day, mi cielo.”

3.
Anna would remember much later and come to understand the kitchen conversations she’d had with her mother. She’d remember the smell of her mother’s calloused hands against her face — her mother worked every single day of her childhood at a local dry cleaner as well as cleaning houses on her days off. Most of all, she remembered her mother’s eyebrows.

She reminisced through the early-afternoon of her wedding day, the way time leans against the day before it begins to dim and lose its colour. Those last moments she’d spent with her fiancée before his having to leave, allowing her to dress alone in her gown.

Miguel sat across the rim of the bathtub in only his white boxer briefs as Anna leaned over her him — in nothing but a bath towel — plucking away migrant hairs that had settled between his eyebrows.

Anna had rested her foot on the rim to steady her posture, and as she tended to her man, he began running his knuckles across her bottom and the inner half of her thigh, Anna allowing her grin to set loose, though she forced herself not to look into his hazel eyes. It was their wedding day, she reminded herself and they were supposed to hold out until the late evening. Miguel’s eyes were always a novelty to Anna, always reminding her of the quiver and burst of being reawakened and reborn.

But, Miguel’s game had her on-edge, and while she felt unsure whether she should let him continue, she chose not to push him away. Miguel continued feeling across the goose pimples of her thighs, before tucking his fingers inside of her. He then followed Anna toward the bed that was chosen for their wedding night, pulling away the towel from underneath her back, before finally having her for the first time.

It would also be the first time, of what eventually became an every time, where Miguel would prove incapable of bringing his wife to a climax.

Anna was left tracing the outline of the small blood stain on the sheets with her fingers as Miguel exited the room wearing only his unbuckled slacks, the rest of his suit folded across his forearm. He left behind his dress shoes and wouldn’t return for them.

And Anna would also come to the realization — months later — that much like her now former husband, she too proved incapable and helpless. She learned she was medically ill-equipped to bear children. And her then mother-in-law — an aggressive and unsightly beast of a 300-pound Puerto Rican woman by the name of Doña Dolores — as expected, would place the head of the blame on Anna for allegedly seducing her son prematurely — before their wedding day was ripe, she claimed — and for befouling the sacrament of marriage, as well as the immaculacy of her son — and their entire family lineage dating back to the days when their ancestors supposedly roosted in the Basque country of northern Spain — with that chocha podrida of hers. Como una olla podrida, she would later say. Just like your mother.

Miguel was then left with no other choice but the snug one: to leave Anna, leaving her as bare as a root with nothing but a pale whisper: Adios, mi negrita.

4.
Anita had believed she’d figured out this Puerto Rican boy named Miguel. She was 14, and spent most of her time inside the one-bedroom her and her mother shared; always listening to other kids running through the hallways of their building through the slip underneath their front door: “Oh yeah, well, yo momma got three teeth: one in her mouth and two in her pockets, nigga!” or coming in from their bedroom window — that her mother would always keep shut, save for those moments that Anita would savour while her mother was out running errands. She’d heard one of the boys call out: “Miguel, ayo Miguel!” and she was able to catch him turn his head in the direction of the boy as she watched through the window.

Miguel rested against the only tree — a mango tree — that stood in the middle of an avenue of grass that ran behind the three buildings forming their housing complex. From what she understood, the mango tree had stood in its place for generations, since before the buildings had come to rest over his particular lot, and had gone barren only days after the buildings were erected. Before, those who lived in the surrounding neighbourhood would migrate to the empty lot just to knock down a few mangoes to eat during the oppressively humid Miami summers, when nobody had anything better to do than fold copies of The Herald and use them as makeshift fans, or at the front of their houses playing dominos and listening to Radio Mambi while neighbourhood kids played ball on the street, taking their mandatory water breaks from time to time by drinking the luke warm water from water hoses lying across the grass like giant serpents.

The neighbourhood came to fetch mangoes from a tree that never seemed to exhaust itself. Once, while Mayelin was away at the coin laundry down the block, an older, Puerto Rican woman named Soraya — much older than Mayelin — shared with her as they sat waiting for their clothes to finishing drying how magnificent the tree used to look: brimming with the shades of green, red, purple, and orange-pink of the hanging fruit. How the colours appeared as if they were carried in mid-air and flickered when the breeze would filter through its crown, and how she herself used to stand in the shade, leaning against its torso, carefully slicing the flesh of a mango and slurping each piece into her mouth, every so often having to dig out the fibres from in-between her teeth with her acrylics. Anita would imagine Miguel sitting much like Soraya did: with the sugary smell of mango on his tongue and across lips and cheeks and nails and fingers.

Miguel was lying across the half-dead grass, reading a book she couldn’t make out from her viewpoint. He’d always be seen carrying a paperback tucked into the back pocket of his jeans or at his waist, which always excited her attention. Anna could never really tell whether he’d been reading a different book or the very same one each time. He’d always be just too far out of reach of her eyes to see clearly.

5.
After it was found out that her father, Ilan, was knifed over a pocket-full of loose change and his SkyPager, little Anita began suffering from panic attacks, and from there, she’d developed a powerful fear of any large, open spaces and public areas that were unfamiliar to her. Her eyes also began to cross slightly.

Once the neighbours learned of Anita’s father being Jewish, and the reality that Anna was too anxious to leave from the comfort and assurance of her mother’s apartment, everyone took to calling her Anne Frank or Anna Frank or Anita Francisco. An Afro-Cuban woman that lived on the top floor, who would perform her Santeria rituals in an adjacent unit that was abandoned, would pass by the hallway from time to time and leave a variety of herbs and roots at the front of their door in hopes that it would help remedy Anita of her anxieties. There was also the Puerto Rican woman that lived in the apartment below them that would leave them bottles of Agua de Florida along with candles of the Virgin Mary in hopes that some form of spiritual cleansing was needed. She once even left a can of Vicks rub since, according to Puerto Ricans, Vicks remedied everything that wasn’t spiritual or metaphysical.

Mayelin would have to spend hours bribing Anita out of their bedroom closet by offering a pastelito or a thin slice of guava paste if she’d come out and accompany her into the kitchen as she prepared their dinner. Every now and again she would excite Anita with slices of mango she’d bought from the market, but Anita would eat only by her bedroom window. It was only after Mayelin began playing from her collection of old Benny Moré and Celia Cruz records that Anita pulled together the confidence to sit at the kitchen table with her mother and listen to the sliced platanos frying in the pan while Celia or Benny sang in the background. Anita was always proud that her mother shared a birthday with Celia: October 21st.

Mayelin once said to her: “Anita, you know if you close your eyes, the sounds of the frying pan almost sound like waves.”

Anita closed her eyes, but decided to listen to Benny and Celia instead. In truth, she’d developed a loathing of the ocean. The idea of it all. She never understood why the ocean was seen as beautiful. She only knew that when she stood in front of it, it reminded her of what she could leave. Not without a boat, anyway.

6.
Much like the torso of the barren mango tree, Anna was growing into a shape that most people considered dull and stale. And because she was so fair-skinned and simple-looking, they always took to teasing her and calling her names like la guajira limpia. She had no hips to speak of, or legs, or thighs for that matter, and many would joke how the only shaking she’d be able to do would be if someone planted her into the ground like a tree, leaving her to slow dance with the damp breeze as it rocked her back and forth.

Yet, while Anita was considered more or less run-of-the-mill — if one chose to follow the Latino male spectrum of a woman’s physical drawing power — Anita was alluring and delicate to those who had vision. Therefore, doors that were always closed and bedroom windows that were always shut proved ill-equipped to stonewall what her Miguel would later come to realize.

7.
Another Hispanic boy, who everyone knew as Elmer, entered her view as he flashed from around the corner of the building, stopping in front of Miguel’s outstretched feet, doubled over and gasping for air. Anita slid open her window just enough to listen to their conversation:

“Yo, Miguel,” she heard Elmer say after sucking in a few deep breaths. “Oye, you seen that negrita that lives in the A building? She kinda dresses a little boyish with all that loose clothes and shit, but you can tell she got it tight underneath? I heard her name is Cherry or some shit and I think she’s kinda feeling me, bro. And I know she’s feelin’ you, too. We should three-way her in one of the empty apartments. What you think?”

Anita noticed immediately that Miguel didn’t even bother taking his eyes away from his paperback. “Why would I wanna mess around with some negra, bro?” she heard him say.
“Besides, isn’t that the girl with the C-Section scar?”

“Nah, nah that’s her sister. She’s a fuckin’ cuera, bro. Cherry’s a little bit different.

“Elmer, my family would fucking kill me if they knew I was hanging around here, even more so if they found out I was fucking with a negrita.”

“But, bro, she’s cute,” Elmer pleaded. “Not even to just play with her toto a little? Bro, I hear their pussies look purple! I mean, fuck, I ain’t saying you gotta marry her, bro. But, I think I can convince her into giving us some head or jerk us off, at least. You know what she said to me just now? That I had a little spunk. Who the fuck says that, bro?”

“Forget it. All she’s gonna end up doing is stealing your pride like they fucking steal rims,” Miguel said.

Mayelin wasn’t home and had told Anna that she’d be gone for a few hours. So, Anita decided then the time was righteous and proper for her to finally seek out her Miguel.

She’d decided to use the flight of stairs that exited opposite of where Elmer had approached Miguel, and carefully shuffled down the steps, then across the pathway until she reached the corner of the building, leaning her body around the corner just enough so that Miguel would stay in her field of vision. Elmer still pleaded with Miguel: “C’mon bro, stop acting like such a fucking maricón!”

She waited until it appeared as if Miguel and Elmer were through talking, and even after Elmer gave up, jogging back the way he came, she decided to wait even more until the tickling had escaped from her insides.

It wasn’t until she started feeling the dry grass and dead leaves in-between her toes that she realized she’d forgotten to slip on a pair of sandals before abandoning the apartment. She was just too electrified and inspired. She continued on nonetheless, coming to a full stop only when Miguel heard her approaching. He placed the paperback on the grass and stood up to meet her.

Being that it was Anita who approached him, he waited for Anita to say something.

Anita couldn’t think of anything to say.

After a few passing seconds, it was Miguel who budged first. “How come you look so upset? You upset?”

Anita answered only by shaking her head “No.”

“Your eyes give it away,” he said.

“My eyes just make it look that way.”

“And you always trust your eyes to speak for you?”

Anita again could only answer by shaking her head “No.” She looked up at the crown of the mango tree and paused for a few seconds as she watched the breeze stimulate the branches. She loved how the sunlight rippled through in asymmetrical patterns across the leaves. “I just trust my eyes,” she then said. “Some people like to say that my eyes are choleric, but I still trust them.”

“Well, I don’t buy it. They look sweet, to me. It’s Anne, right?” he asked.

“No — Anna,” she answered back.

Anna realized for the first time — being that this was the closest she’d ever been to Miguel, or any boy, for that matter — the presence of a unibrow that swerved inward and connected at the bridge of his nose. It reminded her of the waves her mother spoke of when she’d asked Anita to search for through the sounds of the frying pan. It also reminded her of the stick figure birds she used to draw all over the inside walls of her closet while her mother tried, without rest, to coax her out.

It only took the brusque voice of what was an angry, old and Puerto Rican mother thundering from around one of the building’s corners to unexpectedly disconnect them from what Anna believed was their clear electromagnetism.

“Oye, sinverguenza! Que carajo do you think you’re doing here in this place con estos pobres?” the old woman yelled as she quickly approached them.

“Nothing, mamá,” Miguel answered, shuffling his British Knights through the grass as he moved toward his mother like a little boy who’d just been caught stealing. “I just like coming here to sit in the shade and read.”

“Esa mierda no es una mata de mango, sángano! Who told you it was a mango tree?”

“Mamá, yes it is. Everyone around here knows this.”

“Si? Y adonde están? Where are these mangoes, ah? I don’t see them.”

“Mamá, that’s because they don’t grow anymore. If it’s not, what is it then, huh? Tell me.”

“Que se yo? What I know is that I don’t see them. No hay na’. These people are just like your tía: mentirosos — and wastes!”

Anna then heard the window to her bedroom slide open until it thudded against the frame. Mayelin’s head then leaned out of the window: “Anita? Anita?” she frantically called out. Anna immediately could see that her mother was agitated about finding an empty apartment.

“Mami, I’m right here,” Anna called out to her mother.

“Oye, tú,” Miguel’s mother butted in, calling for Mayelin’s attention. “Is this your daughter? Tell her to stay away from my son, entiendes? Esa muchachita esta rara.”

“O si? Besame el culo vieja sucia! Fucking puta, que te vayas al carajo!” Mayelin swore
back at the old woman.

Apparently devastated by Mayelin’s ferocious salvo, Miguel’s mother yanked her son by the collar, pulling him away from Anna. “And don’t try and fight back sinverguenza!” she yelled while pulling him along. “I’m on my period y soy mas stronger that you.” In the process, Miguel had forgotten he’d left his book in the grass.

“Mi niña!” Mayelin called out to Anna, “What are you doing outside? Get upstairs right now!”

“I’m going, mami!” Anna yelled back. She quickly moved to the spot where the book lay, fanned out across the half-dead grass like a dead pigeon. She then picked it up, careful not to glance at the cover, and placed it underneath her arm. She returned upstairs to her mother, believing she’d never again see Miguel.

She’d later discover it was Concrete Island.

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