Only the Cancer
A story from New Domangue
How could Salmón Peñales explain to them what he knew? What he understood? How their actions created waves upon waves of infinitesimally petty events that crashed down onto Cervia as hard as whitewalls upon the back of a tired body trying to find solid ground? He had only to show them, to make them see their role in her death. He had come to show them, to peel back the blinding film of their Dominicano convictions, of their Dominicano way of life that informed their every step. He had come to expose their guilt, their complicity in Cervia’s weakness, in her inability to fight when it was time to fight, in her quick, unexpected death. That was his plan. Fly home to New Domangue for the weekend, point the finger at his siblings, his parents, and let them know that they were to blame—not the cancer, but them.
Salmón brooded over how he might bring this up. During the flight from New York, he imagined to himself the different scenarios that might play out. He didn’t know when he might talk to them—before the rosary prayer? During? After? He only knew that after five years away from home, this was the time. He had to confront them, he had to show them how they had killed Cervia’s will long before the cancer arrived, leaving her too easy a victim for the ravages of her illness. Had things been different, Salmón believed, Cervia would have had the strength to fight. She would have had a reason to live.
Salmón remembered the times when, as a young teenager, he had watched his older sister crying when no one else was around. He remembered how she used to urge him to get away from New Domangue as fast as he could. She was going to be an actress—that was her dream. She would learn English and conquer Hollywood. But money was tight. And after living in the States without getting anywhere, it was clear that everyone had to work. With their mother’s ailing back getting worse over the years, the family looked to Cervia to keep the house up while Pedro and Miguel joined their father in the refineries that dotted the waterside land south of New Orleans.
A sense of guilt slowly crept over Salmón as he remembered the day he had flown out of New Domangue. Ever since that day, he had stayed away as if he had no home. He made excuses to his family whenever he called, especially to his mother, who always begged him to return, if only for a visit. He always complained that he was too busy, that he just couldn’t leave New York City, because on any given day he might meet with an agent or a publisher.
When Cervia was diagnosed the year before, Salmón did consider returning. He was struck by an unexpected sense of longing, not just for his sister’s company, but for the universe that he knew, for the streets, the people, and the town, a town which after twenty years had become his family’s town as much as it was the town of anyone else who chose to live there. Memories long overlooked urged him to return not just to her, but to his home. He talked about this often with his counselor, who suggested that he was too vulnerable to return, that his family would do him more harm than good. Besides, he’d worked so hard for so many years to get his life moving in the right direction.
So Salmón took his counselor’s advice. Cervia understood, she had said, and agreed that he should stay in New York and focus on finding his poetic voice. She had, after all, urged him to get away and stay away.
“If you come home,” she had said, it seemed, just the other day, her heavily accented English reminding Salmón that she hadn’t grown up in the States in the same manner as he, “Papi and Mami will make you crazy and you will never write the poems you want to write. You know that, and I know that. It is better that you are happy. So stay out of here until you are sure you can visit and leave in one piece.”
It had been less than two weeks ago that they talked. No one had known how much longer she would live. The doctors said it could take a few days or it could take months. Everyone hoped for months. No one was prepared when it only took days. By the time she took a turn for the worse, his brothers explained to him, it was too late. She dropped out of life almost instantaneously. One minute she was there, in bed, breathing, and the next, it seemed to them, she was gone. By the time Salmón was able to get a ticket he could afford, Cervia had been buried and the funeral had passed. For three days he struggled with the guilt of not having been there, for having lied so often about his artistic life even after already knowing that the lie was stale. Why in the hell had he not gone back the minute he knew she had cancer? He should have returned, he should have put himself aside for a while and gone back—which, as he thought of it, made him curse himself. He cursed himself because he was afraid to return.
The truth was that Salmón struggled with his poetry while in New York City, and he didn’t dare share this with Cervia. Over the last year, he’d begun to feel, deep down inside, lost about what he was doing, even though he tried lying to himself. Between waiting tables in downtown Manhattan and attending the occasional poetry workshop, Salmón felt disconnected from the artistic life he had set out to find. From Greenwich Village to Flatbush, the endless sea of concrete, street vendors, would-be poets, deadbeats, aspiring singers, dancers, and film movie stars only fueled his growing suspicion that he wasn’t going to find any inspiration in a place that said so little to him about him. Even the Dominicanos he’d hoped to connect with in Washington Heights seemed too strange to him. What he found in them that was similar to the Dominicanos he knew in New Domangue, to the life he came from, wasn’t enough, and he never did find the voice he sought. He used to think when he first arrived in Manhattan that the Dominicanos he met reminded him of who he was. That didn’t last. Instead he quickly discovered that he wasn’t anything like them. After five years of living in the city, he had few, if any friends. What he hid from himself and kept from his counselor was that he felt more lost in New York City than he had when he lived in New Domangue.
The sound of the seatbelt sign turning on, followed by the captain’s announcement that the New Orleans skyline was visible to the left, broke Salmón’s train of thought. At least he would be home to observe part of the rosary prayer that his family would hold over the next several days, and he would use that time to ask Cervia’s spirit to forgive him for not making it to her side on time and, perhaps, to forgive him for much more than that.
He looked out his window and imagined the writhing Mississippi River hugging the skirts of that skyline, its slithering, massive brown waters flowing beside the downtown skyscrapers he used to gaze at when he worked in the city. His eyes followed the imaginary muddy river as far south as he could see, searching for the piece of land he knew, the New Domangue streets of his early youth that were much farther south, far from downtown New Orleans, which was itself a barely visible outline from his window. Salmón remembered the days and nights along that river when, as a teenager, he would sit alone on the levee and watch the eddies and the crashing waves created by the wakes of tugboats and cargo tankers. The smells of humid delta nights returned to him, the scents of magnolia, of verbena and wisteria, of jasmine and crepe myrtles in bloom. Memories of girlfriends past, of women who lay in his arms and listened to crickets sing and toads croaking after twilight, aroused nostalgic moments from his youth. He thought for a second as he looked out the window onto the land below that he could make out the very streets where he’d grown up, where he’d played with his brothers and with Cervia into the quiet, singsong nights.
When would that have been? From the age of six or seven until he had started running with school friends as a teenager? The late eighties? How, the thought suddenly struck him, had his parents made it in those days? With four children and little knowledge of the English language in a place and a time when jobs were so hard to come by—how had they managed?
He was surprised that he should be asking himself these questions. It had never occurred to Salmón to consider his own history beyond the reach of his own experiences, his own understanding. As he lost himself in these thoughts, he failed to notice that the plane had landed. It wasn’t until the people around him began reaching for the overhead bins that he returned to the present moment. He took a deep breath and focused on the eventual meeting that awaited him inside the airport.
The first person he spotted at the end of the concourse was his oldest brother Pedro, who at five feet, nine inches was the tallest of his family. His other brother, Miguel, stood beside Pedro with their mother holding on to his arm. She was a quiet woman, advanced in age but not so much that she looked as if she were getting into her eighties.
All three of them waved emphatically. Neither of his two brothers had married, but Salmón knew that Pedro was steadily dating someone.
He was glad to see them, but at the same time Salmón felt awkward about having all of them come to the airport to pick him up, particularly when he planned to stay in a hotel in downtown New Orleans. He recalled a Puerto Rican comic he had seen on the Lower East Side once who poked fun at this very scene. The comic had called it the typical Latino family reunion at the airport. If there had been any more of his parents’ family in New Domangue, he knew, they would have been there as well.
“La bendición, Mami,” Salmón said, remembering the customary manners. His mother, who was dressed in a black skirt and blouse and held a white rosary in one hand, blessed him and enfolded him in her arms, the rosary slapping him across his back. As she held him, she cried. Salmón, having been away from his mother for so long, didn’t know what to do. He closed his eyes and suddenly felt guilty again. Feeling as if he were being pulled into the grief that he promised himself he would avoid, Salmón fought back the tears that were pushing to get out and focused on his plans. He hadn’t come to commiserate. He came to call them out, to open their eyes.
As it was in many of his childhood memories, he saw his brothers standing directly in front of him with their faces pointed away, both of them looking down as though they were looking for something between their feet. The few seconds that passed felt like many long minutes as Salmón watched the rushing crowd of arrivals and departures nudge and bump past them.
“Vamos, Mami,” Salmón finally found the courage to say. “Let’s go.”
“Yes,” his mother replied as she composed herself and smoothened out her blouse. “Let us go home. It is time you return.”
As the three of them silently walked toward the exit, Salmón asked if his father had also come to the airport.
“He is parked by the baggage claim,” Pedro answered.
“We don’t need to stop there. All I have is this,” Salmón said, pointing to his carry-on.
“But Mami expects you to stay through the whole prayer,” Pedro reminded him. “That does not look like two weeks of clothes. You said you would be able to stay, don’t you remember?”
His brothers looked at him as if he had just insulted their mother. Salmón didn’t know what to say.
“Where’s Papi parked?” he asked as he walked ahead of them.
The welcoming hug from his father was dry and formal. As they pulled out of the airport, Salmón’s father responded to the news about his son’s short stay with a grunt and a shrug of his shoulders. “He is a grown man. He can do what he wants,” he said.
A strained silence fell over them as they drove away from the airport. Everyone watched the road ahead while the sound of the old car’s engine hummed in sync with the traffic noise. As he sat in the back seat with his mother, Salmón worried about how he might break the news that he planned to stay in a hotel.
“At least he is here with us,” his mother eventually said, as if someone had just spoken to her. She took Salmón in her arms and kissed him on the cheek, and the silence returned immediately. No one talked for the remainder of the drive to New Domangue. Salmón chose to say nothing about his hotel, planning to catch a cab later that evening instead. He watched the familiar landscape speed past them and took note of every minor change as he remembered places he’d visited, places he’d worked. As he took in the lush spring greenery a stark contrast to the bare, frigid limbs of the scant trees he’d just left in New York City, Salmón felt a sense of belonging that he didn’t remember ever feeling. There was something to be said for having a home, he thought.
When his father pulled into their neighborhood, a rush of childhood memories returned. Salmón had visions of Dominicanos playing baseball in the streets with the local kids, of fathers in grime-plastered work clothes talking and sipping beer on curbsides while mothers yelled and shouted from doors and opened windows. There was a congenial atmosphere on their street, where whites, blacks, and a handful of Dominicanos lived. He could feel it now, as if he had gone back in time.
As the car pulled into the driveway in front of his family’s small ranch-style home, Salmón remembered that there had been many days when life was just as he had remembered it, but such a time must have been when he was no older than seven or eight years old. That would have been before things changed in New Domangue, before the oil bust, and before the Dominicanos who lived on their street packed their families up and headed north.
“You are home,” Salmón’s mother said. She kissed him on the cheek and stepped out of the car.
Salmón closed the door to the car and remained beside it as he surveyed the house he’d grown up in. For some reason, the house looked smaller to him, as if it had shrunk considerably. In his memories, the house he grew up in was spacious, with places where one could get lost. The house in front of him now barely looked big enough for two people, much less a family of six. The paint looked worn, and even the grass had a faded look, as if the very life had been sucked out of it. He had only been nineteen when he left—how could it be that everything had changed so much in five years? Or was it that, even as he had prepared to leave New Domangue, the memories of home he had collected to take with him to New York City were already reaching back to a better, earlier time?
“You coming in, brother?” Pedro asked, his head just outside the screen door.
Salmón nodded and followed his brother inside. The disconnect between what he remembered and what he experienced continued as he entered the house. A thick wave of sadness that brought back a string of good and bad memories struck him when he saw a large family portrait placed conspicuously on a table in the small hallway leading to the back den. A single rose, slightly withered, sat in a plastic cup next to the picture. Salmón picked up the portrait and studied it for a while, admiring his sister’s warm smile, her high, Taino-like cheekbones, and the golden tone of her skin, which seemed to offset their father’s serious gaze and their mother’s matronly sterility. What was it about his family that made him and Cervia feel so alien?
Mesmerized by the humble, almost austere depiction of his family in his hands, it took Salmón a minute to realize that his mother had cooked dinner for him. The oregano and cilantro that his mother used in almost everything she cooked suddenly struck him as he took a deep breath. She called for him to join her in the kitchen at the same moment that he looked up and saw his father urging him down the hall.
“Come on, Salmón. Ben aquí. Come. We are waiting for you,” he said.
Salmón walked down the hallway and turned left into the kitchen. He joined his father and his brothers at the kitchen table and watched quietly as his mother placed their dinners before them. As he watched her, Salmón wondered why no one asked him about his life in New York, why no one said anything at all. Were they angry with him? They didn’t seem angry. They just seemed dead, as if each and every one of them had died along with Cervia. He wanted to say something, to break the strange silence that had developed in the car on the drive from the airport and that now hung over them. Salmón closed his eyes and thought about the picture in the hallway, trying to think about something related that he could say.
“Papi,” Salmón began hesitantly, pausing briefly before asking his question. When his father’s eyebrows shot up, Salmón continued. “When was the family portrait in the hallway taken? I can’t remember if I was ten or twelve years old.”
“You were ten,” his mother supplied. She finished setting the table and sat down with them. “I remember it very well. You were mad about wearing that tie. You did not like ties.”
Salmón’s father laughed. “Yes, I remember. I was going to use the belt on you because you were stubborn.”
Pedro and Miguel began to laugh and were saying something about Salmón being hardheaded when their mother interrupted and asked them all to hold hands while she offered a blessing. She didn’t mention anything about Cervia, and when she said amen the conversation continued. Stories about Salmón’s strange childhood behaviors flew across the table. There were tales of him tying bath towels around his neck into his teen years because he loved to pretend that he was Superman or Batman. His brothers laughed almost until their sides hurt when they remembered the time that Salmón had first touched a girl’s breasts. From a distance they had seen the twelve year-old jump and then run away as if a bomb had exploded. This led into a conversation about how sensitive he was about everything.
“You and Cervia were the same that way,” his mother said, a weak smile on her face. Suddenly, his brothers’ faces turned gloomy. “The oldest and the youngest of the family,” his mother continued, “and it was like you were born at the same time, like you and she shared hearts together inside me before you were born. She always loved you the most.”
With this, the conversation died down and the men grew sullen and quiet. Salmón’s mother continued to smile as she ate. He could see in the wrinkles around her mouth and eyes, the remnants of a difficult life settling on her face. There were mysteries, he suspected, that ran deep within people.
They ate the remainder of the meal in silence. Throughout dinner, Salmón sensed that maybe they were waiting for him to say something that would help them. He was, after all, the closest to Cervia, the one who knew her best. But even if he could, why should he help them? Hadn’t they pushed Cervia to a young death?
Craziness, he thought, and then he caught a rare glimpse of revelation in his father’s face. The weather-beaten skin around the old man’s eyes suggested to Salmón that there was something he had not yet considered, that he had not yet placed. The old man looked like an old man. He looked tired. He looked as if he were full of despair that was eating him up inside. And as Salmón looked at him, he realized that there were things that his father would never say, that there were hardships he’d endured that he would never talk about, and that maybe if he’d had a chance to try again, that his family’s life could have been different.
Suddenly, feeling as if he were a five-year-old child who’d lost his parents in a bright, foreign place, Salmón felt like crying. He made to leave the table and his mother instantly moved toward him. She took his hand and guided him to his old bedroom.
“You need a moment,” she said.
Once he was alone, he cried for what seemed hours. When he finally stopped crying, he fell asleep—or at least he believed he did, because by the time he began to feel as if he were conscious and in control of his emotions, it was dark outside the window, and a night-light provided the only light in the room. He turned on the lights and noticed a sealed envelope with a handwritten note beside it. Salmón read his mother’s message, which spoke about how she’d been true to his sister’s wishes by not opening the envelope and waiting to give it to Salmón on the first day of the rosary prayer for Cervia.
Salmón tore at the envelope and read and reread the brief message his deceased sister had left for him.
Always fight, Salmón. I did until the very end. Keep to your dreams, but first forgive them. It’s not their fault.
P.S. I know you can’t stand New York City, so stop lying to yourself and to me.
Salmón wiped the tears from his face as he laughed at his own naiveté. He thought about his parents and considered Cervia’s words. What an idiot he was. Of course they had unfulfilled needs and dreams. Of course they gave them up. Of course their lives became nothing more than burned-out, cankerous holes. For what? So that tomorrow might be better for him—for all of them. Only now did he consider that had it not been for their ability to survive, he wouldn’t have had the luxury to disappear. They couldn’t even feel at home in this world the way he did. His very existence was a product of their struggle. And now that their struggle had quieted, they had little left to do but live out their dreams through him and through his older brothers.
Salmón thought about this and about much more as he realized that it was time to reconsider what he was doing and what he was running from. Maybe he didn’t need to run away from home after all. Maybe he was just blowing smoke up his own pipe. What was he running from, anyway? Was he ashamed of whom he belonged to, was that it? He sat there and thought about it for awhile. He was an immigrant Dominicano from New Domangue, he reasoned with himself.. He grew up here. This place was part of him. His family and his culture were undeniable parts of him. Maybe it was time to accept this. Maybe he needed to accept this.
As he thought through these ideas, he thought about the possibility of staying through the weekend with his family rather than in the hotel room he’d reserved. He sat pensively with Cervia’s note in his hand until Pedro knocked and opened the door.
Salmón could hear a rising hubbub of voices down the hall.
“Salmón?” his brother asked. “You okay?”
“Yes,” Salmón answered.
“Mami is going to begin the rosary. She asked me to come get you.”
“Let me wash my face.”
“I will tell her you are coming,” Pedro said. He paused as he walked out of the room and turned back toward Salmón. “I am glad that you are home.”
“It’s good to be back, Pedro,” Salmón replied and followed his brother into the hall. After washing up, he looked at his face in the mirror and wondered about who he might be tomorrow. He shut the faucet and listened as Spanish words flew throughout the house. There were voices he recognized—or thought he recognized—from his youth. No matter how long he’d been away, old abuela Conchita and tía Mía were always easy to pick out in a crowd from their voices alone. The smell of Caribbean espresso made its way through the house, intertwining with the singsong sounds of greeting and introduction among men and women, with the desperate entreaties of fidgety children asking to be excused from the rosary, and with the exasperated attempts by their mothers to quiet them. Salmón was filled with the sense of a time and place that spoke to him about the truth of the blood in his veins. This was the old home in exile, brought to life on the occasion of Cervia’s death. How strange, he thought, that he should be awakened to it now that she’s gone.
When Salmón walked into the living room, he was immediately bombarded by a throng of people who expressed their happiness to see him at the same time as their condolences for the loss of his sister. He felt, as he shook hands and accepted hugs, the desire to smile and the desire to cry at the same time, but instead he did neither and calmly made his way through the entire gathering and sat at his father’s side for the start of the rosary prayer. His mother, along with two nuns who were friends of the family, sat calmly in front of the assembled group and asked everyone to take out their rosaries and began with an initial Our Father. Salmón’s father, noticing his son’s empty hands, placed a spare rosary in Salmón’s palm and signaled for him to follow along. Salmón looked at his father and nodded. He took the first bead in his hand and began to pray.
As the rosary prayer continued, Salmón recalled a memory from his youth. He was outside watching his brothers play baseball, too young (according to them) to play with the other kids on the street. Cervia, who had been inside doing her homework, came out and sat beside him on the curb. He was busy flicking ants with his fingers when she put a hand on his and asked him to stop.
“So what,” she said, “you take it out on the ants because you can’t play with them either?”
That was just like her. He shared the story after the prayer, and several of the family friends laughed. Soon they were all recounting tales of Salmón’s “sensibilities.” There was no shortage of stories about the dreamy boy whom Cervia had always had to take care of because he wasn’t old enough or strong enough or fast enough. He had hated that he couldn’t play with the older kids. As Salmón listened to the stories, he thought about how childish his initial thoughts about his visit had been, and he was glad that he hadn’t said anything. He knew now that she had held on as long as she could. It was the cancer, after all. It was only the cancer. Knowing this he thought that maybe it would be a good idea after all to stay for the entire two weeks of rosary prayers.
About the Creator
I'm a Dominican immigrant living in the New Orleans area since the 70s. A father of two, I've been a service worker, war medic, ER tech, pro fundraiser, nonprofit leader, city bureaucrat, and now a PhD'd person, but always a writer.
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