New York City streets had a habit of forcing you to grow up faster than mentally capable and in the end that was the problem wasn’t it? How do you coerce the five year old inside of you not to be afraid of the drug dealer claiming corners on your block, while you’re on the way to school? How do you tell the pre-pubescent teenager use to the second hand smoke from the hallways of the poorly ventilated and maintained housing projects in the hood that you can’t run away from a knife fight because well, you can’t have your manhood questioned now, can we?
I came home from Saint Barnabas Hospital twenty-four years ago in my mother’s arms, bundled up in a blanket, sheltered from the pollution surrounding us and the rain pouring that night. Ivette Perez had been a teen mother, not knowing better, and being left by an older man who knew no better than to run away from the reality he created for himself. She did the best she could considering the circumstances. We raised each other as we jumped from homeless shelter to homeless shelter and took turns being adults because neither of us had really asked for this deck of empty cards.
Things began to shift when I turned thirteen. The hormones kicked the door off my innocence and so did my father, who decided to return out of the blue and began to tell the first of many lies that followed; he promised us we’d be a family. He promised us he’d gotten himself a good job, that he had left his street life behind to return to the family he had abandoned. Having bared witness to the nights where I had found my mother crying as she made dinner for us in our tiny studio apartment she had finally managed to get us after working endlessly at different fast food franchises, I had no reason to believe that kind of pain would go away with just a smile and a promise.
My mother had grown up without her father, and I only found that out recently. It made sense to me now. Everything did. There was a pattern in my family. A pattern that seemed to plague each generation deeply enough to let a guy like my father back into our lives. To take that risk, to take that journey right back into that Hell wasn’t something I understood until I met someone worth taking that risk for myself. But like my mother, I was naive in thinking we were done being cursed with complicated relationships.
So here I am, back to where it all started, Belmont Avenue in the Bronx. Not by obligation, but by choice. Today was Willie Lopez’ funeral and I felt there was nowhere else in the world I had to be other than here paying my respects to the man who had made it his life's mission to pull me out of the streets that had dragged me in so easily. I stopped being his parolee about two years ago, but we remained in contact just in case I went off the rails again. He’d been more of a father to me than my own and the night I learned he’d been shot just down the street from my old building, the same rage I’d felt the day my father came back into my life returned and hasn’t gone away since. Life had a fucked up concept of what was fair and I had given up on trying to figure it out.
I stood on the corner where Willie was shot down, as I stared at the dried pool of blood seeped into the cement, while strangers zoomed in and out of the corner store buying their morning coffee and breakfast sandwiches. The sun beamed down onto the sidewalk despite the brisk cold December weather. Everything felt familiar. The sounds, the smells, the feeling of losing yet another important piece of my very complicated puzzle called life. I hated the overwhelming web of pain forming a knot inside me because I knew exactly what I had to do to get rid of it. Knowing I couldn’t go back to abusing alcohol and drugs to make me think less about my shitty life only made me feel worse.
Pushing up my sunglasses up the bridge of my nose, I headed towards the Lourdes Funeral Home a couple of streets down and entered the stuffy compound. The room was filled with Willie’s closest colleagues from work, and I only recognized them because I spent most of my adolescence in and out of Willie’s office while he tried time and time again to keep me from ending up back in juvenile detention centers. I greeted them with a small nod and they held no surprise to see me at his funeral. Willie never got the chance to have his own family. I kept him busy enough. Along with raising his sister, Susanna Lopez, who’d ultimately went to the same highschool as me. Our paths didn’t cross until the end of senior year, where I had to punch the lights out of her date, Richie Rodriguez during prom. I still say that fucking animal deserved what he got. I’d caught him trying to slip something into her drink and he of course denied it and continued to boast about all the things he was going to do her once she was unconscious and that was when I snapped. I kept punching him until Luey Davis, my best friend and my girlfriend Diana Rivera, had pulled me off him.
While Luey and Diana tried to convince the security guards and teachers to let me stay and not call the cops, Susanna stepped aside and took me to the bathroom to help me clean up the blood Richie had gotten on my rented tuxedo. I’d noticed her big brown eyes as she looked up at me while we talked about how stupid prom was, how her full lips tended to pout before she cursed, how easily her emotions showed in her gaze when she talked about something she loved. I had the opposite problem. I had a permanent frown on my face and I was certain up until Diana that no one else but her would ever be able to remove it. But it took Susanna less than ten minutes to mention something as ridiculous as rats fighting over a slice of pizza on the subway train tracks to make me laugh hysterically. I couldn’t blame it on time back then. My mother had been dead a year by the time I met Susanna Lopez.
I did my best to stay from her after that. I wasn’t stupid, and neither was my dick. Susie was gorgeous, and smart and had a sense of humor most guys dreamed about. But she was Willie’s sister. Untouchable wasn’t even the word to describe her. Then there was Diana, my ride or die….
“Hey bro,” Luey’s voice brought me back to reality and I cleared my thoughts long enough to answer him with a nod. I hadn’t noticed I’d been standing in front of Willie’s casket longer than I should have until Luey ushered me into an empty seat. Luey cleaned up nicely. All that drug money he collected from the junkies in the neighborhood and business partners in the other parts of the Bronx allowed him to keep his lifestyle up. I tried to convince him there was another life out there that didn’t involve dirty money and everything that came with it. Luey had a different perspective. He seemed to think he was better equipped to run the streets now that his brother was gone. He didn’t want some other hot shot trying to make a name for himself try to ruin everything he and his brother worked hard to build. And although my gut told me he was right, I’ve been to too many funerals this year alone to think he was safe now that he was in charge. We lost brothers every day in this neighborhood, yet alone the entire borough and city alone. Putting someone else in charge didn’t change the problem, it only paved the way for it to snowball into something worse. Especially if no one understood what it would take to change things around here.
“Thanks for coming,” I mentioned. Luey never went to funerals. He only helped pay for them. To see him here didn’t make things any easier but it meant alot either way. He taught me everything he knew about self-defense, street style of course. Use whatever weapon you can find around you and use it to your advantage and if you had none, your fists would have to do. But he never taught me how to fight mind-numbing pain. That, I had to learn how to do on my own.
“No problem. You look like shit man. Have you slept at all?” he asked and it was a stupid question really but a fair one. Luey cared about no one but his family and since he considered me part of it, I wasn’t surprised he was concerned.
“No. I was waiting for her to call,” I answered and Luey’s face fell. Mostly out of concern. I knew he thought I was getting my hopes up.
“I think she would want you to move on. It’s been four years,” he continued as he straightened in his seat while he picked off some lint off his suit.
“She’s locked up because of me. I can’t just move the fuck on, Luey,” I added, reminding him of why his nonchalance towards this subject bothered me. Diana had taken the fall for me the last time I ended up in jail and thanks to her, I ended up getting a shorter sentence. I hadn’t asked her to do it but she made the decision without telling me about it and it pissed me off because I sure as hell didn’t deserve that kind of loyalty. Not after what I did to her. And now she was stuck in a women’s correctional facility upstate. I visited her every chance I got. She called whenever they allowed her to. Which was why I found it odd she hadn’t called at all since before Willie died. I wanted to schedule a visit to go see her last weekend when I found out about Willie and had gotten distracted. Not only was I filled with all this anger and no outlet in which to release it into, but guilt was sprinting behind it as well.
“Whatever man. Today’s not about her.” Right. Willie. Willie was dead. God damn it. This funeral was taking too long. What the hell were we all waiting for? I knew it was the anger talking but I just wanted to go home and drink myself to sleep. I didn't drink anymore, but I think I'd make an exception today considering where I was.
Oh, wait. The only family member Willie had left had yet to arrive. The apple of his eye. The pain in his existence and mine since prom night. Fucking shit. There she was. Susanna Lopez, the walking, talking, personification of sweet Hell just walked into the funeral home with Richie Rodriguez not too far behind her.
To say confusion and rage was what I felt was the understatement of the century. I wasn’t even aware those two were still in contact.
What the fuck?
“Yeah, I knew that would piss you off,” Luey stressed beside me and I turned to glare at him sharply.
“You knew about this?” The fuck? Where was the loyalty?
“Things are chill between you two right?” Luey inquired and I swallowed hard. Of course they were. Things between Susanna and I never quite got off the ground. Metaphorically speaking of course. There had been a few close calls between us throughout the years but nothing that required therapy just yet. However, things were never that simple.
There was one questionable night five years ago that was a bit hazy to me. And since I used to get high almost daily and had often gotten wasted on the days the pain swallowed me whole, my memories drifted in and out of reality whenever something triggered anything that reminded me of that night. I was man enough to admit I didn’t want to know what really happened. I was too afraid of the answer. Too afraid of the people I might hurt with the actions that might follow.
But it didn’t take away from the fact that I still had no respect for Richie. And had no clue as to why the prison system thought it was a good idea to release him. He did everything with a hidden agenda and I had hoped Susie had learned her lesson on prom night. Apparently not.
Maybe I was getting ahead of myself. I didn’t know the whole story yet. I didn’t know if I even wanted to know the whole story. I just wanted him away from her.
“When did Richie get out of prison?” I changed the subject to something more important. Richie being out of prison wasn’t to be taken lightly either. He’d been sent there for dozens of domestic violence charges brought up against him by different women from what I’ve heard and if prison teaches a violent man anything, it’s to become an even worse one.
I sounded hypocritical. I knew that. I’ve used my hands to justify a lot of things in my life and I wasn’t proud of it. But I’ve never used them on a woman and I never will.
“A few days ago. If you need to know the rest, you’re going to have to ask them. Which I advise you not to do. Willie would say the same,” Luey warned. He was right, yet again. Willie had caught me time and time again glancing towards his alluring sister while she hung out at his office sometimes and had warned me to keep my distance. And I did. As much as I possibly could. As much as Susie’s infectious presence would allow me to anyway.
“I didn’t know you and Richie were still in business.” Luey shrugged my comment off and decided not to go into detail. He didn’t like sharing anything about his side business with me now that I was no longer part of the street life. Luey didn’t want me to know anything incriminating in case he went down and the cops went on the hunt for snitches. It was the norm in our types of neighborhoods.
“Julian, just cool it bruh. Richie’s a changed man now. He’s got a baby girl to take care of,” he added and I raised an eyebrow at the new information. I couldn’t picture that scumbag being a father. The irony of it all was just too overwhelming. So I refocused my attention to Susie, who seemed grief-stricken, and understandably so. Her hands were shaking, her breath catching as she made her way down the aisle to thank everyone for coming.
And when she finally made her way towards me, it was my turn to catch my breath. I haven’t seen her in a while, by obligation, not choice. Being around her messed with my mind in the most unnerving way, I thought it best to shy away from her.
“Julian,” she greeted, but the coldness behind her tone made me grimace. She hated me. And she had many reasons for it probably. But I wasn’t sure which one took the prize.
“Susanna, let me know if you need anything,” Luey offered when she shook his hand. She sent him a small smile and continued her way down the aisle until it was time for the service to start and she took a seat up front, Richie sitting in the row behind her.
The funeral dragged on until it was time for the people closest to Willie to say a few words on his behalf. Some of his colleagues from work had wished him well up in heaven. They all had stories about a side of Willie I didn’t get to experience myself. A side that wasn’t so held together and had it all figured out. It honestly gave me hope. Hope that if someone like Willie could change his life around after all that he’d lost, that maybe some of us could make it out here after all.
It was three in the afternoon by the time the service ended and everyone scurried about to return to their normal lives. The ones who lived outside of this city would be able to move on and think of Willie and all the good times they had. The rest of us will have to live with everything we’ve ever done and everything we’ve ever said to him every time we passed by Belmont Avenue.
I still couldn’t process the fact that he was just...gone. Bastard couldn’t wait until I was done grieving for my mother first?
“Let me get my car and I’ll give you a ride back to your place,” Luey extended and I nodded in approval as I placed my sunglasses back on and waited for his return. I moved out of this neighborhood about a year after I was released from jail and left the street life. Willie helped me find a good job at an electronics repair shop and it paid well enough for me to get my own car and I could do RideShare on the weekends. If you belonged to the middle class in New York, having two or more jobs was the only way to survive in this place without being a successful criminal. Living here was expensive, but I couldn’t imagine calling anywhere else home.
I lived in Manhattan now, close to Central Park, in a tiny studio apartment just like the one my mother and I used to live in. Only this one wasn’t in a location where cars backfiring weren't confused for gunshots. I worked myself to the bone to pay for that apartment every month and some days I had to skip dinner before I had to learn how to budget and save money, but it was worth it. Freedom was worth it.
“My brother is dead.” Susie. I turned at the sound of devastation in her quivering voice and noticed the statement had been made towards me. I looked straight at her as she approached me, contempt in her red and puffy gaze, her hands and nose turning her pale caramel skin pink from the icy breeze blowing in our direction.
I had no idea what to say. I just knew saying sorry wasn’t enough. I would know. I’d heard it enough at my mother’s funeral and counted the seconds it would take for me to snap if one more person looked at me, pity and sadness in their eyes as if they had any clue how fucking horrible it was to lose the only person in the world who could love you even when you were being an absolute terd.
“You want some pizza?” I blurted out, my uneasiness quickly taking over and I instantly sighed in relief when she didn’t punch me across the face. She managed to laugh instead. She actually laughed so hard tears began to stream down her blemish-free cheeks. I took it as a sign that she was slightly hysterical and sad and needed to be around people right now. Being alone wasn’t an option. For either of us. Even if offering pizza after attending her brother’s funeral seemed weird, I just wanted her to know I knew how much pain she was in. It pulled my thoughts into an abyss too deep for me to swim my way out of at times.
“I hate you,” Susie reaffirmed my earlier suspicion as she wiped the tears off her cheeks and stepped closer to me. Her magnetic presence made me nervous and I wished I knew why. Diana was still in the picture. She was the one. I was sure of it. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for her. And vice versa. So why was this beautiful and unattainable creature in front of me so intent on making me doubt anything I’ve ever felt for my own girlfriend?
“Mind telling me why?” I had to ask. If only for my peace of mind. Now that her brother was dead, she had no one else. No one I knew about anyway. I’d be there for her if she allowed me to be. I owed Willie that much. Anything beyond that, was a bad move. And I’ve made too many of those to last a lifetime.
“Because it’s your fault my brother is gone.” Her words hit me like a brick in the face. The shock of it made my ears ring, my pulse race, my heart pound with dread as if her words held the ultimate truth. Had it been my fault somehow? What had Willie been doing in Belmont that night anyway? He didn’t live around here. Or mentioned he had a new case who lived in the area.
I never stopped to think about it until now. The cops chalked it up as a wrong place at the wrong time type of deal but the truth was the cops around here were racially biased. Willie was still considered a minority despite the good work he did trying to keep kids like me from ending up in prison or worse. The desperate need to find out what happened to the only man who ever cared about me had officially consumed me and I had to have Susie, the only person he trusted on this planet, on my side in order to figure it out.