The house smelled like Seventh Avenue on a Saturday morning, as if all the bakeries and markets had moved into our kitchen. That was funny because it actually was Saturday morning, but I’m pretty sure the stores were all still there.
I could make out ropa vieja from Papi’s factory friends and picadillo from his patron boss. Someone had brought pasta, which I’d only seen in the window of the place where Papi played bolita. The bay leaf on the floor meant that pan was on the counter somewhere, and I ventured to guess that no fewer than six pots contained either rice or beans. Mami kept stirring and sorting all of it, saying she was as overwhelmed as the kitchen counter.
It didn’t make sense to me—bringing someone food because their father died. I knew I shouldn’t be difficult, but I didn’t even feel hungry. To escape from the food, and the people who had brought it, I snuck out to our porch.
Even in the shade of the slatted roof, the summer heat found me. But I knew it wouldn’t last long. The clouds would get heavy, soaking up every drop of water they could until they hung low in the sky. Then, by late afternoon, when they could hold no more, they would give up, uncouple their arms, and drop all the water. During the summers, I liked to guess how much each cloud weighed—ten pounds, twenty pounds—to see how much rain will fall that afternoon. Today looked like ten-pound clouds already, and it wasn’t even noon.
“Casi? Casi, have you eaten? I brought you a plate.” My tía emerged from the door with rice and beans stacked high. I took it with a slight nod. Tía was the only one in my family to give me a nickname. She knew I hated my name, but what she didn’t know was that I hated her nickname for me even more. Casi. It means “almost.”
I was almost a lot of things. I almost wasn’t born.
Mami said that I was always difficult. Difícil, she’d say. When I was born, Mami was supposedly in pain so long that the doctor had to come get me out. The idea of my mother being in pain for more than a moment still shocks me. If Papi hadn’t told me the story, too, I wouldn’t have believed it.
The doctor showed up with his gringa wife from the city, and soon I was born. “She looks just like you. What’s her name?” she asked, to fill out the birth record.
“Cazadita,” Mami replied, which means “little hunter.”
“Oh, Casita?” the gringa replied, likely repeating the only Spanish word she had ever caught on our streets. I guess I should just be grateful that my name isn’t “Gracias.” Papi heard the mistake but knew better than to correct a white woman. Mami and the doctor were too busy with “other things.” Even Cazita would have been a bit better—”little prey.” (I secretly suspect Mami had this in mind all along.) But, no. I’m Casita: “little house.”
I did my best to eat some of the food Tía had brought, but I mostly just shuffled it around on my plate. Mami would be furious if she saw me like this, playing with my food, making the family look bad, being difficult. But, when she would turn her back, Papi would catch my eye and smile ever so slightly. Today, I smiled back at no one and dumped my food over our porch rail.
As soon as my rice and beans hit the ground, a young woman came through our front door—probably one of Mami’s friends. I envied her white linen skirt, which matched the embroidery on her camisa, because I couldn’t wear anything white. I’d get it too dirty. But she wasn’t dirty. She had flowers in her hair and a bruise on her cheek. She carried an empty pot onto the porch, and I didn’t think she noticed me. One pot down, five to go. As she turned to leave, though, she glanced at me long enough to say caliente before ducking back into the house.
I didn’t need her to tell me that pots were hot. When I was six, I accidentally touched one filled with boiling water. I was trying to help Mami move it but had yet to learn why she always used rags to do so. The tip of my finger turned pale white and bubbly, and I cried louder than I should have. In a flash, Mami took an egg out of the basket, broke it in half, and shoved my finger into the clear, gooey part. “Hold that, and you’ll be fine.” And, sure enough, I was. The pain went away and the bubbly part seemed far less bubbly. I was amazed that my mother knew this trick, and that she’d been keeping it from me. Maybe she expected everything to be that easy, and maybe that was why everyone seemed so difficult to her. So I knew exactly what to do when I was climbing our grapefruit tree the next day and got a mosquito bite. The pale blotch, slightly bubbly, would be fine in no time. I cracked the egg over the bite on my ankle and waited for its healing powers to stop the itching. But before they could set in, Mami found me on the floor, covered in egg, waiting. She let out her usual loud cry of Que? Que! and snatched my hand hard. Together, our hands looked like a tumbled ball of brown yarn, coming undone. But her furious shouts shook me from that thought: “Burns. Not bites. Burns!” As she dragged me outside to wipe me down, I could hear her repeat under her heavy sighs, Difícil. Muy difícil.
The memory of the sticky egg on my ankle and my thighs being dragged across the knotted wood floor heightened my fear over being caught wasting my food. I crept alongside the yard and used my shoe to shove the dirty rice and beans between the brick columns that prop up our house. Just in case.
I was waiting dutifully back on the porch by the time Tía came back out. “Casi, finished?” I nodded, still silent. She took the plate inside and I hoped she would stay there, among the smells of Seventh Avenue. I just wanted the ten-pound clouds all to myself. But I was not so lucky. “I brought out some dominoes, if you want to play?” she said.
My eyes widened at the trespass. At the black bag she held in her hand. Those were Papi’s dominoes. All the way from Cuba. The white had been so worn they looked tan like his skin and the black notches looked like his old scars. They were wholly and utterly his. “No. Just let me have them,” I blurted out, snatching them. I was surprised that my too honest reply actually made Tia leave me alone. I felt heavy now, more than the clouds, and I wished I could shove my words under our porch, too.
The smells in the kitchen and notches on the dominoes made me close my eyes and pretend I was on Seventh Avenue again, looking for Papi. It was another Saturday morning, and Papi hadn’t come home. I woke up to Mami knocking pots and pans while shaking her head with each Muy difícil. When she finally saw me, she said, “You go get him. I’m done.” So there I went, down the street, alone. The markets were opening, and women hurried in the streets. Their white skirts and camisas swayed with their steps. Some were bedecked with flowers. Some had been bedecked with fists. As I made my way through the crowds, I felt grown—alone and on an errand—but also so small, about to be stepped on. Tía always said that bolita night was no place for children. But somehow that Saturday I was supposed to walk into a room of Papi’s factory friends, men whose hands were even more tanned and scarred than his. I knew I wasn’t wanted there.
I was right. To my surprise and despair, I found the front of the market unattended. All of the pasta were sitting obediently in their open baskets, and the dark red velvet curtain in the back surely cloaked Papi and his friends. I kept my eyes on the scuffed wood floor as I tip-toed toward it, past the pyramid of tomato sauce I once had knocked over and the butcher’s counter where Mami sometimes bought chorizo. When I made it to the curtain, I held onto it for a moment and closed my eyes. Then I managed to slide it aside just enough to peek my head in. But when I opened my eyes, the cigar smoke and smell of liquor formed a cloud so thick I couldn’t see anything, let alone Papi. I guessed the cloud must have weighed twenty pounds. “Papi, Mami wants you to come home…” I could barely get the words out before I started to choke. I could blame the coughing and stammering on the heavy cloud, but not the crying that followed.
I waited beside the obedient pasta, brushing my tears away and secretly praying that Papi had heard me. I couldn’t do that again. Thankfully, though, Papi emerged. I didn’t even look at him, for fear I’d see anger in his eyes or that he’d see tears in mine. He grabbed my hand in his, his tan hand notched like dominoes wrapped in my small ball of yarn, and we left.
We walked home in silence, more silence than had ever been between us. It must have weighed a hundred pounds. I never looked up. At home, he went straight into the bedroom and I to the porch. I wondered what he and Mami were saying. I bet she looked up at him. I bet she didn’t cry.
I wasn’t even done thinking of Mami with her furious cries of Que! when Papi came back out carrying the black bag; he wore clean clothes and his face was washed. I finally looked up. “Dominoes, hija?”
People began spilling out of the house and into the street. I hugged the porch rail and kept my eyes down because I knew Papi wasn’t among them. Mami came out at last. “Casita, come. It’s time.” I decided to take the dominoes with me to the funeral. Papi would smile at me behind Mami’s back, and I figured he could use a smile today.
The church was more crowded than on Sunday mornings, and I had to sit squished between Mami and Tía in the front pew. One by one, they talked about Papi. How hard he worked at the factory. How he’d rolled more cigars than anyone last year. How he never missed mass. How he didn’t seem sick. Mami told how he was difficult sometimes—difícil, muy difícil—but that she still cared for him anyway. How life would be hard for her now, but that she’d press on. No one told about his secret smiles or that he didn’t talk back to white women. No one told about bolita or that he loved dominoes.
Everyone crossed themselves as they passed Papi on their way out. Mami had gone first. Then Tía. I managed to sneak into a corner while the line wound back out into the street. I didn’t want to get in trouble for missing my turn, but I also didn’t want Mami to see the black bag I had hidden inside the folds of my skirt. After the last man had blessed himself, I finally moved toward Papi. The thick brown box was propped up so high on the altar that I couldn’t see inside, but I knew he was there. I, too, crossed myself and then grew as tall as I could and pushed the bag of dominoes over the box’s shiny edge. I heard them clink on the other side. I hoped Papi was smiling now.
Once outside, I ran home to escape the throngs of people who undoubtedly would return to our kitchen. The clouds’ arms seemed to be getting tired because a few drops slipped out here and there. Or maybe those were my tears. I stopped in front of our little house, starring at it head-on. Then I saw it. So clearly. My bangs hung like its wooden-arched porch—peaked in the middle, rounded to each side, and then straight down in supporting columns. My eyes, too, were glassy, like the windows on either side—sometimes open, sometimes shut. My nose was long and dark, like our thin wooden door, and my teeth stacked up like our ascending porch steps, narrow at first but then wider and wider. Maybe I really was a little house, a Casita. Maybe inside of me were all the smells and eggs and dominoes. All the memories and stories. All of the past, and perhaps, all of the future.
Cameron Hunt McNabb is currently an assistant professor of English at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL. She is also a fourth-generation Tampa native.