Sunday Scribblings: In the Kitchen (a fragment of a fiction)
The pic so nice, I am using it twice! From pbs.org
(Ed. Note: I have a hard time writing about what Sunday Scribblings means to me without growing a little misty. Right around the time Laini and Megg started it, I had just written about my fear that I would never really be able to write fiction. I just didn’t seem to have the motivation. I told myself that it was fine to write whatever came, but in my heart of hearts, I longed to write fiction. And from the very first, something about Sunday Scribblings called forth voices; cocky, unsure, romantic, cynical, inspired, morbid. And I’m so grateful I had a chance to be a part of this, to hear those voices and try to be true to them and to read so much good writing. So, THANK YOU, Megg and Laini and happy first birthday to Sunday Scribblings! You don’t know the joy you helped bring into my life.)
People expect a lot of you when you are named after a flower. At least, that's always been my experience. My mother says she named me Jasmina and my baby sister Rosa because she missed her verdant walled garden in Old San Juan, the house where she had grown up, peacefully lived with her parents and the extended clan, and then lived until she had married my father. After years of living in the same town as Mami’s family, Papi wanted to strike out and make his own money, in the land of milk and money. Much later in my life, I would sit in dorm rooms plastered with pictures of Castro, Chairman Mao, and especially Che Guevera, and wish that my parents had had a more romantic reason for leaving Puerto Rico. A revolution, perhaps. Or tortured love that could not be in the provincial little town of…Old San Juan? See, even in my fervent imagination, that just doesn’t work. Their story, and I supposed by extension, my story, is your standard lusting after the American Dream. One could even argue that as Puerto Ricans, we are better equipped than most to realize our dreams. Of course, one could also argue that when we fail, it’s just more noticeable. But who ever thinks they are going to fail? And when do you notice you have, anyway?
Abuelo's family had been pretty prominent in local politics, so the police, other politicians, and supplicants often made routine calls on the house. Mami and her sisters would hide upstairs near the curved stairwell. I can see them clearly, always wearing white, as befitted girls who had not yet been introduced into society. Mami would have taken the lead, keeping her face strained dangerously between the carved lattices, where anyone looking up might have seen her. The voices would float up, always carefully modulated and rational, the policemen's voices a tad gruff, betraying their lack of refinement. Meanwhile, my abuelo's voice was always pleasant, perfectly serene, even as the servants gathered in the kitchen, hurriedly hiding anything that could be considered illegal, which could be anything in that kind of climate. But Mami chose not to dwell on those days, allowing Rosa and I to imagine the details in glorious lujo de detaile ourselves. The fairytale of my mother's life before she met my father, before she met my father, before the magic that had weaved into her life had been replaced by prosaic hard necessity.
This is the fantasy of the life I grew up with, of wrap around verandas and white houses perched on the tops of hills, and soil so lush that flowers sprouted crazily from between cracks in the cement of the sidewalks. Rosa and I would whisper the story to each other in the night, reminding ourselves that we were not like those other Latinos. The ones who lounged about in front of the bodegas in the middle of the day, sitting there, staring out while their children ran all over the street, spitting on the sidewalk. The ones gathered at the post office every two weeks, waiting for welfare checks that seemed to disappear right into the crowd, small white envelopes being palmed into backpacks, shoved into pockets or bras. No, Papi had a good if not spectacular job, and we were here to take advantage of all of the gifts America had to offer, especially to Puerto Ricans like ourselves, residency, opportunity. Mami would point out the others, and use them like a cautionary tale. “Mira eso,” she would hiss. “Remember that the way people see you is the way they judge you, and you have to work extra hard to make sure they don’t look at you and see this chusma.”
But for the most part, Mami wanted to lead us by example, to show us the distinct difference between our station in life and that of others. So she would go on for hours about the beauty of the time spent in her garden, singing as she weeded and hoed and sharing secrets with the hunky gardeners that came there to work, and spy on the beautiful Mirella Cardenas and her two sisters. Rosa and I would always sit spellbound and jealous at these stories, the beautiful princess (for Mami was beautiful, make no mistake about that, with her long light brown hair that she kept flowing over one eye, Veronica Lake style, and her laughing brown eyes the shape of almonds) sitting in the garden, laughing with her workers (because of course the beautiful maiden was no snob) and waiting for her one true prince to come. Rosa and I would always look up at Papi expectantly, waiting for him to morph before our eyes from stocky Daddy who dozed in front of the TV during Magnum P.I. into a gallant prince, ready to rescue Mami from a fire breathing dragon, or at least from her occasionally tyrannical parents. But there he would stay, in his chair, chuckling softly and shaking his head at the stories of Mami's exploits, her powers over men, her kindness to the poor. Then another article in the newspaper would catch his eye and he would grow quiet and absorbed once again. But we knew that Mami’s magic was the truth, and Papi had merely been drowned in the boredom of our own newly small lives.
On the rare occasion that Papi would be inspired to reflect on our names, he would say simply that Jasmina was the name of his favorite Nanny and Rosa was the name of the first girl he had ever kissed. Mami would always scowl at these memories, which might be a reason why he didn't share them more often. I would have thought that Papi's fondness for the first woman he had ever kissed would have been the real problem, but no, it was my name. As usual, I was the problem.
“La Nanny, Pedro? She's going to think she's not worth any more than that!” Turning to me, she would add, “We have big plans for you, mi'jita...we know how smart you are, and how much you will accomplish here...America is the land of opportunity, mi amor...as long as you are willing to work.” She was willing to work, that was the suggestion here, as she stood in the kitchen, chopping the onions and mincing the garlic for the sofrito for dinner. Her hands covered to the wrist in onion juice and the bits of garlic skin, she would flip the steaks over and check on the rice, all the while keeping one eye on me and one eye on the Mexican novella on the little TV that Papi had bought her for one of their anniversaries. Meanwhile, Papi would sit in the living room, laughing over Barney Miller and waiting for dinner. “You are such a smart girl, the world is open to you. You'll go to college, you'll study hard, and maybe, quien sabe, you could be president someday!”
“When we moved to this country, it was like we were planting a garden with our kids. So our first baby, we want her to be sweet, like Jasmine, so we named you Jasmina. Our second baby, we want her to be like a rosebud, so we named her Rosa.”
Rosa would look up from where she was doing her homework at the worn table in the kitchen, oblivious to the histrionics on the television and her mother's prophecies. “I thought you named me Rosa after Vis-Abuela Rosa? And, Mami, Jassi can't be president. She wasn't born here. In class, we learned that someone has to be a native born American citizen to be elected.”
Mami would narrow her eyes. She hated being interrupted, especially when she was in the process of one of her grand pronouncements about our future.
“Well, I would say you, sweetheart, but you have to bring up that Math score, first, don't you?”
Rosa would blush and apply herself more diligently to her task, no doubt vowing to name one of her Barbies after me and drown it a few times in the tub for good measure. My little sister was not a very good student, but she was sweet and hard working. Noble, even. It makes sense that she ended up as a nurse...her instinct was to pacify, to aid, to cure. At least our familial outbursts had a positive effect in her life.
Then, Papi would come into the kitchen, taking a fried plantain off of the plate where Mami had just put them for dinner. Our house was so small, he had followed the whole conversation from his comfortable seat in the living room. Either the smell of the freshly cooked food was finally calling him to the kitchen, or he would enter the fray with a desire to protect his daughters. Usually, it was the former.
“There's nothing wrong with being named after Jasmina, Mirella. La señora was like a second mother to me. Yo la quisa como mi mama.”
“But she was not your mother, Pedro...Jasmina will be nobody's servant...not stuck raising a man's child, a family's child, without any help.”
Watching my parents volley my name between them only made me more determined to be someone special. They were right, of course. We were all meant for great things. After all, that's why Papi had slayed the dragon and brought Mami to America to start her own garden again. Sure, the garden would be a small patch of dirt that hung precariously on the edge of our apartment window, but it was a start.
Unfortunately for Rosa and I, we knew there were some things they agreed on. Daughters should be sweet (like your names, hijas) and kind and quiet and should live for their parents. They should NOT be tomboys, playing “Manhunt” with the older boys on the playground (those ruffians, as per Mami) until the street lights buzzed on. Daughters should be a credit to their parents in everything, learning the arts of femininity and running a household from their mothers and learning how to make a man the center of their world from their fathers. Rosa and I tried to be apt pupils, but the world was so much wider and more interesting than the small one bedroom in which my parents tried to channel Puerto Rico. And, well, we didn't always want to be the sweet smelling flowers of our parents' pride and a credit to all of Puerto Rico (yes, I am quoting now). Sometimes we just wanted to be American girls, laughing with our friends as we ordered hamburgers and French fries at McDonald's on Bergenline Avenue, watching the high school girls stroll by in their stilettos with a mixture of envy and fear. Making sure that Barbie understood exactly what would happen to her standing at school if she went all the way with Ken. Come to think of it, I wish someone had explained that to me a long time ago.
Yes, when you are named after a flower, people expect things. And they’re always disappointed when you don’t live up to what they want you to be. Everyone knows what flowers should be like, after all…sweet smelling, offering themselves to anyone with a nose.
But some flowers have thorns, or at the very least, allergens. I like to think I am one of those flowers instead.
OK, so I cheated…these are the first four pages of my first, unfinished (as of yet) manuscript. It popped into my head as soon as I read the prompt because I remember feeling very engaged after writing this kitchen scene.
In many ways, this manuscript is a kitchen for me—a container, a place for me to make messes, inelegant, experimental. A place full of parts (like the one above) that I am still working on uniting into a harmonious (and delicious) whole.
These characters continue to haunt me, moreso than the characters I am working on in my current MS (perhaps because the new MS is more ambitious, and I am frankly terrified at writing with Big Themes).
I do a lot of my writing in the kitchen; I spend most of my time there, coaxing my little Madam to eat “just one more bite.” When I get the chance, I write a few lines, scribble a persistent image.
My writing, like my kitchen, is where something is made, and that something feeds me, and that something becomes me.
For more cooking in the kitchen, go here.
Labels: sunday scribblings