Jane Jankie

[BIO]: Jane was born and raised in the Bronx.  She is currently a student at the University of Michigan Law School.

 

A Father

He is an animated young man, handsome with a head full of jet-black hair, sitting on the top back portion of a broken wooden bench on a hot city night. Sipping a Heineken in a small paper bag with his buddies, he makes them laugh with his Al Pacino impressions. He’s a perfect Tony Montana then Carlito in a matter of seconds. He wears a T-shirt boasting the Puerto Rican flag, cut at the sleeves and just before the stomach to show off his muscular arms and abs. He starts to leave when it gets late, checking the time with a pretty girl that passes, his friends pleading with him to stay for just a little longer.

“Nah, man. I gotta go, gotta be upstairs to say goodnight to my daughter.” He sips the last of his beer and throws the bottle on the street.  He leaves them, holding his boom box on his shoulder, playing house music – TKA’s “Diamond Girl”-  as he swaggers down the block.

In their fifth floor apartment, his daughter Lizbeth is being tucked in by her mother Sylvia, who has a face like Rita Moreno, but has gained a lot of weight over the recent years and only wears her bi-focal glasses inside the apartment. He kisses his ten-year-old girl goodnight and tells her he loves her. She was half asleep but wakes up for her father and repeats, “I love you” back to him, stretching her arms out to him for a hug.

“Joey,” Sylvia starts off sternly, glaring at him for being so late, but laughs when he grabs her in a tight embrace, forgetting that she’s supposed to be angry. She stiffens after a minute. “Stop,” she whispers. He tells her how much he missed her on his run to the store; he tells her how he ran into his friends and tried to leave, but they didn’t let him and about the ladies who passed him in the red Camaro, telling him to hop in and how he refused them and told them all about his beautiful girlfriend at home. She tries hard to, but she can’t be mad at him anymore.

*

“DID YOU HEAR ME? I know you heard me! So you better get your asses into that car so we can go home!” Sylvia commands her three small children to get into a minivan with her and her new husband.

Joey watches her from afar and walks slower so they don’t have to face each other. He’s come back to that building, looking for Lizbeth. The neighborhood hasn’t changed.  His buddies aren’t on the block anymore, but other young men, who look just like they used to, are drinking malt liquor out of paper bags and smoking blunts on the broken bench with the green paint peeling off.

Sylvia’s husband is putting groceries into the back of a minivan. She tells her husband in loud Spanish how to arrange them and to bring the carton of eggs to the front seat so she can hold them in her lap. She yells at him about being too slow. He says nothing and brings them to her. She is pointing this direction and that, instructing him where she wants be driven to next. She’s had her hair straightened and has lost most of the weight she always said she planned to lose.  They drive away. Joey realizes that he doesn’t even really know where she lives now. just that it is somewhere in the vast, unfamiliar world of “Upstate.”  He hasn’t seen her since Lizbeth’s Holy Confirmation five years ago.

Lizbeth is twenty now. She’s in college, works full-time as a dental assistant and lives with her boyfriend. Joey is eager to see her – it’s been almost three years and today is her birthday. He comes uninvited. He imagines that her mother and other family members have already come to visit her and cut a cake for her, but they would never tell him about that. He understands this. He walks slowly up to the vestibule but the lock on the door has finally been fixed and he can’t get in. He pulls at it two times, once hard and once weakly. Then he sits down on the stoop to wait.

He left Sylvia for her best friend when Lizbeth was thirteen. Joey moved in with “Hoochie,” (as neighbors called her), who lived just downstairs from Sylvia and Lizbeth. Other men in the building would smile when they saw him, nodding slightly to him, giving him credit. He was the man then. Joey shudders when he remembers the nights Sylvia would come knocking Hoochie’s door down. She would shout at the top of her lungs, letting the whole building know they they were dogs and that it wasn’t over just yet.  Joey would ignore her, and demanded Hoochie do the same.

He loved Sylvia, he didn’t really know what he was doing then. It didn’t matter anymore, he reminded himself, picking up a pebble from the sidewalk next to the stoop and seeing how far he could throw it. He remembers how Lizbeth stood beside her raging mother on those nights, quiet. When he tried to visit Lizbeth in those days, she never refused but said few words to him when they were together and often looked at him blankly, even when their visits lasted for hours. Remembering this, he smiled to himself; no one could get to him like his daughter. He apologized many times. She always shrugged.

Tired of the fights, complaining and guilt, Joey eventually left Hoochie, then moved back in with his mother to Edenwald projects, where he’d lived as a child, on the other side of the Bronx.  He’d never worked. He still receives Supplementary Social Income checks from the government that he manages to get by on. Joey always had someone to help him, someone always loved him enough to take him in, or take him back. It was different for him now. He was alone after his mother’s death last year. He joked with Lizbeth about his upcoming eviction the last time he saw her.

“My moms, your abuela, never trusted me enough to put me on the lease, now they keep sendin’ the rent checks right back to me. So one day, my daughter’s gonna pass me, in my cardboard box in the street, with her friends and say, ‘Oh, here’s my father. Guys meet my father.’” He laughs at this, though it makes Lizbeth cry.  He waits on the stoop for hours and learns from one of her friends in the building that Lizbeth is at work.

“Can you do me a favor, sweetie?” Joey asks the friend. He hands her two envelopes with cards in them; he couldn’t decide which one he liked better for Lizbeth’s birthday. “Please give these to my daughter.”

*

On the twelfth floor of one of the looming buildings in the back of his projects, Joey is thrilled to see Lizbeth after the lapse in their relationship.  She debated going. “I can’t see him by myself.  It’s too weird,” she’d say, followed by, “Or I could just not go. I don’t have to even go, anyway.”  He hugs his only daughter tightly to his small, very thin frame, pressing her face against his with his bony fingers. His hair is still jet black at forty-four years old, but his moustache is graying and his gaunt face is wrinkled.

“You’re here!” he exclaims. He hugs her, with frail arms, and holds her face, kissing her on both her cheeks over and over again. His eyes look sunken and droopy. Lizbeth’s throat chokes up and her eyes well with tears; he has withered a long way from the man she remembers, the one that picked her up from school wearing short shorts in the summer, threatening any boys who looked her way with a “knuckle sandwich.” She smiles, and lets him kiss her. She has heard rumors about his addictions, but only understands now by seeing him.

He tells Lizbeth he hasn’t seen her in two years and seven months, and she doesn’t believe that it’s been quite that long. He tells her he has proof, “I wrote it down, Lizbeth. In my almanac, in my calendar. In my almanac and my calendar!” he cries loudly, slapping her leg. He asks her why and reminds her he lives just thirty minutes from her on the 28 bus. She looks away, out the window at the rest of the city, as if she is waiting to see something new and won’t look away until she does. He laughs, sighs, and throws his hands up as if they should forget about it, and it’s all okay.

“I’m proud of you, daughter,” he tells her, looking into her eyes closely. “And I want you to know that I’m not in the street no more, not with the drugs and everythin’. I’m through. I go from point A to point B. I don’t play around,” he shows her the bedroom of the clean, sparsely furnished apartment that boasts many school pictures of Lizbeth. There is only a television and a bed inside it. “I do groceries, make my food, eat ,and then I come right here. That’s it. That’s it for me now.”

Lizbeth says nothing, just takes a deep breath and nods slowly at her father as if to say there is nothing she can do.  He does not expect more.  At the end of her visit, he puts on his jacket to walk her out. It is a shiny team jacket that has an emblem of a globe on the front, over the heart that says, “Just Becuz.”

Lizbeth looks at it for awhile and asks, annoyed, “Just because? Because what?”

“Just becuz, girl. You know my style!” He walks in front of her for a moment with a confident strut, and Lizbeth’s solemn faces changes for a second as she has to laugh.

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