I was born to a line of housewives obsessed with living more dramatically, devoted mothers immersed in Mexican telenovelas, hour-long afternoon marathons with the same basic plot: handsome Latin Boy falls for pretty Latin Girl, jealous ex-lovers scheme to break their love apart, conniving aunts, pregnant brides, shady rich step-fathers hogging camera time, farmhands always shirtless, chiseled chests magnets to shiny sweat, to my mother’s concentrated eyes aroused by thoughts of haystack sex. To sit and watch her sit and watch another episode was an episode in and of itself, the rising action of her pudgy body rising to adjust the foil-wrapped antenna, smack the hiccup static out the box, baby-daddy drama left hanging with her heart, quickly sweeping between commercial breaks, sudden orchestra, clichéd surprise: ¡Julio, tu eres el papá! Mother yelling to lift my shoes up off the couch, mimicking the mothers who controlled the show, women she imagined herself to be. I imagined her inner-monologue saying she wanted out, courage to break the spell cooking rice and beans, tortilla flipping rhythm on the stove, dinner for a husband who reeked of wet cement, firm machismo he’d bring home. I could see her taking mental notes on how to fake a death, on the latest ways to use mascara, comb her frizzy hair, hold back the waterworks when Boy was losing Girl, when her novelas were about to end. And she’d turn to me as if I were the boy cast solely for his smile, to provide cute comic relief, comments so innocently profound they’d linger beyond the screen, beyond the kitchen table where she’d help me master English with her broken English, reading story after story like reading lines off a script, rehearsing scenes where the mother sighs, hugs her son, accepts a role she knows she has to play.
Everyone has their Zen, my father’s is a philosophy of Popular Mechanics, How-To projects, sheets of quickly drawn blueprints, plywood, wrenches, screwdrivers and claw hammers piled next to an afternoon of sawdust and sweat. It’s hobby blurring the borders on sanity, obsession, hours spent remodeling a home that isn’t broken: mahogany countertops around the kitchen, another front door with reinforced deadbolts, a backyard deck he keeps extending, as if what he already built wasn’t large enough from Ma and me, wasn’t what his own father would have expected. When Grandpa died, he quit talking about the slums of Mexico City, a childhood raised on low wages and landfills, sheets of corrugated metal he’d collect after school, use to patch the naked corners of their roof; to relieve the absence of heat, electricity, the reality of sewage water, late-night gun shots, dumpster bodies, palms that reeked of all the recycled garbage he ever touched. He’s amnesic to his past because mojado still means wetback in Midwest suburbia, because his skin is still tanned with a language he can’t erase, a last name with r’s too stubborn to roll off my tongue, half an identity I barely speak. You’re hands weren’t made for this kind of work, son, so when I hear the jigsaw sing from the garage, I bring him a glass of water instead, watch him shape and reshape the legs of our dining room table, the arms of chairs we never sit on. His middle-aged body bent and stiff, grinding away memories like the cartilage in his fingers, sanding every jagged edge till he’s forced to retire for the night, abandon his toolbox, workbench, come inside and play family man again; unwinding his limbs between mine and Ma’s on the couch, nodding off on moments that can’t be cut or measured.
ESTEBAN RODRIGUEZ is currently a second year MFA student at the University of Texas Pan-American. He works as an elementary reading and writing tutor in the Rio Grande Valley. His poems are forthcoming in Thin Air and Basalt. He lives in Weslaco, Texas.