by Jaquira Díaz
At parties and family gatherings, after nearly everyone has collapsed from too much drinking, eating, or dancing, my father and I play chess. We sit around on the patio furniture drinking Presidentes. Me, taking way too long to make a move, and Papi, telling my drunken friends stories of what I like to call “my other life.” Stories about the time I jumped in Biscayne Bay after drinking too much wine (I was thirteen), or the day I got arrested for assaulting a police officer (he started it). Sometimes he’ll get dramatic and talk about the day I had my stomach pumped, how he walked into the emergency room as I was vomiting, my mouth black with charcoal. Of how he found out I was a military deserter only after the military police knocked on his door and told him I was AWOL. How I was always getting arrested. Always running.
When we’re both fourteen, my girl Boogie and I take the bus to Hialeah to visit Hector, who’s been on house-arrest for three months. When we get there, he lets us take his car so we can run to the corner store for some Newports and Philly blunts. The owner, a short Pakistani we always call Papi (although he looks nothing like my father) tells us we better bring ID next time, or he can’t sell to us anymore.
“They’re not for me, Papi,” I say. “They’re for my mom.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he says. “Tell your boyfriend to come pay his tab or I’ll go looking for him.”
When we leave the corner store, I notice that Boogie has stuffed a small bottle of Cisco into each pocket of her baggy-ass jeans. “Damn,” I say. “Keep drinking that bum-juice, you’ll get a fucking hole in your stomach.”
Back at Hector’s, two bottles of Cisco and several blunts later, Boogie and I decide to get tattoos. “Put it on my ankle,” I tell Hector. And he does. His homemade tattoo machine buzzes (it’s an odd thing, with a motor and two pencils duct-taped on either side of the makeshift needle tube) and I swear it intensifies the pain, because Hector made it, and Hector likes to see you squirm. While Boogie is knocked out on the couch, snoring like a freight train, I try to keep my leg absolutely still, which is next to impossible considering all the weed we just smoked. “Roll another one,” I say, so we can take a break. He stops, looks at me, laughs.
“Bendito, nena, it doesn’t hurt that much,” he says. He hands me the quart of Olde E he’s been sipping from, and I chug from it, then pass it back to him. As the needles puncture my skin, I look from Boogie, who has tattoos on both ankles, to Hector, who’s covered in them and shaves his head to show off the dragon on his skull. I can be stronger, I tell myself. I sit still, letting the pain linger. Just breathe.
“How old were you when you got your first one?” I ask him. He doesn’t respond, and I realize he’s growing annoyed at me. Although Hector acts like a kid, he’s well into his thirties. He’s one of those guys—every ghetto has one. That guy who acts like a kid, giving all the local juvenile delinquents a place to burn their stash, providing us with an endless supply of beer, Newports, and the occasional roll or bump of coke.
Around the chaotically furnished studio, every picture is of his daughter. Vanessa. She died of meningitis when she was two, he told me one day. Never even met her. He was doing time in Stockade her entire life. He has two tears tattooed just beneath his right eye, one for each year of her life that he missed, and over his heart, her name in Olde English letters.
“Oh shit,” he says. “How do you spell your name again?” He laughs.
I flinch in pain, and also at the thought that he just tattooed some other version of Jaqui on my ankle.
“I’m telling you,” he says, “if you keep moving, it’s gonna look like shit.” But it already looks like shit. My ankle says JACKI. He misspelled my name.
Later that afternoon, standing around the Hialeah train station, Boogie and I smoke Newports, share another quart of Old E, and talk about our next tattoos, when a gold Monte Carlo pulls up in front of us, and rolls down the window. The car is packed full of people, and Hialeah girls always catch beef when we come around their neighborhood. They don’t say shit, just stare. But to me, and to loud-mouthed coked-up Boogie, this is clearly an invitation to fight. I flick my cigarette at the car, cross my arms across my chest, and grill them, smile at them with disrespect. One of the girls sticks her head out of the window.
“Watcha claim, girl?” she asks. She wants to know what neighborhood I live in before I get jumped.
I take off my hoop earrings and stuff them in my back pocket, and even though I know what will happen, even though I’ve been on the other end of a caserío beat-down enough times to know who walks away and who gets carried away, I still say, “I claim these nuts, bitch.”
You remember that first game of chess you played with your father. You sit across from him at the table, thinking, Who does this old man think he’s playing with? He enjoys that stunned look on your face as he captures your last knight and lectures you on who knows what. You think you’re playing. He thinks he’s teaching. You’re determined to do the opposite of everything your father says. He’s determined to stop you in your tracks. This is what passes for I love you these days.
You learn that day that you will always remember your one bad move. That moment when you could’ve made one choice, but made another. And suddenly, when you’re fourteen, your game begins to crumble.
I don’t remember when I drop my bottle of Olde E, or when the same bottle comes crashing down against my skull, glass blasting like buckshot, or Boogie fighting girls off me when she realizes I’m down, taking a kick to the face from the driver, who she said was a moreno and looked like he was pumped full of fucking steroids. Don’t remember when the Monte Carlo drives away, the driver yelling out the window that he’s gonna bust a cap in both our asses, or when the ambulance arrives, and then the cops. But I do remember that I sit on the curb and one of the paramedics asks questions.
“What’s your name?” he asks, Boogie hollering in the background about glass in her eye.
“What?” I ask.
“What’s your name?” He has my wrist in his hand, taking my pulse.
“Jaqui,” I say, but he doesn’t seem to hear me. I touch the back of my head and look at my bloody hand. People in uniforms walk back and forth, asking me how old I am and if I know my phone number, my parents’ number.
“What happened?” someone asks, and then, “Do you know her phone number?” I try to touch my head again, but someone pulls my hand away.
We got jumped, I hear Boogie say.
“Look at me,” another uniform says, “look at me. Are you in a gang?”
My ankle. I try to tell him about the pain in my ankle, but he keeps asking my name. Hands on my head. More pain. I’m on a stretcher.
“Look at me. Is that a gang tattoo?”
I’m on a stretcher.
My father will never tell the story of what happened when he got to the hospital that day. How one of the cops, a friend of his, recommended that he give me up to the state. “Think of your other kids,” he said. “She’s going to kill you.”
He will never mention it. And I’ll never mention that I heard the conversation while pretending to sleep. How even though I never saw them, I heard the tears in my father’s silence. And although I promised myself that I would change, a week later I was back on the streets. Living my other life.
Years later, I covered the tattoo with roses. It means that when you see the person I am, I no longer have to explain the person I was. I heard someone say once that in prison, a rose tattoo means that you spent a birthday behind bars. But I realize that for all those years I was living my other life, all those times I was arrested, or running, all the nights spent in juvie or in the brig, it was always my father who was doing time.
Jaquira Díaz was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Miami. Her short stories were awarded an AWP Intro Journals Award and runner up in Playboy’s College Fiction Contest, and her creative nonfiction received an honorable mention in The Atlantic’s 2010 Student Writing Contest. Her work has appeared in The Southern Review, Los Angeles Review, Southeast Review, and elsewhere. She is co-producer of Life Out Loud, a reading series that brings poetry and memoir to a live audience. Stalk her at the ugly truth: http://jaquira.blogspot.com/.