Before they knock down the door, I run. I’m wearing flip-flops, men’s pajama bottoms and a tank top with no bra. My sunglasses are on the top of my head. I grab my baby and tuck her under my arm like a purse. She is one of the few things I own, and unlike everything else in my possession, I’ve never lost or broken her.
I hear them enter the apartment—the front door cracks, their voices boom—but I’m gone before they catch me. Out the back window and down the alley before I know where I’m running to. Doctors always say I’m too skinny but you’ll never catch me with my hips stuck in no window—not even those small ones they put in basements—and I can still outrun almost any man, even in sandals and with a baby in my arms and a dope habit that keeps me shooting almost ten bags a day.
My baby’s three now—not a baby anymore—and if I put her down she could run along side me, but I hold her in my arms instead, to keep her close to my body, and to remind myself that I still have something to hold onto. Besides, what kind of mother lets her little girl run from the Police? I don’t know a lot of things, but I know that ain’t right. If you teach a child to run too early they think that’s the only way to move, and one day they run away from you, too.
I am always running. So quick my feet don’t seem to touch the ground. I hear the sound, though, the slap of my sandals on the pavement as I run down Manton Avenue in the rain. It sounds loud and quick like a machine gun. I am not a gun, but sometimes I feel like a bullet. Fast. Unstoppable. Deadly. I used to think I could outrun a bullet, when I was a child and I still believed in things I couldn’t see. Like the truth. Love. Forgiveness. Today I believe in only the things I can feel: hunger, pain, my beating heart.
I don’t remember most of my childhood. I got a few memories from when my mother was alive, but not as many as I should. Only one or two are clear. Others are faint and jumbled, like the parts of a long and complicated joke that ends without a punch line. Or that never ends.
I see flashes all the time. Real quick, like a movie preview. They jump into my head and jump out, quick as they came. I try to control them, but I can’t. They’re not mine. They come so often they don’t belong to me. It’s like I’m watching TV without the sound. Like I’m watching somebody else’s life. There’s a kid in most of them—me, I guess—but I don’t recognize her. I try not to look her in the eyes. There’s a man with her, or sometimes a boy, but he is always someone I know. He looks kind, but he is not kind. Sometimes he smiles at the girl, but she never smiles back. She is always trying to escape, or looking for a place to hide.
When the rain stops and darkness comes, I am still running. My baby girl is asleep in my arms, her breath a whisper on my neck. Soon she will be too much to carry. I cut through the parking lot behind Atlantic Mills, hoping to lose the cops before my legs give out. I been running my whole life—either to people or away from them—and I don’t really know where to go anymore. All these streets look the same. Whenever I think I’m lost I just tell myself to breathe and keep moving. All roads got to end somewhere.
I run up an alleyway where two guys are under the hood of an old Buick. The car looks familiar but the men don’t. The radio is playing a song in Spanish about a bird that follows a balloon all the way to the sun. The old man whistles the tune, and the younger one sings so softly I can’t tell if he even knows the words. They don’t stop to look up as I sprint past them, as if I’m so fast they can’t see me. As if I’m invisible.
On the streets I hear a lot of stories, but I’m telling this one because it’s mine, and it’s the only one I know by heart. My teacher says that storytellers use their imaginations and don’t always stick to the truth, but I don’t like when people lie all the time. So I’m planning on telling the whole truth here. Just as I see it. Just as I remember it.
My name is Cristoval Luna Perez, but everybody calls me Cristo for short. In case you don’t speak Spanish that means Christ. Sometimes it makes me feel special, but most of the time I think it’s just my name. I’m supposed to be Catholic, like most Puerto Ricans, but I don’t believe in God. I don’t really believe in anything I can’t see, which means I don’t believe in justice, promises, love without conditions, or my father.
It’s Thursday afternoon and if I was in class right now I’d be practicing my multiplication tables in a math notebook I share with two other kids. Instead, I’m sitting on an old wooden bench in the hallway outside the principal’s office. Unless they expel me, I’m in the 4th grade at the Hartford Avenue School, which used to be the pride of Olneyville, till the Spanish kids showed up and all the old teachers quit and then one day they took out all the grass and made the playground concrete, like they were trying to give the gang members a better surface to tag.
Our neighborhood is on the west side of Providence, the capital city of Rhode Island, which is the smallest state in this country. I learned all that last year, in Mr. Clauser’s class, but I’m not sure I believe it. They teach a lot of things I have trouble believing. I’m in Miss Valentín’s bilingual class, and if there is a God I won’t ever have another teacher in my life. When I tell her that she says, “God didn’t make me a good teacher, my education did.” She’s always saying stuff like that, about how school can save you from being poor, but I don’t understand how when almost all the kids here are on welfare and I have to walk by a crack house and two projects just to get here.
I should be in the 5th grade but I don’t read so good, especially in English, and I don’t always pay attention like I should. I don’t speak English that good either, but I can usually understand movies and those guys in the street who yell about women and the lottery. Teacher says I can transfer to Regular Ed. once I pass some test, but I want to stay in my class because everybody’s poor enough to get free breakfast and lunch, and during music hour we all vote for salsa. Everybody speaks Spanish, even though we come from a whole bunch of different countries, and nobody thinks they’re American.
The overhead light in the hallway is busted so I’m sitting in the half-dark. I’ve been waiting here for most of the morning, with nothing to do but listen to the secretaries talk about their diets and watch the seconds click by on an old wall clock locked up in a cage. I don’t know what that clock ever did wrong. I, on the other hand, got caught trying to flush David Delario’s allergy pills down the toilet. I would have done it too, but those old toilets can barely flush the water. I don’t know why David’s not sitting next to me on this bench, since he was the one who started it by calling me a spic and saying my girlfriend’s so poor she reuses her toilet paper. He might be twice my size but I still punched him in the head and tore off his backpack and stomped on it till I felt something break inside. You can’t talk shit about my girl and expect me to just sit there. Not gonna happen. Mami didn’t teach me a lot, but she did show me how to win a fight everybody thinks I’ll lose.
This Side of Providence on Amazon.