Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

The Pain of Reading

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

The Pain of Reading

Article excerpt

Growing up in Puerto Rico with no permanent home, one day I discovered the wonder of reading. But my joy was cut short.

The fights between my parents were frequent, and my three siblings and I were used to their separations. Papi would gather his things or Mami would throw them into the street, cursing the day she met him.

But this time we were the ones who left. Papi had gotten involved with the woman next door, and for Mami this was the last straw. She swore never to go back with him. And she didn't.

We moved into my grandparents' house in Guayama and from there, in quick succession, to my aunt's, my godmother's, my sister's godmother's, my neighbors' and, on occasion, even strangers'.

We lived like nomads, pushing on whenever our hosts' hospitality had run dry. We hated living in those houses. Mami had become a tyrant: we couldn't talk at night, not even in a whisper, and if anyone offered us an extra helping of food we had to say no. If we did something bad, she'd lock us in the bathroom and beat us in a blind rage -- and we had no right to cry.

Mami had always been a little melodramatic. When we were little she would call us over to her bed and tell us she had only a few minutes more to live. Her hands would drop to her sides, like those of dying women in the movies, and she'd pretend to be dead. We'd shake her, press our ears against her heart, and she'd open her eyes laughing her head off and ask if we had believed her. Relieved, we would exchange our tears for laughter, hugging her, happy that she hadn't died.

Eventually, people got tired of giving lodging to four kids and a woman who was separated from her husband.

One day, we had nowhere to go. So Mami left the three of us older kids in a ballpark where nobody ever played and took our youngest brother with her to see if she could find someone to take us in. The hours passed and we were scared and hungry; finally she appeared and waved us over. She led us to the back room of a furniture store where we were supposed to pick out boxes to sleep in that night, in the park.

This seemed like fun, like camping out, and we laughed with excitement -- but very quietly so that Mami wouldn't hear us. I found a washing machine box in perfect condition and felt happy to have a room of my own. We took the boxes back to the park and pretended to make a living room.

But in the end, we didn't have to sleep there. When the news reached our uncle that we were in the park, he went looking for us to take us home with him.

My uncle was young and had just married a lively young woman who always smiled. They lived in Arroyo, in a house by the sea. I loved two things in particular about the town: going to the theater to see the posters of the movies they were playing and tiptoeing among the rocks that formed a breakwater down by the small dock. …

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