I CAN’T REMEMBER A TIME I hated my mother and my stepfather more than the summer before my senior year.
And it wasn’t that normal kind of Oh man, these people don’t understand me bad Disney movie kind of throwback hate. This was mortal-enemy-level hate. It was deep and pitch-black and enough to make me nearly consider getting into death metal.
While I knew I’d change my mind as the emotions scarred over, the laundry list of offenses was too much to bear.
It wasn’t enough that she took my car. Not enough that I couldn’t see my friends over the summer either—I mean, I didn’t have a lot of friends, but still. No, my mother had to choose my very last summer before senior year—the most important year of high school—to hoist an enormous piece of life-shattering news over my head; six little words annihilating all hopes of a decent summer.
“We are moving to the Bronx.”
She said it as if she were telling me about what she had for lunch. Like it wasn’t a big deal at all, just another enormous change less than eight months after the 7 lb. 4 oz. change that was sleeping in her bassinet next to me showed up. At least I was initially excited about the baby. Did I realize what else came with said baby? No. But at least before she was born, I had the gift of blissful ignorance. This was a straight baseball bat to the face.
And it wasn’t like we hadn’t moved before. We moved all the time. My stepfather Al’s job demanded we did. Since I was ten, we’d moved seven times, and I’d gone to seven different private schools. This, though? The Bronx? Before, we’d only ever moved within San Antonio. And we’d been in our current apartment for eighteen months, and I’d convinced myself that things were finally stable. I’d even made a friend in Clarissa—the only other Puerto Rican in my class. It wasn’t like anybody really cared that we were Puerto Rican. I mean, most of the time they didn’t think we were since we looked white, but it felt nice to know there was at least one other “secret” Puerto Rican like me in class.
But yet another move, and this one across the country?
“Well?” she asked with exasperated motherly expectation. From the look in her eye, that stare filled with embers, each waiting to burst to life, there was only one right answer.
Problem was, I didn’t have it for her. I mean, how was I supposed to react? Moving from San Antonio to the Bronx? It was like she wanted my life to be in constant chaos. I only had one year left in high school, and then I’d be out of her hair. A perfect time to go anywhere in the world she wanted with a fresh baby and one less mouth to feed. I mean, come on. The Bronx? Seriously? It felt like she and my stepfather got high and brainstormed ways to make me miserable. I imagined them taking a big old toke and laughing like kindergartners every time they imagined something else to throw my way.
We are moving to the Bronx.
The “we” in that equation did not include me. Before Al, I was totally a part of that “we,” but as soon as he entered our lives, everything changed. I got demoted. Al and Mom made me feel like I was lucky to be taken care of, and Al, especially, expected me to be grateful I was allowed to stay in the house. Couldn’t they have asked me if I wanted to move? Fine, they had an adult conversation, great, but couldn’t they come to me after and let me be a part of the life-changing decision? Couldn’t they show me the slightest bit of respect?
My mother used to be my best friend. That changed as soon as she fulfilled her crusade to find me a father—which I never asked for. Then she gave me a sibling, which was something else I never asked for, but I was happier to take the sister than keep the stepfather. Baby Grace was the only reason I liked living with Mom and Al. She was cute, and it felt nice to take care of her.
Mom, though—she changed. It didn’t feel like she was quite ready to raise a kid from the start all over again. She pretended she was, sure, but she’d had my grandparents to help raise me. I missed them then. They wouldn’t have let her mess with my life this way. They wouldn’t have let her take me from home right before my last year of high school to chase whatever new moneymaking scheme my stepfather had lined up, one that was going to blow up in his face because they always blew up in his face. If they were around, I’d have had a place to stay. Wouldn’t have mattered if Al, Mom, and Gracie moved to the other side of the world.
“I’m not moving there.” I said it with a little bit of a laugh and half a smile, so that I could fall back on it being a joke if she decided to whup my ass. But there was also enough attitude for her to know I was, in fact, serious. It was a delicate equation, and one I thought I’d perfected over the years, if I said so myself. “I can stay with Clarissa, or I can go with David and Belen.”
“Ay, Clarissa is barely a friend.” My mother arched an eyebrow. “And the Acostas? When was the last time we even spoke to them?”
“They’re my godparents.”
“They were your father’s friends, not mine. And they’re nowhere near your school.”
I grunted. “Whatever. I’ll get my car fixed. It doesn’t make sense to leave here so close to graduation.”
My mother stared at me blankly. “Your car?” And then she smirked. I wished she hadn’t smirked. I wished she did anything—anything—to stop me from hating her. But it felt like she was determined, somehow, to keep pushing me further away. “Y quien te hizo a pensar that was going to happen?”
“It’s my car. I pay the insurance on it, and I keep up the repairs.”
Mom pointed at me. “And you are the jodón who crashed it driving around your drunk friends. Or did you forget that?” She sneered. “And you realize that insurance premium is going to go up, don’t you? Can you pay for that?”
“I didn’t forget anything,” I said. “I’ve been applying for jobs so I can handle the extra cost of the car, by the way.” I hated talking about the damn accident. Nobody was hurt. Only damage was a dinged-up passenger-side door. Scratched, mostly. Bumper was a wash. Not that any of that mattered; all my mom cared about was that I screwed up. It was a new needle for her to drive into me every time she wanted to dominate the conversation.
“Ay, anyway, on top of all that”—she steamrolled ahead, not deigning to stop and acknowledge what I’d said—“estabas borracho también. Driving under the influence like one of your moron friends.”
“I have told you this a hundred times. I wasn’t drunk,” I said. “I didn’t even drink a whole beer. The cops even said I didn’t register on the stupid Breathalyzer.”
“Oh, I see. So, you’re just a careless driver, then? You don’t take it seriously enough when you’re driving other young people around to not nearly kill yourself and everyone in the car?” Mom was instigating, the way she always did. Questioning and questioning until we argued.
The problem was, I knew which ones to press back on. “I care a lot. Right now, I really care about you and Al dragging me and Gracie from our lives—senior year, my SATs, college applications—to move out to the frigging projects in New York.”
Mom huffed, waving a hand as if she were waving away a pest. “We’re not going to the projects, muchacho. The Bronx isn’t so bad. Besides, your father’s getting a big raise and we got family up there, so we’ll see more people.” She raised both hands in the air. “Sounds like a great deal for all of us.”
“Sounds like a great deal for my stepfather. I don’t see why I need to move now if I’m leaving next year.”
“I’m supposed to give up on free rent in New York?” Mom asked.
Of course, I fell right into her trap. If I let it go, that was her excuse to move on from the conversation as if I’d agreed to it from the start. If I fought back, I was being a brat and didn’t deserve the consideration of a voice in this massive change.
“This isn’t fair,” I said. “I deserved to be a part of the conversation before you decided to make the move.”
“Manny, if I can’t trust you to drive a car, how can I trust you to stay here all by yourself? How can I trust you to be a part of this decision?”
“The car was a mistake, Ma. And moving for college is different than moving right before senior year. That’s disruptive.”
“Mistakes or not, you’re staying with us. I’ve got the baby to deal with. I can only do so much, and Al is going to be busy with the new building, so you’re going to have to do the bare minimum to repay your mother for living rent-free for so long by helping us however you can.”
The guilt was a layered cake at that point. I wanted to fight more. Really make my case. I knew I could finesse the Acostas into letting me stay with them if I had a chance; they’d always felt bad for me after my parents divorced and my dad ran off to Oregon.
Mom shook her head, an end to the conversation, and tossed my backpack to me. She motioned to my room. “Get packing—you leave with Al on Friday in the truck. I’ll be there a couple of days later, so you two shouldn’t have killed each other by then.”
I felt like she’d hit me between the eyes with a hammer. “And you tell me hours before I have to go? How are we getting there?”
“U-Haul. I bet you’ll even get a chance to drive.” She smirked. “And it isn’t hours; Friday is still three days away.”
“Doesn’t he have people there to help him who are, like… trained to work in a building? Shouldn’t we wait until it’s ready? What about the baby? Why not hire movers?”
“Manuel Jose, that man has done a lot for you. The least you can do is help him a little before you leave for college. Grace and I are staying here for only a few more days. I need to sort out some leftover business for your grandparents since nobody will be here to do that. In the meantime, you and Al can go ahead and get things ready.” She eyed me. “We need to work together. Al’s broken his ass to make this happen for all of us.”
“Oh yeah. Al’s a tremendous help with my mental health. I’m doing awesome, thanks to him.”
“Ay, that’s right. He didn’t help pay your tuition or help pay for the stereo system you had installed in a 2004 Toyota Camry with 140,000 miles. Real monster keeping you in new clothes and letting you concentrate on your studies without bothering you once to get a job.” She motioned to my bedroom again with more gusto. “Go and get packed before I get mad, mijo.”
In her head, she’d won the argument hours before she even started it. This was her way of simply making her fantasy into reality, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.