The family is hostile to the individual. This is what I'm thinking as Lou Reed says he has enough attitude to kill every person in New Jersey. I'm at a club in the Village with my boyfriend, Max. I figure I have enough attitude to kill a few people myself, only it never works on the right ones.
"I'm from Brooklyn, man!" Lou shouts and the crowd goes wild. I don't cheer, though. I wouldn't cheer either if Lou said, "Let's hear it for Cuba." Cuba. Planet Cuba. Where the hell is that?
Max's real name is Octavio Schneider. He sings and plays bass and harmonica for the Manichaean Blues Band, a group he started back in San Antonio, where he's from. They do Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and lots of their own songs, mostly hard rock. Sometimes they do back-up for this crazy bluesman, the Reverend Billy Hines, who keeps his eyes shut when he sings. Max says that the reverend was a storefront preacher who played the Panhandle years ago and is attempting a comeback. Max himself had a modest hit in Texas with "Moonlight on Emma," a song about an ex-girlfriend who dumped him and moved to Hollywood.
I met Max at a downtown basement club a few months ago. He came over and started speaking to me in Spanish (his mother is Mexican) as if he'd known me for years. I liked him right away. When I brought him around to meet my parents, Mom took one look at his beaded headband and the braid down his back and said, "Sácalo de aquí." When I told her that Max spoke Spanish, she simply repeated what she said in English: "Take him away."
Dad was cool, though. "What does your band's name mean?" he asked Max.
The Manichaeans, see, were followers of the Persian guy who lived in the third century. They believed that hedonism was the only way to get rid of their sins."
"Yeah, the Manichaeans liked to party. They had orgies and drank a lot. They got wiped out by other Christians, though."
"Too bad," my father said sympathetically.
Later, Dad looked up the Manichaeans in the encyclopedia and discovered that, contrary to what Max claimed, the Manichaeans believed that the world and all matter were created by nefarious forces, and that the only way to battle them was through asceticism and a pure life. When I told Max about this, he just shrugged and said, "What, I guess that's okay, too." Max is a tolerant kind of guy.
I just love the way Lou Reed's concerts feel--expectant, uncertain. You never know what he's going to do next. Lou has about twenty-five personalities. I like him because he sings about people no one else sings about--drug addicts, transvestites, the down-and-out. Lou jokes about his alter egos discussing problems at night. I feel like a new me sprouts and dies every day.
I play Lou and Iggy Pop and this new band the Ramones whenever I paint. I love their energy, their violence, their incredible grinding guitars. It's like an artistic form of assault. I try to translate what I hear into colors and volumes and lines that confront people, that say, "Hey, we're here too and what we think matters!" or more often just "Fuck you!" Max is not as crazy about the Ramones as I am. I think he's more of a traditionalist. Not me. If I don't like someone, I show it. It's the one thing I have in common with my mother.
Neither of my parents is very musical. Their entire record collection consists of Perry Como's Greatest Hits, two Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass albums, and Alvin and the Chipmunks Sing Their Favorite Christmas Carols, which they bought for me when I was a kid. Recently, Mom picked up a Jim Nabors album of patriotic songs in honor of the bicentennial. I mean, after Vietnam and Watergate, who the hell wants to hear "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"?
I used to like the Fourth of July okay because of the fireworks. I'd go down by the East River and watch them flare up from the tugboats. The girandoles looked like fiery lace in the sky. But this bicentennial crap is making me crazy. Mom has talked about thing else for months. She bought a second bakery and plans to sell tricolor cupcakes and Uncle Sam marzipan. Apple pies, too. She's convinced she can fight Communism from behind her bakery counter.
Last year she joined the local auxiliary police out of some misplaced sense of civic duty. My mother--all four feet eleven and a half inches and 217 pounds of her--patrols the streets of Brooklyn at night in a skintight uniform, clanging with enough antiriot gear to quash another Attica. She practices twirling her nightstick in front of the mirror, then smacks it against her palm, steadily, menacingly, like she's seen cops do on television. Mom's upset because the police department won't issue her a gun. Right. She gets a gun and I move out of state fast.
There's other stuff happening with her. For starters, she's been talking with Abuelo Jorge since he died. He gives her business advice and tells her who's stealing from her at the bakery. Mom says that Abuelo spies on me and reports back to her. Like what is this? The ghost patrol? Mom is afraid that I'm having sex with Max (which I'm not) and this is her way of trying to keep me in line.
Max likes Mom, though. He says she suffers from an "imperious disposition."
"You mean she's a frustrated tyrant?" I ask him.
"More like a bitch goddess," he explains.
Max's parents split up before he was born and his mother cleans motel rooms for minimum wage. I guess Mom must seem exotic by comparison.
But she's really not. Mom makes food only people in Ohio eat, like Jell-O molds with miniature marshmallows and recipes she clips from Family Circle. And she barbecues anything she can get her hands on. Then we sit around behind the warehouse and stare at each other with nothing to say. Like this is it? We're living the American dream?
The worst is the parades. Mom gets up early and drags us out on Thanksgiving Day loaded with plastic foam coolers, like we're going to starve right there on Fifth Avenue. On New Year's Day, she sits in front of the television and comments on every single float in the Rose Parade. I think she dreams of sponsoring one herself someday. Like maybe a huge burning effigy of El Líder.
Max flatters me but not in a sleazy way. He says he loves my height (I'm five feet eight inches) and my hair (black, down to my waist) and the whiteness of my skin. His mouth is a little sauna, hot and wet. When we slow-dance, he presses himself against me and I feel his hardness against my thighs. He says I would make a good bass player.
Max knows about Abuela Celia in Cuba, about how she used to talk to me late at night and how we've lost touch over the years. Max wants to go to Cuba and track her down, but I tell him what happened four years ago, when I ran away to Florida and my plans to see my grandmother collapsed. I wonder what Abuela Celia is doing right this minute.
Most days Cuba is kind of dead to me. But every once in a while a wave of longing will hit me and it's all I can do not to hijack a plane to Havana or something. I resent the hell out of the politicians and the generals who force events on us that structure our lives, that dictate the memories we'll have when we're old. Every day Cuba fades a little more inside me, my grandmother fades a little more inside me. And there's only my imagination where our history should be.
It doesn't help that Mom refuses to talk about Abuela Celia. She gets annoyed every time I ask her and she shuts me up quickly, like I'm prying into top secret information. Dad is more open, but he can't tell me what I really want to know, like why Mom hardly speaks to Abuela or why she still keeps her riding crops from Cuba. Most of the time, he's too busy refereeing the fights between us, or else he's just in his own orbit.
Dad feels kind of lost here in Brooklyn. I think he stays in his workshop most of the day because he'd get too depressed or crazy otherwise. Sometimes I think we should have moved to a ranch in Wyoming or Montana. He would have been happy there with his horses and his cows, his land, and a big empty sky overhead. Dad only looks alive when he talks about the past, about Cuba. But we don't discuss that much either lately. Things haven't been the same since I saw him with that blond bombshell. I never said anything to him, but it's like a cut on my tongue that never healed.
* * *
Mom has decided she wants me to paint a mural for her second Yankee Doodle Bakery.
"I want a big painting like the Mexicans do, but pro-American," she specifies.
"You want to commission me to paint something for you?"
"Sí, Pilar. You're a painter, no? So paint!"
"You've got to be kidding."
"Painting is painting, no?"
"Look, Mom, I don't think you understand. I don't do bakeries."
"You're embarrassed? My bakery is not good enough for you?"
"It's not that."
"This bakery paid for your painting classes."
"It has nothing to do with that, either."
"If Michelangelo were alive today, he wouldn't be so proud."
"Mom, believe me, Michelangelo would definitely not be painting bakeries."
"Don't be so sure. Most artists are starving. They don't have all the advantages like you. They take heroin to forget."
"This could be a good opportunity for you, Pilar. A lot of important people come to my shop. Judges and lawyers from the courts, executives from Brooklyn Union Gas. Maybe they'll like your painting. You could become famous."
My mother talks and talks, but I block out her words. For some reason I think about Jacoba Van Heemskerck, a Dutch expressionist painter I've become interested in lately. Her paintings feel organic to me, like breathing abstractions of color. She refused to title her paintings (much less do patriotic murals for her mother's bakery) and numbered her works instead. I mean, who needs words when colors and lines conjure up their own language? That's what I want to do with my paintings, find a unique language, obliterate the clichés.
I think about all the women artists throughout history who managed to paint despite the odds against them. People still ask where all the important women painters are instead of looking at what they did paint and trying to understand their circumstances. Even supposedly knowledgeable and sensitive people react to good art by a woman as if it were an anomaly, a product of a freak nature or a direct result of her association with a male painter of mentor. Nobody's even heard of feminism in art school. The male teachers and students still call the shots and get the serious attention and the fellowships that further their careers. As for the women, we're supposed to make extra money modeling nude. What kind of bullshit revolution is that?
"Mira, Pilar. I'm asking you as a favor. You could paint something simple, something elegant. Like the Statue of Liberty. Is that too much to ask?"
"Okay, okay, I'll paint something," I say deliberately, deciding to play my last card. "But on one condition. You can't see it before the unveiling." This will get her, I think. She'll never agree to this is a million years. She's too much of a control freak.
"I said that's fine, Pilar."
I must be standing there with my mouth open because she pops a macaroon into it and shakes her head as if to say, "See, you always underestimate me." But that's not true. If anything, I overestimate her. It comes form experience. Mom is arbitrary and inconsistent and always believes she's right. It's a pretty irritating combination.
Shit. How did I get into this mess?
Our warehouse is only two blocks from the river, and the Statue of Liberty is visible in the distance I'd been there once when I was a kid, before we settled in Brooklyn. Mom and Dad took me on a ferry and we climbed up behind Liberty's eyes and looked out over the river, the city, the beginning of things.
A Circle Line tour boat is rounding the tip of Manhattan, optimistic as a wedding
cake. There's someone on the top deck with a pair of binoculars aimed at Brooklyn.
I can imagine what the tour guide is saying: "
That night, I get to work. But I decide to do a painting instead of a mural. I stretch a twelve-by-eight-foot canvas and wash it with an iridescent blue gouache--the Virgin Mary's robes in gaudy church paintings. I want the background to glow, to look irradiated, nuked out. It takes me a while to get the right effect.
When the paint dries, I start of Liberty herself. I do a perfect replication of her a bit left of center canvas, changing only two details: first, I make Liberty's torch float slightly beyond her grasp, and second, I paint her right hand reaching over to cover her left breast, as if she's reciting the National Anthem or some other slogan.
The next day, the background still looks off to me, so I take a medium-thick brush and paint black stick figures pulsing in the air around Liberty, thorny scars that look like barbed wire. I want to go all the way with this, to stop mucking around and do what I feel, so at the base of the statue I put my favorite punk rallying cry: I'M A MESS. And then carefully, very carefully, I paint a safety pin through Liberty's nose.
This, I think, sums everything up very nicely. SL-76. That'll be my title.
I fuss with Liberty another couple of days, more out of nervousness than anything. I keep getting the feeling that Mom is going to spy on my work. After all, her record doesn't exactly inspire confidence. So, before I leave my studio, I set up a booby trap--two tight rows of paint cans on the floor just inside the door. Mom would trip on them if she manages to open the latch and come creeping around late at night. It would serve her right, too, show her that she can't go breaking her promises and invading my privacy any time she damn well pleases.
I'm usually a heavy sleeper but these last nights every little noise makes me jump out of bed. I'd swear I heard her footsteps, or something picking the lock on my studio. But when I get up to investigate, I always find my mother sound asleep, looking innocent the way chronically guilty people do sometimes. Then I go to the refrigerator, find something to eat, and stare at the cold stub of her cigar on the kitchen table. In the mornings, my paint cans remain undisturbed and there are no suspicious stains on any of Mom's clothing in the hamper. Jesus, I must really be getting paranoid.
Max helps me set the painting up in the bakery the night before the grand opening, and we drape it with sewn-together sheets. My mother, surprisingly, still hasn't even tried to get a glimpse of the work. I can tell she's proud of the blind faith she's placed in me. She's positively aglow in her magnanimity. When I come home that night, Mom shows me the full-page ad she took out in the Brooklyn Express:
YANKEE DOODLE BAKERY
OUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS
OUR SECOND STORE
MAJOR NEW WORK OF ART
200TH BIRTHDAY OF AMERICA
SUNDAY, 12 NOON
(free food and drinks)
Free food and drinks! This is more serious than I thought. Mom doesn't give anything away if she can help it.
Now I can't sleep all night thinking maybe this time I've gone too far. After all, Mom didn't seem to have any ulterior motives, at least none that I can figure. For once, I think she genuinely wanted to give me a break. I try to calm down by reminding myself that she was the one that cornered me into doing this painting. What did she expect?
At five in the morning, I go to my parents' room. They're sleeping back to back, like strange doughty twins. I want to warn her: "Look, I wanted to do it straight but I couldn't, I just couldn't. Do you understand?"
She shifts in her sleep, her plump body curling forward. I reach out to touch her but quickly pull back my hand.
"What's wrong? What's the matter? Mom is suddenly awake, sitting upright. Her nightgown clings to the soft folds of her breasts, her stomach, the creases in her thighs.
"Nothing, Mom. I only wanted
"You're just nervous, Pilar."
"Don't worry, mi cielo." Mom takes my hand and pats it gently. "Go back to bed."
The next morning, the bakery is hung with flags and streamers and a Dixieland band is playing "When the Saints Go Marching In." Mom is in her new red, white, and blue two-piece suit, a matching handbag stiff on her elbow. She's giving away apple tartlets and brownies and cup after cup of coffee.
"Yes, my daughter created it," I hear her boast, trilling her "r"'s, clipping her vowels even more precisely than usual, as if her accent were partly responsible for the painting. "She is an artista." Mom is pointing in my direction and I feel the sweat collecting at the small of my back. Someone from the Brooklyn Express snaps my picture.
At noon, Mom gingerly balances atop a stepladder on her tiny, size-four feet. The drum rolls endlessly as she pulls on the sheet. There's a stark silence as Liberty, in her full punk glory, glares down at the audience. For a brief moment, I imagine the sound of applause, of people calling my name. But my thoughts stop dead when I hear the hateful buzzing. It's as if the swarm of stick figures have come alive in their background, threatening to fly off the canvas and nest in our hair. The blood has drained from my mother's face and her lips are moving as if she wants to say something but can't form the words. She stands there, immobile, clutching the sheet against her silk blouse, when someone yells in a raucous Brooklynese, "Gaahbage! Whadda piece of gaahbage!" A lumpish man charges Liberty with a pocketknife, repeating his words like a war cry. Before anyone can react, Mom swings her new handbag and clubs the guy cold inches from the paining. Then, as if in slow motion, she tumbles forward, a thrashing avalanche of patriotism and motherhood, crushing three spectators and a table of apple tartlets.
And I, I love my mother very much at that moment.
"Pilar (1976)" is an excerpt from Cristina Garcia's remarkable novel, Dreaming in Cuban. The text is from the second of two sections in the chapter titled "Enough Attitude." Dreaming in Cuban is copyright © 1992 by Cristina Garcia. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Originally published by Alfred A Knopf, Inc., Dreaming in Cuban is currently available as a One World Book published by Ballantine Books; ISBN 0-345-38143-2. Selection, hyptertext adaptation, and commentary copyright © 1995 by David Neal Miller. All rights reserved.