By GEIMY COLÓN
Except from Nobody Here Plays Little Kid Games.
The blackout falls over the neighborhood like thick ink, darkening everything, forcing things into slow motion. It is like night on night—a doubly deep darkness. There are no stars lighting the block in the rainstorm.
Heavy rain hitting the roof runs off the metal awning over the terrace. The rain insulates the house in a liquid static that blocks out all other sounds. The musicality of this static brings peace to the house. Inside the house, the refrigerator ceases its loud humming. Fans stop whirring. The buzzing of the overhead lights grows silent.
Sofía lights an oil lamp just as Boca Chula and Marisol walk into the kitchen and split up.
One takes the matches from Sofía’s hands and the other reaches into the drawer by the sink, for the candles.
Sofía grabs a stack of saucers from beneath the sink. The saucers are caked with layered swirls of melted wax, left there by candles lit during previous blackouts.
Marisol hands the candles to Boca Chula. He lights them one at a time, stopping in between to let wax drip onto the saucers. He presses each candle into the warm wax, so that they can stick in place, standing upright. He distributes the saucers throughout the kitchen with candles centered and lit; placing two opposite each other on the dinner table.
“Now go wash your hands again, so you can eat. Dinner’s almost ready,” Sofía tells them, still setting the table. Sofía smiles after them knowing that they could both walk the whole house in pitch black if need be.
In this house, nobody is afraid of the dark.
Boca Chula grabs a saucer with a lit candle from the counter and lights the way to the bathroom. Marisol follows at his back like a tail—too close to be his shadow. Darkness splits open before them and closes back up behind them, as they walk away.
In the glow of the candles, Sofía finishes one last thing for the meal: the potato salad.
There are some potatoes cooling on the counter. She pulls back the skin from the boiled halves, working fast; she chops them roughly and throws them in a small bowl. To this she adds two good pinches of salt and a heaping tablespoon of mayonnaise; nothing else. Tonight the miracle is the tiny jar of mayonnaise she found at the warehouse with Mara this afternoon.
Since the start of the production of beet sugar in twelve U.S. states, the economic crisis here intensified, and Sofía has had to subtract one, two, three ingredients from most of her recipes. With this dish this subtraction is so noticeable, it literally made the newspaper—economic crisis changes classic recipe, read the headline. She does what other mothers, and now restaurants, do, too, as the news article stated—modifying recipes due to scarcity. First, she started subtracting the eggs, having to make those stretch across meals, since some days all they have to eat is one egg for breakfast, one for lunch, and one for dinner accompanied by whatever, sometimes nothing. But then, she had to subtract the onions on most days she makes it, which changes everything about the flavor. And when next she cut out the beets, just like that, the sweetness and the bright pink color of her signature salad—what Marisol enjoys the most—vanished. The last to go was what she always used the least of, the olive oil that helps it all gel.
Today, she also leaves out the tiny bit of vinegar, that tartness Boca Chula loves most. She could not find any vinegar when she went to get some things for the cupboards. Boca Chula will notice the change, she knows, and he will say nothing.
Sofía tastes the salad and notices how her modifications have obliterated the dish. She stirs and stirs and stirs, which results in a creamier blend of a thing that is potato and mayonnaise, but no longer her famous ensalada de papas Rusa. This is not the salad people always requested at every family party and still ask about. Her salad was so complete people would eat seconds and thirds of it, with nothing else; they loved it that much. “This salad needs nothing else,” they would say—no moro de guandules, no costillas asadas, nada. No rice and peas, no baked ribs, nothing.
“There is nothing more to subtract,” she says to the empty kitchen, with the heavy rain as her soundtrack.
She sets the bowl on the table next to the lócrio de sardinas, relieved she found some rice and sardines with Mara at the last food line; grateful, too. But there is no berro-watercress salad. No avocado and tomato drizzled with olive oil and vinegar and sprinkled with salt. No jugo de chinola with lots of ice, and nothing sweet for dessert.
Still, there is some good lócrio, as basic as it is classic—its spiced and pungent fragrance cutting through the dark like invisible steam.
Plus, with the heavy rain as a wordless soundtrack, her table is a kind of pretty that is holy in this lighting. She takes a deep breath and the rain taps harder on the roof as a response, soothing her. Sofía blinks back tears before calling the kids back out. They come back to the kitchen, Boca Chula again parting darkness with the candle.
Sofía observes them in the candlelight; she loves how they eat—they relish her food no matter what she serves, even if it’s just plain plantains and an egg, or toasted bread with butter. She smiles at them and chews slowly, observing them like they are her very own seventh and eighth wonders of the world, curiosity and pride and admiration mingling in her eyes. This look always makes them shy, but happy.
Candlelight dances across their faces as they eat. The rest of the room is all backlit shadows and silhouettes.
Rain still falls steadily outside, playing a beat on the awning.
The cloak of nighttime blackouts changes everything; one could almost forget the country’s current economic freefalling.
Boca Chula places his fork on his empty plate as Marisol eats her last couple forkfuls of food. Then, they each drink water with eyes lowered, sneaking a glance across the table at Sofía’s plate, not her face. He motions to start cleaning up, but Sofía’s voice stops him.
“Would you two like some more?” Sofía asks them, pointing at her plate with the slightest gesture of her fork. Her tone is serious, her concern sincere. She has only eaten a few bites, even though she has not eaten all day.
Boca Chula says nothing. Marisol starts to nod, but stops when he glances at her, with shadows across his face. Neither one speaks. They wait.
“No, ma. Eat, eat!” he replies.
“How about you, Marisol, you want more?” Sofía waits.
Marisol looks first at her brother and then down at her own empty plate. She opens her mouth to speak, but shuts it as Boca Chula clears his throat in an exaggerated brotherly way.
“I already ate a little bit. You still hungry? Look, I have more than half my plate.”
Sofía stands with her plate and walks over to their side of the table. She remains standing and aims a forkful at Marisol, first.
“¡No, mami!” Marisol pulls back her head. “Boca Chula and I ate all our food. Right?” She glances at Boca Chula again, but he avoids eye contact.
“Abre la boca, Marisol,” Sofía says and Marisol obeys by opening her mouth. “And don’t worry about your brother. He’s eating some, too. Sit down,” she tells him when he stands. When she looks at her son, he does not move toward the sink; her single look is a command she will not repeat. Boca Chula obeys. He waits.
Then Sofía divides what is left on her plate into two neat halves.
“Boca Chula, don’t make me do the little airplane sounds just for you! Broooommm,” she makes the sound of a loud plane engine. She pretends the fork is a flying airplane about to land in his mouth. They all grin at each other as he accepts the food from her fork. He chews with his mouth closed, his eyes focused on his mother’s hands, not the plate, not her face, and not his sister.
Marisol opens her mouth extra wide when Sofía turns back to her.
“Mmmmmm,” Sofía says and Marisol echoes her, with her mouth full, “Mmmmm.” “Now he thinks he’s too old for this, Marisol.”
“I’m the man of the house,” Boca Chula replies. He sits up tall.
“Boca Chula, you’re not too big for me to feed you,” she says. “I could stick you in the tub right now and bathe you from head to toe, if I wanted, and scrub your bimbilito, too, your wee-wee!” They all laugh out loud.
“NOT ME!” he says, still laughing and shaking his head as he accepts another forkful from her hand.
“Let’s go,” she says, “I need you to eat all of it,” she addresses them both but is looking at Marisol. She continues to feed them like they are still her toddlers.
As soon as he was able to eat table food, Sofía made a custom of saving her last bite for Boca Chula. Then she started splitting that bite between the two, when Marisol came along and was old enough for solids. Leaving the last two bites for them on her plate is nothing new. She always leaves it for them and they eat it on their own, happily, too. It is a shared everyday moment, and one they look forward to at every meal—a personal ritual.
This ritual has gone unchanged no matter what the fridge contains, and even as Sofía eats less and less.
Right now she gets to the very last bite. All three of them laugh out loud again when Sofía cuts it into perfect halves so that they know they can each have one last little bit to eat—a little bit of her love. She exaggerates every movement for Boca Chula’s sake.
This has been the work of her hands for weeks and months, splitting things—meals, and recipes, and ingredients—in half and in thirds—dividing and subtracting—as they run out of food more and more and in less time, and before there is enough money to buy more. Even more now, as things become scarcer and more expensive, and the country imports most things without regulation or taxation, so that local producers cannot compete and have disappeared. Whatever is brought into the country, without barriers, costs whatever foreign makers want to charge.
Before stacking her empty plate over theirs, Sofía scrapes the fork across a few grains of rice and a bit of sardine grease left on the plate and puts it in her mouth. She wipes the tines clean with her lips, her eyes lowered. Both her children look away.
She fights back tears again the instant they both turn toward the sink. Not because she could still eat two plates when she saw they were already finished with their food, not because at this point of the crisis her constant preoccupation is the question of what to feed them next, not because they ate with such urgency they wiped their plates clean in no time, not because their mouths opening as she fed them broke her heart five times, but because she knows some people nearby who have not eaten in two, three days, and, because tomorrow she does not know if her kids will have enough eat.
There is no telling what she can conjure out of whatever did not spoil in the last blackout.
Sincerely not knowing is reason enough to shed tears as fat and heavy and loud as the indifferent raindrops falling all around them. But Sofía will not cry in front of her children. They are her weakness, and as it is she cannot shield them from what is happening in the country. So she shields them from her own pain, and from her ferocious worry; her tears fall in private, as is her custom.
“We have bread and sugar,” she whispers to the candles and the rain. But nothing much with which to confect anything else, not even cake.
In the rain, sugar runs in tears that cannot fall.
Geimy Colón was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and raised in Brooklyn. A writer and a teacher, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Hunter College, the latter after nearly a decade of creating literacy development and intergenerational science-based programs in four of five NYC boroughs. She was the recipient of the MFA Hertog Research Fellowship in the fall of 2010. In 2017, her first short story publication was selected as one of the best in ten years of Kweli Journal publications and later anthologized by Asterix Journal in The Best of Kweli. She recently finished writing a collection of short stories and is currently working on her first novel. She resides in Columbus, Ohio.
Read more excerpts by the finalists for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.