Chapter 1 of THE POET X – Elizabeth Acevedo | Audiobook


Friday, August 24th, stoop sitting. The summer is made for stoop sitting. And since it’s the last
week before school starts, Harlem is opening its eyes to September. I scope out this block
I’ve always called home. Watch the old church ladies, chancletas
flapping against the pavement, their mouths letting loose a train of Island
Spanish as they spread he said she said. Peep Papote from down the block
as he opens the fire hydrant so the little kids have
a sprinkler to run through. Listen to honking gypsy cabs with bachata
blaring from their open windows compete with basketballs echoing
from the Little Park. Laugh at the viejos,
my father not included, finishing their dominoes tournament
with hard slaps and yells of Capicu! Shake my head as even the drug
dealers posted up near the building smile more in the summer. Their hard scowls softening into glue-eyed
stares in the direction of the girls in summer dresses and short shorts. Ayo, Xiomara, you need to start
wearing dresses like that! Shit, you’d be wifed up
before going back to school, especially knowing you
church girls are all freaks. But I ignore their taunts,
enjoy this last bit of freedom. And wait for the long shadows to tell
me when Mami is almost home from work, when it’s time to sneak upstairs. Unhideable, I am unhideable,
taller than even my father, with what Mami has always said was a little too
much body for such a young girl. I am the baby fat that settled
into D-cups and swinging hips. So that the boys who called me a whale
in middle school now ask me to send them pictures of myself in a thong. The other girls call me conceited,
ho, thot, fast. When your body takes up more room than
your voice, you are always the target of well-aimed rumors, which is why
I let my knuckles talk for me. Which is why I learned to shrug when
my name was replaced by insults. I forced my skin just as thick as I am. Mira muchacha is Mami’s favorite
way to start a sentence. And I know I’ve already done something
wrong when she hits me with, look, girl. This time it’s Mira, muchacha, Marina
from across the street told me you were on the stoop again talking
to los vendedores. Like usual, I bite my tongue and
don’t correct her, because I hadn’t been
talking to the drug dealers. They’d been talking to me. But she says she doesn’t want
any conversation between me and those boys, or any boys at all. And she better not hear about me hanging
out like a wet shirt on a clothesline, just waiting to be worn or she will go
ahead and be the one to wring my neck. Oíste, she asks, but
walks away before I can answer. Sometimes I wanna tell her the only person
in this house who isn’t heard is me. Names, I’m the only one in
the family without a biblical name. Shit, Xiomara isn’t even Dominican. I know because I Googled it. It means one who is ready for war. And truth be told,
that description is about right. Because I even try to come into the world
in a fighting stance, feet first. Had to be cut out of Mami after she’d
given birth to my twin brother Xavier just fine. And my name labors out of some people’s
mouths in that same awkward and painful way. Until I have to slowly say, Xiomara. I’ve learned not to flinch
the first day of school as teachers get stuck stupid trying to figure it out. Mami says she thought
it was a saint’s name, gave me this gift of battle and
now curses how well I live up to it. My parents probably wanted a girl who
would sit in the pews wearing pretty florals and a soft smile. They got combat boots and a mouth silent,
until it’s sharp as an island machete. The first words, Pero, tú no eres fácil
is a phrase I’ve heard my whole life. When I come home with
my knuckles scraped up. Pero, tú no eres fácil, when I don’t
wash the dishes quickly enough or when I forget to scrub the tub. Pero, tú no eres fácil,
sometimes it’s a good thing. When I do well on the exam or
the rare time I get an award, pero, tú no eres fácil. When my mother’s pregnancy was difficult,
and it was all because of me. Because I was turned around, and
they thought that I would die, or worse, that I would kill her. So they held a prayer circle at church,
and even Father Sean showed
up at the emergency room. Father Sean, who held my mother’s hand
as she labored me into the world. And Papi paced behind the doctor who said
this was the most difficult birth she’d been a part of. But instead of dying, I came out wailing,
wailing, waving my tiny fists. And the first thing Papi said,
the first words I ever heard, pero, tú no eres fácil. You sure ain’t an easy one. Mami works cleaning an office
building in Queens. Rides two trains in the early morning so
she can arrive at the office by eight. She works at sweeping and mopping,
emptying trash bins and being invisible. Her hands never stop moving, she says, her
fingers rubbing the material of plastic gloves like the pages
of her well-worn Bible. Mami rides the train in
the afternoon another hour and some change to get to Harlem. She said she spends her time
reading verses, getting ready for the evening mass. And I know she ain’t lying. But if it were me, I’d prop my
head against the metal train wall, hold my purse tight in my lap,
close my eyes against the rocking, and try my best to dream. Tuesday, August 28, confirmation class. Mami has wanted me to take the sacrament
of confirmation for three years now. The first year, in eighth grade, the class
got full before we could sign up. And even with all her heavenly pull,
Mami couldn’t get a spot for Twin and me. Father Sean told her it’d
be fine if we waited. Last year, Karita, my best friend, extended her trip in DR when we
were supposed to begin the classes. So I asked if I could wait another year. Mami didn’t like it, but
since she’s friends with Karita’s mother, Twin went ahead and
did the class without me. This year, Mami has filled out the forms,
signed me, up and marched me to church before I can tell her that Jesus feels
like friend I’ve had my whole childhood. Who has suddenly has become brand new,
who invites himself over too often, who texts me too much, a friend I
just don’t think I need any more. I know, I know,
even writing that is blasphemous. But I don’t know how to tell Mami that
this year, it’s not about feeling unready. It’s about knowing that this
doubt has already been confirmed. God, it’s not any one thing that makes
me wonder about the capital G-O-D, about a Holy Trinity that
don’t include the mother. It’s all the things. It seems as I got older, I began to really see the way that church
treats a girl like me differently. Sometimes it feels all I’m worth is
under my skirt and not between my ears. Sometimes I feel that turning the other
cheek could get someone like my brother killed. Sometimes I feel my life would
be easier if I didn’t feel like such a debt to a God that don’t really
seem to be out here checking for me. Mami, I say to her on the walk home. The words sit in my belly, and I use my nerves like a pulley
to lift them out of my mouth. Mami, what if I don’t do confirmation? What if I waited a bit for? But she cuts me off, her index finger a hard exclamation
point in front of my face. Mira muchacha, she starts,
I will feed and clothe no heathens. She tells me I owe it to God and
myself to devote. She tells me this country is too soft and
gives kids too many choices. She tells me if I don’t confirm here, she
will send me to DR, where the priests and nuns know how to elicit true piety. I look at her scarred knuckles. I know exactly how she was taught faith. When you’re born to old parents
who’d given up hope for children and then are suddenly gifted with twins,
you will be hailed a miracle, an answered prayer,
a symbol of God’s love. The neighbors will make the sign of
the cross when they see you, thankful you were not a tumor in your mother’s belly,
like the whole barrio feared. When you’re born to old parents continued, your father will never touch rum again. He will stop hanging out at the bodega,
where the old men go to flirt. He will no longer play music that
inspires swishing or thrusting. You will not grow up listening to
the slow pull of an accordion or the rake of the guira. Your father will become un hombre serio. Merengue might be your people’s music, but Papi will reject anything that
might sing him toward temptation. When you are born to old
parents continued, again. Your mother will engrave
your name on a bracelet, the words mi hija on the other side. This will be your favorite gift. This will become a despised shackle. Your mother will take to church
like a dove thrust into the sky. She was faithful before, but
now she will go to mass every single day. You will be forced to go with her, until
your knees learn the splinters of pews, the mustiness of incense,
the way a priest’s robe tries to shush silent all the echoing
doubts ringing in your heart. The last word on being
born to old parents. You will learn to hate it. No one, not even your twin brother, will understand the burden you
feel because of your birth. Your mother has sight for
nothing but you two and God. Your father seems to be serving a penance,
an oath of solitary silence. Their gazes and words are heavy with
all the things they want you to be. It is ungrateful to feel like a burden. It is ungrateful to resent my own birth,
I know that. Twin and I are miracles,
aren’t we reminded every single day? Rumor has it Mami was a comparona. Stuck up, they said, head high in the air,
hair that flipped so hard that shit was doing somersaults. Mami was born in La Capital, in a barrio of thirstbuckets
who wrote odes to her legs. But the only man Mommy wanted
was nailed to a cross. Since she was a little girl, Mami wanted
to wear a habit, wanted prayer and the closest thing to an automatic
heaven admission she could get. Rumor has it Mami was
forced to marry Papi. Nominated by her family so
she could travel to the States, it was supposed to be a business deal. But 30 years later, here they still are. And I don’t think Mami’s
ever forgiven Papi for making her cheat on Jesus, or
all the other things he did.

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