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Face to Face

by Nancy Mejías

I cannot remember if I missed school on these days, and I do not recall ever going during the summer. There was always a coat involved, a scratchy sweater, gloves, documents, IDs, and a form I helped my mom fill out the night before. Name, address, income, and social security number written in bold letters. She hovered over me, asking what this meant or what that meant; I filled in the answers in a straight line and tried hard not to write outside the box.

The welfare office was on Broadway, way up north. After the theaters and Harlem, right after Washington Heights. We do not have a sense of time as kids, but now I realize we must have made the trip every couple of months. The streetlights were still on when Mom tiptoed into the bedroom, brushed my hair with her hand, and whispered,

— Despierta, se nos hace trade.

Dad had just left for work, and my older sister would stay behind to oversee the others. It seemed that everything important had to be done at the crack of dawn. She brewed some Bustelo and cut a piece of fresh bread from El Camino Bakery. Yes, during the seventies, Dominican kids drank coffee in the morning. She then packed a bag with an apple or a pear and wrapped two sandwiches in aluminum foil with slices of bologna and American cheese.

We took the M100. The ride was warm and smelled of exhaust. She always let me sit by the window. At this time of day, the only stores open were the bodegas, and the streets started to fill up with school kids and people coming in and out of buses and subway stations.

Our stop was a block away. Mom held my hand as we walked over in the brisk weather. The sun had barely risen over the odd-looking building. I do not remember if it had two or three floors, and it occupied a whole city block. Its dark windows curved around the corner, and we stood alongside it, behind a line of men and women, some with infants, others with children like me. The warmth of our bodies made puffs of air while we gazed at the abyss and waited.

The offices opened at 8 o’clock sharp. A security guard gave us a number on a thin piece of paper, and we walked into a hollow space with fluorescent lighting drowned by yellowish walls. The cold did not leave our bodies until an hour or two after.


In the back of the room, we shook off the brisk air, the snow, or the rain. Towards the left, dejected city workers labored behind gun-proof windows. Mom and I sat without a sound. She looked straight ahead at something I could not see. The side of her plump arm was my rest. She managed to hold her purse, a thick folder, and our lunch in one arm while she embraced me hard with the other, like trying to say: “This isn’t for you, mija. I want more for your life. I need you to strive.”

Mom worked at the sweatshops. She sold earrings and bracelets and pastelitos and clothes and whatever made her a profit on the side. She made our dresses from patrones bought at Woolworth's on 181st Street. She gleamed when she found one she liked. We were six sisters, and our sweaters, shoes, and dresses were all hand-me-downs from one to the other. Mom grew up in the countryside in the Dominican Republic, with no running water and intermittent electricity. Her mother died soon after labor, and she was raised by her grandmother, the aunts, and the cousins. She married young, had three girls, and was widowed, by the age of twenty-seven.

She arrived in New York with a visa on a snowy New Year’s Day, a while after she had met my dad. He cared for her and my three older sisters. He wanted a boy but ended up with three more girls, and we became eight, trying to make it in The Melting Pot. Mom had already been through so much, so the new culture, the foreign language, the long winters, or this welfare office was not going to faze her.

I was half asleep when number 2-0-9 was called through the staticky speaker. Mom nudged me to get up, and we walked down a hallway with offices on each side. She held my hand as we paced through the narrow hallway. I peeked through the half-opened doors of some of the offices. They all looked the same. Gray metal file cabinets, ashtrays, and desks full of manila envelopes.

Mom entered the room smiling, saying “Good morning, good morning” as best as she could, nodding her head up and down, complacent in a manner unrecognizable to me. The man behind the desk had glasses with black rims, a plump face, and big yellow teeth. I stared at the ring around his collar and thought about our clean white shirts from school. Mom washed them by hand every Saturday morning.

He signaled us to sit. Looked at her without speaking and then looked at me.

— Are you going to translate for her? — He asked as he stared us down.

I turned and saw her confused.

— Does she speak English? — His words pierced the room. Like a condemnation, as if speaking Spanish was sinful.

— Is that the application? — Did I do something wrong? I thought to myself.

And I looked at her again.

— ¿Qué dice? — She asked me.

I was not used to seeing Mom unguarded. She always knew what to do, and even in that moment of vulnerability, she looked straight at him, sat up, and held her head high.

I told her what he had asked in my broken Spanish and managed to bridge the conversation with my grade school English. She then passed over the folder we had worked on the night before. Everything was in order. From where I was sitting, I could see my neat Bic blue pen handwriting.

I was relieved that it was mostly silent as he read through the forms and stamped the utility bill, the rent receipt, vaccination records, and copies of our IDs. He had his own forms to fill out, then his typewriter echoed through the room. When he finished, he handed her a green carbon copy of what he had typed. She held it carefully, knowing the blue ink would stain her fingers.

— Tell her to take this to window #2 towards the left, out in the main room. —

He said it loud and slow and held out two fingers.

— Que lo lleve a la ventana dos. — I told her.

— Okay, okay. — She said, with her lips and with her head.

— Thank you. — She continued as she slowly stood with a smirk on her face.

— Vámonos. — She said and pulled out her arm so I could hold on to her.

I knew to stand quickly, leaving Mr. Yellow Teeth behind.

The line on window #2 was long and slow. She pulled out the sandwiches and handed me one.

— Cómetelo todo. — She said as she unwrapped it and told me to sit where she could see me.

She ate while she stood and looked back at me every now and then, making sure I was okay, gesturing with her hands that I finish the sandwich.

I ate, and as I waited, I became restless. Another girl, more or less my age, sat beside me. We started talking and playing Ms. Mary Mac, trying not to sing too loudly or laugh too hard so as not to disrupt the gloom-filled room.

When my mom was about to reach the front of the line, she looked back and asked me to come over in our mother-daughter code. I said goodbye to my newfound friend and ran towards her under the scrutiny of the security guards and other office workers.

I was barely able to reach the counter of Window #2. Mom passed the green carbon copy through the narrow opening at the bottom of the bulletproof glass. The lady behind the window took it with her stained gloves and placed it on top of a stack of others like it. When she returned, she handed Mom a blue booklet, like the one we bought groceries with, along with some other papers.

— Thank you. — My mom said with her natural smile and head up high as we left the building.

We caught a window seat again on the M100. El Mambí Restaurant, clothing stores, Tino’s Pizza Parlor, pharmacies, everything was open during this time. Mom pulled an apple from her purse.

— Cómetela. — She said, placing it in my hands.

Then I heard her almost whisper:

— La Gran Manzana. —

The words rose slowly beneath her breath as she chuckled.

The apple was soft and juicy, and sweet. I laid against her arm; she pulled me in tight with the other and kissed my forehead.

 

Nancy Mejías : República Dominicana, 1970. Escribe ficción en inglés y en español. Participa del taller de escritura de Hernán Álvarez desde el 2017. Varios de sus aforismos fueron incluidos en la agenda Para Trillar Caminos (Bega Editora, 2017). En el 2019 fue semifinalista del concurso de cuentos Cuentomania con “D.E.P” y en 2020 con “Luzmary Unisex”. Sus cuentos han sido publicados en varias antologías como Inficciones (Ediciones Aguamiel, 2020), Vacaciones sin hotel (Ediciones Aguamiel, 2021), Con la Urgencia del Instante. Antlogía de microrrelatos en español de Estados Unidos y Canadá (Ars Communis, 2023) y #NiLocasNiSolas (El Beisman Press, 2023).

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