Updated: May 19
by Nivi Canela
The first social worker came to my school. They pulled me out of class and took me to the nurse’s office. She was pretty and spoke softly like the nurse.
The second social worker came to our apartment. I was wearing a lime green thermal set I’d outgrown long ago and drew a carnival mask in my sketchbook instead of talking to him. I’d learned by then that we weren’t supposed to talk to those people.
Because when the first social worker asks,
“What does your aunt do in her room all day?”
and you say, “Drink,”
she’s going to ask, “Drink what? Coffee?”
and you’re going to realize that she’s talking to you like a child because, in her eyes, you’re a six-year-old, but you’re not used to being talked to gently. You’re not used to being given the benefit of the doubt.
The social worker is nice, and she reminds you of the school nurse, so you resist the urge to roll your eyes, and instead, you answer straight out,
That four-letter-word that sets off an alarm. Not like a fire drill, where everyone lines up outside the school and you know you’re going back in after a few minutes. No, this is a “we don’t know if we’re going to be allowed back inside” fire alarm.
I’m called into tía’s living room for interrogation, along with my sister and our twin cousins, my mom pacing behind my aunt like a nervous shadow.
Later, I ask my sister what would happen if someone, hypothetically, did talk to one of these dangerous social workers.
“We could be taken away from mami and tía,” she says.
That doesn’t sound so bad, I think.
I imagine living with a family like the ones on TV. A clean house, maybe even my own room so I don’t have to hide my diary from Ruby anymore. We could do things after school instead of just watching other families do things on the television.
“So we would all go live in another house?”
“No. We would be put into different houses. With strangers,” she emphasizes, as if that’s the part that scares me. The twins I could do without, but I can’t imagine living without Estela. So I keep my mouth closed, and the next time a social worker comes around, I don’t know what tía or mami do in their rooms all day.
I learn to talk about it in other ways. Like when my third grade teacher tells us to draw our home and write what we like and don’t like about it. I draw what I see: clothes littered around the living room. I write what I live: “I wish it were more clean so we didn’t have roaches and mice. I wish my mom were awake more so we could play.”
This time, the alarm is sounded only on me. The teacher calls home, and tía gives me another lecture about the dangers of airing out our literal dirty laundry.
This is how I come to learn that not everyone lives this way. Food stamps, welfare, okay. This is common in Union City. Free lunch tickets are obvious - a color-coded class division that no one bothers to talk about. But addiction? That’s a different kind of silence.
The number in my head is seven, even though I know it can’t be seven, because it had to have been after mama Sarah died. And when mama Sarah died, it was Ms. Ortizio, my fourth-grade teacher, who noticed that I was upset.
The number in my head is seven, “Fragile as a leaf in autumn,” like Norah Jones said. But logic says it must have been eight or nine because my mom yelled at the popcorn ceiling in tía’s living room, asking her late mother and father to take her with them.
And she was holding something. It might have been pills, it might have been a knife. It might have even happened twice, just this way, with Estela and me and the twins frozen on tía’s linoleum tiles, an impending sense of danger, and my mother yelling at ghosts.
But only once did tía pepper spray her.
My mom wailed like a shot beast and curled in on herself. Whatever she had in her hand fell on the tile as tía ushered her into the bathroom to wash out her eyes.
It happened more times than I can remember. My sophomore year of college, she asked me to bring her things to Christ Hospital. I had an exam the next day in a class I’d been struggling with all semester.
“You should go,” a friend with an entirely different type of mother insisted, “Family is everything.”
I remember taking the exam with trembling fingers, the winter-numb train and bus ride to Union City, the stale smell of the apartment we’d shared before moving into the dorms, night descending over the longer bus ride to Jersey City, the yellow line on the floor of the hospital leading to the Psych Ward where my mother was sitting in the visiting room with her church friends like the Wizard of Oz hosting an afternoon café.
My friend, to whom “family is everything,” didn’t have to take an exam while wondering what tool his mother had tried to kill herself with this time. He didn’t have to sit across from her in that common room after she’d dismissed her church friends and hear her say that if he really cared about her, he would have skipped the exam and come earlier. His mother fed and nurtured and supported him. His mother never clipped his wings for fear that he’d fly away from her.
About a year later, my ex-boyfriend’s grandfather passed away during summer break, on the same day as Michael Jackson. I was getting ready to pay my respects to the family when my mother requested I ask his grandmother if she had any of those pills she gets. My mom blurred in front of me, Michael Jackson moonwalking on the TV behind her.
“Ma, her husband just died.”
She stared back with hollow eyes, her own reflection in the armoire behind me.
Nivi Canela is a queer writer and performer on a mission of sinvergüenzería. Her original shows include Naked Broadway Cabaret (streamable at nivicanela.com), Happy Song Time Musical Improv, and Daddy Issues: an open letter to Junot Diaz, my father, and other Dominican manwhores, a one-woman musical which debuted at SOLOCOM. Her first musical single, Icarus, is available on all streaming platforms. She is very excited to contribute to a new DWA chapbook.