My Shelf Life

The Bronx is under siege. The smell of sulfur is everywhere. A cherry bomb goes off. And then another. With each mini-bomb, I edge closer to Moises until the noise melts away. But not too close.

“This is crazy,” I say.

Fear is a funny emotion. It can stop you dead in your tracks, all plans squashed before they are fulfilled. Or fear can put you on a path you had no intention in taking. I made a huge mistake reaching out to Moises. No doubt about it. But once I pressed the send button there was no turning back. Actually, pressing the button was easy. It was the seconds following, waiting for his response that made me increasingly aware that I made the wrong choice.

I didn’t even consult Serena and Camille. They would have advised me to play the good girl, but I’m on some dumb rebellion tip. Papi thinks I’m fucking around with a titere, then I’ll fuck a titere. It made complete sense to me at the time but now that I’m actually walking the streets with him, I’m not so sure.

“C’mon,” he says as we find refuge at a bodega.

“C’mon,” he says as we find refuge at a bodega.

He picks out two mangos out of a pile of mostly bruised fruit and two large bottles of water. I have no idea what we’re doing or where we’re going. I step over a crowd setting off bottle rockets and pray that they don’t throw one my way. They don’t but one little boy tosses a firecracker in front of me. The little boy is shirtless, proud even, as he struts towards me again, about to light up another. I glare but his smile is much too wide. We need to get out of this madness.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“It’s not far. Just up the block,” Moises says.

He hasn’t said much since I met him at the other side of the park. Maybe Moises’s silence is his way of trying to figure me out. He stops in front of an apartment building with black iron gates on every window and rusty fire escapes draped with clothes hung to dry. It’s rundown. Pungent smells of curry, fried food and weed permeates the hallway. As we pass by each apartment, I can hear a novela playing loudly on a television, a radio tuned to reggae music, and a couple talking. Or, are they arguing? I can’t tell.

“This is it,” he says.

The door has a Jesus sticker with the words “God Bless this House” written underneath. Like most of the other apartments, the door looks battered, like someone used a ram to try to get in. He swings the door open and I’m greeted with a framed portrait of the Pope, President Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. To the right, there’s a long passageway with several doors on each side. To the left, a large gilded mirror leans atop a matching table. A vase brimming with fake flowers sits in the center of the table. The flowers are encrusted with dust. Everything seems old and cheap. Really cheap.

I wait by the entrance. This isn’t what I’m used to. I’m not that bold. I take a deep breath. This is only a dare, I say to myself, an adventure.

“Don’t worry. She’s at a church retreat,” he says. “She won’t be back until late.”

My actions are hitting me hard. An invitation to hang out means chilling at his apartment. Alone. This is how the night will go down. What was that thing Papi said? “Open your legs and you’re just like those other pendejas.” Will I see this thing through? I step inside.

Sweat tickles my neck. The air is stifling. The tiny living room is so cluttered with furniture that there’s barely any room to stand. There are small statues of Jesus, a tiny little pig that might be a piggy bank, and a bunch of wedding souvenirs displayed like trophies. As much as I want to, I don’t touch a thing. Whoever “she” is would notice.

“She likes to collect shit,” he says.

“Your mom?”

“No. I live with my aunt. My Dad is somewhere in Puerto Rico. Mom is out of commission.”

“What do you mean out of commission?’” He pauses. “The last I heard she was smoking crack with some guy. I haven’t seen her in a couple of years.”

“Oh. That would definitely put you out of commission,” I chuckle but there’s nothing to laugh about.

He turns to me.

“So, now that you’ve heard my shiny background, you still want to hang?”

“Why?” I say. “Am I suppose to be scared or something?”

“You’re probably used to hanging out with guys who come from money, two parents, a nice house.”

I shake my head although everything he’s saying is absolutely true. He’s judging. Again. Using that tone of voice I’ve heard before.

“How old are you?” I ask.

“Seventeen.”

“Well, for someone who is a year older, you sure say some dumb, immature crap.”

He tucks his chin in a bit and keeps his gaze fixed on me. I try to hold his stare but quickly surrender, feeling the heat bounce off my cheeks. Things were a lot easier outside when all I had to do was dodge some firecrackers. But now that we are inside, doubt circles around me.

We walk down the corridor and into another room. Unlike the living room, this room is bare, minus a flimsy white sheet covering a solitary mattress on the floor and a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. Posters of Bob Marley, Malcolm X and a bunch of other old but serious people cover the dingy wall. The room smells of dirty socks.

“Take a seat.”

He removes a stack of books from atop a crate and lights a stick of incense. A small breeze enters the room but not enough to make a difference. I keep my arms and legs crossed. I try not to move at all.

“Do you, um, sleep here?” I ask.

“Yeah.” He sounds a little apologetic. “It’s just a place to crash until I can afford my own.”

“Oh.”

I bite my fingernail. There are so many voices in my head telling me to run. This isn’t for me. Neither is Moises. What must he think of me when the only place he takes me to is his room?

I walk over to a mirror where various snapshots are pressed against the frame. Moises names each person in the picture as if I’ll remember.

“This is my crew, my panas,” he says. “After things went down with my brother, they held me together. They steered me away from some wild shit I was getting down with.”

He’s speaking but all I can think is that he’s standing way too close. This too is a challenge so I stay where I am and nod as he explains how important his friends are to him. How a bunch of suspicious-looking chicks saved his life. He smells of musk and sweat. Can I be like those girls in the picture with their tank tops and cutoffs? They seem to know what to do, unafraid, grins flashing, curves showing. One hand firmly placed on their waist, hips popped to the side. They’re so sure of themselves. But me, all I know is that I’m completely lost here.

A blast from a cherry bomb startles me. This isn’t going to work.

“I’ll be right back,” he says.

He runs out and I hear him opening and slamming doors, rummaging for something. I pray he’s getting ready to leave. Instead, he comes back and tosses me a sleeping bag.

“Let’s go.”

“Where are we going?”

“Trust me.”

I don’t know him from shit but here I am following him up a few flights of stairs. He pulls out another set of keys, opens the door and a cool soft breeze sweeps over us. We’re on the roof. From up here, I can really see the fireworks. It’s as if small communities are communicating through loud bangs and sparkly lights.

“This is awesome,” I say as I peer down at the people on the streets scrambling to get into firework position. We can even see some stars twinkling in the sky.

“No one else is allowed up here. I help the landlord around the building so he gives me access.”

He grabs the sleeping bag and opens it. He cuts open the mangos and we eat while watching the light show. Then he lays on his back, tapping his side for me to join him. I find myself holding my breath, anticipating his next move. My heart is racing. I suck at this. I turn to him and notice a long scratch on his arm.

He grabs the sleeping bag and opens it.

“Where did you get that?” I ask.

“My aunt’s cat.”

He points at a small scar on my hand. “What about you? Where’s that from?”

“I got that when I fell off my bike. I think I was ten.” I point to my knee. “I got this one in Hawaii. I slipped off of a rock. Your turn.”

“I think that’s it,” he says.

“What are you talking about? What about that large scar on the side of your neck.” I run my fingers lightly across it.

He flinches.

I regret being so bold.

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

He hesitates. “Naw, it’s cool.”

He takes a sip of water.

“I must have been around eleven. My brother used to time me whenever I would go to the store for him. One time I ran into my friend and started fooling around. When I got back, Orlando told me the next time I took a detour; he would tie me up by my neck. He showed me how he would do it. I was never late after that. Yeah, it’s kind of fucked up.”

Moises is trying to be a man about this story, to act as if what his brother did to him was okay but there’s no cause to. It’s only us up here and the popping firecrackers. For the first time all night, I’m the one staring at him and I’m not looking away.

He slowly inches towards me. Very slowly. So close that I feel his breath on my cheek, on my lips, until his lips are on mine and I’m forced to close my eyes.

His lips are soft and tangy from the mango. He guides me back down to the sleeping bag. His hand trails the side of my neck, down to my back and inching its way underneath my blouse.

“I can’t,” I blurt out.

“We can take it slow. I want to be with you and if that means holding hands, I’m cool with that. If it means more, I’m cool with that too. You feel me?”

I’m not supposed to feel anything for Moises. Not this kiss. Not emotions. Not a thing. He’s not part of my summer equation so this moment right now is just a silly act. Moises doesn’t hold anything good for me. He’s just a dare.

I get up and take in his serious face glowing against the flashes of the fireworks. The kiss that tasted like mango still lingers on my lips.

No. Moises is not for me.

LilliamNov2013Lilliam Rivera is a James Kirkwood Literary Prize nominee and a 2013 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus.net, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Latina magazine. Lilliam is completing a contemporary young adult novel. “My Shelf Life” is an excerpt from that novel.