By Bryce Kelly
The sound of Dembow and Dubstep ripped through my body like a storm as I sat cross-legged on the concrete floor. Half-mashed plantains mixed with sardines lined my stomach, swimming up and down to the beat. It was late now, close to my bedtime, the time I used to write in my journal, the time my old host mom locked the door.
I observe my host brother cautiously messing with his collection of SD cards, each containing a unique playlist put together by himself. As I slowly become entranced by his actions and the song that was playing, he raises his head and greets me with a smile, “Que lo que Luis! ¿Te gusta la música?”
I paused for a second, forgetting my new identity was named Luis. “Sí, me gusta”. I did really like the music en la República Dominicana; it flowed through me like it had been with me all my life. I couldn’t understand most of the lyrics, but a part of me felt at peace just soaking in the vibes.
Looking past my brother, I see a frantic gesture beaconing me outside. My host sisters share a wink with each other, motioning me toward them with two fingers drawn. Even though it’s late, I can tell they still think the night is young. As we begin to walk they ask about my life in America, and tell me stories of their youth. They speak nothing about God like the rest of the country, but of dreams and aspirations. Katia wants to own a hair salon, while Rafelina wants to learn English and move to America, the land of the free.
Tonight is different. Tonight I will end the tradition my now forgotten host family set as law. Tonight will be my first Sunday in community unspoken to by a pastor. I have come to realize through my previous month and a half that a good first impression is key when getting accepted into a new family. The time is now to prove my worth as an addition to their family.
The farther we walk, the more my brain hurts from fear of breaking the strict rule of leaving the clearly established community boundaries. My mind runs in circles, debating the price of going out, versus the cost of getting caught. I have no second chances, once you’re caught, you’re out. Engrossed in my own captivity, I feel fingers slip into my hand. I quickly snap out of my daze realizing I had gone mute. “¿Quieres ser mi novio?” Rafelina asks, her hand gripped to mine.
Do I want to be her boyfriend? What? I just met this girl and she’s already asking a very serious, or maybe, not so serious question. This thought cannot be thrown around lightly.
“No, tengo un novia.” I didn’t have a girlfriend back home but to avoid breaking another sworn code of conduct I hide my truth.
Rafelina smiles and states that it doesn’t matter, she has a boyfriend as well. As I look deeper into her eyes, I see that her words are true. She doesn’t care about commitments. She lives for the moment.
Our pace halts as we near the corner of a street. Tall cobblestone walls, topped with barbed wire eerily glisten in the light of a lamppost. This lamppost is the only source of light on the block, shining a spotlight down on us in the absence of the moon. Katia’s friend arrives and informs us that they are going to smoke hookah in the park nearby. My untouched lungs and the fear of being sent home overwhelms me, responding quickly that I will wait on the corner until they are finished. To my disappointment, Rafelina says the same and sits down on a rusted black bench that is pressed up against the wall. I feel a surge of panic as a new problem gets locked into my life.
Awaiting damnation, I prepare for another session of flirting. To my surprise, however, Rafelina quiets and asks one of the most intriguing questions I have ever heard. “¿Debo ir a los Estados Unidos?”
Should she go to the States? This question may seem very dependent on the person, however, from what I can tell, people have the wrong idea about America. The vision of America, molded by the misguiding portrayals of social media, is the belief that America brings opportunity, wealth, and happiness.
“¿Estás contenta?” The more I think about it, the more I envision life as a jumble of aspirations that move us toward fulfillment. This question of satisfaction embodies this very principle.
She pauses, shuffles her shoes against the coarse ground, tucking her bottom lip under her top lip while raising her eyebrows in realization. “Yo no sé, pero Los Estados Unidos estaba en mis sueños”
She doesn’t know, but the United States have apparently been in her dreams. Pausing for a moment I lean back on the cold metal, responding only with a tentative nod as we lock eyes in mutual understanding.
Weeks later, after a long day of work, I find myself walking down the street coming back to the home I am now used to. I catch sight of Rafelina, her body hunched over her dampened jeans, quivering in the 80-degree heat. Although I normally try to avoid such circumstances due to my butchered version of the Spanish language, she is between me and the bed I crave. I take the seat next to her on the broken curb. Every inch of me wants to ask, what is wrong? How can I help? There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to express yourself when someone needs you the most. Rejecting my gut feeling, I take a risk and ask the questions anyways.
Something must have been looking out for me, because today was different. She proceeded to open up to me, stuttering as she explained how her mother was going to send her to Santo Domingo to live with her father because she found out about her “relationships”.
Her father was a difficult subject. The only time I’ve seen him was when he showed up late one night, drunk off mamajuana, a crude mix of rum, red wine, and honey. However, he was swiftly shoed away by my host mother, lost in the night on his moto.
“¿Qué relaciones?” I murmur the words, scared of the answer.
She whimpers again, letting out her mistakes that would inevitably cost her dream. She started with the 28-year-old, and ended with the 30-year-old, having two in between. I don’t know why she did it, but that’s not the point. The point is she was halfway through school, and like her older sister, this would mean dropping out, being forced to become dependent on another person.
Everything in my head went blank. I couldn’t feel pity, or angry, or anything at all. I felt emotionless, stuck in time. My eyes drifted to far out cities, tasting the freedom gifted to me on a silver spoon. The taste of freedom that Rafelina will now never share.
Sitting here in my bed I can’t describe what happened after that. We must have both accepted our own paths and headed inside. As I lay here, reliving my previous 15 minutes, I listen carefully to the white noise of my fan, taking in meaning where there wasn’t any. I wax into a stationary corpse, paralyzed in my own thoughts. What could I do for Rafelina? She was my sister for God’s sake.
I hate the very notion of crying, but that night, I let out a single tear. And I still don’t know all the reasons why. I just know that she was only 14, with so much to live for, and I was 16, with so much to become.