The most important words a son can learn are “everything is fine, mom.” Which isn’t a lie. It’s more of a wish dressed up like the truth. No different, really, than a mother looking down at her chubby son looking up at her through swimming goggles, a towel tied around his neck, and asking if he could one day be a superhero. Was it possible? Did he have her permission? And her saying, “Yes, yes, and yes.” You know those stories about a mother lifting a car to save her child? Such displays of super-strength aren’t that rare. Most mothers carry their hopes and fears for their children on their backs, stooping over from that terrible treasure’s weight. Atlas had it easy. A man should aspire to relieve her of this burden from time to time. Laid off? Heartbroken? Monsters under the bed? Everything is fine.
I was never a “momma’s boy.” Which is surprising, culturally. Latino families are matriarchies. Sometimes, strong, doting mothers can produce spoiled macho little princes. This was not to be my fate. Not on her watch. Mama DeVore, like most people, can be summed up by her contradictions. A devout Catholic who vocally questioned the church. A fan of action movies and dusty books rescued from thrift stores. A housewife and a teacher. A woman not to be f**ked with, and a gentle wife whose whispers would make her gruff husband giggle. When my dad would tell me to listen to my mother it was because he was listening too. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with her. She kept me close. Challenged me. When I was a mouthy brat, she’d turn on the swagger that served her well as the member of a Chicana gang in the El Paso of the ’60s. What I didn’t know was this was all part of her plan. And that plan was to get me to the age of 18 with as few dents as possible.
On that birthday, weeks before leaving for college, she hugged me and wished me luck. Said goodbye. I was on my own. After graduation, I made the impulsive decision to move to New York City from Texas. I didn’t have a job there. I knew next to no one. I had been to the city once. As I was about to board the plane, I saw my dad’s worried eyes grow wet. My mom just smirked. I hugged them both. The last thing my mom told me was to make sure I kept a $20 bill tucked in my socks.
New York City has only made me cry once. I remember waking up on the plane as it began its descent, and staring out the window. I will admit, if given the choice in life between doing it the easy way and doing it the hard way, I’ve always picked the latter. Call it misbegotten romanticism. Or call it being a naive Hobbit with a poet’s liver. Television and the movies never do New York right. I felt like I had a lawsuit the first time I pressed my face against the cold plastic window and actually saw how huge a city can be. I would sue NBC and the creators of “Friends” for misrepresentation of reality. New York was impossibly huge, a vast ocean of concrete teeth ready to chew me up and spit me out.
“This is a bad idea” was my first thought the moment the wheels touched asphalt. I gravitated to a McDonald’s at the airport, not because I was hungry but because I needed to collect myself somewhere familiar. This was no time to turn into licorice. After all, I had just come from Texas, a state that celebrates a battle where everyone was killed.
Dragging my suitcases into a cab, I barked, “Take me to New York City!”
“You’re here, pal.”
“Then to the YMCA in the borough of Manhattan!” Somehow, he knew exactly where he was taking me and he knew an exceedingly complicated way to get there.
Fifty dollars later I was standing in front of bulletproof glass. With steely eyes I announced that I had a reservation. The cashier giggled, and very formally informed me that my room was ready. The YMCA in Chelsea was cheap. Dirty. My room was a bed, a chest of drawers and a chair. The view was of ducts. I shared a bathroom with a tubercular hobo, an old scarecrow who would leave his dentures in the shower, and the ghost of Charles Bukowski. Though I had a budget of $20 a day, I decided to venture out into the city and treat myself to a New York meal. My first brave step into the city felt like what I imagine having gills feels like — I was enveloped in noise, shoulders, and spectacle. And I drank it in. Held it. Let it pass out of me. When I ordered my corned beef sandwich, I said, “Thank you, ma’am.” And the waitress snapped, “What do I look like, your f**king mother?” A homeless man shared his sores with me. Crossing the street was a death sprint. I needed a job. A purpose. A life. Any friends I had in the city lived far away, in a magical realm known as Brooklyn. And I doubt they would have wanted to spend time with a lonely hick and his sweaty palms.
I spent the next day in my room contemplating. Getting my existential crisis on. I talked to myself a lot that day. Out loud. A loon with a long beard trapped in a dungeon of his own ambition’s making. A mousy egotist regretting his dramatic escape from chicken-fried steak country. There was a violent knock at the door. “DO YOU HAVE SHAMPOOOOOOOO?” I knew I couldn’t stay locked up. I formulated a plan: get a job, any job. Make money. Don’t move back to Texas. Don’t die. One day, laugh about this.
In those days, cell phones were executive playthings. Pay phones and calling cards were my only communication option. I didn’t want to rush to call home. I was hard, like a Jolly Rancher. But by my second day, I realized I needed to call. My folks were probably freaking out. Calling the NYPD. Hiring grizzled Texan bounty hunters. I bounded down the stairs at the YMCA to get to the pay phone bank before a particularly loud woman began her nightly ritual of yelling at human beings.
Dry heaves! Wiping hands on wall! Jelly still on fingers! Red alert! It was an absurd moment. Sliding my hand into something so unseemly was something out of a horror movie where the haunted house wheezes “GET OUT.” I spent my next day’s budget on a Cornucopia of soaps and disinfectants. I lathered, scrubbed, and rinsed under scalding water. I was Lady Macbeth. Out, out damn spot! My hands were raw when I finally picked up the phone. Halfway through dialing, I started balling. My eyeballs turned into bursting water balloons. I was alone, scared, and covered in strange bodily secretions. My weeping was pathetic and it earned a “go home, boy” from one of the residents.
I finished dialing. My mom picked up.
“How is New York, mijo? Have you gone to Central Park? Have you signed up for any temp agencies?”
Silence. Wiping eyes. Biting tongue.
“Are you okay?”
I just put my hand in male ejaculate. Everything is expensive. I’m hungry. I’m not smart or cultured or connected enough to make it here. I want to come home.
“Everything is fine, mom.”
I’ve been here in New York ever since. And 14 years later, I always check the hand rails for mysterious glop.
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