“Lemuel, te voy a decir una cosa.”
My father pauses, guiding his gold Cadillac DeVille up the ramp towards the George Washington Bridge. I shift my legs in the backseat, absorbing the warmth trapped in the car’s beige leather, waiting for him to continue. Through the window I see the amber glow of apartment buildings dissolving into the cool darkness over the Hudson River. We’re leaving Washington Heights, the Dominican neighborhood where my father has his dental lab, and where we used to live. Our apartment was a tiny one, just above where my father worked. It used to be that he’d walk up two flights of stairs to get to our front door. Now he drives over the river to Fort Lee, New Jersey, where he and my mother bought a house.
“Lemuel,” he jabs.
“Dime,” I answer.
“Tiene’ que hacer bién en la escuela.”
School, he says. Do well, he says.
I knew it. I haven’t been doing well. Ever since starting school in Jersey in the third grade, I’ve hated it more and more. I don’t fit in. People don’t like me. I’m ignored. It’s only gotten worse in the two years I’ve been there. My grades are dropping and I never do my homework. I feel like school is a waste of my time — my time to play and create, my time to enjoy myself. I don’t know what to say, so I keep quiet. My father continues.
“Tiene’ que trabajar duro.”
Work. Work hard.
I know what’s coming next. I’ve heard it all so many times before. Somewhere in the Dominican Republic, when my father was my age, his father died. His mother abandoned him. He was alone and penniless, and had to work tirelessly to put food in his mouth and clothes on his back. No one ever gave him a thing. He has traded time and sweat for all he’s ever gotten. My father worked his way through school and university, eventually graduating with his degree in dentistry. He met and married my mother and chose to start a family, but not before uprooting to the United States and leaving everything he had behind — including his doctorate. My father started from square one again, learning English and going back to school for a dental technician’s license — a quicker route than dental school, and a quicker means for earning a living to keep food on the table for us.
“Tiene’ que sacar ‘A’ en todo, para que pueda ir a la universidad…”
Straight A’s. College. What am I supposed to say to that? I’m in fifth grade. I glance out the window as we cross the halfway point on the bridge. I’m always intrigued by the sign saying, “Welcome to New Jersey,” and how close it is to the sign saying “Welcome to New York,” facing the other direction. Every time, I wait to feel something as we pass over the border. I picture the jagged line cutting the two landmasses apart, splitting them into distinct places, with different cultures and accents, different day-to-day lives, different people, and I wonder if I should feel different. But no, it’s always the same nothing, crossing from one State to the next. I just don’t get it.
“…Para que pueda ir a la universidad con un scholarship,” he continues, “todo gratis.”
A full scholarship. A free ride to college. The ultimate prize.
I think of my mother and how much she loves school. She told me that, back in Los Alcarrizos, a poor rural area outside Santo Domingo, she set up a schoolhouse on my grandfather’s farm. She taught her eight younger siblings to read and write; to do their times tables; to know their history; always dreaming of becoming a real teacher. She told me she spent her first years in America working an assembly line at a factory, then as a cashier at a supermarket, then, after getting her driver’s license, she ran errands for my father. I remember accompanying her to her classes at City College when I was younger. Every night I saw her sitting in the kitchen before I went to bed, with all her books and notes in a pile on the table, working into the night. I remember just a year ago when she finally graduated, and not really understanding the pride she showed over doing something I’d done so easily in Kindergarten. Graduating’s not a big deal; it’s just another thing you do.
“Tiene’ que estudiar,” my father repeats. “Es muy importante.”
Trees begin to appear on the side of the road, and I know we’re almost at our house. This isn’t the one I wanted. When we were driving into Jersey on the weekends to look at places, I had a list of things I needed. A big backyard. A treehouse. A pool. A skylight. A fireplace. Things I saw on TV that meant life in suburbia. Things that meant more fun, more play. What my parents chose instead was an old house on a dead end street, with creaky floorboards and a wide, concrete driveway. No treehouse. No fireplace. No pool. When we first visited, the attic had red lightbulbs and stains on the floor. It creeped me out. But by the time we moved in, my parents had put in fresh carpeting and new lighting. The kitchen was being redone and the yard was being landscaped. A pool was being built. My parents decided to start from scratch. To build something from the bottom up. To make something out of nothing.
“Trabaja duro,” my father says, “Y yo estaré muy orgulloso de tí.”
Proud of me. He’d be proud.
“Okay, Papi,” I say.
Originally published in The Caribbean Writer, Volume 29, 2015.