Anonymous Pain

What follows is the story of an anonymous girl.

We will file it under fiction, because it must be, fiction.

More people should tell their stories.

************

Years later, everyone smiled as if nothing had happened, as if she had kept her secret.

Her heart sank each time.

She did not wish him ill, but it was a dagger that plunged deeper with each passing day.

******

She was 13 or 14. She had stayed home with him, while everyone else went to the airport to pick up a visiting family member. It was a joyous occasion, as they had never been able to visit before, and it was suspected that they might stay permanently.

She sat on the bed in her sister’s room, and watched television, while eating Eggo’s. It was about 9:30 at night, but it’s never too late for Eggo’s.

He waltzed through her open doorway, in his brown loafers, red sweatshirt and cargos, with his foolish grin, and Black on the rocks in hand. He stared at her glassy eyed.

She felt her cheeks redden as he approached her; she fixed her gaze on the tv, and took another bite. The syrup, or the knot building in her throat, made it difficult to swallow.

He stood by her side and leaned in close to her face. The smell of whiskey and the bristle of his unshaven face made her wince. As she moved away, he placed his hand on her thigh. She stopped chewing. Her hands shook as she held the plate nervously, but she was otherwise paralyzed.

“Give me a kiss,” he said.

She shrugged him off and said,”No, what are you talking about?”

He turned to face her and persisted, all his weight bearing down on her leg.

“Just a lil’ kiss, right here, on the cheek.” He slurred and pointed, then puckered his lips.

She put the plate down on the bed, and got up, pushing past him. She quickly crossed the hall to her room, and dead-bolted the door behind her.

She sat on the bed and tears moistened her cheeks.

What had just happened? Was she overreacting? Did she misinterpret him?

He knocked on her door.

“Open the door. I’m not going to hurt you. I was just playing.”

He knocked again, but she remained silent.

It was not the first time she had felt that sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach.

******

One time, he and his family, her family, had been over, and he had asked her to give him a back massage. Young and naive, she was proud to show off her skills and began to karate chop across his upper back.

Everything was fine, as she pounded away on his back with her fists.

“Sit on my back,” he suggested.

“Where?” She asked, obviously having misunderstood back for bed.

“Sit on my back. You know, so you can get a better angle.”

She was maybe 12 or 13; young, but old enough to know this didn’t feel right.

“I’m kind of tired, actually. Sorry.” She apologized to him, and walked away to the kitchen where she knew others were talking and snacking.

******

She thought she had been imagining things that first time, but this was something different.

Once the family got back from the airport, she ventured out of her room to welcome the visitor.

Everyone was so happy.

He acted like nothing had happened; wouldn’t so much as look at her.

I’m not gonna ruin everyone’s happiness when nothing happened. They’re just gonna think he was joking around as usual, anyways.

******

She was a month away from turning 17, when her parents went out of town for a week.

He and his family always stayed with her and her little sister while their parents were out of town. He had always been like a big brother, like the son her parent’s had never had.

She wasn’t feeling well, and signed herself out of school early one day.

He was at the house when she got there, checking in on some work that was being done in her parent’s yard.

She sat outside on the patio and looked at the progress they had made. There were 2 or 3 workers clearing weeds, planting new trees, and pouring fresh mulch. She sat on a rocking chair to enjoy the refreshing springtime breeze.

When he spotted her, he went to the patio and sat across from her.

“What are you doing home early?”

“I wasn’t feeling well,” she said, overlapping both hands across her stomach. She was already starting to feel worse.

“How’s your boyfriend? Gonna see him today?” He asked, rocking casually.

“He’s fine. You know I can’t go out ’til my parents get back.” She frowned at him thinking, “you’re supposed to be the adult here.”

“I could teach you things.” He leaned forward, speaking more quietly now.

“About what?”

“I’m sure you guys kiss. Do you do anything else?”

“What?”

She hesitated, but then was certain of what she had heard.

“What kind of question is that? It’s none of your business.” She felt more uncomfortable now, but the workers were around so she still felt safe.

“Don’t be shy. I can show you how to do everything. We can go to a motel, right now. I’ll be gentle.” He reached out for her hand, but she pulled it away from the arm of her rocker just in time.

“I have to go.”

She got up abruptly and headed for the door.

Where’s my backpack? Where are my keys? She scanned the room frantically, blind.

The door closed again behind her, and she turned to see him steps away.

<strong>There, at the end of the counter, my keys. She reached for them just as he reached for her arm.

She tried to pull away, and stared at him, her heart pounding in her chest. He gripped her forearm tightly.

“Come on. I promise it won’t hurt. Nobody has to know.”

“I would never do that!”

She shook her arm free and ran for the door. She drove off crying. She just drove and drove.

She drove, until she knew someone else would be home.

******

A couple months after, she worked up the nerve to tell her family.

They believed her, but…

There must not have been enough harm done?

Maybe they all didn’t know the whole story.

Maybe it didn’t matter.

She never saw him again, except now again through the ills of social media; but many of her family did.

And she suffered in silence…wondering all the time if she did right, if she was right, and if they knew it?

Perpetual Intern

Valsan was born in the back-room of a bodega 67 years ago.

My grandfather had several bodegas in Cuba circa 1940s. My father often retells the story of how he was born on a sack of sugar in the back of one said bodega. My grandmother, who worked quietly and faithfully by my grandfather Jose’s side, told the midwife to start getting the conditions ready because she felt she would be giving birth soon. “Getting conditions ready” meant filling a metal tub with hot water, gathering whatever scraps or towels were available, and clearing a table or floor area in the back.

In this case, my grandmother lay back on some sacks of sugar, sweating and breathing heavily. She bared down, holding her legs back, and pushed. The comadrona (midwife) received my father, Ruben Agustin Valdes, into this world on August 28, 1946. My grandmother Carmen, whom I was named after, put my father to her breast immediately. Nowadays, and specifically in the U.S., we are asked if we WANT to breast feed; but, in her time, as well as present day Cuba, you prayed for the milk to come easily.

It was not the first time a new born was heard crying from the back of the bodega. My father had 6 brothers and 3 sisters, of whom 4 brothers and 1 sister have now passed.

My dad says, Abuela Carmen was back to work the next day, but I can hardly believe it.

******

Like many Cubans, my father and his siblings made the difficult decision to leave their parents and other family behind to pursue a better life in America.

I was born during a short stay in Puerto Rico after my parents first left Cuba. My father worked as a salesman, and later started a company there with his brother. After about a year, my father felt he had learned enough about sales and merchandising, and decided it was time to go to the U.S. and start his own business there.

He would travel weekly to New York to buy merchandise. Often, he’d return the same day because he did not have enough to pay for an overnight stay at a hotel. More often than not, he would leave the house in the morning with only a tostada and cafe con leche in his stomach, and not eat again until he returned. If he had ten dollars in his pocket, it was to buy Cuban bread and croquetas for my mom, my sister and I, and the rest to reinvest in the company.

My father visited local vendors at flea markets and small strip malls to sell to them. Little by little, his clientele grew, until he was able to open his own post in the strip mall. It was between 400-800 sq feet. Valsan sold earrings, bracelets and necklaces, sunglasses, coin purses; many items, but wholesale only. Eventually, with God on his side, my dad’s hard work and discipline paid off, and he moved to a larger location where he also began to sell to the retail public.

******

I have been working at Valsan all my life.

I wasn’t born in the back of a bodega like my father, but most of my earliest memories are of watching cartoons in the office, or Jeff Smith on The Frugal Gourmet*, a cooking show that aired after Sesame Street, or was it The Muppets.

*Yes, I googled the name, I was only 3 or 4 then. None of it stuck, anyhow; I’m a terrible cook.

I remember when we got our first compute—the black screen and green letters, and all the professionalism it represented. I was always eager to play secretary, but I was forbidden to explore this obscure version of Windows.

Instead, I kept myself entertained with the green chalkboard behind our secretary’s door, erasing some important delivery information or other factoid, to doodle trees, clouds and rainbows, maybe an unruly squirrel. The work of an 8 year old is never done.

I only “worked” on the weekends or holidays during the school year, but over the summer I was there almost every day.

I had many “friends” at work. Of course, I was too young and naive to realize they were sort of obligated to be nice to me. But anyhow, I “helped” everybody. I was particularly handy at testing out the toys. A lot of them came with those small annoying “try me” batteries that often wore out before the toy left the shelf.

I helped the secretary most of all, when she had nothing to do. We would play circulitos. Basically, your goal is to connect 2 dots during each turn, until you complete a square. Then, you initial the square, and the most squares wins. She never “let me win”, and I’m grateful for that.

Christmas and Mother’s day meant lots of work and big sales, but were usually followed by a slower season which meant personnel cuts. I recall one January, clasping my hands together and begging my father,”Papi, please don’t fire Mary. She’s my friend.”

I don’t know if it was my somber look, or if he really had no intention of letting her go, but Mary’s been with us for about 20 years.

As I got older, I got more and more involved in the day to day operations, like the register. Customer service was not my forte. I was a magnet for belligerent customers who wanted to return something used (that was working perfectly fine), or who had some other “important”, yet unfounded suggestion.

“This is cheaper at…”, “Everything here is crap”, or “You only have two cashiers?”. Mind you, there were, literally, 3 people in line at the time.

What I could never understand, but was unequivocally grateful for anyways, was the fact that despite their complaints, they still handed me money.

******

Between schoolwork and homework, Monday through Friday, and work-work on the weekend, I was “overworked”.

I once argued that it was against the law to make me go to Valsan, because I was a minor, and I couldn’t be forced to work more than x amount of hours. My father, who was driving us to work at the time, glared at me through the rearview. His look was worse than a swift kick in the pants; I dropped the issue…for the moment.

I had already decided I was going to be a lawyer. Apparently, recalling some Charles Dickens novel, I would stand up for minors and uphold the child labor laws.

I didn’t want any part in the wholesale or retail business my parents had built from the minivan up. Who wants to work six or seven days a week, even on holidays, and day-a-way hurricanes? Apparently, we weren’t Jewish, Christian, Catholic, or Muslim. Atheist, I suppose; although, I often heard my dad say,”Gracias a Dios.

Over the years, as the business grew, we went from staying at my uncle’s house, to a 2/1 townhouse, to a house-house where my sister and I each had our own room. My dad had progressed from a large red Ford van to a sleek black four door Mercedes.

Thankfully, we always had enough of what we needed, and were blessed with many things that we wanted.

My complaints consisted of,”Why do we have to work?”,”I wanna stay home and sleep,” or “Can’t I go to the beach with my friends?”

My father was very strict with my older sister and I; although, I got permission to do more than she did. Like I said, in my heart I was already a lawyer. I argued with my father on the why’s and when’s of my social life. Each time, I was ready with several points and examples to back my case. If I had been a little more computer savvy, I could’ve prepared a compelling PowerPoint on my Gateway.

I often failed and cried from frustration, but other times, my logic and or perseverance won him over.

I was very clear on one thing—I was NOT going to be a slave like my parents. I was going to be a famous lawyer and make the “real money”, not work all the time, arguing with customers over nickels and dimes.

All along my father told me I could study and work wherever I wanted.

******

Today, I am president of my own Valsan location. My older sister also runs one of our six locations. We are involved in almost every aspect of the business—schedules, payroll, accounting, advertising, purchasing, pricing, etc.

Our youngest sister handles the social media aspects of the business, website development, and other marketing tools, in addition to sharing many of the tasks I mentioned before.

My father is still the head honcho. He works from our headquarters, where my sister and I grew up playing hide-and-seek-and-knock over as many boxes as you can in the warehouse.

I visit that location 2-3 times a week. On those days, I am basically, my father’s intern. He does everything and nothing all at once.

My father used to do everything, whether it was carrying boxes or writing the checks. Eventually, 30 boxes became 30 pallets, and 30 pallets became six 53′ containers. Valsan went from a strip mall kiosk, to six locations amassing over 150,000 square feet of retail space. Now, he does more of the managing than the hard labor, and the mental stress is definitely much more exhausting.

It is pretty unnerving being with my dad all day.

“Get me this, fax that, call so and so, bring me those, take me there, walk with me, listen to me, tell me, sit with me, did you email so and so, what did they say,” and so on. The “right now” is implied, and usually comes while I am mid-meal, walking to the bathroom, or completing one of his other requests.

The other day I burst out in laughter, as he interrupted my bite into a sandwich, to ask me to make a call. I said, “You’re messing with me, right?”

His genuine look of confusion when he asked me “why” led me to believe he is completely unaware of the level of stress he so easily, albeit inadvertently, imposes.

******

Recently, my father, two employees, and I walked through Miami International Airport towards the terminal where we would soon be departing to Los Angeles, where we purchase a large portion of our goods. My father walked ahead of us with his hands behind his back retelling some anecdote from his entrepreneurial past. He was walking slowly, yet we struggled to keep up, listening intently like interns doing rounds. I wanted to write down everything he was saying. To absorb every piece of information regarding work, life, or other, that came from his mind.

******

Everyday that I am with him, trying to juggle ten tasks at a time, trying to learn from him and impress him all at once, and still listen for his next instruction or piece of virtue; all the while, I wonder when I’ll get to take a break for lunch.

And I hope, I can have lunch with him.