Abuela’s enormous bowl was rim-filled with the thick mixture of grated plantain dough called masa. Annatto seeds crackled in hot corn oil, releasing a deep-orange hue which gave the oil a distinct earthy taste. She strained the oil through a small metal colander, leaving the jagged seeds behind.
Abuela folded thick ribbons of oil into the masa, tinting its prior pale. Her humid kitchen caused beads of sweat to gather above her lip; she wiped the sweat off her forehead. A few strands of hair, tinged with silver slipped out, she tucked them back into her pink headscarf, before she continued cooking. Overwhelmed by curiosity, I decided to dip a finger into the massive bowl, but our eyes locked seconds before. “¡No lo toques! Don’t touch!” she admonished.
Never before had I encountered such odd food. She poured a little of the mixture onto oiled plantain leaves, added delectable morsels of roasted pork, and tied them securely in wax paper. As she packaged up the pasteles, her colorless lips sagged in melancholy. She placed them into the pot as the water came to boil. When hot plantain stream overwhelmed the small kitchen, I escaped to the backyard.
Keen-eyed on my whereabouts. I noticed how she squeezed and released the handle of the aluminum storm door, seeming lost in private thoughts of her yesterday. Stern and quiet—entirely different from the merriment of her prior evening.
Her dark hair had kissed her bare shoulders; occasionally she pursed her thick lips to amber-hued rum shots. Recordings of forlorn lovers wailed in the background, tugging at the souls of Abuela’s portly guests.
A harsh contrast from the towering cities of the northeast. Abuela and her compatriots shuffled dominoes into right and left angles.
I watched them play from the living room stairs, straining my neck to understand sounds of muffled Spanish and newly-acquired English. Cigarette haze floated above her oversized friends whose legs met below the table in fleshly mirth; stubby toes flicked off pumps.
A growing collection of shot glasses vied for the caress of lonely hands and thirsty souls. Abuela’s latest boyfriend whispered into her ear; his gold-ringed fingers twirled a lock of her hair. I watched her blush as her kohl-lined eyebrows danced, her mouth a red grin. I hadn’t seen this form of happiness before. So different was her feather-lite voice of bright laughter.
Grandma found my curious eyes watching her through the cigarette haze. “¡Sube pa’rriba! Get upstairs!”
I darted upwards to the bedroom, angered because I’d been banished from her party. I seethed when the next morning she called me from her downstairs bedroom, raccoon-eyed and disheveled.
She forced me to dump her bedroom chamber pot—filled with dark urine and disintegrated wads of tissue. It splashed my feet as I lugged it to the upstairs bathroom. As I washed my hands of its sticky residue, resentment left an imprint on my soul.
In that steam-filled kitchen, Abuela heaved a sigh of longing before returning to the final batch of pasteles—a resourceful way of providing for her children.
Le Clown Lyrique
She was a Puerto-Rican version of Madame Loisel—the storied character whose own memories became solidified in a Parisian night of diamonds, glamour, and gaiety.