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Yes” For “Silence ©2010 Adalena Kavanagh

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dispatch is currently seeking a paid culture editor. applicants should be generally on top of current events, both mainstream and alternative, and should have at least three 210–250–word dispatches to submit for suggestion. all applications will be responded to but only one will be approved. dispatch@litareview.com

—Christy Call

It was summer time and one of Karina’s jobs was to take me to school to eat the free lunch. During the school year, if the government decided that your family made too much money you had to pay full price for lunch, and that’s how much I had to pay. But even though the government said we made enough, mom and dad always seemed to be worried about money. That’s why we moved to Washington Heights, because it was cheaper, and that’s why I ate the free lunch in the summer. Daddy said it made him feel good to get some of his money back. Then again, he didn’t have to eat the free lunch. That was my job. Karina was my new babysitter, but I already knew all about her. When Karina’s sister Cecilia used to be my babysitter Karina called me a nerd because I liked to read books instead of watch re­runs on TV after school. One time, when Cecilia and Karina had to go to the store for their mother, they brought me with them and Karina waited for Cecilia to walk ahead of us before she shoved a bag of M&Ms into my hands. “Just put it into your pocket. Nobody will know, and then we can share later.” When I shook my head, no, she narrowed her eyes and became angry with me and pinched me in the arm. “You’re such a baby. Can’t even steal a little fifty cent piece of candy.”

She put the M&Ms into her own pocket, but one of the store workers must have seen her because when we got to the register a man came over and asked Karina if she forgot to pay for something. He stood in front of us blocking the way out of the store. Cecilia looked at Karina with her mouth open, and Karina patted her pocket and acted surprised when she pulled out the M&Ms. “I forgot. Sorry.” But she didn’t sound sorry at all. Then she turned to Cecilia. “Lend me fifty cents?” Cecilia’s face was red, and she shook her head, but she reached into her own pocket to count out the fifty cents Karina owed the store. When we got outside Cecilia yelled at Karina. “Why you gotta do stupid shit like that? Why I always gotta keep you out of trouble?” Karina just sucked her teeth and ran across the street. That was Karina. Cecilia, she cooed at babies she saw on the street. She gathered the girls I played with around a park bench and asked us about school. She squealed over our minor achievements, like 100% on a spelling test, and her pride was infectious. When she had a small group of us crowded around her she said things like, “Stay in school.” “Don’t be afraid to be smart.”


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“Don’t ever let a boy get you twisted.”  I could tell she liked me even though I was shy and she had to ask me a question five different ways before she satisfied her curiosity. Karina, on the other hand, used to roll her eyes at me and order me to sit on the floor until Cecilia patted a spot next to her on the couch. Then Cecilia got pregnant and she couldn’t be my babysitter anymore. My parents didn’t know Karina like I did, so they asked her, and she became my new babysitter. Lunch started at 11:30, but Karina didn’t take me to the school until 12:30 because she said if I ate too early I’d get hungry later. Every morning, when daddy dropped me off downstairs, he gave Karina two dollars to buy me a snack in the afternoon, but sometimes Karina acted like she forgot about the two dollars in her pocket. Karina was only sixteen so she could have taken a tray, too. Free lunch was for everyone 18 or under, but she usually didn’t. When Karina did take a tray she only took dessert, but she made me eat everything on my tray, even the lima beans and broccoli. With her eyes on me it felt as if she enjoyed watching me eat. Karina was always on a diet, but she revealed her hunger when she ate the watermelon slices and slurped up the syrupy peaches. That last day they served carob cookies for dessert, and Karina didn’t take anything at all, but she must have been hungry because she pointed her index finger with the neon pink painted nail at the tater tots I was saving for last.

“What?” she asked, “You don’t want that?” I thought about saying that I did, that I always saved my favorite for last, but I didn’t say anything. She took my silence for yes, and helped herself to my tater tots even though she could have gotten her own tray. “You didn’t need them anyway,” Karina said as she popped the last tater tot in her mouth. Then she poked me in the belly to prove her point. Karina always acted like she was doing me a favor when she was just being mean. At the beginning of the summer Karina had announced that we needed to lose weight and we were going to help each other. “I’ll ride the bike and you run behind me. Running burns more calories because you’re not sitting on your ass.” She didn’t have her own bike so she rode mine even though she thought my banana seat was “faggy”. The first time she borrowed my bike I ran behind her but she rode too fast and I had to walk because I got a cramp in my side. When I yelled that it was my turn she stopped and gave me time to catch up. I said that now I would ride the bike and she could run behind me. I even promised not to ride too fast, but she shook her head. “I just did my hair this morning. I don’t want to get all sweaty.” She dismissed me with a flick of her hand and I walked to the playground to play with the other kids. I


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watched Karina ride around the park in circles as I hung upside down from my knees on a chin up bar. That last day, when I saw Karina had parked my bike, and was sitting on a park bench fanning her face with her hand, I broke away from a game of freeze tag to remind her that she’d promised to take me to the library. My school bag was tucked into the white basket hanging from the front of my bike. “Dag, May. You really want to go?” I nodded my head. “My books are due today." When she didn’t say anything I said, "I don’t have anything to read.” Karina rolled her eyes at me and then continued to ignore me with her face turned the other way, her chin jutting out. When she finally stood up she shouted. “Conjo! Always you and the fucking library.” The park was only a block away from our building but Karina sucked her teeth. “And now we have to take your bike back to my house, too?” I didn’t remind her that she was the one who wanted to bring my bike to the park. If she acted that mean to me when I didn’t say anything, how would she act if I talked back to her? I wasn’t brave enough to tell her what I really thought. Karina lived in the basement of our building because her stepfather, Julio, was the superintendent. The ceilings in their apartment were low but it didn’t seem to

matter because Julio was short. My father never went into their apartment because he always had to hunch his shoulders unless he was sitting. In the summer they left the air­conditioner on in all the rooms even when nobody was home because they didn’t have to pay for electricity. Even when my daddy threw the windows open and ran around yelling that it was too hot, he wouldn’t buy us an air conditioner. My mom said that it was too expensive. We parked my bike in one of the hallways in the basement. Karina made me go to the bathroom and I went as quickly as I could because I didn’t want her to get too caught up in whatever was playing on the television. The television was on all the time, too. I had learned to block out the sound even though Julio’s mother was almost deaf and she put the sound up as high as it could go when she watched her telenovelas. Whenever Julio saw me reading he pointed his chin toward Karina slouched on the couch and said, “She’s only in middle school and she reads better than you.” Karina turned her head away and didn’t say anything. Her leg bounced up and down and made the glass coffee table rattle. I came out of the bathroom and Karina said she had to get something from her parent’s bedroom. She pushed the door open, but then pulled it shut. Even as Karina was pulling the door shut, so I couldn’t see what she had seen, I heard Julio yell, “Shut the goddamn door!” Earlier in the summer, we had gotten halfway up the hill to the park before Karina remembered that she’d left her magazine on the coffee table. She sent me back down the hill to go get it. The apartment door was unlocked, so I just pushed it open but I stopped when I


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saw Karina’s father, Julio, leaning his face down over the glass coffee table. There was white powder on the table, and he held a plastic drinking straw in his hand. I walked away, quietly, and ran back up the hill. Karina saw that I didn’t have her magazine and she yelled at me. “What’s wrong with you? Did you forget why I sent you back?” “No.” I hesitated, and then I said,  “Your father was doing something. He looked busy.” Karina studied me, her brow scrunched up, but maybe because I was looking at the sidewalk, and wouldn’t look her in the eye, her voice turned sweet and she said, “Oh, okay. Let’s just go to the park. I can get it later.” If you had asked me what Karina’s father had been doing, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, exactly, but at the same time, the teachers at school warned us plenty of times about the crack that our neighborhood was so famous for. When they said words like ‘crack rocks’ I imagined the kinds of pebbles that were scattered across the field in the park until one day I was in the park and I saw a small plastic vial that was so small I couldn't imagine what it could have held. Then the words came back to me and I just understood. They also taught us to ‘just say no’ to other things like heroin and cocaine, so even though I couldn’t really name what I saw, I had a feeling that I shouldn't have seen Julio doing what he was doing at all. I never said the words out loud, but in my head I kept shouting­ Drugs! He was doing drugs! Just thinking the words seemed dangerous. I felt like I was

bursting with my new knowledge but I was afraid to talk about it, so Karina and I continued on our way to the park and didn't talk about anything. This time, though, I didn’t see anything and Karina grabbed my arm and pulled me out the door. We walked fast up the hill and it made my calves burn. As we neared 181st street Karina slowed down. The streets were crowded with women and children, and the air was hot and greasy from the corner pastelillos carts. There was no shade from any trees, and the buses spewed black exhaust, but this was the busy heart of our neighborhood, and Karina loved it. She walked with purpose as we made our way down 179th street where the concrete housing projects dwarfed the small brick building that housed the Fort Washington branch of the New York Public Library. My school bag made my back sticky with sweat. Usually Karina took her time when we walked on 181st street because she liked to go into all the stores and look at the shoes and clothes. On the days she pretended not to remember the two dollars my father gave her in the morning she bought herself small things like nail polish or lip­gloss. Karina felt at ease when she was outside in the heat and noise, but I didn’t feel safe until we’d reached the cool, small rooms of the library. Sometimes Karina played beauty salon with me. “You got China hair, not Indio hair like me.” She liked to comb my hair because it was straight and she put makeup on my face, but always made me wash it off before my daddy came. She knew he wouldn’t like the blue eye shadow or the hot pink lipstick.


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One time Karina was being really nice to me and she even said I looked pretty with my hair in a French braid. She looked at me sitting on her bed. I was trying not to move so I wouldn’t mess up the hairstyle she’d given me. She had a sneaky smile on her face. “I’ll give you a dollar if you say, ‘I don’t give a fuck.’” I blinked fast and my hands felt sweaty. Karina always teased me because I didn’t like to talk that much, and I knew that she didn’t expect me to do it, but I said it. First I said it really soft, and she looked at me like I hadn’t said anything at all, but when I said it the second time, louder, she slapped my arm. “Bad girl! Not so loud!” She was laughing when she said it, but she forgot to give me a dollar. I didn’t forget, but I didn’t ask for the dollar, either. It’s like I didn’t have a voice, just eyes and ears.  I felt stupid for believing she’d give it to me. When she left the room to get a drink I looked at Karina’s 10th grade portrait. She was wearing her Catholic school uniform and she looked much younger because they didn’t let you go to school with your hair teased with Aqua Net, or wear the big gold doorknocker earrings Karina wore in the summertime. I looked into Karina’s big bug eyes in the photo and I said, “Bitch.” When Karina walked back in, with just a drink for herself and nothing for me, she saw me looking at her picture and said, “Weirdo.”

That day, after the library, Karina asked me if I wanted pizza. She smiled the kind of smile I wanted to believe. My stomach growled but I hesitated before asking, “Do you want pizza?” “Yes.” Karina laughed. “With extra cheese.” So we ate pizza and it was nice. Karina even asked to see the books I’d checked out and she didn’t laugh or call me a nerd. She also bought me a large soda instead of a medium, even though a large soda and pizza with extra cheese cost more than two dollars. After the pizza we didn’t really have anywhere to go. Karina didn’t want to go back to her apartment. Even before she became my babysitter Karina tried to stay away from home as much as possible, but ever since Cecilia got pregnant Julio said she had to stay close to home. Cecilia had been seventeen when she got pregnant, and Karina told me that Julio changed his mind about letting Karina have a boyfriend when she turned sixteen. “He said that if he even catches me with a boy he’s going to send me to live with his sisters in Puerto Rico. As if.”  That summer we spent most of our days outside. “I like being on the street, seeing the sights,” said Karina. Karina used to point at boys on the street and tell me if they were Puerto Rican or Dominican, like those were the only two things you could be.


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One time she pointed out a Puerto Rican boy and I said, “Oh, like your father, Julio.” “That man is not my father.”  Karina had stopped and whipped her hair back. “Cecilia can call him ‘daddy’ all she wants, but he’s not my father. I’m 100% Dominican,” Karina said, as she pointed at her chest. “Don’t forget it.” I asked her if Cecilia was 100% Dominican, too, and Karina rolled her eyes, “No. She’s Puerto Rican and Dominican. The worst combination.” I asked her where her real father was. “Ay, don’t ask me nothing about that. I don’t know. I don’t care, either.”

My mother is Taiwanese, and my father is Irish, so that makes me half­and­half, but I never thought about whether it was a good combination or not. I didn't know for sure if Julio was Cecilia's real father, but I think he was because he had her name tattooed on his right arm, but I didn't see Karina's name there. Cecilia and Karina's mother, Angela, always looked so tired because she worked in a factory like my mom did, and I could tell where Karina got her temper from because I'd heard Angela yelling from the kitchen. My mom yelled at me too, especially if I didn't do the dishes right away. I think working in a factory makes you angry and impatient because that's how both my mom and Karina's mom seemed most of the time.


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Julio was never angry, except when Karina did something he didn't like. Then he'd yell in English to Karina's mother, "Tell your daughter something, because I don't know what I'm going to do."

It was like having Karina for a stepdaughter was the only thing that set him off, while everything Julio did set Angela off. They fought so much I wasn't surprised that Karina had a different father from Cecilia. What did surprise me was that they’d gotten back together, and stayed together. We went back to the park. Karina was in the mood where she didn’t want to talk to me, but she wanted me close, so she pulled me by the arm and we walked around the park. I didn’t like to walk too close to the south end of the park because that’s where boys with big boom boxes sat and smoked and drank beers out of paper bags. For all of Karina’s boldness she was just as nervous around that part of the park, but that day she edged us closer and closer to the chess tables where a group of teenage boys wearing tank tops sat, and blasted music. We just walked by the edge of this cluster of people but soon enough a boy wearing a black baseball cap broke away from the group and came up to Karina. She pretended that she didn’t see him and kept us walking but he jogged behind us and shouted, “Yo, Karina, whass up?” Karina slowly turned around and stood there with her hip cocked to one side. “Nothing.” “Yeah?” The boy stood back and rubbed his belly and rolled his shoulders. Karina shrugged, almost looking angry with him. I stood still as if standing still could make me smaller, or invisible. The boy stood there rubbing his belly and then he


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grinned as if he’d just had an incredible idea. “Yo, Karina, you wanna go see that Prince movie?” Karina sucked her teeth and jutted her chin at me. “Can’t. I’m baby sitting.” The boy looked at me for the first time. He looked so surprised I almost wondered if I had somehow made myself invisible after all. Then he got that look on his face again, the one where he looked like he had another good idea. “So what? Just bring the kid.” Karina chewed her lip. I could see the girl from the picture on her bedside table­ a rosary entwined in her fingers­ warring with the girl that wore loud makeup and snapped her gum to show how bored she was with everything. The gum snapper won. She tugged me along and we walked back to 181st street where the movie theater was. The boy’s name was Manny, and he knew who I was, but he acted like he didn't. He lived across the street. Cecilia used to take me to Manny’s mom’s house because she was secretly dating Manny’s friend, Thomas, and Manny’s parents were never home. When Cecilia got pregnant the year before, Julio kicked her out of the house. Now she lives in the Bronx and Karina has to pretend she doesn’t have a sister. Julio forbade his family from talking to Cecilia until she and Thomas ‘did the right thing and got married’. Cecilia always used to ask Karina if she thought Manny was cute, but that made Karina mad because she said boys were ‘just an easy way to fuck up

your life’. Karina usually pretended that she didn’t know who Manny was so I didn’t understand why she was letting him take us to the movies. He wanted to buy me a ticket to see a kiddy movie but Karina said she couldn’t leave me alone. So he bought me a ticket for Purple Rain, too. As the movie played I watched Karina and Manny out of the corner of my eye. About ten minutes into the movie I saw that Manny had slipped his arm around Karina’s shoulders but she shook him off. Once I got into the movie I stopped watching Karina and Manny. I wasn’t allowed to watch R rated movies, and I liked the music. In the middle of the movie Karina told me she had to go to the bathroom, but Manny went with her, too. They thought I couldn’t see them but they were sitting in the back row. That made me angry. I didn’t like sitting in the theater by myself. It reminded me of the times I had to pretend that I couldn't hear what Cecilia and Thomas were doing while I sat in Manny's living room while he watched television. I never told anyone about Cecilia, and she got pregnant. Karina always said Cecilia was stupid, and she'd never end up like her. In my head I always said, "But at least she's nice."  I looked at my watch and saw that it was past the time Karina was supposed to bring me home. At that moment I just wanted to be at home so I could show my dad my new library books and then put them on the shelf in my bedroom. I looked behind me and they were still kissing, so I stood up and just walked out of the theater and went home. It was the first time I walked home by myself and I felt nervous, but I smiled when I thought about how Karina would feel when she realized that I wasn’t in the


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theater anymore. I wanted her to worry about me and wonder if something terrible had happened to me. Then maybe she'd feel bad about all the mean things she'd said to me. The streets seemed louder, dirtier, and uglier than they usually did. I started running, and when I reached my building I didn’t have my own keys so I had to ring the buzzer. When I walked up the three flights of stairs to our apartment my dad was standing in the doorway. “May, get your butt inside, right now!” Dinner was already on the table. It was just hot dogs and beans but I didn’t mind. My mom worked at a garment factory in Chinatown until 8, so he made us dinner. We sat at the table, the two of us, and he asked me why I was late. I knew that I could have lied and told him that I had begged Karina to let me play an extra half hour in the park, but I didn’t want to do that. I told him that Karina took me to a movie. He chewed on some beans. “Where did she get the money for that? I didn’t give her any extra.” I told him that Manny paid for us. Daddy put his fork down then. He looked at me and spoke in a calm voice. “Oh yeah, who’s this Manny? What movie did you see?” I said that Manny was Thomas’ friend, Cecilia’s Thomas. I said we saw Purple Rain. Now daddy looked like he cared. He looked like he cared a lot. “What? She took you to see that rock­n­roll movie? With a boy?” Daddy knocked his chair back as he stood

up. Before I could say anything he was in his bedroom punching in numbers on the telephone. I heard my father talking on the phone. One time Karina said, “Your daddy talks like he’s in a commercial on TV. Must be because he’s white.” I had shrugged my shoulders. He just sounded like my dad to me. “Look Julio, I want to be able to trust Karina, but she took my daughter to see an R rated movie with a boy. You know I can’t let her do that. Not after what happened.” He must have been listening to what Julio was saying because I didn’t hear anything. Then he said, “She's not home? But May's right here." Then the doorbell rang and I went to open the door thinking mommy had forgotten her keys or something. Karina was at the door and when she saw me she hit me in the shoulder. “Why did you leave like that?” She was breathing heavily like she had just run all the way from the movie theater. I put my hand on my shoulder where she'd smacked me. “I just wanted to go home.” Then Karina got a scared look on her face. When I turned around I saw my dad standing there a few feet behind me. I'd never seen Karina look so scared and so young before. “Mr. Galvin. I'm so sorry.” Daddy didn't let her finish. He used his low serious


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voice, which is much scarier than when my mom yells because she yells all the time, but my dad only uses his low serious voice when he's really upset. When you hear that voice you instantly feel ashamed. “Karina. You better go downstairs. Your father needs to speak to you. Now.” “Okay.” Karina nodded her head. Then she looked my father in the eye and said, “I'm really, really sorry.” I knew she meant it, too. I thought she was brave at that moment because when my dad talks to me like that I can never look him in the eye. When I woke up the next day daddy told me that he took the day off and we were going to the beach. I was really happy, because I'd been begging him to take me to the beach all summer. I was just sorry that mommy couldn't take the day off work, too. As I played in the water I wondered how much trouble Karina was in, and I felt a little bit bad, even though I didn't think I had done anything wrong. The day after we went to the beach daddy had to bring me across the street. Julio told him that Karina was going away for the rest of the summer, so he told daddy about a lady who could take care of me for a few days. Daddy sent me downstairs with the garbage, and as I was coming out of the garbage room I saw Karina standing on the sidewalk. She had a suitcase next to her and she was wearing sunglasses. For the first time that summer she wasn’t wearing any makeup. Even with the sunglasses on I could tell that she’d been crying because her face was all puffy and blotchy.

I was afraid to see her, but I had to go back upstairs to get my books to take with me across the street. Then Karina saw me. “You know you're a stuck up little bitch, right?” Karina kept her sunglasses on so I couldn't see her eyes, but her mouth twisted as she spat out her words. “They’re sending me to Puerto Rico.” She shook her head. “I didn’t even do nothing. It’s not like I’m stupid like Cecilia. I know how to keep my legs closed.” She turned away from me and looked down the street, her hands on her hips. Then she turned back and said, “Cecilia just pretended to like you. She used to make fun of you when you weren't around.” I didn't want to believe her, but I started crying anyway, and then I was mad at myself because Karina always said that only babies cry. I thought Cecilia had liked me, and I missed her when she moved to the Bronx. Now daddy was going to send me to day camp even though it was expensive, and mommy wasn’t sure we could afford it, but the worst thing was that I would have to try to make new friends and I wasn't sure if I could do that. Karina was mean, but at least I knew what to expect from her. Julio came outside and waved hello to me but he looked distracted, and he cut his eyes away from me. If he noticed my tears he didn't show it. Karina picked up her suitcase and put it into the trunk of Julio’s beat up car. She didn’t say anything and just got into the car. I stood there and waited until the car engine started up. I looked at Karina, but she wasn’t looking anywhere but straight ahead through the car windshield. She held her head high


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and her body straight like she was having her school picture taken, except she wasn’t smiling. Karina’s full lips were pale and puckered like she had something sour in her mouth.

Adalena Kavanagh is a writer and librarian living in New York City.

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