Gunshots pop and screams rise from the street. I crawl to my window and see people running. Mothers snatch children into doorways. Men hide behind cars. In the chaos stands a young brother in a red shirt. He belt-tucks his gun and walks backward, arms out to welcome challengers. Then he runs.
My neighbor, Tony, sprints through the crowd—seconds ago, he was DJing some heavy House music, but when the gunman fired, he cut the sound and ran to his daughter. Had she been shot? Was blood spurting from her chest? I shake the nightmare out of my eyes.
Police cars skid in. Red and white lights flash in a fiery whirlpool. Parents soothe crying babies. Nearby stand baby-faced boys, excited by the violence and studying the older men who clench their fists and vow revenge. My street is a boiling pit of rage and fear. The Quincy Street block party is done.
Pulling away from the window, I clutch a backpack containing a pair of clippers and a bus ticket to Mount Marcy in Upstate New York. I am going to cut my dreadlocks after fifteen years. They weigh all the spent bullet shells. They weigh this sorrow. They weigh four hundred years. I grew them to root myself in witness work: I reported, I protested, I organized. But now I am tired. Cutting them off means I can cut free from this neighborhood.
My phone buzzes with a voice message: “This is Elle. Please call me back.” I asked Aunt Elle for info on my father. Never saw the man. Now I want to. I want to show him my dreadlocks, so he’ll know how I’ve anchored myself in his absence. How I have tied myself to the poor, to everyone who has lost or is losing whatever was precious in their lives, until I ended up here, in Bed-Stuy, where parents shield children from gunfire.
Looking through my shelves, I find a yellowed journal and flip the pages to a letter I wrote to him years ago.
Dear Dad, Asshole, Question Mark
Why did you never come for me? I don’t even know what you look like. When Elle saw you on the street and told you that I was alive, did you ask my name? I’d have been a good son. Now it’s too late. I belong nowhere and to no one; I make my own light.
I close it again, sighing. If we met, would he see himself in me? My head is oval and torso long. That’s his. Mom is squat like a Taíno, hair curly as the chains clamped on slaves. Our bodies are the history of Puerto Rico. Our blood trickled from Conquistador swords. Our bodies brewed in the wombs of raped Native and African women. How did my father’s family survive? Was he ashamed of blackness? Is that why he was so careless with his sperm? If my father saw me, would he hold my face in his hands?
These are my questions, not his. He never asked for me. I am the result of a blind night with a woman he thought was easy. Weeks later, she told him that her period was late and he ignored her. She told him a due date and he ignored her. She came to his father’s furniture store, with me, a baby, in her arms. He hid in the back as my abuelo told her to leave. Did he see my mother as a strange woman, shoving a lifetime of work into his arms? When she left, did he make jokes about her open legs, saying who knows whose child this was? Did my grandfather laugh?
I say these things, which may not be true but fill in the gaps. What I do know is that mom was a woman alone, holding a baby who gazed at her with a consuming love she had never felt before. The baby was not yet me, but a small blank body that clasped her for life. And she tore bits of the world off to feed it, to shelter it, and she opened the sky inside her to give it room and in doing this broke the shell of her girlhood.
We grew up together: She into a woman and me into a boy, until the poverty in which we lived became too dangerous and she sent me to a boarding school. Orphanage, really. The years I spent there widened a silence between us. It was the price we paid for my safety from the streets. Now, decades later, I returned to her as a man, wondering, how close was I to being that gunman on Quincy Street? Or one of those fathers, cradling his scared child?
I close the journal and rub my temples. Why create a past I can’t know? But against my will I do, scene after scene—a history is invented and the lives that could have been mine float around like invisible phantoms. I know they are not real for everyone. I know they may be stories I use to heap guilt on my absent father. Or to justify my privilege. But they reappear in the mirror and in my dreams and in the faces in the street.
Who would I have become if my father had been in my life? What would have happened if he had looked up from sanding wood, talked to my mom, taken me from her arms and felt a newborn’s vulnerable softness, and surprising her and himself, slowly, reluctantly, made his arms into a nest for me?
At the window, I study my reflection. I feel my hands on the glass and wonder if there’s anything that’s me. Or am I just an accident of history?
Who would I have been if my father had taken me? His name is Joe Rivera. So I’d be Nick Rivera. In my imagined scene, Mom’s eyes spill gratitude for this man, who in a flare of nobility took ownership of a mistake. Maybe he was tired of being less than he was, tired of circling the same streets, tired of dark rooms where the flash of a bottle or knife was the only light. Young and already exhausted, maybe he was scared of failing his whole life and desperately needed to see himself, do good for once, and so he took me home.
If my father’s voice had poured into my ears and flowed down, down, down into my child’s mind, I would have opened my eyes. Inside his voice, I would have seen the world: The mysterious things in the blurred fog of the senses would become bright with meaning because he said their names.
How joyful Mom would have been. She was afraid of being seen as a woman with a child no one wanted. Now she would be rescued for the small price of a loveless life. She was an off-Broadway actress, who would prepare for the role of her life; a devoted wife to a man she did not know, because she would want me to have his name. She’d speak low, so he could walk without tripping over her. She’d see me become him, speaking Spanish like him, swaggering like him, acting toward her like he did, dismissively or with contempt.
Each year, her gratitude for his knight-in-shining-armor moment would wear thin. Tired of faking love, they would fight. Scared and angry, I’d run into the night where other kids banded under the streetlights trading bottles and weed and anything that could numb us until sunrise. We’d run through the parks so fast that everything became bright as the Fury roaring in our heads. A scream would snap us awake and we’d find ourselves panting around someone bloody on the ground and run again, afraid of what we did when we closed our eyes and punched at the world.
We’d run forever, hitting and turning and hitting. My child’s body would grow tall and eager. Somewhere between night and morning, in a smoke-riddled basement, there’d be a girl running away from a House of Shouting. We’d drink on the sofa, our bodies entwined like questions marks. She’d be a talkative, wild girl, mouth like a broken radio, going from comedy routine to Apocalyptic nightmare to Catholic confessional to sleeping on my chest in the park. One day, she’d call and say she was late. I’d tell her, I’ll wait at the station. No, she would say, I AM LATE! Through numb lips, I’d stammer, I love you.
My friends would say, Fuck her, man, get that shit sucked out of her belly, you’re too young to get locked down. They’d grab their crotches, You got to put that Light-Saber away Lord Vader, you’re killing the bitches.
I’d laugh and say, You’re right, fuck her. She’d call and leave messages. I wouldn’t answer. She’d stop by but I would never be home. She’d leave notes with my friends but I’d tear them up into confetti. Weeks later, I would be sanding down wood at the furniture store. The bell would ring and she’d walk in, a fuzzy-haired silhouette. Her face puffy from crying, but staring hard.
She’d look at me and I’d feel lit up by a strange voltage, everything illuminated, everything happening again. Aching with failure, I’d look at her, a young woman running from the same house I ran from, the House of Shouting, her hands cupping her belly as she told me she was ready to go it alone. I would stand there under her blistering judgment and see my hand cover hers. It would feel right, as if this was a scene I’d practiced for in another life.
The Christening would be the last time I’d see my parents together. I would be standing in a suit, she in a white dress, we’d hold the baby in our arms, a priest would sprinkle water. Years later, twisting in bed, I would get up and walk to the window to see my reflection. My hands calloused from working wood. My wife and child asleep in the other room. I would wonder, Who would I have been if my father didn’t claim me that day at the furniture store?
I blink and shake Nick Rivera out of my head. Nick Fucking Rivera. The man who almost was. I’ve thought about him often and although the details change the core image remains, of a boy who was loved by his father.
But Joe Rivera never embraced me, never had a Knight-in-Shining Armor moment. Instead, he crouched under the table.
What if Mom had given me her family name and kept me? I would be Nick Castro. In this imagined life, I see her hauling me around like a lead ball. If a friend calls to go out or a man asks for a date, she steps to the doorway until my voice pulls her back like a rattling chain. I see her cradling bags of groceries as buses of laughing club-hopping couples zoom by. Whatever she buys disappears fast. The refrigerator is always half empty or the lights turn off or the rent is late.
And my goddamn family, judgmental to the end, would watch as we fell out of New York and traveled to California then to Pennsylvania. We’d fall out of hotels and nice apartments into poor neighborhoods until one night her knife-like shriek would cut my sleep apart. Jolting out of bed, I would see her panting in the hallway, the window open and curtains fluttering out into the night where a burglar has jumped out.
I see him again, standing in his pajamas, scared and angry at being scared. He lives in the world. He lives inside me. He talks to me and, although I invented him, he says nothing I say is real until I hear his story.
In the housing complex was a kid Mom called Mean Little White Boy for his love of shooting out car windows with his BB gun. After seeing his arm around my shoulders as I flashed his switch-blade, Mom ordered me inside but I was soon out in the street again.
In the gang, my innocent eagerness made Mean Little White Boy feel wise. I knew how to see weakness in others, how to slide threats between the cracks of their confidence. We owned the walkways between the buildings, charging kids to pass like tolling booth agents, smiling as we pocketed their money.
We pumped coins into video games or passed a 40-ounce in the back row of the movie theater. At night I came home, turned the key gently in the lock, tip-toed in and saw Mom asleep on the couch in her work-coat and shoes. She left a carton of take-out food open on the floor even though we had roaches. In the morning she yelled questions, stabbing the air with her forefinger as if drilling a peephole to see into me. But every night, while she snored, I kneeled, put the food away, and took off her shoes.
Outside, we kids snatched porn magazines out of each other’s hands and threw bottles at the wall. Our bodies boiling over. The money we stole couldn’t buy what we needed, which was an image of manhood to grow into. We were young and felt a terrible torrent of energy without form, a world pouring in through our senses without a self to shape it into meaning. The world had no place for us, so we created one.
Squinting in the sun, Mean Little White Boy rolled up his sleeve as I cooked my switch-blade over a lighter-flame. We took turns branding our street number on our shoulders, the searing metal sinking in, legs wobbling as loud pain shot up the neck. Laughing, we doused our wounds with rum, drank the rest and stumbled home, the sidewalk spinning.
In the apartment, Mom’s eyes narrowed. I kissed her forehead but she stiffened as I leaned over her. Curious things began to happen. My dressers were left open. My too-expensive shoes pointed the wrong way. The dollar bills in my wallet got rearranged. She looked for evidence but never found the bag of cocaine inside my Star Wars Tie-Fighter. We both knew I was under surveillance but we kept our mouths shut and left the TV on full blast, night after night.
One day she barged into my room while I was changing and saw our street number tattooed on my shoulder along with a rose-entwined gun. Mom grabbed my arm and shook me, pointing at the markings as if they were an infection that would transform me into some feral animal.
Shoving and yelling, I dodged her slaps. She was afraid of me growing beyond her reach, but it was too late. I’d hurt too many people and enjoyed it. I let my arms drop as she hit and hit and hit until her hands were sore. Panting, she sat down as I pulled her close and kissed her forehead.
Outside, I saw Mean Little White Boy. He was almost of legal age. I took the lead and held the one gun we shared, shooting at our reflections in the store windows. I turned to the projects that seemed to me like giant tombstones and shot blindly, randomly, as he yelled for the gun back. I pressed it to his fucking eyes and told him to take it. No one owns me, no one. He ran off.
The next morning, I climbed the first steps as shouts erupted and police closed a circle around me. Later, in the cell, I sat on the bunk, masturbated, paced, and stood at the bars until a guard opened them and let me out. Except I came back, and each time I did I was older, taller, nose bent from a fight, teeth capped with gold, with new tattoos. In and out, in and out, until finally I walked inside and the bars closed on me for a decade.
Each night in the dark, a single spotlight shone on a stage and stock footage scenes of imprisonment played out: In one scene, I’m on line holding a plate of food and other men slap it out of my hands or wrestle in the shower as blood swirls the drain or I’m sitting across from my Mom as she weeps behind glass. Or in another scene, I’m being strangled as men kick apart my legs and take turns raping me or I’m lifting large dumbbells at a bench and knotting my arm around another man’s neck and raping him as hate and lust shoots stars across my eyes.
Years later, I played cards and laughed at the newcomers until finally, a decade older, the spotlight cut out and I walked out of the dark through the open door, down the hall and into the streets again.
In the open air everything seemed to be slipping out of place. I went to New York, slept in the men’s shelter. I went to Brooklyn to sleep on a friend’s couch. I moved drugs house to house for pocket cash. One night while walking on Quincy Street, I saw a party. I slipped in, danced even as the crowd drew back from me like a held breath. A few half-drunk beer bottles were lined on the table. I gulped them down and saw a curvy black girl and grinded up on her; she moved away and I slithered back to her as the bald, light-skinned DJ grimaced and finally yanked off his headphones to shove me off her.
I swung and smashed his lips into an ugly rose of blood. Moving in to stomp him, an explosion of glass on my forehead spun me around and as I fell, the far-away pounding of shoes followed me down into the darkness. I woke up on my friend’s couch who talked through his beer. Yo, you got your shit stomped, nigga. His laughter like a match lit against my silence.
I heard the DJ’s name was Tony. He’s Old School and had the balls to have another street party a week later like I didn’t exist. Fuck him. The night of the party, I stood in front of my mirror naked singing, “Warriors come out and play.” I put on my shorts and red shirt, went out. It was drizzling glitter-like. I saw them, girls with plates of food, old niggas drinking, some young bloods and Tony behind the turn-table. They were too far to see me but I aimed my gun at them all, then Tony, then I saw his little girl saying pow! pow! at each one. I felt the adrenaline humming in my finger: One twitch and they’d be dead. That’s the thin line between here and God.
Instead, I aimed up and fired some shots and laughed as they scattered. Run bitches, run! Held my arms out and watched them, and dashed when I saw a long dreaded Rasta looking at me from the fourth floor window. We stared at each other. Me in the street with my arms out, my shadow stretched like a vampire’s. The Rasta looked at me like a stray cat and I said, “You think you’re better than me? There’s more niggas like me than you! I’m the reality, I am!”
And this is where the past that wasn’t catches the present that is. Where my alternate lives overlap. Since I’m the narrator, Nick Castro disappears into a drizzling night and I’m left staring at who I could have been as my breath fogs the window.
Nick Castro. I could’ve been him. Or Nick Rivera. I could’ve been him too. Only the decisions of others, made when I was too young to make my own, saved me.
Here I am, closing my eyes and breathing. Even Aunt Elle has no answers. I play her message and she asks if I’m okay. I don’t know if I am. What I know is that the other versions of me are falling into the void. The edge of night is pale blue. I close my journal, turn off the lights, grab the backpack and leave. On the sidewalk my shadow follows.
Ahead, gnarled trees and craggy stone ascend the mountainside like broken steps. “My name,” I pant and reach for a rock, “What will be my name?” I pause to take out my scissors and watch the moon flash on the blades. In a few swift cuts, the man I created in the absence of my father will fall to the ground.
While climbing, I remember the gunshots and shake them out of mind. I climb between low trees, see the sad faces of my neighbors, squeeze my eyes shut until they vanish again. I step onto a rock ledge and below me glitters a far-away city. Above, a cloud-cloaked summit. Pale light rises from the horizon of black hills. I chose this mountain, called Cloud-Splitter by the Iroquois, to reach a place far above my life where I can sculpt a new face in the limbo between day and night.
Powers. For a long time, I thought it was the name of my father. Mom told me he died in a car accident, which I believed until I turned eighteen, when she told me he hadn’t. His name was Joe Rivera, she said, and he was very much alive. I stormed out, a fury rising in me. The lies, the lies! I walked into the midnight city, alone, wrestling with my name. Nick Powers? She said she wanted it to sound white, to make it easier on me, and I was left holding this name that belonged to no one. Not to her family. Not to my father’s family. I remember how I stopped somewhere on the street, said my name and held it to my chest. It was my name. It didn’t belong to anyone else because I didn’t belong to anyone else. I walked back before sunrise. Mom was asleep on the couch, shoes off, food on the floor. I looked at her. I couldn’t forgive her yet, but I kissed her forehead.
Now I stand at the base of a mountain’s summit, facing another sunrise. On my head are the dreads that bind me to the blackness my mom was hated for by Grandmother and maybe even by my father. The longer they grew, the more I knew, we had been stolen and thrown away by the West. Just like I was thrown away by my father. But I was becoming invisible, hidden behind them, lost in an image. Now I pull them from my face and look around. The trees are thin and short. I climb higher until there’s just rock. The peak is tall, its stone night blue. Clouds whip around it. I climb with shaking arms. My feet slip. A few guide marks are spray-painted, but mostly I weave between boulders.
Dizzy. Near delirium, I heave myself up. Yellow light rises in the sky.
A man on the summit turns to me. Then another appears. I am angry at their presence. They stare at me. Cursing under my breath, I get up. Trembling, sweaty, scared, I walk closer and see Nick Rivera, then Nick Castro. They lean over, help me to the peak. I see other men. Other versions of me. Other lives. There is me as a disabled soldier, crawling on twisted legs. Myself as gay. Myself as woman. All of these selves, reaching out to me.
I can’t speak. I am so tired of climbing, so tired of not knowing my name. I wobble in their arms. Tears blind me as the sun’s first rays shoot upward. They hand me the scissors; I cut and cut and cut. I cry. I scream and cut until the last dreadlock falls. The sun rises, flashing red and gold. Blinking, I look around. No one.
Alone again. The light dries the tears on my face and I begin to laugh and dance and sing. I don’t know who I am. At this moment, I don’t even have a name. But I am free, free, free.