Puerto Rico was hot and sticky that night in. Supper over, we watched the island’s most famous telenovela, Cristina Bazán. My three younger sisters were curled up on the blue-green plaid couch, their legs tangled over each other in a clump. The oldest girl, I sat apart, holding my awkward sixteen-year-old body away from their touch. We were seduced by this Cinderella soap opera that portrayed Cristina’s yearning for Rodolfo, the gallant, wealthy and swarthy doctor. We wanted that romance. My younger sisters played Cristina with their dolls. “Bésame,” they’d say passionately. Kiss me. And I would say it too, secretly, lying in bed, eager for a woman’s life, eager for this love and romance. Soon, I’d tell myself. It would be soon.
The night was quiet except for the sounds of the coquís, the random car zooming by, and my father clanking the dishes in the kitchen. The smell of fried pork chops with Goya’s sazón seasoning and caramelized onions still hung in the air. Patrick, our Irish Setter, lounged outside in the front yard, his ribs sticking out like blades of burnt grass. He always rested there after dinner, after the scraps were gone, to catch the evening breeze. Patrick was not a watchdog; nor had it ever occurred to any of us until that evening that we would ever be in need of one. We felt safe, even cozy, in our home, eight of us wandering around like a wolf pack, our parents at the helm of the mayhem.
Before we were robbed, our house was a tall, elegant, two-story home with many rooms to fit all of us, four boys, four girls, and our parents. In the before, we had gallantly sailed from the Tyrrhenian sea off the coast of Rome to this green tropical island with its salt, mosquitoes, and sun. And even before that time, my Midwestern parents had met in Los Angeles in the fifties and left the States for Italy first, then Puerto Rico, where we settled.
Two trees stood side by side lining the long driveway leading up to the house. The first tall and graceful, its small leaves carpeting our driveway with tiny delicate yellow flowers every April, the other squat, with wide strong branches twisting over each other, a perfect Tarzan jungle tree, and shed hard, bouncing balls every winter. It was our favorite tree and under its branches, in the rock garden, we built imaginary cities and villages with wooden Playmobil people and Hot Wheel cars.
On either side of the long driveway, the lawn rolled away with its different fruit trees, avocado, banana, mango, azerola, breadfruit. The colorful heads of the birds of paradise flowers, orange, purple, yellow and green, the rich fragrance of jasmine bushes, the bright red hibiscus and the waxy yellow buttercup flowers of the allamanda dotted the lawn as well. The driveway led up to two open porches, one with large white tiles flecked with gold and a built-in bar for entertaining, the other smaller, with red Spanish tiles, that led directly into the house and its many rooms.
Back then, everything felt expansive, open and inviting. Manicured homes, one after the other, lined the streets of our neighborhood, Santa María. Yes, intricate wrought ironwork framed windows on most homes but that was a decorative remnant of Spain’s colonizing influence and had little to do with fear of crime. Back then, there were no gated communities, no guards sitting in their huts asking for identification, no drug dealers creeping into the suburbs. Back then, I knew nothing of drugs. Back then, before two of my classmates were shot point-blank. Back then, before the government mandate encouraging drivers to run red lights after eleven p.m. because it was too dangerous to stop. Back then, before we were robbed, it was different.
It was 7 o’clock in the evening and we had all settled into the night. Even the heat was settling down. My mother was at my youngest brother’s baseball game, probably sitting apart from the other mothers, clapping, encouraging and smiling at him. My oldest brother, away at college. Michael, the second oldest, was in his room blasting music. Tim, closest in age to me, was doing his homework on the white porch. And we, the girls, watched Cristina.
A car zoomed up the driveway and screeched to a halt. We didn’t flinch, didn’t turn our heads or bodies toward the high-pitched whistle of brakes, so engrossed were we in Cristina’s world. Besides, that sound, the sharp screech of tires, the doors snapping open, was familiar to us. My older brothers’ friends were always racing up the driveway, hopping out of the car, and yelling in their deep voices “Miguel!” or “Timoteo!” or “Enrique!” as they wandered into our home. My sisters and I loved their unexpected visits, our multiple crushes mixing through our bodies, tingling with newfound passion. Who would it be? Bebi, Julio, Carlos, Angel? This guy or that? So much older than us, but we were always hopeful. It could happen.
But then we heard a sound we did not recognize. A strange high pierced aaaaiiiiieeeee, exploding from the mouth of our brother Tim. It was the scream of a crazy person, and it smelled of fear.
I turned to look out the window toward the porch, where he’d been doing his homework. I did not understand what I saw. Tim was scrambling, falling, tumbling, running, his tall legs and arms flailing, his mouth agape, trying to get somewhere fast. Were my brother’s friends playing a trick on him? He ran into the back hallway that led to the boy’s rooms, the scream now silenced by his determination to get away. My eyes moved back to the porch where I saw a pack of men—what men? whose men?—turn away from him and move quickly through the
white porch, then the red one, and then into the living room where we were, now stuck to our seats, Cristina crying on the screen. I saw their faces, flattened by the light brown panty hose pulled over their heads, their crushed eyelashes, and noses and lips, ghoulish masks, long shiny black rifles hanging down their sides. I did not understand. But I bolted upright and shouted, “Dad, Dad, Dad!”
My father came out of the kitchen with a small frying pan still soapy, dripping water in his hand, a dirty dish towel over his shoulder, a frown on his face as if to say, “You better have a good reason for bothering me now.” His annoyance visible on his face, his sharp sarcasm, one we all knew well to avoid, almost out of his mouth. But his look, that look we all feared, turned to puzzlement as the men swooped in and surrounded him. My father, who stood six feet back then, looked very small in that moment. My stomach dropped to my toes. My heart pounded in my ears, I felt blood rushing around, trying to leap out of my body, my feet became concrete blocks. And for just a split second we were frozen like statues in a museum. The men looked at him, he looked at them, and I looked at my father, waiting. There we stood, silent, wondering where this was going, what it meant, and where it would end. We dared not even breathe.
And then it all began.
My father raised the frying pan and lunged at the biggest of them all, as if he was going to win this war with a little skillet, as if he was going to beat them over their heads for misbehaving. They swiftly surrounded him, knocked him to the ground with the butt of their rifles, his forehead slamming into the ground. One of them dug his heel into my father’s back, near his neck, and almost gently removed the frying pan. My father lay there for the time it took them to ransack our home, hours or maybe minutes, his face to the cold red tile, a heel in his back. Maybe he wished my mother would come home. Maybe he didn’t. He lay there.
My leaden body started to move. I grabbed my sisters and started up the stairs. These stairs, always inviting us to the safety of our parents’ room, these stairs from which we hung our stockings and Christmas lights, from which we would tiptoe down and watch the adults at my parent’s parties, drinking, laughing and smoking, now stood before me like a rising wave, looming, enormous, each one an impossibly high wall to clamber over. I pulled and dragged my sisters like little bundles of laundry. Or maybe they just followed me. I never looked back, hoping that by not looking back they would not see us, these four thin bodies, all legs and arms, scurrying away.
We made it to our parents’ bedroom, panting a bit, our eyes wide as night. I locked the door, the door that was never locked. There were my parent’s two twin beds facing each other on each end of the room, each bed neatly made that morning, sheets tucked in, pillows fluffed. By each bed, a wooden night table with a couple of books, New Yorker magazines, the newspaper El Nuevo Día, apple cores and dental floss. An alarm clock on my father’s side. I recognized every single object, but every single object seemed fuzzy, different, not of our home. I reached for the phone on my mother’s dresser and picked it up but I stood there, motionless, not recognizing the numbers on the keypad.
It didn’t matter. The phone, dead, the wires cut. How quickly they worked. Locked in this room, I knew we needed to go further, further away. The balcony! The trees! Maybe. Just maybe there was a way out of here. One by one we snuck out onto my parent’s balcony and clambered over the wall to the roof.
I caught a glimpse of the neighborhood, quiet and nestled in for the evening. Nobody knew what was happening in our home. People were carrying on, watching Cristina Bazán, eating their Goya rice and beans, maybe even sleeping. My sisters, mute, followed me, not able to grasp the circumstances, playing hide and seek, a wonderful possibility. The tree closest to the balcony offered its heavy limbs as hiding places, if we could get there. The bright green leaves gently rustled, unaware of their importance at that precise moment. We climbed into the solid branches. But as soon as we settled into a hiding spot we were caught by a sentry, one of the bad guys, stationed at their getaway car. He pointed the rifle at us real slow, the glint of the muzzle swaying in the air, as he motioned us back inside with a slight smile: silly girls. We returned inside.
Back inside my parents’ bedroom, I continued to see everything and recognize nothing. Since when did my mother have this picture of my youngest brother up on her dresser? Why did her brush not contain any hair? How small their two single beds looked. Like children’s beds. A long dark wooden dresser, the mirror, photos of some of us, but not all of us. A photo of one of my grandmothers, in her simple farm dress, unsmiling. It was comforting and yet it all seemed out of place. We huddled on the bed, we four girls. As if on a different island, on a different night. We waited.
Someone knocked on the door. What a strange sound. May I come in? the knock politely asked. But I knew it wasn’t that kind of knock. My heart, which had stopped beating in my ears, started up again, faster and faster. My chest constricted. Was I even breathing? We did not answer the door. My sisters looked at me. I looked at them. I held their hands, small and soft. We didn’t move. We all stopped breathing. We all looked at the door. Suddenly I deflated, worn out. I couldn’t grasp the robbery. For a moment, I didn’t see how we could get out of this. If only I could just move the night away and make morning come. If I could just wake up, in my bed, with its green and white checkered bedspread, walk down the hall with my bare feet, and sit down at the table with all seven of my siblings, sleepy and yawning, pouring bowls of Quisp or Cocoa Puffs, piles of buttered toast already on the table. If I could just get there, to that moment, everything would be all right. I wanted to be on my way to school, in the station wagon, my mother having packed our lunch boxes, dropping us off one by one. I didn’t even like school. If only I could just get there.
More knocking. More silence from us. Then we heard a calm yet desperate plea: “Open the door, they have a gun to my head,” Michael said. At first, we did not open. We were scared and selfish. We were ready to sacrifice Michael. We wouldn’t let him in. Instead, we kept him out there, a gun against his skull, our most goth punk brother, later the gentlest brother, we would not let him in. But the knocking and the pleading continued and I finally walked over to the door and unlocked it. They barged in without a word and motioned for my sisters and me to lie down on the floor, face down, our arms tucked by our sides.
“Si se mueven, disparamos,” they said. “If you move, we shoot.” They rummaged about. I did not know where my brother was taken, but he was no longer there.
¿Dónde está el seguro? they asked. Where is the safe? I held my breath as they searched the room. I didn’t dare look at my sisters, lined up next to me, one after another, a perfect row, obedient little soldiers on the cold red tile. They were going to shoot us. One at a time. In the back of our heads. I was sure of it. Four clean shots. My bones were melting. What would my father do when he found us, if he found us? My mother, walking into our home, calling out our names. I stopped thinking. I just waited.
Harsh whispering and buzzing sounded in the air above me. The robbers were arguing, fiercely, forcefully. And then an arm reached down, grabbed me and lifted me to my feet as if I were a puppet. It seemed I now had a special job.
The robbers dumped everything from the safe on the floor and sorted it with the edges of their dirty tennis shoes, pushing aside the nicer pieces, grouping the booty. They put my mother’s gold bracelet with the ram’s head with emerald eyes in one pile; the green Grecian beads in another, the intricately woven strands of gold resembling a bird’s nest with tiny pearls, the bird’s eggs, in yet another. My father’s coins from his collection, passports, certificates, items they didn’t care for, pushed aside in no real pile. I watched. If I could have, I would have made myself into an object to be tossed away in the pile of undesirables. If I could have joined that group of ancient coins tossed aside, ignored, I would have. I was still in my horseback riding clothes, a red and white-striped shirt and a pair of old brown corduroys. Just a few hours ago, I had left my shiny bay mare, who was stubborn and somewhat uncontrollable, safe in the barn. Just a while ago I had eaten supper, fried pork chops and a glass of milk. Some Oreos for dessert. Now I stood before the three arranged piles of twinkling jewels and listened to them argue over who would get what. One pile, the ram’s head and bird’s nest ring with sparkling egg-white pearls, remained apart for the captain robber who waited patiently downstairs.
And then, after each robber gathered their pile, stuffing things in their pockets and old purses of my mother’s, the one robber grabbed my arm and lifted me from the floor. I was part of his pile, part of his loot.
We started in my father’s study. The four robbers formed a wall in front of me, their eyes flickered here and there. My robber took a step forward and, with his gun pointed at me, he barked: “!Quitate la ropa!
I pulled down my dirty riding pants, my underwear, and lifted up my shirt and bra. I wished I had on nicer clothes. I was embarrassed. I had never been kissed. I’d never had a boyfriend. I was sixteen. Most girls had had their quinceañeras in their ball gowns. Many had novios and went to dances in high heels and heavy make-up. But I was still in my riding clothes.
This same robber, who was my height, wiry and, well, kind of handsome, pawed me everywhere, up and down, his fingers slippery on my body, while the others looked on. He invited them to participate. They declined but followed him, as he dragged me to my younger sisters’ room. Then another room. And another, in each room repeating the show fondling my body, breasts and vagina with his hot sweaty hands and fingers. I worried about leaving my sisters lying on the floor, eyes closed, foreheads to the cold tile. I was pushed from behind with a rifle. It was hard for me to walk as my pants were stuck around my ankles. I stumbled along. The same wall of robbers formed in the next room, and the next, a spectacle that quickly bored the other men. In the last room the robber suggested I lie on the bed. Through the masks of the others, I could see alarm: this was not part of their plan. And that alarmed me, as if, like them, I had been in on the plan all along too and we were now at the point of deviating. Laying down on a bed meant something different. My body shivered. Would they stop him? Before I had to lay myself down, impatient honking broke the silence from the car in stationed in the driveway.
The moment shattered. A strange feeling passed over me, a wisp of disappointment. I had already identified with this man whose face I could not see, the first man to desire me, the first to see me as something more than what I felt. But it passed, a fleeting shadow, and the three watchers and I let out a collective sigh of relief. The fourth robber shrugged. “Pués,” he said, starting down the stairs. I pulled up my underwear and pants. Pulled down my shirt and bra. We followed silently down the stairs, single file.
The scene downstairs was the same. My father lay forehead to the tile, a robber with his foot on his back. The television still going. Reunited, the robbers relaxed, rolled up their pantyhose, shoving them up their sweaty foreheads. They wiped the sweat from their faces, all in a day’s hard work. They didn’t seem worried in the least about exposing their faces. In fact, they didn’t seem worried about anything. My father, however, was never let off the floor, a silent witness to their bantering. My sisters were suddenly there as well.
Later, I found out that Tim had spent the entire time in darkness, crouched in the corner of a closet in his room. They had broken down Michael’s door and found him. He had led them upstairs to my parent’s room. I don’t know what happened to him after. I never asked.
And no one ever asked what happened to me upstairs, either.
Three of the robbers started watching the telenovela, commenting on what might happen next. They even decided to try to take the T.V. out of the wall. My father’s muffled voice from the floor offered help but they ignored him. The robbers laughed at their failure, unable to pull it out of the wall. My youngest sister, all of five, offered them eleven dollars from her piggy bank. Again they laughed, saying that they didn’t want that much money. We were all one big happy family.
And just as I started to breathe more harmoniously, just as they showed signs of leaving, the biggest robber of them all, the captain, huge, black, bald, asked me for a kiss. And it’s true: I was flattered. He thinks I’m pretty, I thought.
“Bésame,” he said. And I, who so wanted a Cristina Bazán kiss, who so yearned to be desired, I did not turn my head away, I did not shrink away. Instead, I reached up, on tip toes, reaching my face up to his sweaty lips, moving toward his face as he bent down, closing my eyes, almost hearing music, everyone watching, the last kiss. His lips. My lips.
When it was over, he smiled at me. And I found him handsome. He patted my shoulders, almost shyly, and gave me one last smile and said, “Bueno, vámonos.” I turned around toward my siblings, whose eyes were turned away or on the ground. His kiss, the thief’s kiss, was burning on my lips. Everyone had seen it. This moment of complicity. Everyone had seen it. But no one would ever speak of it. And I would hide it away inside my body somewhere, to cherish despite the cost.
The rest, the hours, days, weeks and years following, passed in a blur. My father slowly got up from the floor, kneeling, and opened his arms to us. We rushed to him. We all tried to fit into that hug, those strong arms, that look of disbelief, shock. “Are you all right? We are lucky to be alive.” And then, with finality, he repeated it, “It could have been worse. We were lucky.” He hugged us all. And asked us again if we were all right. My youngest sisters were crying. I didn’t know where to begin. If to begin. Everything so raw. The flight up the stairs. The cold floor. The dead phone. The jewelry.
“They lined us up,” I started. “We tried to hide under the trees. They saw us. We went back to your room. They lay us down. They picked me up.” And then I had to say it: “They were horny.”
There was silence. The word hung alone like a knife in the air. One certainly never spoken before in our home. “Don’t use that word,” my father said, grim.
I would not have his sympathy, his comfort. Perhaps because of the kiss. He got up, suddenly an old man, and started to clean up their mess, the dish towel still over his shoulder.
My mother returned from the baseball game. We ran to her like chicks to a hen, and tried to describe the robbery, words tumbling out of us so quickly we couldn’t even understand what we are saying. A fierce anger darkened her face. Anger at being in Puerto Rico. Anger at my father. Anger at the world. Just plain anger. We dragged her upstairs and showed her the wreckage. My father, watching her face, knew then to send us to bed. And although my room was downstairs, I went up with my sisters to theirs. We lay together, four bodies shaking like leaves in the night.
Days later, two detectives showed up, their Plymouth rambling up our driveway. They got out of the car, each in a tan guayabera and black pants, each lugging a couple of frayed photo albums. Within those albums were the faces of hundreds of criminals: smiling, not smiling, fat face, skinny face, mustache, no mustache. They looked less like mug shots than family pictures. My mother sat with us on the porch as we, my sisters and I, gathered around to examine them and identify the robbers. We turned the pages, some photos securely pasted in the albums, others loose and falling out. The detectives wandered around our home as we looked at the albums. I scrutinized the photos carefully. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to find those faces. And soon, they all just melted in to each other. It was a futile task and the detectives knew it.
My mother, who had said nothing to us, knew too. Angry, she told the detectives to leave. “Pero doña, tenemos más!” one detective said. “We have more!” My mother closed the albums and marched back into the house. We lingered, the four of us, not wanting to be rude, wondering if the detectives might say something useful to us, me almost asking if it was planned or random. But I didn’t ask anything, and they didn’t tell us anything. They gathered up the albums and walked to the car, chatting. To them, we were a statistic. There had been more than 8,000 cases of aggravated assault on the island that year. Who were we to demand an explanation?
Weeks later, my parents fought over whether or not to build a security fence around the house. To live in fear, my father would reply, means they won. My mother would snarl back at him. She understood our need for a fortified wall. She wanted to feel safe.
The fight lasted for years. Meanwhile, at night, I dreamed up new security systems. My favorite was a glass dome that would cover our whole house at night. I would press a button and the dome would rise up from the earth and meet in the sky over our trees and lock us in at night. Impenetrable. My father eventually caved and installed a green wire gate at the entrance of each driveway. We all knew the robbers could just walk through the bushes but these gates made us feel somewhat protected. Every night, after the last car was in, my father would go out to the driveway and close the gates. They didn’t even have locks. It didn’t matter. We all just felt better.
Months passed and we all carried on: buck up, buck up. The routine continued: Quisp, Captain Crunch, Cocoa Puffs and a pile of buttered toast. My father still stared into his coffee cup. My mother still filled the long row of lunch boxes lined up on the kitchen counter. We each still poured cereal into our blue bowls, reached for the warm milk, a piece of buttered toast. We still moved a box of cereal toward us, in front of us, hiding behind it, refusing to look into each other’s eyes, slurping our soggy breakfast in silence. I still put on my uniform, blue-plaid chaleco and pleated skirt, white button-down shirt, white socks rolled exactly twice, black loafers.
Years and years later that kiss remained seared on my lips. I had to bury the pleasure deep down at the tips of my toes but there it was, my first kiss was one I liked. I wrapped my wrecked sense of self on that kiss like twine around the trunk of an old tree. It turns out that I’m that girl, the girl who gave her first kiss to a thief.