Your family lives in a narrow two-bedroom bungalow two blocks from the Raritan Bay. Some neighbors have tawny, reticent lawns like yours, while some step off their front steps onto broken sidewalks, no grassy preamble. Port Monmouth is a town of the dilapidated variety, trimmed in weeds and trash aged in sand and pebble, even before the nor’easter of ‘92 blows its doomed possessions around. You are seven during the consequent flood. Looking out your front window, you watch a parade of debris move up the street in a sluggish current.
A portrait in your family’s water-stained photo album: three siblings, two-light skinned and one dark, migrant parents who come from the same island but are as contrasted as backgammon stones. You are one of the light-skinned two, pictured there smiling, photo taken before your origins would become an inquiry, your identity a project you would spend your life delaying.
You don’t see the difference until one afternoon, when you’re playing on the sidewalk with another little girl two houses down. She sees your mother arrive home from work and walk through your front door. “There’s a Black lady going inside your house,” she says, alarmed. “That’s my mom,” you say, bothered more by her tone than her error, but you don’t correct her because you don’t know how.
Your mother once told you that when you were a toddler people mistook her for your nanny. One night, she traces the outline of a coffee-colored splotch on your upper thigh. “Look,” she says. “I have it too. Shaped like Puerto Rico, right here.” She lowers her pants to show you her own birthmark, near the same area on her own thigh. “Even though you look like your father, this is proof you’re all mine.”
There’s another division in your life, Highway 36, which splits the township in half. To the south of the highway is Middletown, a community deserving of the township name. Also called the dry side, basking in the sun and content in its uniformity, boasting inground pools and kids who get cash-stuffed birthday cards from local relatives.
To the north of Highway 36 is your home, the wet side, the side facing the dangerous bay. But not everyone on the wet side is lacking. For instance, the little girl two houses down has a jungle gym in her backyard. Her family is one of few with a driveway, more than one car.
Before the wet side, your family lived in Newark, one of the most diverse cities in Jersey. “If we had stayed in Newark,” your mother tells you, proud to have left, proud to have given you a better education, “you’d be talking all ghetto by now.” If your family had stayed in Newark, she tells you, you’d end up a teen mom like she’d been. Your mother refuses to tell you about your oldest brother’s father. Instead, your father raised him, your father who has the skin tone of Spanish colonizers. In Port Monmouth, your father makes friends easily. He takes a childhood nickname, Cholito, and turns it into Charlie.
Your brothers—older than you by over a decade, having spent their lives in Puerto Rico and Newark—have a harder time here in the suburbs. They set fire to dumpsters and grassy fields. They skip school and fight each other in the street, body tumbling over body like cartoons you’ve seen on your parents’ wood-paneled television set. Meanwhile, you attend Mass and learn how to confess, take communion, wear white lace.
One night, you are sitting by your mother’s feet and fingering the ridges of a scar on her ankle when she tells you that as a child she’d been tied to a kitchen table. Left on a stoop by her mother, her drunk father lost in Arecibo, she was raised by light-skinned relatives who called her dirty, made her kneel on raw grains of white rice. She survived all this and more, lived to pass this pain on to you.
When someone at school asks, “Where are you from?” what they mean is, “Are you from the wet side or the dry side?” You are from the wet side, the side more prone to damage.
It’s an overcast day when the little girl two houses down tells you her family is leaving for vacation. In the unsentimental language of children in which there are no apologies or good-byes, she also says her parents think your family is bad. Her family drives away in one car, leaving their silver sedan behind in their overgrown driveway, leaving you to process what you’ve been told, that your goodness, your merit, has come into question.
You once asked your mother if she was angry at the people who gave her those scars. “Well, I was bad, too,” she said, offering an answer you would never accept. “I was always acting up.”
And for a long time, this will be the worst thing you’ve ever done, something you won’t even confess to the priest at church:
After the little girl’s family leaves, the sky will open in a downpour, murky waters lifting the boats docked offshore, threatening to flood but won’t, this time. The next day you’ll be playing outside, finding yourself in that little girl’s driveway, circling their second car. When you check to see no one’s watching, you’ll scoop up handfuls of gravelly mud, spread the cakey molasses across their car windows, smearing their doors, their hood, their headlights. You will never tell your mother about this crime. You will unscrew their gas cap, shove twigs and stones down into the tank, and imagine their faces when they’re told something’s wrong on the inside.