The young mother stared at me. She was dressed in her Sunday best. Next to her sat her cute daughter in a flouncy princesa outfit. I kept my eyes glued to the dirty floor of the train heading uptown. The baseball hat I wore didn't do much to shield my swollen face. The black eye was already forming. I made the mistake of looking up to make sure I didn't miss my train stop. My eyes connected with the mother's, and she gave me that look of pity I knew so well, like she wanted to help me. My eyes returned to the floor, and I tried to shrink even more into the seat.
The ride from Jackson Heights in Queens to 183rd in the Bronx would last for at least an hour. It was more than enough time for me to figure out what lie I was going to choose. Was it the three Long Island Iced Teas that did me in, or was it more? I couldn't remember but I definitely blamed the fruity drinks.
I'm a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. You drank Bacardi Rum or Heinekens if you had money, Budweiser if you didn't. The only drink I knew how to order was a rum and Coke because it made me feel much older than nineteen. When my stop approached, the face that reflected back on the train's window reminded me of my neighbor, the one who would wear heavy Avon foundation to conceal the bruises her boyfriend gave her.
"Que te paso?" Mami asked once I entered the apartment. As much as I tried to stay in the shadows, the glaring florescent light fooled no one.
"Nothing," I said. My nervous laugh couldn't conceal my shame. "I drank too much. I forgot to eat."
The excuse I've used before, part of an old script. I come from a family where secrets are preserved. Even when I told Mami that my broken nose came from drinking, she couldn't believe me. My messed-up face must have come from somewhere else, she thought, some incident way more dramatic than blacking out in some grungy bathroom in a bar in the Village. But the one thing I knew I could count on was Mami not asking for more information. My embarrassing moment would be kept hidden.
At the time, my cousin Jose lived with us. He was a big burly guy with a thick Bronx accent. He loved to tease me, tell me I sounded white. Maybe he thought I was a bit too bougie. I was the first to go to college. Clearly, I was trying to act like I was somebody.
"But what happened to you?" Jose asked over and over again. "Tell me. If you're protecting someone, tell me right now. I'll take care of it."
It would have been easy for me to say yes, that it was some guy who gave me the black eye, who broke my nose. No one in my family could wrap their head around that I got hurt because I couldn't stop drinking. Alcoholism doesn't really exist in my family. There are only freak accidents and bad liquor choices. It didn't matter if I blacked out or if I broke more body parts, I wasn't going to stop.
"Don't be stupid in protecting some guy," my cousin said. "Give me his name."
The first time I took a drink, I was nine years old. It was at somebody's wedding reception held in a church basement. Each table had plastic champagne glasses filled with cheap bubbly. When my older cousin Leslie told me to drink it fast, I did what she told me to do. It felt warm going down. The champagne burned my throat, and I immediately wanted more.
I come from a big family. We lived walking distance from each other. We always partied together. Strangers were definitely not allowed in our tight circle. It's easy to feel safe when the people you're getting loaded with are your relatives. There's a rite of passage each of us went through that consisted of consuming lots of alcohol at one of our many house parties. If you can hold down your liquor without passing out, then you were fly. When it was my turn, it felt good to be able to pass that test, to receive mad props from my older cousins for showing that I wasn't weak.