THOSE FIVE DAYS
Today has to be the day. I’ve been waiting three weeks. If it’s not in the mail today I’m going to blow.
The dismissal bell rang. I dumped my binder in my backpack and pushed myself through the crowd of Juniors lining the hall. I raced past my locker and burst into the street. Headphones blasting, I maneuvered through the police officers patrolling the front of my high school, past the truck pouring cement into a hole in the ground on the corner lot, and joined the cluster of pedestrians clogging Everett Avenue.
I weaved between construction workers on their afternoon coffee runs, mothers pushing strollers with toddlers lagging behind, and bands of Chelsea’s misfits, drunks, and crazies.
I turned onto Chestnut Street, swung my backpack to my front and fumbled in the side pocket for my keys. I stabbed myself on my “Know My Playlist. Know My Soul” pin.
I fingered the keys until I found the one for the mailbox. As I fumbled with the lock, my first floor neighbor, Mrs. Alvarez, spotted me through the burglar bars on her window. Her trash-bag white cat was perched on her shoulder. I averted her eyes, reached into the mail slot, and scanned the contents. A few bills, a small letter, junk mail, and a thick packet. Thick packet? This is it! The return address label read, Berklee College of Music, Boston. I dropped the other mail.
The front door creaked open. “CeCe, Mr. Whiskers and I made crème catalane today. We have extra for you and your Papi.” Mrs. Alvarez said, her camel colored hair pinned in curls. “Mr. Whiskers likes his with a dash of cocoa sprinkled on top.” She pushed a small tray containing two chipped teacups full of dessert toward me.
“Gracias. No time to talk. Homework and everything,” I picked the mail up and shoved it in my armpit.
Balancing the tray, I bounded up the stairs, two at a time.
When I reached the landing of our apartment I placed the tray on the welcome mat. I dipped my finger into a cup and tasted it. Smooth and creamy with a hint of lemon zest. Nice job, Mrs. Alvarez. But it will take more than sugar and crème to thaw Papi’s cold heart.
I unlocked the door and dropped my backpack. I darted into the living room.
I tore open the packet from Berklee. On the cover was a collage of performers in all shades and sizes, even some extra big, like me. A petite Chinese student held a microphone, a tall black student stood before an orchestra holding a baton, and a red-haired student with skin the color of the moon held a cello.
I pictured myself on that cover smiling along with them. This could be me. I was grateful for the years of practice and patience. For the first time in forever I felt hopeful.
I scanned the apartment. Goodbye peeling wallpaper. Goodbye caved in couch. One more year until graduation and then I’d be off to college and finally on my own.
My phone interrupted my daydream. It was Papi. I remembered the crème catalina. I grabbed it from the hall as I cradled the phone between my shoulder and ear.
“How was school? Did you bring home all your homework?” Papi asked.
“Si, I brought it home,” I lied. “Guess what? The packet from Berklee came today. The music school I was telling you about. It’s only a few stops from here by train.” I was pacing in the apartment, butterflies crashing into each other in my stomach.
“Maybe, but it might as well be on another planeta. It would take me cinco lifetimes to pay for that school,” Papi said.
My fingertips caressed the brochure resting on the table. “There are other ways. Financial aid. Scholarships. You think I’m good enough to get a scholarship, right?”
“It’s not whether or not you are good enough. Si, you are good enough. It’s the whole business CeCe. You are a good girl and that is a tough business. I’m not sure it is for you. Now, did my Nature magazine come yet? Check the mail for me.”
“I don’t know. Let me see…” I flipped past a postcard for a Chinese food restaurant opening around the block, the light and water bill, then to a small white envelope addressed to me. I lifted it from the pile. “Cecelia Perez” was written in thin pink marker. The “i” was dotted with a music note. A Florida postmark.
I dropped the phone. It fell on my toe. I felt nothing. The world had gone black. In my stomach the butterflies morphed into wildebeests. I felt dizzy.
“Hello? Are you there?” Papi shouted. “Cecelia? Cecelia? Are you ok?”
I bent over and picked up the phone, still holding the letter. “Uh yeah, I’m h –here. The phone slipped, sorry,” I stuttered.
“The magazine. My magazine. Did it come in?”
“No. No magazine.”
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine. I just remembered I have a big test tomorrow. So I better go study,” I lied again.
“Ok. Go estudio. No visitors while I’m at work. Recordar. No one.” His voice was stern, as always.
“I know. I remember.”
I picked up the packet from Berklee. An envelope in each hand: one my future and the other my past. It had been ten months since I’d last heard from The Stranger. When she first arrived I thought God was smiling on me. I’d been praying for a miracle, for someone or something to help me out of this slum, away from my overbearing Papi, and set me on my music career.
She said she came to Chelsea to tell me the truth about my family but I couldn’t take any more of her revelations. Not today.
Pinching a corner of the letter I held it at arm’s length like it was a rotted fish and took it to my room. I opened the bottom drawer of my desk, tossed an old school notebook aside and removed my mother’s Juan Gabriel record. The only piece of her my father saved from Colombia. Opening the sleeve of the album I slid the unopened letter inside. I rested the notebook on top of the album and closed the drawer.
I fell onto my bed and stared out the window at the passing cars on the distant Tobin Bridge. I shook my hands and belted out my favorite Mariah Carey song. During the part about lost love, goose bumps prickled the skin on my arm. I wiped the tears from my eyes. Had any of those people driving by suffered a loss as deep as mine or lived through a terrible betrayal?
Since Papi would be working his second job until midnight, my boyfriend, Marcos, was coming over. I wanted to prepare his favorite meal, arroz con pollo with crescent rolls from a tube.
I clicked on the radio. I sang along to Pitbull and G.RL. I propped the Berklee brochure on the counter and trimmed skin from a chicken leg. I thought of that April day The Stranger arrived. Maybe if I figured out what happened during our time together, maybe if I finally understood why she did what she did, I’d be able to open the letter tonight.
Maybe with Marcos’ help I’ll have the strength and courage to know what to do.