The walk down the hallway was one of the strangest experiences of her life. Her steps were heavy and her feet were like tree trunks. Time protracted and she thought that she could see herself from the outside, as an observer. At the fork, they went left, but she looked right and saw, at the far end of the hall, an open doorway to a bathroom. There were towels on the floor, soaked and dirty, and a smashed bottle of lotion. The door to mommy’s room at the opposite end was cracked open and Alma could smell the urine-soaked sheets from the distance. Her stomach turned and her heart ached, but she fought the tears that threatened her mascara. She would have to be strong, she told herself, at least until mommy saw how pretty she was.
Esme stopped at the door and let Alma enter first. As she did, she asked God for the strength to endure.
The lights were off but the room was dimly lit by the sun peeking through the scarcely drawn curtains. Everything from the walls, to the windows, and the floor seemed to blend together into a gray, dull painting of sadness, and sickness. The air smelled of it too – filth and old fruit. Alma looked to her sister for an explanation, but she looked away and then left her there on her own. But she was not alone.
On the tall bed that came up to her waist, was a small, crumpled figure beneath thin sheets. She would not have seen it at all had it not been for the breathing that disturbed the stillness of the bedding. Her mother had been a strong, solid woman with big hips, fleshy limbs, and chubby cheeks. The wraith upon the bed must have been an imposter, but it had her mother’s rings on its hand, which hung over the side of the mattress nearest the window. Alma was not strong enough to hold her emotions at bay for much longer.
“Alejandro? My Alejandro?” Closer now, she could hear the parts of her voice that rang through the memories of her childhood, and it broke her heart. Her foundation rocked and the dam failed. She covered her mouth to muffle her sobs.
“Mommy?” She asked, some distant part of her hoping for an answer that she knew she would not get. As she crossed the gulf between them, her face became clear, tired and gaunt, but clear. It was her mother Paula and, for the first time in thirteen years, she seemed happy to see her.
“Whoa, my god.” The woman exclaimed, pulling herself up against the headboard. Alma dropped to her knees beside the bed and took her mother’s hand, sobbing into it.
“Don’t cry, Andro. You’ll ruin that makeup.” Her laugh was almost the same.
“I’m sorry, mommy … I’m sorry.” She took a tissue from the nightstand and noticed the laundry basket, overflowing with dirty sheets. She dabbed at her tears as carefully as she could. Her mother just stared at her for a while with the faintest smile. Then something in her face changed and Alma felt that she was looking past her.
“Where did you go?”
The question confused her, but she shook her head and got a folding chair resting by the wall and posted it at the bedside.
“I’m right here, mommy.”
“Where did you go before?”
Alma looked into herself for a moment, then answered assuredly. “I think that I’ve always been here.”
Mommy nodded very slowly with that same faint smile.
“You still dressing like a girl, mijo?”
“Mommy!” She grumbled and rolled her eyes. “Well, I’m not a boy. And, I’m not a girl either. I’m a woman now.”
“This is what God gave me, Andro? You say you’re not my son anymore?”
She shook her head and nervously adjusted the shoulder of her bodysuit.
“Who did your makeup, Andro?”
“I did it myself. And it’s Alma now, mommy. I did it all legal.”
“Alma?” She whispered the name, seeming to mull it over. “You look like your sister.”
“Oh my god.” She wondered what Esme would have said if she had heard that.
“Or maybe she looks like you.” Mommy clarified with a wink.
Alma bit her tongue with a smile and swayed from side to her in the chair. “You gotta admit, I do look fly!”
They laughed together and, for a while, it was as if they had never been apart.
They chatted for hours, and it was mostly good. It turned out that when Granny passed, her life insurance policy had paid out a lot of money and mommy used it to get this apartment. She also paid for Esme to go to school to become an accountant. That bit of information stung in a particularly harsh way, but she hid her disappointment. Over the time they spent together, she had collected a few glasses of water for her and some roasted chicken wings from the refrigerator. She got the sense that mommy had a lot of difficulty moving around on her own.
When Esme complained about her schedule for the third time, Alma knew that she could not hold her at bay anymore. She gave her mother a long and tight hug. The woman was so small now, and she could feel the bones of her spine as they embraced. There was a certain sadness in her eyes when she said goodbye that left Alma feeling unsettled. She had asked her to draw the curtains before she left the room. Then to turn the thermostat down. And then to hand her the three-day-old newspaper on the dresser. She did not want to be alone, so she exhausted their goodbye until there was nothing left to do.
In the landing, while Esme checked her purse for the keys, Alma took her time putting on her shoes. She looked back down the hall. It was dark again. Her sister had turned all the lights off.
“Who’s Martina?” No one had spoken for a while and it took Esmeralda a moment to respond.
“What do you mean?” She found the keys.
“Mommy asked for Martina when we got here.”
“Oh … she’s the home health aide. She comes twice a week.”
Alma stopped fiddling with her shoes. “Twice a week? Who’s with mommy all the other days?”
Esme shook her head, shrugged her shoulders, and looked away in what Alma imagined was shame.
“Hold up. She lives here alone?” There was no response. “Esme, tell me that mommy is not here by herself without nobody!”
Rico sighed and began fidgeting with the door.
“She’s not alone, Andro. I stop by to check on her. I can’t be here all the time – I have to work. We have to go!”
“Wait a minute!” She could not believe what she was hearing, but she tried to make sense of it. When they had arrived, the apartment was dark and silent. That woman could barely move by herself, let alone use the bathroom or get something to eat. While she sat in the lobby downstairs waiting for Esme and her husband, mommy was up here in this apartment alone, not knowing if she would be spending the night without food and water. She had not even been aware that they were coming today.
“Esmeralda, she can’t even move!” She was shouting now. “That room … it’s a tomb! I’m not gonna leave her like this!”
“We have to go, Andro! We have to go!”
“No.” She kicked her shoe off and it hit the wall. “I’m staying with her.”
“What?” Esme rolled her eyes and sunk her shoulders like a frustrated child. “You can’t stay here. Let’s go now, I’m gonna be late.”
“No. That’s my MOTHER. I’m not leaving her alone.”
“Alright, let’s go.” Rico grumbled and moved toward her – he meant to drag her out of the apartment. Alma jerked out of the reach of his extended arm. She clapped her hands together several times and looked up at the ceiling as if in prayer.
“I swear to God, if you touch me, I will knock your whole face off.”
He was stunned, and so was her sister.
“Are you fucking crazy?”
“Rico!” Esme screamed, drawing both of their ire. “Please. Let me deal with this. I will meet you downstairs.”
He glowered at Alma with hateful eyes. Neither of them wanted to budge, but he took the cue from his wife and stepped out of the apartment, growling in the process, “You crazy bitch.”
“Fuck you!” Alma shouted, her voice ringing down the hall.
“Fuck yourself, you fruitcake.” And the door closed behind him.
She immediately turned her anger onto her sister. “That’s the mother fucker you chose, righ’?
“Calm down, Andro! You know you can’t stay here!”
“It’s Alma, and this isn’t your apartment. Mommy!” She leaned into the hallway and shouted. “You want me to keep you company tonight?”
There was silence for a moment, then a shrill, but certain “Yes!”
“There you go.” She crossed her arms beneath her chest and raised her brows at her sister, daring a response.
“Jesus, fuck.” Esmeralda sighed into her hands and turned around, resting her forehead against the door. Her voice was an intense whisper. “Why are you doing this?”
Alma was genuinely surprised by the question and stumbled over her words. “Why – what’re you … What? What are you asking me?”
Without turning to look at her, Esme hissed into the door. “What are you trying to prove?”
“Wow!” Alma leaned back and almost fell onto the floor. “Whoa! What the fuck is wrong with you? This don’t got nothing to do with me! I don’t got anything left to prove to you or anyone else. I’m not leaving my MOTHER here to rot. Her room smells like piss, Esme. You can’t wash her fuckin’ sheets? I ain’t even really seen that bathroom, but it look like someone dropped a grenade in there.”
“The home health aide will be here tomorrow.”
“Who wants to hear that?! You’re talking major bullshit right now. She obviously don’t care enough to wash the sheets either! I’m not stupid, Esmeralda. I don’t talk like you and I don’t live in no fancy buildings, but I love my mother just the same. You could look down on me all you want, but I’m loyal. That woman gave birth to me, and I’m not letting her die alone.”
Esme spun around to meet her gaze with a face full of rage and pain. Her cheeks were red, her lip was trembling, and there were tears in her eyes. The sight gave Alma pause, but she did not stop speaking.
“We had our differences, but I don’t give a fuck what you approve of or whatever. I’m here now. I’m not goin’ nowhere.”
Esme was trembling and her face was growing hotter and hotter. Alma saw how her grip on the keys tightened like a coiled snake.
“I can’t be here.” Her voice cracked. “I can’t … be here.”
“Then go.” Alma extended her hand. “Because I won’t. That woman deserves better than this.”
That afternoon, Alma called her job and told them that she was very sick and would not be able to come to work for a few days. She also called Rafael and told him to drop off some of her clothes and her favorite comic books, all of which he got wrong.
The first night, Alma helped mommy out of bed and into the washroom for a long, hot bath. While she bathed her, they reminisced about happier times, like the long nights they used to spend watching marathons of the Twilight Zone, baking box cakes in the middle of the day because their shared sweet tooth needed to be sated, and hanging out at the corner store playing red light, green light with Esme and the neighborhood kids while mommy flirted with the clerk.
While she soaked in the tub, Alma scrubbed the mattress and replaced all of the bedding. She put the entire basket into the laundry room to be washed. If the home health aide did not do it, then she would do it herself.
That night, she found out that her mother had not had a proper bath in a long time. The skin on her lower back flaked off into the water like scales, leaving the flesh beneath pink and tender to the touch. She was gentle with her and used Vaseline to keep her most delicate parts moist. She asked her if she wanted to sit in the living room and watch television together, but she just wanted to go back to bed.
Alma slept in the spare room down the hall with the door open to the wall and the sheet barely over her body. She wanted to be ready to tend to her mother if she called out in the middle of the night for the pain medication that they kept in the bathroom, lest she confuse herself and take too much. Sometimes, Alma would go to her unprompted to make sure that she was still asleep.
While standing there in the doorway, her thoughts would take her back to times that were infinitely simpler.
She was a child again, barely ten, and had just woken from the most vivid dream of her young life. She had been pregnant, lovingly doted on by her family and friends, and given birth to a beautiful baby girl, more real than any of Esme’s dolls. She went to her parents’ room but did not have to rouse them because they were already up playing scrabble in bed. She told them about her dream – how she believed that she was really a girl – and that God had made a terrible mistake by putting her in the wrong body. Daddy, a hard black man from Striver’s Row, took his leather strap from the coat hanger on the closet door and, without a word, beat her like a horse. She screamed, cried, and thrashed, but he kept hitting her until he was sure that she would not forget what her words had brought upon her. He dragged her by her hair back into bed and spent a while cursing and stomping around the apartment. When he left, she asked God why she had been born a boy.
Before that night was over, she crept out of her room again to get a Ding Dong from the cupboard for comfort. She found her mother at the kitchen table scribbling in a black notebook that looked to be smaller than her palm. When she noticed her, she called her near and gave her a loving hug. Alma started to cry again, but mommy wiped her tears. Her voice was a gentle murmur.
“Don’t worry, my baby. Daddy just wants you to grow up to be a good, strong man.”
She asked for some milk and half a snack cake before being sent back to bed.
Daddy left a year after that. He went out on one of those late nights and just never came back. After a while, mommy stopped expecting him to return, and Esme stopped putting up flyers. A few months after he left, the police found his body in a freezer in an old restaurant on the ground floor of a condemned building. The place did not have power, so he was so badly decomposed that he had to be identified through dental records. They said that he had likely crossed the wrong person at a gambling ring that used to be run out of one of the abandoned apartments. He had not been a very kind man, but he had provided for both of Paula’s children, and always made sure that they had presents under the tree on Christmas.
There was a funeral, she remembered, but only a few people showed up. At the time, she did not think much of it, but, later in life, she would ponder on who her father was and curse her mother’s side of the family for not having the decency to say goodbye.
She started opening the curtains in mommy’s room every morning to encourage her to rise and meet the day. The woman had spent a long time in perpetual dreariness, in and out of sleep, not sure whether it was day or night. Alma just wanted her to have some semblance of a normal routine. Mommy was very resistant to it at first. She would curse, call her names, and demand to be left alone, but Alma remained persistent, even when a pair of reading glasses were tossed at her head. She would swallow her pride, make a witty joke, and crack the window.
When the home health aide came by, Alma followed her around the apartment to make sure that she did her job. And, when Esme came to check on them, she gave her a list of supplies that she and mommy had put together.
Once, she got mommy to come into the living room and sit on the couch for a while. She learned that the woman had not been in her own living room for over a month. That made Alma very sad, but she hid her tears by retreating to the kitchen to cook dinner. And such dinners they had. Esme had butchered their list, but it gave them the opportunity to try different things. Instead of skinless chicken thighs, she bought turkey wings. Instead of a Spanish onion, she bought a bag of shallots. And, instead of Vienna sausages, Esme bought chicken hot dogs.
“That girl doesn’t listen, Andro.” Mommy would complain.
“It’s Alma, mommy! And, I know, it’s like she took the list and threw it away!”
They wound up loving those hot dogs and, after giving her such aggravation for making the mistake, Esme berated them when they asked for more.
When Alma left the apartment to toss the trash down the incinerator one afternoon, a man stopped her in the hallway to ask how long she had been living in the building. She was in a cropped shirt that revealed her belly and shorts so tight that the fabric was taut against her little friend. Embarrassed, she tried to slink away gracefully, but he kept asking her questions and measuring her body. She had to eventually tell him that her sick mother needed her right away and retreated to the apartment, backward so that he would not get another salacious show on the way out.
She had always attracted male attention, even before openly transitioning. As a freshman in high school, she already knew that she was a girl, and, somehow, some of the older boys knew it too. They took advantage of her hopeless desire for affection and, too often, she found herself alone in the restroom with her fingers down her throat, trying desperately to vomit up every bit of them that she could. Boys always left her feeling empty and desperate. Those mindless and meaningless encounters eventually left her with a most bitter indifference for sex. It may have been why it was so easy for her to accept working on the piers as a hooker at such a young age. At least then, she could get paid to perform.
* * *
Read the fourth installment on 1/14/2022
The Life Of Alma: 2002 (4th Installment)
Missed the previous installments? Check them out Now
* This is a serialized story that represents the first 15k-words of a forthcoming urban, literary fiction novel, The Life Of Alma, following a young, Afro-Latina, transgender woman navigating life and love in New York City in the early 2000s. While this subject matter may appeal to a wider audience, it was written for this woefully underrepresented community from a place of empathy and understanding. We are living during a time of unprecedented transgender awareness and emerging trans-focused art. Highly successful television programs like FX’s Pose and HBO’s Legendary, and documentaries like Sara Jordenö’s Kiki and Vice’s My House have brought to the public consciousness an underground world of transsexualism, pageantry, and sexual liberation. There remains a yearning in the ethnic minority transgender and non-binary communities for representation in sophisticated literary fiction where the characters and settings are contemporary, relevant, urban, and ethnic.
* Transgenderism in black and brown communities is not an in-vogue fad that can be censored, plastic-wrapped, and delivered to the public with a pretty pink bow. It is complicated, often difficult to mitigate, and painstakingly human.
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