Whenever someone other than my grandmother cooks arroz con leche, I can taste the absence of the extra can of condensed milk. I’m not fan of change, of deviating from the norm, or of having someone there and then they are gone in a moment’s notice. This Christmas is different. I stare at myself in the mirror sitting on my grandmother's antique 1920's vanity brought in from her childhood home in Santo Domingo. I see a head full of auburn ringlets styled in an afro. It resembles the halo surrounding baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary's heads on the large portrait on the wall adjacent to the vanity. I sigh and watch it escape from plump lips adorned with a tiny opal jewel from the piercing located on my cupid's bow, and I continue to tweak the few final steps to my look. I didn’t have my philtrum pierced last Christmas, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision after this year’s Pitt Homecoming game against Duke. I think Hector would’ve thought of me as bold.
“A face piercing, Kriz?” he’d say, “Good luck getting a job.” He enjoyed making fun of my lack of skill in the work sector. Hector even offered to make me his housewife after picking me up from my job at Target and I mentioned that I quit. I would’ve said yes.
I hear the ruckus of a large family dinner being prepared, little ones running around the legs of the adults, ambitious in having the most devious fun without getting caught, an orchestra of conversations ranging from discussion on the Yankees’ season to gossip over my uncle’s ex-wife’s botched lipo.
The doorbell signals the arrival of even more aunts, uncles, and cousins. Every year we have more and more family members. Everyone is dressed to impress or as my mother likes to call it, “con mucho cache.”
For a Tapia family event, participants include my 84-year-old grandmother, her eight children, my cousins and their children. Many of our family friends also join in the festivities. Basically, my house is a circus of Dominican-American people. My house is filling up and the door hasn’t been closed yet. You hear it with the rapping of the guiro, the clinking of empty Corona bottles, and the rapid pace in which our words are carried into the air as we speak. Some speak only in Spanish, others English, and a select few, where I am most comfortable, have mastered the art of Spanglish— the mixture of the two languages we’ve grown up hearing at home and in school like the orange juice and milk needed for a morir soñando.
It’s the holiday season, and the holiday spirit and cheer has barfed all over the house. The air unsurprisingly smells of cinnamon and apple, my mom’s signature “it’s Christmas time” scent. Warm white lights trail along the rails of the staircase weaving in and out with emerald green and electric violet garland. This is my mother’s favorite time of year. Her love for the winter holidays passed on to me like the elvish crinkle of our left ear.
“Krizia, come down stairs, tus primos estan aqui.” My mother’s voice carries upstairs into my bedroom. I give myself another glance into the mirror, adjust myself, and place a smile on my face. For tonight’s festivities at la casa Tapia, my mother designed a shimmery long-sleeve dress in a deep moss green that was tight around the waist and flared out until the fabric reached just above my knobby knees.
He would’ve loved to see me in this.
I think of Hector once again and my face contorts in agony as I remember his untimely death. It felt almost like last year, the same Christmas spirit infused with a bombardment of aromas. Hector, his parents Elena and Pedro, and his siblings Luis, Andy, and Melanie arrived at my house three hours early. Despite Hector’s disapproval, they wore coordinating colors: black, red, and white. In the meantime, before everyone else arrived, Elena helped my mother with the pots of rice while Pedro sat on the couch watching Dominican baseball with my grandmother. My mom requested that Hector and I run errands around the city to picking up extra disposable cutlery, tissue paper for last minute gifts, and beer.
“What if we just hop on a train and take it to its last stop instead of doing these stupid chores?” I remember Hector asking with teenage rebellion bright behind his hazel eyes. His smirk teased me into submission. Ultimately, we rode the A train to its last stop at Rockaway Beach. We spent our day at the beach; while, speechless and staring at the waves as it crashes onto the rocks, bubbles and foams, and recedes to the deep blue.
“When do you go back to school?” He asked.
“Oh… I applied to Pitt. I haven’t heard back yet, so don’t get your hopes up.”
“You’re fucking with me. What happened to trying to avoid selling your soul to the debt-devil?”
“You think I want to continue making minimum wage at George’s bodega?” He pointed to his face with his finger, “Besides, I think my intellect needs to be challenged again.”
“Where else have you applied?”
“I’ve been accepted to Hunter and Skidmore.”
“Hector, these schools are closer and cheaper than Pitt.”
“Yes, but neither have you there.”
I looked out to the Atlantic Ocean and fought back tears. “I hope you can go to school with me,” I whispered. Hector wrapped his arms around me and pulled me closer, “Me too, Kriz. I can’t do it without you.”
He smelled like honey that day.
His family isn’t here this year. After the hit-and-run that took their son’s life, Pedro and Elena decided to move to Dominican Republic and mourn in the warm climate of our native island. Soon after we stopped receiving calls. My messages today were left on read.
My mother’s voice pulls me from my memories and I hurry out of my bedroom. As I bunny hop my way down to where all the commotion is occurring, my nose is bombarded with the heavenly aroma of the juicy pernil and steaming moro de guandules. It mixes perfectly with the scents of lasagna, ham, and pastalon. My stomach lets out an audible grumble.
“Dinner time?” I ask.
Just as I am about to reach over for a small piece off the steaming pork that just came out of the oven, my cousin Vilma slams her body against mine in a tight embrace. Her hug lingers and she rubs my back letting me know she’s there. I feel it coming again, the tightening of my chest, the stinging in my eyes, the fast occurrences of shallow breathing.
No. No tears tonight… please.
With a deep breath and a tight squeeze, I rip myself away from my cousin and give her a smile.
“Thank you,” I whisper.
Vilma shares a look with me and smiles. I can tell she also is struggling without Hector or his family here with us. He wasn’t just my best friend, he made an impact on all our lives. However, unlike my mom who was able to continue her Christmas tradition, bigger and better than years ago, I couldn’t let go. Hector is my missing can of condensed milk.
Once again, the sounds of a family coming together over the holidays, stomachs rumbling in the background mixing with the upbeat rhythm of the music in the style of Romeo Santos fill my ears. After I build my walls once again, my eyes open to see everyone beginning to make their way toward the elaborately decorated dinner table originally able to sit six, but, somehow, with Santeria, my mother is able to squeeze in more chairs. I take my place right in front of the desserts. My favorite tres leches cake is in front of me, and I look at it greedily.
“Uh uh, no. Esta noche usted y los demás se sientan en la otra mesa.” My mother waves her hands toward a second table in the kitchen with identical placemats, plates, cups, and center piece as our dinner table. The children’s table.
“Mother… ya no soy una niña. Make the other kids go there,” I protest, and my cousins who are of close age nod their heads.
“Sucks to suck,” chimes in my eldest cousin Marcos. He just moved to the city last month and his accent heavy on his tongue.
My abuela clears her throat and instantly everyone listens, “Señoras y señores, es hora de orar por esta hermosa noche y esta deliciosa comida.” It’s time to pray.
Holding my head down, I close my eyes and picture him.
A newly-proclaimed Bruja from Brooklyn, Krizia is a writer whose Dominican heritage runs deep in her everyday life. She spends her day reading fiction novels and about the occult, drawing comics, visiting metaphysical shops, and playing with her Shih-Tzu, Shiloh. Currently, she is working on a prose chapbook, a memoir, and a graphic novel. Krizia is unpacked in Pittsburgh, PA until she graduates from the University of Pittsburgh. You can find Krizia on Twitter @KriziaIsamar and Instagram @TinyBlueBackpack