“That is Not Good, Chiquita.” I knew little about him. He was Turkish, lived alone in a luxury apartment building a block from Bloomingdale’s, wore expensive suits in muted colors with finely detailed pleats and seams. He’d traveled extensively and boasted friends all over the world. In addition to his first language, he spoke fluent German and French, but his English was heavily accented and hesitant.
He had won the Golden Bear at the 1964 Berlin International Film Festival for Susuz Yaz, a black-and-white film made in Turkey, which he was desperate to distribute in the United States.
His name, Ulvi Dogan, sounded so foreign from my tongue, that it was sometimes difficult to pronounce it. That initial vowel made it awkward—not the rounded Puerto Rican “u,” nor the puckered, sharp English “u,” but a sound halfway in between, a strangled diphthong.
“Hi,” I’d say when I called him on the phone, “it’s me.” I never said my name, because he’d christened me Chiquita, little girl. I’d grown up with a familial nickname, Negi, and was an official Esmeralda everywhere else, so his pet name felt as foreign as his name on my lips. When I tried to give him a nickname, he refused. “Ulvi,” he said. “Just Ulvi.” He would not let me call him darling, either, or dear, or honey, or sweetheart. Not even any of the lovely Spanish words that express affection— querido, mi amor, mi cielo—would convince him. Just Ulvi, he insisted. Ulvi.
With this man I barely knew, whose name reshaped my face every time I spoke it, I left my mother. On the airplane taking us to Florida, I sat next to Ulvi, my forehead pressed to the window. I swore I could see Mami’s house, way down there in Brooklyn. There was the tiny square of cement that was our backyard, the larger playground directly across the street, which we were forbidden to play in because there was always the danger that a fight would break out over the outcome of a basketball game. In the distance, Manhattan’s spires pierced the sky, while Brooklyn’s rectangular roofs seemed to push against it, defying the clouds.
Eight years earlier, on a morning as bright as this one, I had lain on a grassy hummock behind our house in Puerto Rico seeking against the turquoise sky shapes and forms that might foretell what the United States would be like. It was the middle of hurricane season, and gloomy clouds scudded across the blue, in a hurry, like Mami, to be somewhere else. Later that afternoon aboard the propeller-driven Pan American flight to New York, I stared from above at the languid, cottony puffs that reminded me of the stuffing inside a mattress. A child could jump on them, and bounce high into an azure heaven.
I crossed the Atlantic that day in a confused haze intensified by the wonder of what was happening, but nothing could prepare me for the United States, not even the stories about the colorful estadounidenses profiled in the Selecciones del Reader’s Digest that my father gave me to take on the plane.
Mami, my sister Edna, my brother Raymond and I had left San Juan in the middle of a sunny afternoon, but when we landed, it was a rain-slicked night in Brooklyn. As we drove from the airport to our new home in Williamsburg, headlights from the opposing traffic illuminated the drops that slid down the taxi’s windows, making them blink and shimmer. Mami’s mother, Tata, and Tata’s boyfriend, Don Julio, joked about my amazed eyes as I tried to see just how high were the buildings lining the broad avenues. Even dazed and sleepy, I felt the dimensional shift from Puerto Rico’s undulating horizons to the solid, vertical angles of New York City.
“We came here,” Mami said some days later, “so that you can get an education and find good jobs when you grow up.”
We had come, I thought, because Raymond needed medical attention for an injury to his foot that resisted the best efforts of Puerto Rican doctors. I was certain that, as soon as Raymond’s foot healed, Papi would appear at the door of our apartment in Brooklyn to lure Mami back home, just as he had bitter arguments followed by separations during which Papi wooed Mami back, and a few months later, a new baby would be born so that by the time I was eight I had four sisters and two brothers. I had no reason to imagine that things would be different just because we flew across the ocean instead of taking a público across the island. But Papi never came. Mami sent for the rest of my sisters and brothers still in Puerto Rico to join us in New York. By the time Raymond could walk without a limp and his doctor said he didn’t need to wear a special shoe anymore, Papi had married a widow none of us had ever heard of and the vision of him appearing at our door to return us to Puerto Rico vanished.
I now turned to Ulvi, who leaned over me to look at the city we had left behind. “This is only the second time I’m ever on an airplane,” I said.
“Really?” He fiddled with the controls on the armrest, pushed his seat back and closed his eyes. The air around me grew cold. I rubbed the goose bumps from my arms, turned again to the tiny rectangular window as the plane droned through cotton candy.
Days earlier, when I’d told him Mami would never give me permission to go with him to Florida, Ulvi had said: “You must take the bull by the horns.” I’d never heard that phrase, had no idea what it meant. He spoke less English than I did. Where did he learn it? He didn’t want me to run away with him. “Talk to her woman to woman,” he said, “explain the situation.”
I thought of it, but couldn’t look Mami in the eyes and admit that in spite of my other successes—the high school diploma, the proficient English, the clerical jobs, the college courses—I had failed as a nena puertorriqueña decente, a decent Puerto Rican girl. I had lost myself to Ulvi without benefit of velo y cola, the trailing veil Mami imagined for each one of her daughters before a Catholic altar.
“When was the first time?” Ulvi’s voice was so soft, I thought at first that it came from inside my head. I turned to him. Still leaning back, his heavy-lidded eyes looked at me as if he had just met me, a stranger on the seat beside him on a plane to an exotic destination.
“Eight years ago, when we first came from Puerto Rico.”
“Hmm,” he closed his eyes again, turned his face toward the aisle. His black hair had picked up static from the seat, and fine strands fluttered up languidly, like soft antennae. I pressed my spine against the seat cushion and tried not to think, not to imagine Mami’s reaction, the disappointment at my first rebellious act.
“What did your mother say when you told her?” Ulvi asked, and heat rose to my cheeks.
“I didn’t.” I closed my eyes, afraid to see the anger in his. He thought it was wrong that I hadn’t told her about us, but he also refused to meet her. She will understand, he had assured me. But he didn’t know Mami.
“That is not good, Chiquita. It is not good.”
I would not open my eyes, did not answer. I heard him turn away from me again, and imagined the tiny hairs drifting toward the plane’s low ceiling. Below us New York was becoming a memory, but the words I’d struggled with, Querida Mami and el hombre que yo amo, floated around my head, every dot over the i’s, every downstroke, every loop, fine threads that twisted in and out between who I was and who I had become.
Esmeralda Santiago, who received her M.F.A. in writing from Sarah Lawrence in 1992, is the author of two other memoirs: When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman, which was made into a Peabody Award-winning film for Masterpiece Theatre. She is married to filmmaker Frank Cantor and is the mother of two adult children, jazz guitarists Lucas and Ila.