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Kevin González

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Kevin González

Photo by Heidi Wiren Bartlett

(2018 - Prose)

Excerpt from Statehood

The last time my mother came with us on the boat, we took a day trip to Palomino. When we returned to the marina, it was always her job to jump onto the dock and tie the bow line to the cleat, but this time, she tripped on the gunwale and fell short.  She crashed into the pier and doubled over, and as she dropped into the water, she scraped her arms and legs. “Mami!” I cried, and when I peeked over the railing, her straw hat was drifting off and her hair flowed behind her like a net. 

“Carmen, coño! What are you doing?” my father yelled.

“What am I DOING?” she said, splashing around. “Comemierda, what the hell’s it look to you?”

Malavé had docked moments before, and he and his wife and their twin boys were watching from their boat. 

“Swim over to this side!” my father said.  “I’m drifting!  Carmen!  Give me a push into the dock!”

My mother looked away. “A push. Yeah, right. I’ll give him a damn push.” She went underwater and surfaced near the stern, and without glancing back, she swam to where a mess of crispy-skinned iguanas were baking on the boat ramp. My father maneuvered the boat and threw a line to Malavé, and after we tied up, he took me to her. The scrapes on her legs stretched from her knees down to her shins, like treacherous barrier reefs barely breaching the surface of the water. The wounds already looked like scars; no blood was spilling forth, but if you’d pressed a bandage to her skin, it would’ve soaked all gory. A small crowd had assembled, and she was speaking with Chuíto, the forklift operator who loaded the boats onto the dry stack. “You’re sure? I can get someone,” he was saying.

People were staring at her legs, and I could tell that this attention, this perusal of her body, was making her embarrassed. 

“No, no,” she said. “Really, I’m fine.  It’s fine.”

Everyone was standing at a distance because they had nothing but their scrutiny to offer her. The spectacle reminded me of the way my classmates would gather in disgust around Carlos Quilín whenever he pissed his pants at school. 

“It’s all right, she’s all right,” my father said as we approached. “See?” He slapped my back. “What I tell you, babe?  She’s alive!”

Chuíto shrugged and hopped back on his machine, and my father smiled at my mother. “Nice dive,” he said, “but you lose points on the entry. I’ll give you a 6.5.” He went to place an arm around her, and she shoved him with both hands. 

“What?” he said, surprised.

She shoved him again. “What carajo you ask me what I’m doing, you see me bleeding in the water?”

“Relax. Cálmate,” he said.

“I’m calm!” she yelled, and then she lunged at him and ripped the boat keys from his hand and threw them in the water.

My father laughed. “I didn’t push you, crazy!” She began to walk away, so he looked to me instead. “I’m sorry, did I push her? You were there.”

I shook my head, and the crowd started to disperse.

The keys didn’t sink. They were attached to a bright red floating keychain, which now bobbed like a marker buoy, a few feet from her hat, in the middle of the waterway. No matter what she tried, it was not until she left him for another man that she learned to hurt him right. 

“What are you standing there? Go get the boat hook,” my father said to me. “Fish out those keys.” I walked off towards this chore, and he called: “But not her hat!  Don’t fish out her hat!  You can leave her stupid hat!”

It would take me years to learn to hate them both, and then half my life to learn again to not. My mother never again set a Top Sider on the boat, and from then on, my father and I were free to roam. She began to schedule her flight shifts on the weekends, and on Fridays, my father pulled me out of school at noon, and a mere three hours later, while my classmates were sweating in the gridlock of the parking lot, we’d be zooming into Vieques and dropping anchor at Sun Bay. He’d crack open a Medalla and I’d crack open a Coke, and without my mother there, without the constant gloom of her pet cloud, where could we not go, what could we not do?  The entire Caribbean was our pool! At Punta Arenas, I snorkeled forty, fifty feet above him as he dove with his spear gun and his SCUBA tank. Afterward, we sat on the bow, he with a fresh beer, me with a fresh Coke, while his catch lay gasping, dry-gilled, in the transom, and we watched the sun cast its seine of fire over the waves, and we watched the sun reel the glow back into its chest, and we watched the sea abduct the light and hold it hostage in its depths, and then we raised anchor in the dark and crossed the shallow straight into the Bioluminescent Bay, where we dove into the water and freed the light again.  It rose and fell with us, this light, leading and following at once, our arms and legs aglow in a psychedelic dance: We were radiant, radiant; we were each other’s ghosts.

Kevin A. González was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his fiction has been awarded the Narrative Prize, the Playboy College Fiction Prize, the Michener-Copernicus Award, and the Carol Houck Smith Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. Excerpts of his novel-in-progress, Statehood, have appeared in Ploughshares, Ploughshares Solos, Playboy, Oxford American, Narrative, Virginia Quarterly Review, and American Short Fiction, and have been anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading and Best New American Voices. He is the author of a collection of poems, Cultural Studies, and co-editor of The New Census: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. He teaches at Carnegie Mellon University. 

The most immediate outcome of winning this award is a validation of the work at hand, a novel I’ve been working on for over ten years. As a writer, of course it feels wonderful to hear that one’s writing has been chosen to receive this honor. Perhaps less obviously, I see this award as support for my continued attempt to honor the history and culture of Puerto Rico and to explore the complicated relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. As an American colony, Puerto Rico is both dependent on the United States and in many ways exploited because of this relationship. Most recently, the island has been in the news because of the weakening of its already fragile economy, as well as the ongoing devastation wreaked by Hurricane Maria. Even so, many Americans remain unaware of the complex nature of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. While my novel is fictional, it is couched in the reality in which I grew up and seeks to explore and make light of these issues. I’m incredibly grateful to the NEA for offering me the time to devote to this project, and for offering me the platform from which to proffer this lens.