This is my first winter since moving to Oklahoma, and like any Puerto Rican needing comfort, I make asopao de pollo. The closest recipe to the one I know calls for a whole chicken, cut into pieces.
Adobo, cilantro, short-grain rice. A chicken, nestled in Styrofoam, wrapped in plastic. I know how to make arroz con pollo, even pernil for special occasions. But my mother never taught me how to wrestle a chicken that is whole, and she’s been dead for six months.
I could call my tías, but I don’t want them to feel sorry for me, sorry for not keeping in touch. They left the island and scattered like rain across the east coast. Florida, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania. It feels insurmountable, synchronizing our disparate lives, dissecting and practicing the meaning of closeness. We’re too busy sopping up rivers with washcloths.
So, I scrape my memories to see what comes up.
The bones we pulled from meat held between our teeth and discarded. The spoon my mother used for stirring and scooping and raising in warning. Her soft body leaning over the counter, an occasional glance at the pot to keep it from boiling over. Her voice when it did, the graceful rise and dip of her fury.
But I can’t recall watching her handle a whole chicken, finding the right places to cut. I only remember her memories, like the one where she’s plucking feathers as a child, chicken bodies held between her skinny knees.
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There are 1,947 Latinos living here in Stillwater, 84 Puerto Ricans, not including me. I try to imagine how they look, but they’re obscured by the red dust of Oklahoma wind and soil. I wonder what circumstances brought them to this cowboy town devoid of bodegas. How I might find them. How they might receive me.
I watch a nauseating instructional video, a close-up of a white woman’s pink fingers gripping pinker flesh.
Three years ago, I fell in love with a white man and his gentle handling. He approached carefully while I puffed and strutted, then showed me ways of passion that didn’t involve the screaming and slammed doors of my childhood. We moved west in pursuit of higher degrees, cheaper rent.
At first, we shared youthful cynicism—seeing death, for instance, as an overdue apology for life. In my romantic stupor, I failed to consider death beyond my own, how my mother’s sudden departure would split me into befores and afters.
I pull out my knives, their cheap plastic handles and dull edges. They won’t be enough, and I know, staring down at this raw body, its dense network of sinew and gristle, neither will I. The process would be too messy.
Despairing over poultry, I realize my problem is more than memory gaps and muscle. I review the certainties I have, the certainties I can work with.
What do I know?
One night six months ago, my mother wiped down the kitchen counters, prepared for bed, closed her eyes, and died.
I could get away with deceiving anyone who tries to sniff a region out of me, anyone who asks what I am, because I seem like something other than white, maybe.
Or I could drive an hour to the nearest Latin American grocery store, take note when the cashier looks me in the face and greets me in Spanish.
I could stop trying to make sense of myself.
What I couldn’t do was prepare for her death, call her in advance for an exit interview. How do you work through bones, Ma? How do you make a clean break? She was a precious archive gone up in flames. But now, if given the chance to ask her just one question, it wouldn’t be a question at all.
The chicken is back in my fridge, lying belly up and waiting for me to find the right tool to cut through its form. To separate the most tender pieces from its body.
I’m trying, Ma.