Naima Coster


Stories Told When The Lights Go Out

Zoe and Altagracia came to my grandmother’s house after dinner. We were scrubbing the plates in silence, sharing the same sponge and grainy bar of green soap. My grandmother answered the door.

“Bendición, Señora,” they murmured before my grandmother let them into the house. They explained that a few of the young people in the pueblo were going to the river to swim. It was mostly people from the church, they said, and we would be gone only a few hours. My grandmother said I could leave when I was done with the dishes. Altagracia and Zoe took over at the sink while I changed into a pair of shorts and an old undershirt that had belonged to my father.

When I kissed my grandmother’s hand, she called after me, “Enjoy the night! And your friends! It is warm.”

The other girls were electric as we followed the winding path to the river. They complained about the strictness of their mothers and pinned their hair up into the most elegant, messy knots I had ever seen. I did not say much – just laughed and mmmhmmed at the appropriate moments. I cleared my throat from time to time, and I listened. They told me about which boys at the river were cutest, which had strange medical conditions, and which were infamous for their tigueraje and should be avoided at all costs.

When we got to the river, there were six other young people, crouched over a low fire, where dozens of mosquitoes hovered as well. I greeted everyone casually, waving and taking off my shoes and socks. I could smell the burnt remains of rice, stuck to the bottom of a pan, and open bottles of beer. There was peanut candy and coconut candy, a few clean cans filled with rum and condensed milk. Everyone remembered me, if not by face then by name. Amara, la nieta de Doña Miyerladi, or Amara, la hija de Ramona, or Amara, the Gomez girl who grew up in Nueva York. I drank a can-full of Brugal and condensed milk. It was sweet and burned in my throat. I leapt in the water before anyone else was done gossiping and flirting.

I immersed myself fully, slipping beneath the surface, touching my knees to the bottom. The smooth pebbles slid under my feet, like flat marbles. The water reflected the sloped face of a mountain and the silver mountains of the clouds. I saw the moon and the pattern of flowers from the framboyan tree. I swam through the glassy scene in silence. Slowly, the others joined me. I recognized Roberto, the boy I beat in a game of soccer as a child. We had kicked around a ball made of wound-up socks on the day I got my first period. I recognized Gemela, whose sister had died at birth, and whose mother always cried at Communion in the town chapel.

        I could hear laughing and, eventually, kissing on the bank. There was the soft rustling of clothes, then panting in the water. I submerged my ears as I floated and configured stars into my own constellations. I created a kite and a diamond, a pigeon, a starfish, a spoon. I could not see who was kissing who, who was still drinking rum on land, where Altagracia or Zoe were and if they were still pretending to want all of the boys at the river more than they wanted each other. I thought about my mother, who never told me about this river, who had never taken me here. She never mentioned the depth of this quiet, the way the river smelled of stone and fish and saltlessness.

I swam for what seemed like hours until Roberto began shouting that there was no more rum and he wanted to go home. We emerged from the water in pairs, arms wound around waists, lips swollen, little bits of hair clinging to fingertips. I was alone, but I felt fine. My father’s shirt clung to my skin, transparent, making each lump and roll in my form visible, as well as the shape of my hips, the cavity of my bellybutton. I wished someone would notice me: the Dominican York with the low ass and busted Spanish, nipples poking through a thin Fruit of the Loom T-shirt. Nobody did.

Zoe and Altagracia, were the last to appear from behind a hedge of rocks, red-faced and smiling. They rubbed their hands across the front of their shorts, and if you listened carefully, you could hear the small catches in their breaths, letting you know the air was not quite enough: they still needed more.

We headed back toward the pueblo, eating rice with our fingers as we went, finishing the last of the beer.

“I didn’t see you all swimming,” I said to Zoe.

She laughed. “We saw you! You’re still not used to these dark nights in the campo. You’re an American – you can’t see anything with the lights out!”

Altagracia laughed too, and kept rubbing her fingers across her pants.

I shared a beer with them, running my tongue along the rim, sucking out the frothy amber liquid. Altagracia watched and Zoe scowled, and I smiled privately.

When I got to my grandmother’s house, I eased through the gate as silently as I could, whispering goodbye to my friends. My grandmother groaned in her sleep, and it sounded as if she said, “Drunk and alive, drunk and alive, she arrives.”

I lay down without turning on the fan, my skin still humming with the richness of the river. My head spun and the thick taste of condensed milk in the back of my throat reminded me of semen, and sinus colds, and my mother’s kitchen in Brooklyn where she kept dozens of Carnation Milk cans in a row. I wondered why she had never told me about the river and whether she had spent nights there when she was a girl, before me and before my father. I resolved to ask my grandmother during the next apagón. I slid into my dreams weightlessly, feeling a gentle pressure on all of my limbs and hearing my own breath, amplified and slow, as if I were listening to myself from underwater.


Naima Coster is a devoted fiction writer, living and creating in New York City. She is a native of Brooklyn with roots in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Curacao. Naima graduated from Yale College in 2008 and went on to teach creative writing in various settings, working with youth activists in the South Bronx and young people at Rikers Island. In the fall, Naima will pursue a M.A. in English with a concentration in Creative Writing at Fordham University. She will also continue to serve for a second year as a mentor at Girls Write Now.

August 2010