Juan Carlos Reyes

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Juan Carlos Reyes's essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared in The Brooklyner, Arcadia, and Hawai'i Review, among others. His first book, A Summer's Lynching, won Quarterly West's 2016 Novella Contest. He currently serves as director of Stetson University's MFA of the Americas low-residency creative writing program.

For the Love of Plastic

         When I remember it, when I retell the anecdote to my mother, all four of us are hunched over the kitchen table. My mother and her two brothers and me. The kitchen table has been replaced to the living room, and window fans blow hot air across our knuckles. We’re pretty much melting. We are melting. It’s summer. I sit across from the sillier of my mother’s brothers, the man who taught me that every fart is only the perspiration of an ass mightily high on love. I wear a t-shirt I’ve sweat through. I wear socks I’ve sweat through. I wear a belt whose leather I’ve sweat through and that leaves a thick brown stain on my navel. It’s a cheap belt.

         When I remember it, my uncles are lost in some conversation about some soccer rivalry or the most recently crazy thing my grandmother said or how much English they’re picking up at the learning center. The one uncle attempts to correctly pronounce some relatively difficult word, and then the other uncle teases the first about the mispronunciation. My one uncle who at least tries gets all “Bah” and “Why don’t you try?” My other uncle just laughs and says he doesn’t want to show anyone up.

         When I remember it, my mother tells them to knock it off. She excuses herself to get water. She doesn’t bring us any water and so we ask for some water. She returns with towels for our hands and neck. She contributes to the work, of course, but mostly insomuch as she can dictate the work to us, as in “Don’t forget to…” and “It’s like this.”

         When my mother remembers it, however, she doesn’t remember it. She says we never did that. She says I must be amusing myself for my own convenience. Like “What stories have you been telling yourself?” And in my head I’m like “Naw, naw. I ain’t crazy.” But outwardly I’m all like “What?” and “There’s no way we didn’t do the thing that you have to remember we did.”

         She doesn’t get off the hook, because if I did let her off, then I’ve verified I’m insane. Because there’s no way I’m the only one who remembers one of the hottest summers I remember. No way I’m the only one who remembers a plastic consummation of my life. Of my imagination. Even if the packaging of it all happened across a single weekend, it happened. Even if I’m imagining her presence in all of it, it happened. Even if I’m exaggerating the bundles we did, though all I assert is tons of it, it happened.

         We absolutely spent a whole summer counting little pieces of plastic rectangles, bunching them into bundles we wrapped in rubber bands or taped together, and then stacking them into boxes. Heaps of boxes. We absolutely spent a whole summer doing this because the factory where one of my uncles worked needed people to take some of the work home. That’s what he said. The foreman was behind. The work lagged. “Everybody, take stuff home!” In New Jersey, the factories were always behind. And there were tons of factories. Or at least there used to be tons of factories but even at that time they were slowly evaporating until they at last all dried up. And my uncle’s factory that summer had to produce thousands of small plastic strips, some no bigger than one inch by three, and then had to bunch them, pack them, and then send them off to wherever it was that plastics that size had to be sent off.

         I imagined that the plastics arrived at some manufacturer and were then further die cut to fit into the molding you find inside a shirt collar, behind the top button, inside the neck. I imagined the plastics arrived to some packaging plant and were further die cut to fit into a G. I. Joe or Lego or Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle molded wrapping. This dates my claims, I know. But it also legitimizes them. Like “Damn, he’s that old?” Antiquation seems like a partial rule to help prove one’s burden. Like “Don’t you remember? It happened way back” unlocks some secret secret of plausibility. Like “Oh, it didn’t happen? Prove it.”

         And, trust me, I’d rather not even bother trying to prove this. I’d rather not foray into anecdotal leaps just to show that I did, in fact, spent at least one summer afternoon exhausted from all the sorting and packing that I fell asleep on my mother’s couch, the one wrapped in plastic, from which I woke up dehydrated to the point I was surprised I hadn’t shriveled and died in my sleep. My skin so suffocated of oxygen that only the coldest shower would help and even then I took it so late that I essentially woke myself up at precisely the time I was supposed to be going to bed. I left the plastic couch covering so impressed with my sweat and bad dreams that for the rest of the evening, a molding of my full curled body remained in the cushion, one that so fascinated me that I practically screamed at my mother when she almost sat on it. She was exhausted from the heat, and me, I almost pushed her to the floor all like “For the love of plastic, woman!” I pulled her to her feet and then pointed to the plastic impression my body had left. A pointed look that was all like “Don’t you see? Can’t you see?”

         And, trust me, I would rather the truth be much sexier than factory delay. I’d rather my recollection be about a business we owned, a production or import-export or packaging enterprise my mother had started and which we were all willing and dutiful employees. I’d rather my uncles were drug dealers asking me all cool and the like to sort and weight the merch—stack, bag, and rack the stuff. I’d rather we were even something like blue collar spies, taking from the rich manufacturing plant down the street to give to the other manufacturing plant down the other street for competition’s sake and for a kickback that helped with our monthly expenses, for a little extra cash that meant we could get the decent groceries, the fresh vegetables from the new place that opened up just around the block from the old place where the produce seemed just a little less rotten than the more recent place but which meant all the difference to our digestive tracts.

         I’d rather I didn’t remember it the way I did. A summer or series of afternoons where my uncles whose immigration stories amounted to reducing themselves for the sake of a living. Whose college educations in chemistry and medicine were the only things that kept them emotionally levitating over factory lines and foremen that insisted to debase them just because my uncles started with no money. Just because it was the only work available and shouldn’t they be happy just to get work. Just because their green cards at the time weren’t sufficient social protection to help them earn a living wage. I would rather one or both of my uncles didn’t have to bring any of this to our apartment, where they could at least trust in their legal status enough to trust that their employer wouldn’t try to cheat them out of wages. Because he could in a town still largely controlled by the sons of Irish and Italian mendicants done well but who still wanted everywhere to shut doors even though the town had become so flooded in immigrants that doorways everywhere were starting to widen and doors simply couldn’t be locked anymore.

         I’d rather I had lighter memories. But I don’t. I simply have what I have. And my mother’s pride in what she has accomplished often fogs my recollections. Like every time I try to muster them and then tell her about them, she gets all “No, that didn’t happen. What are you talking about?” The all-sustaining power of her personal pride, I have learned, has a wonderful way of veiling what she tries to remember. Or perhaps it’s that her pride has just simply shut that stage off, and she isn’t even worse off for it, she’s actually happy never to watch that play again. Like the whole past was all theatre and it was all just games and the show that she had lived had finally just stopped running. Either that or people just stopped attending and she was all like “Take me to the next show already.”

         And even as she doubts what’s increasingly my clouded memory, she at least has the graciousness to acknowledge her pride in front of me. A pride that refuses to acknowledge the past and pain of certain things. A refusal, I’m sure, that has begun to blanket swaths of the past that may not have been at all difficult but which paints it all with a single bad paint job. Where some bad moments overlap with good ones in either time, topic, or relative, and it all just starts looking the same. And the correlations between moments start to make everything even sound and feel like there was very little difference between different pasts. Like they were all more than just similar. Like it was all just the same difficult, even horrible, thing. Especially when the one constant in all of it was an imperfect accent that was thrown in her face in factories and firms and schools and which is often still pointed out to her as if she didn’t have to live with it more than half her life.

         So some things, I have learned, just aren’t that essential to remember. Nostalgia, I’ve learned, can double down like the pain happened yesterday. At this point they’re only stories you want to recreate, she tells me. Trust me, I tell her, I’m not trying to remember anything intentionally.

         I tell her all the time that I’m just trying to prove that they happened. To her and to myself. Because they keep coming up. And I don’t know why, and I guess a part of me wishes that they would just go away. That all those stories didn’t keep burning just to get out and make me question whether or not I’ve been remembering anything right at all.

©The Acentos Review 2017