Melissa García Criscuolo


Tía, this is ridiculous and it has to stop here. You can’t live alone in that apartment anymore.

The elevator doesn’t work, and your legs aren’t strong enough for you to walk up and down stairs. Just one step to eat at Don Shula’s Steak House, your favorite, proved too difficult for you. Remember for your birthday? You called a man with a beer in his hand who didn’t speak Spanish over to help you down one step to get into my sister’s car. I suppose my arm wasn’t strong enough to help you take a step down—no, you needed a man for that.

You don’t do your laundry—I know all of those dresses in your closet haven’t been washed since Tia Óne died, because she did all of your laundry. There are bottles of detergent under the sink, and they’re all too heavy for your arms to pour. The only things you do wash are a few of your undergarments by hand, in your sink, and on occasion, your hair and parts of your body. And when we visit you, I vacuum because I know you don’t, and the first time I did, a few months ago, I know it was the first time your apartment was vacuumed since Tia Óne died because there were layers of your hair, nails, dust, pride, neglect.

You aren’t a good cook—you’ve said so yourself, and you claim to have taught Tia Óne how to cook, but I don’t believe you. You can’t see well enough to use the brand new microwave we just bought you, despite the neon stickers I labeled with large numbers for you. How can you live by yourself if you don’t cook and if you can’t see well enough to know what you’re cooking? Tía, you can’t survive like this.

You call my sister or Tía Cristina or my mother to say how hungry you are, but you have food in the freezer—and I mean real food, like bistec and pollo, wrapped in foil, ready to be defrosted and cooked in your sartén, but you refuse. Ice cream, sugar cookies, corn flakes, and café don’t count as food anymore. That may have worked in New York when you were 30, but not anymore. Your body needs more than sugar and milk.

You still pay for the newspaper, the Miami Herald, but your eyes can’t see. You say you just read the headlines because they are big enough, and I admire that, but it’s futile. Why waste your money on print when you can listen to the news, since you’re paying for the cable too? 

I know that you don’t think you’re old. . . you’re “mayor” as you put it. Yes, quite mature. Mature enough to pay for a paper you can’t read, to pay for prescription medicine you don’t take because it’s not Mylanta, to swear that the neighbors below you are idiots because they said their ceiling was leaking for months, only to learn they were right. Your air conditioner had been seeping water into the walls, the carpet and flooring of the room you never enter because that’s where Mamá and Tía Óne died, and you just can’t bring yourself to go in there anymore because it hurts too much. But didn’t it hurt more when you fell all those times because you refused to walk with the burrito?

All your life, you’ve been a strong, independent woman. “Force to be reckoned with” doesn’t even do you justice. Shit, you pulled Che Guevarra by his collar, spit in his face, and called him a communist before they shot your brother for his beliefs, for writing a book against the government. You came to America for work, were married and divorced, then stayed and worked as head seamstress for Elizabeth Arden in New York for 35 years, and visited your family still in Cuba for the holidays. You partied in the Hamptons, and Miss Arden called you her “little chickadee.” You helped bring your sisters and brothers and mother over to this country. You met with Monsignor Walsh and got scholarships for my dad and his sister so they could attend Catholic school in Miami. Mamá died in your apartment. Tia Óne died in your apartment. No one can take those things away from you.

You still believe yourself to be the strong, independent woman you were when you came to this country, but I think you think you are better than you are. I think you have painted quite a picture of yourself into your memory, and you dwell among those thoughts and illusions of grandeur for sustenance.

And these words that I write, I will never say them to you because I’m sure they would kill you. How couldn’t they? One of your favorite people in the world, your tesoro, your amorcito, doesn’t put you on the pedestal you believe yourself to be on, and instead, pulls it right out from under you and kicks you while you’re down? I must be terrible for writing this. But I think you know this about me. I can see it in your eyes when I visit you. They don’t light on me like they used to. Your stories and giggles don’t fool me, as they do my sisters.

No good can come from you staying in your apartment by yourself. And we can’t have a nurse there with you because then, you’d put the nurse to work just like you did with Tía Óne, proudly ruling from your butacón. And if you didn’t put them to work, you’d accuse them of being communists, or thieves, or murderers. Or you might even go so far as to believe that by putting a nurse in the house to help or supervise you, we are taking away your independence, but there’s nothing left to prove. All that awaits you in your lonely apartment is death. And you’re not ready for death.

But Tía, when you do die, it won’t be in a hospital, or in a taxi, or at Don Shula’s, or surrounded by loved ones. You will die in your apartment from starvation and strangulation, and the police will be at a loss because your apartment will show no signs of struggle or forced entry. Instead, they will find a kitchen counter lined with boxes of cookies and Special K, a freezer filled with steak, pork, Breyer’s ice cream, and a fridge with applesauce, milk, water, chocolates, and cheese. The coroner will determine that the cold hands of independence  had such a tight chokehold on you that your fingers didn’t have time to reach the phone, and on the chance they did, pride knocked you down and forced you to crawl, and so you died, facedown, on your hands and knees, bitter, alone, but independent.


Melissa works as an instructor in the English department at Florida Atlantic University. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Florida and a B.A. in English from Florida International University. Her poems have been published in Alimentum: The Literature of Food, PALABRA: A Magazine of Chicano & Latino Literary Art, Nibble, and The Acentos Review. Her translation of Jose Marti’s poem “Dos Patrias” was published in Subtropics. Her chapbook, Things in My Backyard, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. This is her first piece of nonfiction.

Letter to Tía Bertha, dated November 6, 2010