Lourdes Gauthier


Lourdes Librada de la Altagracia Gautier, poet and writer of short fiction and non-fiction: born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and raised in New York City. Earned a Masters degree in Theatre and post graduate credits in a doctoral program at the City University of New York (CUNY) focusing on Latin American Theatre. Taught courses in acting and theatre history and criticism at CUNY, Drew University, and Jersey City State University. Currently an administrator at Columbia University and working on a collection of poems and stories.


Every evening, shortly after the sun went down and the chickens in the backyard were rounded up into a corrugated tin enclosure, I knew my Papi would soon arrive.  Smelling like rum, tobacco and a lemony cologne, he would burst into the house always carrying some package for his hija.

Acqui esta tu Papa. Dame un beso preciosa,” he would call out to me. 

His mustache would be scratchy as he kissed both of my cheeks.  My Mamie and AbuelaMami  always got this serious look when he arrived, screwing up their faces as if they smelled something rotten.  The something rotten my mother and grandmother smelled was my father.  One day he was living with us and then he wasn’t. I never knew if he left of his own accord or if threw him out.  The end result was the same. 

One night I remember being dragged to what my mother kept telling me was a bad part of Santo Domingo. I must hold her hand and not let go. She was like a madwoman, her almost black hair sticking up, and what wasn’t disheveled was carelessly pinned at the back of her neck in a bun.

Desgraciado! Does he think he can get away with this?” I knew she must be talking about Papi and boy was she mad at him! 

Her face was streaked with tears that had washed away some of her face powder. And instead of the flowery cologne she usually smelled like, I sensed a musky odor of sweat as she struggled to walk in high heels and pull a recalcitrant child who didn’t want to be on this mission with her. 

Burning coal and the smell of wood smoke permeated the air.  The street where we lived smelled like flowers, lemon and mango trees with a hint of the ocean that was never too far from you no matter where you went. Here the houses were whitewashed with tin roofs and looked like some borracho, a drunkard, had put them together.  Windows didn’t have glass to keep the bugs out and instead, dirty fabric hung in the openings to provide some privacy for the occupants.  Doors swung on broken hinges, not quite fitting into their opening. On our street all of the houses were shuttered, painted pale shades of yellow, blue and orange. These streets weren’t paved and dirt flew up around us as we practically ran to some preordained confrontation to end all confrontations.  I didn’t understand why my Papi would want to be in such a place.

“Mami I want to go home now. Por favor?” I begged. But she didn’t hear a word I said.

I remember her yelling at him when he showed himself at someone else’s door. He didn’t look like my Papi, but I knew it was him.  I could smell the rum from ten feet away and saw that his pants weren’t completely buttoned.  I’d always seen him neatly dressed in a creamy colored camisa carefully tucked into tan slacks, his slightly curly black hair slicked back and shiny, his face smooth, and the color of milk with just a tiny drop of coffee, except for the tightly trimmed mustache that framed his upper lip.  This disheveled, smelly man couldn’t be my father. 

Puta”  my mother yelled at a half dressed woman who brazenly stood next to him in the open doorway.

While holding my hand Mami screamed at him, “How could you do this to your daughter?”  What her eyes said was, “How could you do this to me?”  His response was to look at us as if we didn’t exist. 

After that night things changed.  My father started his evening visits, after work as an architectural engineer, to see me, his only daughter.  Sometimes he would have drawings of buildings rolled up and tucked under his arm. Every night he brought me some trinket as if to make up for his absence the rest of the time.  Occasionally he would be allowed to take me out of the house.  Then we would go to a store.  That was my favorite time for I got to pick out what I wanted, like black patent leather shoes that were too tight even on my tiny feet. 

“But hija,” he would say, “They don’t have your size.”  “Please Papi, these are the ones I want!” 

Sometimes I’d pick a doll to add to the collection of babydolls I took care of the way I wished someone would take care of me.  Or just cold helado, an ice cream, to soothe the ache in my throat from containing the sobs I didn’t want anyone to hear. 

         Eavesdropping on conversations, my four year old ears heard my mother and grandmother talking about “Nueva York” and “I’ll send for you and mi hija.” Mamie was always crying or angry.  It was like she was trying to get me to be glad that she was going away and leaving me with my grandmother.  Then the unthinkable happened. 

There were screams of “Get Clarence,” Mamie’s brother, my Uncle el Doctor.

The son of our housekeeper ran the ten blocks to Uncle Clarence’s house. Deep, anguished cries came from my mother’s mouth that didn’t sound normal.  It was as if someone was tearing her heart out of her body. My abuelita was moaning and thrashing about. I thought that somehow this was my fault.

The night before I had thrown a pair of scissors at my grandmother that hit her on the head. She wore her hair with a part down the middle, and the tip of the scissors struck the exposed skin.  I was angry because my mother was going out again, planning and plotting her escape from Santo Domingo and leaving me home.  Abuelita had lifted a white handkerchief to the top of her head to stop the blood from trickling down her face and looked at me, instantly forgiving my transgression. 

“No te preocupes ,mi angelita,” she reassured me.  I didn’t feel much like an angel.

My mother could have killed me when she returned home and saw what had happened.  Abuelita had to hold her back from hitting me. That was when I knew that she loved her mother more than she loved me.

But the cries today were not because of my childish tantrum.  Something more serious was happening.  My grandmother stopped groaning and for a split second the stillness in the house as her spirit left her body seemed to go on forever.  Then the wailing really started.  My mother was inconsolable.  I tried to wrap my little girl arms around her and tell her that she still had me, but she pushed me away as if I were some stranger who was trying to interfere with her grief.  The housekeeper held me when all I wanted was to feel my mother’s arms, but hers were now wrapped tightly around my dead grandmother as if Mamie could keep Abuelita from leaving us with the sheer will of her desperate need and love for her mother.

Santo Domingo is a hot place. Bodies weren’t embalmed in 1952, but washed and dressed to lay in state in one’s living room. A priest came to the house to swing an incense burner, intone indecipherable words around the deceased and sprinkle holy water throughout the house. Burial took place within twenty-four hours. During this time my mother was not available to me, her daughter who was also grieving the loss of a beloved grandmother. 

Between bouts of uncontrolled tears and wailing, she heaped blame on her brother for not arriving in time to save their mother from a massive coronary. He was a doctor, not a magician. My grandmother was fifty-two but years of heartache and loss and living in a troubled land rendered her at least twenty or thirty years older. A simple woman whose three children had become a doctor, a lawyer, and a pharmacist, she spent her life hating a husband who had left her for another woman, with whom he had created another family that she and my mother resented.

People streamed through the house, some crying real tears of sorrow and others looking for an excuse to see the inside of our house because my mother had never invited them in for a limonada

“Pobrecita! What will happen to the granddaughter now?”  Even neighbors could see that my mother was not coping well with her loss.

After the scene at the cemetery where my mother tried to accompany the casket into the grave, things moved quickly at home.  I would later find out that my Uncle used his government connections to help my mother take me out of the country without my father’s permission.  With my grandmother gone, there was no question of leaving me behind while my mother got settled in Nueva York.  And, since she wanted to leave what had become to her an accursed land as fast as possible, the folly of moving from a tropical climate to a city in the middle of an east coast winter in the United States was not taken into account. 

There were hasty fittings for a coat in the heaviest fabric found in Santo Domingo, a light fleece that wouldn’t have been sufficient to ward off the chill of an autumn evening  in New York, much less the way below freezing temperatures of mid-December.  Not even the matching bonnet that tied below my quivering chin, nor the lace gloves were a match for winter in New York City.

We left everything behind that couldn’t fit into two brown and tan valises.  The only items that have survived are two carved wooden apple shaped boxes made out of an indigenous mahogany wood. Inside the boxes she kept a watch, her wedding ring, earrings, and medallions of saints, all in the soft, buttery gold the island goldsmiths were famous for crafting into jewelry. Later she would use them to store any good piece of jewelry she acquired.  For the next twenty years she reminded me of how special it was that the wood came from the Dominican Republic, even as she continued to hate the land of our birth. More than half a century later I hold onto these items for they are the only tangible things I have that connect me to my homeland.

Our departure from Santo Domingo was to be timed to maximize the pain to my father when he realized his only daughter was gone.  A car came just before nightfall to take us to the airport so that we would be airborne by the time Papi arrived for his nightly visits to see his precious daughter. As I got older my mother would recount with undisguised pleasure how he had banged on the door to an empty house. 

“He went crazy when he couldn’t find you,” she loved to tell me. 

That was his punishment for not being faithful, for daring to behave like every other Dominican man who thought it was his right to have something, someone, on the side.

Instead of feeling like we were on a wonderful adventure, all I felt was fear.  We were flying towards an unfamiliar destination inside a dark, metal bird that lurched precariously when least expected and caused my stomach to jump into my throat.  During a stopover in Puerto Rico, the only thing I wanted was an ice cream cone. 

No sooner than the waitress handed it to me, and before I could take the first lick of the pink, creamy strawberry helado, I dropped it.  Or rather, the ice cream scoops slid off the cone.  It was a double cone, and since there was no air conditioning to cool off the tropical heat of San Juan’s airport, the two scoops stacked on each other began to melt immediately.  The oversized ice cream cone was all too much for a scrawny four year old girl whose hands were shaking from fear to manage. 

The only kindness I remember from anyone on this journey was from the waitress who felt so sorry for me that she gave me another cone. 

Que linda, what a pretty girl,” she said as she handed the replacement cone to me.

I managed to hold on to this one and quickly licked the drips. Our plane’s departure was called and Mami made me throw it away even though I had barely gotten through the ice cream and was looking forward to nibbling on the wafer cone.

Once we were airborne again, on the flight that would finally take us to Nueva York, the noise of the plane’s propellers made my head hurt and the turbulence caused me to throw up that beautiful, creamy, pink ice cream.  We landed in Idlewild Airport in New York City, a thirty year old newly single mother and me, much the worse for wear.  Pink stains dotted the front of my pale yellow fleece coat. Mamie brushed my curls back so that I could look presentable and she could look like she knew how to take care of a child. She wanted to make a good impression on our relatives.

We were to be met by my grandmother’s half sister and her husband.  Panic set in when the distant aunt and uncle who had promised to meet us were nowhere to be seen.  

I just wanted to curl up in my bed back home and go to sleep.  This place was cold, the lights were unlike anything I’d ever experienced (later I would learn they were something called fluorescent) and they made everything and everyone take on a ghostly hue. 

Tears streamed down my face as I heard my mother mutter under her breath, “Aye Dios mio, what are we going to do?” 

Patience was never my mother’s strong suit so instead of waiting to see if anyone would eventually show up, she bundled us and our two valises into a car with a driver we didn’t know. Two cars and two airplane rides in one night!

We arrived to a dark house, on a dark street that was covered with some white, cold stuff that was also new to me. The driver placed our valises on the street and drove away, leaving us alone. The breath coming from my mouth and my mother’s mouth made us look like we were smoking, but I didn’t smell any tobacco.

The wind pushed the cold through my clothes and stiffened my bones so that I thought I would never be able to run and play again.  We rang the bell at the downstairs door.  When that didn’t work, we carefully walked up the slippery ten steps on the outside stoop to ring another bell.  How strange to have to walk up stairs where people lived.  Everything back home in Santo Domingo was on one level. 

I knew it must have been late because everything was dark and no one was walking around on the street, though I thought anyone would be crazy to be out in this weather!  The cold white stuff on the ground just crunched when you stepped on it and made my toes feel like they had disappeared.  They must have still been in my shoes, only I couldn’t feel them. 

I began to cry much like my mother had when Abuelita died.  I too felt that there was a death of sorts as I stood in the dark, desolate night in a strange and scary place. Somehow I knew that I would never see my Papi again or my Uncles and cousins.  And I was sure I would never ever feel warm again even though my mother was holding on to me so tightly that I felt she too was looking for comfort.


I heard voices that seemed to come from some place beyond this little circle of dread that had become my life.  Hands tugged at my shoulders and pulled me from my mother into another embrace that I did not recognize.  My face was pressed against some rough fabric but it helped my cheeks to feel warmer than they had since we arrived in this miserable place.  In short time we were inside the very building we had been trying to get into. Our welcome party had gone to the airport only to discover that we weren’t there. They drove back home to find two nearly frozen people on their doorstep shaking and crying.

         My coat was removed and I was wrapped in a large, scratchy cloth that soon made me feel warm.  I dared to open my eyes only to discover that my mother was sitting at a table drinking something from a cup and we were literally surrounded by more people than I could count.  Eventually I sorted everyone out.  Two grown-ups, a man and a woman, kept speaking in a language I didn’t understand, though the man sometimes said something that sounded familiar. The woman had a mole on her cheek just like my Mami and Abuelita and me! I took this as a good sign.  There were two boys who looked younger than my uncles in Santo Domingo and a boy and girl who weren’t much older than me. 

Primos,” my mother said pointing to the four young people who looked at me like I was a new toy but they couldn’t figure out how to get me to work. Nueva York had instantly given me four new cousins. 

Later, years later, my mother loved to tell the story of how I and the cousins immediately sat under the kitchen table as they tried to teach me English.  According to her, I was speaking English within hours of arriving. Whether this was true or not, the reality was that my new cousins and I quickly learned to communicate with each other. 

They would say things like, “Say something in Spanish.” I would look down, smile and say “Si.” Or, they would point and say, “Table, chair, shoes, head,” and so on until I could repeat the words back to them.  I was quiet, but I listened and soon figured out which words matched an action or item.  They loved having someone they saw as a new baby sister to play with and teaching me to speak and to understand English was a game we all loved to play.

Mami wasn’t any happier here than she was in Santo Domingo.  Instead of a whole house, we lived in a single room with a small bed that we shared. There was a little table on which she put a hot plate to heat our meals, and a bathroom in the hall that we shared with the other renters. Our Aunt and Uncle owned a three story brownstone with a walk out basement on East 127th Street in Nueva York.  They and their four children lived in the lower two levels, and they rented rooms in the two top floors to single people.  Mami and I were the only ones who were two to a room.

 I spent most of my day downstairs playing with my cousins, but at night, we would go up to our room, where I would have my mother all to myself.  Sometimes that was a good thing and sometimes it wasn’t.  She was still missing her mother, hating my father, and feeling like a stranger in an even stranger land.  This meant that most nights we both cried ourselves to sleep.

Her English was relatively good thanks to a mother and father who both spoke it to her as she was growing up.  My grasp of English grew exponentially so that soon I could understand everything and everyone.  I understood enough to know that when my Aunt and my mother argued about money, it was because Mami couldn’t get a job as a pharmacist and she refused to consider anything else. 

“I didn’t go to the University so I could clean someone’s house!” she would shout. 

Unfortunately she wasn’t allowed to get a license to be hired as a pharmacist because she wasn’t a citizen.  She couldn’t become a citizen because that would make her a traitor to her country and her family back home would suffer the consequences.  So while they continued to live under the good auspices of a dictator, in their houses, with servants and drivers, we often went to sleep hungry in a cramped bed in a tiny room.

Mami did end up cleaning someone’s house.  Another distant relative, we seemed to have a lot of those, took her on a job she had, thinking she was doing my mother a favor.  I’ll never forget the look on Mami’s face when she got home after her first day as a cleaning lady.  We had money to buy our own dinner, and pay our Aunt and Uncle the rent, but the cost to my mother’s pride was too high.  She quickly got over her fear of venturing outside of the neighborhood alone and answered an ad in the newspaper for work in a factory.  Not exactly dispensing prescriptions, but to her it was way better than cleaning the toilets of strangers. 

This new job also meant a move from our aunt and uncle’s house.  When my mother decided to cut ties, she did so thoroughly.  The move was just around two corners, to 126th Street, but the distance she had started to carve between us and the only family we had in the United States had begun to grow. 

Again we were on the top floor of a brownstone.  This time we had a galley kitchen and a slightly larger room that held a double bed. We could actually sleep without touching.  The kitchen was really a closet with a sink, hot plate and icebox. Two people, even if one was a scrawny five-year old, couldn’t fit in the space at the same time. Somehow my mother, who had never learned to cook because there was always a cook in her house, learned to prepare meals in that tiny hole of a kitchen. There was arroz con gandules, maduros and always a salad.  I had no interest in food or in eating in general.  Our earliest fights were about my refusal to eat, period.  Later, much later, I stuffed myself with food in an attempt to fill the holes in my life left by a loss of country, identity and self.

Sometime during our first year in New York, we saw my Uncle Clarence during a layover on his way to Europe with some Dominican dignitary.  They both promised my mother her very own pharmacy if she would only return to Santo Domingo.

I said a prayer,”Dear God, please let her say yes.”  

But the fear of returning to what she had left behind squelched any temptation to accept the bribe.  After a couple of days, my uncle left for Switzerland with her promise never to betray him, Trujillo or her country tucked in his mental pocket. If she insisted on staying in such squalid conditions, there was nothing more he could do. 

Por Dios, for the love of God, just don’t do anything stupid, like becoming a citizen.”

 His words were more a threat than loving advice from a brother. It was a reminder that El Jefe, Trujillo, had passed a law declaring that anyone who emigrated from the Dominican Republic would be considered a traitor if they applied for citizenship in another country.  The unspoken subtext made it clear that any family left behind would be made to suffer because of the traitor’s act. 

I resigned myself to the fact that we were never going to leave this place that was too cold in the winter and too stifling hot in the summer.  Why couldn’t the weather make up its mind? I started to rub a scar on my left index finger that was a reminder of one magical night back home. 

Instead of letting a sparkler firecracker go once it was lit, the colors and burning smell hypnotized me, and I held it too long. 

“You’re lucky you didn’t lose your finger!” my mother had yelled at me as she wrapped a cloth around the burn. 

It was the last time I remember going anywhere with both of my parents.  Mami was laughing too hard and Papi held my hand as the three of us walked through the carnival together.  Scars are usually a remembrance of an unhappy occurrence.  My scar was a memory of a happy time in a warm, sweet smelling place.

Every time I missed my Papi, the mango tree in our backyard, space to run, the tangy smell of salt air from the ocean, I rubbed the round, raised scar that was at the side of the second joint of my left pointer finger. It was the one constant in my life. If I closed my eyes as I caressed the scar, I could almost feel the sweet tropical breeze on my face, drying my tears.



© The Acentos Review 2015