Yoriam Laboy Alvarado, Stevenson University
What a time to be alive.
I rubbed my eyes as my legs walked the familiar path toward the entrance of my apartment building at the lovely hour of three in the morning. Even right now, the streets were still busy, but as the people say, “New York never sleeps.” The shift at the bar was long, but the wad of cash from a night of taking orders and mixing drinks outweighed the consequences of losing multiple hours of sleep each night. Tonight’s earnings even made me be okay with the fact that I would most likely wake up to a painful, tear-jerking migraine tomorrow morning. This “morning” was also only four or five hours away and would consist of me dragging my feet across my apartment and a couple miles of New York City. I would arrive on campus with a cup of coffee in one hand and a bottle of Advil in the other.
“How’s it going, Stan?” Jesús said as I came closer to the door. Somehow, I had missed him and had almost forgotten the routine that we have created over the past couple of years. Jesús was a tall, lean man who was calm and reserved most of the time. He was tan and covered with tattoos, many quickly unveiling the ties he had with the gang that controlled the area. His head of raven hair, gelled and combed back, seemed to gleam as I came closer, and I automatically squinted, just wanting a quick smoke before enjoying a couple hours of sleep before the hard punch to the face Monday would bring. I was always busy, but junior year was coming to a close. After that, just two more semesters of college. I had to stay positive.
Remember, just two more semesters.
I slowed when I finally reached the 40-year-old since he began to chuckle, but he calmed down after a couple of seconds.
“I’ve been crazy busy, man. The bar has me on my feet all night and school forces me to actually be a functioning human being, ready to learn with a smile on my face by eight the next day,” I replied, taking a cigarette box out of the back pocket of my navy jeans and beginning to smoke beside him.
“Sounds hard, man. That’s life, but think of ya own ma. She believes in you. Just keep ya head up, stay strong for the ones you love,” he stopped, his eyes following a bright yellow taxi as it passed by. “Stay focused, it’s gonna come together,” he finished, nodding at me before staring straight ahead.
He was a supportive, sympathetic person, in defiance of his scary exterior and threatening voice. Wise and intuitive like the prophet he was named after. Caring and protective of the younger ones in the neighborhood as he always made sure everyone got home safely, as if he knew exactly when and where danger and crime would strike next. He saw me grow from a young kid with braces, always carrying a backpack filled with a binder brimming with sheet music, a Game Boy, and chewy snacks that my mother would’ve scolded me for even having. A kid that was infinitely excited with a broad, gap filled smile that stretched from one side of my face to the other, talking at a rate of 300,000 miles a second about Schumann, Beethoven, and Mozart. How I was going to be one of the greats.
I thanked him and took another long drag of my little cancer stick. How ironic, right? Me, trying to stay strong and fight through fatigue to make money to pay hospital bills when the thing I smoked every day caused cancer, too.
The hospital. A place I was going to visit tomorrow and one of the many places that would turn my stack of tips into a couple withering sheets every month, but it was worth it. She was all I had. My mother protected and cared for me all of my life and now it was my turn. It was the stereotypical story, really. She “fell in love” as a teenager and turned the bad boy into a dad before he was ready and mature enough to know what that meant. My dad wanted to continue being a kid, one who skipped school on a regular basis and spent his time bowing his head and inhaling rows of white powder in random alleys instead. The fact that his presence was practically nonexistent throughout high school probably contributed to the fact that he didn’t realize how fun and wild teenage sex can lead to children and when he graduated, he continued to be absent. But this time, it was from my life.
“Nice worm you got there, Stan. What made you get rid of the big nest?” He rushed out, startling me. He cackled beside me and begun to clap at his own joke as he laughed loudly, causing a couple people around to glance our way.
He was commenting on my mustache that replaced the usual red beard that covered half of my face.
“Very funny, but it’s getting too hot at the bar and you know how busy it can get.”
He only proved my point by taking off the white tee he was sporting and using a colored bandana to wipe sweat off his forehead, hanging it again from a belt loop on the black shorts that extended past his knees. A couple of long drags and a conversation later, I was up the steps, in my room, and asleep.
Sooner than expected, the sound that made me want to rip out my hair, cry, and slam my head into a wall at the same time came and, begrudgingly, I walked away from the haven that was my bed and towards the bathroom, passing the piano I adored and haven’t been able to touch in days. My hands were practically aching, begging for a couple minutes of chords filling the air and clearing my mind. I wish I could go back to a time where I could dedicate hours to the instrument.
The first time I hit a key was in Pop and Momma’s house, my paternal grandparents who had reached out after years of not knowing I even existed. The man I had never seen didn’t let his parents know he was a father before he decided to leave everything behind. When they found my mother and I, they ensured we visited soon afterwards. Taking a Greyhound and traveling to upstate New York, we arrived at a red brick two-story house, but it was practically a mansion in my five-year-old eyes. I was amazed as soon as we went inside and practically shaking in excitement once Pop showed me the grand piano they had in their large living room. My love for playing the piano began then and continued to grow as my grandparents supported me. I began taking lessons throughout my childhood, but once actual bills had to be taken care of and the tumor began to grow, I had to grow up faster. The piano lessons were replaced by YouTube videos and the hours I used to dedicate to playing piano don’t fit in my schedule anymore.