Image by Stepan Kulyk
Image by Jakob Owens

Prison Cells and Hospital Beds

CW: suicide, mentions of overdose, depiction of depression

A plate shattered in the hallway. Not the kind that carried a hefty load of bistec encebollado, but the kind my Abuela collected when she traveled. They were slightly larger than the palm of my pre-teen hands with fine paint strokes depicting landscapes of places elsewhere. Places I would not go to or see even in my dreams. My life was confined to the top floor of housing where our neighbors pressed their ears against thin walls and gossiped about us.

              “Ayi,” my mother sighed from her seat by the window, preoccupied with this week's circulars. She made no indication that she would get up, see what had happened, what broke, like she normally would. Titi Anabel, as everyone in the projects called her—related or not, was faster than first responders, but now? Now she acted like the policemen that didn’t show when you called.

              No one moved. Manuel sat next to me, remote in hand, one lanky leg at a ninety-degree angle against his opposite knee. He pressed through the channels aimlessly, the same thirty-two stations the square antena picked up, only staying on something for a second or two before continuing on his self-guided quest. Abuela was trapped in the kitchen; I could hear the pop of bubbles coming from the boiling stew. In the hallway, Maria’s back slid against the icy wall, staring at an empty space where a plate once hung and forty-eight remained. Malibu, Miami, and the Dominican Republic just slightly out of reach.

              I couldn’t see her pale face, pink cheeks, or the moon shape indent on her temple. In the projects, the buildings are built to block out the sun. The hallway was pitch black. I went to stand, the shattered pieces surrounded her bare feet. As I did, my mother cooed, “Mama, would you be a dear and ask Abuela to make me a cup of espresso? I’m feeling a bit lightheaded,” The word “but” that hung on my lips never had the chance to reach the surface. “Now.”

              I scurried into the kitchen with my head hanging low. Abuela had her back to me, so I had to position myself to be in her eyesight when she turned. I could see, barely, the sharp knife slicing into the filmy skin of the onion. Her aged hands moved with quick precision as she sliced the long layers into square blocks. She cooked fast, eager to escape the domestic prison.

              Knife in one hand, cutting board in the other, the onions slid into the stew. From here, I waved my hand so she could notice me. Her dark eyes peered over silver-rimmed glasses.

              Momma want coffee, I sign. Head hurt.

              Abuela’s pink lips take the shape of an “O” and she nods at me. I sign my thanks and remove myself from her boiling cell. Happy that I still have a ways to go before I become a prisoner to it too.

              “Thank you, sweetheart,” my mother says, not looking at me.

              I linger by her side, thinking about all the noise we make. The chopping of food, the turning of the page, the switching of channels. Outside, the world is bustling with energy. School was let out only an hour ago. My classmates still linger outside, kicking a soccer ball, yelling at each other when it gets kicked into the street and the cars honk at their stupidity. I didn’t like being out there, where the boys started to grow curious and put their hands in places they shouldn’t be. But now the tension inside is too suffocating. I could use a good scream.

              “Momma, do you think maybe after dinner we could all go outside and get apple pie?”

              She pursed her lips, contemplating. “Maybe.”

              “I think some fresh air would do us all some good.”

              “Perhaps.”

              “Or, if you don’t want to, Maria and I could go pick one up for everyone and maybe we could get a small ice cream from the bodega.”

              My mother looked at me suddenly. “Oh no, honey, Maria can’t go outside.”

              “Why not?” I frowned.

              “She’s still sick.”

              “But I thought the hospital was supposed to make her better. Otherwise, they wouldn’t let her come home.”

              “Oh no, no, this is the kind of sickness that lives forever.” In the Trade Fair circular, turkey is on sale at a nice ninety-nine cents a pound. The nearly empty gel pen in my mother’s hand leaves an inconsistent circle around it even though none of us eats turkey.

              “...So Maria can never go outside?”

              “Well, I don’t know.” She turns back to her work. Flattening out the notepad that’s wrinkled from water damage. “It’s too soon to tell.”

              “But maybe it will make her happy—to do something.”

              “I said no.” My mother sets the pen down firmly, her dull teeth gritted. The pen rattles back and forth on its side like a cradle. “It’s best that Maria is left alone.”

              Alone felt like a cruel punishment for getting sick. But I nod and take my place next to Manuel on the plastic-covered couch. It crinkles beneath my weight. Manuel chews at his stubby fingers. I want to take the remote from him and hit him over the head. I don’t know why, but I curl my fingers into my palms just in case. Maybe it was the way he couldn’t look at his own sister, or maybe it was my own frustration, boiling over and over like the stew. I just needed a good pop.

              I glanced back into the hallway, expecting to see Maria’s balled-up silhouette, but she was gone. The pieces of the plate still littered the floor. What if she forgot?

              “I have to use the bathroom,” I say aloud, justifying my movements. In the hallway, I step over the fragments, piecing together which plate had fallen. I could make out a Ferris wheel and skyline. London, I decided after a few moments. Maria had been there this past summer. I made my way towards the bedroom at the end of the hall. The door ajar. I knew I had to close it, whether Maria was in there or not. Abuela would flip for fear the cat would crawl all over her things. But a psst made me stop in my tracks. I was next to the bathroom where Maria sat on the edge of the tub, a tear trickled down her face. She was looking at me, no, staring into me, like she had never seen me before and was determined to undo all my layers, all the walls that took time to build up.

              I walked in. In all my years living here, in these small quarters that couldn’t contain Maria’s eagerness and Manuel’s stubbornness and my quietness, I had never seen Maria cry. Maria was always larger than life with her enthusiasm. She gave life in the projects color, but now she looked no different than the bare trees outside or the dull brick buildings with faded graffiti. She looked slimmer, her skin clenching onto her bones, and her limbs slumped like she had no more energy to hold them upright.

              “Have you ever taken pills?” she whispered, focusing on the tips of her fingers that were chipped a deep violet.

              I shook my head. Momma still had to crush them for me on a spoon because I gagged. She spent extra time at stores looking for liquified versions of things. I got in trouble for this sometimes.

              “Someday you will.”

              I looked at her with fear in my eyes. “You mean, I’ll get sick too?”

              She shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

              “Should I go to the hospital too?”

              Maria laughed. It was a weird sight to see her so sickly, yet performing such a delightful action. She must have noticed it too; the smile on her face slipped away just as quickly as it came. “They had to pump out my stomach, you know. They put a tube through me to get it all out.”

              “Aren’t pills supposed to make you feel better?”

              “They’re supposed to, yes. If you take the right amount.” There was something there I didn’t quite understand. I wouldn’t, not for a long time, not until I found myself in a hospital bed two years later. When I went to school the next day, they pulled me out of class and gave me a therapist. I didn’t know what for. The therapist told me it was mandatory, all the kids were getting one, and their job was to just check in. I didn’t believe her. But today, I didn’t know what was in store for me tomorrow. Today, all I knew was that there was a message in there for me. And someday, I’d figure it out.

              Maria was staring at the plates again.

              “Do you think we’ll ever escape?” she asked me.

              This message I knew. I knew it far too well. I spent most of my days consuming books as an escape from here. Hell came in brick buildings with black gates on your windows. It came in the form of gunshots in the middle of the night. I sometimes ducked from the safety of the sixth floor. I knew from a young age that no one was left untouched, not here.

              Despite all the laughter, there was still too much sorrow for happiness to undo. No amount of times that Manuel and I stole limes from the fridge, dipped them in sugar, giggling like bandits only to hide under the kitchen table from Abuela could take that away. No amount of forts Maria and I built with sheets and pillows in the bedroom could undo the damage that had been done.

              When the time came, on a mid-spring day, sunlight filled the living room. A comforting breeze swept through the apartment. I came home from running down an alley with my friends, giggling and feeling free. Sweat perspired along my forehead. I knew when I got inside, I would wet my face with ice-cold water and drink the coldest, most delicious cup of iced tea. I was joyful, young with simple desires.

              I walked arm in arm with my two best friends to our building, where an ambulance truck idled in front of the fire hydrant. Police officers waited with their arms crossed. A shrill bell rang halfway down the block. The lobby door was opening. Two men pulled out a gurney when we stepped forward. Behind them, I saw Abuela, her dark eyes distant, a hand over her mouth. Manuel trailed behind him, the remote hanging by his fingertips.

              I walked slowly, towards the hospital men. My friends stared at each other, then at me as I left them behind.

              “Watch out, little miss,” the hospital man said to me.

              I stared at the cloth that covered the frame of a small body. “Is that my cousin?” I asked, my voice shaking. “Is that my Maria?”

              The hospital men shared a look, searching for the right words.

              “I’m sorry, kid.”

              “She’ll be in a better place now.”

              I didn’t hear their attempted words of comfort. I didn’t see how the trees began to bloom. I didn’t hear the silence of the cars on 21st Street. Their horns waited until the next street over, as if they were giving their moment of silence, just this once. All I wondered as they pulled Maria’s body away into the back of the ambulance was if she finally got her escape, and if, someday—I could too.

MASON MARTINEZ (she/they) is a hispanic, nonbinary writer from nyc. they hold a BA in literature and creative writing from purchase college. when they are not writing or reading, they’re managing books, dreaming of cafes, and devouring absurd amounts of coffee. you can find more of their work at: https://masonmartinez.carrd.co/ or follow them on twitter: @masonnatj