You Used to Be a Slave

Published in Acentos Review, August 2017

“¿Y a tí, que te importa, negra de mierdaaaa? Si tú ante’ era e’clava y ahora te la quiere da’ de gente!” And what the fuck is it to you, shitty negress you? You used to be a slave and you now wanna pretend you’re somebody.

His words, flying eastward–through the half-closed windows of his car and my aptly-named Cielito Lindo Beetle Bug–sliced the dry June air as the sun showed signs of exhaustion for another shift of hustle, one of the two-hundred and fifteen days it appeared each year in South Florida.  Robbed of any possible retort, I sat on ice for an eternal minute and slowly revealed a dignified cinnamon stick of a middle finger. It didn’t occur to me that he could have pulled out a .45-caliber handgun in return, a common gesture in road rage incidents in these parts. Instead, he sped off as soon as he could, with eyes bulging in horror.  My silent expression a warning and a threat.

Still a novice driver at age forty-one; residing in a new state in the Southern U.S.; and during a time of enough innocence not to think I could personally die during a police stop in my car, I pondered calling the police.  I thought to tell them I’d witnessed the kidnapping of a child or, worse yet in these parts, an open container behind the wheel.  His license plate would haunt me for hours.

Leading up to southwest Eighth Street, 107th Avenue at six o’ clock is a centipede. There are the cars coming from everywhere rushing to the Florida International University campus and the corporate commuters from Doral trying to escape and looking to beat traffic on their way to Kendall. And there are those coming from all points north in the county and downtown on the 836 Expressway heading further south and west. As the vehicles crawl, the green lights go on vacation: two-week Carnival cruises, giving the red ones extra-duty with no overtime pay, unremarkable in a right-to-work state. The yellow lights seem to take bribes to punch in earlier than expected.

That Tuesday I was driving from the office to the first class of the week. The makeshift classroom where twelve students awaited me was at the public assistance center on the strip mall across from Publix and Walgreen’s. The pace of traffic that day surprised me as the usual drive was fifteen minutes, leaving me ample time to arrive up to half hour before six-thirty. The eighty-year old white Venezuelan lady and the sixty-five-year old Black Cuban gentleman, each with a green card for seven years, would be worried and impatient if I got delayed. But I knew the younger ones–the Brazilian woman thrice-divorced, the Cuban single mom, the Cuban couple, the Dominican, all the others–would take care of them, initiating conversation to help them practice their English, maybe checking and sharing the Civics homework.

We came to a complete halt at around southwest Fifth Street, not at all helped by the northbound turning lane on the other side and the half-intersection that made drivers turning right and drivers going straight seem to forget who had the right-of-way. A space opened up and we moved a tenth of a mile, but got stuck again.

As I tapped my palms on Cielito’s steering wheel, sweat overtaking them due to heat and stress, my head turned right to the next lane. A crimson-hued sedan was there, driven by a Pepe Peňa look-alike, the mestizo Cuban-American lead character of the yesteryear Miami refugee sitcom “¿Qué Pasa U.S.A.?”  He had found a way to get distracted during the frustrating wait and was reading a letter. I knew he was done when he tore it apart and got rid of it through his driver’s window. He threw it on what he must have been convinced was the trash: the open road. My eyes met his, as they traveled from the ground all the way up to his face.

Armored with the naiveté of a two-decade New Yorker and the courage of an eight-month Floridian, I confronted him. I pleaded with open arms and extended hands and eyes that sought an explanation. I shook my head.  At first his brow raged back without uttering a word.

And then he yelled.

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