An argument was about to erupt between Vince and my father. I could already sense it. I hated being around when they fought—like just my presence made things worse. It wasn’t that I didn’t get along with Vince, it was more that I got along with our parents, which irritated him to no end. I hung up my dishrag and walked to the door. The last thing he needed was to see his 15-year-old sister drying the pots and pans like a good little girl.
Vince tossed his dinner plate into the sink with a thud so hard it was obviously intentional. I knew he was looking for a reaction. And my father was not one to disappoint.
“Vincent Ruiz! Do you not have any respect for your family’s things?” my father yelled from his seat at the kitchen table.
For a man who lost his Spanish accent as soon as he got off the plane from Puerto Rico, Lorenzo Ruíz surprisingly had the “Latin temper-thing” down. It seemed his voice had only one setting—loud, and if you really provoked him you could make the vein in his forehead turn purple and pulse. Not that I ever set him off, that was purely my brother’s territory.
“Oh, please! ‘Our family’s things,’” Vince whined. “That’s all you care about. ‘Don’t break the china!’ ‘Don’t scratch the convertible!’ You don’t buy that stuff for us. You buy it to impress the neighbors.”
He ran his chewed nails through his greasy black hair and let it fall back on his forehead. His dark eyes narrowed and his mouth curled to the left, a face I knew would only tick off dad more.
“Oh, you think you know so much? Well, what would you do if we took this ‘stuff’ away? I’m sure there are other teenagers who would be much more appreciative of a new BMW. Maybe I should go ask ‘these neighbors’ of yours if they’d like your car, if that’s who I’m really buying it for. I guess you wouldn’t mind?” My father cocked his head to the side, smoothed his ebony mustache, and returned his gaze to the magazine he was reading.
At this point I didn’t know who was being more immature, my 45-year-old father or my 18-year-old brother. I leaned my shoulder against the oak doorjamb to our gourmet kitchen, yanked my white t-shirt over the top of my cargos and remained silent. Sometimes their arguments fizzled out on their own, and I was desperately hoping this was one of those times.
Vince grabbed another plate from the granite-topped island and slammed it into the sink. Any harder and it would have shattered, but I knew he wasn’t trying to break it. He just wanted our father to realize that he could.
“Fine. But you know what? You aren’t going to be able to run my life forever! I’m 18! I’m an adult!” he yelled.
“Yeah, well, adults pay their own bills. So unless you want to pay your tuition to Cornell next year, I suggest you close your mouth.”
“God, you just love being able to hang that over my head, don’t you?”
“Do you have any idea how good you have it? I had to work full-time to pay my way through school. And you are so ungrateful!” shouted my father, smacking his hand against the glass-topped kitchen table.
My grandparents moved their entire family—which included my dad, age 10, and his two older brothers, my uncles Roberto and Diego—to the U.S. from Puerto Rico decades ago in the hope of finding better opportunities. They settled in housing projects in Camden, NJ where my grandfather worked as a short-order cook and my grandmother raised their three sons in a city titled, “The Most Dangerous in the Nation.” None of them spoke English and my father still tells stories of running home from school during recess frustrated that he couldn’t understand a word his classmates were saying.
By 16 he had completely lost his accent, by 18 he had graduated third in his class, and by 26 he had paid his way through Temple’s undergraduate program (took him eight years of night classes while working full-time as the manager at a department store—a fact he never let us forget). Five years after that, and two children later, he successfully completed Temple’s MBA program (also at night). He got a job in the marketing department of a start-up corporation manufacturing light fixtures. When their art-deco lighting treatments were featured on a popular television show three years later, the company quadrupled in size, my father was named partner and my entire family moved to the Main Line—an affluent collection of picturesque suburbs outside of Philadelphia. I was five at the time. I don’t remember being poor, but my brother (who was seven when we moved) still talks about eating generic cereal brands like it was tragic hardship worthy of a movie-of-the-week.
“I’m not ungrateful! I’m just sick of you telling me what to do. All of my friends are going to Europe this summer. All of them! I can’t believe you won’t let me! I’m the only one who’s gonna be stuck here.”
Vince slammed his hands on the counter to answer any lingering questions about where, exactly, he did not want to be stuck.
I groaned and tilted my head towards the ceiling. I should’ve realized that was what they were really fighting about. Vince had been harping on this backpacking-through-Europe subject for weeks now. Even I was sick of hearing about it, so I knew my dad was about to launch the atomic bomb in his direction once the sentence left my brother’s lips.
“Enough! We have been over this!” he hollered, rising from his chair, screeching its legs across the recently refinished oak floors. “I don’t care how many of your ‘friends’ are going to Europe, you are not! And that is the end of it. Maybe if you were more responsible, you wouldn’t be in this situation.”
“Oh, God! Not this again! It was one arrest two years ago!”
“One arrest, no big deal, huh? You were 16 years old caught drunk at an unchaperoned party that the police had to break up. Do you have any idea how much that could have ruined your life?”
I grabbed my red hair in my fists and debated whether to break up the argument now before it got any worse. My mom was working at the art gallery and it was typically her responsibility to cool the tempers of the men in the household. My father and my brother were so alike—a fact they both vehemently denied—that when the two of them were in the same room for more than an hour the energy in the house escalated. Strangers couldn’t sense it; it was like our private Ruiz-family dog whistle. When Vince and my dad were about to go at it, the muscles in my neck would tense from two floors away.
My mother, Irina, who had a level of patience that could’ve made Ghandi look impulsive, could diffuse it just by breezing into the room, her wavy blond locks swishing and her blue eyes smiling. She’d place her palm gently on my father’s shoulder, make a cheerful joke, and immediately everyone would relax. I liked to think that I take after her, that my Polish side won out against my Puerto Rican side in the gene pool, but I knew she possessed a level of grace that I could never match.
“You always have to bring that up don’t you?” Vince yelled, taking a few steps towards our father to close the gap between them.
“Well, if I hadn’t gotten it expunged from your record, you could’ve kissed Cornell goodbye.”
“Yeah, because that’s the only reason I got into Cornell. It has nothing to do with the grades I’ve been busting my butt for. But you always seem to forget that, don’t you?”
“Yes, I forget. And that car you drive is just a symbol of my ignorance.”
By this point, Vince and my dad were standing within two feet of each other. The tension was gripping my lungs.
“Alright, that’s it!” I shouted, stepping from the doorway and charging into the kitchen. “Break it up! Separate corners you two, now!”
I stepped in between them, put a manicured hand on each of their chests, and shoved them in opposite directions.
“Great, get involved now, Mariana,” my brother huffed.
“Look, I am not taking sides here,” I defended, shooting my brother a snotty scrunch-nosed look I’d perfected over the past 15 years. “I just don’t want you guys to kill each other before mom comes home. Plus she’ll be pissed if you get blood on her new hardwood floors. And I’m so not explaining that.”
My brother rolled his eyes and my dad half-chuckled. But the result was what I wanted. The mood was lightened. At least for now.