An Angel on the Other Side of the Border, by Marylin Laurent
When we met in Caribbean Literature 101, he was the first to smile at me. “Hola, mama!” he said, his eyes searching my face. Then he introduced himself—Angel.
As he waved a hand, I replied as politely as I could, yet my tone was annoyed and dry. “I don’t speak Spanish.”
Waiting for the teacher, Prof. Ganz, I’d just spent too much time arguing with a Panamanian guy who claimed to know for seguro that I, myself, was also from Panama, as if I did not know or had forgotten where I came from. In my opinion I looked pretty Haitian, with caramel skin and kinky hair, though chemically straightened. All my life, I’d considered myself a beautiful brune. Yet already, during my first week in college in America, everyone thought I was Hispanic. And what exactly made these guys think it was okay to call me “Mama“?
I sat in the first row, ignoring Angel for the rest of the class. My plan was, in fact, to avoid eye contact with any Hispanic guy in Caribbean Lit, for a full hour, three times a week. I was really getting stressed out by those young men questioning my origins. I heaved a sigh of relief when my cousin Alain entered the room—tall, long-necked, narrow-boned. A familiar face at last! Alain’s eyes settled for a minute on Angel, and his smile morphed into a scowl. It occurred to me then that Angel must be from the Dominican Republic, and that Alain knew it. My cousin loathed Dominicans. Our trip to Barahona the previous summer had not helped alleviate his loathing—we were denied proper service at a local restaurant because the staff overheard our mothers speaking in Creole. Basura was what they called us.
When Prof. Ganz finally arrived, short and sweaty, a bald little man born and raised right here, in Spanish Harlem, he put down his heavy briefcase on the desk and took out a wad of hand-outs. “We’ll start the new semester with a project,” he said. “I’ve already paired you up.”
Later, he said, “Mildred Casimir, you’re working with Angel Lopez.”
And that’s how I ended up with Angel, the Moreno with thick, long, black curly hair and dark brown eyes overshadowed by bushy eyebrows.
Angel’s face lit up just like that of a little boy stuck in a miniature car store. My own smile felt awkward. Heck! I didn’t mind working with him, as long as he was willing to put in the effort and score that A. Otherwise, I would take charge of the project.
Prof. Ganz explained that we would write a report on The Tragedy of King Christophe, a Haitian play being presented as a result of a collaboration between the school of Caribbean Studies and the Department of Performing Arts. I must admit that the idea of going to see a performance about Haiti was thrilling.
Angel and I lived pretty far from each other. His apartment was near the college campus, whereas I traveled two hours to and from Queens daily. The play was on a Saturday evening and I was quite nervous, as I’d never taken the subway after dark.
“Be careful with this guy, Millie,” Alain said in the afternoon. “These dirty Dominicans—they’re always up to no good. Have no respect for Haitians. Before you know it, he’ll try to get in your pants.”
“Don’t exaggerate,” I said.
I dressed formally—a plaid, navy blue and beige skirt, navy blue tights and turtleneck, and black penny loafers. My hair was wet from the shower; I sprayed it with curling gel and headed out with my brown leather pea coat.
When I arrived in front of the theater at six o’clock, Angel was already there, a notebook under his armpit. Good, he takes this seriously. And that’s when I realized that I had nothing to write with or on. This is so embarrassing. And why—oh, why!—did the whole thing suddenly feel like a date? As I approached him, I was unsteady on my feet. He welcomed me with a large smile, removing his hands from his pockets as if just remembering some childhood reprimand about having them there. We walked together silently until we reached the ticket booth. “I’ve already purchased the tickets,” he said then, checking in our jackets. I offered to repay him but he refused, his sharp-cheeked face always verging on the edge of laughter.
As I sat next to him, I realized that I should probably take the time to get to know him. I’d given him no chance whatsoever because of the stereotypes that I’d grown up with.
Studying my face once again with piercing eyes, he handed me an extra pen he carried in his jacket and took out some pages of his notebook so I could keep up with the note-taking. Then, later, he offered to drive me home. He was very talkative. As he told me about Spanish Harlem, I discovered he was both cultured and humorous. Seeing Angel at school among his baseball teammates, I would have never imagined that side of him. At first sight, he seemed to be the macho type, bragging and speaking loudly when he was in what I thought to be his element.
I told him about my major, sociology, about my brother Jean-Paul and my cousin Alain, with whom I shared an apartment in Queens since we’d all arrived from Port-au-Prince a few months ago to attend college. “I have some friends from Haiti in the neighborhood, but we barely see each other, except on the weekends, when everyone gathers at my house for pizza, movies or just hanging out.”
My parents remained in the homeland. Around my friends, I could still have the sense of home that I was missing after leaving Haiti.
“I’m glad we’re getting along,” Angel said after a while. “I have to admit I had some reservations. But meeting you, seeing this historical play… Wow!”
“Reservations?” I thought he was joking and started to laugh, but his jaw tightened and it became obvious that he was serious.
“Seriously, Millie, at first I didn’t know you were Haitian. In my family, we don’t really like Haitians. Back in Santo Domingo, all the Haitians are cane cutters on the bateys.”
The way he said it—cane cutters—he made it sound like a disease. In my opinion, the workers in the bateys were not dirty, lazy bums but rather slaves that both of our governments agreed to trade.
“Back in Port-au-Prince,” I said angrily, “all the Dominicans are whores and pimps.”
I immediately regretted my words. My parents had always remained open-minded about history. My mother, in particular, taught me that it was not a very educated type of behavior to caption Dominican women as prostitutes, showgirls or hairdressers, and the men as pimps and drug dealers. She emphasized that there were very decent Dominicans, that I should not attribute negative characteristics to an entire country.
I stared straight ahead, noticing for the first time that it was a starless evening.
“I’m sorry I offended you,” Angel offered. “Resentment runs deep in the family. The Haitian invasion of the Dominican Republic left its scars, you know. When the schools were turned into prisons and barracks, my great-grandmother, Felicia, could no longer attend classes. The troops of President Boyer changed the official language to French, and Felicia’s parents lost their land. I grew up with a mother who only spoke ill of Haitians.”
I was fuming. “I’m sure your mom’s never told you about el corte,” I said.
He was puzzled. “El corte?”
I looked him in the eyes. “Of course. You wouldn’t know about that. I’m sure your mom didn’t talk about it at the dinner table.”
In October 1937, Dominican President Rafael Trujillo had ordered the execution of all Haitian living in the borderlands with Haiti. Thousands of Haitian civilians were murdered over the course of five days. This later became known as the Parsley Massacre. To determine whether or not those living on the border were native Dominicans who spoke Spanish fluently, Trujillo’s soldiers would hold up a sprig of parsley and ask “What is this?” All those who could not pronounce the Spanish word perejil were declared Haitian and killed with machetes.
“El corte,” he whispered. “The cutting.” Once again, his beautiful eyes settled on me. “I’m sorry, Millie. I didn’t know.”
“There’s a lot that you don’t know. Alain’s mother worked on a batey for twenty years. Twenty years! While pregnant with Alain, Tante Mathilde was once caught up in a mass repatriation drive and sent ‘home’ without having an opportunity to collect pay or personal belongings, leaving Alain’s father and brothers behind.”
In high school, I’d researched the lifestyle in the bateys and accepted that I couldn’t blame the whole Dominican nation for the wrongdoing. Growing up in Haiti, however, I was aware of the many controversial labels that separated us from the Dominicans, aside from the border.
Angel was speechless. I sighed. “The truth of the matter is, Angel, when you stop and really think about the animosity between our two nations, you can’t find the real reason for it. You may check off history or skin color on the list, but none really explains the hatred.”
We stayed silent for the next five minutes that brought us in front of my house. I knew I would remember it all—the plastic seats that stuck to the back of my thighs, velour plush grabbing strands of my hair. Angel casually dropped me off and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I made him promise to call as soon as he reached his home safely.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday thereafter, Angel and I met outside in the courtyard on the bench under a maple tree, for about an hour before class. It was already October. The afternoon air was chilly. He walked me down the hill to the subway station. Something was growing between us, the sense of closeness too strong to be dismissed. But I couldn’t find the courage to tell Alain and Jean-Paul about Angel. I knew for a fact that they would be upset about the whole thing.
The first weekend of school, I’d overheard a conversation between the two.
“They’re everywhere, those panyòl,” Alain said.
Alain was two years my junior. We looked so much alike that he was easily mistaken for my big brother, while Jean-Paul and I didn’t seem related.
“I guess it’s because of where our school is located. It’s a Dominican area,” Jean-Paul replied. “Had I known, I would not have picked that school, though it’s the most reputable yet cheapest for engineering.”
I couldn’t believe my own brother was talking like that.
“I know,” Alain said. “After what they’ve been doing to our people. Look at what happened to that girl—what’s her name again? It was in the news at the beginning of the summer.” He paused. “Yes, Mireille Lafrange. Yes. Beaten and gang-raped by the Dominicans.”
“Those dirty panyòl, that’s all they’re good for. It’s all about sex and corruption, then they kill you.”
Alain said, “I warned Millie about that guy she’s hanging out with. Who knows the kind of funky business he’s into?”
And then, of course, I wondered about Angel’s family, in which “resentment ran deep.” His mother Isabel, particularly, would probably give me the cold shoulder if I ever visited her in the Dominican Republic.
Still, nothing could change this: I was drawn to Angel, to the Latin blood running in his veins.
Professor Ganz was so pleased with our analysis of the play La Tragédie du Roi Chistophe that he asked us to share it with the class. If I was nervous at first, a glimpse at my partner erased all doubts and fears. I was relieved that Alain, under the weather with a cold, had not come to school that day. At the end of class, Angel invited me for tea at his home. For a single guy, he kept his apartment quite organized and tidy. His walls were lined with bookcases filled with books about the history of Latin America, Greek mythology and Epicure. His living room was a haven of colorful paintings, visibly Caribbean.
“You have fine taste,” I said.
“I’m glad I can afford to. I’m doing an internship with a Cuban writer, which earns me plenty of credits and a salary.”
He made peppermint tea, and we sat on the large khaki linen sofa. He took me in his arms and ran his fingers through my hair as we talked about plays, books, operas, colors, and exotic animals. When the time came for me to go home, we parted with a warm hug.
For weeks, Angel and I continued our incognito encounters at his place. I was eighteen—a freshman; he was a senior, twenty-one. I was scared, worried, not sure what I wanted or where I wanted our relationship to go.
He knew he wanted me, and said it.
One evening, as Alain and I were playing dominoes in our living room, he asked me about Angel.
“So, is he still trying to talk to you?”
The firm set of his brow and the rigidity of his mouth suggested that he had his own sense of what was right and wrong.
“Well, we’ve been talking and he’s actually a nice person.”
He put down a blank domino. “Nice? He’s Dominican, for heaven’s sake! They don’t like us. Remember how they treated us? How they treated my mother? I told you to stay away from this guy.”
I sighed. “It’s not like that, Alain.”
His face was an angry scowl. “Are you even hearing yourself? He would never take you seriously. All they know about Haitians is that we come to cut sugarcane in the bateys. They never forgave us for occupying the land. Don’t you see? We even lost the name of the island of Haiti to Hispaniola. He will do to you the same thing that happened to Mireille—beat you, pass you around to his friends. You women forget quickly! We signed the petition, we did the demonstration and now you’re turning against your own? Wake up from your fairy tale, Millie. I don’t know what this guy promised you, but he will never be serious about you.”
That night I could not sleep. I got into bed and waited for the tears to come. When they didn’t, I simply stared at the ceiling, the dense white swirl of it. I tossed and turned with flashbacks of the horrid pictures of that poor mutilated young woman whose assailants were… Dominicans.
In the back of my head, the thought of my friends seeing me with Angel poked at me non-stop. I would never have the courage to explain or choose. I was sure they would ask me to drop him in a heartbeat, just like Alain did. That was probably one of the reasons why I never tried to define what was growing between us, though platonic. I wanted to be with Angel but at the same time I was weary of the peer pressure and afraid of being wrong about him.
By Thanksgiving, New York City was freezing. After dinner with Alain and Jean-Paul, and the Black Friday hangout with my friends, I spent Saturday evening with Angel. The sky was clear, the stars like spreads of confetti on a wide black velour cover. As we strolled down McDougal Street, we entered a small Italian bakery/coffee shop and settled in large antique armchairs. Through the dim light I could see his big brown eyes stuck on me, and I felt myself blush. He took my hand in his, never moving his sight.
“You remember the day we met? You got upset because I addressed you in Spanish.”
“I wasn’t upset.”
“It was obvious, Millie. Even when you knew we had to do the project for Caribbean Literature together, you didn’t like it. Are you ashamed of me, of my Dominican ties?”
I bit my lower lip. I was out of words. At that point, anything I would have said would have condemned me.
“Angel,” I finally said. “I… I don’t know.”
He continued to peer into my eyes. “I can see it in your eyes, sometimes, how you look around to make sure your Haitian friends don’t see us together. You should really think about this because I don’t want to impose. Maybe this is not meant to be, after all. The semester is almost over. I might go away. Maybe it’ll be for the best.”
For the next two weeks of class, Angel ignored me. I considered going up to him, but what would I say?
Christmas was around the corner. The smell of pines floated in the air. Every evening I took a stroll in Bryant Park, wishing on the stars that Angel would forgive me. Yet I was still in conflict with myself.
One bitter morning, I came to school early to finish a term paper for my English class. It was a snow day. I sat in the computer lab and that’s when Alain and Jean-Paul came in.
“Millie, you’ve been preoccupied. What’s up with you?” Jean-Paul asked.
“Nothing, trying to focus so I can finish this paper.”
“Oh, come on! We’re not gonna take this,” Alain said.
All of a sudden I felt tiny under their microscope. But I certainly was not going to start to whimper about Angel. He was sacred ground. I just nodded, hoping they’d go away.
But then Angel walked in and a heavy weight settled at the bottom of my stomach.
“Hi, Millie,” he said, looking from Jean-Paul to Alain, who were both all frowns and tight lips. “May I speak to you outside?”
When I got up to follow him, I couldn’t help but consider my audience. It was obvious to both Alain and Jean-Paul that something was going on with the Dominican guy.
“Millie?” Alain called, getting off his seat as I was about to make my way outside the lab.
“What the hell is going on?” my brother asked.
My brain was numb, as if soggy with Novocain. “I’ll explain later, guys,” I said.
But Jean-Paul stood in front of me. He wanted an explanation right away.
At that point, Angel stepped in. “Can I get a minute in peace to speak to my girlfriend?”
“What?” Alain said.
My knees became wobbly because it was the first time I was being called Angel’s girlfriend. Now everyone was waiting for my comeback.
“Guys, I’ll explain later.” I felt my throat constrict.
Alain took me by the wrist and Angel grabbed his arm, ordering him to let me go.
Alain gave me one of those stares that you can’t take back, the kind that you give when you are too mad to do anything else. “Are you going to let this little good-for-nothing disrespect me like that, Millie?” he asked. “Are you really selling out?”
“Shut up,” I said.
I pulled away from the altercation and felt my eyes coming out of my face. “Enough with all this nonsense! Angel is a great person. He’s been good to me and I have nothing to reproach him about. I have put him in a bad position because of the same crap that you’re giving me now. We’ve all been brainwashed with an illusionary reality. If there is a problem between both countries today, I’m not responsible for it and Angel certainly isn’t. So leave the man alone!”
“You, shut up,” Alain said.
I grew still, riveted in gruesome anticipation. At last, almost as an afterthought, he hauled off and socked the wooden door. Blood ran and dripped onto the floor.
“God!” I cried. Picking up my backpack, I left the room, running. I didn’t want to speak to anyone, not even Angel. It was snowing. The big flakes were melting at the touch of my tears. I wanted to fly. I wanted to go beyond the cottony clouds to my stars. I wanted to leave the world with all its mentalities, misconceptions and heartbreaks.
Angel was running behind me, almost out of breath. I slowed down and came to a halt facing him.
“Millie… I know—I was too hard on you. And I’m sorry.”
A crust of tears was drying on my cheeks. “I wish sorry could change the world.”
“It can’t, Millie. And it won’t change the fact that I will be losing you.”
“Huh?” The air vibrated with cars, muffles, bass, stereo woofers.
“Yes, I’m going back to the DR. It wasn’t planned. Mother needs me; she’s ill and I’m all she has left.”
“Oh, my God! I’m so sorry.” I felt sick to my stomach; there was a lurching in my bones and blood.
“Yes, Millie, like you said, sorry cannot change things. I came to tell you that I will never forget you and that I will fill the void that your absence will leave in my heart with the great memories of the times we had together. I will cherish that for as long as I live. You are very special to me.”
My tears were flowing wildly again and I was numb to the cold air penetrating my clothes and my bones. Angel took me in his arms and softly planted a kiss on my lips; our arms were tangled together and our legs were bent towards each other, but they didn’t quite touch.
Then he took a step back. His eyes grew small and distant. He became somber.
“It will be hard to stop loving you, Millie.”
He turned away. I tried to stop him but he said, “No.” I stood there with a lump in my throat, never knowing that Angel would have been the only man in my life with honest respect towards me. It was the end of the semester, the end of his college years. It was my first snow, my first love, lost at the other side of the border.
Marylin Laurent was born in the Bronx, but her youthful years were spent in Port-au-Prince. In 1993, Marylin moved back to New York. She began writing poetry at the age of 16. She currently blogs and writes poetry and short stories. She has published two books of poetry, Diary of an Innocent Dreamer and Statement.
An Angel on the Other Side of the Border was originally published in So Spoke the Earth, an anthology published by Women Writers of Haitian Descent.