This crossroad, where 12th Avenue meets 60th Street, was once the epicenter of my life. Just down the block, Palm Springs Middle School rises from the weeds like a Borg cube. The walls weren’t always there. Formerly, it was all open courtyards, with a horse statue in the middle, confusing the students who never understood why the school mascot was a Pacer, rarely thought about the horse track on the east side of town, and who never knew that Winston Churchill liked to visit the Hialeah Race Track, or who, for that matter, Winston Churchill even was. I lived on the other side of the P.E. fields, and on the last day of school, early, when the weeds were damp with dew, kids would hide cans of shaving cream in the bushes in front of my house and retrieve them at the end of the day for a shaving cream fight that always ended with the police being called.
Across the street, there in a coral-colored house, lived a butcher, his wife, and their grown son who, one day, forced his parents at gunpoint up into the hot and cramped attic, making them crawl on their bellies, then called the cops on himself. The hostage situation lasted all afternoon. A skinny cop knocked on our door and told us to keep away from the windows, which we did not do.
Up the street, you’ll find the pharmacy where my grandmother went to get medicine without prescriptions. The pharmacist, let us call him Suarez, was her friend, and he knew the rising costs of deductibles, understood that factory work sometimes did not come with benefits. My grandmother would bring Suarez biker shorts from the tallér for his teen daughters, and he would give her penicillin, Dimetapp, back when it required a script, Robitussin, and other things. We pronounced them Dee-meh-TAH and Ro-bee-too-SIN, and it was in that house just off of 12th Avenue where I first saw a commercial for those medicines and heard those made-up-anyway words in English for the first time.
My asthma was bad then, and the concoctions that my grandmother and the pharmacist planned for me sometimes made me hallucinate. When I was eight, I thought the water in the faucets had slowed down to molasses. I swear I saw it. I never told anyone, because I thought I was going crazy. When I was ten, an FPL man fell off the top of a telephone pole in our backyard, and snapped his leg in two. I watched him fall, and stood there in a Robitussin haze, unsure I had seen what I had seen, and he had to yell at me no seas una estupida and go get help.
Speaking of crazy, you should know that my grandfather died of Alzheimer’s, and that his symptoms were not subtle. One afternoon, he took all of the jewels he had bought for my grandmother over the years, and sold them in that same pharmacy for five dollars. Suarez later claimed that such a thing never happened. But the jewels were gone, and my grandfather clung to that fiver like it was keeping him alive. He lived another twenty years, though for most of that time, he could not swallow on his own or utter a word.
I had my braces tightened once a month further down 12th Avenue, and Dr. Hoffman was the first Jewish person I ever met. He was very nice, and the braces did not hurt much. His office was next to my childhood dentist, who pulled two of my permanent molars in preparation for the braces. She hitched her foot onto the chair’s armrest for leverage and pulled, and pulled, and pulled. She was, perhaps, the millionth Cuban woman I had met and despite the brutality of what she did to me, was also nice. Later, my mother bought me ice cream at “la vaquita” store, also next door.
If I have to explain “la vaquita” to you, then perhaps you shouldn’t spend time in Hialeah. What would be the point?
On this same street, a few blocks north of the orthodontist, was my high school. A third of the students came from Hialeah, and we recognized 12th Avenue for what it was—our vena cava. We were the ones who loitered near the art classrooms, the girls who tried out for Danceline because we had learned to shimmy and flash a thigh at all of those quinceañera parties. A third of the students came from Miami Lakes, where a manicured lawn was a sign of godliness. For those few, life presented them with Optimist soccer clubs and Little League, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, full-size candy bars at their neighbor’s homes at Halloween. A third of the students came from Opa-Locka, arriving in buses that scooped them up before dawn, delivering them, bleary-eyed, to homerooms. Opa-Locka kids hung out on the second floor, where a forty-foot pane of glass stood at their backs, with a view of the gym beyond. When a fist struck the glass, the sound was like a deep, bass drum; all day, all day, music was pounded into that glass, and I remember feeling it in my feet and in my chest. Next to the school was project housing. We all called the buildings “Vietnam,” even though most of us could not locate Vietnam on a map, or understood what was happening there when we were all born, or how that war had shaped the world. I don’t remember our history teachers ever getting to Vietnam in our lessons. Somehow, the school year always ended some time after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, as if time simply ended there, all of us focused on the trigger in perpetuity, and never the aftermath.
You should know, that our Valedictorian and Salutatorian, our head cheerleader and Student Council President, were all Miami Lakes children. These children knew things that the rest of us didn’t. For example, somehow they knew that P.E. was optional, so that they would have room in their schedules for more AP courses, and that AP courses were worth more in a GPA. The rest of us mostly followed the rules regarding such things, reading them to our parents, who could not always read them in English. So it was that we never, no matter how many straight As we had, could ever catch up.
You might be interested in learning about my college counselor. She wore bottle-thick glasses, and accused me of cheating on my SATs, because my PSATs had been low and I had improved so much over the course of one summer. I told her that perhaps the fact that we took our PSATs in the auditorium, the pages on our laps, our dull pencils poking through the scantron sheets and into our thighs, had something to do with it. She removed her glasses, licked them to get them clean, like a cat would. When I told her my dreams of going to Mount Holyoke, or, barring that, the University of Miami, she suggested I lower my expectations.
You should know that this was a long time ago.
Perhaps much has changed.
However, this I know for certain: the glass pane over the gym is gone—sheetrocked over—and the school at the north end of 12th avenue is surrounded by a very high fence that is very hard to climb over.
My best friend got married on 12th Avenue, in a banquet hall. She was two hours late to her wedding, and we passed the time wandering the strip mall connected to the banquet hall, checking out the beeper store. My uncle’s A/C company was on 12th Avenue. It went under, then was resurrected, then under again, and back, the Lazarus of A/C and heating repair businesses.
Where 68th meets 12th, three teenagers died in a crash when they raced another car in the middle of the day. Faded teddy bears are lashed to the stop signs nearby. They were two boys and a girl. The girl went to my high school, long after I graduated. After her death, her mother stood in the parking lot every day at lunchtime, trying to keep the kids from leaving campus in their cars. She even stood there in the rain, umbrella balanced on her shoulder, her hands raised in the universal sign for “Stop.”
Twelfth Avenue will take you to Okeechobee, and there you’ll find the megastore, Ñoooooo, Que Barato, which sells cheap things and giant duffel bags for trips to Cuba, plus white clothes for the Santero/a in your life. Next door, there is a daycare. My cousin’s ex-husband claims they tied him up with a rope there thirty years ago, back before timeouts existed. I have relatives up and down 12th Avenue. There are more Obamacare advertisements in Hialeah than anywhere else on the planet. Hialeah is, in point of fact, Obamacare’s number one city, leading the nation in enrollees. Most everyone I know in Hialeah also voted to Make America Great Again. Irony, which Hialeah has never lacked, is so thick there you might reach out and poke it.
My ninety-year old abuela lives on 12th Avenue, in a tiny apartment full of Dollar Store picture frames and wind chimes, which she ties to the pulls on her ceiling fan. On hot days, she refuses to turn on her A/C, even though it is included in her rent. She wears scarves in the summer. Her neighbors call her “Abuela,” and see her more often than I do, because 12th Avenue is now so far away from me, and you know, at the end of the day, traffic on Le Jeune makes going to Hialeah “a mission,” as we like to say.
For fifteen years, I lived in other states, where other streets gathered meaning in the story of my life. My grandmother would sometimes tease, tell me I had become una Americana. I lived in quiet, rural places, and she would compare them to 12th Avenue, which was un peligro, as she always says. Now I am back, and after visiting her one day, I watched as a car struck a pedestrian on 12th Avenue, saw the man roll twice down the street like a sausage on a spit, watched him get up, check his elbows for scrapes, and finish crossing to the other side. The driver did not notice, as he was holding a cell phone with the GPS running, his eyes on the map.
Now, if you were to make a map out of me, then 12th Avenue would have to be drawn down my spine, north to south. The streets and roads would be my veins, the ranch homes with their closed-up garages my capillaries, my hair the clouds of blackbirds murmuring in the sky over the condos, alighting like teeth on telephone wires.
Chantel Acevedo is the author of four novels, including The Distant Marvels, a Carnegie Medal finalist. Acevedo is currently an Associate Professor of English in the MFA Program of the University of Miami. Her next novel, The Milk Brother, is forthcoming from Europa Editions.