Last Kingdom in Astoria A Novel Excerpt by Gessy Alvarez
July 17, 2006
Helena, you used to call me your King. Now your ashes are in an urn that sits in a niche at Calvary.
Mariss calls me the king like she feels nothing for her father like I’m a big joke to her. And at sixteen, she acts like I should be happy she’s around. She’s doing me a favor, and I tolerate this because I still have you watching over us, soothing my deepest insecurities. But Helena, how can you help me now?
This infernal July is plagued by heatwaves and thunderstorms. I prefer the storms because Mariss stays home and though I never question what she does in her room, at least I know she’s there cursing me through the walls. But the heat waves are intolerable, and she’s gone all day, sometimes all night. And tonight, there’s a blackout, and Mariss is not home.
I’m used to the late nights. I’m used to the overnighters. It’s become a pattern. Monday and Tuesday, she’s home by midnight. Wednesday and Thursday, she’s locked inside her room. Friday and Saturday, I disappear, and when I finally get home on a Sunday afternoon, her door is open. I don’t bother to look in or let her know I’m home. If she emerges for dinner, I’m happy. If I don’t see her until Monday morning, I avoid speaking to her, hoping my silence communicates disappointment and not fear. I steal glances, make sure she’s in one piece. Except for the occasional dark circles around her eyes and her matted hair, she usually is.
Tonight, I called her from my flip phone, voicemail. I don’t leave her a message; why waste my breath? She’ll come home eventually. There’s no power in the apartment, and I have two bars left on the flip phone. Our cordless phone is no longer plugged into the landline.
Helena, do you remember the day we met? You were new to Queens, new to the languages spoken on every corner, the smells of spices you never knew existed. Like everyone else, you confused me for Puerto Rican. And when I shook my head, you guessed, Colombian? And less convincingly, Greek? Italian? Sometimes, someone with a good ear and a deeper understanding of how I carry my voice, my body around, would guess right and say Dominican. Embarrassed, I would quickly assert my Iberian heritage. My great grandfather was from the Canary Islands, I’d insist. And, in between eye rolls, I’d say, “He bought land in D.R. and married a local farmer’s daughter.”
My family was one of five families who incorporated a small town in the Northwest tip of the Dominican Republic. And these pioneering families intermarried, and an enclave of children with light brown hair and hazel eyes populated the town. These children stood in contrast to the laborers and their brown, black, and all the shades in between children.
My parents were 2nd or 3rd cousins, it was always unclear, and my father left my mother once they both immigrated to New York City. I was raised by my grandmother and my mother.
But you don’t care about my past. It’s not as if I could remember the details from those lost toddler years, and it’s not like my mother, whose eyesight was failing by the time you met her and whose rheumatoid arthritis kept her from leaving her apartment. It’s not like she would have told you the whole story.
My grandmother was long gone by the time we got together. And my father, he may still be alive, but I haven’t seen or heard from him in over twenty years. There’s no one left who could invent a cryptic family saga.
You never ask for this story, never seem to desire this knowledge. You trust me completely. You call me your King, and Astoria is our kingdom, away from your Jersey shore home, and your domineering Russian father, and the boyfriend you thought would marry you, but who left you out there with an ocean that always felt too cold for you to enjoy.
Helena, tonight, I’m grateful you’re nearby. The darkness is a great comfort. But there’s never any silence in Queens. Car alarms and sirens populate the night. Mariss is out there. Our only child, our essence. I know you sense the truth, Helena. That I’m relieved that Mariss is gone.
With some guilt, I feel we no longer need Mariss. We were a family together. But now that she’s gone is there room for me to be the person you believed I was? We can go back and relive our love affair before Mariss interrupted it. I know you’re scared, because we made her together, and without her, what are we to each other?
Mariss will come back eventually. She always does. She will come back and live as my idea of who she is. She’ll want to make me happy. Just as you want to make me happy. Freedom is meaningless without experiencing the pleasure of pleasing someone you love. And Mariss loves me. She is my daughter, and no matter how long she’s gone, that will never be untrue. We are bound to each other forever.
About the novel:
Last Kingdom in Astoria begins during a blackout on a hot July day in 2006. Sixteen-year-old Mariss never comes home. Her father, “the King,” still speaks with his dead wife, Helena. Though relieved that his daughter is gone, he feels obligated to search for his daughter through the hot, powerless streets of Astoria, Queens.
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