Randy William Santiago’s “Humboldt Park Blues” is a coming-of-age story set in the inner city of Chicago. The narrator of Santiago’s story discovers a world in which he can no longer rely on his brother’s protection, after Rubén meets Vanessa. “Humboldt Park Blues” explores family and masculinity in a voice that is fresh, earnest and true. We are so proud to share this story with you all.
Walking home from school was easier when Rubén was around. Having him near didn’t make run-ins with gangs less prominent, and it sure as hell didn’t prevent them from chasing us down Kostner whenever we wore anything that deviated from the neutral black and white, but it felt safer. There’s comfort in getting jumped with another person, in laughing it off once you’ve survived. The deep vibrations of their laughter clutching your body like a firm hand as it wobbles above the pavement.
That all changed when Rubén met Vanessa. Suddenly Kostner seemed larger, its threats amplified.
These pendejos get a taste of some ass and suddenly think they can fly, Ma said to me after Rubén started dating Vanessa.
Ma only talked to me when she was pissed at Rubén, cursing his name behind the embers of her blunt. She’d vent to me one day and kiss Rubén’s ass the next.
Made me wish Rubén hadn’t switched up on me when Vanessa came into the picture, so that I wasn’t left to deal with Ma’s mood swings alone.
It used to be that Rubén and I chilled often, that we talked about the girls we wanted or the dudes we hated or the dreams of escape that we never believed in. But then Rubén met Vanessa, and it was like she had her own gravitational pull and Rubén couldn’t help but be with her.
And sure, Vanessa was fine.
She was tall, with wavy hair and hazel eyes. Golden hoops dangling from her ears. A frail neck piece to match. To top it off, she was Puerto Rican, White Puerto Rican (like Ma and Rubén, but we never talked about that). All anyone talked about was what they would like to do with her (which wasn’t appropriate to address in public either) or what they believed she did with random guys around Humboldt Park.
As far as Rubén was concerned, there wasn’t another man in Humboldt Park. Maybe even the world. Vanessa was his and no one could convince him otherwise. Ma tried to once, told him that he’d forget how to see if he got too close.
Can’t see anything if your head’s up her ass, she said.
No doubt Ma was still bitter toward the men who left, who abused, who cheated. Bitter about their ability to transition from their current lives to new ones once their interest faded.
Despite her bitterness, Ma was also lonely. She liked the idea of Rubén locking fingers with a Puerto Rican girl from our hood, leaning against her locker at a precise angle, slightly tapping her shoulder with his in that manner that says I’m feeling you.
That’s how your dad used to do me, Ma said, nostalgia creeping into her voice.
After a while, Ma began asking Rubén everything she could about Vanessa, a silence falling whenever I entered the room, as if the two of them were in the know of something confidential. Rubén and Ma transformed our sala into their very own gossip mill, talking shit through the wee hours of the night.
This forced me to melt my eardrums until they spilled onto Fullerton Avenue, where red light traffic whirred my psyche into paralysis, thrusting me into that limbo that straddles complacent and discontent.