"And one day, I'm walkin' to JFK, and I'm gonna fly!"
A week later, Abuela Claudia passed away.
He stood there, watching as the entire street mourned the woman, the one who held their stories. She never had children of her own, but the children of the Barrio cried as she was carried away. Kevin had managed to gather enough donations for a headstone - she'd be treated like royalty. He was the one to arrange the funeral, the entire procession of mourning immigrants, that bowed their head in respect to her. Usnavi took it upon himself to speak, the most level-headed at the time, and in hindsight, the most appropriate to speak. It was all he could do to keep it together, as they sang the word she loved most - Alabanza. The entire street singing, as he whispered it to himself.
Where was Vanessa?
Surely, she'd be there, he had convinced himself. While Vanessa and Abuela never had a very close relationship, Vanessa had loved the woman all the same. Coming by with a glass Coca-Cola bottle for the woman, the two would sit on the stoop as Abuela would smile and tell her stories about the salon where she worked. Vanessa, smiling and laughing alongside her, always happy to see the old woman. Yet, there was no sign of her, as the mourners slowly dissipated. Leaving Usnavi standing alone in the road, still holding the bright candle for the woman who had treated him as her own.
Later on, as he looked at the money left behind, he's unsure what to do. He had promised Abuela Claudia he'd split the money, give a third to Sonny. The kid lived with Usnavi, as his own mother had passed years ago, and his father, well, he never knew the son of a bitch. Sonny was truly alone in this world, and Usnavi couldn't just abandon him. He always joked that Sonny was a pain in the ass, but in reality, Usnavi felt like Sonny was his own brother. He had taken care of Sonny for years. Held him when he cried, wiped his tears when he lost his first tooth. He was like a brother to Usnavi - the pain in the ass Usnavi would miss when he left. He was truly torn, whether to stay for him or go like Abuela wanted. Maybe in another life, Usnavi would have stayed, but he did what Abuela wanted - perhaps if Vanessa was still there, he could find a reason to go.
But when she left, he couldn't stay there anymore. His heart ached, missing her dancing form on the street at sunrise. He missed her laughter, her confidence. Her constant jokes and laughter, and her dreams. She held hope, and in a way, she represented a part of the Barrio none of them would soon forget - the hope to dream. To dare hope, the naiveté to dream. Everybody had a job, yes. But few dared to still have dreams. Yes, she attained her dream, to finally escape. Yet, she left, and soon that hope that she'd ever come back died.
When he told Sonny his plan, that he was going to leave the Barrio like Abuela wanted, Sonny screamed at him. Screamed, begged, cried and shouted. That the Barrio would change when Usnavi left, that the bodega was a staple of their community. With nobody to run that small bodega, where the customers came with their money and their stories, who would keep their stories? Who would keep the legacies of the immigrants with penniless pockets, and stories grander than their souls? As much as Usnavi tried to reason with the teenager, he couldn't change his mind, no matter how hard he tried. He couldn't force Sonny to leave - so he left the keys, and the money for him, with Graffiti Pete. Pete swore he'd take care of him - and though Usnavi wouldn't trust Pete alone in his own store, he knew Pete meant it this time.
He left the next day.
A year, two passed quickly for Usnavi. He left the Barrio with a battered suitcase in one hand, his cap on his head, and a hammering heart. He was unsure whether it was the right decision, to leave Sonny alone - surely, Abuela wouldn't approve? But, he knew he had to let Sonny make his own choices, and he had enough money to get by. If Sonny wanted to take care of the bodega, that was up to him. Usnavi wasn't going to let Abuela's dreams die in vain - he had to make it there, to Playa Rincón. Where his parents home had been, before they fled to the States, to make their American Dream. Little did they know their son would come back to that little beach, to find his island.
He opened his little bar on the seaside - naming it "El Rincón De La Vega." The man he hired, Samuel, had questioned the name at first. Wondering why Usnavi chose that name in particular, such a strange name for a bar that would serve tourists and richer locals - Usnavi firmly declared his bar would not be for the elite. Just locals, and if the elite wanted to come by, that was their choice. He kept the prices low, and the demand was high, on that sandy beach. He became known as the "El Hombre Que Caminó En La Luz." The man who walked in the light. He became famous not just for his famed drinks, serving old style café con leche, piraguas, and his special "Garcia", a cinnamon cocktail.
No one ever knew he named it after her.
Every day he'd wake up a stone throw from his bar, living in a small cabin on the beach he built with Samuel. Smiling, he'd prep for the day, living on the bare necessities. Bread, milk, simple white rice he cooked. The money he brought served him well, and with the money he made at his bar, he would always have enough to keep himself supplied. He would smile as he wiped down the awning that shaded his counters, bright red, white and blue. He would sing loudly, as he prepared for the day, running into town, talking to locals and getting ready for the day. Making his rounds with good food for those who couldn't afford it. He refused to take a cent, and when the sun went down, he'd open up the bar. Letting in his cooks, his bartenders. Slapping each one on the back, conversing loudly and pulling out his old radio, to play forgotten boleros. Having it play while customers came and went, and he listened. Wiping down the counters, listening to each person who came in, as they tell their stories. He'd sip his coffee and smirk, giving them advice the best the could. In the back of the bar, he hung an old photo of Abuela he found - a large scale portrait of the woman that Graffiti Pete had sent from the States. Her name was clearly printed underneath, and each person would bow their head in respect to the woman who inspired Usnavi - how proud she would be!
Two years. Two years of peacefulness, before his world was disrupted by a letter. He had been closing up shop, as the late-night stragglers slowly left. Usnavi bidding goodnight to each of his employees, thanking Samuel for the work he put in every single day, paying them more than he should. One of the employees, Maria, a woman with long tangled plaits, handed him a worn letter, said one of the late night stragglers brought it in. Normally, Usnavi would ignore it, most stragglers were drunk fellows who had sad stories but seeing the clear printed name on the front, his heart hammered as he opened it up.
How're you? I hope you're well. I'll skip the niceties. Nina and I are fine, the Barrio is doing well. However, this isn't about the Barrio. It's about Vanessa.
She needs your help. I can't say much in this letter, but it'd mean the world to us if you could come help.
It's also the two year anniversary of Abuela's death. It'd mean the world if you could come by and say a few words - Sonny is taking this awfully hard.
He booked the ticket the next day.
He arrived three days later, having been held up at the airport, getting stuck in Texas, and getting a more than thorough "random" security check once he finally arrived at JFK. Holding only a battered suitcase once again, Usnavi departed from the airport and headed back to where it all began.
He took a taxi, though, he remembers taxi fares being considerably less the last time he was here. He looked out the window in wonder - Manhattan had changed since he left. Brighter signs, logos and brands flashing on every single board. Perhaps, even more, homeless people than he remembers - he kindly gives a five to a panhandler when the taxi stops right outside Washington Heights. He decided he had wanted to talk, and the taxi driver, unlike Benny, sneered at him and drove off in a hurry. Rolling his eyes, Usnavi takes a deep breath and began to walk the streets he never thought he'd see again.
The sun was up, shining brightly on the streets. Usnavi's face lit up as he passed by familiar buildings - there! Daniela's salon, still as busy as ever. Yet, strangely enough, he couldn't hear Daniela harking about and gossiping with the other women - he shrugged it off, perhaps she had finally taken a break-
He looked up from his daze, to see the old piragüero, smiling and waving excitedly. His face lit up, as he rushed over, enveloping the older man in a tight embrace. He looked exactly the same, minus a few new grey hairs. The piragüero smiles, laughing as he looked at Usnavi.
"Hola! ¿Como has estado?"
"Mejor que nunca, Señor!¿Dónde has estado todo este tiempo?"
"República Dominicana, mi querido amigo."
"¿Todo este tiempo? ¡Te has vuelto muy delgado, amigo!"
Just as Usnavi is about to make a bright comment about the man's weight, he hears his name being called. Turning his head, he feels tears begin to form as he sees his old friends. Benny! Nina! Pete! And even Kevin and Camila, who take him into their arms as soon as they get their hands on them. He feels the suitcase clatter from his hands, shaking as he is enveloped in their arms. Welcoming him, saying how dearly they missed him. Camila pinching his cheek, and commenting on his thin form. Kevin, clapping him on the back, talking about Usnavi's business - "He learned it all from me, Camila!" - and finally, Benny and Nina, who both hold him tightly. Benny, who smiles brightly, and Nina, looking worn and ragged, but so professional. She wears a neat pantsuit and blouse, contrasted with Benny's plaid shirt and shorts. Usnavi chuckles, as Nina clutches his hands.
"Welcome back, Usnavi."
"I missed you all so much…" Usnavi's voice breaks, looking around at the Rosarios, Pete and Benny. They beamed at him, all extremely excited to see him. Pete had given him a simple nod, but that was more than a welcome from Pete. Nina gives him a once-over, chuckling.
"You've lost weight, Usnavi! Have you been eating at all?"
"Only the bare necessities, but look at you! Nina Rosario…" He sighs, looking at her. The nineteen-year-old girl who lost her way was gone, and in her place stood a successful twenty-one-year-old lawyer. "The one who made it out."
"Hey, what about me? Damn, Usnavi, if I didn't know better I'd say you only came back to kiss up to my wife!"
"Wife-?" Usnavi is shaken out of wonder when he hears Benny's remark - he looks down at Nina's hand, and then at Benny's. Both of them have plain silver rings - his eyes widen and he looks between the pair, eyes wide with excitement. "Y-You? W-When..?'
"Right after you left." Benny proclaimed proudly, wrapping a firm arm around her shoulders. "I realized when you left, that she could be next. I waited, of course, but we got married this past April."
"April? Why didn't you say anything you son of a bitch?" Usnavi laughs, clapping Benny on the back hard, laughing and smiling so hard, he thought his cheeks would fall off.
"Private ceremony." Camila chimed in, smiling tersely. She looked between the pair, then at her own husband. "We didn't need the entire Barrio chiming in about how our girl would be a wife and a lawyer - you know how people are, Usnavi."
"That I do, that I do." Usnavi laughs, tears freely running down his cheeks - he had missed them so much, without even realizing it. He clasps Nina's hand, then Benny's, congratulating them, and apologizing for missing the ceremony. When he had done just that, he turns to Pete, awkwardly wiping some tears away. "A-And…what about Sonny?"
"Still runs the bodega," Pete replies casually, looking around, "I help him out - kid's got a real knack for business."
"Is that so?"
"Yeah, he learned from the best." Pete chuckled, and Usnavi smiles. Before he left, he and Pete were on quite awkward terms, never friends, but never enemies either. He had left Sonny alone, and Usnavi was grateful that Pete had taken care of him since. "Me."
"You been in my bodega, Pete?"
"It's not your bodega anymore, man. And besides, Sonny lets me stay there all the time, anyway. The kid loves me 'n shit." Pete offers a smirk, and Usnavi's face immediately flushes.
Usnavi has never had a problem with gay people. Hell, he never had problems with a lot of things the Barrio normally had problems with, and he never judged anybody that came into his bodega - if they had money to buy what they needed, Usnavi couldn't care less about what gender or sexuality they had. But, this is Sonny. Last he heard, Sonny was just a kid, sixteen years old at that - god, he was eighteen now! He was still just a kid! Usnavi felt his heart rate begin to grow, and Pete, sensing the imminent danger, tried to do damage control.
"Nah, nah, man, I'm just jokin'! Ya see, Sonny, er, I…we, uh..it was just a joke, Usnavi! I wouldn't ever take advantage of the kid like that-"
"You and Sonny?"
"Man, look, er…" Pete rubs the back of his neck, avoiding Usnavi's eyes. "I…can we talk about this in private or some shit? I, uh…"
"Usnavi!" Nina's voice joins the conversation, as she looks at Pete, shooting daggers into his eyes. "Pete, maybe go check on Sonny-"
"Enough, Usnavi." Nina nods to her husband, and Benny, being sensible enough to listen to his wife, takes Pete firmly by the upper arm and begins to steer him away from the angry man, who is trying to calm down, taking deep breaths. Nina stands in front of him, holding him by the shoulders. Even though Nina and Usnavi are close to the same age, Usnavi is still a good few inches taller than her, but it's Nina who has control of the situation.
"Look, we didn't tell you cause we know you'd react this way."
"He's just a kid, Nina!" Usnavi explodes, pulling away. "I don't give a shit he's gay, but you can't just let Pete take advantage-"
"He's not taking advantage of him, Usnavi!" Nina exclaims, blocking his path. "I've seen them and they're very good. I never told you because I knew you'd react like this!"
"The guy is trouble, Nina, plain and simple! If Pete touches him, I swear-"
"Sonny isn't a kid anymore, Usnavi!"
"Yeah? He's 18! He's still a kid, and he's my cousin!"
"Yeah? Where were you for the past two years?"
"I know what I'm doing, Usnavi, I'm a defense lawyer," Nina replies, looking at him. The lines on her face are so much more prominent, due to stress. But she seems much more, well, herself. The last time he saw Nina, she was confused about what to do, who she was, and more importantly, her place in this world. Ever since he left, she seems to have found where she belongs. "Anyway, this isn't about Sonny, this is about Vanessa."
"She's in trouble, Usnavi. And she needs you."