I rush to pick up Tati from preschool, wondering how long this one’s going to last and whether the dictator will blame a cable-eating iguana again. We join all the people spilling out of shut-down metro stations like ants, paying for the sun’s brightness with our sweat. I grip Tati’s hand—hopefully not too tight—as we weave in and out of mostly empty stores, looking for precious ice to save the food we have at home from rotting. Only the lucky few with foreign currency on hand can afford that luxury. (We are one of the lucky few—just barely.) Finally, I slide my last ten-dollar bill across a counter and get some frozen water in return. Goodbye, Alexander Hamilton.
By the time we get home, the power is back. And our microwave is fried.
I stuff the marked-up bag of melting ice inside our freezer and lie down next to Tati while the air conditioning blows on our overheated bodies, offering some artificial comfort.
Is it still a blackout if light flickers in and out, in and out, in and out, teasing, torturing?
“We have to turn off the breakers!” I call out to my dad. My pocketbook—and psyche—cannot handle any more ruined appliances.
I tell him he should go home before it gets dark, but he insists on staying. It’s late Saturday evening, and the sun is still refusing to set. We sit by the open window and eat ham sandwiches that taste of bug spray.
“Why can’t I open the fridge, Mami?” Tati asks me.
I try to explain about perishable food. She listens, and rattles off her favorite foods, asking if they are pah-rah-sha-ble. Chocolate milk? Yes. Chocolate? No—though it will quickly melt in this heat.
When night comes, neighbors start banging pots and cursing the dictator. I want to join their chorus, but I try not to curse around Tati. And anyway, what’s the point of yelling his name into the darkness? The hum of his electric generator will just drown out our voices. Below, young people dance and drink around a bonfire. A woman’s scream in the distance is cut short.
Tati asks what’s happening. I hug her close and tell her, and myself, not to worry. It might just be for my benefit, but she nods. Her hair still smells of shampoo: clean, pure. When she gets up to go to the bathroom, I remind her not to flush the toilet.
“Why?” she asks.
“There’s no electricity to pump up water all the way up to the 11th floor,” I say matter-of-factly. I keep having to teach my daughter unexpected lessons.
I check my phone every so often, shutting the screen off as quickly as I can. But the phone still dies and I still know nothing. The apartment smells of days’ worth of our unflushed piss and shit. No power means no water means no dignity.
My body craves a long shower, but the best I can give it is a washcloth and a bucket. I scrub hard, feeling sorry for myself as I salvage the dirty water that washes off me so I can use it to flush the toilet. At least we’re being environmentally friendly.
Somehow, that “bath” and that “flush” make me feel better, just a bit, and I finally agree to join Tati in a game of War. But my bad mood has infected her.
“Come on, Tati,” I say, holding out the deck of cards. “Let’s play.”
“I don’t want to anymore,” she says, hugging her knees into her body.
“You can’t just sit there and sulk.”
She doesn’t flinch, not even to swat away the mosquito circling her head, and I want to join her in sulking. Instead I sit down in front of her and shuffle the deck.
“Pick out a card, any card. Go on—just don’t show it to me.” Tati looks at me with guarded interest. I keep holding out the deck until she finally bites. “Now memorize the card. Picture it in your mind. You got it?”
She nods timidly, and I ask her to slide the card back in, face down. I squint and make a big show of looking through the deck until the dramatic reveal.
“Is this it?”
Her eyes widen, and she stands up.
“Mami! How’d you do that?”
Despite the dictator’s worst attempts, I can still make my daughter believe in magic.
Tati runs from her room to the kitchen.
“Mami, turn off the breakers now!” she yells, her little face scrunched up with adult worry. I hope she doesn’t notice what that does to me.
The last blackout—the Big One—lasted almost four days and even had its own trending hashtag (I later learned). That time the dictator talked of an electromagnetic war being waged by hackers from the Yankee empire. But not of living in your own stink or throwing away rotted food you’d stood in line for hours to buy. Not of the savage looting and the terror it brought. Not of the people who took water from broken pipes and open sewers and contaminated rivers. Not of the children in hospitals without backup generators who died.
That afternoon, Tati nestles into my armpit and dozes off. Her body feels warm, maybe too warm. I rest the back of my hand on her forehead and lie awake fantasizing about ways the dictator could die. I visualize at least a dozen scenarios: a sniper puncturing his bloated body with utmost precision, his face turning pallid from poisoned after-dinner whiskey, a surging mob trampling him as they curse his name…, until the filaments in the lightbulb overhead start glowing again.
“Thank God,” I mutter. Gratitude congeals into rage, but I remain perfectly still, so as not to rouse Tati. The light wakes her up anyway. I pretend I’m asleep when she gets up to celebrate the good news.
Tati and I are riding up on the elevator to our apartment when suddenly, the blackness envelops us. It feels like my organs drop first before the rest of my body follows. I pick Tati up and squeeze her to my chest, as if I can absorb the impact of the fall for both of us.
“I’m so sorry,” I whisper into her neck, waking up just as we’re about to hit the ground.
My eyes are open, but the nightmare is not over—everything is still pitch black. I decide I won’t let Tati get on elevators anymore. Or ride the metro. Or even go to the movies. These are all a game of Russian roulette now. The bedsheets stick to my body as I try, in vain, to go back to sleep.
I’m sick in bed with chikungunya, pinned down by pain so strong it seems to be splitting my joints apart. According to the internet, “the disease rarely results in death; those must vulnerable are the elderly, newborns, and young children”. That gives me little comfort. Tati is in the living room with my dad. I’m not contagious, but the mosquitos that buzz around our emergency buckets of water might be. If either of them were to get sick—.
A hot-and-cold despair spreads through my insides. I try to calm myself down by remembering so many others have it worse than us. But it’s a dangerous thought—won’t there always be someone who’s worse off, somehow, somewhere? Am I just accepting the unacceptable, until one day it’s too late? Also dangerous: I don’t notice the smell from the unflushed toilets as much anymore.
Tati started kindergarten but has only gone to school eight days this month. We are hostages inside our home, alone with the heat and mosquitos and boredom.
“Why can’t we go outside?” Tati whines, her face flushed and shiny.
I look out the window at our once-bustling city that is now stuck in a perpetual state of Sunday. It’s only been six months since our microwave died, but we’ve both aged so much more in that time span.
“It’s not safe,” I say.
“But why?” And after no answer from me: “When are things gonna be normal again?”
How do I tell her that I have no way of knowing?
I remember the night I spent imagining and reimagining the dictator’s death and feel defeated. That’s not the kind of person I am.
“Please be quiet,” I say, too tired to mother. Maybe it’s just the lingering fatigue from the chikungunya. I see the hurt in her eyes and I hate myself for it.
I hope God will forgive me; I hope I will forgive God.
When the water comes back just after midnight, we rush to fill every bottle, bucket, pot, jar, and old Chinese takeout container. This is our new routine. We don’t even care that the water is increasingly a murky brown.
Tati waves the mosquitoes away while I work, wanting to help even though she should be asleep for school tomorrow (assuming it will open). My dad—whose curved back isn’t supposed to lift anything heavy—strains to keep up. I wish I could just work alone, or not at all. But those choices are not available to me.
The blackouts don’t make headlines anymore, but by now I’ve seen slum kids bathing and playing in sewage waters with my own eyes. I’ve ridden past them on my way to work, just like I’ve ridden past dirty children scrounging through trash and begging for food. Long ago, the dictator had promised we’d one day be able to swim in the river-turned-sewage-drainage that cuts through our city. Funny how his words came true.
I am thinking of all the children the dictator has hurt while I wait for a bucket to finish filling, when I notice the stream slowing, thinning. I twist the handle further, until it won’t twist anymore, but that does nothing to the waning water pressure. Just then, Tati runs to hand me a two-liter bottle to fill and trips over the bucket.
All that precious liquid wasted.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” I yell, kicking the empty bucket against the wall. “Why do you have to make everything more difficult?”
My dad helps Tati up. But she’s already kneeling back down, using her little hands for the impossible task of saving the water, gulping down her tears like they’re made of the chocolate milk I haven’t been able to buy her in I don’t know how long.
I leave the apartment and wait in the stairwell for my pent-up screams to dissipate inside my throat. If I were to scream aloud, only Tati and my dad would truly hear me—everyone else would just pretend nothing had happened.
I have no idea how much time has passed before I go back in.
I started keeping these notes so I wouldn’t forget. One day we (or someone, if we all die before the darkness ends) will look back at these days and say there were blackouts. We/they will use words like “humanitarian crisis” but we/they won’t remember what that truly meant. I know because I already want to forget the details of what we’ve endured, for my own sanity. But I won’t let the dictator get off that easy. I must keep writing.
What’s that adage my mom used to say before she died?
There’s no evil that lasts a hundred years, nor anybody that can bear it that long.
It’s a storybook kind of Sunday, so I offer to take Tati to the beach. I even convince my dad to go. We slowly, carefully make our way down the 11 flights of stairs, three generations.
When I was a kid, I loved seeing that first glimpse of the ocean, so blue and expansive. Now I like to see Tati’s face taking it in. Even just a few hours away from the city, nature is still nature, and aside from a trio of emaciated dogs roaming around, the beach is just as idyllic as I remember it. Tati’s eyes brighten with anticipation. I wonder if she’ll remember this day when she’s my age.
After taking a dip in the sea, Tati starts to build a sandcastle. I love how the sand glistens on her skin, how her salt-laced curls spiral perfectly, how hard she concentrates on everything she does. She is perfect, my daughter. I must find a way to give her something more than survival.
“Want any help with that castle?” I ask.
She shakes her head, droplets of water dotting the sand around her. “It’s not a castle,” she says. “It’s a new house for us, without any stairs.”
She turns away from me and gets back to work.