This cafe underneath the pho restaurant only exists as part of a recurring dream, the sequence of events the same until I get to what I have to order. I decide to try something different each time I’m in Palisades Park, knowing that my return home is temporary. The wooden chairs and books on shelves in the arrangements I remember from two years ago, college students still poring over their laptops at any hour you enter. I usually pass through town fresh from the dentist's office, with too many cavities filled.
The first time I came back to Palisades Park after an appointment, I ordered a peach bubble tea, a departure from the milk tea I had when I lived here. When I wait for my drink, I peer up at the new ones listed above the register and notice that they’ve added soy milk. In middle school, Eva, Rachel and I made this spot ours, coming every Friday. Rachel, being the Palisades native, had our orders memorized in Korean, it made the trip quicker and made the glances at my tan face and strong brow less severe, gave some of the elderly women fewer chances to decipher why I was there if I couldn’t read half the menu. Eva, having moved from Oregon in fourth grade with Korean-American parents who refused to teach her the language, rarely spoke in restaurants either. Once, I entered a dumpling shop I frequented with two of my friends who were visiting from out of town. When I’d indicated to the cashier that I was ready to check out, she narrowed her gaze and then turned her head towards one of her employees sweeping the floor. You, you’re like him, she’d said, you must speak Spanish too. I replied, yes, but refused to utter another word.
The barista leaves the plastic cup on the counter and places a straw at its side, signaling me to take what I paid for. I tip her like a good tourist and walk out the door to my mom’s car parked on the side of the café. As I settle into my seat, I receive a text from Eva telling me that she isn’t at home and wouldn’t be able to catch me this time. Next time, of course, I tell her, next time.
On the ride away from home to Saddle Brook, the suburb my parents had chosen over living another year here, I look out the window and count with the street signs, first, second, third, until we’re on the highway. The town’s layout follows a grid system New York-adjacents know by heart. However, I notice that there’s more glass duplexes than last time. You could get lost in them, fascinated by how quickly and numerously they spring up. According to economic reports from last year, Palisades Park is part of many fast-growing commuter areas close to the George Washington Bridge. During the 2000 census, the population was recorded at 17,073, but by the 2010 census, the municipality saw an increase of more than 2, 500 residents, a 17.5% increase. Most of those people survived by emptying their pockets for riverside condos. The downtown feels like a crumb compared to the city next to it, lights that don’t pollute all that much and karaoke bars usually filled with high-schoolers trying to sing oldies and get past ID checks. Most outsiders don’t settle, and make a mockery of how all the signs are in Korean and how all the Hispanics must dwell on the slummy side of town. I believe they point to my parents, my father especially. He works with oiled hands, fixing trucks at the diesel repair shop he saved for years to own. José Luis Vargas lives a gentrifier's worst nightmare, and he indulges in it. The 20 and 30-somethings wishing to escape from Manhattan rent prices only see my home as a stop on reaching their personal pinnacle of millennial success, at some fortune 500 in the city, they do not wish to return.
Home has a history rest-stop brochures can’t do justice. Unlike Saddle Brook, which was part of a triage of towns that divided themselves from the nearest majority Black and Latinx city, East Paterson becoming Elmwood Park, West Paterson becoming Woodland Park. Palisades Park, 20 minutes West was once an unincorporated municipality on the side of the highway until the 1930s, when Italian American immigrants trickled in to avoid increasing rent in Manhattan, the mayor when I still lived there coming from a long line of them. I’m not sure for when things changed for the better, when the town saw a great migration of Korean American immigrants as well. I wouldn’t ever call it a melting pot, more of a stew that you’d kept adding the same ingredients into, but you knew that the onions were still there.
Now, my family does not fit the description of the demographics expected from the cultural epicenter dubbed New Jersey’s Koreatown. They hail from Durango, Mexico, an oddity in Palisades Park even among the small community of Hispanic immigrants, mostly Guatemalan and Salvadoran families whose children moved here around my age. I may have never known the town’s language, but I followed its cadence. The only member of my family born and raised here, knowing no other nation and only one other tongue, not the right one at that. Spanish proved useful everywhere other than Palisades Park. Yet, when I left, I was uprooted.
My parents prefer living in the American Dream. The summer after my freshman year, we left our half of the duplex and the teal bedroom I’d had for ten years, the one I’d begged my parents to paint for my tenth birthday. After all, I’d wanted to leave, they remind me, that’s why I packed my bags and left for New Hampshire for boarding high school instead. I made myself comfortable among marble staircases, red-brick buildings, and the immense wealth of my classmates from around the country. When I go back to New Jersey, I return to a grey bedroom and a marble kitchen and our newly-adopted dog. I became familiar with the names of the cul-de-sacs because I spent the entire summer passing by cape-cod houses with American flags hanging off their porches instead of talking to the neighborhood kids. Once in the eighth grade, I was asked if I lived on Columbia Avenue, the part of town at the edge of the turnpike, where the only set of apartment buildings sat. Where people like my parents, Hispanic immigrants, presumably rented units. I’d shot back with a No, I live uptown on 10th, near Fort Lee. My mother had said to make those who pestered me silent, for they too, wanted to extinguish any rumors that she worked as a maid and that my father spent his afternoons sitting on stoops looking for handiwork. He’d made a life for himself, she’d said, and moving to a blue-collar town signified the fruits of his labor. And I ask, why were they so ashamed of what had been?
The first time I showered in my new house, I wore sandals. It’s the one on the second floor, a reminder that in Palisades Park, it didn’t exist-only one bathroom with a double sink and the door usually locked. I didn’t dare sit down, or lean my head against the marble walls. I’d thought to myself that if I did, all the white picket fences and families with little white dogs with tear-stained eyes would come alive from the documentaries I’d seen about Levittown. I never spoke until the summer after, to two girls I’d met at the park across the street. I realized then that there is a code of conduct in suburbia, a lie so believable that you don’t realize, you build your home on its tongue. You may only call it yours if you’ve lived there for your entire life and do not plan on ever leaving. Yet this summer, I tried to please the kids there, and told them that I'd just baked cookies. Dakota and Aliyah were my age, juniors at the local high school, and lived some blocks away from my house near one of the fields where parents brought their elementary-age children to junior league baseball. Over text, Dakota had told me that both her and Aliyah were Colombian, spoke bits and pieces of Spanish, but had spent their whole lives going to school, making friendships here.
“If you want you can pick some up, on your way back from practice,” I said to Dakota over the phone, leaning it against my shoulder.
I recall looking down at what I wore that day, the lettuce hem shirt, faded jean shorts my mom must've bought at a department store in middle school. Plain enough with some sandals. Even then, I thought, this is formal, they’ll be showing up in cleats, fresh from soccer practice. They’ll be sweaty and I’ll be performing to make myself seem like a bit less of a foreigner. I’ll appear as if I’d moved here last week, the past year wasted in silences and occasional visits to Eva.
“Yeah, I’ll just text you when we’re on our way, see you soon” Dakota said and hung up. Clutching a few cookies in a piece of parchment paper, I went to sit on the stoop facing the street and the identical house opposite mine.
I saw them stroll down the sidewalk before I received any message. When they approached, I handed them their goods and kept my distance at first. Aliyah approached me before Dakota, coming in for a hug as I tried to reciprocate gingerly.
“So you go to a boarding school, right? I looked it up, it’s huge, that’s like, a whole college. Is it like college?” Dakota asked, mouth half on a cookie.
“Yeah, it is, I guess. Lots of freedom, and I don’t really live here most of the time,” I replied. They asked some more, about what I did and if I’d always called Saddle Brook home. Inclined to honesty, I said no and both of them were on the way back to the field.
Unlike my parents, I believe what Jericho Brown says, that there are no nice white people. There definitely aren’t any I’m aware of or have had the pleasure of conversing with in Saddle Brook, even if I know they ask my mom how she’s doing when she waters her garden. During the peak of summer, when I’d spent my days growing older by doing the work adults found themselves incapable of, writing proposals on why Black and Latinx students deserve the bare minimum from my school’s administration, the residents of Saddle Brook amplified the strength of their opposing stance, in which they don’t see color. They flew Trump flags higher than ever and whispered snides to our landlord, how they didn’t think Mexicans should live here. In their driveways, they stuck ‘Defend the police’ stickers on car bumpers.
That summer, everyone became an activist. I kept to myself and refused to feel 2016’s air again, the incessant arguments over Black and brown violence from families who didn’t know a lick about your people’s strife. At my dad’s office five years ago, on a leather couch with the fan rotating across the room, the television in the corner with Trump's first campaign speech played. Rapists, murders, and nothing good to this country, he had said and according to the next door neighbors in Saddle Brook, probably couldn’t pay their rent either. Mike, our landlord, and a friend of my father’s, a lanky Macedonian-American man with a big heart, had let some of his acquaintances live in the apartment attached to our house. A single father and his adult son moved into the one-bedroom above the garage. They made no effort to be even cordial with us, sometimes giving half-hearted waves when they happened to see my mother get groceries. Out of my family’s earshot, Mike would hear their sneers about how some Mexicans couldn’t possibly afford it here.
I do my best not to listen to any rumors from back home, unless Eva’s burning to tell me; only open the door slightly and gingerly as if I were stepping in to retrieve something I’d forgotten. Back then, when boys called me Maria and I asked why they said guat, the epithet they attached to Hispanic immigrants, and heard laughter back. The racial strings between two immigrant communities so knotted that I knew I’d heard both make new derogatory terms, some of mother’s acquaintances reverting to the oldest stereotypes in the book about their own children’s Korean American friends.
At times, I remind myself, I’d felt a unified struggle you only see entertained in the TV shows, ones of solidarity marches and kids disregarding race to play together. On my 7th grade trip to D.C., all the kids in my class had yelled at another group who’d come up to us and started saying ‘hello’ in Japanese and Spanish. None of my classmates were Japanese and only a few spoke the latter, so we jeered calling them rude, gross, racist. A few of my classmates walked behind them, pointing at the MAGA hats worn by twelve year old boys in athletic shorts. We pointed out the small injustices together, I have to tell myself that whenever I return it’s a half-hearted fondness. However, my visits remind me how I treat the place I call home. I was renting time in the café, only there for a few hours every few months.
You can’t ride down the streets in Palisades Park on a bike, I discern, while driving down the hill from the bagel shop after the last dental appointment. I glance at the post-modern wooden condominiums and vintage two-family houses that neighbor each other awkwardly, as if someone had cut out pictures of luxury apartments from a magazine and pasted them in between. This time, Eva texts me as our car approaches the elementary school. She asks to have a Friday like we used to in middle school, with ten 10-dollar bills stuffed in the pockets of our backpacks while running down the hill to the pho shop. I tell my mom to drop me off at Eva’s house five blocks up from Broad Ave, the only street that lays flat and has a consistent sidewalk. But, if you didn’t walk on the side of the road and dodge a few cars incoming from the intersection, it wasn’t an outing. We follow the old, familiar rhythm of our routine, minus Rachel, who’d been absent for the past year or so after she, too, decided on going to the technical high school that offered an art specialization. Yet, we keep the spirit of her presence-race up the plaza buildings’ stairs like Rachel used to, bow to the hostess at the door as I mistakenly hold three fingers up. I motion towards a table near the window. A young waiter approaches us, Eva and I prepare to point to my usual, what I did when Rachel wasn’t there to translate my order.
“Hey, guys, can I get you any tea or water?”
Tea or water, the first I’d been spoken to in English aside from a dishwasher or a man sweeping in the corner. Eva and I both say tea, then allow him to take the orders we knew by number. We slurp noodles between words, catching up on the past three months. She tells me that school hasn’t changed all that much, kids saying slurs they shouldn’t and still averting their eyes as if Medusa roams when they walk on Columbia Avenue. Eva adds that there’s a little less of it since I’ve moved on. At first, I didn't trust her statement, believing that old, especially prejudiced sentiments, take ages to let go of. I let it go after a few minutes, I haven’t sat in a class with her in a couple of years. By the end of the hour, the soup bowls sit empty with chopsticks leaning against the rim. I raise my hand as the waiter walks by and ask him for the check. The bill comes out to an even fifteen for the both of us- authentic restaurants never overcharge. With a ten dollar tip left at the table, I smile at the hostess. Eva and I walk out. The hostess grins back and gives a slight bow.
Published by The Plentitudes. February 2021.