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Emoni Santiago’s life has always been about making the tough decisions. She has her daughter to worry about, after all, and will do anything to take care of her abuela. The one place she can let all that go is in the kitchen. Even though she dreams of working as a chef, Emoni knows that it’s not worth her time to pursue the impossible. Right? Find out in this week's FIRST5 pick!!
“When Life Gives You Lemons,
Make Lemon Verbena Tembleque”
Serves: Your heart when you are missing someone you love.
Two cans of coconut milk
Handful of white sugar
Four shakes of cornstarch
Pinch of salt
Bunch of lemon verbena leaves
Bunch of vanilla beans
Cinnamon, enough to garnish
1. In a saucepan, heat coconut milk until it comes to a boil. Muddle a bunch of lemon verbena leaves and vanilla beans and add to the heated coconut milk. Let steep.
2. After fifteen minutes, mix the infused coconut milk, salt, sugar, and cornstarch. Stir the mixture until the cornstarch is completely dissolved. Let the combined ingredients come to a boil and keep stirring until the mixture begins getting pudding thick.
3. Pour into a big cereal bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Place in the refrigerator for five hours.
4. After removing the mixture from the cereal bowl mold, sprinkle with cinnamon.
*Best eaten cold while daydreaming about palm trees and listening to an Héctor Lavoe classic.
Babygirl doesn’t even cry when I suck my teeth and undo her braid for the fourth time. If anything, I’m the one on the verge of tears, since at this rate we’re both going to be late.
“Babygirl, I’m sorry. I know it hurts. Mommy just doesn’t want you looking a hot mess.”
She seems unfazed by my apology, probably because thing (1) I’m not braiding tight enough to actually hurt her (which is why her hair is all loosey-lopsided!), and thing (2) Babygirl is watching Moana. And she loves Moana. So long as I let her watch Moana she’ll let me play with her hair till kingdom come. Thank goodness Angelica lets me use her Netf lix account. I lean a little closer to the edge of the sofa so I can snatch up the baby hairs at the front of her head. This is the hardest part, and I have to start the braid tight and small to get it right.
“Emoni, vete. It’s time for you to head out. I’ll fix her hair.”
I don’t even look over at ’Buela standing by the staircase that leads to the two bedrooms upstairs. “I got it, ’Buela. I’m almost done.”
“You’re going to be late for school.”
“I know, but . . .” I trail off and it turns out I don’t have to say it, because in her way ’Buela always understands.
She walks over and picks up the comb from where I set it on the couch. “You wish you could be the one taking her.”
I nod and bite my bottom lip. I worked so hard to get Babygirl into a good daycare, and despite a long wait list I kept calling and stopping by Mamá Clara’s, the woman who runs the childcare, until she snuck us into an opening. Now that Babygirl is actually going I’m freaking out. In her entire two years on earth, Babygirl has never not been with family. I braid to the very tip of her hair. The design is simple, some straight backs with a pink hair tie at the end that matches Babygirl’s outfit: little white collared shirt and pink pullover. She looks adorable. I wasn’t able to buy her more than three new outfits for daycare, but I’m glad I splurged on this one.
I pull Babygirl’s chair around so we are face-to-face, but I catch her trying to sneak a peek at Moana from the corner of her eye. Even though my chest is tight, I giggle. Babygirl might still be young, but she’s also learning to be real slick.
“Babygirl, Mommy needs to go to school. You make sure you’re nice to the other kids and that you pay attention to Mamá Clara so you learn a lot, okay?” Babygirl nods as if I just gave her the most serious Jada Pinkett Smith success speech. I hug her to my stomach, making sure not to nuzzle her too tight and fuzz up the braids I spent an hour doing. With a final kiss on her forehead, I take a deep breath and grab my book bag off the sofa, making sure to wipe down the plastic cover so ’Buela doesn’t get annoyed with me.
“’Buela, don’t forget her snacks. Mamá Clara said we need to supply them every day. Oh, and her juice! You know she gets fussy.” As I walk past ’Buela, I lean in real hush-hush. “And I also packed a little bottle of water. I know she doesn’t like it as much, but I don’t want her only drinking sugary stuff, you know?”
’Buela looks like she’s trying to swallow a smile as she puts a soft hand on my back and guides me toward the front door.
“Look at you trying to give me lessons on parenting. Nena, please! Like I didn’t raise you! And your father.” ’Buela gives my back a squeeze, smooths the hair bunned up high on my head. “She’s going to be fine, Emoni. You make sure that you have a good first day of school. Be nice to the other kids. Learn a lot.”
I lean against her for a quick second and inhale her signature vanilla scent. “Bendición, ’Buela.”
“Que Dios te bendiga, nena.” She swats me on the booty and opens the front door. The sounds of West Allegheny Avenue rush in to greet me: cars honking, buses screeching to a stop, rapid Spanglish yelled from the corners as people greet one another, and mothers calling out last-minute instructions to their kids from open windows. The door closes behind me and for a second my breath catches in sync with the lock. Every simple love in my life is behind this one wooden door. I press my ear against it and hear a clap of hands, then ’Buela says in a high, cheery voice, “Okay, Baby Emma! Today you’re going to be a big girl!”
I pull the straps of my backpack tighter. Give myself that same pep talk as I race down the stairs: Okay, Emoni. Today? Time to be a big girl.
I wanted to give Babygirl a nice name. The kind of name that doesn’t tell you too much before you meet her, the way mine does. Because nobody ever met a white girl named Emoni, and as soon as they see my name on a résumé or college application they think they know exactly what kind of girl they getting. They know way more about me than they need to know, and shit—I mean, shoot—information ain’t free, so my daughter’s name isn’t going to tell anybody any information they didn’t earn. That’s why I fought Tyrone tooth and nail to name her Emma.
“You just want her name to have the same letters as yours.” Tyrone is a whiner.
“No. I want her name to sound less like either of ours,” I said, and I don’t remember if I kissed Babygirl’s infant cheek or not. But I know in that moment I felt this huge emotion; I wanted to do whatever I could to give my daughter the best opportunity in the world. And although our names do have similar letters, mine is full of silverware-sharp sounds: E-Mah-Nee. Hers is soft, rolls off the tongue like a half-dreamed murmur.
Anyhow, Tyrone was late on the day I filled out the birth certificate, so Emma it was. I know a name alone can’t guarantee new opportunities, but at the very least it’ll give her a chance to get in the room, to let other people realize she’s someone they want to learn more about.
Angelica waits on the corner for me the way she has since elementary school. Her long dark hair has streaks the same bright red as her lipstick. She shuff les from foot to foot in the tightest leggings I have ever seen on a body.
I stop halfway to her and pretend to do a double take. “Girl, you about to give these boys a show! And it’s only the first day,” I say as she swoops her arm through mine and we walk in the direction of the bus stop.
“Girl, you know I ain’t concerned with those boys. The ladies, on the other hand? I was social-media creeping and the summer did wonders for a lot of these jawns!”
I laugh and shake my head. “Does Laura know what she’s gotten herself into?”
Angelica smiles and for a second she looks like the angel she’s named after. “Aww, my boo knows I only look and don’t touch. I just want her to know I can leave if I want to. I got options!”
Angelica officially came out last year and once she’d dusted the closet lint off her Air Maxes, she never looked back. A couple of months after coming out at home and at school, she met Laura at a graphic design workshop held for teens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her girl Laura is built like the Vikings she says she’s descended from: tall, thick-shouldered, and with an artist’s gentle hands that I knew would take care of my best friend’s heart.
“Man, whatever. I see all your posts about Laura. If you and that girl take another cutesy kissy picture, I’m going to delete my account. Actually, I’m going to hack in and delete yours!”
“Don’t hate, Emoni. Is Tyrone still being a dick?”
I swat her on the arm. “This is why I don’t let you around Babygirl; you have such a potty mouth.”
“And you don’t?” She gives me one of her pursed-lips looks.
“Yes, but I picked it up from you. And I’ve been working on it.” I accidentally slipped in front of Babygirl a few weeks ago and almost died when I heard her saying “sh-sh-sh” as if practicing the word. I've cut out my cursing since.
“How is my niece? I haven’t seen her since . . . when? Saturday?” We laugh. Despite her potty mouth, Angelica is great with Babygirl and always comes in clutch when either ’Buela or I can’t watch her. Now that Babygirl’s two, ’Buela insists that I have to take on more responsibility in raising her. Which I don’t mind, since Babygirl is the coolest kid on the block. It’s just hard juggling work, her, and now the new school year, without ’Buela taking on the big role she took the first two years of her life. And although I don’t say it, I don’t have to; Tyrone is still being a dick—an ass—a prick. Who uses the word prick?
“Hello! Emoni, are you listening?” Angelica snaps her fingers in my face.
“Sorry . . . I spaced out for a second. What’d you say?”
Angelica sighs dramatically. Anytime Angelica sighs, it’s dramatically. “You never listen to me anymore.”
I unhook my arm from hers. “Get out of here with that mess. All I do is listen to you.”
“I was asking about the dinner you left for me and Babygirl when I babysat. What’d you call it?”
“Pollo guisado—stewed chicken. Was it good?” Angelica’s been eating at my house since we were little girls, but since I always tweak what I cook, it’s never the same thing twice. “I thought I might have messed up when I added in the collards at the end. They weren’t in the original recipe.”
“It was so good. I was wondering if you could make it for Laura and me. Six-month anniversary coming up in a month! I was thinking we could do a romantic dinner at my house since my moms is going to be out of town.”
“Dinner at home is never romantic, Gelly,” I say. The bus pulls up and we climb on with the rest of the people who, like us, are going to school and work near Yorktown and Fairmount and even farther south into Center City.
“Dinner at home will be romantic if it’s catered by you!” We find a place to stand and hold on to the straps above us as the bus begins the jerky ten-minute ride.
“Now I’m a caterer? You’re lucky I love you.”
“No. I’m lucky you love to cook, and you never turn down an opportunity to practice on your friends. Chef Emoni Santiago, next Chopped champion!”
I laugh and pull my phone out to take notes for Gelly’s dinner.