I was homesick. Campus life would be “an adjustment,” my mother concluded after our cell phone counseling session. Her solution? Suck it up—at least for a little bit. Only a fifteen-minute drive separates me from my hometown of Bristol, Connecticut. But when you have lain snug in the warmth of your cocoon for twenty years, separation from comfort is devastation to the homebody. Living in the oldest residence hall on campus with no air conditioning and rumors of a possible haunting (seriously, the paranormal investigation club wanted to stage a ghost hunt), I felt distant from the “college girl” expectation I had dreamt for myself.
One sweat-soaked morning during the first week of classes, I trudged down the steps in my groggy haze of post-alarm aggravation. My lids were weighed down with the burden of an 8:00 a.m. class when I heard the faintest sound of singing in the lobby. Who the hell could be happy enough to sing at such an ungodly hour? Tucked in the stairwell stood a tan, bald man with a mop in his hand. The movements of the handle mimicked the sway of his hips as he looked up excitedly,
“Good morning!” he exclaimed, his voice thick, still dancing.
“Good morning.” I tried to wring out any energy from the cup of instant coffee I had just guzzled down. He looked at me and continued dancing, lost in his own melodies.
Whether I was entrenched in an exhausted stupor or trying to snatch one moment of happiness, I began moving my feet back and forth, a clumsy shuffle, as I swiveled my hips and whirled my hands.
“Ayy, ayyy!” he began to laugh and shout. That was my first “Hello” to Domingo. A year later, and he’s still my favorite dance partner.
Domingo Alicea, a custodial shift leader at the Mildred Barrows Residence Hall of Central Connecticut State University, left his home in Caguas, Puerto Rico in 1979 at eighteen to move to the States. As one out of thirteen children, he relied on his sister, who already lived in the Bronx, and found a job in 1981 at a factory. I asked him how he adjusted to the city life.
“One month,” he said, raising his finger in the air, “I had no friends for one month. Then I found someone that spoke Spanish—I made friends.”
The bright lights of New York City guided many to the bustling boroughs, and by the 1980s, Puerto Ricans had taken quite the bite out of the Big Apple. Painting the neighborhoods with their own red, white, and blue heritage, Puerto Ricans brought the island to the mainland. While Lady Liberty crooned to her huddling masses, the city streets vibrated with the pulse of reggaeton. Puerto Ricans kept time not by counting the New York minutes, but in rhythms, the beats of the bomba marking the passing hours.
In a city of fragments: bouts of beeping horns, pieces of music invading the street, and bits of residual conversations floating about, how does one feel whole? Domingo danced, and he never stopped.
Domingo went from dancing on 167th Grand Concourse in the Bronx to clubs like Lambada on Maple Ave when he moved to Hartford, CT in 1997. New York City could no longer provide him the opportunities that he had left the island for. Hartford’s slow drain of white faces was replaced by other ethnic groups. Puerto Ricans took up a rather large chunk of the population; the streets became lined with their restaurants, dance clubs, and even a Puerto Rican parade which begins on the intersection of Main and Albany.
Domingo started working at CCSU in 1998 at Sheridan Hall for ten months before moving to the all-female dorm of Mildred Barrows. While my stomach ached for a home cooked meal, my heart bled for Domingo. Here I was sobbing over a fifteen-minute drive while Domingo left his home over a thousand miles away. Then, he landed himself in the midst of a predominantly white, English-speaking campus in an all-girls dorm. I wondered if he ever missed his beloved mother and siblings or browning his skin on the beaches of Caguas or the salty taste of his favorite dish, marisco.
“No, no” he said shaking his head “I like it here. Everybody knows me!”
And it’s true, everyone knows Domingo whether you live in Barrows Hall or not. But in Barrows, he has assumed the role of father figure among the two hundred and thirty girls. Everyone knows his dance moves, his bellowing laugh, and the clap of his hands when he’s excited to see you. When I knew that Domingo would be waiting to greet me, 8:00 am classes became (slightly) more tolerable. We danced together; it was our routine. He would see me, smack his hands together, shout “Baile!” and we would be off in our own nightclub, getting lost in the music we made for ourselves.
As the semester continued, my calls to home gradually became less and less frequently, the feeling of homesickness dissipating with every morning dance. We communicated in hip swivels, foot shuffling, and arm waving. The dancing became our hello, our goodbye, our thank you. It became something familiar, something consistent; I could always count on Domingo to be there, the echoes of his voice reverberating through the stairwell.
He grew even more excited when I tried to regurgitate the contents of my four years of high school Spanish to him.
“Como estás?” he greeted me every morning.
I replied, “Estoy muy cansada” (I am tired) or “Estoy tarde” (late). Before I could run off to my class, he never failed to chastise me, “Where’s your coat! Hace frío! You’ll catch a cold.” “Why is your hair wet? Está nevando! You’re going to freeze.”
Like a dismissive daughter, I would wave him off. “I’ll be fine.” But never annoyed me; if there’s anything I’ve learned from my mother, it’s that a lecture was a sign of care, not criticism.
I see Domingo’s life in snapshots. Photos whirl as his fingers glide across the screen of his iPhone. He shows me the Puerto Rican flag, his apartment in Hartford, and a bottle of Hennessey. Every Friday, he used to raise his hands to his mouth as if he were grasping a bottle,
“You drink this weekend?” he questioned as he sipped his imaginary beer.
I smiled, “Si, mucha Corona. Cerveza mas fina.” He always knew my answer, but his smile stretched with surprise as he raised his eyebrows.
“You be careful or your friends are gonna have to carry you!”
The pictures that Domingo couldn’t wait to show me were of the trip he took for three weeks this past summer with his wife. Santo Domingo was a vacation he had planned for months—turquoise water lapping his bronzed legs, rows of pastel houses like cupcakes that frosted the street, and the palm trees hunched over him, their leaves wide with welcome. He told me he loved it there, and would buy a house for him and his wife (and of course, his mother) to live if he ever won the lottery,
“I scratch every Monday and Wednesday, but I don’t win.”
A video of his dance moves with his wife pops up for about five minutes. His wife is sweet; we’ve FaceTimed. He met her while strolling the Bronx streets, seizing the fleeting second with—what else—his conversational charm. When he tells me the story, he shapes his fingers and thumb to mimic the form of a talking mouth as he taps them together; “Rapidamente!” he exclaims—the fast talker. She lives in New York City with her sons. Domingo longs to piece together his family divided by state borders. He shows me more pictures of his wife’s crowded living room, smiling onlookers admiring him and his wife’s bachata dancing prowess.
Domingo and I wait for the weekend. His visits to the city depend on his budget, but my mom picks me up for free. He waits for 6:30 pm, but I can leave at two. He will wait for ten years, when he can retire, but I graduate next year. Domingo will last through the protests, the roommate conflicts, the multi-million dollar building projects, and even the residents themselves. His complete embrace of the unknown will score him new dance partners, but that’s fine with me because “that’s just Domingo,” as the girls say. He’ll wake you up at 8:30 in the morning banging the vacuum against the door, but he’ll look out for you when you forget to look after yourself.
On Domingo’s office walls lies a timeline of Barrows. The fashion trends, side ponytails, pink polo shirts, all on display for those whom he invites in (which is usually everyone). There’s even a photo of the two of us on the day he got new glasses and I said we were twins. He insisted on a picture. Like a Dad in his office, he placed it right in the center of the family photo album. During RA training this past summer, one of the new RAs in Barrows came up to me half-laughing, half-concerned, “You know, you’re in Domingo’s office. Right on his wall.”
“I was the one who printed it out,” I replied with a hint of defense. Maybe she would be lucky enough to be asked to have the next dance.