"Come Together, Fall Apart," p.177
The novella and eight short stories in this collection take place in Panama during the late 1980s when the country was experiencing unrest and instability under the rule and American-led overthrow of Manuel Noriega.
Henriquez’s characters, ranging from adolescents to the elderly, are everyday Panamanians who remain intensely human in their relationships and family conflicts even as uncertain change threatens life as they know it. They experience love, rejection, commitment, infidelity, closeness, estrangement, divorce, abuse, solitude, and grief--all against a backdrop of a country in turmoil where revolutionaries sell weapons on the street, looters take advantage of the opportunity to steal, and car bombs explode intermittently.
"Teetering on the edge of a cliff"
“We were all scared in those days,” Ramon, the adolescent narrator of “Come Together, Fall Apart” begins the novella. “Noriega was on his way to collapse and already the chaos had started.” (p.199). During this turbulent time in his life and his country, Ramon experiences young love and rejection; displacement from his childhood home; loss of his father, who chooses to end his life rather than be uprooted; and ostracism of his mother by other family members, who blame her for failing to prevent her husband’s suicide.
When Panama officially declares war, Ramon describes his feelings and undoubtedly those of many Panamanians:
“Before that, every moment had felt like waiting. As though we were all, as a country, teetering on the edge of a cliff. We were peering down; we were holding our breath. We were on the brink of something, but we were waiting for some signal, some gust of wind to push us forward, to catapult us into action, into change. It came then. And we all, I think, wanted to believe that whether we jumped or fell, there would be something there to catch us, that things would be better once it was over.” (p. 243)
The adolescent girl in “Wide Pale Ocean” is torn between the closeness she has always felt for her mother and her newfound interest in a teenage boy. And in “Come Together, Fall Apart” Ramon has to face the painful truth that the adolescent girl he adores prefers his best friend.
In “Drive” the protagonist describes her feelings when she is out walking on night and sees her estranged father sitting on a bench:
“It’s the strangest feeling whenever I see him—like seeing the love of your life the one who left you, when you’re just out doing errands, trying to keep up with the business of the everyday. You half want to run and jump on them and bury your face in their neck and hold on forever and you half want to turn away, shielding yourself.” As her father pleads with her for money, she realizes “we’re staring at each other under the moon but to him I’m just anybody.” (p. 70).
The young daughter in “Beautiful” who feels so lucky to “have two parents to kiss me good night” when her estranged father returns home becomes frightened and deeply confused when she discovers he is a child abuser. The estrangement of the daughter in “Wide Pale Ocean” from her father, whom she has never met (“His name was Ronaldo and he was better at the merengue than the tango, but that was all I knew.” (p. 156)), fosters a very close bond with her mother that becomes threatened when she reaches adolescence and starts to discover boys.
The family relationship in “Come Together, Fall Apart” begins to “crumble” just like buildings all over Panama during the American invasion when the father makes the decision to stay in his home as it is being demolished rather than be displaced. Although his wife reluctantly honors his request, other family members blame her for not preventing his suicide.
“Something swells inside me, something hateful and thick and hurtful and sad, and at that moment more than anything else in the world I want to get as far away from him as I can. I want to sink to the middle of the earth, I want to float out to the middle of the ocean.” (p. 124)
Equally powerful is this young narrator’s ability to overcome this horrendous experience by cutting off the hair that her father pulled so hard to hold her down she could feel it breaking from her scalp.
“And before I know it, I am standing, with the door locked, in the bathroom, up on the wooden step stool, looking in the small, wavy mirror. I am cutting it all off, as close to the roots as I can get and promising myself that he will never never never again be able to hold me like that. I cut the millions of rivers of hair until it’s all dried up and washed out and can be filled with nothing but wind. Little by little, I feel the fire cool.” (p. 125)
Even though the narrator’s mother is angered that her daughter has “ruined” her hair and her father asks quietly, “‘Who did this to you?’”, no one can take away the daughter’s feeling of confidence that she is “more beautiful than ever,” protected by the wall she has built around herself that her father can never again penetrate (p. 128)
Cristina Henriquez's Writing Style
“Most memories might be like water, but some are like wood—solidly there that you can feel them and smell them and wrap your hands around them, and for a hundred years they will never go away.” (p. 65)
“I am a caterpillar and a butterfly at the same time—unsure of the attention, wanting to stay hidden, but also feeling like I’ve broken into a new life where I am more glittering and confident and have left the other one behind.” (p. 121)
From “The Box House and the Snow”
“Then, all at once, millions of snowflakes burst from the murky sky and fluttered to the earth. It was a pillow ripping open. It was a silent, exploding firework. It was as if God had been collecting mounds and fistfuls and armfuls of snow for centuries, and finally, could hold the white flakes no more. He tore a seam in the fabric of heaven and sent the snowflakes scampering forth.” (p. 181)
Henriquez also ends her stories with powerful images: a marriage proposal written in the sand with a stick (“Yanina”); a daughter sitting on the rocks overlooking a bay holding her mother’s cremation urn, “letting my fingertips graze the dust” (“Ashes”); a woman who has just miscarried realizing that “nothing is ever really lost. Even if you can’t find it, even if you can’t hold it in your thin, tired arms, it’s always somewhere.” (“Drive,” pp. 81-82); a mother and daughter floating in the water “lost to everything but each other.” (“The Wide, Pale Ocean,” p. 177); and a granddaughter whose parents are divorcing crawling in bed between her grandparents in search of connection (“Mercury”).
About Cristina Henriquez
Henriquez earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her father is a native of Panama who immigrated to the United States in 1971. Similar to the young protagonist in “Mercury,” Henriquez visited her grandparents in Panama every summer as she was growing up.