My mom is shouting something. Her voice is big and hoarse and really annoying. I hunch my shoulders till they almost touch my ears. I could hear what it was she was shouting if I turned off my music, but I won’t, so I can’t.
Okay. So she wants me to check in on abuelita. In a minute! Abuelita’s not going anywhere—she uses a walker and an oxygen tank and spends most of her time on the sofa or in bed. My mom doesn’t like her mom, but that’s tough because she’s stuck with her. Just like she’s stuck with me. Mechas says she’d kick me out if I were older, but that’s just Mechas being Mechas. My mom says Mechas es una amargada because she got pregnant with Junior when she was in ninth grade and had to stop going to school and now all she does is stay home with him and Mario and chase Junior’s and Mario’s dads for child support. Mechas was supposed to be the brains of the family. She was my mom’s great big hope, and now look at her: texting her homegirls all day between diapers and Legos and kids’ screaming, trying to jam those thunder thighs into skinny jeans to go out to the park with Junior and Mario in the afternoon and meet up with the ’bangers who hang out there. Fishing for baby number three, is how my mom puts it.
I’m not allowed to go to the park. I’m not allowed to go dances. I’m not allowed to hang out with my friends after school. No, I have to go to “Cuerpo Sano, Mente Sana,” which is a dumbass afterschool program where they make you learn about eating healthy and you play a bunch of lame-o games for little kids. I’m all, dude, that stuff’s for dweebs. My mom, she drags me to her dance circle every week, and that’s exercise enough for me. But that’s one thing I better not complain about because she gets all offended and says I have to learn about mis tradiciones and mi cultura, and if I don’t want to shake my big booty to the four directions with a bunch of rattles tied to my ankles while breathing in hella stinky burning sage, then the least I can do is show some respect and keep my big mouth shut. She’s one to talk! Biggest booty on the West Coast and a voice to match.
Okay, okay, so I go check on abuelita. Abuelita, abuelita, cómo estás? How are you doing, viejita? Do you need anything? She just smiles at me. It’s hard for her to talk in the evening; she’s really tired, even though she doesn’t do nothing all day. Sí, abuelita, just squeeze my hand. Sometimes I get really sad when I think of how she’s shut up here all day with Mechas and Junior and Mario, but my mom says she likes being around the kids; it gives old folks more energy, she says. I don’t know. I think if I were as old and messed up as abuelita I’d hate to see all these healthy young people around. It’d be kind of like they’re showing you all that you used to be and won’t be again and never appreciated and I think that would be really sad. When I get to be old I want to live with people who are even older than me. My mom says that’s a crazy idea because being around only old people is depressing and our tradición is to take care of our elders and respect them and that’s why we don’t put abuelita in a home. Although I know if it weren’t for our puta tradición my mom would’ve put abuelita in a home a long time ago, and I guess her not doing that is something to respect. It’s enough with Mechas and the kids and me, I’m sure. I just get tired of hearing my mom going on and on and patting herself on the back about it.
It rained again. That’s good because we’re in a drought, my mom says, and we need the rain. We’ve treated Mother Earth so badly what with all the buildings and pollution and pesticides and fragging and so Mother Earth is withholding herself, but if we just get back in balance things will be all right again. That’s why my mom tries to buy organic food but it winds up being too expensive so we buy at Casa Michoacán where stuff is cheaper because it’s a day or two away from going bad.
My mom thought when all the gentros came into the neighborhood the price of organic stuff would go down. Supply and demand, mija, she’d say: more demand, more supply, lower prices. But it hasn’t worked out that way—all those fancy little stores popping up on Valencia and spreading now on 24th Street like some kind of rash sell fancy food to the techies and they charge whatever they want because the techies have money to burn, my mom says. They work down the Peninsula and get on their Google buses in the morning and come back on their Google buses at night. Those buses are like refrigerators on wheels, they’re so big and white and smooth. Or they’re like ghosts—they’re so quiet they sneak up on you. You know there’s people in there but you can’t see them because the windows are dark. My mom says they work on their computers and tablets and smartphones while they’re on the bus. I wonder what we look like to them from up there—they’re taller than Muni buses—my mom with her big booty walking next to abuelita, shuffling along with her walker and oxygen tank, and Mechas pushing the stroller and waggling her hips like she was dancing cumbia rather than pushing Junior and Mario in the doublewide stroller.
My mom is convinced her dance circle brought the rain. We’ve been dancing for rain for weeks now, she told me, and praying and making ofrendas to la Madre Tierra. We’re restoring the balance. Puh-leez. How are a bunch of fat old ladies going to bring the rain? It rained for like two days, just enough to clean the air of that yellowish haze you can see hanging over the bay if you go up on the pedestrian bridge over Cesar Chavez Street and look out, and then everything had kind of a fresh smell, like we were starting over or something. It didn’t last.
My dad bailed on us when Mechas and I were little. I barely remember him. We don’t have any photos of him anywhere: not on the refrigerator, not in the glass case with the good dishes and little porcelain dogs abuelita used to collect, not on the wall next to those old pictures of abuelita and abuelito that are half photo and half painting and that make everyone look kind of creepy, like ghosts from the distant past. Un pocho de mierda, desgraciado, my mom calls him sometimes, especially when she’s really tired and the kids are fussing and Mechas is sitting around on her spreading ass and texting and not paying any attention to them. He moved back to LA after him and my mom broke up, and colorín, colorado, este cuento se ha acabado, my mom says—end of story.
My mom has all these little sayings in Spanish, like there aren’t already a million ways to say stuff in English. She teases me about being a pocha, because I don’t really speak Spanish, but I know it hurts her that I don’t. I mean, I understand a lot, but I don’t see why I need to speak it. I don’t want anyone confusing me with those girls who just got here from Mexico or El Salvador and have no idea of what’s what: their hair is all wrong, like they got it cut to look like those faded old pictures in the window of Elenita’s Salon de Belleza, and their blouses look like meringues they’re so puffy and candy-colored, and their pants have all this glittery stuff like what we used to wear in fifth grade. We’re not mean to them, but I don’t want no one mixing me up with them, or lumping me together with them, or whatever. Juntos pero no revueltos, as my mom would say.
I’m grounded right now. “House arrest,” I call it, but my mom doesn’t think it’s funny. To tell you the truth, it’s not that much different from how things normally were. Except now abuelita keeps an eye on me when I get home and makes sure I stay there. My mom even bought her a little notebook to write down what time I get home and if I go out and all that. Abuelita’s memory isn’t that sharp anymore, so it’s better to write everything down, my mom says.
It’s all because of Javier. Javier came here in sixth grade from El Salvador. You could tell he was different. He looked just a bit sharper than the other new kids, and he had what my mom likes to call presencia. Not that she ever said that about Javier, not that she ever met him. There was an air about him that attracted people. A little threatening, yeah, but you could also see something else beneath the surface, like he was still kind of a little kid, like those dogs that aren’t puppies anymore but they aren’t full-grown yet either, and they bark at you as much because they’re scared as because they’re mad. Men are such pendejos, my mom says. They’re so worried people are going to think they’re soft that they bury the tenderness that everyone has inside and never let it out.
He was also cute: long black hair that he tied up in a ponytail, a little half-smile always on his face, dark, dark eyes with long lashes, and you just knew that he had a slim, muscly body underneath the baggy jeans and XXXL t-shirt. He didn’t swagger, like most of the boys our age do—or try to do. He glided, almost like he was ice skating, or maybe he was more like a cat: very silent and careful about how he got from one place to the next.
He learned English quickly, and moved easily between the new kids and the pochos. You could tell he was smart, but he didn’t make a big effort in classes, like he didn’t want kids to think he was too school for cool. I mean, it’s bad enough not being from here and all.
By the time we got to high school Javier was starting to hang out with some norteños. He hadn’t been jumped in, he didn’t have any tattoos, he was still on the outside looking in; it’s like he wasn’t sure he wanted in. But he sure wanted in with the girls. He’d have a girlfriend for a few weeks, and then, like, they’d split up, and the next thing you’d see him with a new one.
I never thought he’d take any notice of me. I’m not that pretty, and I’m kind of fat, to tell the truth (that’s my mom’s genes), but my friends say I have hella beautiful eyes—caramel-colored, Rosita says; amber, says Yuladis, who has a really big vocabulary. Gots to have something, Esmeralda laughs, or you’re just another big-butt pocha with too much makeup and hoop earrings you can stick your fist through. She’s one to talk! Guys from there are old-school, Yuladis would say, they like a girl with some heft to her, and she should know because she came here when she was little and all her brothers are older than her, and now she’s got a bunch of fat-assed sisters-in-law.
So maybe that’s why I wasn’t that surprised when I heard someone call my name when I was walking home from school and I turned around and it was Javier. That little half-smile and those eyes, they’re looking at me and I feel a little like, Oh, my God. What’s the hurry? he says. I gotta get home and take care of my abuelita, I say. I know I must be turning bright red because I have this dumbass accent when I say Spanish words and it’s not exactly true that I take care of my abuelita. This is before I’m grounded, obviously, so she’s not going all private eye on me with the notebook and all, but I know she’s parked in the chair by the window watching for when I get home. You wanna pan dulce or something? he says. I say, Uh, yeah, sure. Not like I need to eat any more of that stuff than I already do, and I certainly don’t need to hear any more about it from the afterschool teacher and my mom.
We’re in front of La Victoria and no one else is in there so it takes about two seconds to get a pan de muerto. That’s it? Girl, you’re gonna waste away to nothin’ if you don’t eat more, Javier smiles. So I also get an oreja. Javier gets an oreja for himself—dos orejas, Javier says, now all we need are the eyes, nose, and mouth to have a whole face, and he laughs and it’s not like his smile—it’s not a half-way kind of thing, it’s like he’s lit up from inside, and I laugh, too.
Which way you live? he asks. I point. He looks. C’mon, I’ll walk you home, he says. It’s not that far, but by the time we get there he’s fist-bumped half a dozen dudes, nodded at a dozen more, and described what Mr. Guzmán, his social studies teacher, taught him about el Día de los Muertos, riffing on the fact that I picked pan de muerto at La Victoria even though it’s February, not November and, come to think of it, it’s a little strange that they’re still selling it this time of year. My mom would say that that’s because everything is mixed up nowadays, nothing’s like it used to be, when cada cosa estaba en su sitio, now even the seasons are all out of whack. Guzmán is old school, but he’s cool, Javier is saying: he’s always dando lata about the Chicano Movement, and knowing tus tradiciones, and none of this learning about Christmas and other holiday stuff unless it’s el Día de los Muertos or Mexican Independence Day, which is September 16 and not el Drinko de Mayo like all those ignorant gringos think, and Javier laughs again. Sounds like my mom, I say; maybe the two of them should hook up. I heard when he was just a cipote in Texas Guzmán used to date a girl who’s now a famous writer, Javier says; she wrote The Mango House, or something like that. I don’t think he’s over her yet; she comes up a lot during class—we must’ve read like six of her books. Yeah, well, I don’t think my mom’s over my dad yet, either, I say, although this hadn’t occurred to me before and I don’t know whether it’s really true. My mom barely talks about him except to mentarle la madre, but if she hates him so much that she can’t even stand to see a picture of him (no lo quiero ver ni pintado is one of her favorite expressions) then maybe she hasn’t really let go of him.
But now we’re almost at my house and I don’t want abuelita to see me with Javier. So I tell him real quick that I gotta go and then I walk off as fast as I can; I think I probably look like Mechas I’m walking so fast that I’m all kind of jiggling—boobs, butt, hips—and then I think that maybe that’s not a bad thing. I take a quick peek over my shoulder and Javier is checking out my ass.
Then it becomes like a regular thing: I get out of school and afterschool, at some point on the way home, Javier appears out of nowhere and calls my name, and we eat pan dulce and talk and laugh and then I run on ahead before we get to my house. When I tell Yuladis and Rosita and Esmeralda about Javier, Yuladis lets out a hoot and says, Ay, muchacha, yo sí te lo dije, I told you those new guys like a full-figured girl, no skinny bitches for them. Yeah, but be careful cuz those new guys don’t wanna wear a jimmy hat—they like to ride bare-back, says Esmeralda, but I figure she’s just jealous because she’s kind of skinny herself. We sit on the bench closest to the cafeteria door at lunch time. The gang girls claim the benches farthest away, and everyone else packs the ones in between. Javier never looks for me at lunch, but that doesn’t bother me: I know I’ll see him later and then we’ll have time to talk away from all these envious, gossiping bitches.
Then one day Javier asks me, before I run off, if I’ll meet him a half hour earlier. I’d like to have more time to talk, he says, and that half-smile widens, his eyes seem deeper and blacker than before and I don’t hesitate. Yeah, sure, no problem. Even though it means that that evening I spend an hour forging a note from my mom so that I can get out of afterschool early, and I wash my best pair of blue jeans by hand in the shower and dry them with the blow dryer, worrying that my mom will wonder what’s with me drying my hair for fifteen minutes, just like she yells when I forget to turn off the light when I leave a room, ay, muchacha, you’re going to melt the ice caps with all the electricity you waste.
But, yeah, sure, it’s no problem, the pants are clean and dry, and Karen at “Cuerpo Sano, Mente Sana” believes my fake note and so the next day I’m out half an hour early. I’m a little nervous to begin with, and when Javier calls my name I nearly jump. But it’s off to La Victoria and a slow walk to my house. This time we sit together on the stoop. Abuelita won’t be at the window this early. Her hearing’s not that great, and we live on the second floor, but I still try to keep my voice down because, well, you never know. There’s a lot to talk about: he tells me about growing up in the country, and how the hillside was so steep his dad would drive a stake into the ground and tie one end of a rope to it and the other end around his waist when he went out to plant or weed or harvest the corn, and how Javier loved to run around barefoot and chase the chickens and help his brothers tend the cows and go down to the market in town on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and about moving to the city when the milpa and the animals didn’t give enough to live on anymore and the men with the guns wanted them out anyway so they moved in with his uncle’s family.
I tell him about my mom and how she barely finished high school before Mechas was born and then she had me and then dad left and she went to work at Giant Value and tried to get her associate’s at night at City until abuelito died and abuelita was left alone—Aunt Julia and Aunt Ana don’t want nothing to do with abuelita—and mom is still working on that blessed degree, one class at a time, mija, one class at a time, she says. And I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up but I sure as hell don’t want to live with my mom, and I’m sure abuelita will be dead by then although it’s awful to say that even if it’s true, and I’d like to study, I don’t know what, even though my mom wants me to study, it’s not like I always do the opposite of what she wants even though it seems that way sometimes and that’s the way I feel most of the time, and it really sucks to be a kid and you’ve gotta do what adults say even if it’s stupid, especially when it’s stupid, and we go on like that, one, two, three weeks, more, talking and talking.
And texting. Because it’s not like the rest of your life stops when you’re doing something. Your friends want to know where you’re at and what you’re doing or they’ve got something they’ve gotta tell you that just can’t wait, and you want them to know what you’re doing, and so your thumbs are practically smoking there’s so much traffic back and forth. My mom’s all pissed that I never even set up my voice mail, but who talks on the phone anymore? It’s much more discreet to text, anyway, I tell her, and she likes it when I use fancy words, so she nods and says that maybe there’s something to what I’m saying but her thumbs are too thick and clumsy to text very fast so she says she feels like she’s living in slow motion.
I feel like everything’s going fast when I’m with Javier. There’s so much to say and so much to hear. The time goes flying. I can tell Javier likes being there with me—why else would he be there and tell me all that stuff? And I can tell he listens to me because he asks me questions. Why did your dad leave? What would you do when you grow up if you could do anything? He says he wants to be a fashion designer. Look around you, girl, everyone is so into clothes, even when they pretend they’re not. Even if they’re poor—no, especially if they’re poor. You don’t wear the right stuff, you’re nobody.
He says he’s done some research, and it wouldn’t take too much money to get started. What’s important are the ideas, and he’s got them, he says. Even got a name, muchacha: Fresh Fitz, with a z; it’s more distinctive that way. His eyes get all dreamy when he talks about it, and I believe in him, oh, I believe in him. I tell myself I’ll get a job and make some money and give it to him so he can start his business and we’ll be partners and then we’ll get married and I feel so happy I just want to hug him but I don’t because I don’t want him to think I’m easy or some kind of puta or anything, and I know I sound like my mom or even my abuelita but I want something special, I don’t want to wind up like my mom or Mechas.
One day last week Javier gets up from the stoop. I’m still all texting away and talking at the same time—this really drives my mom nuts, but then she says maybe I can put multitasking on my resume when I look for a job this summer—and at first I don’t much notice. Then he touches the back of my head. It’s like a little caress but it isn’t a caress, and it’s the first and only time he’s touched me. I look up. My head is all tingling. He looks into my eyes for a second and then looks away. Hey, gots to run early today, muchacha. See ya. And he glides down the stairs and skates away on the sidewalk, glancing left and right. A minute later I hear a couple of pops, some shouting, tires squealing, and then see a bunch of people running toward where the shots came from, bunch of people running away. I take off toward all the noise.
A dude is lying on the sidewalk, his arms and legs at impossible angles. There’s a little dark puddle next to his head and he’s jerking all around like he’s a spaz, groaning so soft you can barely hear. No one wants to get close. Call 911, someone yells. La policía, llamen a la policía, someone else shouts. Young guys start to slip off. Older dudes hang around, the usual stoop sitters in their Niners jerseys or super-large T’s, and beanies, and the hem of their jeans pooling around their Nikes, old ladies as wide as they are tall shake their heads and mutter por Dios bendito, and young women whisk their kids over to the other side of the street and cover their eyes so they won’t see anything. A siren sounds and the older dudes retreat to the safety of their stoops. My first thought is thank God it’s not Javier. I look around, but I don’t see him anywhere. My second thought is my mom’s going to kill me if she finds out I’m standing around where a shooting just took place.
By the time my mom gets home I’ve already helped abuelita move from the chair in the window to the sofa so she can watch TV, and then to the table for dinner. We have to wait for my mom for dinner, even when she’s late, because she says it’s important to have a family dinner, even if that means Junior and Mario are bawling and Mechas winds up giving them candy bars to quiet them down. But my mom knows what’s happened—she’s as chismosa as any of the other old gossips around here, and there’s no lack of women who will have grabbed her on the way home and happily told her everything they know about the shooting and probably a whole lot more that they’ve invented for themselves.
So she wants to know where I was when it happened and I get all flustered because I can’t remember what time it was at and whether I was supposed to be at “Cuerpo Sano, Mente Sana,” or walking home, or already home, and I look at Mechas and she smirks for a second and then says that I was home, that I was helping her get dinner on the table and I’m grateful even though I know I’m going to have to pay her back by lying for her to my mom.
The next evening my mom has managed to place me at the scene of the crime, although it’s strange that no one had told her who I was with before the shooting, and no one has said squat about all those days when Javier walked me home and then sat on the stoop to talk. Maybe they were getting their hopes up that I’d mess up big-time before too long, and that’d be worth holding off on the more immediate satisfaction of seeing my mom’s face when she found out I was spending time—on her own stoop, no less—with a guy who looked like a wannabe gangbanger. In any case, that’s why I’m under house arrest.
But Javier. He didn’t appear in school again. Someone said he was the spotter for the drive-by, you know, texting the guy with the gun when he saw the dude walk by—homey named Shorty, dressed in neutral colors and a hat pulled down low, out to visit some pochita in enemy territory, that was the guy who got shot. Someone else said Javier was a snitch and he’d learned that the norteños knew Shorty was deep in our hood and had tried to warn him. Someone else said it was all pure BS and pure coincidence: he’d moved with his uncle all the way out to Antioch, about an hour away, because rents were too high here and they were getting evicted and, anyway, his uncle wanted to get Javier and his own kids away from all the violence and craziness in the city. There’s always someone talking smack; there’s always someone thinks they know the truth.
Me, I don’t know. Javier hasn’t texted me. Then again, he’s never texted me: we never had each other’s phone numbers. Why would we, if we were going to be sitting next to each other for half an hour every evening before I’d have to help my abuelita, before helping Mechas with dinner, before my mom got home and we’d eat as a family, como Dios y la tradición mandan, like God and tradition require—kids bawling or running around on a sugar-high, Mechas with one eye on her phone to see when her next hook-up will be, abuelita staring at us silently with her big, unfocused eyes, and my mom, eyes closed, thanking Mother Earth for the bounty provided us.
Cover Art by Sarah Hussein
Note: This story was the winner of the 2019 Blood Orange Review Fiction Contest, as selected by Aimee Phan.