A dancer, more than any other human being, dies two deaths: the first, the physical when the powerfully trained body will no longer respond as you would wish. —MARTHA GRAHAM
THIS is what it comes down to.
The sweat. The blisters on your feet. The aching of your arms from practicing the skirtwork. The hours and hours rehearsing the same song until the music buries itself so deeply in your brain youhear it even in your sleep. The constant need to coax your body to move past the hurt, the frustration, the exhaustion, and convince it that it can do more . . .
All that is worth this moment.
To be up here onstage, bathed in the red, blue, and yellow stage lights. A thousand eyes look at you, admiring your flawless movements. Your feet seem to float over the floor as you twirl and twirl around and around before jumping into the arms of your partner.
Applause erupts out of the darkness, and you close your eyes and listen to it, let it envelop you. It gives you strength. Three seconds to catch your breath before the next polka, “El Circo,” begins, and your heart beats hard against your chest, but you can’t hear it above the sounds of the norteño band playing upstage, the musician’s fingers dance over the keys of his accordion as quickly as your feet stomp on the floor. As you and your partner move together, you feel the heat of his body, the intensity of his dancing. You look in his eyes and don’t let him see that despite the adrenaline rushing through you, you’re becoming more aware of the stabbing pain in your knee. You force yourself to keep smiling. He’ll know for sure you lied—to him, to yourself, thinking that you could perform like this.
The stage is a flurry of dancers whirling and stomping. The audience breaks into a rhythmic clapping as they follow the lively song in 2/4 beat. On the fourth spin your knee buckles from under you and suddenly you’re on the floor, the eleven other couples try not to step on you because after all, the dance must go on.
You try to get up and continue, but your legs no longer obey. You stare at the audience, yet all you see is darkness. The Exit signs like evil red eyes mock you. How is this possible? How did it get to this point? Your partner scoops you up into his arms and whisks you off the stage. Despite the pulsing pain in your knee all you can think about is that you’ve ruined the choreography. There will be a gap where there shouldn’t be.
The dancers waiting in the wings rush over, looking beautiful intheir black Chiapas dresses embroidered with big colorful flowers. You want them to go away, to stop looking at you with pity. You’re used to the awe, the admiration, the envy. But not their pity.
“What happened?” they ask.
You take a deep breath, trying to come up with something, anything except the truth. “I’m okay, I’m okay. Don’t worry. I landed on my ankle the wrong way. Now stop fussing over me and go back to your places.”
“Is it your knee?” your partner asks as he helps you to the dressing room.
You shake your head no, glad that your Nuevo León skirt is long enough that he can’t see your right knee has swollen to the size of a grapefruit. You find yourself unable to tell him the truth, even if he’s your husband. Because once you admit it to him, you will have to admit it to yourself as well.
The pain will go away. It has to.
We’ve just finished warm-ups and are now taking a short break before moving on to the Azteca danzas, but I’m at the barre doing tendus. I need to believe warming up longer will help. That and Advil should help me get through practice, but lately that hasn’t been the case. I feel my kneebones grinding against each other, and I’ve started wearing a brace and keep it hidden under my sweatpants—which I’ve been using now instead of my Lycra pants—and although the brace relieves some of the pressure, my right knee still stiffens and swells.
My son, Memo, comes to stand by me and stretches as far as he can, yet his fingertips are two inches shy of his toes. It makes me feel better that at twenty, Memo isn’t that much more flexible than I am.
“I’m making chile verde for dinner,” I say.
“Ah, Mom, I’m going out with my friends tonight.”
“Where are you going on a Sunday night? Don’t you have school tomorrow?”
“To the Arclight. The director is going to be there for a Q and A after the movie. I’ll come straight home afterward. Besides, my first class isn’t until eleven.”
“You can have the leftovers tomorrow, then. That is, if your father and I don’t eat it all.”
Memo laughs and runs his fingers through his long hair. I brush it off his forehead, wishing he would cut it. He won’t, though, no matter how much I complain that it doesn’t look good onstage. The audience could think he’s a girl dressed up in men’s clothes.
“Guess what?” Adriana, one of my dancers, says as she joins us at the barre. “I got a job!”
“Great!” I say, suppressing a sigh of relief. Finally, Adriana will start paying her dues and stop begging her sister for rent money. “How about I take you to La Perla to celebrate?”
My husband, Eduardo, picks up the atecocolli and brings it to his lips. When he blows into the shell the dancers peel themselves off the walls or get on their feet and head to the floor. “Tomorrow after work, okay?” I say to Adriana. As Eduardo pounds on his drum, the studio comes alive with movement. Memo remains by my side, and as we dance I can’t help but remember the child he once was. Three years old, and already he had learned to do a zapateado. And now, he dances flawlessly. Gives in to the music of his ancestors, and when he turns to me and smiles, I feel a rush of pride. This tall young man is my little boy, whom I taught to walk, to dance, to love Folklórico.
I look at the dancers around me. In the row in front of me is Stephanie, who at seventeen is the youngest in the professional group. In the row behind me is Olivia, who at thirty-six is the second-oldest dancer, six years younger than me. The women always leave. Start getting married. Having children. Pursuing a career. Little by little letting go of their passion for Folklórico.
I’ve been the co-director of my own dance group for nine years. Eduardo and I have worked so hard to get it where it is now. There are about a hundred Folklórico groups in Los Angeles, and Grupo Folklórico Alegría is one of the best. We have forty-five dancers, and in every one of our big shows there are always at least twelve couples on the stage.
When we finish practicing the Azteca danzas, I put on my dance shoes and my red practice skirt, which is made of fourteen yards of poplin and falls right below my ankles. Lately, whenever it’s my turn to teach I focus on the skirtwork even more than the footwork because it gives me a chance to rest my knee.
“You hold up your skirt like this,” I say, standing before the female dancers, my back to the mirrors. “Stop holding it as if it were a rag you clean your kitchen counter with! Veracruz is supposed to be danced with grace. You hold up the skirt delicately, as if it were sea foam, light in your hands. But your feet are fast, like the current.”
Even though our next performance isn’t one of our big shows but rather an adult school assembly, I won’t let the dancers go until I’m pleased with what I see. “This isn’t the time to learn but to perfect,” I say. “Last year we gave an excellent show at this school and this year I want it to be even better.”
We do another run-through of the Veracruz Cuadro Eduardo and I choreographed, except I don’t finish the suite. At the beginning of “Coco,” the last song of the cuadro, I step to the side and pretend my skirt has become loose. I wrap one strap around my waist, and then the other, slowly, breathing in and out. Eduardo glances at me, and so does Memo, the same worried look on their faces. I stand on the side and watch the dancers do the complex combination of steps. Sweating bodies flow in graceful rhythms, turning and turning, feet tapping faster and faster. I listen to the joyful music: the harp playing the melody, the jarana marking the rhythm, the requinto providing the counterpoint. To hell with my rebellious knee! I quickly pick up the sides of my skirt and join the dancers again. But by the end of the song, my feet hardly move. I do the skirt movements and hope no one can tell I’m only marking the steps the way some of the lazy dancers do, the way Adriana is doing now. How often have I told her she must dance at practice the way she would dance onstage?
I don’t correct her today. How can I? My feet aren’t as fast as the current anymore.
After practice I go home and head straight to the freezer; I sit on the recliner with an ice pack on my knee. Eduardo comes out of the shower with a towel wrapped around his waist. At forty-two he still has the body of a young dancer, slender and agile, so much like Memo’s. I’ve always been jealous that he can eat anything he wants without gaining weight. Unlike me, who puts on pounds just by looking at food.
“I’m worried about you, Yessy,” he says. He isn’t a tall man; at five feet five he stands two inches shorter than me, and his thin body makes me feel like a beluga whale when standing next to him, but his deep, booming voice makes him seem larger than life. His poise conveys confidence, power. That’s what attracted me to him the first time we met when we were kids. He isn’t a good-looking man, but the way he carries himself always makes women turn to look in admiration.
“I’ll be fine, you’ll see. It’s nothing to worry about,” I say.
“You’ve let it go on for too long now. It could get worse.” He comes to stand behind me and massages my neck. “Dancing isn’t forever. When our time comes, we have to let it go.”
“What are you talking about? I’m not ready to let it go. This will pass. It always does.” I stand up and put the ice pack back in the freezer and begin preparations for a lonely dinner without Memo.
After a shower I tuck myself under the blankets and wrap my arms around Eduardo. “I’m scared,” I confess. “I don’t know what’s happening to me.”
He squeezes my hand and says, “I know, honey. I know. But you have to do something about it, Yessy. If you keep pushing yourself the way you’ve been doing, it could get worse.”
“It can’t be that bad, can it? Maybe if I take it easy these next few days . . .”
“You need to see a doctor. Even though the pain does go away, it always comes back—and it’s worse.”
I turn around to face the wall and sigh.
“No matter what happens, you’ll always have Alegría,” Eduardo says. “The group will always be yours.”
I dreamed of starting my own group for a long time. When Memo was in sixth grade, Eduardo and I finally got serious about it and began to look for a studio to rent. Eduardo had just inherited his father’s electrical business and didn’t have much time for the group. Teaching and choreographing was all he could do, so I devoted myself to recruiting dancers, acquiring the costumes, looking for performance venues, hiring the musicians. I spent day after day writing grant proposals to get funding. Before finally forming a committee and assigning responsibilities to some of the other dancers, I was the one who spent countless hours on the phone trying to book performances, receiving the dancers’ dues, making deposits, paying the rent for the studio, worrying about the constant shortage of money. Grupo Folklórico Alegría is mine as much as it is his.
I sigh in the darkness, trying to fight the nostalgia that lately has been visiting me at night. I get out of bed, careful not to wake him. Eduardo can fall asleep within minutes, whereas I have a hard time getting my mind to stop thinking. As I make my way to the kitchen to get a drink of water I notice the light seeping through the crack under Memo’s door. I wonder if he had a good time tonight, but just as I’m about to knock I hear him talking on the phone, laughing once in a while. He’s graduating from Pasadena City College in a few months, and in August he’s moving to Riverside before the school year starts at UCR. I move away from his bedroom door. As I walk down the dark hallway, I try not to think about life without Memo at home.
Mondays at the AAA office are usually busy. By the time lunch-time comes around I’ve sold three new auto policies and five memberships. As I’m getting ready to finally take my lunch break, a client comes into the office. From the corner of my eye I see him checking in at the front. I want to rush out the door and later claim I didn’t see him. But his name appears on my computer screen, and I have no choice but to get up and call him to my cubicle. He walks toward me with determined steps, and I notice that his right arm ends right above the elbow in a stump.
“Hi, my name is Yesenia.” I awkwardly shake his left hand and offer him a seat. I sit at my computer and say, “How can I help you?”
“I want to get a quote for car insurance.”
I ask him a series of questions that will help me determine his premium. I try not to glance at the stump and hope he can’t see the disgust I feel. He should at least wear long-sleeve shirts to hide it.
“Does it bother you?” he asks.
“No, no, of course not.”
He chuckles. “It’s okay; I’m used to it by now.”
“Were you in a bad accident?” I try to keep my eyes on my computer.
“No, actually, I was bitten by a cat.”
I turn to look at him. “You serious?” I was imagining different scenarios; maybe he lost his arm in the war or performing some heroic deed, like Antonio Banderas trying to save Salma Hayek in that movie about a mariachi.
As I write his policy he tells me what happened—he didn’t pay much attention to the bite, cleaning it with hydrogen peroxide, thinking the infection would go away, but it kept getting worse. Soon, his arm was so swollen he couldn’t put it off any longer and went to see the doctor.
“Why didn’t you go sooner?”
“Because I thought a cat’s bite was no big deal,” he says. He’d been hurt worse before. Stepped on a rusty nail once when he was walking around his yard barefoot, and nothing happened to him then, although his wife kept telling him he might get tetanus. So what was a bite of a stray cat going to do to him?
“The doctor said a cat’s bite is much worse than a dog’s bite,” he says. “Cats have a lot of bacteria in their mouths because they’re constantly licking themselves, even their butts. So the bacteria had spread so much there was nothing he could do but cut off my arm.”
“You know what the worst part is?” he asks. I shake my head. “Sometimes I wake up and reach for my glasses, thinking my arm is still whole. And I see this instead . . .” He lifts up his arm so that I can see the stump up close.
I pick up Adriana after work and we head to El Mercadito in East L.A.
“How long was it this time?” I ask.
“Three months, two weeks, and three days,” she says as she lowers the window. She’s wearing a hot pink blouse with lace around the collar, purple ribbons on her braids, silver chandelier earrings, and bright red lipstick. Every time I see Adriana outside of practice I think of an overly decorated Christmas tree, like the kind Eduardo and I put up in the living room every year. We never know when to stop with the decorations. Neither does Adriana.
“Let’s hope this one lasts,” I say. She’s had more jobs than anyone I know. This time she’s waitressing. Her last job was cleaning offices at night. The job before that I think she was a cashier or a parking lot attendant, or a pizza delivery person, I’ve lost track.
As we drive to El Mercadito, I tell Adriana about the man with the missing arm. “That’s pretty fucked up,” she says.
The whole day I haven’t been able to put him out of my mind, wondering how one can deal with being incomplete.
Adriana likes the stores on the lower level because they sell typical Mexican clothes—blouses with ruffles and lace, peasant skirts and shawls, her usual attire.
What I like about El Mercadito are all the goodies sold there: corn on the cob lathered with mayonnaise and sprinkled with grated cheese and chili powder, or mango with chili and lemon, tamarind pulp, chicharrones, buñuelos, pumpkin and yam in syrup, and my favorite of all, churros, real churros, not that previously frozen crap sold elsewhere.
After browsing through the stores and sharing a bag of churros, we go up to La Perla restaurant on the third floor and order a bucket of Coronas. I can’t decide what to order; everything looks so good—but I can’t stop thinking about all those calories. I settle for a shrimp cocktail, one of the least fattening things on the menu. My New Year’s resolution is to lose the extra pounds. Even though I’m so active with my dancing, I’m still at least thirty-five pounds over my ideal weight. The huge floor-to-ceiling mirrors at the studio shamelessly remind me of all the tamales I stuffed down my throat on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. Right now my goal is to lose five pounds before our next performance. Five pounds isn’t an impossible goal, but these last few years it’s been getting harder to keep my weight down.
“Your knee still bothering you?” Adriana asks after she takes a big swallow of beer.
“The pain comes and goes.”
“You seen the doctor? I mean, after you fell at the performance—”
“I fell because I hurt my ankle,” I insist. The thing about lies is that once you say them, you have to keep saying them. “Anyway, it’ll pass.” Yes, the pain will pass and I’ll continue to do what I’ve been doing since I was six years old. Folklórico is my life. It’s all I know.
“You haven’t been dancing as much during practice. You stand there with Eduardo and watch us instead. That’s so unlike you.”
“I just thought I’d help him out a bit. The show is coming up and I’ve been noticing some mistakes that he hasn’t. Being a dance instructor isn’t easy, you know?” I don’t hold Adriana’s gaze for long. It bothers me to stand there watching. Every year I teach a few dances and help Eduardo choreograph a cuadro, but my passion is for dancing, not teaching. “Anyway, here’s to your new job. Hope this one lasts.”
“Ha, ha,” Adriana says.
I love the murals that cover the walls of La Perla. One is of a landscape of a beautiful Mexican village. Little houses are scattered alongside a lake, with a fisherman casting a butterfly net in the middle of it. The mural on the other wall is of a beach framed with straw huts on one side and large puffy clouds in the sky above. The multicolored track lights on the ceiling shine on the murals. Every time the color changes from blue, to red, to yellow, the time of day in the paintings changes, too. It goes from being a sunny afternoon to twilight, and the little lights inside the houses turn on, and even fireflies appear among the reeds on the lakeshore. In the other mural, the moon peeks from between the clouds, and the rays of the moon make the ocean water shimmer.
Right now it’s nighttime; the sleepy town seems so peaceful, idyllic. The kind of place one could live in and be happy. A few minutes later, the lighting is red and the dawn comes, then slowly the lights change to blue and it’s daytime and soon the sleepy village is awake again.
I’ve always been curious how the artist did this. What special technique did he use to have his murals change from morning to nighttime? As curious as I am, I’ve never asked because I want to believe it’s magic. I want to believe the little village is real. That it’s another world and if I walk up to it and touch it, I’ll be magically transported to that little village by the lake.
I feel the alcohol warming me. The mariachi come out to the stage and begin to set up. I can’t wait to hear them play those depressing Mexican songs about love gone wrong, betrayal, vengeance, disappointment, solitude, and regret. Because of the cat story, I’m already in the mood.
I check out the guitar player, the one who looks like the Mexican singer Pepe Aguilar. Nice ass. I imagine myself in his arms, or him holding my hand and blowing my worries away as if they were dandelion seeds. He would look at my body, my sagging breasts, the wrinkles on my face, and the magic of his words would make me feel like a girl of sixteen, not a woman in her early forties.
In the murals, time stands still. Morning and night come and go but the town never changes. Nothing changes. I wonder about the artist again. Wouldn’t it be great if he could design some props for one of our shows? Maybe even paint the backdrops for Michoacán or Nayarit . . .
Adriana is looking at me with eyes half closed, leaning back against the chair, every bit of her succumbing to her third beer. As always, it amazes me how much Adriana looks like her mother, Cecilia, their lips forming a half smile that makes you feel as if they’re laughing at you, as if maybe you have a piece of cilantro stuck between your teeth.
“You’ll be an aunt soon,” I say, thinking about Elena and the very big belly she’s now carrying around.
Adriana shrugs. “Yeah. So what?”
“So, Elena is going to need you by her side. You don’t know how hard it is after you have a baby.”
“She has plenty of people to help her out. You, for instance.”
“Elena is your sister. It’s your place to be there for her.”
Adriana drinks her beer in one big swallow and then wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, saying nothing.
“Any luck with your father?” I ask.
“No. He didn’t want to talk to me last time I saw him.”
“You should just forget about him, Adriana. Stop going to his house. A man like that isn’t worth the heartache.”
“He’s my father. I’ll decide if he’s worth it or not.”
Twelve years ago Cecilia died in a car accident, leaving her two daughters alone at the mercy of their father. I open my mouth to say more, to make Adriana realize the man she calls father is an abusive asshole who treated her like an animal. But the mariachi begin their first song. The music enters my body and makes me tremble. I lean back against my chair; there’s nothing like the sound of violins and songs about a lost love to dig into your soul and make you bleed.
We sing along with the mariachi, Adriana and I. She with her perfect voice like that of her favorite Mexican singer, Ana Gabriel, and me with my off-key raspy voice that’s sexy when talking but not when I’m singing. But who cares? I’m here to enjoy myself.
Our food arrives as we finish a song about wanting to go back to the arms of an old lover. One of the men sitting at the tables nearby gets up and walks up to the band. He tells them something I can’t make out. The musicians nod and the man takes the microphone and gets on the stage. He’s so drunk, he can hardly keep from falling.
My God, this guy makes me wish I were deaf! He sings “Mujeres Divinas.” There’s nothing for us to do but sing along with him and hope when the song is over, he’ll go back to his seat. But no. He takes a liking to the mike and follows up with “El Rey.” With money or without money, I do whatever I want, and my word is law. I don’t have a throne or a queen, or anyone who understands me, but I’m still the kiiiiiiing!
When the song is over he takes out a huge wad of money and hands several bills to the guitar player with the cute ass. Satisfied by the generous tip, the musicians pick up their instruments, and to my dismay, the man lifts the mike and sings “Tristes Recuerdos.”
El tiempo pasa. Y no te puedo olvidar.
Te traigo en el pensamiento constante, mi amor.
Y aunque trato de olvidarte, cada día te extraño más.
The customers shake their heads in disapproval. The guy is butchering this song, which happens to be one of Adriana’s favorites.
“This is bullshit!” Adriana says. She looks at the bucket on the table. It’s empty now except for the melting ice. She picks it up and looks back at the guy as if seriously considering throwing the ice water on him. She puts the bucket back down and heads to the stage. I stand up, fearing Adriana will do something rash—like slapping the man or kicking him in the balls. Instead, she grabs the microphone from him and begins to sing.
If only she could dance as beautifully as she sings. Every time I hear Adriana sing I can’t help thinking she’s in the wrong profession. I sit back down, mesmerized by her powerful voice, so strong and yet so tender, so full of something that makes you want to bare your soul to her. Hers is the voice that shakes you, that turns you inside out, that penetrates your most intimate thoughts, that uncovers your innermost fears, so that you admit you’re scared shitless of getting old, of giving up the most important thing in your life. Folklórico.
Me and Elena don’t look like sisters. If you saw us walking side by side, you would think we were just friends. No, not even friends,maybe two people who know each other by chance. The woman doesn’t need to put on lipstick; her lips are naturally pink and shiny. Her hair is shoulder-length and it’s the dark brown color of piloncillo. I swear she must be someone else’s kid. My mother was no saint.
As for me, I’m as dark as a Chocolate Abuelita bar (okay, maybe not that dark). And my hair, like my mother’s, is black and straight. When I dance Azteca, and I wear the traditional indigenous costume, the headdress of long colorful feathers like a halo around my face; I’m a real Aztec princess come to life.
I imagine that’s how Mom must have looked to my father when he first saw her dance.
An Aztec princess.
My father’s a pocho. Born of Mexican illegals who came to this country to have a better life. He’s never been to México, unlike Mom, who was born and raised there. I guess he’d figured Mom was as close to México as he’d ever get. Mom’s Aztec princess glamour didn’t last long, I think. Just long enough for Dad to get her pregnant with Elena. Or long enough for Mom to pin the pregnancy on him.
But even if Elena and me are not full-blooded hermanas, there’s one thing that binds us—we were both left motherless the night Mom crashed her car into a fire hydrant and the telephone pole behind it. In my mind I can see the water shooting up like a geyser, while inside the car my mother lay with her head against the shattered windshield.
My mother’s name was Cecilia Adriana Alvarez, and we never knew much about her except that she was from Chiapas, had come to the States at seventeen, worked at a factory sewing bathing suits, and had a passion for Folklórico. She lived with an aunt before hooking up with my dad, but then the aunt went back to México and my mom stayed in this strange country and the only family she had left was my father.
She was thirty-three years old when she died. Nine years older than I am now. I have my mother’s face. I inherited her name. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll also inherit her place against a shattered windshield.
Sometimes on my days off, I go to Highland Park to look for my father, and that’s where I’m heading now. Since my car broke down on me again, I take the bus. I start feeling light-headed as the 81 bus speeds up Figueroa Street. As soon as we pass Sycamore Park my hand reaches out to ring the bell to request the stop. Avenue 50 gets closer and closer, but my feet are stuck to the floor. The bus pulls over right in front of a McDonald’s. The front door swishes open. People look around the bus for the person who asked for the stop. The bus driver looks at his rearview mirror and, when he sees that no one is getting off, closes the door. He merges back into the traffic and I exhale.
Fuck. You’re such a coward. I look out the window, see the familiar shops pass by. My back begins to tense up at feeling the helplessness and the anger and the hurt emerge as I think about my dad’s parents, and the hellhole I called home for the two years I lived with them. It was Elena’s damn fault I was sent to live with my grandparents after Dad went to jail.
It wasn’t enough for her that we didn’t have a mother. She had to go and make sure that we lost our father, too, that he hated our guts so much, he didn’t want to see us again.
She had it easy. She was already eighteen, in her last year of high school. And she was only there for three months before the summer ended and she took off for San Jose to go to school. But me, I was sixteen, and she doesn’t know what a hell it was to go live with my abuelos. To have to lock myself in my room because whenever I came out to shit or eat they’d come down on me like vultures. They said, over and over again, that me, Elena, and Mom had ruined Dad’s life. It was because of us that Dad hadn’t become a lawyer as they’d hoped. Because of us, Dad was thrown in jail.
“We came to this country so that our children could have a good life,” they said. “So that they could get an education and have a great career.” They would look at me and point an accusing finger. “How dare you send your own father to jail, like some common criminal?”
The bus pulls over at the next stop, on Avenue 52, and two people get off. I yank my feet off the floor and dash out just before the doors close. The bus pulls out into the street and leaves me standing by the curb. For a moment I feel like running after it, but the light has already turned red. I turn back and see the golden arches of the McDonald’s down on Avenue 50.
Chingado. Just get it over with, Adriana. Why should you be afraid?
I make my way to Avenue 50 and cross the street. I walk across the train tracks, past the Laundromat where Grandma and I used to do laundry, the liquor store, and Fidel’s Pizza, the little pizza place that sells great ham and cheese sandwiches. Up the street I go.
Then I see the beige house on the corner. I cross to the opposite side of the street, not wanting to be seen. What would Grandma say if she saw me standing outside her house? What would Dad say? Would he welcome me with open arms, or would he yell at me like he did the last time I had the guts to knock on the door and ask for him?
As I get closer to Granada Street I can see someone standing outside the house, in the yard. No, not standing. Watering. He’s watering the grass. My father. He’s hunched over, holding on to the hose, and even from here I can see the way his lips are pressed together, like they always do when he’s lost in his thoughts.
I stand on the corner across from Grandma’s house and hide behind my red sunglasses and straw hat. I stay near the bus stop so that it seems as if I’m waiting for the bus, not spying. I look at him, afraid he’ll look my way and see me, and at the same time wishing that he would.
Look at me, Dad. I’m right here.
I can picture him looking at me, then tossing the hose to the ground, walking to the gate, and sprinting across the street, calling out my name. “Adriana! Adriana, I love you!” Then I shake my head. Shit like that only happens in Mexican soap operas. I’ve watched enough of them to know.
I remember feeling a stinging on my neck, and then Dad froze; the belt he was hitting me with was suspended in midair. Elena screamed. I touched my neck where I felt the stinging and my fingers got wet with something sticky. Dad tossed his belt on the floor and just stood there staring at me. Elena rushed to the phone, but when Dad yanked it out of her hand she ran out of the house. I don’t remember what happened after that, but the next time I opened my eyes I was being carried on a stretcher to the ambulance.
A white woman walked alongside me, and Elena walked on the other side, holding my hand. I knew that the next day I would be black and blue everywhere. I bruise easily, like Mom. I asked her where Dad was and when I saw the cop car outside the apartment, and the guilty look in Elena’s eyes, I knew why they were there.
“How could you?” I yelled at Elena. “They’re going to lock him up and then we’ll have no one.”
“It’s all right,” the cops said later in the hospital when they were asking me what happened. “Everything’s going to be all right now.”
“He didn’t mean to do it,” I said. They told me the cut on my neck where the belt buckle sliced through the skin needed seven stitches. The artery got slightly cut. They said I was lucky the buckle hadn’t cut any deeper because if it had, I would’ve bled to death before help arrived. “He was drunk, and he got angry with me because I didn’t turn off the stereo when he told me to,” I said.
“Everything is going to be all right,” they said again. Cops are such fucking liars. Nothing was ever right again. Not with Dad, not with Elena. It was just a little blood. It would’ve stopped eventually and I would’ve healed and no one would’ve ever known about it. And then we wouldn’t have been taken away from Dad. We would still be a family. It wasn’t always bad with Dad. Sometimes he would be nice, too, especially to me. Once, for my fifteenth birthday, he even took us to Magic Mountain because we’d never been. He drove us there and came back to pick us up when the park closed, except by then Elena and I weren’t speaking to each other and all we wanted was to go home. She didn’t want to go on the roller coaster rides with me because she said they made her sick, and it wasn’t fun to go on them by myself. I told her it was my birthday and how could she make me ride them by myself? We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening just sitting at the entrance of the park waiting for Dad.
She just wanted to ruin my birthday, just like she’s always wanted to ruin everything for me. She spied on me constantly, especially when I had finally gotten Dad to teach me to play the guitar. She would be there, sitting on the couch pretending to be reading while I sang and played guitar with Dad. He would sit me on his lap and tell me what a beautiful voice I had, and Elena would sit up, the book forgotten, and look at Dad as if she hated him.
Now that she’s about to have her baby, I tell myself maybe it’s time to let things go, to kiss and make up. But it isn’t in me.
When I look at her, I remember.
Dad is oblivious to me. He’s whistling now, probably thinking about things that have nothing to do with me. Grandma comes outside and says something to him. I notice she walks much slower than she used to. Dad waters for a few more minutes and then turns off the faucet. He looks around the yard, as if satisfied with his watering, and then looks across the street. At me.
I hold the metal post of the bus stop and wait.
It’s me. Adriana.
My fingers reach up to touch the thin scar on my neck. It wasn’t my fault you went to jail. I know you didn’t mean to hurt me. Deep down, you love me, don’t you? It was Elena who called. Not me. Not me . . .
Just like I knew he would, Dad turns away without seeing me. He goes inside his childhood home without knowing I was there. The 176 bus pulls over in front of me and I jump, startled. I hadn’t heard it coming. But now it looms above me, its doors wide open like the mouth of a great beast. I step inside and let it swallow me.
I don’t know where this cold comes from, but for the next two days I feel like shit. Today is the worst. I can’t go wait on tables with snot running down my nose, watery eyes, and chills that keep running up and down my body like electric shocks. So I stay in bed and quickly hang up on the manager of La Parrilla because I don’t want to hear him tell me how irresponsible I’m turning out to be. I don’t care if I get fired. I wasn’t born to wait tables. I’m a dancer. Even if Elena thinks I dance like a damn horse.
In the evening I go downstairs to Ben’s to hang out with him and use his computer. We’ve been neighbors since he moved into the apartment right below mine three months ago. I told him it was strange for him to live in Boyle Heights, an area full of Mexicans. He’s probably the only gringo for miles around. But he teaches art to kids with emotional problems at a hospital here in East L.A., and he said it was nice not to have to drive through L.A. traffic to get to work. He likes to paint, and once in a while he also makes sculptures and clay pots.
The day we met, I was standing in the middle of the street yelling at my ex-boyfriend Manuel as he took off in his old Mustang. He was pissed at me because I wouldn’t stay home to screw him till the wee hours of the night instead of going to my dance performance. He left me without a ride, standing like an idiot in the middle of the street, weighed down by my costumes inside the garment bags, and the duffel bag with my hairpieces and makeup and shoes. I walked over to my piece-of-shit car and kicked it. Damn car had broken down on me just when I needed it. Ben was outside watering the plants by his door. I didn’t know what else to do. I asked him for a ride. I don’t know if he accepted because I put him on the spot, but the point is that he drove me all the way to Northridge where the performance was and even waited around till the show ended and drove me back.
Ben walks into the apartment carrying a bag full of medicine. I told him I don’t like taking medicine. He says I like to suffer— what was the word? Oh, yeah—“needlessly.”
“Did you buy the whole pharmacy?” I ask. I laugh, but soon my laughter turns into a painful cough I can’t stop. When I’m calm again, Ben gives me some cough syrup and goes to the kitchen to make tea.“I found some good-looking chicks on Myspace,” I tell him. “Come check them out.” I click on another woman’s picture and read her profile. “Hey, she likes to paint and sculpt, just like you. Come look.”
I told Ben he needs to hook up with someone. In the time I’ve known him, I’ve yet to see him go out with a chick. At first I thought he was gay because besides me he only has one friend— Dave, who he met in grad school. Actually, now that I see him walking toward me carrying a steaming cup of tea, I still wonder if he’s gay.
“You’ll make a good husband,” I say as I grab the cup. “All those sisters you have must have trained you well.” Ben has four sisters and three brothers. I tripped out on that when he first told me, because gringos don’t usually have such a large family. He’s from northern Wisconsin. Ben says there’s nothing there but trees, lakes, and cranberry marshes.
“You’ll feel better soon,” he tells me as I drink the tea. “You need to be careful about losing your job. It’s hard to find a job nowadays.”
I know he’s right. I don’t want to have to job-search again. And it’s embarrassing asking Elena—Ms. Perfect—for money, but I tell myself that she owes me anyway.
This is what The New World Spanish/English Dictionary says my name means in English. Ma says she named me Soledad because I was born on December 18, on the day of Nuestra Señora de la Soledad. She says it was my destino. God knows what He is doing, and if He chose for me to be born on that day there’s a reason. But if that is true, I say to her, then why didn’t she name my half sister Francisca Javiera? She was born on December 22, on the day of Santa Francisca Javiera. But no, Ma named her Stephanie Elizabeth. Not one but two American names, so that everybody knows her youngest daughter was born in America, with all the privilegios and rights of a U.S. citizen.
Was it my bad luck to be born in a little pueblo in México, where some people follow the old tradition of naming their children according to the day of their birth? My mother was born on February 14 and has the name Valentina. My brother, in México, was born on August 10. His name is Lorenzo.
When the midwife put me in Ma’s arms for the first time and Ma saw the red spot on my face, the spot she says looks like the fingers of the devil, is this why she decided to name me Soledad? Did my mother know I’ll be forever alone? Did she feel in her heart I would never be held by the arms of a man, feel his lips on my lips, hear the latidos of his heart whenever I rested my head on his chest?
Tell me, Mother, why did you give me that name? A name that in seven letters describes what I’m most afraid of. Soledad.
The alarm clock rings in the living room where Ma and my stepfather sleep. Ma turns off the alarm.
“Soledad, it’s time,” she calls out to me in Spanish. She doesn’t speak English. I can speak some English, but I understand it a lot more than I can speak it.
Ma enters the room and turns on the light. I cover my face with the blanket. The light hurts my eyes.
“Get up, floja, it’s time to get ready,” she says. Today is Saturday. This day and Sunday we go to sell at the Starlight swap meet in Montebello. Tuesdays we go to the San Fernando swap meet. Wednesdays and Fridays we go to the swap meet in Pomona.
I shake Stephanie to wake her up.
“Leave me alone,” she says, and then turns around to face the wall.
“Levántate,” I say to her.
“I’m tired; let me sleep,” she says in English.
“Do as she says,” Ma tells me.
“But she always takes forever to get ready,” I say to Ma as I get out of the bed. My shirt doesn’t cover my legs. I take off my pants at night because I sweat too much. I see the cellulite on my thighs. Ma sees it, too. She shakes her head and goes to the bathroom. I lift up my shirt, look at the balls of fat, the purple lines Stephanie calls stretch marks. I let my shirt fall down. I look at my face, see the red birthmark that covers my cheek and part of my neck. I turn around but I don’t forget the image in the mirror.
Tomás, my stepfather, is honking at us to hurry. He usually sleeps in the van because he’s scared someone will steal the merchandise in it. I brush my teeth and braid my hair.
“Wake up; we have to go,” I say to Stephanie. She doesn’t move. “Come on.”
My stepfather honks again. Ma looks at me. “Let’s go, Soledad, Tomás is waiting.”
Stephanie smiles and like a turtle, hides her head under the blanket. I follow Ma out of the apartment. I sit in the back with the cardboard boxes filled with cosmetics from Jafra, Mary Kay, and Avon, metal tubes, gray and blue tarps, wooden shelves, and milk crates filled with roll-on deodorant, Victoria’s Secret lotion, and hair oil.
The van doesn’t have seats in the back because my stepfather took them out to make space for the merchandise. I sit on the floor and hold the crates stacked up next to me, scared they might fall on me. The van goes side to side on the street. We go to the drive-through at McDonald’s before heading down to the 60 freeway.
“Why didn’t Stephanie come with us?” Tomás asks.
“She’s tired, poor girl,” Ma says. “Folklórico requires a lot of energy. She needs to rest so that she can be ready for school. My little girl works so hard.”
I want to tell her we know that isn’t the truth. Stephanie doesn’t go to school all the time. She doesn’t care about anything but the $300,000 she’ll get on her birthday this December. “Dios sabe lo que hace,” Ma always says. God knows what He is doing. She says this to Stephanie sometimes, when Stephanie doesn’t feel good. On those days Ma holds Stephanie’s fingers up and kisses them. She gives a bigger kiss to the finger my English teacher says is called index, and she tells Stephanie that is her lucky finger.
“Soon you will be rich,” Ma says to her. “You could’ve just been another poor girl, but because God knows what He is doing, He made this happen, so that one day you would be rich!”
Stephanie smiles and doesn’t feel bad anymore. She makes her right hand back into a fist and hides the lucky finger away. The lucky finger that doesn’t have a nail. The doctor by accident cut off the tip of her finger when he was cutting the umbilical cord. Thanks to that little piece of finger, my sister will receive a fortune. The money is in the bank now, but the insurance company won’t let Stephanie get it until she’s eighteen.
We get to the Starlight swap meet and I thank God for getting us here okay. Tomás gives the security man the ticket and drives into the swap meet. Some sellers have already finished setting up their booths. Now they’re drinking their morning coffee and waiting for their first customer. Others are putting together the metal frames or unloading their merchandise. Some vendors sell socks and underwear, women’s clothing, kitchen things like pots and blenders, toys, plants, used lawn mowers and vacuums, Mexican candy, tools, fresh fruit and vegetables, music and movies. The lady next to me sells parakeets, doves, canaries, and little turtles and goldfish. Tomás drives down the aisles. We get to Line 14, where they take out my boxes, the metal tubes, and two tarps. I watch the van leave. Tomás and Ma are going to Line 19. Then I remember that because Stephanie isn’t here, I have to set up the booth alone. I remind myself that Stephanie always drives the customers away, and if she was here today, I wouldn’t sell much. Last week, a lady asked for the price of a face cream and when Stephanie told her, the lady said, “In Tijuana I could get it for half that amount.” Then Stephanie said, “What the hell are you doing here? Go to Tijuana, then!” The lady walked away, buying nothing.
It won’t always be like this, I tell myself. Soon, things are going to change. I’m a seamstress. I like to sew dance costumes and dresses for weddings and quinceañeras. I didn’t have a quince-añera, and this is why I made sure Stephanie had one. Some of the dancers from Alegría were the godparents, and they helped with the cost of the party. Eduardo and Yesenia paid for the cake. I made Stephanie her dress. Everybody said she looked like a princess or a queen. Ma, she doesn’t understand the swap meet isn’t for me. I like to make costumes for Alegría, even if I don’t make too many because Alegría doesn’t have much money for new costumes. But what I really want is to have my own dress shop, make my own designs. This is my dream, and soon it’s going to come true.
After we get home from the swap meet I go see my friend Rubén. He lives in Huntington Park with his parents. I met him when we were getting our certificates as clothes designers at the Escuela de Arte y Confección in East L.A.
“Quihúbole, Sol,” he says to me when I come into his house. His mom says hello to me from the kitchen where she’s making enchiladas. I say, “Cómo está, Señora Sofía?” but Rubén pushes me out the back door before Doña Sofía greets me back. and takes me to the garage. I envy Rubén because his parents’ house has a big garage where he does his sewing. He makes quinceañera dresses, prom dresses, wedding dresses; once, he even got to work for a beauty pageant and designed all the dresses for the women. There’s a big cutting table in the middle of the garage with a tray of scissors, buttons, and some pincushions. His industrial grade sewing machine is in the corner next to a garment steamer. By the door is a bookshelf with fashion design books and a basket full of magazines.
“Want to see my latest creation?” he asks. He takes me to the mannequin by the sewing machine. It’s wearing black pants, a bustier, and a bolero jacket covered in rhinestones. There’s a plastic bag of rhinestones and a bag of ruby cabochons on the floor.
“It’s beautiful,” I say. “Who’s it for?”
“Me,” he says. “Want to see how it looks?” He starts to take the pants off the mannequin. “I made it for my show at Arena. I’ve decided to do a tribute to Selena.”
I say to Rubén to wait for me to go outside, but he doesn’t listen. He takes off his pants in front of me. I feel my face get hot when I see him in his underwear. When I see the bulge between his legs I want to close my eyes but at the same time I want to keep looking. The pants he made are really tight, but he’s thin and has nice legs. He stuffs the cups of the bustier with scraps of cotton fabric and then puts on the bolero jacket. “What do you think?” he says as he twirls around.
“You look very nice.” I feel a knot in my throat. To me he’s a man. I don’t like to see him wear women’s clothes. When he lived alone in his apartment he used to wear women’s clothes a lot. Now that he lives here with his parents, they won’t let him. He hates living here, but he needs to cut down on expenses to pay for therapy sessions. He says the fire that burned down the apartment building where he lived traumatized him.
“You gotta come see my show, Sol. Arena is an awesome club. You’ll have fun.”
I don’t answer him. He knows I don’t go to clubs. Besides, he has a lot of friends he goes out with. I don’t like the people he meets at clubs. Sometimes they hurt Rubén. They make him sad. Sometimes Rubén calls me on the phone to come visit him. He cries and tells me he hates his life. He doesn’t want to live. Then I hold Rubén for a long time until he feels better. When I don’t hear from Rubén I know he’s okay.
“Ay, Sol, when are you going to get your hair styled?” he says as he picks up my long braid hanging down my back. “You look like an old-fashioned woman from a little pueblito.”
“But I am from a little pueblito.”
“Come, let me put some makeup on you, at least. How can you even step outside your door with nothing on? Not even a little lip gloss?”
He sits me on a chair and grabs the container of makeup by the large mirror on the wall. I close my eyes and let him do what he wants. I’ve learned to let Rubén treat me like this. I know he just wants to help me, but I wish things weren’t like this. Rubén is the only man I’m comfortable with. The only man that will listen to me, who doesn’t laugh at my dreams, who doesn’t think I’m crazy. Even if he forgets about me when he’s happy he’s still a good friend. He has offered to help me with the dress shop.
I feel his breath on my face and for a moment I forget he doesn’t like women. “Have you talked to Mr. Johnson about the lease?” Mr. Johnson owns the space on Pacific Boulevard Rubén and I want to rent. I have tried to save all the money I can, and last month Rubén got $25,000. When the apartment building where he lived burned down a few years ago, all his things were lost in the fire. All the tenants got money.
“No, I haven’t talked to the old man,” Rubén says. He’s putting eye shadow on me now and I can’t open my eyes to look at him.
“Didn’t he say that you would be signing the contract sometime next week?”
“I guess so,” he says. The lease will be under Rubén’s name because he has a good social security number and he’s a U.S. citizen. Mr. Johnson said I can’t be in the contract because I don’t have my papers.
“Now, open your eyes, chica.”
I look in the mirror and touch my face. It isn’t my face I see. It is a stranger’s face. A stranger with seductive, smoky eyes and red lips full of promises. The birthmark on my cheek is there, but it isn’t as hideous when buried beneath all that makeup. “Mira qué chula te ves,” Rubén says.
I wish he would look at me the way Eduardo Yáñez looks at Adela Noriega in my favorite soap opera, Fuego en la Sangre.
“Rubén, come eat,” Doña Sofía says from the door.
“How many times am I going to ask you to call me Ruby?” Rubén says, putting his makeup back in the container box. I grab a tissue and start to wipe off the red lipstick.
“A million times,” Doña Sofía says. “Can you believe it, Soledad? What’s happening to my son?” She turns to him and says, “Your brother and father are home now. Come and eat dinner and cut it out with that nonsense. What kind of example are you giving your brother? And for heaven’s sakes take those clothes off!”
Rubén sticks his tongue out at his mother as she walks back into the house. “She’s going to have to get used to it,” he says. “They all are.”
“They will,” I say, but I don’t think Doña Sofía and Don Pablo are going to get used to Rubén being this way. They wish he was already married and had children, like his sister. I rub off the eye shadow before we leave the garage. Rubén tells me to leave the makeup on, that I look good like that. But even with makeup I can’t get Rubén to feel something more for me.
On Wednesday I go pick up Stephanie at dance practice after my English class. I sit in the practice room in a little corner and wait. The dancers practice “El Alcaraván,” a dance from the region of Chiapas, for a Folklórico competition in Dallas this summer. The women move their shoulders so sexy, their hips side to side. I see how the men look at them. I know in this dance they have to look like two birds who are courting, but I think the way José looks at Adriana is real. Like she’s his woman. Like he wants to marry her and have children. See how Angel looks at Stephanie? How he puts his face close to her like he’s kissing her? Stephanie says that Angel is a joto. Gay, she says. But he can’t be gay when he looks at her with love in his eyes, just the way I wish Rubén would look at me. And Laura, the way she moves her shoulders and smiles at Memo. Then the song ends, and the men run after the women, wanting love.
Eduardo shakes his head and tells them to do it again. I think the dance was beautiful.
When practice is finished, I drive Stephanie home. In the backseat are dance dresses and charro suits Eduardo asked me to fix. Some of the silver buttons running down the outside seam of the pants fell off. Some of the pants are torn at the crotch. These pants have to fit really tight on the men but they tear sometimes. The men look so handsome in their charro outfits—white long-sleeve shirts, the silk tie in butterfly style, the black jacket and pants decorated with silver embroidery and botonadura. I wish Alegría had the money for new charro suits. I could make them out of poly-cotton stretch instead of gabardine, then I wouldn’t have to be fixing them so often, and the men would be more comfortable.
Stephanie talks and talks about the dancers. She says Laura isn’t a good dancer. That she’s better than Laura. “I want to do ‘La Bamba,’ ” she says, “but Eduardo won’t let me. He says I always get confused about how to make the bow with my feet, and it comes out all out of shape, but it isn’t true. He just likes Laura. But she isn’t all that great, you know? When I get my money I’m going to start my own dance group and I’m going to dance the best regions, choose the best partner. Maybe I’ll choose Memo. He’s so cute.”
Stephanie talks bad about Adriana. Says she stomps her feet like she’s killing cucarachas. And Yesenia, she says, she’s too old and too fat to be dancing.
I stop listening to Stephanie. She always says bad things about the dancers. I think they dance good. I wish I could dance, too. I wish someone would hold me in his arms, hide me under a big sombrero, and kiss me. But I look like the mother of my father. She died when she gave birth to my pa. She suffered much. Her name was Dolores—pain, sorrow, grief.
Now that I’m thirty-six weeks pregnant, I go to the clinic once a week. I schedule the appointments in the afternoon because I still have two more weeks of work before I officially go on maternity leave. Richard, my husband, says I should go on leave now. “You don’t need all those brats you teach taking away the last of your energy,” he says.
He’s a teacher, like me, but he works at UCLA. I teach remedial English at a high school. Not an easy age to teach. What makes the job more difficult is the fact that I’m twenty-six years old but don’t look much older than my students. Once, the principal asked me for my hall pass before realizing I was part of the faculty.
I co-direct a Folklórico group at the high school. The class is offered after school and the students don’t receive credit for it. Due to budget cuts, we can’t offer many electives to the students, and I feel that sharing my love for dance with them is one way to expose them to the arts. I tell Richard that as soon as I’m finished teaching my dancers the polkas from the state of Chihuahua I’ve added to the repertoire, I’ll go on leave. He doesn’t like the idea, but he knows me well enough to not pressure me.
Richard doesn’t understand my desire to share with the students the beauty of my culture. Through dance I can teach them about our history, the richness we’ve inherited from our ancestors. Most of my students are first-generation Mexican-Americans, and they’re learning to dance so they don’t lose their culture. Through Folklórico, they learn about México’s ancient and contemporary traditions and customs. But I also teach them the history of Folklórico here in the U.S., emphasizing its contributions to Chicano identity and art. Unfortunately, they aren’t quick learners, and I worry they won’t be ready by the time Cinco de Mayo comes around in two and a half months.
My next checkup is today. Soledad comes over to the school to measure the students for the Chihuahua costumes she’s going to make. The students have to do fund-raisers such as car washes on the weekends or selling chocolate bars to pay for the costumes since the school won’t provide the funds.
Soledad is giving me a good deal, and I tell her how much I appreciate her taking the time to make the costumes even though the money isn’t very good.
“It’s good for the kids to dance Folklórico,” she says, “instead of joining gangs and getting into trouble.”
I watch in admiration as she measures the girls’ hips, waists, shoulders, even their necks and fists for the long-sleeve high-collared blouses. When she’s done with all fourteen measurements for each student I dismiss them and ask her if she wants to come with me to the clinic. Richard has a class in the afternoons and usually can’t come.
I’m used to the routine of my visits. Blood pressure is fine. My weight isn’t bad; I’ve put on about twenty-five pounds. Blood sugar level is excellent. Slight puffiness, especially on my feet— I’ve gone from being a size seven to a size eight and a half. Soledad squeezes my arm in anticipation as we follow the receptionist down the hall.
“There’s the baby!” Dr. Franco says as soon as she places the transducer on my belly. She knows Richard and I don’t want to know the baby’s sex so she just points out the different body parts to Soledad, who’s never seen an ultrasound done before and is all smiles, as if she were the beaming parent. I can’t help thinking what a pretty woman she is, although most people can’t see past her birthmark. “And here is the baby’s heart,” Dr. Franco says, and then there’s a catch in her voice. The screen shows the area of the thoracic cavity where the baby’s heart is. Except there’s no movement there.
“When was the last time you felt any movement?” she asks in her doctor’s voice.
I tell her I felt the baby kick this morning during nutrition. After that I felt nothing. During lunch I lay down for a little bit on the couch in the teacher’s lounge and didn’t feel anything. I panicked and called Richard, but he reminded me that the pregnancy book we’ve been reading said it was normal and I shouldn’t worry. Maybe the baby was sleeping. Maybe she (because I hope it’s a girl) was just getting ready for her big day and was resting. I didn’t tell Dr. Franco I was ready to burst into the main office and ask the secretary to call in a substitute so I could go to the clinic right away, but Richard said I was overreacting. My appointment was that afternoon, and it was probably nothing to worry about.
“Is something wrong?” I ask.
She asks me to get dressed and to come to her office; a coldness envelops me. Soledad steps out of the room, and as I get dressed I tell myself nothing is wrong.
I knock on Dr. Franco’s door even though it’s ajar and I can see her sitting at her desk. Her face is pale and she’s twirling her pen absentmindedly. She says, “Come in,” and when she smiles at Soledad and me it’s simply out of reflex; she catches herself and her smile disappears completely.
“Sit down, Elena,” she says. She’s been my doctor since my first checkup, and I’ve heard nothing but good things from her. But now she tells me she has something serious to discuss with me and asks if Soledad should wait outside.
“She can stay.” I reach for Soledad’s plump hand and hold it tight as I listen to Dr. Franco tell me my baby isn’t moving. The heart isn’t beating.
“I’m so sorry,” she says.
I shake my head. “This can’t be happening.” I take off my glasses and everything becomes a blur. I wipe them with the corner of my maternity blouse, not because they’re dirty but because I need to do something, anything. It isn’t true.
Soledad brings her hands up to her mouth and gasps.
“Your body will take care of it naturally,” Dr. Franco says. She tells me that if I notice any bleeding or cramping I should go to the hospital immediately. But for now, I should go home and rest. I’ll need my energy when the time comes to report to the labor and delivery unit at the hospital in West L.A.
I hold on to Soledad as we leave the clinic. We sit on the bench outside, and she asks me if I want to call Richard. But I can’t speak. I can’t even dial his number. She’s the one who makes the call, who tries to explain in the best English she can manage what the doctor said. Then she walks me to my truck and takes the keys from me.
Why? What did I do wrong? I had the flu two weeks ago, was that it? I tried the best I could to do things right. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t drink. Never did drugs, either before or after I got pregnant. I was careful not to lift heavy objects. I ate the right things. I swam at the gym three times a week, if not more. Was it because I had a cup of coffee the few times I was too weak to resist? Was it our cats, even though it was Richard who fed them and cleaned their litter box just like the doctor said for him to do?
“Maybe the doctor has made a mistake,” Soledad says to break the silence. “Those machines aren’t perfect. They’re machines. They can malfunction.”
When we get home Richard is already there, having canceled his next class. Soledad excuses herself, knowing that Richard and I need privacy. Richard tells her we’ll call her if we need anything, and before she leaves she gives me a soft kiss on the cheek and says she’ll go and pray for us.
I lie down and put my head on Richard’s lap, and he makes me tell him what the doctor said, what I saw on the monitor screen. He scratches his head and curses. “This can’t be happening,” he says. He picks up the phone to call his parents, but I tell him to wait. Wait. Because maybe Soledad is right. Machines can malfunction. They can be wrong.
I rub my belly, feel the baby’s knee, but when I push it she doesn’t push back like she usually does. She doesn’t wiggle and play within me. There’s only silence in there. Wake up, little one.
I stand up so suddenly I lose my balance. Richard holds me steady. “Let’s go,” I say, walking to the nursery to grab the bag we packed last week with baby clothes.
“Where are we going?” Richard asks, rubbing his eyes, but I have yet to see him cry.
“To the hospital.” It must be a mistake.
I press my sweater tighter against me, my body shuddering. Hospitals are always so cold, and the labor and delivery unit of the West L.A. Kaiser is no different. I feel a blast of the A/C vent above my head and move closer to Richard. He pats my hand and tells me that everything is going to be okay.
The fear that seizes my body begins in my stomach, a painful burning sensation that spreads and spreads in waves. Please, God, let her be all right. Please let it be a mistake.
At hearing my name, Richard jumps to his feet and helps me get up. I put a hand over my swollen belly, poke it gently, but again, just like before, I feel no movement inside. But last night all she did was kick.
We’re escorted into a room, and the nurse asks me to remove all my clothing and put on a hospital gown. She informs us the doctor will be with us shortly and hurries out of the room. There’s a chair next to my bed, but Richard decides to remain standing. He scratches his head, pulls on his goatee, and begins to pace. When he notices me looking at him, he forces himself to smile.
“Everything will be fine,” he says again. “The baby is fine.”
The doctor comes into the room and introduces himself as Dr. Heller before pulling the ultrasound machine from the corner and bringing it closer to me. He lifts my gown to expose my belly and covers it with the conducting gel. The coldness of the gel makes me shiver. I turn to look at the monitor screen, but because it’s facing the doctor, I can’t get a good view.
If it’s a girl, I want to tell him, Richard and I are going to name our daughter Xochitl, the Aztec word for “flower.” And her middle name will be Kamilah, after Richard’s mom even though she doesn’t like me because she would rather her son had married a black woman. Xochitl Kamilah Davis. That will be our daughter’s name.
The doctor’s face is unreadable, although there’s a flicker of pity, so quick I think I must have imagined it.
“The baby’s okay, right?” Richard asks him. “Dr. Franco made a mistake, didn’t she?”
“Mr. Davis and Ms. Sánchez . . .” Dr. Heller’s face softens as he looks at me. I shake my head in denial. In the doctor’s eyes I’ve seen what he’s about to say. “Your baby—”
“It’s not true,” I say.
Dr. Heller looks at Richard, and I wonder if it’s easier than to look at me. “I’m sorry. These things happen sometimes. There is nothing you could’ve done,” he says. He turns the monitor screen so that we can see. “This is the fetal heart,” he says. “And as Dr. Franco pointed out this afternoon, it is not beating.”
“But how?” Richard says, his voice rising. “How could this happen?”
“These things happen sometimes,” Dr. Heller says again.
“And now, what do we do now?” Richard asks in a voice so soft I can barely hear it.
“We can induce labor.” Dr. Heller takes a deep breath and then looks at me and says the same thing Dr. Franco said earlier. “Or we could wait until your body goes into labor on its own. In about a week or two.” Two weeks more. Two weeks more to keep her with me.
“You mean she could still carry the baby even though it’s— it’s . . .” Richard’s voice trails off and then he looks down at the floor. I do the same.
When I don’t say anything Dr. Heller says, “I’ll give you a few moments alone,” and exits the room.
“Elena, I don’t know what to say,” Richard says. He clears his throat a few times. It sounds strained, as if he’d been yelling, the way he sounds after watching a football game.
I look at him, and I’m glad I’m not wearing my glasses because I don’t want to see the expression on his face.
“There’s nothing to say,” I tell him. “We hoped to hear something different, but there’s no mistake, Richard. There’s no mistake.” He leans his head down on my lap and we both weep.
In the labor room the IV is begun and a suppository that’ll make me dilate is inserted. After having labor induced, I’m to spend the rest of the night at the hospital. Richard dozes on and off on the recliner by the window. I begged him to ask his parents not to come, and despite feeling bad he’s going through this alone, at the same time I get angry to see him there, sleeping as if this weren’t happening.
Six hours later the contractions still haven’t started. There are no cramps. No bleeding. I’m not allowed to eat anything except juice, Jell-O, crackers, and ice chips. Hunger is the last thing on my mind. I close my eyes wishing for sleep, but it doesn’t come. I’m in the place halfway between sleep and awareness, where everything looks blurry, as if my head were covered by a black veil.
Another suppository is inserted. Another shift in nurses. Once in a while, I hear a baby crying. In my half-dreaming state I think it’s my daughter who’s been born. I open my eyes with a start and look around me. The monitor continues to beep, Richard continues to snore, and my swollen stomach tells me my baby has not yet passed from my body. I turn to my side, being careful not to get the tube attaching me to the IV tangled up. I lean my forehead against the chilly metal rail as I feel my first contraction begin.
The contractions are mild at first, like menstrual cramps. Little by little they intensify and I think of my mother, of Adriana, writhing in bed every month because their periods, unlike mine, are a source of excruciating pain. The next contraction begins and my body becomes tense. I take deep breaths, wishing my mother were here, or my sister. Somewhere in the labor ward, another baby shouts its first cry. A mother cries, victorious. I await the next contraction.
Fifteen hours after having labor induced, the contractions grow and grow and grow into a tremendous urge to push. When Richard wakes up, the doctor and the nurses are already in place. Richard holds my hand, and I try to push when Dr. Heller tells me to, but I lack the strength to do it. My body doesn’t want to let the baby go. It clings to her. Perhaps if she stayed inside me, if I closed my eyes and slept, I would wake up tomorrow and this would’ve been just a bad dream.
But my body finally succumbs. It lets go with one final push, and I am drenched in sweat, spent with the effort of trying to hold on and at the same time having to let her go.
The cry doesn’t come.
“It’s a girl,” Dr. Heller says.
This is the part when they were supposed to smile and congratulate me on my beautiful baby girl. Richard and I were supposed to hold each other while gazing upon the face of our child. Instead, they’re looking down at the floor, as if ashamed at their helplessness. The doctor silently hands me the baby.
I reach out for her, afraid to hurt her. She’s so tiny, so fragile.
I hold her close and look at her face, her small fingers curled into a fist, the umbilical cord still connecting her to me. Her eyes closed, mouth slightly opened. Did she cry out? Did she try to ask for help?
Richard stands up abruptly, rushes to the corner of the room, and vomits in the waste basket.
“What are you doing?” I yell, shaking with anger. “Get out! Get out! All of you!”
They all leave, one by one. Dr. Heller and Richard linger at the door. Richard wipes his mouth with a paper towel.
“I want to be alone with her,” I say, calmer now. “Just give me a minute, please.”
I know I’m asking Richard for too much. Isn’t he the father? Isn’t he part of this family? But he vomited, as if our child disgusts him. He nods and leaves the room with Dr. Heller.
I look down at her again, press her closer, touch her feet, count the toes, look at the perfect little nails, the curly black hair. The bluish tint of her dark skin.
Why didn’t I listen closer, pay more attention? If I had, this wouldn’t have happened. I reacted too late, got to the hospital too late to save you. When you kicked so hard it hurt, were you trying to warn me?
Forgive me, my daughter, for mistaking those kicks I joked so often about. “My baby is going to be a dancer.”
Now you’ll never be anything but boxes of baby gifts, black and white photographs of you growing in my womb, the tiny black dance shoes I bought for you in Tijuana, faint stretch marks on my belly, an empty crib that will be used by a child that will never be you.
Xochitl, my dead flower.
We stay in the hospital overnight and the baby stays with us. At first Richard is afraid to hold her. And when he finally holds her he doesn’t cry. All night we talk to her and sing to her. The next morning after a quick exam, I leave the hospital on Richard’s arm with nothing but a box containing my baby’s footprints and handprints, her ID bracelet, and some pictures the nurse took for us. On the way home I feel a strange sensation in my breasts, and I realize my milk has come in. I take off my glasses and hide in my blindness.
My in-laws and Yesenia are at the house when we arrive. I know Richard needs his family by his side, and he thinks I need Yesenia, but I resent their presence. My back still hurts from the epidural and I have a slight fever and my stomach keeps cramping. Yesenia tells me it’s normal, my uterus is shrinking, but the cramps take me back to the labor room, and I feel as if I were having my daughter all over again.
For the next three days I stay in bed. Richard takes care of all the arrangements, and Soledad keeps making coffee and hot chocolate, piling pan dulce and bolillos in baskets for all the people who come and go. I wish they’d go away. I especially want Adriana to go away. I don’t want my sister’s pity. Nor do I want to hear her tell me, like she did last night, that I can still have another child. That I’m still young.
The day of the wake, some of my colleagues from work show up to pay their respects. Mrs. Rodríguez brings along the students in the dance group she and I put together at the high school. They shift from one foot to the other.
I sit across from the white coffin. Richard wanted an open casket so our friends and family could say good-bye to our baby girl, and I was too tired to disagree with him. Didn’t he know how hard it would be to see her there, lying so still? Didn’t he know I would want to pick her up and hold her in my arms? People come and go, give me kisses and hugs. Pat my back, squeeze my hands, whisper how sorry they are. But my mind is numb to their words and their touch. They say they feel my pain, and I want to scream at them. What do they know about what I’ve gone through? They don’t know what it’s like to go into a hospital to deliver a baby that won’t be coming home with you. To feel her come into this world and the only cries you hear are your own.
Adriana comes to sit beside me and says, “Pobrecita, my niece, she’ll never get to dance with Alegría.” She stands up and leaves when the mariachi enter the room and begin to set up their instruments.
A few minutes later, the dancers come out in pairs from the opposite side of the room. Adriana is with them. They’re all dressed in Jalisco outfits—the men with black charro suits and the women with dresses adorned with colorful ribbons. The men don’t wear hats. It wouldn’t be appropriate.
Eduardo, as the director of the group, comes to the microphone. He clears his throat and asks the people to be silent.
“I have known Elena since she was born. I saw her grow up. Had the honor to be her dance teacher and see her become the wonderful dancer she is. Tonight, I would like to express how sorry I am about the terrible tragedy that has befallen her and Richard. The group and I would like to dedicate these dances to Xochitl.”
The mariachi begins to play “La Negra.”
Richard comes to sit by me and puts his arm around me. We watch them dance, Yesenia with Eduardo. Adriana with José. Stephanie with Angel. Olivia with Memo. Laura with Felipe.
I put my hands on my belly, feel its emptiness. My breasts engorged with the milk my daughter will not be drinking. The music doesn’t resonate inside me like it’s always done. My body doesn’t vibrate; my feet have no desire to move, to get up and dance. I realize it isn’t just my daughter that I have lost. I take off my glasses, and now I can’t see the dancers’ faces, can’t see their feet stomping on the floor, but I can still see the blur of beautiful dresses swirling around as the women turn in place. I stand up to leave.
“Where are you going?” Richard asks, holding my hand.
I pry my hand from his.
Richard thinks he knows what’s best for us. “In a few weeks, once you’ve healed, we’ll go to Europe. We can go to Spain, take a train to France. We’ve been talking about this since we started dating. Why not do it now?”
I throw away the books some of the dancers gave me.
“Why are you tossing those?” Richard asks.
“I don’t need books to tell me how to grieve for my child.” I pick up the corn husk doll Yesenia gave me after the funeral. A dancer dressed in a white Veracruz dress. Yesenia is an obsessive collector of these Folklórico dolls. “To remind you of Alegría,” she said. “I hope you come back to us soon.” I toss the doll in the wastebasket.
“And why are you throwing the doll away?”
“You know I hate decorations. They make the house look cluttered.”
Richard stands up and puts his arms around me. “It will take time, Elena. But we have to try to put this behind us, get over this.”
I think of Richard vomiting at the hospital. He said it was the sadness, the helplessness, the anger that made him vomit. Not disgust. But still, anger rises within me, and I embrace it because at this moment I would rather feel anger toward him than nothing at all. “You get over it,” I say, and I push him away from me with all the strength I can muster.
© 2009 Reyna Grande
Dancing with Butterflies
Reyna Grande has brought these fictional characters so convincingly to life that readers will imagine they know them.
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Reading Group Guide
Folklórico, traditional Mexican dance, bring together four women in Los Angeles. Yesenia and her husband lead Alegría, a successful Folklórico dance group, but Yesenia’s arthritic knee keeps her offstage and restless in her marriage. Sisters Elena and Adriana grew up dancing in Alegría, but bitterness over their difficult childhood has soured their relationship. And Soledad, the group’s costume designer, is determined to open a dress shop in L.A., even though she is in the U.S. illegally.
Tragedy strikes each of these four women, leaving Alegría’s future in doubt. Yesenia tries to reshape her body through cut-rate plastic surgery in Tijuana. Elena’s new marriage breaks up after her baby is stillborn, and instead of dancing through her grief, she lusts after an underage dancer. Adriana, missing her abusive father, chases oblivion through a series of dangerous relationships. Soledad sacrifices h see more