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Table of Contents
About The Book
At eighteen, Soledad couldn't get away fast enough from her contentious family with their endless tragedies and petty fights. Two years later, she's an art student at Cooper Union with a gallery job and a hip East Village walk-up. But when Tía Gorda calls with the news that Soledad's mother has lapsed into an emotional coma, she insists that Soledad's return is the only cure. Fighting the memories of open hydrants, leering men, and slick-skinned teen girls with raunchy mouths and snapping gum, Soledad moves home to West 164th Street. As she tries to tame her cousin Flaca's raucous behavior and to resist falling for Richie—a soulful, intense man from the neighborhood—she also faces the greatest challenge of her life: confronting the ghosts from her mother's past and salvaging their damaged relationship.
Evocative and wise, Soledad is a wondrous story of culture and chaos, family and integrity, myth and mysticism, from a Latina literary light.
It's always like that: just when I think I don't give a shit about what my family thinks, they find a way to drag me back home.
A few weeks ago I receive this urgent phone call from my aunt Gorda.
You have to come home, Soledad, your mother is not doing so good.
Gorda expects a fight from me. She tells people that I was born con la pata caliente, feet burning to be anywhere but here. I say, it's more like those Travel and Leisure magazines my mother borrowed from the offices she cleaned that did it. When most kids wanted to go to Disney World, I begged to go to Venice so I could ride one of those gondolas. Even my earliest pastel drawings were of pagodas, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and Machu Picchu.
In some ways the travel and leisure fantasy continues because without trying I led my family to believe that I left 164th Street to live in the school dorms, which I kind of described to be more like high-rises, with a view of the East River and really great showers. For two years, they've had no idea. Every time I step inside my East Village walk-up on the corner of 6th and A, I feel guilty. Everything about it, the smell of piss, the halls as wide as my hips, the lightbulb in the lobby that flashes on and off like a cheap disco light, reminds me of my deception. But if they knew the truth (and how much I am paying for it), they'd declare me insane and send my uncle Victor to tie me up on the hood of his Camaro and bring me back home, kicking and screaming.
So although I dread it, I switch from the L train to the A and head uptown. I've learned not to make eye contact on the train. I try to avoid looking at the old lady who is an emaciated version of my grandmother, Doña Sosa, without teeth. Like my grandmother, the old lady wears heavy pressed powder three shades lighter than her skin tone. Just looking at her makeup gives me allergies. I squeeze my bags between my legs, slip the silver necklace with a dangling peace sign inside my dress and double-wrap the strap of my knapsack around my hand. Out of all the things to wear uptown, I wear a tie-dye cotton skirt and strappy sandals. I should've at least worn sneakers. For a minute I delude myself into thinking that my family is sitting around my grandmother's kitchen eagerly awaiting my arrival. When the A train screeches its way up to 59th Street, I feel the little hairs on the back of my neck jump up like antennas. The tourists, the white folks, the kind of people who are too scared to go uptown, get off the train, leaving me behind. Once the train takes off from 59th Street there's no stopping it. Next stop is Harlem and then Spanish Harlem and then finally Washington Heights.
When I first moved downtown and people where I work asked me where I was from, I used to say the Upper West Side, vaguely.
Oh I really love it up there, they said, no doubt picturing Central Park and hordes of yuppified New Yorkers roller blading on a Sunday afternoon, or restaurants with outdoor seating that serve Italian gelato and crepes. I said it for so long that even I forgot that to most people Washington Heights is not even considered Manhattan. It's more like the Bronx. And because I knew that people associated what they saw on the news with the place I grew up in -- a war zone filled with cop killers, killer cops, crack dealers, gang members and lazy welfare mothers -- I convinced myself that embroidering the truth about my living on the Upper Upper Upper West Side was my way of keeping nasty stereotypes of Washington Heights out of people's minds.
But then I said it in front of my roommate, Caramel. She's a Chicana from Texas running away from the heat. When I told her I was from the Upper West Side, she cringed and looked at me pityingly.
How can you stand it up there? she asked horrified. It's like gringolandia.
I wasn't sure what she meant by that exactly, I just knew it was bad. It felt worse than being called a blanquita back home: a sellout, a wannabe white girl. So to calm her down I told her the truth, I'm from Washington Heights. In a loud Texan accent she boomed: Then say it like it is, mujer.
As soon as I arrive at 164th Street I'm attacked. I trip on the uneven sidewalk. The air-conditioners spit at me. The smell of onion and cilantro sting my eyes. I start to sneeze, the humidity is thick, sweat beads drip on the small of my back. Hydrants erupt, splashing cold water over the pavement. I know I should turn back while I still can, before anyone in my family sees me, but when potbellied, sockless men and pubescent homeboys call me mami, as if I'll give them the time of day if they stare at me long enough, I know I must keep moving forward. The last thing I want is to look lost or confused about where I'm going. There are more cops on the streets than fire hydrants. Merengue blares out of car speakers, the Dominican flag drapes in place of curtains on apartment windows, sneakers hang from lampposts, Presidente bottles, pizza boxes and old issues of El Diario burst out of the trash cans on the corner, a side of pernil grills by a building's basement.
The way I'm figuring it, my time in Washington Heights is like a prison sentence. Once I do the time, I won't have the guilt trip anymore about moving out. I'm twenty years old. Twenty years old is old enough to live away from home. Apparently not old enough for my aunt Gorda, who's almost forty and still lives with my grandmother, and Victor, who is about to hit thirty and won't leave my grandmother's pampering ways unless someone marries him and takes her place. But anyways, I promised Gorda I'll give my mother two, maybe three months. If my mother can't get her shit together in that time then that's it. I've already sacrificed a once-in-a-lifetime apprenticeship with a professor in Spain this summer. Finally I was offered the opportunity to travel far away to Europe, where I could taste grilled champiñones and tortillas españolas, leisurely sit at a café during siesta and drink strong espresso in front of an ancient church. Me and Caramel had it all planned. We were supposed to meet up in Barcelona, where her gypsy tía lives and then escape on a train to Paris following James Baldwin's footsteps.
Who's James Baldwin? I asked her.
Oh girl, you have so much to learn, Caramel said in her I'm-five-years-older-than-you-and-know-so-much-more-about-the-world voice.
I tried to tell Gorda that Europe couldn't wait. But she went on this trip about how I've forgotten the importance of familia.
What if you do go to Europe and something happens to your mother? You'll never be able to live with yourself, Soledad. That I know for sure.
And just when I think I'm going to make it home safe a hard splash of water falls from the sky and hits me in the head. Children begin laughing, circling around me. They're welcoming me to hell.
Parts of my skirt cling on to my skin. My sandals turn a deep dark brown. My nipples go erect. I put my hands over them. I drop my bags.
Do you need help?
Leave me alone. Get away from me, please.
This guy wearing a gold rope chain as thick as my wrist holds back a laugh. That makes me hate him instantly.
Chill. It came from the roof. Don't get mad at me. I'm trying to help.
I give him the hand and look farther down the block toward my grandmother's building. I'm almost there. I know that once I find Gorda I will be fine. I breathe in through my nose out through my mouth. Deep breathing is supposed to help. I learned that from my art teacher, who takes a lot of yoga.
That's some language for a pretty girl.
As if I care about what he thinks. That's the problem with the guys around here. He thinks because he spends his life in the gym and gets dimples when he smiles that I'm going to listen to anything he has to say. Besides he's already causing me problems by making the girls wearing big door-knocker earrings, stretch denim jeans, hair slicked back tight into ponytails, popping chewing gum as if they're sending out Morse code to their homies, stare me up and down. They look like the girls who threatened to beat me up in high school. I really should've worn sneakers. I bet my cousin Flaca is among them. Gorda already told me how she can't get Flaca off the street.
Soledad, you have to advise her, Gorda said as if Flaca would ever listen to me.
I grab my bags and quickly walk away. Wet. I feel a chill; goose bumps emerge all over my legs and arms. I want to slam my duffel on top of the garbage bags. I'll kill whoever threw that water balloon at me. I'll make it my summer's mission. It's no wonder I avoid this place. It's always one dreadful thing after the other. If it's not my mother, it's the chaos, the noise, the higher pitch in people's voices. I need earplugs. In the eighteen years I lived with my mother, my family moved in and out of each other's apartments, trading beds as if they were playing musical chairs. They ran across the street from my grandmother's apartment to my mother's apartment, back and forth, forth and back, front doors wide open, revolving, with neighbors and family coming through from D.R. One day I thought I had my own room, the next I day I was sharing my room with three little cousins who belong to Tío So-and-so who just arrived from some campo I hadn't heard of. But Gorda told me that's all changed. Once I left the hood my mother closed house, only letting Flaca visit every once in a while. Not having access to my mother's apartment drove Gorda and my grandmother crazy. The worst thing one can do is to shut them out. It's like slapping them in the face. And I'm sure they blame me for all that.
As I approach the familiar brick-faced building that houses a courtyard filled with weeds and a dead pine tree I see a crowd. Suddenly in front of my grandmother's building, the people multiply and my grandmother is parting the crowd, carrying my mother, Olivia, with the strength of a matriarch.
I came too late. I waited too long.
The words run through my head like a mantra.
I came too late. My mother is dead.
Get out of my way.
I shove past the vecinos and vecinas, tugging, pulling, dragging myself through the crowd. Inside my grandmother's apartment the Christmas ornaments are still up in June. The heavy metal door swings open, the kitchen smells like bacalao, the apartment seems deserted, except for Gorda's room. I walk down the long dark hallway past the closets and bathroom; past my uncle Victor's diploma from refrigeration school, which he never used; a cracked mirror (Gorda believes it's one of the reasons her husband, Raful, left her); a Ziplocked bag filled with Holy Water, to counteract the broken mirror; my grandmother's collection of quinceañera dolls, (she regrettably never celebrated her fifteenth birthday); my grandfather's walker and a year's supply of adult diapers that the government sent to us compliments of Medicaid.
Can it be my mother is dead? Ever since the day my father, Manolo, died, I fantasized about finding my mother dead. I dreamed her in accidents, caught in a shoot-out, slipping in the tub and accidentally stabbing her head with the Jesus on the cross hanging in the bathroom. I thought I was switched at birth, hoping my real mother would one day appear at the door to take me away. I held on to the fact that I don't look like my mother. Maybe our lips are the same, full and pink. But my hair falls pin straight, my eyes are smaller, shaped like almonds, and my skin is fairer. My mother has the kind of face that when she smiles it makes you want to cry. A lifetime of misery, Gorda calls it. My grandmother, says it's because my mother, was born on the wrong side of things. Came out feet first, that child. But I know it has everything to do with my father. Before my father came into my mother's life, I imagine her to be more like me, with a desire to see the world, to try new things. Maybe if she had never met my father she would have been the kind of mother who would have understood why I had to leave home. Maybe I wouldn't have left in such a hurry.
I remember the day I left perfectly. The early afternoon sun poured over my mother as she leaned her chair back and switched off the overhead fluorescent lights. She had returned from work early. I was sitting at the kitchen table waiting for her.
Those damn lights give me a headache, my mother said, looking at me as if she knew I had a secret that would piss her off. I couldn't remember the last time I saw her without the deep creases between her brows. She always looked as if she had a headache; preocupada, tired, achy, with dolor.
She poured me a glass of water. I had never refused my mother. Not really. When she gave me something, I would take it to avoid arguing with her. Even if I threw it out later. But that day I wasn't thirsty. I was bloated with anxiety, fearing what will happen once I opened my mouth. I pushed the water aside. I knew it couldn't get any worse between us. Days would pass without us saying a word to each other. She would come home from work. I'd start dinner by boiling the water for the rice. And she'd cook while I did my homework, swept the apartment, threw out the trash. Then we ate together at the kitchen table passing a few words between us. I washed the dishes while she set herself up in the living room to do piecework for extra cash as she watched the novelas. For years we lived safely in our rituals. I never confronted her and no matter how our days went we went around each other like repelling magnets.
Drink it, Soledad, she said looking at me as if I was three years old.
I ignored her, looking away.
My mother poured me another glass of water and pushed the glass to the edge of the table without taking her eyes off me. The glass was clear, skinny and long; the sun reflected off the rim. The church bells rang. My fingers were filled with hangnails, more painful than paper cuts. My mother's hands were smooth, cuticles pushed back, nails painted a dark pink.
Drink it, she said again.
She poured another glass of water and another. The glasses stood next to each other like soldiers on a front line. I wouldn't drink from them. My mother got up and lost herself in the living room closet. I wanted the closet to swallow my mother, lock her up into oblivion. But she returned to the kitchen with boxes filled with old drinking glasses. She poured water into each glass, one by one.
Coño maldita niña! Why won't you drink it? Why won't you take a glass of water from me, Soledad?
I tried not to look at her. My heart was pounding, my throat ached from holding back any sign of emotion. And every time I saw her I lost my conviction.
What's wrong with you?
My mother kept yelling at me as I touched the rims of the glass with my fingertips. I had never seen her fight me like this before. She must've known I was leaving. The glasses howled like hungry dogs as my sweaty hands caressed the rims. One by one I smoothed my fingertips over the water-filled glasses and they started to sing, drowning out my mother's scream.
Drink the maldita water, she begged. A glass of water, that's all, Soledad. Can't you see, I'm trying to do something nice for you? When are you going to forgive me? When?
The music from the glasses reached soprano highs that cut through the soft news radio reporting that another kid got shot from a stray bullet not too far from us.
Coño! Listen to me, Soledad!
She swept the glasses off the table with her arms, flinging them up into the air. I hunched over and covered my eyes. Glass ricocheted off my ears. I had to remind myself that I had already found an affordable room to rent in the East Village. That I was going to a place far away from my mother, from Washington Heights. As I felt drops of water fling over my hair, I had to remind myself that I was an artist, lucky to be selected from thousands of artists to attend Cooper Union. She continued screaming and I covered my ears. I ducked my head between my legs, and tried to remember the admission director's calm voice. The same pleasant voice that found me a job at an art gallery, the same pleasant voice that congratulated me for being accepted as an art student with a full scholarship and having so much talent.
My mother reached her hands out to me over the table. Her shirt sleeves were swimming in the puddles on the plastic tablecloth. The water dripped on my toes, no longer numb, just cold. I couldn't let her touch me. I was surprised to see she hadn't combed her hair. It was frizzy, up in a ponytail, on top of her head. Her mascara bled around her eyes, but she wasn't crying. Her eyes were like wet marbles. I slipped my feet into wooden clogs and walked over the glass, pushed some toward the walls with the sides of my shoes.
I had taken off the gold hoops my mother gave me when I was born and placed them on the kitchen table. Stuffed with paint, clothes, brushes, sketchbooks and some towels I stole from my mother's bathroom, my bags waited for me by the door for a quick exit.
Don't you turn your back on me, my mother screamed, using all the air in her lungs.
Watch me, I said. That day I planned never to return.
Now just seeing my family sausaged in Gorda's small room makes me hotter and sweatier. They remind me of my crowded paintings; no matter how big I stretch the canvas, I never have enough room for all my ideas. My art teacher says I have an interesting relationship to clutter.
My family is like clutter in many ways. They gather in piles, hard to get rid of no matter how much I try. Sage, cloves, frankincense burn on coal by the window. Gorda is still wearing a housedress, spongy pink rollers half done in her hair. She's lighting candles around my mother, whose hipbones push from inside her dress.
The blue candles are to keep you close to home, the yellow to drive away the sadness, the purple are so you'll never forget and the white are so you'll sleep in peace. Gorda recites prayers over my mother as my grandmother, watches over her. Uncle Victor paces. My grandfather, Don Fernando, flexes every weak muscle in his body to push the button on the motorized wheelchair so he can inch closer to the bed. His wrinkles are deeper since the last time I saw him. My mother has lost weight. Her palms face up as if she's waiting for an offering. And when Gorda puts fresh herb in them to encourage her lifelines to take a turn for the better, my mother's fingers open like flowers ready to die.
I've arrived too late.
My head spins. I hear a loud ringing in my ear. My mother's lying on Gorda's bed, lifeless.
Soledad! My grandmother says it as if she'd been calling me all day. Now everything is starting to make sense, she says, grabbing my arms, squeezing to feel how thin I am.
I was praying for you to come.
Gorda grabs me, smiling from ear to ear, exposing the small gap between her two front teeth.
Soledad, we think your mother's resolving some things in her sleep.
The way my family stares at me, so happy to see me, as if this wasn't some kind of tragedy, is horrifying. They think my coming back is going to help her. I walk over to my mother lying peacefully and nudge her. She doesn't react. I pinch her hands and nothing.
Is she breathing?
Something similar happened to this woman on TV. She didn't wake up for three years, Gorda says, almost delighted she has more gossip to share with the world. Gorda runs her hands through my hair, frowning at the way it falls flat. No life, she says, as if it's my fault. Gorda picks my hair up from around my neck and lumps it on the top of my head, fanning herself hysterically with the Awake magazine that the Jehovah's Witnesses tuck under the door on Saturdays.
It's been too long since I've seen you, Soledad. Too long.
Qué paso? I ask as I try to remember to breathe through my nose, out my mouth.
Soledad, you should've seen your mother with las tetas afuera, wearing a tiger-print nightgown, her left nipple exposed. My grandmother, whispers when she says tetas and continues saying how when she got to my mother's bedroom the comforter was pushed to the edge of the bed, the window blinds were closed tight, the mirror over the dresser was fogged up. Pobre Olivia, she says.
How long has she been like this? Did she hurt herself?
No mi'ja. She's just sleeping. We found out from the lady who works with her that she hasn't gone to work for days. She just stopped going and last night her lights were on all night. So we started to worry.
Shouldn't we call an ambulance?
Estas loca, they're like mechanics, they mess you up a little, so you have to go back and they can make more money. Nothing good comes out of people making a living on the sick.
That's what they're there for, Abuela, to help, to fix things. You just can't keep her here like this.
And why not? What do you know about these things?
I have succeeded in getting my grandmother's attention, but I don't have answers for her. Not yet anyways.
This is something only we can help. I was the one who found her and I know what I saw, my grandmother says assertively.
What did you see, Mamá? Gorda asks as she lays her hands on my mother's feet, pokes at them as if she's trying to tickle her back to life.
Many things. A mother knows when a daughter is in trouble. I called her and the phone just ring. So I knocked on her door till my knuckles hurt and when Olivia didn't answer the door, I knew something was wrong. Lately she's been very private and doesn't always want to let me in, but she always yells through the intercom to signal she's alive. Ay Soledad, I was so worried. I asked the neighbors if I could use the fire escape to break into her apartment.
And then what? Gorda asks.
I was afraid to step on the floor, the floor seemed fragile, every step made a loud creak, she says.
What did you do?
I walked into Olivia's room and all the saints had their back to her.
San Miguel wasn't watching over her? Gorda asks.
Not even San Miguel, my grandmother says, he was looking straight at the radiator. And you know what else, Olivia's clock was blinking eleven, eleven. As if to record the moment it all happened. And today is the eleventh. And Olivia's birthday is 11/11 and it was at eleven that Soledad walked into this house after being gone for twenty-two months, and half of that is eleven, she says, and narrows her eyes.
I've been away from home even longer; I mean except for the required holiday visits it's been over two years. But I figure, why kill the excitement that comes with coincidences in life? What they need to understand is that maybe my mother might be critically ill, that they're wasting time, but of course they're not rational. Leaving my mother's welfare up to my sixty-five-year-old grandmother, whose head is in the campo and whose heart is in love with Americanisms, is crazy. My grandmother is split between ideas, countries, her dreams and what's real.
...and we live on 164th Street and if you add those three numbers you get eleven, my grandmother continues while Gorda nods, faithfully agreeing with the lunacy.
Abuelo, can you please do something.
Out of all people my grandfather can put some sense into them if he wanted to. Even in his weak state he still commands more with a snort than anyone else. But my grandfather, who hardly ever says a word because words make him cough so much that one thinks death might take him in the midst of it, coughs out, Estas loca, while me, my grandmother, Gorda and Victor stand around him, holding our breath, waiting to see if today is the day he's going to die. But no, he spits in the plastic bucket that sits on his lap and cradles it like a pet with his hands.
She's crazy? Abuelo, who's crazy? All of them or me?
The viejo is gonna outlive all of us, Victor says, ignoring the scene and leaving the room to flick on the TV in the living room to watch the women's basketball game. He's over the drama. Always has been, only jumps when the phone rings or when he's alcohol deficient.
Soledad, tell me how come these women's tetas don't bounce, Victor calls out.
Victor, why don't you ever give a damn?
I don't even realize I'm pacing, back and forth from the bedroom to the living room until I catch my grandmother and Gorda looking at me as if I'm overreacting. It's a shame I can't yell at them. It would make me feel better. But being raised thinking that if I disrespect the elders, they'd make me kneel for indefinite amounts of time on sandpaper keeps my tongue at bay. No matter how strong I feel away from them, strong enough to talk back, get angry, even kick some ass if I have to, when I'm around them I acquiesce and lose all my power. Times like these I wish I was more like my little cousin Flaca. She never holds back. Flaca is the only one who can use a curse word and not offend anybody. She was born with the gift. And because she's been like that since she could talk, no one even tries to change her. We just worry about her fate, like people worry about the hole in the ozone; not doing anything to stop the disaster but seeing it looming in the future.
Soledad, stop behaving like a child and sit down, my grandmother says. We've been doing some thinking and decided that you shouldn't stay in your mother's apartment alone.
When did you have time to think? I just arrived.
A young lady should never be alone. It's not good for you.
My grandmother wears corsets under her bata and a hairpiece to make the bun on top of her head look like she has a full head of hair. Why she still wears corsets at her age is a mystery. Maybe after wearing them for so long she needs them to hold herself together. Or maybe she still has gusto. Womanly desires. We all know my grandfather hasn't been up to much for a very long time.
Look Soledad, I'm not blaming you for leaving, but your mother has been very lonely and we think it pushed her to live in her dreams.
Abuela, how do you know what happened? Maybe she's in a coma.
Coma? I don't think so. Look at her, does she look like she's in a coma to you? She's heavy with so many thoughts. My poor daughter, every day, filled with hours with no one to look after, not a man, not a child. I truly think that algo le pasa las mujeres cuando le dan demasiado tiempo para pensar.
Something happens to women when they have too much time to think, Gorda translates every word as if I don't understand. As if my first words weren't in Spanish.
So we decided that until your mother is back to her normal self, she'll stay here with me where I can keep an eye on her, my grandmother says.
And I will stay with you, Gorda says with excitement in her voice.
My head's speeding to find ways I can get back my room which I sublet for the summer to Caramel's friend who's in New York from Texas. I told her she can have it for June, July, maybe August.
Maybe I should just go back home, Gorda. Obviously you and Abuela have everything under control.
What home? This is your home. The only home you will ever have. We need your help now more than ever. Your mother is going to need twenty-four-hour care and supervision. And I'm going to be very busy giving your mother's house una limpieza. You can't leave us. Your mother needs you.
The last time I remember Gorda giving our neighbor a cleansing, the smell of sage reeked off the walls for months, the plants died and their dog ran away.
What about Flaca?
Well Flaca can stay with us too if you like. But she'll probably want to stay here with Olivia. You know how much she loves Olivia.
You don't have to remind me.
Gorda passes incense over my mother's body, ignoring the fact that my mother doesn't believe in the power of a cleansing. My mother believes in X rays, prescriptions, things that come out of a pharmacy. But that's not going to stop Gorda from breaking into my mother's apartment and getting rid of what Gorda calls the frustrated energy that's eating away at my mother's spirit. If she only knew. Gorda always believed my mother's apartment had something eerie inside of it, and she thinks her giving it a cleaning will make the sun shine through the windows again. I'm tempted to share with Gorda what I know about my mother. But somehow through the years I've convinced myself that if I don't say anything, if I ignore it, it's not really happening.
What have I gotten myself into?
I sit on the windowsill, my back pressed against the windowpane. My mother looks like an angel, her hands curl beside her head. Her face carries an attempted smile and her skin, the color of tamarindo, glows in the candlelight. I wonder whether things would've been different if I'd stayed to help her. On many nights when I still lived with my mother, she screamed for help, woke me up asking me for forgiveness. She was always apologizing between screams. And no matter how far I tried to push back the screeching sound of her voice, I hear it, and hate myself for letting her carry the burden of my father's death.
Soledad, there's nothing worse than a man who doesn't get what he wants, my mother said this every time my father, Manolo, slept on the living room couch, or when he spent nights away from the apartment. She said it when she was beat up, when she had to go to the hospital with broken bones.
So give him what he wants, I begged her when I was too young to understand.
More than I already do? No más.
Do it for me?
I'm fighting for you, mi'jita.
After his death she hardly slept. Startled herself awake, catching herself screaming out loud. Now when I see my mother sleeping, breathing softly and peaceful, all I can remember is my mother's scream with that high-pitched voice of hers that rings and rings.
Gorda doesn't know why it took Soledad so long to come home. She called her two weeks ago. Maybe if she would've come home right away like Gorda asked her to, Olivia would've been fine. But Soledad always moves slow like a cloud. Who can blame her? She has gone through enough with that mother of hers. Besides, Gorda doesn't know what good she could've done anyway.
Gorda has been having dreams that don't lie. Dreams of elaborate weddings filled with carnations and dirty diapers. It was obviously a warning. But she had no idea it would be this bad. Olivia's been sleeping for four full days only getting up to go to the bathroom. Gorda looks at her little sister. She looks exhausted, as if the life was beaten out of her. She's not bruised up the way Manolo would leave her after one of his fits, it's more like her spirit has taken a beating.
As Gorda looks through her closets, she pulls out a few dresses, the denim shirt she likes to wear to the factory and the black sandals that don't make her feet sweat. She wants to pack her suitcases quickly and get to work on Olivia's apartment. She looks around her small bedroom to see if there is anything else she will need.
Gorda's entire life is crammed in that one room. When she moved into her mother's apartment, it was supposed to be temporary. Gorda couldn't afford to keep the apartment she shared with her husband, Raful, any longer. But five years have passed and Gorda just seems more settled in, less worried about finding a new home. Deep down she's hoping Raful returns for her and Flaca. The way he left them, without saying good-bye, makes her feel that he'll be back.
Gorda walks out of her mother's building, looks across the street over to Olivia's building and gets anxious. She'd been trying to get inside of Olivia's apartment for a while now but Olivia wouldn't let her. She was always making excuses, pretending she didn't hear the door, telling Gorda it's too messy for visitors, sometimes coming right out and begging to be left alone. Even Flaca protected Olivia's space as if they were hiding something from her, making Gorda get angry at Olivia all over again for having a hold over Flaca like she does. Ay Olivia, Gorda thinks and pushes all the bad history aside. Gorda notices the lights in some of the rooms in Olivia's apartment are on and wonders if Soledad is home. Gorda's mouth waters with anticipation as she feels the weight of her suitcase against her leg. They're filled with her collection of healing teas, oils and candles, which reek of a botanica when they knock against one another.
Tía Olivia, why you have to go zombie on me before you got me that summer job you promised? I should've known something was up with you Tía 'cause you been going around with your eyes half closed and your hands in a fist. Remember when you said you was gonna try to help me get a job at your company that cleans all those offices downtown, maybe as your helper. You said you were gonna find out if it's legal to give me a job there, 'cause I'm under sixteen, but I told you I can lie, nobody need to know how old I am except us.
I mean I'll do anything to get myself out of this neighborhood 'cause no matter where I go it's as if Mami could watch me from the back of her head. And now Soledad is around to be Mami's spy. As if anyone should listen to Soledad after she went away and she didn't visit us since Christmas. What excuse she got? Not even Mother's Day did she come. Tía, you said it yourself how ungrateful Soledad is. You remember how everybody talk about her, how she dissed la familia. But Mami don't shut up about her. She's like, Flaca why can't you be more like her. As if I want to be like her boring-ass. Flaca, why can't you do better in school? Why can't you dress more like una señorita? You can learn a lot from Soledad you know. Agh! Why can't she learn something from me?
Well you'd be proud of me Tía. I wasn't even planning it but there we were me and Caty hanging on the roof aiming water balloons at passing cars and I never miss. I've gotten real good at hitting the front windshields. Don't worry Tía I never broke nothing, we just watch the balloons splash against the cars. Every time I throw one we duck and hide, because you know how much trouble I'd get into if Mami found out. And then Caty started yelling, You hit some girl, Flaca. A freaking white girl. When I took a peek and looked, I was like, That ain't no hippy white girl chick, that's Soledad.
Can you believe it, Tía? I should've known Soledad was around, 'cause the street smelled kind of stank. And shit's been extra quiet. Even old man Ciego who been hanging in front of the building for years says Mami not yelling my name into the streets was throwing his days all off. He says for years he knows what time it is by the pitch of Mami's voice; the later it is, the louder and more pissed Mami gets. He better believe she yelled enough at me when I got home 'cause I wasn't around to hear about what happened to you. But all that time I was hiding from Soledad. Imagine if she saw me on the roof. That would've been my ass.
Since you flipped on us, Mami's been acting crazy. She says you have some emotional coma kind of shit. Leave it to Abuela and Mami to come up with that. I tell them you're just tired. If you were in a coma you wouldn't be listening to everything I say like you do. But Mami keeps saying we need to give your apartment one of those once-in-a-blue-moon cleanings. That's why she's gone to live at your place. She says the less I'm around the better, because she can't do it with my hormones out of control like they are. She says I confuse the spirits. Can you believe her? And now every time she sees me, Mami wave incense around me, making me stink like a fucking church. Be free, she chants over me, Santa de las Rosas, make her free. Then she go back to whatever she's doing. She don't even say hello. Why do I need to talk to you? she says. You're my child. Nothing could change that.
Mami bugging, talking about me having to get a job. Especially since Papi have left us, she super paranoid about money. She says I ain't no niña no more, that I gots to start acting like a señorita and shit. She starts singing her song, When I was a kid in D.R., and you know there's no stopping her when she start talking about carrying those buckets of water on her head all barefoot and shit. She talk about walking mad miles to school. Then she start to show me her feet, Look Flaca, look how big and flat my feet are, you know how much taller I would've been if I didn't have to do all that work? Ay niña, you don't know what it's like to pasar trabajo, she says. I know she don't want to hear it, but maybe it's those tight puta shoes she wear with the three-inch heels that make her feet feel so big. What do you think Tía?
I told her if she keep yelling at me I'm just gonna have to split.
I'll leave you just like Soledad left Tía, I tell Mami that and sometimes it shuts her up, and other times it just make her chase me with a belt. A belt she's never used but that belt is as long as my leg Tía.
She tells me to get a job, do something with myself, but then she flips when I'm not home. If I can't see you from the window you've gone too far, she says. How she expects me to get a job if I can't go nowhere?
I can't be near Mami no more without her starting with me. She just don't understand I gots my own troubles. She says I best be getting myself a job this summer or else she gonna send me off to plátano land so I can learn to be more grateful. Could you believe her? Kids over in D.R. are raised to be hard workers, she says. It's not my fault I gotta be sixteen to get a decent job. She just don't understand that nobody gonna give me a job unless it's something like McDonald's. I mean, I guess I could work at McDonald's, but that uniform, it's polyester. I don't think I could do it.
Tía you know how Mami and Soledad always been real close. You always said that daughters never like their mothers as much as their aunts when they're growing up. Life would be too easy if they did. Well, I'm like, whatever. I would like Mami fine if she didn't have something to yell at me about all the time. But she just don't know how to stop her mouth.
My mother's apartment door is unlocked. As if walking into a crime scene I pick up the bat strategically placed behind the door and swing open the closets, one after the other to make sure no one is hanging out in them. I turn on all the lights and walk into my mother's bedroom holding on to the bat with both hands, just in case. Everything in the room seems displaced. Her nightgown smells like Opium perfume mixed with menthol. Her neck or back must've been aching. Or maybe she put some menthol on her temples like she does when she has a headache or under her nose for her allergies.
My mother always has one ailment or another. But she always tried to hide it, especially around Gorda and my grandmother. They don't tolerate sickness. To them it equates weakness. My grandmother says it's because there's no time to get sick. It's a luxury to lie in bed and be taken care of. That's why my grandmother gets angry at my grandfather. He's been sick for a decade. And when they do detect a sign of illness Gorda gets on a mission, mixing my mother home remedies, sachets filled with cat claws and lily bark, soups with beet roots, so she can feel better, only for my mother to stubbornly Ziploc them so the roaches won't get to them and store them far far back in the shelves behind the dishes and glasses she never uses.
Gorda thinks she can solve everything, my mother would say.
No she doesn't. I would defend Gorda every time.
Why do you always take her side, Soledad? I'm your mother. Don't you forget that.
My mother likes to remind me that she's my mother as if she herself isn't sure who I belong to. I almost died having you, she says, I came to this country to give you a better life, she says. What has Gorda done for you? Huh?
But nothing my mother ever said made me love Gorda any less. Gorda has this birthmark between her eyebrows that's more like a third eye in hiding. When she puts her mind to it she says she can make someone's hair fall out, a dick go limp and even inspire love between two people. Sometimes it's hard to believe she can be so powerful, especially because I've never seen her do anything with my own eyes. But Gorda says, You can't see the air yet you know it's there, so why do you have so much trouble having faith in me?
I pull up the shades in my mother's bedroom and open the windows. Daylight falls on her saints, all standing in place, one next to the other on the window ledge looking outside toward my grandmother's apartment.
No matter where you place a saint it's always in the right place. That's what Gorda says. They carry that strength in them. I imagine having that kind of power. To be able to walk into a room and feel at ease, where nothing can hurt me.
My father, Manolo, has been scratched out with a black marker on all the photographs around the room. I can still see him through the marker. My father, tall and lanky, leaning like a palm tree.
That man spent too many years in the sun, my mother said. When she wanted me to hate him she'd say his skin was burnt like fried fish from too much fooling around in the sun. Should've known, she'd say under her breath. Meet a man on vacation and all he wants to do is play. No sense of the real world.
Vacation? I would ask. You met on vacation?
When my mother wanted to lay things on thick about how hard she works, she'd say she never took a vacation in her life.
Your father was on vacation, I was working.
Where were you working?
I was doing the kind of work I hope you never have to do. So go to your room and do your homework before I get the belt and show you what the devil looks like.
I gather all the photographs of my scratched-out father and put them under my mother's bed, behind the bed ruffle. Many of the ceramic dolls my mother brought back when she went to Dominican Republic are broken. The plants are wilted.
The sun coming in through the thin yellow curtains casts a golden glow in my mother's room. I keep the bat near me for protection. I'm secretly glad Gorda is coming to stay with me. I can't imagine living in my mother's place alone. It has this creepy feeling. My mother claimed my father used to visit her. That's how she used to explain a fuse going out, the loud pounding sound that made the neighbors downstairs hit their ceiling with a broomstick. Floors shaking, walls vibrating hard enough to make the glass elephants on the shelves in the living room break, leaving them with missing limbs and trunks, and half ears.
My mother's rosary feels cold and useless on my palms. I shove the plastic beads in my pocket. I hear someone opening the front door and seconds later Flaca walks up behind me.
Ah shit. I didn't know you'd be here.
Flaca has grown taller than me. She's thin and limber like licorice.
How did you get in?
Flaca dangles the keys in my face and tucks them in her knapsack. Two years have passed and Flaca is almost a woman. Her nails are painted red with silver lines down the center. Her fingers are long and weaponlike.
Where's your mother?
Right behind me. Ah shit, Soledad, you got fat, girl.
Like a reflex I suck in my stomach, trying to prove her wrong. With Flaca I always regress to thirteen. Like the day Flaca came wearing every piece of costume jewelry she could find in my mother's bedroom. Flaca was barely seven and I was looking after her. Turquoise seashell bracelets and fake onyx necklaces dangled from Flaca's small waist.
And when I attempted to take the fake pearl choker Flaca wore as a crown off her head, Flaca screamed, Don't take my crown, I'm queen. Tía Olivia told me so. One day all of this will be mine. Flaca pointed to everything in the room marking what was hers.
And what about me? I asked.
You have to ask Tía if she has anything for you.
I never asked my mother for anything. And when Flaca and her are together I always feel like the unwelcomed visitor. Even as a child I felt that way. I look around my mother's room. I hold on to the bat, imagine hitting Flaca with it when I see her open the top drawer of my mother's bureau, as if she knows where everything is. I grip the bat with two hands. I watch Flaca glide a thin black line over her eyes to make them look bigger, sexier. I caress the neck of the bat, the wood is rough and old.
Soledad! There you are. I was looking for you. Gorda walks in, dropping her stuff on my mother's bed. Flaca, you take that mierda off your face right now, no daughter of mine is going around the street like some cuero. Right, Soledad?
Our eyes lock. I feel victorious over Flaca. I want to go to the mirror and put eyeliner on, to make her burn up inside but Flaca's just a little girl. I shouldn't even waste my time. Instead I laugh at her as Flaca makes a face and walks out, letting the door bang behind her.
The night Flaca was born Gorda was up with mild cramps, not even threatening a contraction. Gorda figured a bath of yarrow leaves and dandelion roots would soothe the pain. But right then as she was filling up the tub with water Flaca punched a hole in her placenta and Gorda's water broke.
Olivia, get over here.
Olivia ran into the bathroom wearing yellow rubber gloves from washing the dishes.
Ay Dios, Espíritu Santo, ayudanos, Olivia said, throwing the gloves onto the floor then rubbing the clamminess of her hands on her dress.
Gorda sat on the rim of the tub. Her mouth was stretched wide, breathing hard.
OK, Olivia, don't panic, women all over the world have done this, so can I.
Olivia went to get the special sheet Gorda bought, washed and blessed for the baby. A bachata played from the radio in the living room. The sun was shining over the building into the bathroom. Jesus' halo was glowing in the sunlight.
Although Olivia's hands were trembling she acted on every step as if she rehearsed the scene before.
Here's the sheet, warm towels, and ice for you to chew on.
Olivia rubbed the ice on Gorda's lips, putting the towels and sheet on the toilet.
Gorda, chew on the ice, Olivia said and hoped she remembered everything.
I don't want ice, I want this baby out of me, Gorda screamed, kicking Olivia on her side.
Ay Gorda, I think I see something. Ay diosito.
Olivia searched in between Gorda's legs.
What about the head? Do you see a head?
It must be the head. Olivia stayed calm.
Saca me lo, ya! Olivia, get it out.
Well, you got to push, Gorda, push!
Olivia spread Gorda's legs farther apart.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why? Gorda yelled. I wish that bastard Raful was here so he could see me...if only...Ay Dios mío, get it out, Olivia, get it out.
As she pushed Gorda thought only of strangling her husband. Even in the midst of pain he crept into her thoughts. Out of all the days Raful had to work. Ever since Gorda became pregnant he started to work more overtime. Because they needed more money for the baby, he said. Maldito hombre. That's why she came to stay with Olivia so often because if it was up to Raful she would be having this baby alone.
Push! Olivia said. Gorda pushed as she squatted on the floor trying to make it easy for Olivia to catch the baby. Gorda's left leg was falling asleep. She was tired from balancing herself against the tub. Finally the baby slipped out like a limoncillo pit out of its shell. Olivia grabbed the baby, poked her pinky nail in her ears, nose and mouth and waited for the baby to scream. And without hesitation the baby opened her eyes, pointing her skinny, long fingers at Olivia.
Don't cut the cord, Gorda said, not yet. This is the only time we will be attached, she said, taking her baby from Olivia's arms.
We're gonna have to watch this skinny one close, she's already looking too smart, Gorda said as she held her. Her sweaty back felt good against the cold porcelain tub. She stretched her legs on the bathroom floor, over the water, blood and placenta filling the cracks in the tiles.
Look how beautiful she is, Olivia said, rubbing ice on Gorda's forehead and neck.
It was Olivia's idea for Gorda to stay with her and Soledad. She said it made sense that Gorda lived with them until Gorda was emotionally and physically ready to go back home. Besides, Manolo was away building a house in La Capital for three months and Raful said he wouldn't be able to sleep if the baby was going to cry all night.
For weeks Gorda was an emotional wreck. Everything anyone said hurt her feelings. When Gorda started to cry, Flaca started to cry.
Look at this flab, Olivia.
Gorda pinched her loose skin and cried at the disfigurement of her stomach.
It will go back, Olivia said, handing Gorda the cocoa butter cream Olivia swore would keep her stomach stretch-mark-free.
It's easy for you to say that, you're perfect. I look like one of those ugly wrinkled dogs.
Gorda's eyes filled up in tears and all of sudden Flaca started crying uncontrollably in the bedroom. You see, Olivia, everything I do affects my child. I cry, she cries.
Olivia ran to the bedroom to attend to Flaca.
Tía Gorda! Soledad ran from her bedroom into the living room on her tiptoes as if she was about to fall over. Why you cry? Soledad asked, trying to curl her pigtail into a spring.
Soledad put her tiny hands on Gorda's exposed belly and said, It's like Jell-O. Tía, jiggle jiggle jiggle.
Gorda couldn't help but laugh when Soledad put her mouth on Gorda's belly as if gobbling her all up.
Soon after Flaca was born, Gorda had to go back to work or they were going to replace her at the factory. During the day Gorda worked while Olivia stayed home with the girls and at night it was Gorda's turn to watch over them while Olivia left them to clean offices. Gorda began to worry that Flaca was starving herself. Why won't you drink Mami's milk. Eh? Flaca, you chew but never suck. She begged Flaca to drink, oftentimes resorting to pumping her breasts, which were in constant pain from all the milk stored in them, and was surprised that Flaca drank from a bottle without a problem. Gorda felt so disconnected from her, she tried to meditate on that short moment when her and Flaca were still attached. She wondered if Flaca's refusal was a sign to what their relationship held in store. She became so sad she would make herself feel better by spending more time with Soledad, who was fascinated by Gorda's curly hair.
Then one day Gorda came home from work and found Olivia falling asleep on the bedroom chair holding Flaca with one arm. Flaca was sucking Olivia's milkless breast like a pacifier. As if Soledad knew Gorda had to be held back, Soledad came out from underneath the bed and grabbed onto Gorda's ankles and said, I got you, Tía. Her little hands prevented Gorda from moving one step closer toward Olivia. Gorda bent down, picked up Soledad, put her finger in front of her mouth for her to be quiet and locked her in the bathroom. Gorda pulled Flaca by her tiny feet off of Olivia's chest and put her on her shoulders.
How could you?
Gorda looked for an answer in Olivia's big green eyes, which never cried but turned bloodshot. Olivia pulled her robe tighter around her, pulling her knees up to her face, tucking her feet on the chair.
I should've known, Gorda said. The way you carry mi Flaca around the house, neglecting Soledad. You never gave your baby la teta but you give it to mine. How dare you, Olivia?
Gorda could never forgive Olivia for taking Flaca away from her. Olivia kissed and held Flaca like a new beginning. Flaca had shared her first secret with Olivia. Secrets were funny like that. They create distance with everyone who is not included. Who knows how much time Flaca and Olivia had their secret before Gorda found out? Gorda hated her sister for closing herself up, for pretending that it never happened, for putting her in a place where she cried and got angry and Olivia sat like a rock, hiding inside herself.
Copyright © 2001 by Angie Cruz
Reading Group Guide
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Reading Group Guide
1. What reasons does Soledad give for wanting to be far away from her family? Do you think there are other reasons that she's not fully aware of? How legitimate are these reasons, and do you think her feelings about them change over the course of the book?
2. Flaca and Soledad seem to have switched mothers in certain essential ways. At what point in their childhood did this happen? What event or series of events triggered it? Why would each of them find it easier to be close to their aunt than to their mother? Have you ever been particularly close to a member of your extended family? What was uniquely beneficial about the relationship?
3. What role does the supernatural play in the book? Which characters see things that may or may not really exist, and why do you think they see these things? Which characters believe most strongly in the spirit world? When the men from Olivia's past appear in the room, what allows Soledad to see them? What does she learn from their presence?
4. The chronology of the book often skips from the present day to an incident from the distant past. How does this back-and-forth technique help you to see the characters develop? How does it affect the way you view the different generations of the family? Does it help you better understand the similarities and differences between the generations? If so, how?
5. What type of information do characters divulge to Olivia that they might not divulge if they thought that she was fully conscious? What kind of behaviors do they exhibit? How do their conversations with, and actions around, Olivia move the story along?
6. Were you surprised by the revelation about Manolo's death? Do you think that Soledad remembered this incident all along, or was her memory jogged by something that happened in the present day? What led Olivia to act the way she did in that fateful moment, and was she at all justified in her action?
7. How does Olivia's memory of her relationship with Manolo influence the way she advises Soledad and Flaca to deal with men? What role do you think Manolo played in the affliction that plagues Olivia throughout the book?
8. Why does Soledad fall for Richie? Is it a slow process, or does one particular moment alter her feelings for good? In what ways is Richie different from the other men in Soledad's life, and how is he similar?
9. How do the male characters in the book deal with the influence of their ancestors' behavior? How is it different from the way the females cope with theirs?
10. In what ways is Flaca old beyond her years, and in what ways is she naive? How are other characters defined by their relationship to her? Did you ever find yourself taking Flaca's side in her frequent disputes with Soledad? If so, why?
11. Discuss how the supporting characters enrich the story: What do you learn from the presence of Soledad's grandparents? What does Ciego's blindness represent to you? When Toe-knee is arrested and Flaca must briefly take care of Iluminada, what does the incident tell you about the characters involved, and the world in which they live?
12. Near the end of the book, Soledad observes that her family thinks of Washington Heights as a temporary home, until the time comes when they can return to the Dominican Republic. Do you think this is true of everyone in the family? Who might not feel this way, and why?
13. Now that Olivia has started speaking again, how do you think the lives of the characters will change in the future? Will they return to New York? Will Soledad stay home or go back to the East Village? Will she be interested in maintaining her romantic relationship with Richie? Taking up where the book leaves off, discuss why the characters may or may not embrace drastic change in the next chapter of their lives.
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 12, 2002)
- Length: 240 pages
- ISBN13: 9780743212021
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Raves and Reviews
Katori Hall The Boston Globe Tinted with the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez, Cruz's first novel is that of man and woman, selective amnesia and persistent memories, redemption and survival.
Dodie Bellamy San Francisco Chronicle A vivid, breathing cityscape teeming with raw beauty, danger, and magic.
Mark Rozzo Los Angeles Times Nobody's ever really given us such a revealing look at New York's Dominican population before...Cruz, in this determinedly real yet often magical novel, offers canny insights into family life.
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