robert antoni

fiction

 

madeline baró

cosmo girls

 

It was 3 a.m. Me and Tanya were drinking Pepsi and playing Six Degrees from Kevin Costner. I told Tanya to start with Darryl Hannah. Tanya thought for about five minutes.

“Okay,” she said. “Darryl Hannah was in Steel Magnolias, which had Julia Roberts, who was in Pretty Woman, which had Richard Gere, who was in Intersection with Sharon Stone, who was in Basic Instinct with Jean Tripplehorn who was in Waterworld with Kevin Costner.”

I was counting on my fingers.

“That’s five movies,” I said.

“So?” she asked.

It was 3 a.m. Me and Tanya were drinking Pepsi and playing Six Degrees from Kevin Costner. I told Tanya to start with Darryl Hannah. Tanya thought for about five minutes.

“Okay,” she said. “Darryl Hannah was in Steel Magnolias, which had Julia Roberts, who was in Pretty Woman, which had Richard Gere, who was in Intersection with Sharon Stone, who was in Basic Instinct with Jean Tripplehorn who was in Waterworld with Kevin Costner.”

I was counting on my fingers.

“That’s five movies,” I said.

“So?” she asked.

“So, it’s a sudden death round. It has to be six.”

“Give it up, Jenni. I won. I’m Six Degrees from Kevin Costner champion of the world and you are . . . a loser. I’m out of here.”

“You can’t drive home,” I told her. “We just finished two six-packs of Pepsi. You’re wired.”

“I’m used to it. My body passes it like water,” she said. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

She picked up her backpack and left my house.

As she was driving home, she fell asleep at the wheel. Her car veered to the left on the highway. She smashed into a lamppost and died.

I was upset for about two hours, but after that I was just really pissed at her for being stupid.

At the funeral, I couldn’t believe that after (what I figured was) a violent death, she still looked good. She even had an open casket. She was lying in it, eyes closed, her arms crossed over her chest. Her hair was still Vampire Red, the color we'd dyed it two weeks before. Her skin was not as pale as usual. She actually had some color, like she'd been in the sun and tanned instead of turning lobster red like she usually did.

Her eyelashes were long, as always. I'd always wondered about her lashes, so as I was kneeling by the casket, I tugged on them to see if they were real. They didn't move. They were probably glued in place.

I felt good about one thing, though. Her mom decided to bury her in a white lace dress she made Tanya wear to Easter Mass that year. The dress came down to her knees and the collar came halfway up her neck. I had gone to church on Easter just to see her and laugh. I sat next to her and giggled through most of the service.

I got really nervous, though, when it was time for communion. Tanya's mom nudged Tanya and made her line up to take communion.

I couldn't believe that Tanya would do that after the priest, Padre Juan, went on and on about not taking communion without confessing your mortal sins. Tanya hadn't confessed since ninth grade. The Wednesday before, her boyfriend-of-the-week, Jose, had gone down on her in the front seat of his Camaro. She told me he kept bumping up against the stick shift. Actually Jose was two pews behind us, sitting next to his parents, with a bruise on his neck. As Tanya got closer and closer to the altar, I kept thinking she was about to buy an instant ticket to Hell.

She finally reached Padre Juan. He held the wafer up. She opened her mouth. My heart stopped. She closed her mouth without taking the wafer. Padre Juan scrunched his eyebrows and looked down at her. She whispered something to him. He nodded. She smiled, winked at the altar boy, turned around and came back to her seat.

She kneeled to pray. I kneeled next her.

"You weren't worried, were you?" she said.

"Not for a minute," I said.

At her funeral, Padre Juan said a lot of things, but I wasn’t listening to most of it. I just noticed what he didn’t say. Like he didn’t talk about catching Tanya in the church parking lot making out with the youth group treasurer when she was 13, or the time she confessed she’d watched her brother’s porno video collection, volumes A through EE, or how there were two commandments she could never remember, even when Padre Juan made her write them 20 times each. He didn’t even talk about how Tanya had promised him on Easter Sunday, during communion, that if he didn’t make a scene, she’d be at confession first thing that Monday. She never showed up.
I walked up to him when everyone was filing out.
“Padre Juan,” I said. “You forgot about Easter, commandments eight and nine . . .”
He smiled.
“God knows,” he said. “Her mother doesn’t have to.”
There was one thing about Padre Juan’s sermon that stuck with me, though. He said (and I’m paraphrasing) that dead people don’t rot and die. They stay with us.
He wasn’t kidding.
Three weeks later, I got the latest issue of Cosmopolitan. The cover story was the “definitive guide” to finding men. I laughed when I read it, thinking that if Tanya was around, she’d want to try it out. Since she wasn’t, though, I just tossed it in a corner.

I woke up at two in the morning. Juan Luis Guerra was blasting out of my stereo. I turned on the lights. Tanya was there, dancing—badly. She had less rhythm dead than when she was alive. She swung her hips on the wrong beat, like she always did.
“I thought you’d never wake up,” she said.
“With that shit blaring?” I asked.
“How could you call Juan Luis shit? It’s your CD.”
“I only bought it to teach you how to dance and it didn’t work.”
“You know, I came here to give your pathetic little life a boost, but if you’re going to be a bitch, I’m out the door.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Cosmo,” she said. “Ten places to find men. The definitive guide. I know you can’t find them by yourself, even with instructions.”
“I’m not gonna go look for men just because Cosmo tells me to.”
“Oh, so you want to spend another Saturday night eating coconut cakes and watching Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman?”
“Yes,” I said. “I spent six years of loud weekends with you. I need a break.”
“I forgot how boring you were,” she said, sitting on the foot of my bed. “I guess you don’t want to hear my plan.”
“Nope.”
“It’s really, really good.”
“I’m sure.”
“If you listen, I won’t bug you anymore.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Well, I can’t tell you yet, but when we’re done, you’ll thank and worship me,” she said.
“Don’t I always?”
Tanya’s first bright idea was to go to the park and walk a dog. She let me borrow her Chihuahua, Shroder. I went over to Tanya’s house to get the dog. Tanya’s mom didn’t let me go easy, though. She talked to me about Tanya for half an hour. She cried, mostly. Tanya was busy checking out her room to see if anything had been moved. She came back just as I got the leash on Shroder.
Shroder had always hated me, so I ignored her when she barked her head off the whole drive over to the park, but when we got to the park and the bitch pissed on my shoe, I was going to kick her.
Tanya stopped me.
“It’s not her fault,” Tanya said. “She’s cold because you left her sweater at home.”
“I wasn’t going to put your rat dog in a sweater,” I said.
“Don’t talk to her like that. She understands everything.”
“Then why didn’t she understand when I told her not to piss on my Keds?”
“She’s just a little moody because she’s in heat,” Tanya said. “Why don’t you walk her over to that cutie by the bench over there?”
I saw the guy Tanya was talking about. He was tall and had big shoulders. He was a cross between Denzel Washington and David Justice. He had a German shepherd with him.
I dragged Shroder over. She wouldn’t stop barking. The German shepherd turned to her and growled.
Denzel-David pulled on the dog’s leash.
“Stop it, Otto,” he said. He looked at me. “I’m sorry about that. Otto’s usually friendly.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “Shroder isn’t.”
Tanya was checking the guy out. She looked at me.
“No wedding ring,” she whispered.
“Your dog’s name is Shroder?” he asked.
“She’s not mine. She was my best friend’s. My friend—died—not long ago,” I said.
“Three weeks, two days,” Tanya said. “I thought you were counting.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s okay,” I said. “When I’m with Shroder, it’s like my best friend is still with me.”
“Because she is,” Tanya said.
“Does Shroder know she’s gone?” he asked.
“Oh, shit!” Tanya yelled.
I turned around. Otto had mounted Shroder and the two of them were going at it.
Denzel-David saw it when I did and he started pulling on Otto’s leash. I started pulling on Shroder’s.
“Why didn’t you get your stupid dog fixed?” I asked Tanya. I pulled so hard on the leash, I almost choked Shroder.
“Your dog’s not fixed, either,” Denzel-David said.
“I know,” I said. “I was talking to—myself.”
He dropped the leash.
“This isn’t working,” he said. He handed me Otto’s leash. “Hold this. I’m going to find some cold water.”
“I think he’s almost done,” I said. “You’d better get him a cigarette.”

So, the park was a disaster. Tanya told me not to worry, it was just a practice run.
Next one, she said, was for real.
Our next stop was the laundromat. Cosmo said you’d find domestic-type guys there.
Early the next Saturday we were at the laundry with Tanya’s clothes because my mom had already done my laundry.
Getting the clothes meant I sat with Tanya’s mom another 30 minutes while she cried. This time, though, she pulled out her beads and we prayed a rosary. Tanya joined us for a little bit, but she kept forgetting when to end the Ave Marias and start the Padre Nuestro. She gave up and went to her room.
At the laundromat, I loaded her clothes into the washer and scoped the place out. I zeroed in on a muscle boy at the folding table. Black spiky hair. He was wearing black shorts and a blue T-shirt. He kind of looked like Tom Cruise, but taller and without the cocky attitude. He was alone.
I sent Tanya to check out his clothes. She came back with a full report.
“Just guy stuff,” she said. “No lingerie. No blouses. He has boxers, too. Silk, I think. You can move in.”
I walked over to the table.
“Hi,” he said.
“I don’t know where my brain went,” I said. “I totally forgot my fabric softener. You wouldn’t happen to have any you could lend me, would you?”
He smiled. Perfect white teeth.
“I’ve got some Downy at the end of the table,” he said. “You can use it.”
“I can’t borrow Downy from a complete stranger,” I said. “My name’s Jenni.”
“That was smooth,” Tanya said.
“I’m Rick,” he said, shaking my hand. He had big hands and a firm grip.
“I can borrow it now,” I said and smiled.
“You didn’t do the wink,” Tanya said.
“Are you here every Saturday?” I asked.
“No. Thursday’s my laundry day.”
“Did you get that dirty in two days?” I asked, giving him the wink.
“That was good,” Tanya said.
He laughed and folded a pair of jeans.
“No,” he said. “My boyfriend just got back from a trip. These are his.”
“What did he say?” Tanya asked.
I nodded.
“Yeah,” I said. “My boyfriend does that all the time, too.”
“What are you doing?” Tanya asked. “Don’t play it off. He might be bi. We still have a chance.”
I ignored her.
“I’ll bring this back in a sec,” I said, and walked to my washing machine.

I told Tanya I’d been humiliated enough. She convinced me to try one more place Cosmo guaranteed I’d find a man—a club. I was skeptical, but she said we could go to an over-21 club that would be nothing like the meet-market grunge clubs we were used to.
I already had Tanya’s clothes, but I had to go visit her mom again to get Tanya’s fake ID. This time her mother fed me Chips Ahoy and café con leche while we looked at photo albums. Tanya tried to distract me every time we got to the naked baby pictures. We went through Tanya’s life in a little under three hours.
Tanya and I picked a South Beach club out of the phone book and went there with Tanya’s out-of-state ID. We’d pasted my picture on top of hers. The guy at the door let me in. Of course, I was wearing Tanya’s skintight black mini-dress, so I don’t think he was paying much attention to the license.
Tanya and I sat at the bar with one seat between us. Tanya insisted we use our old hand signals. When we were 18, we’d worked out a silent system to let each other know if we thought a guy was worth it. Usually, it was me giving Tanya the signals, so Tanya was excited about sending me the signals for a change.
“This is silly,” I told her. “They can’t hear you.”
“Sh-h,” she said. “You keep talking to yourself, they’ll think you’re crazy.”
“I must be.”
“Here comes one,” she said.
I rolled my eyes. Some loser wearing a vest with no shirt underneath came over.
“Get lost,” I said when he opened his mouth. He walked away.
“I didn’t give you the signal!” Tanya complained.
“I need a drink,” I said.
I guess I didn’t look as hot as I thought I did. Only one other guy came over—Mike. He sat next to me and started talking to me about his job at a day care center. I looked at Tanya.
She touched her finger to her nose. That meant to be careful. Well, duh, I thought.
“What do you do at work?” I asked.
“I prepare snacks and put the kids to sleep,” he said.
I looked at Tanya. She touched her left shoulder and then her right one. Ask him about his family.
“You have a big family?” I asked.
“Just me,” he said. “How about you?”
Tanya put her hand on her neck. No personal information!
“I’d rather talk about you,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “It’s kind of loud in here. Do you know somewhere we can sit and talk?”
“How about outside?”
Tanya shook her head.
“Actually,” I said, “I like it in here.”
“I think you had a good idea before,” he said. “Do you know somewhere around here where you can rent rooms?”
“Like a motel?” I asked.
“Well, somewhere where we could sit in the lobby and talk,” he said.
Tanya drew a circle in the air with her finger. She wanted me to keep him talking?
“Are you nuts?” I asked.
“Me?” Tanya and Mike asked at the same time.
“Yes,” I said.
I turned to Mike.
“You, get the fuck away from me,” I said.
“Damn,” he said. “You’re not that fine, bitch.”
He left.
“Why’d you do that?” Tanya asked.
“He was sleazy.”
“He wanted to talk,” she said. “He said lobby, not room.”
“You’re so fucked up, Tanya,” I said. “And I’m fucked up for listening to you.”
Tanya motioned behind me. I turned to face a woman who had just sat down next to me. She looked confused.
“I’m not talking to myself,” I said. “I was practicing.”
“Practicing what?” the woman asked.
“Telling my best friend off,” I said.
She smiled. “Where’s your friend?” she asked.
“Dead,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s cool,” I said. “It happens.”
Tanya stuck her tongue out at me.
“My best friend moved,” the woman said. “Or she’d be here with me, helping me ward off the creeps. I hate this place.”
“I hate it, too. I can’t believe Cosmo said I’d find anyone here.”
“You read that, too?”

She laughed.
“Yeah. The experiment’s over,” I said. “I’m going to split.”
“I’ll go with you,” she said. “You want to get some coffee? I’m not sleepy yet.”
“Sure. I don’t drink coffee, but I’m pretty awake, too.”
“I’m Arlene, by the way.”
“Jenni.”
We got up and started toward the door. Halfway there, I ran back to the bar, where Tanya was sitting.
“Aren’t you coming?” I asked.
“Nah. I’ll stick around, learn how to dance,” she said.
“I’ll see you later?”
“Cosmo’s got a guide to toning your butt, too,” she said. “We’ll do that next.”

 

ann clark espuelas

runwoman

I open the front door and the Miami sky quivers out like a pond hit bulls-eye with a stone. I turn the corner at the end of the street and hit the jogging path at full speed. Moments into it: Two heavy women dead ahead and I call out, “Coming through, ladies,” and skinny my way knife-style between the two of them; comes a flash of warmth as I am sandwiched between their two bodies—identical shapes because these women are sisters, cursed with their father’s womanly figure—their waggling hips fleshy against my middle. (“Go home and put your feet up,” I breathe into the waxy ear of one of them for soon this sister will die of a quick and heartless cancer. “Enjoy and relax, you haven’t got long,” I add.) In my sidling I feel their hot exclamations breathed for a moment into the back of my neck and then hear them whisper-fall like dead balloons onto the path behind me. The cold air closes back around me and my bare legs flex with righteousness.
The path grows suddenly dark under a cluster of palm branches joined like arms overhead. A blackish, furry thing ambles into the path. (Another day, not too far in the future, this beast which is a dog will be hit by a car but it will survive; after several operations it will live peacefully into old age, lame and snoring at the feet of the owner of the car which hits the beast, not far from this jogging path.) It chews ferociously at one paw and then rears up at me like a small horse ready to charge. It bares its pointy teeth and growls low and hard but I skirt the thing with ease and bravery, springboarding—piece-of-cake—12 feet high into the air to just graze my head on the branches above. I cast a fast glance backwards and see the end of its treacherous tail disappear to lie in wait in the bushes for a less clever victim.
At the place where the path enters a public park a troop of girl scouts files in green precision across the path. A woman in uniform barks at them, “Observe the palms above,” and as I jog closer one of the scouts lets loose a shriek and then there is a popping sound like cannon fire as many coconuts—more than 20 —begin to fall with great velocity from the palms that line the running path. “Henny Penny, the sky is falling,” cries a chubby scout at the back of the line (at age eight she’s already been witness to disaster: a mother lost to violent crime and a brother to drugs). And another one (a girl who will grow up and hold high public office. There is evidence of it now: She suffers from nightmares nearly every night and has pulled her eyelashes out in fear of her burdening future): “Look, that lady is getting squashed,” she calls out, but I am not being hit; I dodge the coconuts neatly like a needle diving in and out of a coarse material. The scouts run toward me in confusion, their thin arms reaching up to the palms above, some of them crying. A few of them get knocked on parts of their bodies with the hard fruit and one of the girls falls. Some of the coconuts explode and the milk inside slithers across the ground like oil, which I leap efficiently over, not even getting my heels sticky. Behind me mosquitoes as big as sparrows swarm at the scouts, lapping greedily at the milk and then deeper into the skin of the tender girl-flesh.
Ahead walks the Jogger Rapist and he walks with great deliberation, opening and closing his fists and making no show of stealthiness. His hands, trembling paws, reach out at the air that was my body next to his as I pass by him with ease. (The Jogger Rapist will—in not too long a time—find true love in a poet named Genie. One night Genie will not come home to their apartment in Little Havana and not the next night either, or the next, and the Jogger Rapist in his torment will go squinting into the evening to pound violently upon the face of an unknown, semi-conscious girl. “Goodnight, Genie,” he will pant onto the girl’s pale cheeks.) His tongue just grazes my ear but like the wind I am beyond him, my feet kicking up dust that seizes him into a fit of coughing.

A baby stroller toddles into the path just ahead of me. The baby whose name is Rosita lies silent and staring at the leaves above her as they spiral down, reaching up a small fist to unfurl fingers (she has only four fingers on one small hand plus a greenish stump that is her little finger. She also is partially deaf in both ears but this will not become apparent for several months and not confirmed for even longer). Her mother Jo sucks on a hand-rolled cigarette as she pauses directly ahead of me and holds the handle of the carriage lightly with her own sausage-fat fingers (five on each hand) and thinks of her newly-taken lover and his white thighs, paler even than the grayish dip that is his lower back and paler even than his bony ankles, spidered with blue-red. She pinches her nose with one finger, a habit that makes her otherwise attractive face look petulant. No one has told her this; she seems hardly aware that she is doing it. I throw myself to the ground and rattle-snake under the wheels of the stroller (the mother Jo doesn’t register any of this), free at the other side, and the stroller trembles in my absence.
In a tree above me perch three small boys: Kip and Chip and Ripper (Ripper called Ripper because he rips through his small-boy life, and the others called as they are to rhyme with Ripper). Ripper and the other boys have waited an eternity—half an hour—for me. Chip is considering telling Ripper that he has to leave to go to the bathroom, but pees over the edge of the tree instead, holding his small, warm penis in one hand and shaking carefully. “Shake it, don’t break it,” says Kip to Chip and Ripper tells them to shut up. “Make me,” says Kip but shuts up anyway. (Ripper is one year younger than the others but they don’t know it and for this reason he must be cruel and ruthless.) “Here she comes,” says Kip. Ripper’s mouth is a thin line. They hold large sticks in their hands and I shield my eyes from the sun to squint up at them. They throw them straight at me like Indian arrows, but I neatly catch them all, even when they aim badly—which is often; these are small, not-strong boys. I catch them to show the boys there is greatness in the world. “AYYEE,” says Ripper and one stick goes straight past my left ear. I whirl around and catch it and place it gently on the ground, away from the path. Chip or Kip begins to cry. (Tonight alone in his room Ripper will pull out from a hidden place under his bed a candle and light it and curse my name.)
The path under me begins to whisper to me as it covers over with grass, hush-a-bye words of Great and Small Misfortunes: “Bundle up,” “Slippery when wet,” “Don’t go out after dark.” Stretching out on the path behind, I hear sirens whirling closer, angry shouts, “Let’s get her,” snarling dog, growling cat, yowling child, dying woman, panting man, tight-browed mother and father. The earth beneath quivers from the thousand poundsteps searching me out. Ahead of me an evergreen falls across the path with a whoosh but I make myself as flat as a pancake and roll under and clear of the crashing limbs; behind, I hear the sputtering muddle-crowd chasing me down, the sharp too-sweet pine pulling for final gasps and I breathe deep and run fast and far.

 

anabella schloesser paiz

an evening in miami beach

Today I got the letter from Washington University. As soon as I saw the thin envelope I knew what it said. I opened it anyway, tearing at the envelope with such a fury I actually cut my index finger against the edge of the paper. Then I read it hastily, my eyes skipping a line here and there. No is no. I am not interested in their apologies or their encouragement to reapply next year. “Good to have met you.” I tossed the paper in the trash compactor—pressed my bloody finger to set it grinding.
In the evening we go to dinner on Lincoln Road. We live in the Gables, but nothing exciting ever happens around here. Marcelo has brought me a bunch of carnations to cheer me up, though he doesn’t know why I need cheering. We sit in “Pacific Time” at a table beside the entrance. José and Olivia, our Mexican friends staying with us for a long weekend, speak about friendship, spontaneity and trust. I say I don’t like friendly people, and confess that’s why I ran away from José the first time we met. Friendly people impose obligations; I want to be left alone. I want to be able to choose my friends without pressure, like standing behind the glass watching a police lineup. That’s what I tell them, regretting it as soon as the words are out.
In the corner of my eye I watch the women passing in front of us parading boutique outfits and imported bijouterie. The older men look respectable, but many of the older women look like clowns. They’ve had plastic surgery—faces tight, eyes bugged. Their hair loose and permed, or pulled up in high ponytails tinted in lighter tones. A woman at least 60 years old walks by wearing a dress as tight as sausage skin, all white and barely covering half of her thighs. She has good legs. I imagine her spending her days at the gym, flirting with the instructors, sweating copiously, and replenishing her fluids with Evian.
I listen halfheartedly to José speaking about the ozone layer in Mexico City, where the question is no longer whether you see the smog, but whether you see the trees. The air has deteriorated so badly that jogging early in the morning has become a hazard to your health. I’m picturing all the people in Mexico jogging in gas masks, when I see a trio make their entrance and approach the table beside us.
“Those guys just got off Mexicana Airlines,” Marcelo says, looking at José and smiling.
“I think they look more like chapines,” meaning Guatemalans, José teases Marcelo back. But we never establish their nationality; their accents remain concealed behind a thick English slur.
The lady is dressed in a black lycra dress—lycra is in fashion in this district—with a strip of panther-print fur in the middle of her thigh where the dress ends. Panther-print jacket and pumps. An amber and onyx necklace is visible once her jacket is removed by the older of the two men. The younger one adjusts his tie as he stretches his neck and moves forward his square jaw. They order drinks. I see a golden lighter flash before the tip of the lady’s cigarette. She gives the older man a seductive smile and eases back into the chair.

Olivia and Marcelo are eating stone crabs, sucking and struggling to pull the last morsels of flesh out of the claws. Marcelo orders a second bottle of Chardonnay, while José swallows his Szechwan grouper in no time. I eat the ginger grilled shrimps in jade sauce with dread as if they were sea urchins bound to get stuck any minute in my throat. At the table close by, the woman’s head turns between the two men. Her reddish hair is chopped in a modern bob, and the zircon chandelier earrings swing wildly with each move. The older man in a white coat is telling a story, and the woman laughs and laughs, her nostrils flaring and her shoulder shaking violently up and down. The young man stares at her without blinking. My head begins to throb.
Every time the woman looks down at her tuna tartare, the old man pokes the young one in the ribs or winks an eye. José and Olivia are speaking about their future; children or no children? José carries on exuberantly about their plans. Olivia is more cautious, tentative. She’s been married before.
The woman at the other table sips her red wine slowly. By accident some drips on her dress. Embarrassed, she looks down for her napkin and dries a ruby drop dangling from her chin. The drop of wine becomes in my mind a drop of fruit punch quivering on the chin of a redheaded infant. Eagerly she swallows from a plastic cup sitting at a kitchen table wearing a terrycloth bib that says Mommy’s Little Helper. Is this the way my daughter will look like when she’s 50? How will I look in 10 years time?

By the time I get the Tahitian vanilla creme brulee, I can no longer swallow. The woman excuses herself and walks away swaying her hips. She stops in the middle of the smoky room surrounded by the noise of multilingual tongues, the clashing of plates, the jingling of glasses, and asks the maitre d’ a question. She is directed to the ladies’ room. The older man sitting at the table fingers his cufflinks and whispers something into the young man’s ear. I excuse myself from the table and head to the bathroom. I do not know what I will tell her, but I must say something. “Sorry, but you’re being taken for a ride.” Awful. Maybe because I am a Latina I feel responsible. She seems American, though I don’t know for sure.
I get my comb out and start brushing up my hair, fishing for a phrase to break the ice. From the mirror, my own image stares back bland and unsophisticated. Who’s really in control here? I see her fixing her Lancome: adding more mascara to her already dramatic eyes, delineating her mouth with a lipliner and then using a brush to dab on more of the creamy, red lipstick. I smile timidly. She stares straight ahead, as though my reflected image were invisible beside her. A numbness that begins in my chest spreads to my limbs; I freeze. After showering her hair with spray she carries in a mini-bottle inside her purse, she leaves the bathroom. I wait for a few seconds and follow her. The four men stand up together when we arrive. Soon after, I turn around to look at the woman. I can’t help myself. Suddenly she seems stunned, as if the men had told her something she wasn’t ready to hear, dropped a tranquilizer in her drink. Maybe they actually have—I can’t tell. She reminds me of a fish I saw once scuba diving in the Abacos. The area was full of barracudas and this fish was immobile beside a brain coral, its eyes wide open—sleeping, Marcelo had explained.
The dark chocolate sorbet with fresh raspberries remains untouched in her glass goblet. The older man motions the maitre d’ and whispers another secret in his ear. The two men busy themselves with bringing the woman back to life.
“Josefin, Josefin,” the older man is calling in an urgent, grave Spanish accent. The young man grabs her limp hand covered with age spots, slaps it energetically trying to elicit a reaction. The woman wakes up just in time for the waiter to bring her the check. Making a tremendous effort, she dips down to get hold of her handbag and digs out a golden card. A few minutes later, I see her being carried out by her escorts.
After dinner we walk down to the movies and watch a rerun of The Mambo Kings at the Alliance. The music of Tito Puente and Celia Cruz. The faces of Assante and Banderas. The actors’ accents are all wrong—not even Banderas gets the Cuban accent—and I’m having trouble settling into the movie. But they feel the Latin beat all right. Marcelo and I hold hands through half of the performance. Then comes the scene where Nestor says Maria in his dreams; his wife Dolores is listening. I grow uptight and pull my hand away. Marcelo doesn’t attempt to get it back.
On the way home José sings a couple of ballads for us. We all have a digestivo in the kitchen before saying good night. Marcelo and I go to bed without a word, and we move to opposite sides of the bed. “César,” I say. The name slips slowly like a fish out of my mouth and dissolves in the dark.

 

celia lisset alvarez

how to survive your first year in miami

You know you’re bored when a sale at Tico catches your attention. Girls’ pants 99 cents. Boys’ pants 99 cents. Blouses $1.99. When you’re so tired that the only thing keeping you awake is this little pain on the knuckle of your left index finger where you’ve torn away a flap of flesh on some surface and covered it with a Band-Aid, wet now from washing your hands after the last time you took a piss. This little stinging pain is the only connection between you and reality. That’s the way it is sometimes.
Tico of course is the only place you can shop when you work for Winn Dixie. Double shifts of five hours each and all you get is minimum wage, one hour of which goes straight to bus fare. $864.65 a month after taxes. This is my budget for the month of June:
rent $443
groceries $196.65 (with 10% employee discount)
electric $ 87.50
water $ 79.18
phone $ 27.50
transportation $ 67.50
extras $ 1.05 (boys’ pants, with tax)
total $901.38
Of course I could save more by not calling Mama in Cuba. Or by caulking all the windows so the air conditioning doesn’t get out, or by sleeping without it altogether. But then I’d have to leave the windows open, which is the first thing I was told not to do when I got to this country. Actually no, the first thing was not to open the door to anybody, not even policemen, because they could be wearing a stolen uniform and be there to rape you and then steal everything, possibly kill you too. I laughed in their faces, Papi and Estela and Madrina, that is, because they were all talking to me as if I had not just come from possibly the most dangerous place in the whole world, where the police don’t give a shit whether you live or die because they don’t get paid anyway, and there is no electricity during the nights, not even in the hospitals, so if you do get mugged or raped it does you no good to pay somebody who has gas to take you to a hospital, since once you get there there is just one nurse holding a candle, guarding the storage room, afraid that someone will break in to steal drugs. That’s the way it is in Havana now. Nevertheless, when you get to Miami, they (your relatives mostly, but also complete strangers, like the saleslady at Tico who told me never to let Tito in the dressing room by himself) come up with your Exile Commandments. Just five because everything in the USA is faster and there is no time for 10:
1. Do not open the door to anyone.
2. Do not leave the windows open.
3. Do not let your children out of your sight. Ever.
4. Do not bug the neighbors.
5. Do not accept gifts from strangers.
Anyway when Pablo came and knocked on my door, with a broken arm in a dirty sling and a full beard, I opened the door a crack and looked at him with one eye, wondering whether a man with a broken arm could be a rapist.
“Que quiere?” I said.
“Sarita! Sarita, it’s me, Pablo!”
“I don’t know any Pablo,” I said, not really remembering what Pablo, a friend of my husband’s who I had not seen in five years, was supposed to look like. I remembered him skinny and rather short, as this man was, but less hairy. He could possibly be Pablo but I had no way to be sure.
“What do you mean you don’t know me? Pablo!” he said, louder, as if this would be enough.
“No,” I repeated, “I don’t know any Pablo.” The broken arm would not really matter; he could have a gun or a knife he could use with his other hand.
“I can’t believe this.” Pablo really seemed upset. He shook his head. “I have a letter from Joaquin,” he said, waving an envelope with his healthy arm.
I tried to remember whether Pablo had been left or right handed. “Leave it under the doormat,” I said, thinking I would wait a whole day before venturing out to get it.
“Pffft!” exclaimed Pablo, frustrated. He looked a little like Fidel, with the beard. He shoved the envelope under the doormat and left down the hall without looking back, shaking his head all the time, a little fat around the nalgas, like a pear.
In the envelope was 20 American dollars and a note from Joaquin: “Espero que estes bien. Para el nino. Recuerdos de tu familia.” So I guessed it really was him, and nice too, since he could have just as easily kept the money. I was surprised to get it anyway, since the last thing I expected was for Joaquin to send me money all the way from Cuba for Tito. We’ve been divorced for six years, and even in Cuba it was hard for me to get him to pay for anything of Tito’s. Nothing like distance to make people love you.
Next thing they tell you is not to bug your neighbors. In Cuba we have a saying: “Quien es tu hermano? Tu vecino mas
cercano.” Well, it rhymes, okay? Anyway most people don’t have a complete set of things, you know, refrigerator, television, telephone, radio, washing machine, iron. Plus all the things that you are entitled to that you don’t really use, like a head of lettuce every week which is really hard for me to digest and Tito doesn’t like. So you give the lettuce to Juana, to pack lunches for her husband Oscar, who works in the fields, in exchange for her iron, which she lends to Lucia, who has no iron but a good refrigerator where you can keep your meat almost frozen because she sells all her food and her refrigerator is always empty. She doesn’t eat at home because she sleeps all day and works all night,
eating sometimes with her clients, the ones she irons all the dresses for . . . All this for lettuce.
When I first moved into this apartment, the woman next door seemed really friendly. Her name was Corrine and she spoke broken Spanish, good enough for my broken English. I saw her looking at me through the blinds in her window when I was carrying my boxes. She was smoking a long cigarette which she held with a certain distaste like some kind of gusano. Later I found out she did her nails over practically every night, so they were almost always between wet and drying. She touched everything with the balls of her fingertips.
That night she knocked on my door and gave me something called a chicken pot pie, which I didn’t know enough then not to take. I still hadn’t heard the one about perverts slipping razor blades into the candy on Halloween. She said she’d seen how busy I was and thought I wouldn’t have time to make dinner.
“IS-THIS-YOUR-LITTLE-BOY?” she asked in halting Spanish, as if I were deaf instead of Cuban. Then she played with Tito, pinching his cheeks with her fingertips and trying to get him to say his age in English. Tito scrunched up his face as if he were going to spit at her the way eight-year-old boys will when they suddenly decide they will never let a female touch them, but he didn’t, thank God. He just stood there and took it like a little man, like his father getting beaten at dominoes. Then he scratched his ass and said the Tico pants gave him pica-pica. Corrine said he had my eyes.
Turns out she was divorced too, and we became friends by trading man-hating stories. She said her husband had beat her, and that he had been lousy in bed. She was from some place called Pensacola, and had married him straight out of high school. He had been her first boyfriend, and this, she said, had been her great mistake. I explained that Joaquin had never beat me or been particularly anything in bed, but had cheated on me once or twice and never paid for anything but spent all his money drinking and gambling.
“I think people should fuck around as much as possible before they decide what they like,” she said. “You know fuck, right?”
She had taken it upon herself to show me all the dirty words in English, if I would show them to her in Spanish. I didn’t really know what she meant by around, and thought of my short brown hair and plain Army Navy clothes and wondered what this woman thought of me. I’m only 36, but seem older because of my glasses, and yes, well, I’m a little fat. I guessed I just didn’t seem to be the sort that would know how to fuck around, maybe.
“Singar,” I said.
Corrine smiled and held my hand across the kitchen table, digging her five little knifeblades into my palm. “That’s
beautiful, you know. Singar,” she repeated, letting it sizzle on her tongue like frying plantains. “It sounds like singing.”
After that she asked me to come over almost every night, and Tito and I would enjoy her air-conditioned apartment while I saved money on mine by turning it off. Tito watched color television and she did my nails, wearing a pretty pink embroidered kimono, which was all she ever wore. It felt just like Cuba. Like Cuba with better stuff.
Things started looking up, as they say, after the third month, when I got the Winn Dixie job. Tito stayed with my godmother after school and I learned to keep to myself. Work. Eat. Sleep. Watch Oprah. I learned to keep an eye on my surroundings by looking through the blinds like Corrine. I saw the man moving into the apartment across the hall, which had been empty ever since I had got there. The landlady had tried to push me into taking it because it had a portalito where she said Tito could play, instead of just a fire escape like the apartments on the side where Corrine’s and mine are. But it was $25 more a month. And children fall off balconies.
The man started moving in at 6 o’clock in the morning, what Corrine called an “ungodly hour.” I saw her once at this unholy time as I was leaving for work. For once, her blinds were open, as if she had been cleaning them with that little fancy gadget, and she was sitting at her kitchen table, wearing her pink kimono and sipping coffee, puckering her lips as she blew into the cup to cool it. She had on some kind of blindfold, pink satin trimmed in black lace
ruffles. She did not seem to be able to see through it.
What a country.
The man was making all sorts of noise, so I looked out my window. The apartments face each other across an open indoor patio on the first floor, and on the upper floors there is a square hole with a veranda around it where the patio is below. Looking across this empty space all I could see was a pear-shaped butt sticking out of a cardboard box across the hall.
I couldn’t believe it. It was that Pablo person.
I was wary of him for the next couple of weeks, nodding to him if we met in the elevator, but never saying as much as hello. He seemed to be making fun of me every time he saw me, bowing and taking off with a little flair this baseball cap he had taken to wearing, as if I was a big lady. The sling had come off but he still had the beard, and the note from Joaquin, I thought, really didn’t prove anything. He could have still been someone impersonating Pablo, like Ricardo Gere, that beautiful man in the movie Corrine and I had rented to watch on her VCR. Who knows what he would have done with the real Pablo. In the movie, not even Ricardo’s wife had been able to tell he wasn’t really her husband.
“Why is he following me?” I complained to Corrine.
“I swear, you are so paranoid!” she said. “You act as if you’re still surrounded by communists. He probably just got here and was looking for an apartment when he came to bring you the money.”
One night I came home from work and found that Tito was already home. Papi had driven him from Madrina’s house, and accidentally struck up a conversation with Pablo while waiting for me in the hall. He apparently just left Tito there with him, deciding that Pablo was telling the truth about being Cuban and was therefore trustworthy.
I stepped out of the elevator and heard Tito’s voice coming from the open door of Pablo’s apartment. He was counting in English. I stood there like an idiot, listening, fascinated. It was the first time I had heard Tito speaking English—the teachers at school had complained that he had refused to learn the new language. I really didn’t have the time or pronunciation, so Corrine had tried to help him with his homework. But all he would do was sit across from her at the kitchen table and look at her breasts bulging underneath the kimono. He had changed his mind about females since we had moved in. Now, Corrine and I had to remember to keep him from switching to the Playboy channel every time we got distracted talking in the kitchen.
I snapped out of it, remembering the stories about perverts and little boys the saleslady at Tico had told me. I stood in the doorway of Pablo’s apartment, and called to Tito to come right away.
The apartment was narrow. From where I was I could see the open glass doors that led out to the portal, and beyond them Pablo kneeling in front of Tito with his fingers splayed out like a fan.
Tito grabbed on to each in turn and said, “Eight. Nine. Ten!”
“Very good, very good, Joaquin!” Pablo said, calling Tito by his full name.
“Tito! Ven aca,” I repeated.
Pablo smiled and tipped his cap at me.
Later that night, as Corrine was washing the dishes, I told her how I had thought then about giving Pablo a smile. Tito had already eaten at my godmother’s house, and Corrine had called and said she was making grilled cheese sandwiches, my new favorite. She looked skeptically at me from the kitchen sink, curling up one side of her smile and inhaling from her long, dangling cigarette.
“Men do that sometimes, you know, pretend to like your kids and then they try to fuck you.” She was really hard for me to understand when she spoke with a cigarette in her mouth like that.
“I don’t even know if he’s married,” I argued. “But I never see any women in the apartment. I don’t know if he was married in Cuba.”
Corrine didn’t answer. She seemed sullen; creamy half-moons under her eyes showed where she had applied makeup to hide the dark circles. I thought maybe I had misunderstood her and answered the wrong thing.
Tito fell asleep watching the television and Corrine and I stayed up, talking. She wore her pink kimono as always and made coffee, pouring liquor into it.
“Kahlua,” she said, smiling from the rim of her cup. “Have some.”
We had lots and lots of Kahlua, even after the coffee ran out. I taught Corrine some more bad words. We traded more stories about men who had “fucked us over.” I was very happy because Corrine had given me a kimono just like hers, only black.
“They sell them where I work,” she had said after I did not want to take it. “It was no problem, really.”
“Try it on,” she urged, after our nails and the Kahlua dried.
We went into her bedroom and she sat on the edge of her bed while I undressed in front of a long mirror. I slipped the kimono on and tied it around my waist.
Corrine came up behind me and I saw in the mirror that her kimono had come undone. One of her breasts had slipped out—she had big raspberry nipples. Beneath a slightly sagging stomach I could see a dark tuft of pubic hair. She whispered in my ear, “Let me sing to you, Sarita.”Well then.1. Do not open the door to anyone.
2. Do not leave the windows open.
3. Do not let your children out of your sight. Ever.
4. Do not bug the neighbors.
5. Do not accept gifts from strangers.Oh, and a sixth one:
6. Do not drink Kahlua and talk about fucking. In any language.

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