exican Duaghter Essay
Our readings have talked about reasons we keep secrets from those who know us best. One article also mentioned that reader’s ethnicity plays an important role in how that person interprets the reading. Lastly, keep in mind public displays of hostility toward immigrants in our country. Your essay will discuss all three of these topics.
Part One:This book is very much about family members who keep secrets from one another. In class, some of you mentioned a reason for keeping secrets is that we do not want to disappoint our family members. Research shows young people who grow up bicultural confide more in friends than in family members. Consider how easily Julia confided in Lorena and Connor. Consider how Olga trusted Angie but not her own sister. In the last chapter, Julia says,In some ways, I think that part of what I’m trying to accomplish—whether Amá really understands it or not—is to live for her, Apá, and Olga…What a waste their journey would be if I just settled for a dull, mediocre life.”Julia, too, does not wish to disappoint her parents, but her efforts to better herself are at odds with what her parents want for her. This conflict is common among immigrant parents and their US-raised children. How do you see Julia’s two cultures causing her conflict with her parents and with Connor? How did Olga’s two cultures cause her internal conflict? Provide specific examples from the book.Part Two:Latinos who read about the Latino experience may feel their own stories are validated. In class, we talked about seeing our own family dynamics in this book. For example. Some of you related to this scene:“If I don’t kiss each and every relative on the cheek help and goodbye, even if I don’t know them, Amá calls me a malcriada, a badly raised daughter.”What scenes, behaviors, or events in the book did you find characteristic of the Latino experience? Provide specific examples from the book.Part Three:What are your personal thoughts on your own biculturalism? If you are not bicultural, tell me what your thoughts are about what you think it might be like to grow up in two cultures?What was your personal feeling when you read the parts of the book that showed the Latino experience? Provide specific examples from the book.Stories about immigrants are one way to increase empathy toward them. If you are not an immigrant, write about what this book makes you think of the immigrant experience. If you are an immigrant, tell me what parts of this book you think will help non-immigrants have greater empathy and less hostility toward immigrants. THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s
imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is
Text copyright © 2017 by Erika L. Sánchez
Cover art copyright © 2017 by Connie Gabbert
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House
Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Visit us on the Web! GetUnderlined.com
Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at RHTeachersLibrarians.com
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.
ISBN 9781524700485 (trade) — ISBN 9781524700492 (lib. bdg.) — ebook ISBN 9781524700508
Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.
Mental Health Resources
For my parents
What’s surprised me most about seeing my sister dead is the lingering smirk on
her face. Her pale lips are turned up ever so slightly, and someone has filled in
her patchy eyebrows with a black pencil. The top half of her face is angry—like
she’s ready to stab someone—and the bottom half is almost smug. This is not the
Olga I knew. Olga was as meek and fragile as a baby bird.
I wanted her to wear the pretty purple dress that didn’t hide her body like all
of her other outfits, but Amá chose the bright yellow one with the pink flowers
I’ve always hated. It was so unstylish, so classically Olga. It made her either four
or eighty years old. I could never decide which. Her hair is just as bad as the
dress—tight, crunchy curls that remind me of a rich lady’s poodle. How cruel to
let her look like that. The bruises and gashes on her cheeks are masked with
thick coats of cheap foundation, making her face haggard, even though she is
(was) only twenty-two. Don’t they pump your body full of strange chemicals to
prevent your skin from stretching and puckering, to keep your face from
resembling a rubber mask? Where did they find this mortician, the flea market?
My poor older sister had a special talent for making herself less attractive. She
was skinny and had an okay body, but she always managed to make it look like a
sack of potatoes. Her face was pale and plain, never a single drop of makeup.
What a waste. I’m no fashion icon—far from it—but I do feel strongly against
dressing like the elderly. Now she’s doing it from beyond the grave, but this time
it’s not even her fault.
Olga never looked or acted like a normal twenty-two-year-old. It made me
mad sometimes. Here she was, a grown-ass woman, and all she did was go to
work, sit at home with our parents, and take one class each semester at the local
community college. Every once and a while, she’d go shopping with Amá or to
the movies with her best friend, Angie, to watch terrible romantic comedies
about clumsy but adorable blond women who fall in love with architects in the
streets of New York City. What kind of life is that? Didn’t she want more?
Didn’t she ever want to go out and grab the world by the balls? Ever since I
could pick up a pen, I’ve wanted to be a famous writer. I want to be so
successful that people stop me on the street and ask, “Oh my God, are you Julia
Reyes, the best writer who has ever graced this earth?” All I know is that I’m
going to pack my bags when I graduate and say, “Peace out, mothafuckas.”
But not Olga. Saint Olga, the perfect Mexican daughter. Sometimes I wanted
to scream at her until something switched on in her brain. But the only time I
ever asked her why she didn’t move out or go to a real college, she told me to
leave her alone in a voice so weak and brittle, I never wanted to ask her again.
Now I’ll never know what Olga would have become. Maybe she would have
surprised us all.
Here I am, thinking all of these horrible thoughts about my dead sister. It’s
easier to be pissed, though. If I stop being angry, I’m afraid I’ll fall apart until
I’m just a warm mound of flesh on the floor.
While I stare at my chewed-up nails and sink deeper into this floppy green
couch, I hear Amá wailing. She really throws her body into it, too. “Mija, mija!”
she screams as she practically climbs inside the casket. Apá doesn’t even try to
pull her off. I can’t blame him, because when he tried to calm her down a few
hours ago, Amá kicked and flailed her arms until she gave him a black eye. I
guess he’s going to leave her alone for now. She’ll tire herself out eventually.
I’ve seen babies do that.
Apá has been sitting in the back of the room all day, refusing to speak to
anyone, staring off into nothing, like he always does. Sometimes I think I see his
dark mustache quivering, but his eyes stay dry and clear as glass.
I want to hug Amá and tell her it’s going to be okay, even though it’s not and
never will be, but I feel almost paralyzed, like I’m underwater and made of lead.
When I open my mouth, nothing comes out. Besides, Amá and I haven’t had that
kind of relationship since I was little. We don’t hug and say, “I love you,” like
on TV shows about boring white families who live in two-story houses and talk
about their feelings. She and Olga were practically best friends, and I was the
odd daughter out. We’ve been bickering, drifting away from each other for
years. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to avoid Amá because we always end
up arguing over stupid, petty things. We once fought about an egg yolk, for
instance. True story.
Apá and I are the only ones in my family who haven’t cried. He just hangs his
head and remains silent as a stone. Maybe something is wrong with us. Maybe
we’re messed up beyond crying. Though my eyes haven’t produced tears, I’ve
felt the grief burrow in every cell of my body. There are moments that I feel like
I might suffocate, as if all my insides are tied into a tight little ball. I haven’t
taken a crap in almost four days, but I’m not about to tell Amá in the state she’s
in. I’ll just let it build until I explode like a piñata.
Amá has always been prettier than Olga, even now, with her swollen eyes and
splotchy skin, which is not the way it’s supposed to be. Her name is more
graceful, too—Amparo Montenegro Reyes. Mothers are not supposed to be more
beautiful than their daughters, and daughters are not supposed to die before their
mothers. But Amá is more attractive than most people. She hardly has any
wrinkles and has these big, round eyes that always look sad and wounded. Her
long hair is thick and dark, and her body is still slim, unlike the other moms in
the neighborhood who are shaped like upside-down pears. Every time I walk
down the street with Amá, guys whistle and honk, which makes me wish I
carried a slingshot.
Amá is rubbing Olga’s face and crying softly now. This won’t last, though.
She’s always quiet for a few minutes, then, all of a sudden, lets out a moan that
makes your soul turn inside out. Now Tía Cuca is rubbing her back and telling
her that Olga is with Jesus, that she can finally be in peace.
But when was Olga not in peace? This Jesus stuff is all a sack of crap. Once
you’re dead, you’re dead. The only thing that makes sense to me is what Walt
Whitman said about death: “Look for me under your boot soles.” Olga’s body
will turn to dirt, which will grow into trees, and then someone in the future will
step on their fallen leaves. There is no heaven. There is only earth, sky, and the
transfer of energy. The idea would almost be beautiful if this weren’t such a
Two ladies waiting in line to see Olga in her casket begin crying. I’ve never
seen them in my life. One is wearing a faded and billowy black dress, and the
other wears a saggy skirt that looks like an old curtain. They clasp each other’s
hands and whisper.
Olga and I didn’t have much in common, but we did love each other. There
are stacks and stacks of pictures to prove it. In Amá’s favorite, Olga is braiding
my hair. Amá says Olga used to pretend that I was her baby. She’d put me in her
toy carriage and sing me songs by Cepillín, that scary Mexican clown who looks
like a rapist but everyone loves for some reason.
I would give anything to go back to the day she died and do things differently.
I think of all the ways I could have kept Olga from getting on that bus. I’ve
replayed the day over and over in my head so many times and have written down
every single detail, but I still can’t find the foreshadowing. When someone dies,
people always say they had some sort of premonition, a sinking feeling that
something awful was right around the corner. I didn’t.
The day felt like any other: boring, uneventful, and annoying. We had
swimming for gym class that afternoon. I’ve always hated being in that
disgusting petri dish. The idea of being dunked in everyone’s pee—and God
knows what else—is enough to give me a panic attack, and the chlorine makes
my skin itch and eyes sting. I always try to get out of it with elaborate and notso-elaborate lies. That time, I told the thin-lipped Mrs. Kowalski that I was on
my period again (the eighth day in a row), and she said she didn’t believe me,
that it was impossible for my period to be so long. Of course I was lying, but
who was she to question my menstrual cycle? How intrusive.
“Do you want to check?” I asked. “I’d be very happy to provide you with
empirical evidence if you want, even though I think you’re violating my human
rights.” I regretted it as soon as it came out of my mouth. Maybe I have some
sort of condition that keeps me from thinking through what I’m going to say.
Sometimes it’s word-puke spilling out everywhere. That was too much, even for
me, but I was in a particularly foul mood and didn’t want to deal with anyone.
My moods shift like that all the time, even before Olga died. One minute I feel
okay, and then all of a sudden my energy plummets for no reason at all. It’s hard
Of course Mrs. Kowalski sent me to the principal’s office, and as usual, they
wouldn’t let me go home until my parents came to pick me up. This had
happened several times last year. Everyone knows me at the principal’s office
already. I’m there more often than some of the gangbangers, and it’s always for
running my mouth when I’m not supposed to. Whenever I enter the office, the
secretary, Mrs. Maldonado, rolls her eyes and clucks her tongue.
Typically, Amá meets with my principal, Mr. Potter, who tells her what a
disrespectful student I am. Then Amá gasps at what I’ve done and says, “Julia,
que malcriada,” and apologizes to him over and over again in her broken
English. She is always apologizing to white people, which makes me feel
embarrassed. And then I feel ashamed of my shame.
Amá punishes me for one or two weeks, depending on how severe my
behavior is, and then, a few months later, it happens again. Like I said, I don’t
know how to control my mouth. Amá tells me, “Como te gusta la mala vida,”
and I guess she’s right, because I always end up making things more difficult for
myself. I used to be a model student, skipped third grade and everything, but
now I’m a troublemaker.
Olga had taken the bus that day because her car was in the shop to get the
brakes replaced. Amá was supposed to pick her up, but because she had to deal
with me at school, she couldn’t. If I’d shut my mouth, things would have worked
out differently, but how was I supposed to know? When Olga got off the bus to
transfer to another one across the street, she didn’t see that the light had already
turned green because she was looking at her phone. The bus honked to warn her,
but it was too late. Olga stepped into the busy street at the wrong time. She got
hit by a semi. Not just hit, though—smashed.
Whenever I think of my sister’s crushed organs, I want to scream in a field of
flowers until I’m hoarse.
Two of the witnesses said that she was smiling right before it happened. It’s a
miracle that her face was okay enough to have an open casket. She was dead by
the time the ambulance arrived.
Even though the man driving couldn’t have seen her because she was blocked
by the bus and the light was green and Olga shouldn’t have crossed one of the
busiest streets in Chicago with her face in her phone, Amá cursed the driver up
and down until she lost her voice. She got really creative, too. She had always
scolded me for saying the word damn, which is not even a bad word, and here
she was, telling the driver and God to fuck their mothers and themselves. I just
watched her with my mouth hanging open.
We all knew it wasn’t the driver’s fault, but Amá needed someone to accuse.
She hasn’t blamed me directly, but I can see it in her big sad eyes every time she
looks at me.
My nosy aunts are whispering behind me now. I can feel their eyes latched to
the back of my head again. I know they’re saying that this is my fault. They’ve
never liked me because they think I’m trouble. When I dyed chunks of my hair
bright blue, those drama queens almost needed to be put on stretchers and rushed
to the hospital. They act as if I’m some sort of devil child because I don’t like to
go to church and would rather read books than socialize with them. Why is that a
crime, though? They’re boring. Plus, they have no idea how much I loved my
I’ve had enough of their whispering, so I turn around to give them a dirty
look. That’s when I see Lorena come in, thank God. She’s the only person who
can make me feel better right now.
Everyone turns to stare at her in her outrageously high heels, tight black dress,
and excessive makeup. Lorena is always drawing attention to herself. Maybe
that’ll give them something else to gossip about. She hugs me so tight she nearly
cracks my ribs. Her cheap cherry body spray fills my nose and mouth.
Amá doesn’t like Lorena because she thinks she’s wild and slutty, which isn’t
untrue, but she has been my friend since I was eight and is more loyal than
anyone I’ve ever known. I whisper to her that my tías are talking about me, that
they’re blaming me for what happened to Olga, that they’re making me so angry,
I want to smash all the windows with my bare fists.
“Fuck those nosy viejas,” Lorena says, waving her hand dramatically,
shooting them eye-daggers. I turn around to see if they’ve stopped staring when I
notice a dark man in the back crying quietly into a cloth handkerchief. He’s
wearing a gray suit and shiny gold watch. He seems familiar, but I can’t place
his face. He’s probably my uncle or something. My parents are always
introducing me to strangers and telling me we’re related. There are dozens of
people here I’ve never met. When I turn around, he’s gone, and Olga’s friend
Angie comes running in, looking like she was the one hit by a semi. She’s
beautiful, but, damn, is she an ugly crier. Her skin is like a bright pink rag
someone has wrung out. As soon as she sees Olga, she starts howling almost
worse than Amá. I wish I knew the right thing to say, but I don’t. I never do.
After the funeral, Amá doesn’t get out of bed for almost two weeks. She only
gets up to go to the bathroom, drink water, and occasionally eat one of those
Mexican cookies that taste like Styrofoam. She’s been wearing the same loose
and frumpy nightgown, and I’m almost positive she hasn’t taken a shower this
entire time, which is scary, because Amá is the cleanest person I know. Her hair
is always washed and neatly braided, and her clothes—even when they’re old—
are patched, ironed, and spotless. When I was seven, Amá found out I hadn’t
showered for five days, so she dunked me in a scalding hot tub and scrubbed me
with a brush until my skin ached. She told me that girls who don’t wash their
junk get horrible infections, so I never skipped showering again. Maybe I’m the
one who needs to throw Amá into the tub now.
Apá works all day, then sits on the couch with a bottle of beer, like usual. In
fact, he even sleeps on it now. It’s probably molded to his body at this point. He
hasn’t said much to me this whole time, which is not that different from before.
Sometimes he barely says hello. Could it be that my own father hates my guts?
He wasn’t that much more affectionate toward Olga, but she definitely tried
harder. When Apá came home from the factory, she’d bring out his foot bath.
She’d kneel down, place his feet gently inside, and massage them. They never
said a word during this daily ritual. I can’t imagine touching him like that.
The apartment is a disaster, since Amá and Olga were the ones who did all the
cleaning. We have roaches, but because Amá mopped every single day, it didn’t
feel that disgusting. Now the dirty dishes are piled high and the kitchen table is
covered with crumbs. The roaches are probably rejoicing. And the bathroom? It
should be burned to the ground. I know I should clean, but whenever I look at
the mess, I think, what’s the point? Nothing feels like it has a point anymore.
I don’t want to bother my parents because they have enough to worry about,
but I’m so hungry and tired of eating nothing but tortillas and eggs. A few days
ago, I tried to make beans, but they never softened, even though I boiled them
for three hours. I nearly cracked my teeth on one. I had to throw away the whole
pot, which is a sin, according to Amá. I hope my aunts bring over more food.
This is the only time I wish I would’ve let my mother teach me how to cook. But
I hate the way she hovers over me and criticizes my every move. I’d rather live
in the streets than be a submissive Mexican wife who spends all day cooking and
Apá hasn’t eaten much, either. The other day he brought home a brick of
Chihuahua cheese and a stack of tortillas, so we ate quesadillas for several days,
but we’ve run out now. Yesterday I got desperate and boiled some old potatoes
and ate them with nothing but salt and pepper. We didn’t even have butter. It’s
gotten so bad that I’ve started daydreaming about dancing hamburgers. A slice
of pizza could probably make me weep with happiness.
I peek inside my parents’ bedroom, and the sour smell nearly knocks me over
—a mix of unwashed hair, gas, and sweat.
“Amá,” I whisper.
“Amá,” I say again, louder.
I finally step inside the room completely. The smell is so awful that I have to
breathe through my mouth. I wonder if Amá is ever going back to work. What if
the rich assholes she cleans for decide to fire her? Now that Olga is gone and
can’t pitch in, what are we going to do? I’m not old enough to get a job.
“Amá!” I finally yell. I turn on the light.
She gasps. “What? What do you want?” she says, her voice blurry with sleep.
She covers her eyes with her hands.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. I’m fine. Please leave me alone. I want to rest.”
“You haven’t eaten or taken a shower in a really long time.”
“How do you know? Are you here watching me every hour of the day? Your
tía came by and gave me soup yesterday. I’m fine.”
“It smells terrible in here. I’m starting to get worried. How can you live like
“Funny how my slob of a daughter is suddenly concerned with cleanliness.
When have you ever cared about that before?” Amá has always given me
attitude for my messiness, but this is unlike her. “Olga was the clean one,” she
adds, in case it didn’t sting enough. She has compared me to my sister every
single day of my life, so why should I expect that to change now that she’s dead?
“Olga’s gone now. All you have is me. Sorry.”
I want Amá to tell me that she loves me and that we’ll get through this
together, but she doesn’t. I stand there like a dope, waiting and waiting for her to
say something that will make me feel better. When I realize she’s not going to, I
dig through her wallet on the dresser, take out a five-dollar bill, and slam the
After searching every crevice of my room, I manage to find $4.75 in change.
I’ll be able to buy three tacos and a large horchata, which isn’t much, but it will
do. If I have to eat one more plain tortilla or boiled potato, I swear I’ll cry. I slip
out the back door to avoid Apá in the living room, not that he’d even ask or
notice. Now I have a ghost father and ghost sister.
The taco place is bright with fluorescent lighting, and smells like grease and
Pine-Sol. I’ve never eaten alone at a restaurant, and it makes me nervous. I can
feel everyone watching me. They probably think I’m a loser for eating alone.
The waitress gives me a funny look, too. I bet she thinks I’m not going to tip her,
but I’ll prove her wrong. I may be young, but I’m not dumb.
I order two tacos de asada and one al pastor with extra limes. The smell of
fried meat and grilled onion makes my mouth water. When the tacos arrive, I try
to eat them slowly, but end up inhaling them with desperation. Not only am I
bad at cooking, I’m bad at being hungry. I’m always convinced I’m going to
faint when my stomach starts to grumble. Each bite of the taco shoots a rush of
pleasure through my body. I guzzle the bucket-sized horchata until I feel sick.
When I get back home, Amá is in the kitchen, with a towel wrapped around her
head, drinking tea. She’s freshly showered and smells like fake roses. She’s
finally ditched her nightgown and is wearing her white robe. The sudden sight of
her clean and functioning almost scares me. She doesn’t ask me where I’ve been,
which has never, ever happened. She always wants to know where I am and who
I’m with. She asks a million questions about my friends’ parents—what part of
Mexico they’re from, what church they go to, where they work—but today,
nothing. I wonder if she can smell the meat and onion in my clothes and hair.
I can usually predict what Amá is going to say, but this time I’m not at all
prepared. She takes a loud slurp of her tea—which always, always gets on my
nerves—and tells me I’m going to have a quinceañera.
My heart stops. “Wait, what?”
“A party. Don’t you want a nice party?”
“My sister just died and you want to throw me a party? I’m already fifteen!” I
must be dreaming.
“I never got to give Olga a quinceañera. It’s something I’ll always regret.”
“So you’re going to use me to make yourself feel better?”
“Ay, Julia. What is wrong with you? What kind of girl wouldn’t want to
celebrate her fifteenth birthday? So ungrateful.” She shakes her head.
Plenty is wrong with me, and she knows it.
“But I don’t want one. You can’t make me.”
Amá tightens her robe. “That’s too bad.”
“It’s a waste of money. I bet Olga would’ve wanted you to help me with
“You don’t know anything about what Olga would have wanted,” she says,
and takes another slurp of tea. Apá is watching the news in the living room. I can
hear the news anchor say something about a mass grave found in Mexico. He
always turns the volume way up when Amá and I are arguing, as if he’s trying to
drown us out.
“This doesn’t make any sense. I’m already fifteen. Who’s even heard of such
a thing?” I start pulling on my hair, which is what I do when I feel panicky.
“We’ll have it in May in the church basement. I already called the priest. It’ll
be available by then,” she says, matter-of-factly.
“May? Are you joking? I turn sixteen in July. Why would you do that? You
can’t call that a quinceañera.” I start pacing. I feel short of breath.
“You’ll still be fifteen won’t you?”
“Yeah, but that’s not the point. This is so stupid.” I shake my head and look at
“The point is having a nice party with your family.”
“But my family doesn’t even like me. And I don’t want to wear a big, ugly
dress….And the dancing. Oh my God, the dancing.” The thought of spinning in
circles in front of all my idiot cousins makes me want to run away from home
and join the circus.
“What are you talking about? Everyone loves you. Don’t be so dramatic.”
“No, they don’t. They all think I’m weird, and you know that.” I stare at the
cheap replica of The Last Supper next to the cabinets. It’s so old that Jesus and
his posse are starting to fade into light yellows and greens.
“That’s not true.” Amá furrows her brow.
“Well, either way, you can’t call it a quinceañera.”
“Yes, I can. It’s tradition.” Amá’s jaw tightens, and her eyes narrow in a way
that tells me I’m not going to win.
“Where are you going to get the money?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“How can I not worry? That’s all you ever talk about.”
“I said, it’s not your problem. Do you understand?” Amá’s voice gets quiet,
which is even scarier than when she yells.
“This fucking sucks,” I say, and kick the stove so hard the pans rattle.
“Watch your mouth, or I’ll slap you so hard, I’ll break your teeth.”
Something tells me she’s not exaggerating.
When I can’t sleep, I crawl into Olga’s bed. Last week Amá told me to never,
ever go inside her room, but I can’t help it. I slip in there after my parents have
gone to bed and then wake up before they do. I think Amá wants to keep the
room exactly as Olga left it. Maybe she wants to pretend that she’s still alive,
that one day she’ll come home from work and everything will be normal again.
If Amá knew that I touched Olga’s things, she’d probably never forgive me.
She’d probably ship me to Mexico—one of her favorite threats—as if that would
solve any of my problems.
My sister’s bed still smells like her—fabric softener, lavender lotion, and her
warm and sweet human scent I can’t describe. Olga dressed ugly but smelled
like a meadow. I toss and turn for a long time. Tonight my mind won’t shut off. I
can’t stop thinking about the chemistry test I failed yesterday: twenty-four
percent, which is the worst grade I’ve received. Even an intellectually stunted
monkey could get a better score. I already hated chemistry, but since Olga died, I
haven’t been able to concentrate. Sometimes I look at my books and tests, and
the words all blur and swirl together. If I keep going like this, I’ll never get into
college. I’ll end up working in a factory, marry some loser, and have his ugly
After lying in bed for hours, I turn on the lamp and try to read. I’ve read The
Awakening a million times, but I find it comforting. My favorite character is the
lady in black who follows Edna and Robert everywhere. I also love the book
because I’m so much like Edna—nothing satisfies me, nothing makes me happy.
I want too much out of life. I want to take it in my hands and squeeze and twist
as much as I can from it. And it’s never enough.
I read the same sentence over and over again, and lay the book on my
stomach. I stare at the light purple walls and remember the happy times I had
with my sister, before we started to flutter away from each other. There’s a
picture on her dresser of both of us in Mexico. Our parents used to send us every
summer, but it’s been years since we’ve been there. Amá and Apá haven’t been
able to go back because they’re still illegal. The two of us are in front of Mamá
Jacinta’s house. We’re both squinting and smiling in the sun, and Olga’s arm is
around my neck so tight that it is almost as if she’s choking me. I remember that
day so clearly. We swam in the river for hours, then ate Hawaiian hamburgers
from the cart near the park.
Most of my childhood sucked, but our summers in Mexico were different.
We’d get to stay up all night and play kick-the-can in the streets until we were
filthy and exhausted. Here, we would’ve been hit by stray bullets. Sometimes
we’d get to ride my great-uncle’s beautiful black horses, and Mamá Jacinta
would spoil us with food, no matter how silly our cravings were. Once, she even
made us a pizza with stinky ranchero cheese.
Behind our picture is a poster of Maná, the terrible Mexican rock band that I
hate, because all their songs are about weeping angels or something equally
lame. On the opposite wall is her high school graduation picture. Olga was a
good student, so I could never understand why she didn’t want to go to a real
college. I’ve been dreaming of going since I was little. I know I’m smart. That’s
why they skipped me ahead a year. I was bored out of my skull in class. Now I
get mostly B’s, with a sprinkle of C’s, except for English. I always get A’s in
English. My mind usually wanders and gets lost in a tangle of worries.
As I look around the room, I wonder who my sister was. I lived with her my
whole life, and now I feel like I didn’t know her at all. Olga was the perfect
daughter—cooked, cleaned, and never stayed out late. Sometimes I wondered if
she’d live with my parents forever like that sap Tita, from Like Water for
Chocolate. Ugh. Such a terrible book.
Olga loved her job, even though she was only a receptionist. What could be so
fulfilling about filing and answering phones?
The stuffed animals on the dresser make me sad. I mean, I know they’re
inanimate objects—I’m not an idiot—but I imagine them all melancholic,
waiting for my sister to come back. Olga loved babies, the color pink, and
peanut butter cups. She always covered her mouth when she laughed because of
her snaggletooth. She was a good listener. Unlike me, she never, ever
interrupted. She was also an excellent cook. In fact, her enchiladas were better
than Amá’s, but I’ve never said that out loud.
I know Amá loves me and always has, but Olga has always been her favorite.
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve questioned everything, which drove both my
parents insane. Even when I tried to be good, I couldn’t. It’s as if it were
physically impossible for me, as if I were allergic to rules. Things just got worse
and worse as I got older. Stuff that’s sexist, for example, makes me crazy. Once,
I ruined Thanksgiving by going on a rant about the women having to cook all
day while the men just sat around, scratching their butts. Amá said I embarrassed
her in front of the whole family, that I couldn’t change the way things have
always been. I probably should’ve let it go after a while, but I stand by what I
Amá and I also argue about religion all the time. I told her that the Catholic
church hates women because it wants us to be weak and ignorant. It was right
after the time our priest said—I swear to God—that women should obey their
husbands. He literally used the word obey. I gasped and looked around in
disbelief to see if anyone else was as angry as I was, but, no, I was the only one.
I poked Olga in the ribs and whispered, “Can you believe this shit?” But she just
told me to be quiet and listen to the sermon. Amá said I was a disrespectful
huerca, that how could the church hate women when we worship La Virgen de
Guadalupe? You can’t ever win an argument with her, so why do I bother?
Stuff like that made us hate each other, and Olga was always taking her side.
They looked alike, too. They’re both pale and thin, with stick-straight black hair,
and I’m chubby, short, and dark, like Apá. I’m not, like, super-fat or anything,
but I have thick legs and my stomach is definitely not flat. Oh, and my boobs are
much too big for my body—two pendulous burdens I’ve been lugging around
since I was thirteen. I’m also the only one in the family who wears glasses. I’m
practically blind. If I went out into the world with naked eyeballs, I’d probably
be robbed, run over by a car, or mauled by animals.
I read for a little while longer, then try to go to sleep, but I can’t. I stay wide
awake for what feels like hours. When I hear birds beginning to chirp, I get so
angry, I tug at the sheets and arrange the pillow over and over again. I feel
something inside it press my cheek. For a second, I think it’s a feather, but then I
remember I’m not living in the 1800s. I sift through the pillowcase and pull out a
folded piece of paper. It’s a sticky note with the name of a prescription:
Lexafron. Olga probably got it from the pharmaceutical people who always
visited her office. On the back, it says, I love you. I stare at it for a minute, not
understanding. Why the hell is this in my sister’s pillow?
My mind is leaping, my thoughts doing somersaults and backflips. Olga only
had one boyfriend who I knew of—Pedro, a skinny, little guy who looked like an
aardvark, but that was years ago. I seriously don’t know what she saw in him,
because not only was he ugly, he had the personality of a boiled potato. Even
though I was only ten, I often wondered what was going on in that little brain of
Pedro was just as shy as Olga, so I don’t know what they talked about. When
he came to our family parties, my uncles would give him a hard time for being
such a dork. I remember tío Cayetano trying to give him a shot of tequila once,
and Pedro just shaking his head no. Most of the time, he’d pick Olga up on
Friday nights and take her to dinner. Their favorite place was Red Lobster. Once,
they even went to Great America (how riveting!). They dated for a year until he
and his family moved back to Mexico (oh my God, who does that?). That was
the last I knew about Olga’s love life.
I tiptoe to her closet and start digging through her things as quietly as
possible. One box is filled with photos from school. Most of them are of Olga
and her friends during science fairs, field trips, and birthday parties. She was in
the science club at school, and, for some reason, felt the need to document every
single moment. I mean, there’s even a picture of her holding a microscope.
Jesus, my sister was boring. I keep sifting through the box when I feel some
clothes. I can’t be prepared for what I pull out—five pairs of silk-and-lace
thongs. Sexy lady underwear, the kind I imagine a very expensive hooker might
buy. At the very bottom, I find skimpy lingerie. I have no idea what it’s called. A
nightie? A negligee? A teddy? Such stupid names for things that are supposed to
be sexy. Why would Olga have this in her closet? Why would she subject herself
to these forever-wedgies when she didn’t even have a boyfriend? Was this what
she wore under her senior-citizen ensembles? Olga must have done a good job
washing them in secret because, if Amá had found them in the laundry, she
would have flipped the hell out.
I have to find her laptop now. I have two hours until my parents wake up.
I look everywhere, even the places I already searched. Finally, when I’m so
tired I’m about to give up, I think to check the most obvious place of all—under
her mattress, and there it is. Duh.
I know guessing a password is probably impossible, but I have to make an
effort. I try a few things—her favorite food; our parents’ hometown, Los Ojos;
our address; her birthday; and even 12345, which only a complete moron would
use. Oh, who am I kidding? This is impossible.
I go back to her dresser. There has to be something else in there. Her junk
drawer is full of pens, paper clips, scraps of paper, receipts, old notebooks—
nothing even remotely interesting. As I consider going back to sleep, I find an
envelope under a pile of notecards. It feels like there’s a credit card inside, but
it’s not. It’s a hotel key. The Continental, it says. Except for our trips to Mexico,
Olga has never, ever slept anywhere else. Why would she need a hotel key?
Angie works at a hotel, but it’s called something else…the Skyline, I think.
I hear someone open a door. Maybe Amá or Apá got up to pee. I flick off the
light as quickly as possible and try not to move or breathe. If Amá catches me,
she’ll make sure I never get in here again.
The next thing I know, I wake up to the sound of someone in the kitchen. My
pillow is wet. I must have fallen asleep before I could set an alarm on my phone.
Holy shit, Amá is going to kill me. I make Olga’s bed as fast as I can and press
my ear to the door to make sure no one is near when I sneak back into my room.
Amá must have been wearing ninja shoes because, when I open the door,
there she is with her hands on her hips.
I didn’t know things could get any worse at home, but apparently they can. The
apartment feels like the play The House of Bernarda Alba, but much less
interesting. Just like the crazy and grieving mother, Amá keeps all the blinds and
curtains drawn, which makes our cramped apartment even more stuffy and
Because of my punishment for going into Olga’s room, all I can do is read,
draw, and write in my journal. Amá also took away my phone. I can’t even close
my bedroom door because she opens it as soon as I do. When I tell her I need
privacy, she laughs and tells me I’ve become too Americanized. “Privacy! I
never had any privacy when I was a girl. You kids here think you can do
whatever you want,” she says.
I don’t even know what she thinks I might do if I’m alone in my room.
There’s no way I’d try touching myself with her yelling and lurking all the time.
I don’t bother looking out the window because all I can see is the building next
door. And now I can’t go into Olga’s room, not even at night when they’re
sleeping, because Amá installed a lock and I can’t find the key. I’ve looked
everywhere. As soon as I can bust out of here, I’m going to the Continental
Hotel to see if I can find anything about Olga. I’ve tried calling Angie about a
million times from a land line, and she still hasn’t called me back. She has to
I usually go inside my closet to cry so my parents don’t hear me. Other times I
just lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling, imagining the kind of life I want to
have when I get older. I picture myself at the top of the Eiffel Tower, climbing
pyramids in Egypt, dancing in the streets in Spain, riding in a boat in Venice,
and walking on the Great Wall of China. In these dreams, I’m a famous writer
who wears flamboyant scarves and travels all around the world, meeting
fascinating people. No one tells me what to do. I go wherever I want and do
whatever I please. Then I realize that I’m still in my tiny bedroom and can’t even
go outside. It’s like a living death. I almost envy Olga, which I know is
completely fucked up.
If I tell Amá that I’m bored, she tells me to pick up a mop and start cleaning.
She doesn’t believe in boredom when there’s so much to do around the house, as
if cleaning the apartment were as entertaining as a day at the beach. When she
says stuff like this, I feel the anger bubble in my guts. Sometimes I love her and
sometimes I hate her. Mostly, I feel a combination of both. I know it’s wrong to
hate your parents, especially when your sister is dead, but I can’t help it, so I
keep it to myself, and the resentment grows through me like weeds. I thought
deaths were supposed to bring people together, but I guess that’s just what
happens on TV.
I wonder if other people feel this way. I asked Lorena once, but she said, “No,
how could I possibly hate my own mother?” What was wrong with me? But
that’s probably because her mom lets her do whatever the hell she wants.
I don’t like most of my teachers because they’re as interesting as buckets of
rocks, but English with Mr. Ingman is always fun. There’s something about Mr.
Ingman that I liked right away. He looks like a dorky suburban dad, but his eyes
are friendly and his weird, jagged laugh is kinda funny. And he treats us like
we’re adults, like he actually cares about what we think and feel. Most teachers
talk down to us, as if we’re a bunch of immature dummies who don’t know
anything about anything. I don’t know if anyone’s told Mr. Ingman about my
dead sister, because he doesn’t look at me as if I were some sad cripple.
As soon as we sit down today, Mr. Ingman makes us write down our favorite
word and says we’ll have to explain it to the rest of the class.
I’ve loved words since I learned how to read, but I’ve never thought about my
favorite ones. How can you choose just one? I don’t know why such a simple
task makes me so nervous. It takes me a few minutes to come up with anything,
then I can’t stop.
By the time Mr. Ingman gets to me, I finally decide on wisteria.
“So what’s yours, Julia?” Mr. Ingman nods toward me. He always says my
name exactly how I pronounce it, the Spanish way.
“Yes, well, um…I had a lot of words, but in the end I picked wisteria.”
“What do you like about that word?” Mr. Ingman sits on his desk and leans
“I don’t know. It’s a flower, and it…it just sounds beautiful. Also, it rhymes
with hysteria, which I think is kinda cool. And maybe this sounds weird, but
when I say it, I like the way it feels in my mouth.”
I regret that last part because all the guys start laughing. I should have known.
Mr. Ingman shakes his head. “Come on, guys. Let’s show Julia some respect.
I expect you all to be kind to each other in this class. If you can’t do that, I’ll ask
you to leave. Understand?”
The class quiets down. After we get through everyone, Mr. Ingman asks us
why he made us do this exercise. A few people shrug, but no one says anything.
“The words you choose can tell us a lot about yourself,” he says. “In this
class, I want you to learn to appreciate—wait, no—I want you to love language.
Not only will I expect you to read difficult texts and learn how to analyze them
in smart and surprising ways, I expect you to learn hundreds of new words. See,
I’m teaching you standard English, which is the language of power. What does
that mean?” Mr. Ingman raises his eyebrows and looks around the room.
The room is silent. I want to answer, but I’m too embarrassed. I see Leslie
smirk next to me. What a jerk. She always looks like she’s just sniffed a dirty
“It means that you will learn to speak and write in a way that will give you
authority. Does that mean that the way you speak in your neighborhood is
wrong? That slang is bad? That you can’t say on fleek or whatever you kids are
saying these days? Absolutely not. That form of speaking is often fun, inventive,
and creative, but would it be helpful to speak that way in a job interview?
Unfortunately not. I want you to think about these things. I want you to think
about words in a way you’ve never done before. I want you to leave this class
with the tools to compete with kids in the suburbs, because you’re just as
capable, just as smart.”
After Mr. Ingman gives us a short lesson on the importance of American
literature, the bell rings. This is definitely my favorite class.
On Saturday morning, Amá is making flour tortillas. I can smell the dough and
hear the rolling pin from my bedroom when I wake up. Sometimes Amá lies in
bed all day, and other times she’s in a cooking-and-cleaning frenzy. It’s
impossible to predict. I know she’s going to make me help her, so I stay in bed
reading until she forces me to get up.
“Get up, huevona!” I hear her yelling from the other room. Amá calls me
huevona all the time. She says I don’t have the right to be tired, because I don’t
work cleaning houses all day like she does. I guess she has a point, but it’s a
weird thing to call a girl if you really think about it. Huevos means “eggs,” so it
means that your eggs (balls) are so big that they drag you down and make you
lazy. Telling a girl her balls are too heavy is bizarre, but I never point this out
because I know it will piss her off.
After I brush my teeth and wash my face, I go to the kitchen. Amá has already
covered the table and counters with rolled-out tortillas. She’s bent over the table,
stretching a little ball of dough into a perfect circle.
“Put on an apron, and start heating these up,” Amá says, pointing to the
tortillas scattered throughout the kitchen.
“How do I know when they’re done?”
“You just know.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“What kind of girl doesn’t know when a tortilla is done?” She looks irritated
“Me. I don’t. Please just tell me.”
“You’ll figure it out. It’s common sense.”
I study the tortillas as they heat on the comal and try to flip them before they
burn. When I turn the first one, I see that I’ve left it too long. That side is almost
burned. Amá tells me that the second one is too pale, that I have to leave it on
longer, but when I do, it gets too crisp. When I burn the third one completely,
Amá sighs and tells me to roll them out instead, while she heats them. I take her
rolling pin and try my best to shape the little balls into circles. Most of them end
up in weird shapes, no matter how much I try to fix them.
“That one looks like a chancla,” Amá says, looking at my worst one.
“It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t look like a slipper. Jesus.” I feel myself grow
more and more frustrated. I take a deep breath. I don’t want to fight with her
because I heard her crying in their bedroom last night.
“They have to be perfect.”
“Why? We’re just going to eat them. Why does it matter if they’re not in
“If you’re going to do something, you have to do it right, or else you shouldn’t
do it at all,” Amá says, turning back to the stove. “Olga’s were always so nice
“I don’t care about Olga’s tortillas,” I say, throwing off my apron. I’ve had
enough. “I don’t care about any of this crap. I don’t see the point of going
through all this trouble when we can buy them at the store.”
“Get back here,” Amá yells after me. “What kind of woman are you going to
be if you can’t even make a tortilla?”
After two weeks of no TV, no phone, and no going out whatsoever, Amá says
maybe she’ll end my punishment today. Little does she know that I’m going to
the Continental after school. I’m tired of waiting for permission to go anywhere,
and something about Olga is driving me crazy. Maybe I can convince Lorena to
go with me.
I put on bright red lipstick, my favorite black dress, red fishnets, and black
Chuck Taylors. I flat-iron my hair until it falls straight down my back. I don’t
even care that I look kinda fat or have a giant pimple throbbing on my chin. I’m
going to try my best to have a good day. Well, as good as it can be when your
sister is dead and you feel like you might lose your mind at any moment.
When Amá sees me come out of my room, she makes the sign of the cross and
doesn’t say anything—that’s what she does when she hates what I’m wearing or
I say something weird, which is always.
I put the leather journal Olga gave me for Christmas in my backpack. It was
one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received. I guess even when it didn’t
seem like it, Olga was always paying attention.
When Amá drops me off at school, she kisses me on the cheek and reminds
me that we have to start looking for a dress, that I can’t show up to my party
looking like I worship Satan.
Lorena meets me at my locker and gives me a hug before class. Sometimes I
don’t know how Lorena and I are still best friends. We’re so different and look
like complete opposites. People even look at us funny when they see us together.
She likes spandex, and bright and crazy patterns and colors. She wears leggings
as pants. I prefer band T-shirts, jeans, and dark dresses. Most of the clothes in
my closet are black, gray, or red. When I started listening to New Wave and
indie, Lorena got into hip-hop and R & B. We always argue about music—and
everything else, for that matter—but I’ve known her forever and we understand
each other in a weird way I can’t describe. She can tell what I’m thinking just by
looking at me. Lorena is ghetto, loud, and acts ignorant as hell sometimes, but I
love her. She’ll fight anyone who even looks at me funny. (One time, Faviola, a
girl we’ve known since grade school, made fun of my pants, and Lorena
knocked her desk over and told her she looked like a scared Chihuahua.) The
bell rings before I can ask Lorena to go downtown with me after school. I run to
algebra before I’m late. Not only do I hate math with every fiber of my being, I
suspect my teacher Mr. Simmons is a racist Republican. He has a handlebar
mustache, and his desk is covered with American flags. He even has a tiny
Confederate one he probably thinks we don’t notice. What kind of person would
have something like that? He also has a dumb Ronald Reagan quote about jelly
beans taped to the wall, which is another obvious clue: You can tell a lot about a
fellow’s character by the way he eats jelly beans. What does that even mean?
How exactly do people eat jelly beans differently? Is that supposed to be deep or
something? No one else seems to notice or care about these kinds of things,
though. I tried to explain it to Lorena, but she just shrugged and said, “White
While Mr. Simmons goes on and on about integers, I work on a poem in my
journal. I only have a couple of pages left.
Red ribbons unraveling
with the noise of my chaos.
A light beating like a drum.
I opened my wings and took
a swim in a warm, euphoric dream
of hands pressed to faces,
opened to the mad dancing
and combusted into a new constellation.
The dream too warm
for the flesh, too rough for the soft
touch of fingertips, holding my universe
in a single grasp. Everything sank, falling
to the ground, became blue.
The sunsets raining behind me
like a monsoon.
As I’m daydreaming about more images for my poem, Mr. Simmons calls on
me, of course. He probably noticed my hatred for him pulsing around me.
“Julia, what is the answer to problem four?” He takes his glasses off and
squints at me. He says my name the wrong way (Jewlia), even though I already
told him how to pronounce it. Amá has never let me say it the English way. She
says she’s the one who named me and that people can’t go around changing it
for their own convenience. We agree on that, at least. It’s not like it’s hard to
“I’m sorry. I don’t know,” I tell Mr. Simmons.
“Were you paying attention?”
“No, I wasn’t. Sorry.”
“And why not?”
My face feels hot. Everyone is watching me, waiting for my humiliation like
vultures. Why can’t he just back off? “Look, I said I was sorry. I don’t know
what else to tell you.”
Mr. Simmons is really pissed now. “I want you to come to the board and solve
the problem,” he says, pointing at me. I guess he was never taught that it’s
impolite to point at people.
I want to get all Bartleby about it, tell him I don’t fucking feel like it, but I
know I shouldn’t. I’ve gotten in enough trouble lately. But why does he have to
pick on me? Doesn’t he know my sister is dead? My heart is racing, and I can
feel a thick pulse in my left cheek. I wonder if my face is twitching.
“What did you say to me?”
“I said no.”
Now Mr. Simmons is pink as ham. His hands are on his hips, and he looks as
though he wants to bash my skull. Before he says anything else, I shove my stuff
into my backpack and run out the door. I can’t deal with this today.
“Get back here right now, young lady,” he yells after me, but I keep going. I
can hear everyone screaming, laughing, and clapping as I walk out the door.
“Damn, son!” I hear Marcos yell.
“Oh hell no, she told you!” I think that’s Jorge, which makes me almost
forgive him for having a rattail.
The sky is clear—a blue so bright and beautiful that it hurts to look at it.
Maybe I should’ve waited until the end of the day to see if I could convince
Lorena to go with me, but there’s no way I’m going back inside now. The birds
are carrying on, and the streets smell like frying chorizo. Cars are honking. Men
and women are selling fruit and corn from carts. Mexican music is blaring from
every direction. Most of the time I hate walking through my neighborhood
because of the gangbangers and guys whistling from their cars, but today nobody
even looks at me.
I know I shouldn’t have left school, but Amá is always talking about how it’s
a sin to waste this and that and it feels like a sin to waste a day like this. Besides,
now I don’t have to wait all day to go to the Continental.
As I walk to the bus, I watch a helicopter fly toward downtown until it
disappears into a tiny black speck. I can see the hazy skyline in the distance. As
long as I can find the Sears Tower, I know I can’t get lost.
A green balloon floats past a power line, then gets tangled in a tree. I
remember a movie I watched in first grade about a red balloon that chased a
French boy throughout the streets of Paris. I imagine this balloon coming loose
and chasing a little Mexican girl throughout the streets of Chicago.
I walk into the most unappetizing diner in the whole entire city. The counters
are avocado green, and most of the stools are torn. Even the windows look
greasy. It makes me feel like I went into a time machine. It reminds me of the
painting Nighthawks, but even more depressing. I’m not sure where I am exactly
—I think I’m near the South Loop.
I sit down at the counter, and the waitress asks me what I’ll have in a thick
European accent. Maybe she’s Polish or from one of those other countries in
Eastern Europe. I can’t tell exactly. She looks tired but pretty in a way that
doesn’t call too much attention to itself, in a way that doesn’t say, “Hey, hey,
look at me!”
I only have $8.58 in my pocket, and I still have to get back on the bus or train,
so I have to choose carefully. What I really want is this meal called “The Hobo,”
which is made of eggs, hash browns, cheese, and bacon—practically everything
I love—but it’s $7.99. I won’t have enough left to get back home. I order a
cheese Danish and a cup of coffee, even though the smell of bacon makes my
I read the newspaper on the counter while I drink my coffee, which is so awful
I can barely stomach it. It tastes as if they boiled old socks and dumped the
liquid into a coffeepot, but I gulp it down anyway because I’m not about to
waste my two dollars. And the Danish is stale, of course. I should have seen that
coming. I scoop out the cheese and eat it with my finger.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” the waitress asks as she refills my mug.
“Yeah, I should be, but one of my teachers was being a total jerk.”
“Hmmm.” She raises an eyebrow; she seems suspicious.
“He was, I swear.”
“What did he do?”
“He called on me to solve a problem on the board. I didn’t know the answer,
but he kept insisting. It was so embarrassing.” I realize how stupid this sounds
when I say it out loud.
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” she says.
“Yeah, I guess it doesn’t, huh?” We both laugh.
“Well, I think you should probably go back before you get in trouble.” She
“My sister is dead,” I blurt out.
“What?” she asks, as if she’s misheard.
“She died last month. I can’t concentrate. I guess that’s the real reason I left.”
“Oh no,” she says, her pretty face now sad and severe. Why did I tell her this?
It’s not her problem. “You poor girl. I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you,” I say, still not knowing why I just told her about Olga. She
squeezes my hand, then walks to a table behind me.
I write in my journal for a little while and try to figure out what to do next.
Might as well make a day of it since I’m already going downtown. Whatever I
do has to be free or close to it, or else I’ll have to walk home. After some
brainstorming and doodling, I decide on the Art Institute, which is one of my
favorite places in the whole world. Well, in Chicago. I haven’t seen much of the
world yet. They have a suggested donation, but I never pay it. Key word:
When I ask the waitress for my bill, she tells me someone’s already paid for
“What? Who? Wait, I don’t understand.”
“The man who was sitting over there.” She points to an empty stool at the end
of the counter. “He heard you were having a bad day.”
I can’t believe it. Why would someone do something like that without asking
for anything in return? He didn’t even hit on me or stare at my boobs or wait
around for me to thank him. I run out to the street to find him, but it’s too late.
I take out my notebook and stare at the address for the Continental. I’m not
very good with directions, but I think I can probably figure it out without a map.
I walk northwest. It’s not that hard when you know where the lake is. The
buildings are blocking the sun, so it’s starting to feel cold. I wish I would have
brought a jacket.
A homeless man with no legs screams in front of a Starbucks. I think he’s
drunk because I can’t understand what he’s saying. Something about a llama? A
mother and daughter brush past me with two giant American Girl bags. I’ve
heard those dolls cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars. I can’t wait until I have
enough money to buy whatever the hell I want without worrying about every
single penny. I, however, would never spend it on something as stupid as a doll.
The Continental is small but lavish, lots of blue and off-white. It’s called a
“boutique hotel,” whatever the hell that means. The woman at the front desk
hangs up the phone when I approach her. “Can I help you, miss?” Her hair is
drawn into a slick, tight ponytail that looks like it hurts, and her perfume smells
like a dusty flower in summer twilight.
“Did you ever see this girl come in here? She was my sister.” I give her a
picture of Olga at tía Cuca’s barbecue a month before she died. She’s holding a
plate of food and smiling with her eyes closed. I figured it was best to use the
most recent one I could find.
“I’m sorry, but we’re not allowed to give any information about our guests.”
She smiles apologetically. I see a tiny smear of pink lipstick on her teeth.
“But she’s dead.”
She winces and shakes her head. “I’m so sorry.”
“Can you at least tell me if you’ve seen her?”
“Again, I’m so, so sorry for your loss, but I can’t. It’s against our policy,
“Why would a policy matter if she’s dead? Can you just look up her name?
Olga Reyes. Please.”
“The only people we’re allowed to give information to is the police.”
“Fuck,” I mutter under my breath. I know it’s not her fault, but I’m so
frustrated. “Okay, well, can you at least tell me if this hotel is connected to the
Skyline? Are they owned by the same company?”
“Yes, they’re a part of the same conglomerate. Why do you ask?”
“Thanks.” I walk out the door, without bothering to explain.
Before entering the museum, I take a walk around the gardens outside. Everyone
is desperately trying to hang on to the sunshine, enjoying the unexpected warmth
before winter takes a cold gray crap on the city and makes us all miserable again.
Though the trees are changing colors, flowers are still in bloom, and there are
bees everywhere. Everything is so perfect I wish I could keep it in a jar. A young
woman in a flowered dress is breastfeeding her baby. A man with long gray hair
is lying on a bench, with his head on his wife’s lap. A couple is making out
against a tree. For a split second, my mind tricks me into believing the girl is
Olga, because they have the same long ponytail, skinny body, and flat butt, but
when she turns around, she looks nothing like my sister.
When I tell the woman at the counter that I will pay zero dollars instead of the
suggested donation, she eyeballs me as if I were some sort of criminal.
“Don’t we all have a right to art? Are you trying to keep me from an
education? That seems very bourgeoisie, if you ask me.” I learned that word in
history class last year and try to use it whenever it’s appropriate, because Mr.
Ingman always tells us that language is power.
The woman just sighs, rolls her eyes, and hands me the ticket. She probably
hates her job. I know I would.
I walk over to my favorite painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes. We learned
about the artist, Artemisia Gentileschi, in art class last year. My teacher Ms.
Schwartz told us something bad happened to her, but wouldn’t tell us what, so I
looked it up after class. It turns out that her painting teacher raped her when she
was seventeen. What a scumbag.
Almost all the Renaissance and Baroque paintings we studied in class were of
baby Jesus, which is not very interesting, so when I saw Artemisia Gentileschi’s
paintings of biblical women killing all those horrible men, my heart trembled.
She was such a bad ass. Every time I see Judith Slaying Holofernes, I notice
something new. That’s what’s so great about art and poetry—right when you
think you “get it,” you see something else. You can find a million hidden
meanings. What I love most about the painting is that Judith and her maid are
slicing off the man’s head, but they don’t even look scared. They’re totally
casual, as if they’re just washing dishes or something. I wonder if that’s how it
When Ms. Schwartz said that one of her paintings was at our museum, I
decided I needed to see it right away. This is my fourth time this year. I love art
almost as much as I love books. It’s hard to explain the way I feel when I see a
beautiful painting. It’s a combination of scared, happy, excited, and sad all at
once, like a soft light that glows in my chest and stomach for a few seconds.
Sometimes it takes my breath away, which I didn’t know was a real thing until I
stood in front of this painting. I used to think it was just some saying in pop
songs about stupid people in love. I had a similar feeling when I read an Emily
Dickinson poem. I was too excited and threw my book across the room. It was
so good that it made me angry. People would think I’m nuts if I try to explain it
to them, so I don’t.
I crouch down to get a better look at the bottom part, which I never paid much
attention to before. The blood is dripping on the white sheet, and the fibers of the
silk are so delicately painted that it’s hard to believe they aren’t real.
I can’t get enough of this place. I can be here forever and ever, studying all the
art and walking up and down the dramatic marble staircases. I love the Thorne
Miniature Rooms, too. I can spend hours imagining a tiny version of myself
living in those fancy, little houses. I always have to come to the museum alone,
though, because no one will ever join me. I tried dragging Lorena once, but she
just laughed and called me a nerd. I suppose I can’t argue with that. I asked Olga
one time, but she was going shopping with Angie that day.
As I wander around, I find a painting I’ve never noticed before—Anna Maria
Dashwood, later Marchioness of Ely by Sir Thomas Lawrence. I gasp when I see
the woman’s face, because my sister’s eyes are staring back at me. I never paid
attention to that expression before—neither joyous nor somber, but as if she
were trying to tell me something.
I walk around and around, and lose track of time. I look at my favorite
paintings again—The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso, the Cybernetic Lobster
Telephone by Salvador Dalí, and the one made of dots by Georges Seurat. Every
time I see it, I promise myself I’ll go to Paris some day. I’ll roam through the
city by myself, eating cheese until I burst.
It’s rush hour when I finally get on the train to go back home. The bus is too
unreliable at this time. All the men and women in suits are all sweaty and tired.
If I end up being an office lady who wears slacks and changes into white
sneakers to walk home from the train, I’ll just jump off a skyscraper.
The train is crammed with people, but I find a window seat facing backward,
next to a man in a filthy coat, who smiles and says, “Good evening,” when I sit
down. He smells like pee, but at least he has good manners. I take out my journal
to make some notes. I love to watch the city from above—the graffiti on
factories, the honking cars, the old buildings with shattered windows, everyone
in a hurry. It’s exciting to see all the movement and energy. Even though I want
to move far away from here, moments like these make me love Chicago.
A couple of black kids near the doors start beat-boxing, which makes a man
frown and shake his head. I think it sounds amazing, though. I wonder how they
can make that kind of music with their mouths. How can they sound exactly like
I go back to the poem I started in Mr. Simmons’s class, when a woman with a
burned face makes her way through the crowded aisle, asking everyone to spare
some change. When she gets closer, I see that her green T-shirt says God Has
Been So Good to Me! The letters are so bright and shiny, they feel like they’re
yelling. She puts her hand in front of me, and I reach into my backpack to pull
out the rest of the money I have left. The mystery guy at the diner paid for my
food today, so why not?
“Have a blessed day,” she says, and smiles. “Jesus loves you.”
He doesn’t, but I smile back anyway.
I look out the window and watch the skyline lit up by the evening sun. The
buildings reflect a dazzling orange-red, and if you glance, it almost looks like the
buildings are on fire.
I bet the school has already called my parents and I’m in some deep shit again.
It was worth it, though. I open my journal to a blank page and write, God Has
Been So Good to Me! before I forget.
On Saturday afternoon, I tell Amá I’m going to the library, but I walk to Angie’s
house instead. I’ve called her a million times and she hasn’t called me back. It’s
pissing me off. I’m not sure what I’m going to say, but I need to talk to her. I
keep thinking of Olga’s underwear, the hotel key, and that strange smirk on her
face when she died. For weeks, I’ve had this feeling that won’t leave me alone,
like tiny needles in the back of my head. Maybe Angie can tell me something
about my sister that I don’t know.
It’s beginning to get chilly now. The air smells like leaves and the promise of
rain. I hate this time of year. When it begins to get dark earlier in the day, I start
feeling more depressed than usual. All I ever want to do is take a scalding
shower and read in bed until I fall asleep. The long, dark days feel like endless
black ribbon. This year will be even worse now that Olga is gone.
Angie and Olga met when they were in kindergarten, so I’ve known Angie my
whole life. I used to admire her because she’s so stylish and pretty, with her
wild, curly hair and wide green eyes that look forever surprised. In high school,
she drew pictures of exotic landscapes that Olga taped to her walls. Though she
is poor, like us, she has a sharp fashion sense, matching unusual colors and
patterns in ways that somehow make sense. She makes outfits from the flea
market look good on her. She smells like vanilla, and her laugh reminds me of
wind chimes. I always thought Angie would grow up to be something awesome,
like a designer or an artist, but it turned out she was another Mexican daughter
who didn’t want to leave home. She works downtown and still lives with her
Angie’s mom, Doña Ramona, answers the door and gives me a wet kiss on the
cheek. Although I’ve known her forever, I still get startled, because she looks
old enough to be Angie’s grandma. I’m guessing that on top of having Angie
late in life, she also had some tough times. “Está acabada,” Amá always says, a
word that makes me think of an old, dirty dish sponge. Every time I see Doña
Ramona, I swear to God, she’s wearing an apron. She probably goes to church in
The house smells like roasted chiles, and it’s so warm that my glasses fog. My
eyes begin to water, and I cough uncontrollably. It happens every time Amá is
making a certain kind of salsa.
“Ay, mija, que delicada,” Doña Ramona says, slapping me on the back. “Let
me call Angie and bring you a glass of water.” Everyone likes to remind me how
sensitive I am, as if I didn’t know. “How are you feeling these days?” she yells
from the kitchen. “Angie has taken this very hard, pobrecita.”
“I’m better, thank you.”
I think Angie’s family may be the last on earth to have plastic covers on their
sofas. On top of that, there are porcelain dolls on doilies on nearly every surface
of the house. Mexican ladies are always knitting doilies for everything—doilies
for the TV, doilies for vases, doilies for useless knickknacks. Doilies as far as
the eye can see! How pointless. This is what Amá would call “naco.” We may be
poor, but at least we’re not this tacky.
When Angie finally comes out of her room, she’s wearing a ratty gray robe
and her hair is matted and greasy. Her eyes are bright red, as if she’d been crying
all night. It’s been several weeks now, and she still looks like a disaster. She
doesn’t seem pleased to see me.
Angie hugs me and tells me to sit down. The plastic cover squeaks under me.
Doña Ramona gives me a glass of water and shuffles back to the kitchen to
continue her cooking.
“How have you been?” I ask, though she probably looks the way she feels.
“Jesus, Julia. How do you think?” she snaps. Angie is nice to me most of the
time, but I guess Olga’s death has scrambled her up, too. No one is the same
anymore. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. It’s just…I can’t sleep. Look at me. I
look horrible,” she says.
Angie is right. The dark purple rings under her eyes make her look like
someone punched her out. “Ojerosa,” Amá would say.
“No, you’re fine,” I lie. “Just as pretty as always.” I try smiling, but it’s so
fake, it hurts my face.
Angie glares at me, and the silence grows like a web around us. I hear
something in the kitchen crackling in grease, which almost sounds like rain. The
clock ticks and ticks. At moments like this, the concept of time confuses me. A
minute lasts an hour.
“Can we go to your room?” I finally whisper. “I want to ask you something in
Angie looks confused, but says okay and leads me down the hall.
I can tell Angie isn’t wearing a bra, and I try not to stare, but I can see her
nipples through her robe, which reminds me of the time I walked in on her
touching Olga’s boobs when I was seven. As soon as they saw me open the door,
Olga pulled down her shirt and looked down at the floor. All I remember is that
she seemed ashamed and that her boobs were small and pointy.
I sit on Angie’s unmade bed. It smells like she hasn’t washed her sheets in a
few weeks, and the floor is covered with clothes. There are pictures of her and
Olga all over her walls and dresser: at the park, in a photo booth, grade school,
prom, graduation, dinners. She also has the program from the wake and funeral
on her nightstand. It has an angel and some stupid prayer about heaven. I threw
mine in the garbage because I couldn’t bear to look at it anymore.
“You miss her, huh?” I ask.
“Yeah, of course.” Angie stares at the picture of her and Olga in their
graduation gowns. “What did you want to ask me?”
“Why haven’t you returned any of my calls?”
Angie sighs. “I haven’t wanted to talk to anyone these days.”
“Well, I’m not exactly feeling social myself, but I’m her sister, and the least
you could’ve done is call me back.”
Angie stares at her pictures and says nothing.
“Was it you that Olga was texting when she died?”
“Was it you?”
“Look, I don’t know.” Angie rubs her eyes and yawns. “Why does that even
matter? She’s gone.”
“Either it was you or it wasn’t. It’s not that complicated. She was hit at about
5:30. You would know by looking at your phone. It’s not like my sister had that
“What exactly are you looking for, Julia?”
“I just feel there’s something I don’t know.”
“I have no idea. That’s what I’m trying to find out.” I feel exasperated. Maybe
this was a mistake. What can I tell Angie? That I went through Olga’s room and
found slutty underwear and a hotel key? That I never had a real interest in her
until she died because I’m a horrible and selfish human being?
Angie looks up at the ceiling, as if she’s trying not to cry. I’ve done that a
million times. I’m the master of keeping my tears inside my ducts.
“I found some weird underwear and a hotel key,” I say. “The Continental.”
Angie tightens her robe and looks down at her chipped pink toenails. “And?”
“What do you mean, and? Call me crazy, but that’s pretty strange.”
“Julia, you’re always exaggerating. I don’t know what you mean by ‘weird’
“Weird as in ‘skanky.’ ” I’m starting to lose my patience. “And a hotel key?
When did Olga ever go anywhere? Why would she have that?”
“How would I know?” Angie rolls her eyes, which pisses me off.
“Because you were her best friend, duh.”
“You know, Julia, you’re always causing trouble, creating problems for your
family. Now that she’s dead, all of a sudden you want to know everything about
her? You hardly even spoke to her. Why didn’t you ask her anything when she
was alive? Maybe you wouldn’t have to be here, asking me questions about her
“Love life? So you’re telling me she was dating someone?”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. You’re putting words in my mouth.”
“But you just said—”
“Julia, you need to get going. I have things to do.” Angie gets up and opens
If I weren’t so dark, my face would be a dazzling red. It feels as if someone
dumped a bucket of boiling water over my head. Angie doesn’t understand how
hard it’s been for me to speak to anyone in my family. She hasn’t seen how the
silence and tension have been smothering us for years. She doesn’t get that I feel
like a three-headed alien in my own home. And why is Angie so defensive?
Something isn’t right, but I don’t know what to say. What exactly should I
demand? I just keep sitting in her grimy room, with the taste of chile lodged in
my throat, while the guilt and anger spread through me like lava.
“Okay, this is pointless,” I say. “Thank you so much, Angie. Thank you for
being so nice and supportive.”
“Julia, stop. Look, I’m sorry. This has been hard for me. I feel like I’m falling
apart.” Angie puts her head in her hands.
“You lost your best friend, but I lost my sister. You think I’m just some
selfish, narcissistic kid, but my life fucking sucks right now. Every night I expect
Olga to come home, and she doesn’t. I just stare at the door like a fool.”
Angie doesn’t respond. As I leave her room, Doña Ramona comes rushing
toward me, her slippers flap-flap-flapping on the linoleum. That has to be one of
the most irritating noises I’ve ever heard.
“Aren’t you going to eat, mija? Come, sit. I’m making sopes,” she insists.
“No gracias, señora. I’m not hungry.”
Her worn brown face crumples with worry. “What’s wrong, criatura? Are you
“No, the chiles are burning my eyes,” I lie.
After school, Lorena and I go to her house to do some Internet snooping, so I
call Amá and tell her that I’ll be home late because we’re working on a project.
At first, she says no, because she’s still mad about me ditching school, but when
I explain to her that my (imaginary) group assignment is due tomorrow, she
gives in. Amá doesn’t let me go anywhere unless I have a specific reason. If I
tell her that I want to spend some time with a friend, she asks me what for and
says she doesn’t want me in other people’s cocinas, which is stupid. First, I don’t
understand why she thinks it’s so scandalous to be in other people’s kitchens.
Second, most of the time we’re not even in the kitchen—we’re in the living
Amá doesn’t have any friends and sees no point to having any. She says all a
woman needs is her family. According to her, only orphans and whores run
around in the streets by themselves. If Amá isn’t working, shopping for
groceries, or cooking and cleaning at home, she’s usually with my aunts or her
comadre, Juanita, who is also her cousin. Oh, and on Saturdays and Sundays,
she’s at church. She hardly leaves our neighborhood. Her world seems small, in
my opinion, but that’s how she wants it. Maybe it runs in the family, because
Olga was like that, too, and Apá’s favorite place is our couch.
Instead of trying to convince Amá that I need to go out and talk to people I’m
not related to, I often make up homework assignments. Sometimes it works.
Sometimes it doesn’t.
Lorena dumps the hot chips we bought at the corner store into a big bowl and
squeezes lime juice over them until they’re completely drenched. We eat them
quickly, as if it’s some sort of race. Our fingers are stained red and our noses are
runny by the time we’re finished. Even though I eat half a giant bag, I still want
more. I ask Lorena if she has any more food, but she says no. My stomach
I can only eat junk food in secret because it’s forbidden in our house. I guess
it’s ironic that Apá works at a candy factory. Amá says Americans eat nothing
but garbage, which is why everyone here is so fat and ugly. She has the perfect
body and expects everyone to be as lucky as she is. She’s never taken us to
McDonald’s, not even once, but no one ever believes me. Sometimes, when I
walk home from school, I buy a dollar cheeseburger and eat it in three bites
before I get to our door. That’s probably why I’ve been getting kind of porky.
My boobs keep getting heavier and heavier, and sometimes hurt my back. Amá
says there’s no need for burgers and fries when we have a pot of beans and
packets of tortillas at home. Whenever I ask her if we can order pizza or Chinese
food, she says I’m spoiled and tells me to make myself a quesadilla. Other times
she pinches my stomach and walks away from me without saying anything.
“So, what do you want to look for?” Lorena takes a pitcher of water from the
“I’m not sure, to be honest. I haven’t told you, but I went through her things
the other day.”
“I found some underwear. Like, hooker underwear.”
“What are you even talking about?” Lorena seems annoyed. She says I
“They were scandalous. Thongs and this lingerie-type thing.”
“Hello? I wear thongs, too.” Lorena rolls her eyes.
“But this is Olga we’re talking about. She didn’t even swear. Amá would’ve
snapped if she’d found them. She hates stuff like that. She doesn’t even like it
when women wear shorts.”
“So what if she wanted to feel sexy? She was a grown woman.”
“Okay, well, how would you explain the hotel key I found?” I pull it out of
my backpack. “This,” I say, and I throw it on the table.
“I don’t know. Maybe she used it as a bookmark or something. Doesn’t Angie
work at a hotel?”
“Yeah, but not this one. Something’s not right, I’m telling you.”
“I think you’re probably wasting your time.” Lorena walks to her room and
brings me her laptop from her bedroom. It weighs about a hundred pounds. It
was a hand-me-down from her cousin, and it’s old as hell.
“What do you want to look for?”
“I don’t know. Facebook, I guess, but I don’t know if Olga even used it. I’m
telling you, she was an old lady trapped in a twenty-two-year-old’s body.”
“You’re not on it, either.”
“Yeah, because it’s stupid. People are boring enough in real life without
having to see how boring they are online. Plus, I don’t have Internet, so what’s
the point? I’m not about to go to the library to use it.”
Lorena shakes her head and enters her password.
I search for Olga’s name, but there are twelve Olga Reyeses. I click on each
one, but none of them resemble my sister.
“Maybe she used a different name?”
“How would I know what name she used?”
“I don’t know. Why don’t you look through Angie’s page and see if you can
find her or go through her pictures or something?”
We find Angie, but when we click on her profile, everything is private. All we
see is the profile picture of her and Olga when they were kids. The caption says,
I miss you, friend.
“Damn it, Angie’s useless.”
“Do you know any other friends, like, from work or something?”
“Not really. She used to have lunch with this girl sometimes. Denise, I think.
But I don’t know her last name.” Defeated, I close the laptop.
While Lorena fiddles with her phone and begins playing her horribly sexist
rap songs, I walk over to the altar her mom has set up in the corner of the living
room. I like to see the way it changes every time I come over. Lorena’s mom
worships Santa Muerte, the scary skeleton saint, and if Amá knew about this,
she’d never let me see Lorena again in my life. She already dislikes her mom
because she thinks she wears way too much makeup and dresses like a teenager.
I guess she’s right—Lorena’s mom’s eye shadow is heavy, and her eyeliner curls
up from the corners of her eyes. She kind of looks like a homely Cleopatra. Most
of the time, she wears skintight spandex dresses that make her body resemble a
soft-serve ice cream cone. Not at all flattering.
Lorena takes after her mom when it comes to makeup. She also dyes and
highlights her hair, so it ends up a mixture of yellow, orange, and red. The colors
remind me of flames, and when she wears her hair in a ponytail, she almost
looks like a torch. She’s prettier with dark hair, but she doesn’t listen to me. She
says I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, that why should she listen to
me when I dress like a homeless lesbian? She ignores me about her hazel
contacts, too. Anyway, Lorena and her mom make questionable choices when it
comes to their looks, and Amá always feels the need to point them out, as if I
didn’t already notice. “That old lady shouldn’t be running around like a
quinceañera. She has no shame,” Amá whispers to me. Although Lorena’s
mother isn’t the best parent, and she looks lumpy and nuts, she’s always been
nice to me, feeding me cookies or cake whenever I see her. A few days after
Olga died, she took Lorena and me out for ice cream.
Today Santa Muerta is wearing a red satin dress. Last time she wore a black
cloak, which wasn’t as scary, because what else would a skeleton wear? In front
of the doll, there are three fresh candles, a pack of cheap cigarettes, an open can
of Tecate, a bowl of apples, and a white rose starting to brown at the edges.
There’s also a new framed picture of Lorena’s dad riding a brown horse. Lorena
looks exactly like him when she smiles. Even though Lorena’s mom has been
with her boyfriend, José Luis, for years now, she still has her dead husband’s
pictures hanging everywhere. When Olga died, Lorena’s mom asked for a
picture of her so she could pray for her soul, but I thought it was too bizarre, so I
pretended I forgot.
Lorena never talks about her dad, and I never ask about him, because it’s
really none of my business. It’s up to her if she wants to talk about him. I don’t
like to pry. The only reason I know what happened to him is because, a few
months ago, she and I got shit-faced after school, and it spilled out like a sack of
After about the fourth glass of Alizé, which her cousin had bought for us,
Lorena started crying out of nowhere. Maybe it was the mariachi song with the
sad trumpets that was playing on the radio, I don’t know. I asked her what was
wrong, and between sobs and gulps of the syrupy booze, she told me that she
missed her dad. She was crying so hard that I could barely understand her. Her
mascara started streaming down her face, which made her look like a grotesque
clown. It would’ve been funny under different circumstances, like the time we
got caught in the rain and her makeup smeared like a gasoline rainbow and we
had to go back to her house to fix it.
I didn’t know what to say, so I kept rubbing her back and smoothing her hair.
After she calmed down a little, she was able to tell me the story, but I think I
missed some bits and pieces because of the crying. Lorena said that when she
was seven years old, her dad went back to Mexico for his mother’s funeral, even
though everyone told him not to. He had lived in Chicago for ten years, but still
didn’t have his papers. In order for him to return to the U.S., he had to cross the
border with a coyote, just like he had the first time. Lorena’s mom even dreamt
about it the night before he left, so she knew something bad was going to
happen. In the dream, an eagle pecked at his heart while he sat there watching it.
She begged him not to go, told him he’d die, but he didn’t listen. He said he
loved his madrecita too much.
After his mother’s funeral, Lorena’s dad took the bus from Guerrero all the
way to the Arizona border, where he met a man from his hometown who
everyone had recommended. This coyote took all their money and then
abandoned the entire group of mojados while they walked through the desert.
They got lost for two days, and the seven in the group, including a baby,
eventually died of thirst. Border Patrol found them all two weeks after they were
supposed to arrive on the other side, and shipped his decomposed body to his
hometown in Mexico, where they buried him. Lorena and her mom never got to
see him again. That’s when I started to understand why Lorena is so fucked up.
My parents crossed the border like that, too, and even got robbed, but at least
they made it here alive.
As I study her dad’s pictures in the living room, Lorena starts rolling a joint at
the kitchen table. She’s so much better at it than I am, basically a professional.
“What are you doing?” she asks, without looking up. “Why do you keep
staring at pictures of my dad?”
I don’t know how to answer because I’m not sure why—curiosity, I suppose.
“Doesn’t José Luis feel weird about all of these pictures still here?” I finally ask.
“I don’t care what that motherfucker thinks,” Lorena says, and licks the joint.
“You want some or what?” She hands it to me.
I’ve smoked weed a total of five times now, and every single time, I start
worrying about the stupidest things. The last time we smoked I thought the
police were knocking on the door. The time before that, Lorena was on her
phone and I was convinced she was texting mean things about me. But I keep
smoking because I’m hoping that one day it will feel good, that I’ll be all floaty
and calm, like everyone says.
“I wonder if Olga ever smoked weed,” I say.
“Olga? Are you kidding me? No way. That girl was practically a nun.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure about that anymore.” I take a hit, and it makes me cough
so hard my eyes water. I run to the kitchen for a drink. Lorena laughs and throws
a couch pillow at my face as I walk back to the living room. It nearly knocks the
glass out of my hands. I start laughing, too, and dump the rest of my water on
“You’re such a bitch!” Lorena screams. “You wet the couch!” She’s still
kinda smiling, though, so I know she’s not really mad.
“You started it!”
Lorena walks to her room and comes back wearing a different shirt. She
changes the music to narcocorridos, those horrible Mexican songs about drug
traffickers who buy diamond-encrusted guns and cut each other’s heads off.
When the first song winds down, the feeling suddenly clicks inside me—
everything is in slow motion, and my body is light and heavy at the same time.
It’s different from the times before. I’m not paranoid, just a little confused and
unfocused. My contacts are so dry it’s hard to keep my eyes open.
Lorena takes a few hits before passing it back to me. I shake my head no.
“You can’t be high already.”
“I am, so leave me alone, and if I go home like this, my mom is going to ship
me to Mexico for the rest of my life….Goddamn it, this quinceañera. What a
pain in the ass.”
“Oh my God, get over it. I wish I could’ve had one, but my mom is always
broke as hell.”
“I don’t even know where they’re getting the money. All they ever do is
complain about how poor we are. It’s like they want to pretend everything is
fine. They just want to put on a show for the rest of the family.”
“I can’t imagine you in one of those dresses.” Lorena laughs. “I don’t know
what your mom is thinking. It’s like she doesn’t know you at all. Or she doesn’t
“I know. The party isn’t for me; it’s for my sister. It’s not even my freaking
birthday. Can you believe that?”
“Come on, let’s look at some dresses. Maybe you’ll find one you like,” she
says, and reaches for her laptop.
Lorena pulls up some websites and begins scrolling through dresses. All of
them are atrocious, a few even rainbow-colored. When we get to a ladybugpattern abomination, I’m done. I just can’t. They should be classified as crimes
against humanity. They should be tried in a court of law. “Stop, please. Before I
vomit my chips.”
Lorena sighs and begins plucking her eyebrows in front of a small hand
mirror. I close my eyes for what feels like minutes, and when I open them again,
I become hypnotized by the cheetah-print pattern on her leggings, which I hadn’t
noticed before. I am soooooo high. The more I look, the more shapes I see—
faces, cars, flowers, trees, babies, clowns—and then, for some reason, I start
imagining Lorena as a cheetah running through a forest. It’s her same head but
on a cheetah’s body. This weed must be excellent. I laugh so hard I can hardly
speak. It hurts but feels good to finally laugh again.
“What is it? Why are you laughing?” Lorena is confused. I try to explain, but I
can’t catch my breath. Tears are streaming down my face. “What is wrong with
I try to tell her, but I can’t get the words out. My face is hot, and my stomach
muscles are aching. “You’re a cheetah,” I finally manage to say, gasping for air.
“I don’t know what you’re saying!”
“A cheetah!” I say.
Maybe the laughter is contagious or Lorena is high now, too, because she
starts laughing harder than I am. I try to think of things that are not funny—
socks, cancer, sports, genocide, my dead sister—anything to get me to calm
down before I pee my pants. Lorena puts a pillow over her face to control herself
and muffle the noise, but it’s no use. She’s silent for a moment, and then a loud
cackle escapes from her, which gets me going again. I cross my legs hard. I hope
I can make it to the bathroom.
That’s when we hear the door open.
Lorena said that her mom was working, and that José Luis wasn’t supposed to
come home for several more hours because he was picking up an extra shift, but
here he is, walking in as we lie on the couch, high as hell. Lorena looks as if
she’s about to commit murder.
“What are you doing home already? I thought you were working.” Lorena
doesn’t seem worried about the weed, just pissed that he’s there.
“Business was slow, and the boss told me to go home,” José Luis explains in
his singsongy style. He’s Chilango, which means he’s from Mexico City, which
means he has a super-annoying accent.
“What are you girls doing?” he asks, as if we’re all sharing a secret. It makes
me feel gross.
Neither one of us bothers to answer.
José Luis has been Lorena’s stepdad—step-boyfriend—for about four years
now. She said that when he and her mom met, he’d just crossed the border, so he
was the freshest kind of mojado. Now José Luis works as a busboy at a few
different restaurants on Taylor Street, which is why he’s always talking shit
about Italians, always going on and on about how cheap they are. He and
Lorena’s mom are the most mismatched couple in the world, because he’s
fifteen years younger than she is, making him only ten years older than Lorena.
Weird. He’d be handsome, if he weren’t so sleazy. Every time I know he’s going
to be home, I wear my baggiest shirts and sweaters so he can’t gawk at my
boobs. Sometimes it feels like he’s undressing us with his eyes.
José Luis is always lounging around the house in an undershirt, listening to
norteñas and polishing his pointy crocodile-skin boots. Instead of leaving us
alone like any normal dad, he’s always asking us dumb questions about music,
school, and boys. I wish he’d just shut up and leave us alone. I know José Luis is
a creep, because last year Lorena told me he saw her going to the bathroom in
the middle of the night and pushed her against the wall and kissed her. She said
he crammed his tongue inside her mouth all nasty and she could feel his penis
against her leg.
“I would have cut his balls off,” I told her, but Lorena looked more depressed
than mad, and didn’t respond. The next day Lorena told her mom what
happened, but she just said that she was probably dreaming and went back to
José Luis makes himself a sandwich, then goes into his bedroom. Lorena and I
watch a reality show about a bunch of rich kids living in New York. It’s stupid,
but I try going along with it for Lorena’s sake. I’m also curious because I want
to move to New York for college. Ever since I was little, I imagined myself
living in an apartment in the middle of Manhattan, writing late into the night.
I keep watching until one of the blond girls cries because her mom won’t buy
her a pair of shoes that cost more than my entire life. It’s too much to take. I feel
“This is garbage,” I tell Lorena. “Isn’t there anything else more enlightening
we could watch? Is there anything on PBS? Any documentaries?” But she just
When the show is over, Lorena goes into the bathroom for a long time. I can
hardly stay awake. I close my eyes, and, after a few minutes, I feel something
near me. Maybe their cat, Chimuela, finally came out from under the bed. When
I open my eyes, though, I see José Luis crouched in front of me. He looks like
he’s doing something with his phone, but I’m not sure. Am I imagining this? Am
I that high? I don’t know what’s going on. I cross my legs and pull my skirt
down, and when I open my eyes, I’m alone again.
Every Saturday night, Amá and Olga attended a prayer group in the church
basement. Mostly, it’s a bunch of Mexican ladies sitting in a circle, complaining
about their problems and talking about how God will help them endure. The few
times I did go, I was so bored I wanted to tear out all of my hair. We were there
for three hours, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I asked Amá if I could read the
book I had in my bag, but she said it was impolite. When it was her turn to
speak, Amá started telling the group about missing Mexico, her mother, and her
dead father. She cried a lot, which made me feel guilty for complaining. Olga
held her hand and told her everything was going to be okay, while I sat there like
a slug, not knowing what to do.
Amá was always trying to force me and Apá to go to these meetings, but we
refused. Who in the world would want to spend their Saturday night talking
about God? It’s bad enough that she drags us to mass every Sunday morning.
After hounding us for a few years, she finally gave up. One Saturday night, Apá
let me order Chinese food, which was gloriously greasy. We had to throw the
boxes away in the alley so Amá wouldn’t find out. We lied and told her we had
eaten eggs for dinner.
Amá hadn’t been to the prayer group since Olga died. There is no way I’d go,
but I’m glad Amá decides to attend tonight and is out of the house. On her days
off, she lies in bed for hours and hours, and I worry that she’ll never get up
As soon as Amá leaves, I always ask Apá if I can go out, because he usually
shrugs and tells me that if Amá found out, she’d be angry, but I just assume that
means yes. I run out the door before he can protest.
Lorena and Carlos, the new guy she’s talking to, are supposed to pick me up
at 7:30. She promised she’d make Carlos take us to his cousin Leo’s house
because he’s a Chicago cop and might be able to help with Olga. I’m going to
ask him how I can get more information about Olga at the Continental.
Carlos is seventeen and drives an old and battered red car with giant silver
rims, which seems ridiculous to me. Why would you spend so much money on
rims, when the car is about to fall apart? But I’m not complaining. At least it’s a
When I get close, I notice someone in the backseat. A guy. Lorena didn’t tell
me anyone else was coming. I get nervous and tug at my ponytail. I’m not
wearing any makeup, and my hoodie is old and faded. I didn’t even bother to
look remotely attractive.
Lorena gives me an apologetic smile. “There was a change of plans. Leo had
to work. And he said he couldn’t help. We asked him, I swear to God. Julia, this
is Ramiro, Carlos’s cousin from Mexico. He’s cute, right?”
“Are you serious, Lorena? Goddamn it, you’re unbelievable sometimes,” I tell
her, then turn to Ramiro to say hello. It’s not his fault, after all.
“Nice to meet you,” he says in Spanish, and kisses me on the cheek the
Ramiro has long, curly hair, which I don’t care for, but I guess his face is
okay. I do my best to ignore his pleather pants, too. He’s trying so hard it’s
He only speaks Spanish, which makes me nervous. I speak it fine, of course,
but I sound ten times smarter in English. My vocabulary is just not as extensive,
and sometimes I get stuck. I hope he doesn’t think I’m dumb, because I’m not.
Lorena and Carlos tell me we’re going to the lake. This was not the plan, and
it’s freezing outside. It doesn’t seem like a good idea, but I don’t argue because I
don’t want to piss off Lorena.
When we arrive at North Avenue Beach, Lorena and Carlos run off, leaving
Ramiro and me standing awkwardly by ourselves. Ramiro blows on his hands. I
wrap my arms around myself under my jacket. After a few minutes, he starts
playing with his phone, and I watch the beautiful lights reflected on the water. I
kind of wish I were there by myself.
When the silence becomes almost unbearable, …