Abuela will paddle my hide an angry purple if she finds out.
“Where’d you get it?” I twirl the stick in my hand.
“Antonio,” he says. That’s his older brother. I fall into his black irises, into a deep Alice in Wonderland hole where everything is upside-down and topsy-turvy and never quite understood.
We sit on the stoop and pass the cigarette back and forth, watching between the back door and Abeula’s house over the fence. He coughs and hands it back to me, his fingers on mine.
“You’re such a baby.”
“At least I’m not a girl,” he takes back the cigarette. He’s a year younger and a child.
Growing up a woman is like growing up a tree in a confined space. The tree still grows, but only in the direction the space allows. The branches that try to break through, well, someone cuts them off. They trim them back to size over and over again no matter how many times the branch declares its direction. Progress is made, of course, but only ever little by little with great effort and more than a modicum of resilience. This I know.
“What do they feel like?” he points at my chest, now two handfuls, and draws from the cigarette again, not coughing.
Laughter comes over the yard. It’s Antonio.
“Tell him, blanca.”
“No. And I ain’t blanca, neither.”
“Your snowflake’s a goody-goody, flacco. Not like your Katya,” Antonio mimes a watermelon chest. “Esa puta ’ll show anyone.”
“Callete,” flacco clenches his fists. “Don’t you say that. She’s not like that.”
Katya has sex. She is the first in our class to spread her legs for an older boy, but she tells all the boys our age she wants to wait for marriage. She tells flacco that she is saving herself for him. She is a doe-eyed liar and I hate her for it.
“I ain’t a snowflake,” I rise in front of Antonio, my tetas brushing against him.
He laughs and goes inside, his head wagging under the weight of his crater-size dimples and the joke of my white not-white skin.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” flacco shrugs and hands me the cigarette.
“I know,” I say and put his hand on my chest.
He squeezes, searches for the nipple with his thumb, and looks at my face. My nipple bites him and he yanks his hand back. “I don’t get it.”
But we get it. We get it so that we laugh and finish the cigarette.
A few hours later I come back and wait for Antonio behind the tool shed. The moon beams at my tanned back between blue spaghetti straps and I press my body onto his.
“You’re a good girl, snowflake,” he says. He hands me a joint after he finishes zipping his pants and we smoke it with our spines against the plywood wall, my skinny bare legs swinging over the workbench’s edge where he’s placed me inside the shed. His tattoos, full sleeves up each arm, stretch like shadows in the moonlight. Maybe they are shadows, representations of something real but not real at all.
“I ain’t a snowflake.”
“No,” he grins. “Not now you ain’t.”
This is our first time. My first first time.
Twinkies exist only at 7-Eleven. I do E and molly and smoke jack frost. I drink. I steal things from rich people’s houses while partying with their drugged offspring before putting them back.
I do this because I am privileged and bored. I sleep in an unshared bedroom and talk for hours on the phone with girlfriends; boys who are friends; possible boyfriends; boys who want to get in my pants; and girls who say they are my friends but tell those possible boyfriends that I don’t like them. It is all so boring. I need an escape. This is a privileged thing to say and I know it. I try something new, some other high. The hard shit scares me and I won’t do it more than once.
I don’t do pills or heroin, no llello. The hard shit. It is there and I am there, but I don’t do it. I’m no buzzkill either. I cheer friends on, fist pumping to their mistakes and their brushes with overdose. I’m their homegirl. The girl everyone wants at parties and wants to bang but no one has the balls to approach. The girl who allows whatever and carries it all on her shoulders no matter how many bruises it leaves or how many scars it carves on the way down.
Abuela colors her life in black and white, especially after the neighborhood loses the rest of the crayon box. The plump old lady neighbor, Anita, turns up on Abuela’s porch with buckets of ripened tomatoes. She offers her help in exchange for sauces, a way of filling her pantry without spending the money she no longer makes at the place she no longer works. Half the block has been laid off in the previous six or so months, hard times having fallen even harder on people in Abuela’s neighborhood. Her block consists of men working (or now, not working) as furniture deliverers, as mail carriers, as repairmen, as accountants, as contractors and carpenters. They are the disposable men, the ones that other suffering families cut out of their budget in order to save a few bucks, the ones that companies can’t afford to keep. The lucky ones, the ones with a little education, they work for the collection agencies, calling their friends from two-to-a-cubicle offices and setting up payment plans. The others support their families by repossessing their neighbors’ vehicles, by repossessing their friendships.
The neighbor boys ignore me. They begin running in half-cocked gangs stealing bread through broken store windows in the beginning, peddling hard drugs on street corners when they see no end. And I shrug. It doesn’t affect me, not really. I see it happening but I don’t do anything. It doesn’t pertain to me and I can’t stop it even if it does. Someone else worries about these families, someone else will make it better. Always someone else.
Have mercy upon me.
Bubblegum pink wig bobbed at the chin. Blunt bangs cut across her eyebrows. Too-pink cheeks and a black mole drawn above pink popsicle-tinted lips. White velvet platforms and baby blue mini-dress. Rich brown skin stretched taut over knobby knees and elbows.
I face the stage full-on. She needs a lollipop in her hand, all that toy doll innocence pasted onto one girl. The languid-limbed dancer struts to the end of the stage and arches her back against the pole, her eyes stuck to my murky brown ones.
My cheeks and palms grow hot.
The dancer called Lina wraps her thumbs under the straps of her dress pulling them out and down her shoulder, swaying her boyish hips in a slow circle, the fabric falling on green and blue paper at her feet. Abuela’s Lutheran modesty urges me to look away, to run out of that depraved haven, but I can’t. I write a mental note asking for forgiveness (from my grandmother, not her God) and join the other sinners in ogling Lina’s nearly-naked ease.
Have mercy upon us.
My cousin Tinley tasks me with finding lemon-hued bridesmaids’ dresses for her last-minute nuptials. Not only are lemon gowns more forthcoming during the pastel-centric spring rollouts than in the heat of summer when merchants parade fur and lace and trench coats, but lemon becomes proper chicken shit when smothering a half-Mexican like myself. This, of course, is not something Tinley understands. Tinley with her translucent skin and straw hair. Tinley who wears lemon hues and resembles one of Martha Stewart’s decadent tassies – charmingly petite and crumbly about the edges.
Her fiancé, Bill, is some residual yuppie who consumes organic dates and wears suits that cost more than a month’s rent to his job as a sex doll engineer. That’s what he calls himself. He paints the rose-, topaz-, and guava-colored nipples on three-holed silicone playmates with inner skeletons and fiber glass faces. He’s walked me through the doll warehouse once: rows of headless molds ranging from vanilla pudding to liquid butterscotch to molten chocolate that hung from meat hooks, each with a tube-like hole in its neck and perfectly symmetrical breasts with erect nipples like cupcakes topped with cherries. Men paint their faces elsewhere, men who haven’t the faintest idea of makeup or natural beauty but can follow diagrams made by other men in office cubicles. They position the faces on the molds before they send the dolls out with names, expectations, and guaranteed satisfaction. I imagine they rival an army of Frankenstein’s monsters in the dark, but in the daylight, with their manmade Mattel doll features, they are fascinating.
Tinley is his living version: all bowed limbs, rigid joints, silicone lips and working ovaries. He’d forgotten about the ovaries and they need to wed before his new doll rounds, stretches.
This is the cause of lemon-hued gowns, of chicken shit yellow pictures torn into halves. I wish he’d have stuck to fucking the silicone army, the rejects he takes home at night and shoves in his closet where Tinley can pretend they don’t exist. I bet Bill wishes he had too.
I count the stops to Tinley’s over the shoulder in front of me, its rounded slouch covered in aubergine tapestry. It belongs to an elderly woman with a mole on the back of her neck, lines crawling over her skin in time-worn creases that sag like an elephant’s jowls. Lavender and soap.
There are a few other people in our car, midday regulars, as many in suits as in mismatched layers – jackets too square in the shoulders or tearing at the seams, gloves with holes and stained slacks. A group of teenagers sprawls across the four seats closest to the next car. They pass a phone back and forth.
“I’d do her,” the first boy says. He passes it to the next boy.
“Butterface,” the second scoffs.
“Ain’t gotta look at her face,” the third boy shrugs, grinning at the first and drawing the figure of a girl in the air with his hands before air-humping it.
My own teenaged brain rages with jealousy, jealousy over this girl who sends alluring pictures of herself, over a girl I don’t know and can’t see. I am sure she is one of Hefner’s bunnies, or will be someday, so sure of it because a teenage girl doesn’t send an untouched, blemished photo of her naked self. Bunnies don’t appear untouched in filthy magazines; this girl wouldn’t either. I picture her in that typical vein: blonde hair, busty, limbs bronzed (almost orange) from a bottle or by faux sunlight, legs as thin as my forearm, waist slimmed along a newly convex-sided dresser, bookcase, whatever-furniture-happens-to-be-there. It annoys me that I wish I were her, that I fiercely picture this stranger as a particular type even though she is as likely to have curly auburn hair, straight black locks, red waves, or an unruly brown mane. She experiences the same razor burns, the same pimples, the same stray chin hairs that are always sharp and black and not goose down soft. She probably has cellulite, too, there on the small bulge of her inner thigh. Maybe even a stretch mark or two near her nipples from her breasts growing too fast, from puberty smacking her body like it smacks all young women. Red. Blood red. She could be anyone, her features mimicking anyone I see on the street, in the mirror. I twirl my hair and bite my bottom lip, furious that I want to be this object of masturbation that boys talk about on the BART, that I see myself (and this unknown girl) with such low importance. It’s appalling. I’m appalling.
“She got friends?”
The third boy shrugs again. He cares about getting laid and nothing else.
They blather on: something ass, something sexy, something, something, something, tits.
Too many stops. That’s the count.
Nobody looks away from nakedness. Not the hairy chests, not the naïve eighteen-year-olds, not the classy bachelors, not the savvy rail workers, especially not me. We look at their bodies as though they are performing for a mate, fluffing their feathers and stretching their limbs for approval. I size them up that first night like plastic dolls I intend to bid on.
There are the favorites: Lola, Nikola, Anastasia, Hannah. And then there are the others: Roxies, Chastitys, Candies, and other uninventive stripper names that fill the in-between sets. The others wear bad costumes (naughty librarian, naughty teacher, naughty nurse, naughty, naughty, naughty), drink champagne behind the stage, and spill worn black duffel bags of lyrca and spandex into their lockers each night. They glisten with baby oil and douse their pressure points in sex, but they’ll never be the stars.
The dancers have hammertoes and janky fingernails edged in hangnails and blood when they aren’t covered with acrylic. They aren’t all sinewy and lissome; they have cellulite and bumps and bruises that crawl over their thighs and forearms. Their feet stink and their infections flame red and their legs prickle. They dye their damaged hair, suck on mints to mask their cigarette breath, and cover unruly pimples with layers of cakey concealer. They appear warm and inviting when they writhe and strut through those black rooms, but they aren’t. They are human, flawed, like me but also not like me at all. They are seasoned. Alive.
Lola, Ana, Nikola, Hannah, they are alive. Lina.
They are alive and they aren’t ashamed of it. That is the difference.
M. Ray Hall graduated from the University of Iowa while indulging in wanderlust and Czech pastries. She refuses to temper her restlessness and has lived up and down the California coast, in the Midwest, as well as abroad. M. Ray currently resides in Chapel Hill, NC, where she edits (and re-edits) her first novel. You can read more of her work at planetrainpen.com, a travel and writing blog.