Read an Excerpt
Thursday, February 14
So, welcome to my frilly yellow bedroom. Girly, immature. Teddy bears. And not just that, but Care Bears. Pitiful. I know. How sad is it to be twenty-four years old and still living at home with your mom and dad (and grandparents)? How sad is it that I'm still here, in this white-brick home in Coral Gables, near Blue Road and Alhambra Circle, on my once-canopied twin bed, silly ducky slippers hanging off my pudgy feet, a pink terry-cloth robe cinched around my waist, my greasy flat nothing brownish hair pulled up in two slightly sad, droopy-bunny ponytails?
Yeah, well, thanks. That's my sister Geneva speaking, as she stands in my doorway with an amused, superior look on her face. Geneva holds her Yorkie, Belle, under her arm like a football. The dog pants, making the red bow between her ears bob up and down like the comb on a nervous rooster. I am not what you'd call a dog person. There's nothing worse than the hot, rotten smell of dog mouth, and I can smell it from here. Yorkie mouth from here. I detest the dog, and I detest Geneva.
You know, Geneva. My tall, thin, financially successful thirty-year-old sister? The one who looks like a slightly darker, slightly prettier Penélope Cruz? The one who is five-eight and got an MBA from Harvard--compared to the five-four University of Miami graduate that is me? The one who has a group of female friends just as perfect as she is and no shortage of men she likes to call "sex toys"? The one whose feline body and long legs turn jeans into an art form? The one who has stolen exactly three boyfriends from me in the past ten years, during which time I only had four boyfriends, even though she claims it wasn't her fault that they left me for her? She said it was my fault, for not putting more effort into my appearance, my clothes, my studies, my job, my life. She then tried to act like she'd done me a favor by offering fashion tips and career advice. Right. Her.
Geneva has just walked into my room without knocking, wearing her "work" clothes--a spaghetti-strap black silk tunic that would make any other woman look six months pregnant but which, combined with skinny jeans, a sparkly tan, and strappy black sandals, makes Geneva look like a haughty, leggy Spanish princess. Her long black hair is twisted back in a tight knot, exposing the small yet scary dragon tattoo on her left shoulder blade, and she's got a black and white scarf wrapped around her head. Anyone else with a scarf twisted around like that would look like Aunt Jemima's nanny. Geneva? Royalty.
I do not make eye contact. You know, it's not advisable, with her being the devil and so on. I try to seem distracted and unconcerned. I type on the VAIO laptop between my extremely pale legs on the bed. The "n" key is worn off from all my loser online activities; these include commenting on people's blogs, doing chats, and posting fake profiles of myself on personals sites, just to see what kinds of responses I get in different cities. I pretend like I don't know that with that one little word, "sad," Geneva is talking about the loser that is me, the state of my hair, my body, my clothes, my bed, my room.
I feel her frowning at my robe. "How long have you had that thing, Milan? God. I remember it from when I left for Harvard." Geneva always mentions Harvard, and she always mentions the Portofino Towers, where she recently bought a condo. She's a name-dropper. She picks up my phone from my dresser. "Hello Kitty. Milan? Sad."
I ignore her, focus on the computer. She puts Belle from Hell on the floor, and sits next to me on the bed and peeks at the screen. I turn it away from her. I hear Belle doing the scratch-and-sniff under my bed. What has she found there? I can smell Geneva's perfume, something musky and dark. Something expensive and very grown-up. I am aware that after a full day working in Overtown as a laxative publicist for my uncle's "pharmaceutical" company (don't ask), I smell like a goat. But it's been so long since I smelled a goat I can't be sure. The last time was at a petting zoo in Kendall when I was ten. I tried to mask today's goatness with Sunflowers perfume I got on discount at Ross earlier because I was too lazy to take a shower.
"What ya doing?" Geneva asks, stretching her neck to see the screen. For the record, my sister would not be caught dead in a Ross, or any other store with the slogan "dress for less." That, for Geneva, would defeat the purpose of dressing at all.
"Just trying to set up a chat room." I scowl at the screen to make myself seem smarter and more ambitious than I am. To make it seem like Geneva's criticisms mean nothing to me. To seem like I'm happy here, in this room, in this house, in my life.
"You guys have wireless now?"
"Yes," I say. I set it up, but I let my dad think he did it. Our parents think I am a dutiful, passive Cuban daughter to have remained living at home, where I do things like wipe my grandmother's bottom (she's too stiff with arthritis) and fold my dad's undershirts (his Y chromosome makes housework impossible for him). To our Cuban-exile parents and tens of thousands just like them all over South Florida, girls like me--chubby, unmarried, overlooked--stay home until we're (best-case scenario) married or (worst-case scenario) hauled away to the convent. Geneva and I know the truth about me, however. I'm not dutiful or traditional. I'm not even a virgin (but don't tell my parents, please). Rather, I'm a purebred American slacker. I'll have a life one of these days, when I get around to it.
Other things you need to know about me: I would be pretty by normal standards, but because I live in Miami, a city where pretty must be nipped, tucked, and liposuctioned into uniformity and submission to qualify, I am plain by association. I have a pleasant round and very white face, with freckles. People stop to ask me for directions. I have been told I look "nice," but I am selfish and wild in my head.
Geneva lifts a foot and rotates the strappy sandal, cracking her ankle. It sounds like grasshoppers in a blender. I hate that sound. She used to dance ballet, and developed this disgusting habit of cracking everything all the time, especially her ankles, with no regard for those around her. She has double-jointed arms, but doesn't show off about it anymore, thank God. "A chat room?" she asks, unaware that her joint popping has made me want to throw up. "For what?"
"My Yahoo group."
"Las Ricky Chickies?" Geneva says the name of my group with a hint of scorn. Or is it mockery? With her, I can never tell. It could be derision. She says it as if Las Ricky Chickies, an Internet forum in honor of sexy male pop star Ricky Biscayne, were the dumbest thing in the world. To her, it probably is. After all, she throws parties for the rich and famous, and gets paid very well for it, so well that she makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and gets to name-drop at the same time--like anyone really cares that Fat Joe ordered massive amounts of caviar or something for a tacky rap-star party. She recently bought herself a new BMW, in white. I myself drive a fabulous puke-green Neon. She has no need, as do we mere mortals, to connect with our idols in other, more pedestrian ways.
For the record, Ricky Biscayne is a Latin-pop singer from Miami, half Mexican-American and half Cuban-American, and he is my obsession. I love him. I have loved him since he began as a salsa singer, and I have loved him as he recorded Grammy-winning albums in the Latin-pop genre. I love him now, as he prepares to cross over to the mainstream English-language pop realm. I love him so much I am the secretary of Las Ricky Chickies, the unofficial Ricky Biscayne online fan club. In addition to this club, I am also a member of a Coral Gables book club, Las Loquitas del Libro (the crazy book girls), that meets weekly at Books & Books. You might say I'm a joiner. That's the big difference between me and Geneva. She carves her own way and expects everyone to follow. The sucky part is, they usually do.
Geneva flops backward on the bed and picks up one of my Care Bears to throw it into the air, only to punch it violently on the descent. Then, as if trying to tell me something, she tosses the bear at the poster of Ricky Biscayne taped to my closet door.
"If you must know," I say, "we're going to have a live chat during Ricky's Tonight Show performance."
I look at the pink Hello Kitty clock on my nightstand, then at the TV on the sagging metal stand in the corner. It has cable. It doesn't look like it, but it does. My dad, who owns a shipping and export business and whose expensive ties are always crooked, jerry-rigged it somehow. Cuban ingenuity, I suppose. We never throw anything away, even though we're far from poor. My dad just tries to fix everything, or make a new invention out of it. This house is full of junk. Junk and birds. Canaries. We have four birdcages scattered around the house, and among my many unsavory chores is that of cleaning them.
"You think Ricky's gonna do well in English, Milan?" Geneva asks, with a tone that tells me she already knows the answer, and her answer is no. She rolls onto her belly and tries again to look at the screen. "He's so corny. I don't see how an American audience could deal."
"Ricky does well at everything he tries," I say. I stop myself from correcting her misuse of the term "American" to mean only English-speaking U.S. citizens. I'm an American. So is Ricky. So are most of Ricky's millions of fans. "He's perfect."
Geneva snorts a laugh and starts picking at her short, bitten, mangled fingernails--the only imperfect thing about her. The ankle cracking is bad, but the fingernail thing is worse. It makes a little clicking sound like a car that won't start. Click, click. Click, click. "Isn't it a little juvenile to be obsessed with a pop singer at your age, Milan?" she asks. "I mean, no disrespect, but . . ."
"Stop with the fingernails," I say.
"Sorry," she says. But she does it again, this time very close to my ear.
"Don't you have your own house to go to or something?" I ask as I push her hands away. "God."
"Condo," she corrects me. "In the Portofino." Right. How could I forget that Geneva, president of a multimillion-dollar party-planning company favored by rappers and Latin American soap stars, just bought a very expensive condo for herself in one of the most expensive buildings on Miami Beach. Enrique Iglesias is her neighbor. She has joked about taking him away from his Russian tennis-babe wife. I did not find the joke amusing, for obvious reasons.
"Why are you here?" I ask. Belle has emerged from beneath the bed with one of my flat, comfortable sandals and is trying to either kill it or hump it. "It's late. Go home. And take that rat with you, please."
"Mom asked me to hang out for a while to help her prepare for a show," says Geneva. Amazingly, she takes the sandal away from the dog. "What, I can't hang out here? You want me to leave?"
I'm about to say yes when our mother, Violeta, an AM talk-radio host, sashays into the room carrying a tray with milk and cookies, like some housewife mom from a fifties TV show. She stops when she sees the two of us about to fight, me crouching away from Geneva, and Geneva leaning in for the kill. Mom knows us very well, and it shows on her face--or what's left of her face. She's had so much plastic surgery the last few years I hardly recognize her anymore. She looks like a tightly pulled lizard with Julie Stav hair.
"What's going on here?" she asks. She leans into her hip. Like Geneva, our mother is thin and tidy, and she does the hip-lean thing to give her the appearance of caderas. For the record, I got all the caderas--hips--my mom and sister lack. I'm shaped like a pear. I'm overweight, slightly, in large part because of an addiction to guava and cheese pastelitos from Don Pan, but I still have a tiny waist. A certain kind of man likes that shape, but in general it is not the kind of man I like. I am told I look like my mulatta grandmother, even though I am the whitest member of our family. We run the spectrum, we Gotays, from black to white and back again, even though no one but Geneva seems to admit that we have any African in us.
My mom and Geneva look alike, or they used to before our mother started to look like Joan Rivers with a platinum-blond bob. Mom wears high-waisted beige dress slacks, probably Liz Claiborne, her favorite brand, with a short-sleeved silk sweater, black. The whole obsession with black is something she shares with Geneva. Mom's breasts were recently remodeled, and they seem to have moved into their perkier bras quite happily. Did you know that when you get a boob lift they put something like a golf tee under your tits, attached to your ribs, to hold them up? Gross. Besides, it's just wrong to have a mother with perkier boobs than you, isn't it?
"Everything okay here?" repeats Mom.
Geneva and I sort of shrug.
Mom purses her lips. They used to be smaller than they are now, those lips. They've been blown up somehow, like tiny pink bicycle tubes. "Something's going on," she says. She sets the tray down on my Holly Hobby dresser, next to the porcelain statuette of La Caridad del Cobre. She taps her red manicured nails on the dresser top and scowls at us. I think that's what the face is, anyway. I'm learning to read her body language, like she's a cat now and can only express feelings with the arch of her back or something. Mom would be well served to have a tail these days.
"I think Milan wants me to leave," says Geneva. "Mom, she's so unfriendly."
Before I have time to lie in protest, our mother sighs and does the thing where she makes us both feel so guilty, we are paralyzed. I want to save her. I want to make her happy. I hate myself for being a disappointment. Mom says, "You two. In Cuba, you'd never act like this."
Geneva stands up and walks to the tray of cookies. "May I?" she asks our mother. Mom does her hand in a circle in the air to tell Geneva to eat, but she continues to frown at me.
"If this is about the thing with the boys," she says. "Tú tienes que olvidar de todo ésto, Milán."
I look at the television and ignore the fact that she just told me, in Spanish, that I have to forget about Geneva stealing all my men. Jay Leno appears to be winding up his zoo-animal segment, having petted a baby lion for the past few minutes. Ricky will be on next. I unmute the volume and study the screen. "Shh," I say. "Ricky's coming on. Everybody be quiet, please."
"Blood is thicker than water," says our mother, pacing the room. She rarely stays still, our mother. She is high strung, wired, and motivated, just like Geneva. Mom sidesteps Belle--we share a dislike of dogs, my mother and I--and picks up a stack of magazines on my nightstand, all of them with Ricky on the cover. She sighs and clicks her tongue at me. "Ricky, Ricky, Ricky," says my mother as she drops the magazines one by one, as if Ricky made her tired. "I am sick of this Ricky."
"Sit down, Mom," Geneva tells her through a mouthful of coconut ball. "This'll be fun. I just want to see him make an ass of himself on national television." Geneva brings the tray to the bed and sets it down next to me. She herself sits on the floor, with a great crackling of misused joints. Belle climbs into Geneva's lap and licks a fleck of grated coconut off Geneva's chin. Geneva doesn't seem to mind. "Milan? Cookie?"
I take a coconut cookie ball, and bite. They are sweet enough to make you squint, chewy, made of nothing but sugar, vanilla extract, and grated coconut in heavy syrup. It's the taste of my childhood, sugar and coconut. Cubans eat sugar like Americans eat bread, and I don't even want to think about what my pancreas looks like. As I munch it I log in to the chat room and greet the twenty-one other Ricky Biscayne fans who are there. I know all of them by screen name. My mother and Geneva look at me, and look at each other with raised brows and smirky, pretty mouths. Fine. I know. They think I'm pathetic. A geek.
"Chew at least twenty times, Milan," says Mom. "You're not a snake. You're getting crumbs everywhere on your shirt."
"Nightgown," I correct her.
"With you it's hard to tell," says my sister.
"Shh," I say. "Leave me alone. I'm trying to focus on Ricky."
"This hair," says Geneva. She reaches up and touches my ponytail. Belle snaps at my lifeless strands and I daydream of punting her across the room. "You'd look so good if you got some highlights. Please let me do a makeover on you, Milan? Please?"
"Highlights would look beautiful," says my mother.
"Shh," I say.
"You should let your sister fix your hair," says our mother.
"Shh," I tell them as I type my hellos to Las Ricky Chickies. "Leave me alone."
"How's your face, Mom?" Geneva asks. Mom recently had a face-lift, which explains why she has bangs cut into her bob at the moment.
"Oh, I feel great, better than ever," says Mom. Her cheeriness is almost unfathomable.
"Shh," I say.
"Did it hurt?" asks Geneva.
"Not at all," says Mom. No matter how many surgeries and other enhancements she has, our mother always says she feels great afterward. I glance at her. I can't tell if she is smiling or not. I think she is. She sips a bit of milk and looks surprised as she nibbles a coconut ball through her rubbery lips. I know enough to know she is not actually surprised. Not much surprises her.
Copyright © 2006 by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez