2019 PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist
This poignant, street-smart collection follows idealistic teenagers and weary mothers battling over what it means to be a woman in love.
Puerto Rican girls are brought up to want one thing: true love. Yet they are raised by women whose lives are marked by broken promises, grief, and betrayal. While some believe that they’ll be the ones to finally make it work, others swear not to repeat cycles of violence. This collection documents how these “love wars” break out across generations as individuals find themselves caught in the crosshairs of romance, expectations, and community.
|Publisher:||Feminist Press at CUNY, The|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||956 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I was there when he fell. We were fucking around in Central Park. Had been smacking bitches on their asses and then running away from them. Then one started yelling real loud and this cop appeared out of nowhere and we just started running. Nene was behind me, he was always smaller, more frail—that cat was always sick, ever since he was a little kid, there was always some shit wrong with him. So I’m just jettin, but I always used to look over my shoulder for him. That was a habit. But this time I heard him scream before I looked, and then I see my man go down over some rocks. And he tumbles, and I imagine the rocks pierce his back, and he’s stuck there for life. Me and the cop get to him at the same time, and my instinct is just to grab him. But this cop dude is like no, you should leave him where he is, you’ll hurt him more. But everything in me is fighting to grab him and pull him up. He looks all fucked up, like someone dropped Humpty Dumpty, and I want to put him back together. Set everything right, so he’s whole again. Nene was always strong, I mean he was always sick, but you know he was always down to go outside with us and terrorize the neighborhood. And he would play with that sick shit too. See, everyone on the block knew he was the sick one and no matter what he’d done the previous day they always let the shit go. So sometimes I would have to leave him where he was because he wasn’t going to catch it, but my ass would.
***It didn’t even start with him sucking my dick. No foreplay shit like that. I watch movies, and it always starts like that, the inevitable creep to the dick. Nene was sleeping over at my house, and it was finally quiet at three in the morning, and that’s when he starts. I have my back to him with nothing but my underwear on. And then I feel it next to me, on my skin. Right up against my ass. Then he’s pushing harder, trying to find the hole. He breaks through, and it’s a whole new life.
The next morning he looks sick as shit, coughing all over the place, so my moms takes him home because she’s scared I’ll get whatever he has. But she doesn’t understand that never have I caught what Nene has. But she becomes the concerned mother all of a sudden and takes him away.
***After the fall, we are all sitting in the hospital waiting. And I cry, but not those tears of sadness, it’s the tears of anger. The kind where you can’t breathe, my face gets all hot, and I can’t hold it in at all. Guttural noises are scattered in with my language. My fists are in a ball, and I just want to hit myself. My mother doesn’t understand this rage. If only she would just shut the fuck up and let me cry…all she’s done is tell me that I have to be strong. But what does strength have to do with love?
He doesn’t get out of the hospital for weeks, and when he does he can’t walk anymore. I’m on the stoop, and we see him coming down the street, but Nene doesn’t look all sad and shit. For us nothing has changed, so we’re just happy to have him home. His mother won’t let him come out today though. She says he has to rest in bed first, figure out how to go to the bathroom, shit like that. That makes him sad. But then he knows he’ll be out tomorrow. I come out the next day and I wait for him. It’s me and Kenny that are just waiting and by like eleven he’s still not down there. So I stand on the sidewalk and I yell, Neeeneeee, Neeeneeee, over and over again until his moms sticks her head out the window and starts yelling at me. Don’t you know he can’t walk? You need to get your lazy ass upstairs and knock on the door like a normal human being. I laugh and I run up because at least I know he can come out and hang with us. He’s still sitting in his bed when I get there. The lock of hair on his forehead is wet. And I’m like, my man you need a haircut, you look like John Travolta and shit. His house is mad hot. I pull the covers off of him and his legs look like my sisters, thin and pale. Not me. I’m already brown but this burning summer has me even darker, so if I was sick you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at me. You can see everything written on this cat’s face. On his body. I pick him up and put him in his chair. Then I wheel him to the bathroom. But I make the ride exciting, I’m crashing into the wall, I try to zoom here and there, but in reality his apartment is too small for that. I call his mother to shower him. I’d be scared to undress him, to see him naked. I always have my back to him, and it’s always a surprise. I expect it whenever he’s at my house, but I can’t tell you the precise moment, only that it’s after the house is quiet. I tell her I’ll be downstairs waiting for him. She’s like, you better not fuck around, I need you to come back up here because I need you to carry Nene down the stairs.
I go downstairs and have all this energy, but all I can do is wait for Nene. Kenny sits on the stoop, but I’m on the sidewalk, walking from here to there, the length of the stairs, and I’m telling him a story real loud. Then Jessica, this girl in my eighth-grade class, walks by, and Jessica has the fattest ass. And she’s like, Hey Jimmy, what’s up? Then Kenny perks up. She stands in front of me and the way she moves from side to side, I know she’s showing off for me. And I look at her and smile. I give her that papi smile. And in that instant, I’ve moved from boy to man. I think of this bitch under me. I know who I’m supposed to be. With Nene though, I know who I am. She starts laughing at whatever shit I tell her, and she glitters in the sun. In midlaugh, hers, Nene appears. His stepfather brought him down and barks at me to get his wheelchair. He leaves Nene at the bottom of the stoop, and I run upstairs. When I get back downstairs, I’ve forgotten all about Jessica.
*** I never realized how important words are until I see them fight. I watch them to see what it’s like to be in a real grown-up relationship. They spend all their time in front of the TV now. No giggles coming from her bedroom. No desire to be together, alone with their love. When I come in, I sit in the living room with them because if they are going to fight, they’ll do it with me watching. It won’t matter. They won’t notice that I’m there. What they have to say to each other is much more important than me being there. I’ve never seen so much of my mother before this summer, so much of her emotions. Sure, she’s fought with her other boyfriends before this, but I’ve never paid as much attention before. It held no interest for me. In the middle of their beefing, I look at the picture of them next to the TV. They’re at a picnic, and he’s hugging her from behind. The way they argue though it’s like the fights they have on TV. It’s like they don’t have their own words. She says things like, How can you do this to me and don’t you love me anymore? Her words may not be real, but I know her pain is. Even if her reaction is straight out of a soap opera. I can see the arteries in her heart choking her. The way she can barely breathe and the tears streaming down her face. Cutting off her breath. It almost breaks my heart. He says things I’ve heard before too: You make me do this. You’re overreacting. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I know what they’re going to say so well I can almost mouth along and anticipate what their next words will be. And it seems like the same fight every few days. This time though she turns and punches the wall and leaves. And he does nothing that I don’t expect him to do; he doesn’t cry, he doesn’t sit in a chair and try to talk to me about it. Nothing. He does what he is supposed to do. He yells some curses at the slammed door. And he leaves a few minutes later saying he doesn’t need this shit. Then there is silence.
*** In the middle of the summer, Kenny’s mother goes to PR, and the first night she’s gone, he invites me and Nene over. And a few girls. As soon as the girls get there, I start to get nervous. We sit on the living room floor and play spin the bottle. But the girl gets to decide where she is going to kiss the guy. Jessica spins first and she gets Kenny and kisses him on the cheek. Rebecca spins next and she gets Nene; she giggles nervously, stands up, and kisses him on the cheek. But when Jessica spins again, she gets me, and she takes me into Kenny’s moms room and just keeps kissing and kissing me on the mouth. We both come out cheesing because everyone is looking at us. I look at Nene, but he looks beyond us. As soon as the girls leave, Kenny turns to me and asks me what happened with Jessica. “Naw, nothing really happened. It was no big deal.” “Yeah, tell us what happened,” Nene chimes in before he turns around and goes down the hall to the bathroom. “No big deal? Is that why you had that kool-aid smile on your face? Come on man, tell us what happened. Did you touch her titties? Anything?” “Naw, she was talking at first waiting for me to kiss her, then she must’ve got tired of waiting and kissed me. She’s cute, but you know, I’m not really feeling her.” “Nigga, are you gay? What’s not to like? That bitch is fine.” By the time that Nene returns, Kenny has moved on and is telling me about him and Rebecca.
We never speak about what we do. Our words come in the form of knots in our hearts, glances, and brief touches on the hot of my back. After the girls go home, we all go into Kenny’s room to sleep. He has two twin beds, and Nene and I crawl into one. I know he won’t touch me tonight because Kenny is here. But I can’t sleep. He’s so close to me. And I don’t know if he will understand about Jessica. That there is no desire there. It’s not so much mechanical, but I love the fact that I can kiss her in front of so many people. The flaunting of it. And when I let her kiss me, I think of Nene, and I wish she was him. That he could sit across from me, spin bottles, and that we could kiss in front of two, three, six people. He’s asleep and his breath is against my neck, and it warms my entire body. I push against him, so I can feel the part of his lips on my back. And maybe this is as public as we can get.