In Lucho,” Sabina’s familyalready foreigners in a town of blancos”is shunned by the community when a relative commits an unspeakable act of violence, but she is in turn befriended by the town bad boy who has a secret of his own; in Desaliento,” Sabina surrounds herself with other young drifters who spend their time looking for love and then fleeing from ituntil reality catches up with one of them; and in Vida,” the urgency of Sabina’s self-imposed exile in Miami fades when she meets an enigmatic Colombian woman with a tragic past.
Patricia Engel maps landscapes both actual and interior in this stunning debut, and the constant throughout is Sabinaserious, witty, alternately cautious and reckless, open to transformation yet skeptical of its lasting power. Infused by a hard-won, edgy wisdom, Vida introduces a sensational new literary voice.
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It was the year my uncle got arrested for killing his wife, and our family was the subject of all the town gossip. My dad and uncle were business partners, so my parents were practically on trial themselves, which meant that most of the parents didn't want their kids to hang around me anymore, and I lost the few friends I had.
We were foreigners, spics, in a town of blancos. I don't know how we ended up there. There's tons of Latinos in New Jersey, but somehow we ended up in the one town that only kept them as maids. All the kids called me brownie on account of my permanent tan, or Indian because all the Indians they saw on TV were dark like me. I thought the gringos were all pink, not white, but I never said so. I was a quiet kid. Lonely, and a hell of a lot lonelier once my family became the featured topic on the nightly news.
That's how I took up with Lucho. He moved to our block with his mom when she married the bachelor doctor who lived in the big house on the hill. Lucho had a Spanish name because his mom was living with an Argentinean guy when she had him, but Lucho's dad was someone else. Some other guy who came and went with the sunrise.
He was sixteen and I was fourteen, which meant we could be friends on our block but had to ignore each other at school. He had squishy lips and a small round nose, smooth shiny skin, and greasy dark hair. All the girls checked him out. But Lucho was kind of dirty for a town like ours. He always wore the same thing: faded jeans with holes around the pockets and a white button-down shirt that looked like it only got washed in the sink. He was sort of tall, taller than me at least, and skinny the way boys are till they discover beer. He smoked cigarettes and sat around on patches of grass on the school grounds, sort of taking it all in. The other guys didn't talk to him, except the loser kids who are always the first to befriend someone new. Lucho wasn't interested though.
He discovered me without my knowing it. One day he came knocking on our front door. My mom never answered the door or the phone. She went into this depression with the whole trial, was always crying, seeing the shrink, talking about how we should just move to Italy so we could go to museums all day instead of having to deal with people calling us immigrant criminals all the time. Usually when the doorbell rang it was a reporter wanting a statement, or a neighbor with the newspaper wrapped in a paper bag. Our maid didn't answer the door anymore either because Papi said the last thing we need is people coming down on us for hiring illegals.
So I answered it and Lucho was standing there, looking bored on our front steps. I saw him once or twice on the block, knew he moved in and that he made some people nervous. He looked at me like we knew each other for a while already and said, "Why don't you come for a walk with me by the river?" "Do you even know my name?" I asked him, which I guess was a dumb thing to say, but you know how it is when you get caught off guard.
He gave me that look, like I was a silly kid and he was just going to endure me. He didn't say anything, just stood there and waited. I shouted to my mom upstairs that I'd be back later, and she didn't respond, so I walked out the door. It wasn't until I stepped on the concrete that I realized I was barefoot, but I kept walking and followed him to the river in the woods at the end of the block.
When we were there he started smoking like an old pro, which I thought was impressive because, around here, they card you to buy smokes and nobody has the nerve to break any kind of rules. It's a town full of wusses, a polo-shirt army of numbnuts.
"This town fuckin' blows," he said, and I was kind of scared of him because my mom always told me that when you're alone with a guy, he could totally kill you. I mean, look at my poor tía who got strangled by her own husband.
"I think I'm gonna go," I started to say, and Lucho looked at me like I was a waste of time.
"Don't be such a baby," he said. "I'm not gonna do anything to you." Then he started to crack up.
"Besides, you'd be the wrong chick to mess with. I hear your uncle's a killer."
That was the first time anyone ever said that to me, and I felt a little pride in it. I smiled. Can you believe it?
"So whatcha gonna do when you get out of this place?"
"I don't know," I said, because it was the only place I knew. "College?"
"College is for pussies. You gotta get out there and live, Sabina."
I don't know who told him my name. Probably the same people who told him about my family. I didn't say anything and he stopped talking, just sat there and smoked while we stared out at the shallow river. This river used to be full of trout. Now it was just a stream of sludge and mud. My feet were covered in the stuff, and there was a huge beetle crawling up my leg. I let it hop onto my finger and showed it to Lucho. He smiled at the little green creature, took it onto his fingertip and stuck it in his mouth, crunching down. He stuck his naked tongue out at me to show me he'd really eaten it.
Of course they found my uncle guilty of murder. He was always saying he was innocent, that someone framed him, even suggested that my dad set him up so he'd get the whole company, but nobody bought it. We knew he was guilty because that's the kind of guy my uncle was. Always smacking the shit out of his wife, so that my mom would have to take her to the hospital and let her stay at our house until the two of them finally made up again. My uncle would show up with jewelry or a new car and she'd eat it up. And once or twice my uncle turned to me and whispered some dark shit like, "You see, mi amor, all women are whores for money."
My mom really hated my uncle. She said I wasn't allowed to be in a room alone with him. I said, "Mom, if he ever hits me I'll stab him." She said it wasn't him hitting me that she was afraid of.
Now it was the business of the sentencing. Life or death. We're Catholic and officially against the death penalty, but I won't lie: I think we all knew we'd be better off with my uncle underground. The next step was that he was going to be sued by his dead wife's family for every penny he had, which was actually every penny my dad had, due to their shared business interests. Mami was freaking. She knew Papi was going to be paying off that murder for the rest of his life, and then she started cursing Papi, saying how she always told him going into business with my uncle was a big mistake.
I was telling all this to Lucho one day. We were sitting on the front steps of my house, me drinking a Coke and him smoking. My mom thought Lucho was sucio, but she was glad I had a friend, although she kept telling me not to let him kiss me, and I was embarrassed because my mom has this thing where she thinks every guy is trying to seduce you.
Then this car pulled up in front of my house and this skinny lady, with red hair and a blue linen dress that was so see- through in the sunlight that we could make out her lace panties and everything, came wobbling up the hill in her cheap heels. She stopped right in front of us and looked nervous. She was carrying a leather folder stuffed with papers, and she looked like she had a ton she was waiting to say.
She asked if this was the right house and Lucho said, "Who wants to know."
"You must be Sabina?" She looked like she was trying hard to be warm. "I'm a friend of your uncle's. I'm writing a book about his struggle with the legal system and his unlawful incarceration."
Oh, no. Not one of those locas my uncle manages to screw and brainwash to become his crusaders. He's got this talent for converting any kind of woman, be it one of his female lawyers or his former cleaning lady, making her fall in love with him and be willing to give her whole life away just so she can give him blowjobs in the visitors' room at the jail and write letters to the governor on his behalf. I know the part about the blowjobs because I heard my mom telling her sister in Colombia about it with major disgust one day.
"You know there's like five other chicks writing books already," I told her. "You better think of something new to say."
She looked hurt and I almost felt bad for her. I always feel bad for dumb women. Don't ask me why.
"He's a wife beater, not a serial killer. Pretty fuckin' simple. Asshole killer. Period." That was Lucho talking. He was a really good wingman.
"So how do you know my uncle?" I asked her, suddenly trying to be sort of nice because, really, I don't want anyone saying I have bad manners.
She wouldn't say. She started fumbling with her folder, took out a pen, and said she wanted to ask me some questions, that she knew me from when I was little and she and my uncle were friends for a long time.
"No way," I told her.
"She's not answering shit without her lawyer present." Again, that was Lucho.
The lady looked amused. "He your boyfriend?"
"I'm the watchdog, bitch. Now get off this property before we call the cops on your slut ass and give you a real fuckin' reason to write a book." Lucho didn't even raise his voice. He said it cool, calm, like he was ordering a pizza, and the lady in the see-through dress looked like she was going to have a heart attack. She started walking off on her rickety legs, almost tripping on the stone path back to her car.
You know, I was kind of a late bloomer. I was playing with Barbies till I was thirteen, way later than normal, and believe me, it was hard to give them up, because I loved the freedom of the Barbie world, making up stories for their skinny bodies. I never really got into liking boys much, even when girls my age were getting boyfriends and going to the movies with them and stuff. Boys didn't like me much either. Lucho was cute, though, and I started to think I might like him in that way, but every time I started to think about what it would be like to kiss him, I got nervous around him, and I hated that feeling, so I pushed it all out of my mind.
One day he said I was pretty but shouldn't act pretty because that's not attractive at all. I knew he had a thing going on with this eleventh-grade girl named Courtney whose mom sold us our house and whose dad owned the car dealership in town. Courtney was blonde and blow-dried her hair for no reason. She got manicures and wore makeup that never melted, even in gym class, which we had at the same time. She had an official boyfriend, who played lacrosse and was a senior on his way to Lehigh like everyone else in this town, but she and Lucho snuck around the graveyard together, and he told me that she even laid her naked boobs down on the headstone of some Dutch settler and then laughed like a madwoman.
This made me uncomfortable. I pretended to be really busy retying my shoe when Lucho was telling me the details of making out with her behind the old colonial church. I reminded him she had a boyfriend, and he was like, "Who cares? It's not like I wanna marry her."
We were lying in the grass in my backyard. My mom was on the phone with Colombia, like usual, and my dad was at court, like usual.
"Hey, don't you have a brother?" Lucho rolled over on his belly. He had a blade of grass between his teeth and the sun made his cheeks red and spotty.
"He's at boarding school."
"You never talk about him."
"I forget he exists."
"You want to make out?"
He was lying there, propped up on one elbow, squinting the sun out of his eyes. His hair was extra greasy today and he stunk a little. I wondered how often he showered. I showered twice a day because my mom had an insane sense of smell and was always telling me she could smell my dirty pits.
"My mom can totally see us from her bedroom window," I said.
"So let's go to my house. The doc took my mom to the city. No one's home."
I started shaking my head, but I was smiling.
"Come on, Sabina. You know you want to."
You know how it is when you're a teenager. Just when things start getting good, your mom calls you in for some urgent bullshit reason like your aunt is on the phone and wants to ask if you liked the crap she sent you for your birthday.
My mom loved her shopping trips. She gave up smoking when she had me, and she never drank. Clothes were her thing, and my role was to sit on the chair in the dressing room and tell her whether or not my father would like the outfit, because if Papi didn't like something, she'd take it right back the next day. Lucho came along once, which was sort of funny. While my mom searched the racks, Lucho and I wandered into the panties and bras section, and he held up a sexy bustier and told me I had stuff like that to look forward to when my boobs came in. He stayed for dinner at our house a lot, and that evening, as we ate, my mom started asking Lucho how his mom met the doctor, and he got all flustered, like he was in trouble or something.
"I'm not supposed to say, but they met through an ad in the paper."
"What paper?" I swear, my mom is so nosy sometimes.
"Well, not really a paper. It was an agency kind of thing."
I kicked my mom under the table so she'd stop asking questions, but she gave me this look like it was her house and her right to ask whatever she wanted.
I only knew that Lucho and his mom lived in California before coming to Jersey. She was living with another guy out there. A Mexican who sold horses and taught Lucho how to ride. Lucho said he wasn't so bad, but that he threw them out one day and they had to find a new situation.
"Have you thought about college yet?" This was my mom's favorite question to any kid over ten. All new-money immigrants have a thing about American colleges.
"Yeah, I'm not going. The doc says I gotta work. I think I'm going back to California to be an actor."
"What does your mother say about that?"
"That I gotta leave when I'm eighteen." He turned to me and then to my mom. "I'm taking Sabina with me."
My mom laughed, but I knew she thought he was being fresh. Fresh enough to ban from our house from here on out.
"Oh no you're not," Mami hummed. "Sabina is staying right here with us."
I hated school. Even the teachers were whispering about my family's place in the news. How my grandparents had to beg the judge to spare my uncle's life. How my uncle had a couple of illegitimate kids around the state. And then all the gruesome details of the murder itself, which my mom was careful to keep from me. She attended the trial on most days and alternated which side of the courtroom she sat on. She always came home sullen, and when I asked her what happened that day, she said it was better I didn't know.
Lucho and I were sitting by the river, which was almost dried up and it wasn't even summer yet. We sat side by side on this old tree that curves over the river, growing sideways like a cripple, our feet swinging in the air. Lucho was smoking. One day I asked him how he bought cigarettes without getting in trouble, and he said the doctor bought them for him. I thought it was pretty cool of him to do that for Lucho, treat him like an adult like that.
He never tried to make out with me. We were just sitting there, listening to the crickets and flicking the ants off our thighs, when out of nowhere Lucho goes, "I heard your uncle raped that lady before he killed her."
"My aunt, you mean."
I shrugged because I had heard that before — I heard my mom tell it to her sister on the phone — but I didn't understand how you could be raped by someone you were already married to.
"You ever been raped?" Lucho asked me.
"Not even molested?"
"Not even a little bit when you were a kid? Your brother never tried to feel your tits or anything?"
"Ew! No!" I was laughing. My brother was a total computer nerd till he got sent away because he fell into a bad crowd.
"Not even by someone else's dad at the town pool or anything?"
"Lucho ... you're such a perv."
"I'm just asking."
He got quiet, and then I felt kind of bad for calling him a pervert. He threw his cigarette stub into the dry soil and lit a new one right away.
The way the court arranged it, my dad could buy my uncle out of his half of the company and make monthly payments that would go straight to the parents of his dead wife. My uncle got life in the slammer and Papi got thirty years of payments. And those people got a dead daughter. My mom said that on our end of it, it meant we had to watch our spending.
"Does this mean we can't afford to send me to college?"
"No," said Mami. "It means we're being audited by the IRS."
Summer vacation hadn't even started, and I already thought I was going to kill myself from overexposure to my parents. One Saturday, I went over to Lucho's and knocked on the door. His mom answered. She was a nice-looking lady with fake blonde hair and a tan that you know nobody is born with. She had some kind of accent. I asked Lucho where she was from, and he said she's a Jew, which means she's from everywhere. Bulgaria. Denmark. Turkey. Israel. A bunch of places.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Vida"
Copyright © 2010 Patricia Engel.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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