Twice a year, every year, the sucias show up. Me, Elizabeth, Sara, Rebecca, Usnavys, and Amber. We can be anywhere in the world-and, being sucias, we travel a lot-but we get on a plane, train, whatever, and get back to Boston for a night of food, drink (my specialty), chisme y charla. (That's gossip and chat, y'all.)
We've done this for six years, ever since we graduated from Boston University and promised each other to meet twice a year, every year, for the rest of our lives. Yeah, it's a big commitment. But you know how melodramatic college girls can get. And, hey, so far we've done it, you know? So far, most of us have not missed a single meeting of the Buena Sucia Social Club. And that, my friends, is because we sucias are responsible and committed, which is way more than I can say for most of the men I've known and Ed the bigheaded Texican in particular.
I'll get to that in a minute.
I'm here waiting for them now, slouched in an orange plastic window booth seat at El Caballito restaurant, a Jamaica Plain dive that serves Puerto Rican food but calls it "Cuban" in hopes of attracting a more upscale clientele. It hasn't worked. The only other customers tonight are three young tigres with fade haircuts, baggy jeans, plaid Hilfiger shirts, gold hoops flashing on their earlobes. They speak slangy Spanish and keep checking their beepers. I try not to stare, but they catch my eyes a couple of times. I look away, examine my newly French-manicured acrylic nail tips. My hands fascinate me because they look so feminine and together. With one finger I trace the outline of a cartoon map of Cuba printed on the paper placemat. I linger briefly on the dot representing Havana, try to picture my dad as a schoolboy with shorts and a tiny gold watch, looking north across the sea to his future.
When I finally look up, one of the young men stares me down. What's his problem? Doesn't he know how gross I am? I turn my eyes toward the cars inching through the snow on Centre Street. The flakes twinkle in the yellow glow of headlights. Another dreary Boston evening. I hate November. Got dark at about four this afternoon, been spitting ice ever since. As if the wood paneling on the walls and the old buzzing refrigerator in the corner of the small restaurant weren't depressing enough, my sighing keeps fogging up the window. It's hot in here. Humid, too. The air smells of cheap men's cologne and fried pork. Someone in the kitchen sings off-key to a popular salsa song while dishes crash and clang. I strain to understand the lyrics, hoping they'll match the peppy rhythm and lift me out of my funk. When I realize they're about a love gone so wrong the guy wants to kill his lover or himself, I stop trying. Like I need to be reminded.
I chug my warm bottle of Presidente beer, burp silently. I'm so tired I can feel my pulse in my eyeballs. They sting under dry contact lenses every time I blink. I didn't sleep last night, or the night before, and I was too tired to take the contacts out. I forgot to feed the cat, too. Oops. She's fat; she'll survive. It's Ed, of course. The thought of him makes my heart seize up and my forehead get lumpy. You can tell what stage I'm at in my doomed relationships by the state of my fingernails. Good nails: bad relationship, keeping up appearances. Ugly nails: happy Lauren letting herself go. You can also tell by how fat I am. When happy, I keep food down and stay around a size ten. When sad, I vomit like a Roman emperor and shrink to a six.
My lavender size eight Bebe pants, wool and low on the hips, are baggy tonight. If I move in my seat I can feel the space in them, rubbing. Ed, the bigheaded Texican, is a speechwriter (read: professional liar) for the mayor of New York. He is also my long-distance fiancé. According to his voicemail at work (I busted into it, I cannot tell a lie) he appears to be messing around with a chick named Lola. I joke not. Lola.
What is that? And where's that waitress? I need another beer.
I'll tell you what it is. It's the universe demonstrating once more how much it hates me. I'm serious. I've had a crappy life, crappy childhood, crappy everything you can think of, and now, even though I've made something not crappy of my professional life, all the aforementioned crap keeps coming back in the form of smarmy, good-looking dudes who treat me like, you guessed it, crap. I don't pick them, exactly. They find me, with that whacked radar they share. Attention, attention, ahead, to the right, tragic chick at the bar, sort of pretty, downing gin and tonics, weeping to self just stuck finger down throat in bathroom-screw her. Over. Yes, screw her over.
As a result, I'm the kind of woman who will search a man's wallet and pockets and kick his ass if he does me wrong. I would stop this unacceptable behavior except I almost always find evidence of his wrongdoing-a receipt from the dinner he had at the dimly-lit Italian bistro when he said he was watching the Cowboys with his buddies, a scrap of napkin from a deli with the cashier's phone number scrawled in the bubbly blue letters of uneducated, easy women. He always does something sneaky, no matter who he is. It comes with the territory of loving the unlovable disaster of me.
Yes, I have a therapist. No, it hasn't helped.
There's no way a therapist can solve the crisis of chronic, mother-sanctioned infidelity among Latin men. It's not just a stereotype. I wish. Know what my Cuban grandma in Union City says when I tell her my man is cheating? "Bueno, fight harder for him, mi vida." How's a therapist gonna help me with that? Your man cheats, these traditional women who are supposed to be, like, your allies-they blame you. "Well," abuelita asks in raspy, heavily accented English, sucking on her Virginia Slims, "have you gained weight? Do you make sure you look good when you see him, or do you show up in those blue jeans? How's your hair? Not short again, I hope. Are you fat again?"
My therapist, a non-Latina with elegant scarves, thinks my problems stem from stuff like my dad's "narcissistically self-absorbed personality disorder," her diagnosis for the way he relates everything in life to himself, Fidel Castro, and Cuba. She's never been to Miami. If she had, she'd understand that all Cuban exiles older than forty-five do the same thing Papi does. To the exiles, there is no country more fascinating and important than Cuba, a Caribbean island with a population of eleven million. That's about two million less than live in New York City. Cuba is also the mecca to which all older exiles still seem to think they will return "once that son of a bitch Castro falls." Mass delusion, I tell you. When your family lives a lie that big, living with men who lie is easy. When I explain it all to my therapist, she suggests I give myself a "Cubadectomy" and get on with my American life. Not a bad idea, really. But like the children of most Cuban exiles I know, I can't figure out how. Cuba is the oozing recurrent tumor we inherit from our fathers.
Right now, I think maybe a fling with one of the pretty-boy gangsters across the room might do the trick. Look how they eat with their fingers, the garlicky oil dripping from the shrimp into their sexy goatees. That's passion, an emotion Ed the stiff chuckler couldn't recognize to save his life. I could do one of them for revenge, you know? Either that, or I could eat cheese fries and donuts, get bulemic until the whites of my eyes turn the red of a heartache. Or I could go to my small apartment and slurp too many homemade screwdrivers, hide under my white goosedown comforter and cry while that intense Mexican singer Ana Gabriel-the one with the Chinese mom?-wails on my Bose about the love she has for her guitar.
I need a night with my sucias, y'all. Where are those girls?
Tonight is special, too, because this (drumroll, please) is the tenth anniversary of the very first time the sucias got together. We were all freshman journalism and communications students at Boston University, drunk off peach and blueberry girly beer (hey, at least it wasn't Zima) bought with our fake driver's licenses, playing pool at that dark, smoky Gillians club where everyone used to go, dancing to a throbbing Suzanne Vega "Luka" remix until the bouncers threw us out on our sorry and naive culitos. We clicked that night. Or cliqued, rather. Oh, and puked. Almost forgot that part.
Our Reporting 101 professor with the dyed-black comb-over told us it was the first time so many Latinas had enrolled in the communications program at once. He bared filmy yellow fangs as he said it, a "smile," but trembled in his too-tight tweed blazer. We scared him, and people like him, as all things "minority" will-especially in Boston. (I might get to that in a minute.) Anyway, our collective power of intimidation in this increasingly Spanglish, Goya-beanified town was enough to make us instant and permanent best friends. Still is.
A lot of you probably don't speak Spanish, and so don't know what the hell a "sucia" is. That's okay. No, really. Some of us sucias can't speak Spanish, either-but don't tell my editors at the Boston Gazette, where I am increasingly certain I was hired only to be a red-hot-'n'-spicy clichéd chili pepper-ish cross between Charo and Lois Lane, and where, thank God, they still haven't figured out what a fraud I am.
I'm a pretty good journalist. I'm just not a good Latina, at least not the way they expect. This afternoon an editor stopped by my desk and asked me where she might go to buy Mexican jumping beans for her son's birthday party. Even if I were a Mexican-American (and here's a hint: I want to wax Frida Kahlo's furry caterpillar unibrow and I'm thoroughly uninterested in anything with the words "boxer" and "East L.A." in it) I wouldn't have known something that stupid.
You might have imagined by now-thanks to TV and Hollywood-that a sucia is something beautiful and curvy and foreign, something really super Latina, you know, like the mysterious name of a tortured-looking, bloody-haired Catholic saint, or a treasured recipe from a short, fat, wrinkled old abuelita who works erotic magic with chocolate and all her secret herbs and spices while the mariachis wail, Salma Hayek flutters castanets, and Antonio Banderas romps a white snarfling horse through the cactus with, like, I don't know what, a winged pig or some crap in his embroidered knapsack, and all of it directed by Gregory Nava and produced by Edward James Olmos. Get freaking over it, lames. It's, like, so not.
Sucia means "dirty girl." Usnavys came up with it. "Buena sucia" is actually pretty offensive to most Spanish-speaking people, akin to "big smelly 'ho." So Buena Sucia Social Club is, how do you say, irreverent. Right? And obnoxious. It's a pun, too, see, taken from the name of those old-as-dirt Cuban musicians who record with Ry Cooder and star in German documentaries, who every non-Latino I know thinks I am genetically predisposed to like. (I'm not.) We're clever and, like, hip when it comes to pop culture, we sucias. Okay, fine. Maybe it's stupid. Maybe we're stupid. But we think it's funny, okay? Well, Rebecca doesn't, but she's about as funny as Hitler's hemorrhoids. (You didn't hear that from me.)
I check my Movado watch, a gift from three boyfriends ago. The watch has a blank face, like mine when the man who gave it to me told me he was going back to his ex. Ed thinks I shouldn't wear it anymore, says it upsets him. But I'm, like, dude, if you bought me anything halfway decent I'd throw it out. It's a nice watch. Reliable. Predictable. Not like Ed. I'm still early, according to it. I don't need to get so nervous, then. All I need is another beer to calm my nerves. Where's that waitress?
They'll be here in a few minutes. I'm always early. It's the reporter training-come late, lose the story. Lose the story, risk having some envious and mediocre white guy in the newsroom accuse you of not deserving your job. She's Latina, all she has to do is shake her butt and she gets what she wants around here. One of them actually said that once, loud, so I could hear. He was in charge of compiling the TV listings, and hadn't written an original sentence in about fifty-seven years. He was sure his fate was due to affirmative action, especially after the editor in chief of the paper had me and four other "minorities" (read: coloreds) stand up during a company briefing in the auditorium, just so he could say, "Take a good look at the faces of the future of the Gazette." I think he felt quite politically correct at that moment, as all those blue and green eyes turned to me in-what was it?-in horror.
Here's how my job interview went: You're a Latina? How ... neat. You must speak Spanish, then? When you've got $15.32 in your bank account and student loans coming due in a month, what do you say to a question like that, even when the answer is no? Do you say, "Hey, I noticed your last name is Gadreau, you must speak French then?" Nah. You play along. I wanted that gig so bad I would have tried speaking Mandarin. With a name like Lauren Fernández, they figured Spanish was part of the package. But that's the American disease as I see it: rampant, illogical stereotyping. We would not be America without it.
I admit I didn't tell them I was half white trash, born and raised in New Orleans. My mom's people are bayou swamp monsters with oil under their fingernails and a rusty olive-green washing machine in front of the doublewide, the kind of people you see on Cops, where the guy is skinny as a week-dead kitten, covered with swastika tattoos and crying because the police blew up his meth lab.
Those are my people. Them, and New Jersey Cubans with shiny white shoes.
Because of all of this and more that I won't bore you with right now, I have molded myself into a chronic overachiever, and have focused my entire existence on a singular goal: succeed at life-meaning work, friends, and family-in spite of it all. Wherever possible, I dress as though I sprang from a completely different and much more normal set of circumstances. Nothing thrills me more than when people who don't know me assume I'm from a typical, moneyed Cuban family in Miami.
Copyright © 2003 Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez
Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist and a former staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe. She was one of Latina magazine’s women of the year for 2002. She lives with her husband and son in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This is her first novel.