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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Make Him Look Good

A Novel

Alisa Valdés-Rodríguez

St. Martin's Griffin

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

Make Him Look Good

The First Trimester


thursday, february 14


S
o, 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?

"So sad."

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?" asks 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.

On the TV screen, Jay Leno holds a CD up for the camera. It's the same photo as the poster on my closet door. The closet itself is full of cheap linen work clothes from the Dress Barn. Sad, I know. I decorate like a high school girl and dress like a middle-aged secretary. But I have plans. Once I'm out of here. I'll get real furniture and real paintings or something. I'll get real clothes once I lose twenty pounds. Until then, it doesn't seem worth the expense. Seriously. If you saw what I was up against, all the implants and high heels prancing up and down the Miracle Mile, their perfect little bodies ducking in and out of the Starbucks just to be seen, you'd realize that unless you have the spectacular cuerpazo of a Sábado Gigante model, it's almost better to hide yourself. This is a city where the entire concept of pretty is impossible, where paunchy men in khakis and belts stare, and women spend hours a day and many fortunes making themselves stare-ready. I don't have that kind of time. Or if I do, I don't have that kind of patience. And as a laxative publicist I certainly don't have that kind of money. Don't judge me. I get enough of that at home.

Leno glances at the glossy photo of Ricky's perfectly bronzed six-pack and appears to suddenly have a mouth full of lime juice.

"Oh, jeez," he whines. "Put on a shirt!" The crowd laughs. The host grins and says, "Don't hold the abs against him. He's a great guy, really. Ladies and gentlemen, please help me welcome the newest Latin crossover sensation, Ricky Biscayne!"

"Oh, Ricky," cries my sister, making fun of me. "You're so dreamy!" Belle yaps her approval.

I sit up and hold my breath. Suddenly, everything else is too loud. Mom's pinched breathing through her five-year-old nose job. Belle's hyperpanting. The cool baritone hum of the air-conditioning vents, droning in concert with the twittering night song of cicadas and tree frogs in the backyard. Even with the window closed, the creatures are loud. At night, Miami swarms with things like this, things with slime or sheen on their backs, shiny-eyed things with suction cups on their big, goblin feet. This is why I prefer to stay inside at night, by the way. By day, Miami is one of the most beautiful cities on earth. By night, it's Mars.

Geneva's cracking ankles and clicking fingernails. I grab the remote from the bed, and tap, tap, tap it up. I don't want to miss Ricky's big moment.

With an energetic bang of trumpets and congas, the upbeat song begins, and Ricky starts to dance. "Dance" is actually too sissy of a word for what he does. It's more like making love to the air, grinding, pulsating, shimmying. Oh, baby. He's a graceful, masculine dancer. That's what people notice most about him. His hips, his tiny thrusts and gyrations, all with that happy, naughty grin and those shiny white teeth. Movie star teeth. Not an ounce of fat on him, either, just pure sculpted grace. He has the kind of rear end you want to grab and sink your fingernails into. Or teeth.

The camera pans across his band and focuses for a moment on a balding, redheaded man who plays the guitar with one hand and the keyboard with the other. He's got a microphone attached to his keyboard and sings into it with tremendous passion.

"That guy looks like a tiny Conan O'Brien," says Geneva.

"Shh," I say. The little Conan looks into the camera and I feel a strange pang in my gut; he's got none of Ricky's looks, but this guy has a certain appeal. Eh. Maybe not. Maybe I'm just like a groupie who will do any guy in the band just to get a shot at the leader.

Go back to Ricky, I think. Why is the camera focused on this guy? Who cares about the backup musicians when Ricky Biscayne is onstage? Honestly. The camera zooms back to Ricky, and every woman on earth recognizes his supreme maleness, even my mother, who, I notice, has let her tight jaw go slack at the sight of his wiggling. Is that drool I see in the corner of her mouth? Asquerosa. Maybe she can't feel her lips anymore? She told me that for her boob lift they actually had to remove her nipples and put them back in a different place. Sick.

"I'd marry him," I say out loud, grabbing another coconut ball from the pink plastic plate. "In a minute."

"No serÃas feliz,"
says my mother, meaning, You wouldn't be happy. I think my mother must tell me at least once I day I won't be happy doing something I want to do.

Happy? With Ricky? Eh. Maybe not. But who needs happy when you could have a body like that in your bed? I'd cry the entire freakin' day, filling wads of tissue with my tears and snot, if it meant spending the night thrashing with Ricky Biscayne.

I take a peek at Geneva, and to my surprise she appears to be enraptured by Ricky. She looks embarrassed. I don't think I've ever seen her look embarrassed before.

"See?" I tell her. "He's not making an ass of himself."

Geneva lifts her brows and looks around the room, then at me. "No," she says. "Actually, he's pretty good. I'm surprised."

"He's gonna be huge," I say.

"He might," says Geneva. "You might be right."

"I told you," I say. "You should have believed me. I mean, you usually like my taste in men."

Geneva ignores the jab and starts digging through her weird little fringy purse with the big tacky DIOR on the side, looking for her phone. She opens it and dials someone and starts talking in a loud voice about how she thinks she wants to get Ricky Biscayne as an investor in her newest business venture, Club G, a South Beach nightclub she plans to open later this year. "I know," she says. "I thought he was all about the neck chains and the mullet, too. But not anymore. He's totally hot. I think he's got it, star quality. It's what I'm looking for. Get me in touch with his people."

"Shhh," I say. Geneva scoops up her demon dog and takes her call into the hallway. Thank God. I don't need her in here.

"I'm going to bring your abuelito in," says my mom, rising from the bed. She stands in front of me, blocking my view with her flat Liz Claiborne-pants butt. They're like mom jeans, only they're pants. She means that she's going to bring my grandfather in from the front porch, where he likes to sit "on the lookout" for communists.

"Move!" I say, trying to duck around her for a view of Ricky.

"You need a hobby," says my mother, in Spanish. She tries to pinch my arm. When we were little, she used to pinch us to get us to pay attention to her. I swat her hand away, and she says, "This thing with Biscayne, it's ridiculous. You're not a little girl."

Then stop pinching me. "You need to move," I say, pushing her. I consider mentioning that I know all about her grown-up "hobby" up in La Broward, but, you know. It wouldn't be polite to tell your mom you know she's screwing a Jewish plastic surgeon on the side. I followed her one time, and spied on them. He's pretty muscular, for an old guy, like that one dude, Jack LaLanne. He's got a weird orange tan and big thick veins like blue worms in his neck. Dad's been schtupping bimbos--his secretaries and whatnot--on the side for decades, so it's only fair. And you wonder why I'm still single?

She sighs and leaves the room. I happily lose myself in Ricky's performance. I've lusted after him since his first hit on WRTO Salsa, ten years ago, and continue to lust in pulsing, throbbing ways that shame me. There must be some defect in the genes of the women in this family, I swear. We're like a bunch of loser nymphos, especially Geneva the man-stealing whore. Oops. I didn't say that.

The camera focuses on Ricky, in his form-fitting, fashionable jeans and tight-fitting, nearly transparent dark blue tank top, his tanned arms sculpted in rounded waves of muscle. My mouth falls open as I stare into his hypnotic eyes. He's like an evil witch doctor, taking over my soul. I know. He's only looking at the camera. But I can't help it, I have this overwhelming sense that he's looking right into my soul. The lyrics are meant for me. They speak of a man's love for a plain yet complex and underestimated woman. No other man sings about average women with reverence. Seriously. I mean, not that I'm average. I am just average in Miami. And, for once, there's a man in the world who appreciates that a woman like me might be wild, passionate, lusty, interesting.

The chorus ends, and a timbale solo comes up. Ricky begins to dance again, with backup dancers, all of them female. And when he begins to do a sexy little salsa step, one masculine hand over his belly, right in that spot where men have hair creeping up in a sinful little line, his other hand held up as if holding my hot little fingers, I quite nearly choke on the last of the coconut balls. One minute he grins like the boy next door, dimples, full lips, cute; the next, he frowns with intensity, jaw determined and heroic, his eyes burning with dark lust and power. His body's motions send shock waves through my nervous system, and goose bumps rise on my skin. Ricky Biscayne is, without question, the sexiest man on earth. His hips thrust forward and back, and I correct myself. He is the sexiest man in the galaxy.

As he opens his mouth to sing the last chorus, I begin to speak a prayer to my statuette of La Caridad del Cobre. The peaceful virgin watches me with sympathy from her post on the white Holly Hobby dresser, ceramic blue waves lapping in curls at her feet. God only knows she's seen me do a lot of kinky, lonely stuff in this room, some of it involving innocent victims like hairbrush handles and tubes of eye-makeup remover. Don't ask. Anyway, I'm surprised she even tolerates me, actually. I'm surprised she hasn't struck me with lightning for my raging slacker libido.

"Holy Virgin," I say. "Please help me meet this man. I'll do anything."

Anything?
the virgin seems to ask.

"Anything," I repeat.

MAKE HIM LOOK GOOD. Copyright © 2006 by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.