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The first time Juan ruiz proposes, I’m eleven years old, skinny and flat-chested. I’m half asleep, my frizzy hair has busted out from a rubber band, and my dress is on backwards. Every other weekend Juan and three of his brothers show up past midnight all the way from La Capital to serenade the good country girls in the area who’re eligible for marriage. They’re not the first men to stop by and try at me and my older sister, Teresa.
For years, people stare at me, almost against their will. I’m different than other girls. By no means pretty. A curious beauty, people say, as if my green eyes are shinier, more valuable, to be possessed. Because of this, Mamá fears if she doesn’t plan my future, my fate will be worse than Teresa’s, who already has her brown eye on El Guardia, who guards the municipal building in the center of town.
That night, the first out of many, three of the Ruiz brothers park their car on the dirt road and clang on Papá’s colmado’s bell as if they’re herding cows. The roads are dark under the cloudy sky and the absence of the moon. The power outages can last fifteen hours at a time. There’d been some chicken stealing, and our store had been robbed twice in the past year. So we keep everything under lock and key, especially after Trujillo was shot dead. In his own car! After being El Jefe for thirty-one years! This amuses Papá. All his life he had to look at Trujillo’s photograph, along with the slogan: God in Heaven, Trujillo on Earth. No one could help laughing at his mortality. Even God had had enough. But Trujillo didn’t go in peace. La Capital is in chaos. A tremendous mess. No law or order to speak of. Full of crazies. Visitors from the big city tug their lower lids, warning us to remain vigilant. So we’re vigilant.
Mamá, Teresa, and I huddle near the house while Papá walks toward the darkness with his rifle in shooting position. My brothers, Yohnny and Lenny, and my cousins, Juanita and Betty, are asleep.
It’s us, it’s us, Juan yells out in the dark. Everyone knows who the Ruiz brothers are because they travel to and from New York, returning with pockets full of dollars.
Behind Juan the two other brothers wave their instruments in the air and laugh.
Come, step forward, Mamá yells, and soon they sit in our front yard, beers in hand, talking about New York, politics, money, and papers.
When Juan proposes, he’s drunk. Slurs, Marry me. I’ll take you to America. He trips over himself and pushes me against the wooden fence. Tell me yes, he insists with his lit breath and his thick sweat dripping over my face.
Papá doesn’t care for politics, and he knows not to trust a man in a suit. He goes for his rifle, and Mamá stands between them, laughing it off in the way she does where she shows all her teeth and dips her chin to her neck, then flirtatiously looks away. She grips Juan’s shoulder and guides him back to the plastic lawn chair to sit with his brothers, who have all had too much to drink.
When Juan sits, his chest folds toward his round stomach, and his jaw, the corner of his lips, his cheeks, his eyes all droop: a sad clown. Juan stares at my knees, which come together tight tight as if I hold a secret there for him to discover.
The three brothers can’t be more different, same parents but different faces and heights. And wait until you meet César, Hector says. They all wear suits and clump together near Juan like a band on a stage. Their eyes glassy and pink. Their instruments their crutches.
This song’s for you, Juan says to Teresa, who cowers under Papá’s watchful eye. But all the time he’s looking at me. Teresa’s thirteen going on twenty, born kicking before the sun had risen. She swings her skirt side to side in anticipation. This is before El Guardia will ruin her chance to get out. Ramón, the oldest, strings the guitar, and Juan looks to his brothers as though to make sure the chickens are in the coop, and like a real showman he gets on his feet, turns around, and there we are.
Bésame, bésame mucho …
He sings the song low and thick and full, filling a void in my chest. A block of ice melting. His voice is amplified by the dark sky and the stillness of the night. I close my eyes to listen. What is it that I hear? His sorrow? His longing? His passion? All of it?
Como si fuera esta noche la última vez
Bésame, bésame mucho,
Que tengo miedo a perderte, perderte después …
When he’s finished, Mamá and Teresa jump up to clap. A scattered applause. Another one! Another one! Teresa says, unaware that Juan is singing to me.
I know then that one day the earth will rip open underneath my feet and Juan will take me away. Tears rise. I don’t know how or when, but a ravenous world waits outside for me.
Girls, to bed, Papá announces with the resonance of a cowbell. He places his rifle across his thighs, pissed like I’ve never seen him. Two of his sisters had been taken by military men, back when Trujillo lived.
We should hit the road, Ramón says, and stands up lean and tall like a flagpole, always polite, always apologetic for his younger brothers who can’t control their liquor.
Before Juan leaves, he bends over to look right into my face. I stare straight back into his eyes as if I have the power to scare him. He makes a gesture of retreat and suddenly pounces toward me and barks, loud and insistent. Bark. Bark. Bark. I jump back and away from him, trip over the plastic bucket we keep by the door to fetch water. He laughs and laughs. His large body shakes when he laughs. Everyone laughs except me.
Mamá makes nice and tells them to come back soon, and don’t be strangers, and that the best of girls are worth waiting for. Maybe we’ll go eat at your restaurant in the city one day, she says, knowing well we never go to La Capital or eat at restaurants.
The day Teresa steals and slips into Mamá’s favorite dress to sneak out to see El Guardia, Mamá declares Teresa a lost cause and my marrying Juan becomes her top priority.
Did you see her leave?
No? I lie.
Mamá’s white dress fits Teresa tight in all the right places, including her knees. She moves as if her heels have wheels attached to them, her body full and womanly. Una mujerota, Yohnny says. Her heart-shaped lips always part because she has big teeth that give the impression she wants to kiss you.
Just thinking about boys getting their way with Teresa and having folks say how she’s fast and hot and loose makes Mamá clench her fists and pull out her hair. So much so, she has a bald spot at the nape of her neck dedicated to Teresa’s escapades. But no amount of whipping or hollering keeps Teresa from sneaking away to be with that man.
The first time she snuck out, Mamá screamed so loud the clouds dumped so much rain our land flooded. All morning, me, Teresa, Lenny, Betty, Juanita, and Yohnny swept away water from the house, filling buckets upon buckets.
I had watched Teresa toss off the hair rollers one by one and finger her dark locks. It had taken Juanita one full hour to blow out Teresa’s thick uncooperative hair. But it was worth it. She shook her hair out so it danced around her face—a beauty queen.
Mamá’s going to kill you, I whispered, trying not to wake Juanita and Betty, who share a bed with us and whose limbs tangle up when they sleep. They purr like kittens. A sheet separates Lenny and Yohnny from us. It hangs from one side of the room to the other. So threadbare that when the lamp is on, before we all go to sleep, we are able to see each other’s silhouettes against the faded blue-and-yellow-flowered print. Lucky for Teresa, when they sleep they might as well be dead.
Sleep now, you’re dreaming, negra.
Teresa shuffled about like a mouse. The night was ripe with chirping, screeching, croaking, miserable frog mating sounds, right outside our window. Papá says it’s because love hurts.
What if Mamá doesn’t let you come back? What if something happens to you? I said, already worried about our parents hurting later. Because where we live, there’s nothing but dark. Not a house for at least a mile. And the electricity always in some kind of mood. On and off. On and off.
Teresa’s eyes shone. Come see, El Guardia’s right on the road, waiting for me.
I tiptoed to the window. Bright moonlight illuminated the top of the palms.
I’ll be back before everyone’s up. Don’t you worry about me, little sister.
But why can’t you wait and be with him in a proper way? He can announce himself and ask for your hand. How do you know if he has serious intentions?
Teresa smiled. First of all, Mamá will never accept him. One day you’ll understand. When you fall in love, you have to play it out even if everyone calls you crazy. That’s why they call it falling. We have no control over it.
I don’t ever want to fall in love, I said but then thought of Gabriel, who can’t look me in the eye without blushing.
Love’s not a choice for you to make, Teresa said, and blew out the sage burning in the hotpot to kill the funky boy smell Lenny and Yohnny make in the night.
Teresa glided out of our room. She looked back at me and winked, licked her lips as if life itself is the most delicious thing she ever tasted. I imagined my mother, young like Teresa, cut from the same cloth, how much they look alike. Pin-pún, la Mamá, is what everyone says when they first see Teresa. Pin-pún!
Everyone has an arrival story. This is Juan’s. The first time he goes to New York City he has only an address and twenty dollars in his pocket. The bus drops him off at 72nd and Broadway on an island filled with benches and passed-out junkies. His heart races when the cars honk and helicopters fly overhead. He has always liked adventures, but the way the city is already pushing him to move so quickly, he knows that to gain control of such a place will require time. He locates the building number and finds a busted front door. Climbs the five flights of stairs hauling his suitcase. The lightbulbs in the lobby, missing. The musty smell of the damp rugs reminds him of caves he visited as a child. Oh, how he loved the caves—the slippery rocks, the darkness, the pounding of the waterfall—the sweetest reward, after the trek through the muck.
He takes a deep breath. He can do this.
When he finally knocks on the door, a scruffy old man answers.
Ju, ju, Frank? Juan asks. Frank is the Italian man who rents rooms.
And with that he waves Juan into his first apartment: a small room with two mattresses. One stripped down, topped with a neatly folded pile of sheets and a towel. On the neighboring mattress, a man asleep, with a pillow covering his face, to block the streetlight coming through the bare window.
Ten dollars a week. Every Sunday. You understand?
Jes. Thenk you, Juan answers in English. He had learned Yes, sir. Thank you. Dollars and cents. No, sir. Numbers one through ten. OK. Time o’clock. Taxi, please. Trains.
Gotta girl back home? Frank asks.
Oh shit, you speak Spanish? Juan almost cries in relief.
Because we don’t allow girls in here, Frank continues. Not for a week or a night.
Up until now, Juan hasn’t really thought about me. But he does plan to marry me because, as Ramón says, a good country girl is what a man needs to keep him out of trouble.
Frank prepares coffee and serves them in two mismatched espresso cups.
Heard there’s some good work at the hotels down on 34th Street, Juan says.
Frank juts out his chin. Is that all you got to wear?
Juan’s thin wool coat doesn’t even have a liner. From a closet in the hallway Frank pulls out a three-quarter-length coat, thick wool herringbone with a furry collar.
You don’t want to die of pneumonia waiting on that line.
Juan notes the worn-down cuffs, the exposed layers of muslin. The lining ripped to shreds.
We try and keep the lights off to keep the electric bill down. Everyone minds their business here.
A boom goes off outside. Juan jumps.
Be careful at night. The junkies will kill you for a buck. A desperate man is a dangerous one.
Juan gives ten dollars to Frank for the week’s rent. Sips the coffee and realizes he hasn’t eaten dinner. The portions on the plane were small. It’s already dark, and he doesn’t want to spend his money on food in case he can’t find work right away.
Maybe I should sleep.
Bathroom at the end of the hall. Good luck tomorrow.
Juan tucks his baggage upright next to his mattress. The medium-size towel on the bed is thin and frayed at the edges but smells clean. He lies down fully dressed. His shoes by the bed. The other man snores. Juan’s stomach growls. He looks at the clock and thinks about the chocolate cake they served him on the plane. Or was it a cookie? It was crunchy outside and moist inside, like nothing he had had before.
Years go by and Juan keeps coming around with his brothers for free beer at all hours of the night, flooding me with promises. Come with me now? Let’s get the justice of the peace, Juan says to me more than once. Never did I see a green-eyed bird like you, and his bloodshot glassy eyes would stare into mine, making the fuzz on the back of my neck rise.
From birth, Mamá says, my eyes were a winning lottery ticket, inherited from my grandfather from El Cibao. She talks proudly about Papá’s family, even though they’d cut us all off after Mamá married Papá thinking he would take her far away from Los Guayacanes. Ever hopeful, Mamá had ignored warnings that those people don’t mix with blacks. And here we are, still in Los Guayacanes.
Maybe with Juan we can all get the hell out, she says.
Teresa had already stepped in it by getting knocked up by El Guardia. Their eyes only had to lock once, she told me, for her to feel the burning low in her stomach and between her legs, his desire like a fist pushing up into her crotch. This is how Teresa talks.
One day you’ll discover it, she says to me in secret and winks, knowing that Gabriel’s no longer a boy just running after freight trains. He’s awake, Ana, and if you allow it, he’ll bite.
Her teeth gleam whenever she talks boys with me.
Mamá too. It doesn’t matter if Juan’s intentions are serious or not. Mamá has lived long enough to learn a man doesn’t know what he thinks until a woman makes him think it. So right when I get my period at twelve and eight months, she undoes my pigtails and pulls my hair back tight so no kinks escape, so my eyes pull at the ends. When he visits, she makes me wear my Sunday dress I had outgrown a while before. It pushes the little fat I have up and around my chest for all to see. Juan’s often too drunk to know the difference between a dress and a potato sack, but she colors my lips pink. When I talk the lipstick bleeds onto my teeth. Unlike Teresa, I don’t smile easily. Mamá makes me sit with the brothers, my dress rising high up, the backs of my thighs sticking to the plastic chairs.
Pregnant Teresa is made to stay in the house with Juanita, who is sixteen, and Betty, who is fifteen, so Juan has no distractions. Yohnny, who’s a year older than me, and Lenny, who still doesn’t know how to blow his own nose, sit a ways away and make faces, imitating the Ruiz brothers, who are in their fancy suits and stumble and slur all their words. The men talk in a loop: about papers, the value of the dollar, the baseball games they gamble on. One year they complain about President Balaguer’s inability to keep his promises, the next they celebrate the coup and how Bosch won the election. We finally have a democracy! they cheer. And then it’s back to money, papers, money, papers, money, papers. They talk as if we aren’t even there until Mamá changes the subject.
I don’t care who’s president, but if things don’t get better soon, we won’t be able to keep all of our land. Especially the land by the sea, Mamá says, emphasizing all our land, the sea.
Ramón suddenly sits upright. Ah … maybe one day you can show us around? he asks Mamá but looks at Papá.
Oh, Papá’s discomfort with these city men, fat and thick, dressed in dark wool suits even when they’re sweating, bragging about their trips to New York, the properties they plan to buy, their restaurant dreams. Full of stories, full of hope. Ay Papá, in his worn pants and thinned shirt, listening to Mamá go on and on about the fertile land and the view.
I’ve never met a man who works harder than my husband, she says, and looks pleadingly towards Papá, who replaced the rifle on his lap with the scowl on his face.
Is that true, are we selling the land? I ask Papá.
Papá isn’t a liar, so he says nothing. I may not have a chair to sit on, he often says, but I have my word. He may not care for the way Mamá flirts and how prematurely she mixes me up in things, but he does respect the Ruiz brothers. When they borrow money, they pay it back with interest and on time. When they lend money, they write it on paper, so no one gets screwed. Everybody knows that the Ruiz brothers’ word is gold in the bank.
More beer for anyone? Mamá chimes in.
The next day, when we’re alone, Papá says out of nowhere, Ana, I want you to be happy.
You know what I mean. He looks at me as if waiting for a smile, or a squeal or a clap of joy. Everyone’s always telling me to smile, even when there’s nothing to smile about. Smile, Ana! You’re a pretty, young girl! You haven’t seen the worst of life yet! So sometimes I smile so that people will leave me alone. But this time no smile comes.
Papá has already drunk two beers, and with the hot sun it might as well be four. His eyes dip at the edges, and his free hand rubs on his knee, which is sore from working long days watching over our animals and land.
Are you happy? I ask him. His tanned leathery face is like looking at the sea at night.
Copyright © 2019 by Angie Cruz