The Wrath of Muscat from Tell Her She’s Lovely, A Novel

by | Jul 11, 2017 | Novel Excerpt

 

It’s only 7:30 in the morning, and my first day at Muscat High is ruined.

The last thirteen minutes, I’ve been clonking in my platforms up and down the outdoor halls, searching for my first class that starts at 7:35. I already know I can’t handle three years here. This school looks like the Kaiser Steel plant. Gray metal awnings, with pipes running underneath, cover the walkways and trap the heat. The walls are painted with two stripes: bird-poop-white on top and smog-factory-blue on the bottom. The windows in the classrooms are too high to look out at the San Bernardino Mountains when I’m bored. And there’s no grass or shade trees between the buildings; it’s paved with asphalt. They could have at least left some orange trees from the grove they tore out to build this ugly place.

Even worse, the girls are wearing cute, comfortable flat sandals and sundresses or short-sleeve tops and pants, smelling fresh of Heaven Scent and Charlie perfumes, while I melt in my candy apple red satin dress and stink of BO. Sweat is dripping down my forehead, burning my eyes, smearing my mascara. The blisters growing on the balls of my feet hurt so much I’m walking with my weight on my heels.

I must look like a Soul Train dancer reject.

Yesterday afternoon, standing in front of the dressing room mirror at Kmart, I thought this hip dress would give me the confidence I needed today—tiny white polka dots, puffy sleeves, a swirly skirt, and a black patent leather belt. Mama was in a good mood and let me get platform sandals that match the belt, but she told me to save the outfit for when it cools down.

“It’s supposed to be a 103,” she said. “Your summer dresses are cute. Wear one of those.” I ignored her. My summer dresses are plain, sleeveless shifts that make me look like a nun in training. But she was right. This material is suffocating me. Stupid satin.

A chubby, strawberry blonde white girl walks up to me. Either she’s trying too hard to look like a chola or she drank a lot of coffee before painting on her crooked cat-eye eyeliner and plucking her eyebrows as thin as dental floss.

“Whasss your name?” She talks with a fake accent, like those white actors who play Mexicans in Western movies.

“Hi, I’m Rachel.” Finally, somebody to help me. I hold out my schedule to her. “Do you know where this room is?”

“Over there,” she says in a normal voice. She points to a row of new beige trailers in the parking lot. Then her lips purse like she’s pissed, and she uses her fake accent: “I got a messsage for you from the presssident of the Gatasss.”

“Gatas? You mean cats? What’s that?”

“It’s a Mexsssican girlssss’ club.” She juts her chin toward the sky, all badass. “The presssident says you have to stop dresssing so fant-sssy.” She looks me over like I disgust her.

I can’t stop from laughing. Cholas have a reputation for jumping a girl for no reason, but Pippi Longstocking is scarier than this fake chola.

“Tell your prezzz it’s 1974, not the 1950’s. I can wear whatever I want.” I twirl around, my skirt flaring like a bullfighter’s cape, and head to my class.

No way am I taking shit from some girl who doesn’t have the guts to face me. My life is bad enough. My father took off last May and left Mama with all the bills and no money. She had to sell our house in north San Bernardino where fat pepper and orange trees grew everywhere, the houses had wood siding and front porches big enough for four people to sit, and my little sister Nat and I had separate bedrooms and a bathroom to ourselves. Now we live in a tiny stucco townhouse here in Muscat, the next town over, because the rent is cheaper. Nat and I share a bedroom that’s smaller than the ones in our old house, and the three of us have to get ready in the same bathroom in the morning. Mama said the old timers named Muscat after a grape they tried to grow. This town is full of empty lots with knee-high weeds. A small, fragile fruit couldn’t survive here.

***

I’ve made it to fourth period. My other classes were easier to find. No more cholas. I got bandages for my feet from the nurse’s office. And the classrooms have air-conditioning, or at least air is blowing out the vents. The door has to be left to keep the room from getting stuffy. Still, it’s cooler than outside.

Mr. Noyer, my social studies teacher, has spent most of the hour telling us stories about when he served in Vietnam. He paces the aisles, waving his hairy arms, describing how the North Vietnamese jammed bamboo shoots under the POWs’ fingernails. I’m grossed out but can’t take my eyes off his fingers, imagining him with bamboo fingertips that look like the baby’s claw hands in the scary movie It’s Alive. I catch a teeny tiny girl staring at me from her desk across the room. She looks like Tinker Bell—yellow hair, round blue eyes, and even a lime green halter dress. The bell rings. I stick my Pee-Chee on top of my stack of books and dread eating alone like a geek.

Tinker Bell taps my shoulder from behind in the hallway. “Excuse me,” she talks like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. “Are y’all what they call a Mex’can?” Her eyes are wide with excitement like she just found a silver dollar on the ground.

“Uh. Yeah. Well, I’m Mexican American. I mean I was born in San Bernardino, but I’m Mexican.” No stranger has asked me what I am before.

“Do y’all eat stuff like talk-ohs and burr-eetos?”

First the fake chola and now this? “You could get your ass kicked for those questions.”

“Sorry. I have a bad habit of saying whatever’s on my mind.” Dark pink streaks spread across her cheeks like she’s been slapped. “I just moved here. There aren’t any Mex’cans where I come from. I’m curious to talk to one, and you seem nice.”

“Where are you from? I guess I’m curious, too.” I look her over the way the fake chola looked me over this morning.

“Madison, Mississippi.” Her straight, white teeth gleam in a beauty contestant’s smile. My bad attitude has gone over her head. She shifts the books in her arms, frees her right hand, and holds it out to me. “My name is Christine, but I prefer Chris. Yours?”

I tell her my name, and we shake hands like the people in Pride and Prejudice or one of those other black and white movies where everyone acts proper. She might be okay, but she still annoys me. “Mexicans were here before white people, you know.”

“In California?”

“Yeah. What kind of history do they teach in Mississippi?” A picture of a Confederate flag sticking out of a tree with a noose dangling from a branch pops in my head. Not that they taught much about Mexicans at my schools.

“History isn’t my best subject.” She looks down, as though she’s checking out her cotton-candy-pink painted toenails. Her Southern accent gets real sweet and high-pitched. “Will you give me another chance? I’ll share my southern lunch with you.”

She annoys me, but I won’t have to eat alone. “As long as you promise not to talk stupid anymore.”

“Cross my heart,” she says with her hand over heart like she’s giving The Pledge of Allegiance.

We head across the quad toward the red brick cafeteria building. Chris talks non-stop about her father and uncle, who are both contractors, moving their families to Muscat to start a construction company. I make the mistake of asking what a contractor does, and Chris gives me a long explanation. Then she goes on about how brown, dry, and smoggy it is here and how green, humid, and clear it is in her hometown. She says there weren’t as many black people at her school in Mississippi as there are here and not one “Mex’can.” “Otis, my daddy, told me school was going to be real different from Madison.” She calls her father by his first name like the kids in To Kill a Mockingbird. Southern people are weird.

We reach the quad, and she stops talking in the middle of her sentence and slowly scans the quad, taking in the black, Mexican, and white kids standing around and sitting at the sun-faded orange metal picnic tables in front of the cafeteria. She must feel like she’s moved to another planet.

All the picnic tables are full except one beneath a shady tree where a tall Mexican hippie girl sits by herself. She takes a huge bite out of a thick sandwich, and her cheeks puff out like a blowfish. Her bright blue and yellow wooden bead necklace, tie-dye T-shirt, and rust-colored hip hugger bell-bottoms are straight out of Woodstock.

Not shy at all, Chris asks if we can sit with her. Mexi Hippie peers at us through her frizzy, blue-black hair hanging in her face and nods. We climb onto the bench across from her, and Chris introduces us.

“My name’s Minerva,” Mexi Hippie mumbles, giving a show of her chewed food. She must have the munchies. Yep, super-stoner stuck in the 60s.

Chris pulls the lid off her blue Tupperware bowl and holds it out to me. “My Mama makes the best black eyed peas. Would you like some?”

A strong whiff of dirt and lard hits my nose. Black eyed peas sound and smell gross. I don’t want to hurt her feelings, so I lie and say I’m allergic to them.

“Minerva?” Chris holds the bowl out to her. “Does it have meat in it?” She asks, food falling from her mouth.

“Of course, black eyed peas don’t taste right without bacon.”

“No thanks, I’m a vegetarian.” “Vegetarian?” Chris turns her head sideways, studying Minerva’s sandwich like it’s a display in a science fair. “Is that why your bread looks like cardboard?”

I take a closer look at Minerva’s sandwich. The bread is dark brown. Avocado, lettuce, and roots that look like green pubic hair stick out of the sandwich. “It’s squaw bread, man. But I call it brown bread ‘cause “squaw” is racist. I made it from scratch. The avocado is from the tree in my backyard. Want a bite?”

“No thanks. I prefer white bread,” Chris says in her sweet Southern belle voice.

“You mean wonder-why-it-doesn’t-kill-you bread?” Minerva raises her sandwich in the air. “This bread will save your life. Nutrients, man. Nutrients.”

I hide my white bread peanut butter and jelly sandwich behind my paper bag before Minerva sees it.

“I’ll stick to my Southern slop, thank you.” Chris shovels a spoonful of the stinky peas into her mouth.

“It’s cool,” Minerva says.

Chris swallows her food and smiles all sweet. “Let’s talk about something else. I’m trying out for the school’s tennis team tomorrow. Do y’all know about tennis?”

“Oh, brother.” I roll my eyes, but all I know about tennis is that the players hit a fuzzy neon-yellow ball back and forth to each other with rackets. It looks boring.

“Well, I’m not familiar with y’all’s sports. My daddy says Mex’cans play soccer, except y’all call it football, which I find hilarious.”

“Pancho Gonzales is one of the best tennis players of all time, man,” Minerva says. “And he’s from Los Angeles.”

Mexi Hippie’s got brains. I didn’t expect that. She tells us about other famous Mexican-Americans we never heard of and calls them Chicanos. “You must know about Cesar Chavez. The grape strikes?”

We both shrug.

“Robert Kennedy visited him in Delano. It was all over the news.”

“I remember seeing him on TV with Mexicans, but I didn’t pay attention,” I say.

Minerva shakes her head and sighs.

“How do you know so much?” Chris asks. “My dad and his books. His cousins in LA are involved in the Movimiento; he goes to protest rallies with them when he can.” Minerva pulls her hair up like she’s going to put it in a ponytail. The scent of incense floats from her clothes. Even without make-up and with that Bride of Frankenstein hair and those small-as-dimes onyx eyes, she’s pretty enough to be on the cover of a rock album. A natural pretty.

I’m embarrassed that I don’t know more about my own people. For all of my father’s bragging about being a proud Mexican, he never mentioned the important things Mexican-Americans are doing or read books about them. The only books he owned were the manuals for his truck and chopper.

“You ought to be a teacher. I’d take your class. I want to learn more about Chee-can-ohs,” Chris says.

“My plan is to get a PhD in Chicano studies and teach Chicano history to high school kids. We need it, man.”

“I never met a girl who wants to go all the way to a PhD,” Chris says. “I’m going to get a bachelor’s in PE. That’ll be hard enough.”

“Lots of girls get PhDs,” I say, doing my best to act like I’m not impressed, but I never heard of a PhD. Minerva impresses and intimidates me. She’s the first Mexican girl I’ve met who talks about going to a four year college and who knows so much. And she’s cooler than any nerd or stoner I’ve seen. I wonder why she was sitting alone.

“So, where are your friends? Did you just move here too?” Chris asks as though she read my mind.

“I grew up here. I have friends, but I’m a loner.” Finished with her sandwich, Minerva chomps into a giant slice of cantaloupe, taking out almost half of it with one bite. She wipes the juice dripping down her chin with the back of her hand. For someone so smart and healthy, she’s a slob. Maybe she’s a loner because nobody can handle watching her eat.

Chris smiles her glimmering smile at Minerva. “Do y’all dress that way because you smoke marijuana and have sex?”

“Dang, Chris,” I say.

Minerva answers like it’s no big deal. “I dress like this because I like the style and it’s comfortable. All I care about is getting A’s; I don’t have time for sex.” She leans across the table, close to us, and whispers: “I smoke weed on weekends.” She sits back and licks melon juice off her fingers.

Chris’s tiny mouth opens wide in surprise. “Don’t you at least want to date?”

“Not ‘til after I graduate. Dating messes with your mind, man.”

Chris goes on about how she and her boyfriend in Mississippi went to third base last summer, how she almost died from heartache when she found out she had to move so far from him, and how they plan to go to college together in Mississippi and get married right after they graduate.

“I can’t go on a date until I’m sixteen, let alone have a boyfriend,” I say to Chris, shocked that she isn’t ashamed to say she almost had sex and that Minerva admits she smokes pot. At the same time, I hope Chris will tell us more about her boyfriend and Minerva will let me try her pot sometime.

“What about you, Rachel?” Minerva asks. “What are you going to study in college?”

Thinking about how to answer, I dig my nails into my orange and peel back the skin. I always thought I’d get married and get an office job after high school, like Mama. But I can’t say that to these future college girls. I want them to like me. “I’m going to take some classes at a junior college, probably Valley. I’m not sure what bachelor’s yet.”

“Cool,” Minerva says. “I knew there’d be other girls like me at this school who want to go to college but aren’t nerds.”

The popular kids around us are laughing and talking over each other in their groups: Seventeen magazine-style soshies who act snobby because they’re in the popular girls’ social club at school, football jocks stretching out their T-shirts to show off their muscles, and preppy guys in polo shirts and slacks. Although I hated moving, I thought I could make a fresh start here, be a popular girl with a lot of popular friends like the kids around us. I never had friends like them.

Since Kindergarten, my only friend was Sharon. She lived around the block from my old house, next door to my grandma, and our families were close. Mama and Grandma liked that I hung around her because she was an old fashioned Catholic girl and treated everyone nice, except me. She acted like a mean big sister, telling me I was destined to go to hell when I didn’t want to go to Bible study or wanted to wear make-up. When my father left, she told me she couldn’t be my friend anymore because divorce is against God. But my parents weren’t divorced. What good Catholic girl dumps her best friend when she needs her most?

I wish Sharon could see me sharing my orange with Southern Tinker Bell and Chicana-stoner, outcasts like me. They’re real, not a fake Catholic like Sharon and not phonies like the kids around us. “Grazin’ in the grass,” a happy-bongo dance song, starts playing in my head, and I feel like singing and dancing around the tables. Today isn’t so bad after all.

***

Chris came up with the idea for the three of us to meet by the busses in the parking lot after school to congratulate each other for making it through our first day of high school and to say goodbye. The parking lot is loud with kids rushing to cars, the rattle of waiting bus engines, the buzzing VWs, the roar of trucks, Mustangs, Cougars, and other cars with big engines starting up.

“Let’s meet at the same place for lunch tomorrow, y’all hear?” Chris makes her accent thick.

We agree and have a three-way hug. Minerva climbs on the packed yellow bus headed to south Muscat, and Chris climbs on the not-so-packed yellow bus headed north to the country club. I’m surprised Muscat has a country club. It’s probably Beverly Hillbillies style. I hope she invites me over so I can find out.

I wave to them as their busses drive off, and I head south, down Lilac for my two-and-a half-block walk home. As I cross Baseline, I feel like I’m being followed and take a quick check. Fake Chola and two real cholas are about ten feet behind me. I can tell the two cholas are real because they’re Mexican and are wearing the standard chola uniform: a white tank top, khakis, and cat eye make-up drawn on like an artist. One chola has fat cheeks and a square body. The other one is muscular with bulging eyes like a goldfish. They all look like they’re mad at me: their lips pressed in a straight line and eyes squinted.

An ice-cold chill shoots across my skin. I keep walking like nothing’s happening, pointing my nose straight ahead, and think about how I can get away from them. Without moving my head, I search for witnesses, for someone to help me. Not one car passes by. The other kids walking home from school are far ahead.

Goldfish Eyes runs up next to me: “Slut.”

This time the chill shoots through my bones. I keep walking.

“Coconut-slut.” Fat Cheeks yell in a high pitched voice and sweeps her foot under mine. I trip forward but manage to avoid falling. Their laughter sounds like the scary crows in the movie The Birds. I stand straight, hug my books, and continue toward the townhouse. Their shoes slap the sidewalk behind me, letting me know they’re close. I stiffen my muscles so the cholas won’t see me trembling.

“I bet you regret messsing with the Gatasss now, huh coconut-ssslut?” Fake Chola says.

“Lucky for you our President isn’t here, or you’d be dead,” says Goldfish Eyes. She runs up behind me: “Boo!”

I jump, and they laugh their crow laugh.

Maybe they’ll lay off me if I tell them I’m not a coconut: I’m brown inside and out. And I’ve never kissed a guy, or even held hands with one, so I can’t be a slut. But talking to them might make them madder. I stay quiet.

Half a block from my corner, the front door to the townhouse I’m in front of opens. Two junior high school aged white boys throw their skateboards on the cement walk and hop on. One after the other, they zip down the walk, onto the sidewalk, and onto the street. A woman in a dental assistant’s uniform, who looks like their mother, steps in the doorway and scolds them for not being careful. She sees me and smiles. Then she sees the cholas on the sidewalk about a car’s length away from me, and her smile drops. It’s my chance to get away. I run as fast as I can, ignoring the pain from the blisters on my feet. I reach my corner and glance back. The cholas are running in the other direction, toward school, laughing and howling. Goldfish Eyes runs backward. “Don’t worry. We won’t forget about you, coconut-slut.”

I keep running in case they change their minds. I rush inside the townhouse, slam the front door shut and lock the doorknob lock, bolt lock, and chain lock. I peek through the blinds on the front window and scope out the street: empty.

The townhouse is dark, quiet, and hot. Nat the Brat’s going to school in our old neighborhood and stays at Grandma’s, around the block from our old house, until Mama picks her up after work. I have the place to myself for two hours, so I switch on the air and set the thermostat to 65 instead of 78, like Mama demands. I sit on the fake marble tile linoleum at the bottom of the staircase and take off my shoes, freeing my achy patas. My dress is soaked with sweat and stuck to my skin. I strip naked, my favorite way to be, and leave my sandals, dress, and underwear in a pile in the doorway. The thin, puke-green shag carpet feels like dry grass as I step to the stereo in the living room and crank War’s “The World is a Ghetto.” The lead singer sings in a sad voice about wanting to find happiness. Listening to songs with lyrics that go with what’s happening in my life comforts me, letting me know I’m not alone.

To cool off faster, I stand in front of the opened fridge door until I get goose bumps. Then I grab the half of a watermelon out of the fridge, pour a tall glass of the generic lemon lime soda Mama buys on sale, and carry both to the living room.

At our old house, I would have lounged on our comfy, broken-in couch in the family room, but Mama sold that furniture at her garage sale since we no longer have a family room. We’re using the fancy furniture from our old living room, which was reserved for company, as our everyday furniture. The matching orange and yellow flower print couch and loveseat and glass top coffee and end tables are like new. Mama waited months for the set to go on sale at Montgomery Ward where she’s a supervisor in the furniture department. Then she bought it on credit. Even with her employee discount, it took her a year to pay it off. For all her trouble, Mama says she deserves to enjoy it.

Except we don’t enjoy it. She hides the pretty velvety material on the couch and loveseat with itchy, tan slipcovers, and we have to use coasters that stick to the bottoms of our glasses.

I pull The Other Side of Midnight—a novel with sex in it that I found in one of Mama’s boxes at the garage sale—from its hiding place behind the bookcase, take the slipcover off the couch, and lie on the soft flowers. I’m ready to relax, snack, and read.

The first time I saw this tiny townhouse, I immediately hated it. But I like being alone for a few hours. No Mama and Grandma nagging me to do housework and pick up after myself. No Nat the Brat telling on me. I can do as I please.

Still, I miss my old life. On Saturday afternoons, after my family finished cleaning house and doing yard work, my father would take Nat for a ride on his chopper to visit his buddies playing baseball at Núñez Park on the Westside. With the house to ourselves, Mama and I would sink into the cushiony family room couch, eat the popcorn and cookies we made together, and watch black and white movies on T.V. Our favorite movies were sad with sad women who had sad lives, like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I’d rest my head on Mama’s lap and stretch out while she picked crusts of dandruff off my scalp with her nails. During commercials, we talked proper like the people in the movies and looked up the big words they said in Mama’s heavy Webster’s dictionary.

Now we’re living our own sad movie. Mama goes to a nightclub with her girlfriends on Friday nights and is hungover and moody on Saturdays, yelling at us “bitchy brats” to clean the house to her “white glove standards.” After the housework is done, she says she’s too worn out to watch a movie and naps until dinnertime.

***

“Gross! She’s naked again, Mama,” Nat the Brat’s whiney voice blares in my dream. I open my eyes to her standing over me. She has my father’s eyes—golden brown and almond shaped. I hate to look at her and be reminded of him. Her straight light brown hair, also from my father, is pulled back in a tight braid, and her chubby body is stuffed into the stretched out brown knit top and shorts set she wears at Grandma’s to do housework.

“You look like an over-stuffed chorizo,” I say, slipping my book under the cushion before she sees it.

Mama steps through the opened sliding glass back door carrying a grocery bag. “Damn it, Rachel. Why can’t you keep your clothes on? And why is it so damn cold in here?”

Nat the Brat runs to the thermostat. “She turned it down to 65!” Daddy’s girl has been a super-brat to me since he left.

“Narc.” I shoot her a “your ass is mine” look.

“65?!” Mama plops the bag on the kitchen counter with a grunt and stomps into the living room. She points at my pile of clothes in the front doorway. “Is this how you take care of the clothes I bought you with my hard earned money?”

“You act like I committed armed robbery.” I sit up, holding a cushion over my body. I’m not shy about them seeing me naked, but Mama and Nat the Brat get uptight about it.

“You left the stereo on. Again!?” Mama turns from the stereo and picks up the empty watermelon shell from the coffee table. “No more allowance for you. I need the money to pay for all the damn electricity and food you’re wasting.”

She’s wearing one of her cool outfits: a pinstriped burnt orange polyester pencil skirt with a matching vest the same length as the skirt and a long-sleeved white blouse with silver buttons on the cuffs. Her brown-black hair is curled in waves that bounce on her shoulders. When she dresses like this, I sing one of her favorite songs to her: “You’re just too good to be true. Can’t take my eyes off of you.” But right now, with her face all twisted, I can’t stand to look at her.

“Please don’t yell at me.” I give her my sad eyes. “I had a real bad day.”

“Well, I’m having a bad life.” Mama stomps back to the kitchenette. She pulls a gallon bottle of white wine from a grocery bag, fills a glass with ice, pours in wine and lemon lime soda, takes a big chug, and smiles. “Ah!”

She’s been drinking three or four these wine coolers every night since she realized my father wasn’t coming back. “Get dressed and clean up your mess or you’re going to have a very bad night.”

“Yeah, get dressed. You’re skid-marking the couch,” Nat the Brat says. She turns on the TV and changes the channel to Jeopardy, a game show for nerds, and lies on her belly on the carpet. She’s close enough to breathe on the TV screen, but Mama doesn’t yell at her.

On my way to fix the couch, I bend over and pinch her forearm hard. “Don’t fuck with me, fatso,” I whisper in her ear.

***

Chris and I meet Minerva at the same table for lunch. Chris’s outfit is even cuter than yesterday’s–a powder pink spaghetti strap dress and matching t-strap sandals. Standing next to her in my flats, I realize she’s really short. I’m only 5’3,” and I could rest my chin on top of her head.

All morning I’ve been looking forward to telling them about the Gatas. I finally get the chance, and Chris opens her big mouth. “You look real pretty, Minerva. I like this outfit much better than yesterday’s.”

“Thanks?” Minerva chuckles as she sits on the bench. “I wear what makes me happy, man. I’m not concerned with looking pretty.”

She does look good in her sleeveless royal purple maxi dress, a brown leather Western belt pulled tight around her waist—probably fake leather since she’s a vegetarian.

“You’re one of those feminists, huh?” Chris says. She sets her gym bag on the table and unzippers it.

“A Chicana feminist, not one of those feminists.” Minerva pulls her sandwich out of her burlap lunch bag. I jump in.

“Something hap…” Chris interrupts me.

“I’m dying to show this to you two.” She pulls out a white tennis dress with Necco-wafer sized pink polka dots and holds it up to her body. “Watch out Evert; there’s a new Chris on the court. I’m wearing this to tryouts after school. What do y’all think?”

“Well, if you like it, I like it,” Minerva says and chomps into her sandwich. “Hey,” she talks with her mouth full, “how about you give me some tennis lessons in trade for help with your history or math homework?”

“You got it. How about you, Rachel? Like my tennis dress?”

“Yeah, but something heavy happened.” Chris folds her dress, puts in the bag, and slides beside me on the bench.

I tell them about the Gatas and have to explain to Chris what gata and chola mean.

Chris stands and scans the quad. “Point one out to me. I want to see what a chowl-ah looks like.”

“Stop. They might see you.” I grab her hand and pull her back down.

“The president’s boyfriend probably took them off campus for lunch,” Minerva says.

“How do you know?” I ask.

“They went to my junior high.”

“Are they your friends?” I hope she doesn’t tell them what I said.

“No way. I don’t have time for that bull, man. I went to school with them since Kindergarten.”

“Why do they call themselves cats?” Chris asks. “Mus-cat. Get it?” Minerva says.

“That didn’t dawn on me,” I laugh, relieved Minerva isn’t their friend. “How does the president know who I am?”

“She was watching you from where you couldn’t see her. That’s what she does with girls like you,” Minerva says.

“What do you mean, girls like me?”

“She’s jealous of pretty girls who dress up like you did yesterday, man.”

“Jealous? Of me?”

Chris and Minerva nod at me.

Nobody noticed me at my junior high. But I dressed like Sharon. We looked like we were headed for a convent in our black shift dresses or white blouses and black slacks. We kept our hair pulled back in a braid and never wore make-up. Sharon said we shouldn’t bring attention to ourselves. Like a pendeja, I did most everything she said. Maybe she did know better than me. I dress up for school one time and the Gatas are after me. Today I wore Levis and tennis shoes. I’m hotter than yesterday, but I can run in these clothes if I have to.

“Is she big with muscles?” Chris asks.

“She’s tall, big-boned, and strong.” Minerva gets serious and looks me in the eye. “Her name is Angelica, but she’s no angel. Last year she yanked a handful of hair from a girl’s scalp. You should take a different way home.”

“I’m afraid for you,” Chris wraps her arm around me. “Tell the principal. He’ll take care of them.”

“They’ll jump me for sure if I tell.”

“You’re right,” Minerva says. “It’s better to figure out a way for you to get home without them finding you. They’ll forget about you after a couple of weeks.” Minerva’s holds her sandwich in her right hand. She hasn’t eaten it since I told them about the Gatas. Chris never opened her lunch bag. I like having friends who care about me. Sharon would have blamed me for wearing the red dress.

We come up with a few ideas, but none of them will work.

“I got it.” Minerva smiles. “Angelica’s boyfriend gives the Gatas a ride home. He works after school, so he doesn’t have much time to hang around while they harass you. You could wait inside the administration building and watch for his car to pass by, a midnight blue Riviera.”

Sure enough, twenty minutes after school lets out, the Riviera, packed with girls in front and back, roars past the administration building. I walk home without any problems.

***

I kept having nightmares about the Gatas jumping me and woke up late this morning. Rushing to school, I turn the corner onto Lilac and spot the Gatas across the street, standing in front of the field. I never counted on them coming after me in the morning. This time, Angelica and two other Gatas are with them. I know it’s Angelica because she towers over the others. I take her in, this mysterious enemy. Minerva’s wrong. Angelica isn’t big boned; she’s curvy like Sophia Loren and Raquel Welch and as pretty as them. Her skin-hugging navy blue t-shirt and Levis show off her body. Her shiny caramel-brown hair is twisted into a bun at the back of her neck. Maybe this is her fighting outfit: nothing to pull.

“Good morning, coconut-bitch,” Fat Cheeks’ squeaks.

All the Gatas laugh the same mean crow laugh.

Nobody’s driving on the street. No kids are walking or riding bikes. I head toward school, the only place where I can be safe. For one block, the Gatas walk parallel to me on the other side of the street, keeping my pace.

“Why aren’t you dressed like you’re going to a quinceñera today?” Goldfish Eyes calls to me, and they laugh.

“She’s trying to look like a white girl,” Fat Face says. “I guess we have to teach her how to dress.” They howl at that one.

I think about how I can get away from them and at the same time imagine all the horrible things they might do, things I’ve seen in gangster movies. They might drag me to the field and push me face down into the ground, the thorny weeds scratching my face, and kick me in my sides. I could head home, try to outrun them, but they might tackle me, take my keys, pull me into the house, and beat me up. I decide to keep walking.

They cross the street and step behind me.

This is it, I tell myself. My stomach muscles tighten.

“Get out of my way!” Angelica rams me in my back. My books fly out of my arms and land on the sidewalk with a loud smack. I pick them up fast and hug them like a life preserver. Each step I take feels like I’m learning to walk.

Angelica runs in front of me, turns, the soles of her tennis shoes scraping the sidewalk, and faces me. The other girls circle us. I have no choice but to stop. My insides tremble. I hold myself as still as I can and look her in her eye.

Her long, thick eyelashes and black eyeliner make her hazel eyes stand out. How can someone so beautiful be so angry?

The other girls chant, “Coconut-slut. Coconut-slut.”

“Bitch!” Angelica spits the word, spraying my cheeks and eyes.

Not taking my eyes off of hers, I wipe my face with my forearm. A switch goes off inside me. “Go ahead and kick my ass!”

The girls stop talking.

“Why do you think we want to kick your ass?” Angelica asks.

“That’s what I want to know. Why do you want to kick my ass?”

Angelica stays quiet. The girls stare at her, waiting for her to speak.

“Because you’re trying to take away our boyfriends.”

It takes a moment for what she said to sink in. “Your boyfriends? I haven’t talked to one boy at school.”

“We don’t like the way our boyfriends look at you.”

“Yeah!” The girls close in on us.

Angelica grabs my right upper arm and squeezes it tight, digging her long nails in deep. I yelp and yank my arm back. Words pour out of my mouth before I know what I’m saying:

“If your boyfriends are checking out other girls,” I look each girl in the eye, “they’re not worth your time.” I wouldn’t be interested in a lowlife cholo anyway, but I hold that one back.

“Believe me, I know. My father got the secretary where he worked pregnant, and they disappeared last May. My whole life turned upside down.”

“Yeah?” Angelica’s voice and face soften.

“Yeah,” I say, bracing my body for a punch.

Angelica holds eye contact with me for what seems like ten minutes but must be seconds.

“Let’s go,” she tells the girls. Except Angelica, all the Gatas rush past me on both sides, bumping my arms so I bounce back and forth like a pinball.

“Today’s your lucky day.” Angelica takes off toward the Gatas.

Unable to move, I watch them until they reach the school parking lot. The sob growing inside my chest bursts out of me. I get my legs to move and run home, crying loud the whole way.

Out of breath, I lock all the locks on the front door and run to the phone on the back wall in the kitchenette, ramming my right knee hard on the corner of the coffee table. “Fuck,” I yell. I limp to the phone and call Mama at work. As the phone rings, I wipe my face with a napkin and calm my breath.

“Good morning, Furniture Department. Judy speaking,” Mama says in the cheery voice she never uses at home.

“Mama.” My voice cracks. I want her to hug me with her voice, to tell me she’ll hurry home to me.

“You know I’m not supposed to have personal calls,” she scolds me in a whisper.

I wish I never called her and say the first excuse I can think of. “My period started. I had to come home and change and missed my first class. Will you call the school?”

“Okay. Hurry back to school and don’t call here again.”

“I hate Muscat! I my old life back!” I slam the phone in its cradle and stare at it, hoping she’ll call back to find out what’s wrong. The phone doesn’t ring.

 

liz gonzález’s poetry, fiction, and memoirs have been published widely. Recent publications include fiction in Inlandia: A Literary Journey and poetry in the anthologies The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles, Wide Awake: The Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond.

She lives in North Long Beach, California, with her Jack Chi pal Chacho and sound artist Jorge Martin. She directs Uptown Word & Arts, promoting literacy and the arts in North Long Beach. lizgonzalez.com

 

 

 

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