Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Excerpt From "Enfermos: A Novel"

I fumble with my keys, looking behind me in terror. I’ve practiced this terrified look in the bathroom mirror many times. C’mon, c’mon, I whisper. The jingling of my keys will give me away if I don’t get this door…OPEN! I’ve used the wrong key, and the lock refuses to turn. I can feel Pop, the creepy guy from next door, peeping through the door at me. “You okay?” he says through the door. This heightens my anxiety. I have to get out of the stairwell. Pop may be one of the bad guys. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken those caramels from him last week?

This is Day 3 of practicing my serial-killer-victim, mad-dash-to-the-door. The keys are new. Yesterday, I banged on the door screaming, “Let me in, let me in,” but Nana didn’t appreciate it. “Niña,” she yelled. “¿Estas loca?” She had sweat dripping from her brow from the heat of the stove, and a crazed look in her eye. She hadn’t had time to put on her shades. Her brown eye glared at me in frustration. The green, bruised one was confused.

“Sorry, I was just playing,” I mumbled to myself.

“Play-ing?” she asked in her broken English, mocking me. “This no funny! Entra, ya, before they call police!” she whispered while pointing to Pop’s door.

So today I choose the classic horror movie key fumble. I thought for sure no one would hear, but I forgot about our nosy neighbors; they hear and see everything we do.

I finally get the door open, slam it behind me and lock it. I brace myself against the door taking quick victory breaths. Made it! “¡Niña, por Dios! ¡No estrayes la puerta! ¿Que te pasa?” She’s getting fed up with my entrances Tonight she will tell my mother. I feel it.

I walk down the hallway toward her, head down, whispering, “Nothing’s wrong with me. I’m just acting.” She puts her hand up to stop me.

“Oye, Yadira ees esleeping here, okay? So callate la boca.”

“What’s she doing here?” On a Thursday? Didn’t she go to school today?

“Esta enferma.”

I nod at my grandmother and tip-toe into the den. Yadira is laying on the full-sized bed, the one that used to be Elenita’s, the one that used to be in Nana’s bedroom before the bunkbeds took its place. She is on her stomach, her face buried in the pillow. Her orange-red hair is spread out across her back, just reaching her naked upper thigh.

Yadira is wearing Elenita’s “Ice Cream is Brain Food” night shirt. I recognize the lavender trim on the cap sleeves. This is going to be a problem later, for sure. If I know my cousin, she’s gonna catch a fit that Nana allowed Yadira to wear her clothes.

I follow Nana into the kitchen, putting my book bag on the little brown school-chair that is also Elenita’s. It occurs to me, suddenly, that nothing here is mine. "What’s wrong with her?” I whisper to my grandmother as she stirs the beans with one hand, and adds flour-coated eggplant slices to a pan of hot oil with the other.

“No te preocupes. Go do you homework,” she instructs.

This smells of a scandal. Whenever I “shouldn’t worry myself” over something, it means the grown-ups will discuss it later. I hear Nana curse under her breath in Spanish, something about ginger.

“Agarra aqui,” she says, calling me back and handing me the spatula. I despised fried eggplant, and now she wanted me to help her cook it? Nana wipes her brow on her housecoat, the white one with the blue flowers and the missing buttons. A few stray salt-n-pepper strands of her soft hair remain pasted to her forehead. “I go to the store” she declares, and leaves me in the kitchen.

“Going,” I call after her. “I’m going to the store.” She sucks her teeth, walking through the long hallway towards her bedroom to get dressed and go.

When she is gone, I transfer the eggplant to a plate covered with layers of paper towels and turn off the flame. The rice, beans and London Broil smell done, and I turn them off, too. Quietly, I inch over to the entryway of the den. Yadira is now lying on her side. Sections of redness have fallen over the side of the bed. I notice that she’s blinking, staring at the white molded ceiling of Nana and Papi’s third floor walk-up. Even her eyelashes are orange, seeming almost like they are not there. She is covered in red freckles all over her pink skin.

Yadira is curvy, with large breasts for her age. The first of us girl cousins to grow up. She is fifteen now, but had been this voluptuous for three years. Voluptuous. I learned that word last week. I liked the way it rolled off my tongue. I long to personify the definition. Personify was yesterday’s word. Elenita and I are still in training bras.

“Are you awake?” I ask her quietly. Wherever Nana is, her senses are telling her that I have awakened her patient.

“Yeah.” I walk over to the bed and sit next to her hair, gently running my hand over it. It feels rough, like straw.

“What’s the matter with you?”

“You’re too young to know,” Yadira doesn’t look at me. She stays fixed on the moldings. A tiny roach crawls up the wall next to the bed and we both follow it on its path up to the ceiling with our eyes. “Goddam this fucking house and the fucking roaches!” she complains. She covers her face with a pillow and sobs.

“Don’t cry, Nana will make you feel better. I think she went to get ginger for your tea.” It was her cure-all: ginger tea with orange peels.

“What the fuck do you know?” Yadira stops crying and grabs my arm. “You’re just a stupid kid with no problems!” She lets go of me and I yank at her hair.

“Well then fuck you, too” I yell. That is going to cost me three Hail Mary’s tomorrow. “And I’m not stupid, you are.”

“That’s right, you’re the smartest thing alive, no? You want to know what’s wrong, smarty pants? I just got kicked out of my house.”

“Why? What happened?” My anger for her leaves. What would cause Tia Frida to throw her only daughter out of the house?

“Because Sammy got me pregnant, and I got an abortion. There. Now you know everything.” She throws her face back into the pillow. “Now go get your brainiac dictionary and look it up. You know you want to.”

There is a thick pause between us. Instantly, I no longer crave her curves. I suddenly want nothing to do with breasts and hips and vaginas with pubic hair. I want voluptuous out of my memory bank. “I don’t have to, I know what it means.” I stare at my hands. Planned Parenthood ladies had already visited my fourth grade class to talk about our changing bodies and the consequences of those changes. The nuns added their own piece on treating our bodies as temples for Jesus. “You know you can go to hell for that, right?”

“Fuck you and your fucking priests! You think I believe in that shit?”

“It’s not shit!” Damn! Three more Hail Mary’s! I am letting her get me in trouble. Where is Nana already?

I turn away from Yadira towards the hallway to the living room. I don’t have to take this.

“Wait. I’m sorry Muñequita.” She looks up at me with puffy red eyes that almost match her hair. “Please sit with me till Nana gets back?” I sit at the edge of the bed and stares out the window at the head of the bed, while Yadira returns to her moldings. “I know I’m going to hell. You think I don’t know? I been going to hell. This abortion ain’t gonna make no bigger difference.” We sit in silence some more, neither one looking at the other, until she decides to change the subject and lighten the mood. “How’s the acting going? Elenita told me you got in trouble for dirtying your uniform?”

“Yeah. I’m practicing being chased by a killer. Day before last my throat was cut on the steps before I could even reach the door to bang on it. I had to crawl the rest of the way, gurgling for help.” She laughs at my recounting of Day 1 with this new study. “I managed to tap weakly on the bottom of the door, and then Nana opens it and says '¡Ay Dios Mio!' I do my best impression of my grandmother, throwing my hands up in the air, sending Yadira into full-on laughter. "'You’re getting all dirty!'" I use my best Nana-English, and Yadira is in hysterics. “Then she made me wash my uniform in the bathroom sink, by hand: jumper, knee socks, vest and shirt- the whole thing! Nana doesn’t understand modern cinema.”

“She understands, but you know that your mother would have beat your ass if your uniform had come home dirty on a Tuesday.” Yadira pauses to wipe tears of laughter from her eyes and stares at the ceiling again. “Nana understands a lot.”

“Yeah, I guess. She never told on me.” I look back out the window. For a second I think I see a shadow pass by the window across the alley from us, the window of the third floor of the abandoned building. I hate that window. “What does it feel like?”

“Sex? Or the abortion?”

“Both, I guess.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’re too smart to end up like me. You’ll probably marry some great Catholic guy and it will be painless and perfect.”

“It hurts?”

“When you’re a girl, everything hurts.”

“Oh,” I said. I peek up at the moldings for a minute. I try to find what Yadira is looking for, help her out in the spirit of Jesus. Save her soul. Then I hear Nana’s heavy footsteps on the stairs, her key in the lock, her breathing in the doorway. I lean over the side of the bed and say “hey” to her as she shuffles towards the den. Her scowl sends me upright.

“You in trouble?”

“Yep. I better go do my homework.” I get up, grab my book bag from the chair in the kitchen and begin walking towards the living room, again. I keep my head down to avoid Nana’s glare.

“Muñequa,” Yadira calls after me as I pass the bathroom. “What’s your word today?”


“Jesus Christ! What the hell does that mean?”

I walk back towards the den. “It’s an adjective. It means ‘being present everywhere at once’. Like God, you know, omnipresent.”

“You’re nuts! When are you ever going to use that word?”

I sit at the edge of the bed again, thinking. “I don’t know.”

Yadira laughs her hearty laugh that draws me into her. “Go do your homework.”

*smooches...offering you another taste of my genius*
this is actually a rare glimpse of the first few pages of my novel-in-progress; hope you like!

Creative Commons License
Enfermos by Raquel I. Penzo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.