A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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You are 14 years and 330 days old. Your quince is fast approaching. You apply a near-professional indifference to most things, but you care deeply about the dress you will wear to the party. A floor-length A-line in a light peach color with silk flowers set along the edges of an open back. The idea for the dress was yours: you made a rough sketch of it in your Lisa Frank notebook, fancying yourself a real designer. You and your mom spent an entire Saturday morning at the craft store deciding on the material and the flowers. You don’t remember how much everything cost, but your mom’s face looked pained when she handed over her credit card.
The silk is thick, soft as a pillow. When you got home, your mom laid the material across the dining-room table no one ever uses, so that it wouldn’t get wrinkled. You run your hands along the silk every time you walk past it, as if it’s a pet that could purr back in response. The flowers, too, are something to admire: big beige roses in full bloom that look real from a distance. You and your mom agree that the roses and the open back are what make the dress, which is otherwise plain, classic. This is the look you’re going for. The extra roses will be woven into your updo and held in place with hairspray and dozens of bobby pins.
These are the things that excite you now: flowers, silk. You are less excited about the party. This is a secret you keep entirely to yourself. Your divorced parents have taken great pains (this is your mom talking) to rent a beautiful hall, book a photographer, and splurge on a three-tiered cake. They have invited all the people you know and some you don’t. Your mom is determined to make this a classy event — it will not be like other girls’ quinces, at some run-down banquet hall in a shopping plaza. Your mom’s own dress is on layaway at Marshalls: a long silk slip the color of an antique mahogany dresser, equal parts sexy and sophisticated.
You have come a long way. It was only ten years ago, maybe nine, that you were refusing the dresses and shiny Mary Janes your mom picked out for you, backing into a corner when she came at you with them. You can hardly remember now how you would pull out the ribbons she weaved through your hair, launching them into the wind as you pedaled faster on your bike. You have left that girl behind. You believe in the power of ribbons and roses now. You are a woman.
The dress is being made specifically for you, according to your design, by a lady who is a friend of someone your mom knows. You go to the lady’s house to be fitted for the dress, to approve of its progress and make a cash payment toward the total cost. The lady is older than your mom. Everything about her is beige: her smooth skin; the coarse hair she wears pulled back at the nape of her neck; the fuzzy cardigan where she keeps extra pins along one sleeve like a bionic arm. Her place smells of freezer-burned meat. The living room is crowded with sewing supplies and other Dominican ladies of similar ages leaning on her leather couches, speaking excitedly all at once. Your mom chats with them like they are her friends, though you’re sure she’s never met any of them before.
One of the ladies, back from visiting her cousin in the Bronx, brings knockoff designer purses and scarves. She lays them all out on the coffee table for the women to paw at, challenging them to find evidence they are counterfeit. The women prance around the room, the bags dangling from their forearms, fancying themselves Fifth Avenue ladies. Can’t talk now. I’m late for lunch with J.Lo. Your mom never touches the bags. She doesn’t believe in wasting money on fake purses.
But you, you want all the fakes. The Guccis with the inverted-G logo. The parachute pants from the $1.99 bin at Rave that from a distance look just like the pair Aaliyah wears in the “One in a Million” video. The brown dollar-store lipstick that’s an imitation of the Mary Kay lipstick your friend’s mom uses, itself an imitation of the Chanel version. The boy with cratered skin and green eyes who looks almost like the boy you actually like, a senior who couldn’t even pick you out of a lineup of freshman girls. You are young, yes, but you have lived long enough to understand that the fake is as close as your world comes to the real.
You live with your mom and your sister in Florida, where every season is another version of summer, in a housing development of identical townhomes, all of them occupied by single working moms and their kids. White moms, brown moms, Black moms, Latina moms. Young moms, like yours. Moms who whistle from two hundred yards away when they want their kids to come home, the same way their moms used to back in Puerto Rico or Colombia or Cuba. Moms who date men who pound on them with their fists until your own mom calls the cops, even though she says it’s useless and things never change. Moms who smoke and drive stick-shift cars they can’t afford the repairs on. Moms who go to church every Sunday. Moms who work so many hours they’re mistaken for cleaning women in their own neighborhood. Moms with autistic sons who wet the bed. Moms with teenage daughters who come home with hickeys. Moms who drink wine alone on their stoops once their children are finally asleep. Moms who never acknowledge each other beyond a nod or a wave.
Your mom is different only in that she refuses to accept her reality, this place. Give her a situation, any situation, and she will find its flaws. She will strive to make it better.
When your parents first divorced last year, you and your mom were best friends. The two of you did everything together. She let you hang out with her and her girlfriends like you were one of them. To the beach in your bikinis all day, then home to change before going back to the beach at night to dance at the open-air bars along the boardwalk. Your sister was never invited; your brother was never interested. You shed your siblings like a second skin, reveling in your new freedom.
At the bars your mom danced in her jeans and her favorite black bodysuit. Men looked at her like she was the last rotisserie chicken in the deli. She always played it cool, maybe because you were there. This is your daughter? You look like sisters! You never danced with her; you were too shy. You didn’t want people looking at you, with your flat feet and jiggling thighs. You watched the guys watch your mom while she rubbed her body against her friend’s, a woman with a seal-bark laugh and black hair like a cloud of smoke. This friend was always at your house. She’d have your mom straighten her hair with a real iron before they went out. The friend would lie on the floor while your mom spread her curls across the carpet, then flattened them with back-and-forth strokes. It’s the only time you’d ever seen your mom iron anything.
You weren’t with them the night they met your mom’s boyfriend, but you were the first of the kids to meet him. A Sunday grocery-store run, just you and your mom. You were in the produce section when she brought him over. You were cold in your shorts and T-shirt; the hair on your arms went up like antennae. He had the broadest shoulders of any man you’d ever met. He was young — ten years younger than your mom, ten years older than you. If life was a timeline with you at the beginning and your mom at the end, the boyfriend was the exact middle point between you. An ex-college quarterback with all-American good looks who’d had the misfortune of breaking his knee just weeks before the draft. Apropos of nothing, he offered you his best Ace Ventura impression. You laughed a little too hard, your eyelashes batting up at him.
You hadn’t just run into him at the store. He and your mom had planned it. That much was clear by the way she dug her hands deep into her pockets, like she was willing to stand there all day. You weren’t allowed to tell your brother and sister, but you wouldn’t have told them anyway. Your mom had a secret, and she’d given it to you. You felt honored to be trusted with it. You were so grown-up, even then. Especially then.
The boyfriend moved in. He and your brother circled each other like two cowboys in an old western — There’s only room for one of us in this town — until your brother went to live with your dad. The boyfriend was jobless. He spent most afternoons teaching you and your sister how to play spades, which he said was the one thing he’d learned from his time in the Navy. While making dinner he snapped dry spaghetti in half and let the pieces dangle from the sides of his mouth like walrus tusks. He’d hold his hands up and pretend to be a monster, chasing your sister around the house until she hid her giggling face behind your back. Base! Safe!
Your mom didn’t seem to mind that he stayed home while she worked. Every other weekend, while you and your sister were trapped at your dad’s, they traveled to nearby beach towns, partying with other ex-Navy guys and their girlfriends. You’d come home to find your mom’s skin a shade darker in her sundresses, her wet curls pulled back into a single red braid. She looked ten years younger. Looked free, relaxed. You found it jarring. Hadn’t she been happy before?
The boyfriend got a job working nights as a guard at a nearby correctional facility. He’d come home exhausted, smelling of sweat and shoe polish. He developed a new stiffness to his walk, as if someone was pushing him forward with a firm hand on his back. He called the men he dealt with at night animals. Monkeys, he said, in cages. He barked orders at you the same way you imagine he did with the inmates. Once, you dared to bark back. He pushed you and your sister outside and locked the front door, leaving you in the heat for hours. You want freedom? There you go.
The boyfriend’s mother moved into your brother’s empty room. She was an obese woman who spent her days watching soap operas and chain-smoking Marlboro reds on the couch. Her voice sounded like boots on gravel. She reminded you of Ursula from The Little Mermaid. Her name rhymed with her son’s. Together they listened to country music, crooning into their mugs of whiskey. When your mom started listening to country, too, you took it as a betrayal. These people were rednecks with Confederate flags. They did not belong in your house, with its Dios bendiga esta casa sign hanging above the front door. When they finally left — first the mother, then the boyfriend — your mom looked like she’d had the wind knocked out of her. Like they’d taken all her air with them.
Most nights your mom is working her second job, sorting medical records at a hospital, leaving you in charge of dinner for yourself and your sister. Every time, you prepare the same meal from a frozen kit that requires no thawing or chopping: white rice with chicken and Asian vegetables. You have made this meal at least fifty times. You could cut open the packages of sauce in your sleep. Your sister begs, Please, no more stir-fry! You ignore her. It’s all you know how to make. You don’t eat it anyway.
Some days you eat; some days you don’t. You eat when your mom or dad is watching. When they’re not, you play a game with yourself to see how many meals you can miss in a row before you start seeing spots.
The kids in your housing development run from home to home, playing each other’s video games and eating through the snacks the single moms buy in bulk, thinking this an adequate substitute for supervision. They are too busy to confer with one another about whose kids are eating what. Once, someone’s boyfriend swallowed your pet goldfish whole on a dare. It was weeks before your mom noticed the murky water in the fishbowl was empty.
You wake up early most mornings and slide your feet into the space between your dresser and the floor, so you can fold your body into sit-up after sit-up. You never stop until you reach a hundred. Most mornings you tack on fifty more for good measure. You enjoy your new lightness. The two faint lines demarcating your abs. The way the excess denim on your jeans sags when you walk. At a party over the summer, you shook your new light ass and raised your arms to reveal your flat stomach. You danced until your thighs burned, until a lineman from the football team swooped you up and threw you into the air. You squealed and laughed.
Two weeks after the first fitting, you go back for the final one. Your mom is weary and short-tempered, which only makes you more talkative. The whole ride there, you fire questions at her. Will the dress be ready? (You want to take it home today, put it on and walk laps around the living room.) Will the woman have finished the roses along the back? Will she have to redo the hem now that you’ve found heels? In your lap are the shoes you will wear: peach-silk perfection you trust will not hurt your feet because they are made by an Italian designer whose name you can’t pronounce, and even on clearance they are more expensive than anything you’ve ever bought. Your mom doesn’t answer your questions; her mind is elsewhere.
You stand straight as a stick while the seamstress measures you. You watch her wrists flick below you. They are small like a child’s, thinner, even, than yours. You are so focused on her hands you hardly notice the beige lines of frustration around her mouth as she fastens you in. The zipper goes up too easily along your ribs. There are pockets of air between the fabric and your body, where your flesh should be. You had already planned to fill the gaps near your chest with the jellylike inserts your best friend called chicken cutlets when you bought them at the mall. But the gaps around your waist and ribs are new. You’ve lost weight, the seamstress says, accusatorially. You feel a proud smile coming on, then quickly tuck it away.
Yes, you’ve lost weight. You weigh less than a hundred pounds with your platform sandals on. This is what you’ve worked so hard for. You wanted the baby fat gone. You are a woman.
The seamstress calls your mom over and holds the fabric out with two fingers on either side of your waist. She pulls tight, to illustrate her exasperation. I’ll have to take it in, she says, sticking you with pins from her bionic-arm sleeve. I don’t know when I’ll have time to finish it now. There’s less than three weeks until the party.
Your mom’s lips disappear into a thin line. It’s the same embarrassed look that took over her face when you used to get lost in department stores as a kid. You would anticipate the look the minute you heard your name called over the loudspeaker. You would find her at the register with her purchases, your brother and sister having somehow already found their way back to her. She would grab your hand and yank it without a word, waiting to unleash her fury until you were in the car, a safe distance from the cashiers’ judgmental stares.
This is what she does now. You know it will be bad because it is preceded by a thick silence. In the car she pushes in the cigarette lighter. A minute later it thunks its way out. You reach for it. You want to be helpful, to showcase your good intentions, but your mom swats your hand. You watch as she touches the lighter’s angry red target to her cigarette and releases a skinny trail of smoke from her mouth.
I will put you in a home, she says.
A home for girls that don’t eat, she says. Don’t think I won’t.
You are 95 percent certain such homes don’t exist, but this does not stop you from picturing it anyway: the sad, institutional lighting casting its green pallor on your skin; your feet in thick blue socks like the ones your abuelo wore in the hospital; you and all the other girls shuffling aimlessly around a giant common room, like wisps of hair. For some reason, the home you imagine requires every girl to push a walker in front of her, as if to demonstrate her fragility.
And there will be no quince, your mom says. It’s not too late to cancel this party.
This makes you swallow hard. While you only half believe the threat, you realize there is no way your father won’t hear about this. Your father, who already watches you and your preteen sister like you are specimens in a lab. You can’t even take out the garbage — a suspicious activity to volunteer for, you admit — without being followed outside. He has 100 percent custody of you 50 percent of the time, and he has no idea what to do with you. In the mornings at his apartment, he brushes your sister’s big hair into a ponytail so tight her eyebrows pull back in surprise. Then he turns to you, brush in hand, as if he could still tame your hair-sprayed strands.
Your brother is given free rein. He drives a red Honda Prelude with subwoofers that make your ass vibrate. There are condoms tucked into the visors, a black book of rap CDs placed carefully in the center console, like a Bible. He charges you gas money to drive you to your best friend’s house a few blocks away. He is a man.
At school you and your brother sit on the same bench together outside the cafeteria. Your mom lets you pack your own lunches, which means you bring hardly anything. Your brother eats the lunches your dad packs with odd precision: exactly twenty Goldfish crackers in a ziplock, two Oreos in another, a ham-and-cheese sandwich cut precisely down the middle. You eat in the shared silence of siblings. Afterward you hug and go your separate ways. You do this every day without planning or comment. Because you don’t arrive at school or leave together, and because you don’t share a face (his is your mother’s; yours is your father’s), the other freshmen assume you’re boyfriend and girlfriend. You don’t correct them. You enjoy sharing this secret with your brother. You share so little else these days. You like the sideways smirk he gives you when you tell him about the rumors. These idiots have no idea.
After the failed dress fitting, you are forced to bring home evidence of your consumed lunches — empty zip-lock bags or wrappers from the McDonald’s hamburgers you allegedly eat. You do not point out to your mom that you could have easily thrown away the food and kept the wrappers. She assumes, nearly correctly, that your embarrassment at having to save what other teenagers can be trusted to throw away will be its own type of awakening. Your mom, who is never very far from the newest fad diet, who packs the freezer with Lean Cuisines and magic cookies she gets in the mail and eats six times a day in lieu of actual meals. Who pounds her stomach at night when it growls, telling it, That’s enough out of you.
Your dad doesn’t talk to you about the weight you’ve lost or how you managed to lose it under his close surveillance. The only difference is now he makes your sister go to the bathroom with you after meals. I’m not bulimic, you say with an eye roll. And yet you begin to eat again because he’s watching and, well, you want to wear that dress.
One Saturday when your dad comes to pick you up, you hook fake piercings into your and your sister’s belly buttons. He’s driving fast down a two-lane road when you lift your shirt to show him. His head swivels from the rearview mirror to your navel, then to your sister’s. He slows down and slams his hand against the steering wheel. This is your mother’s fault! he says. You and your sister exchange a look: What the . . . ? Then you laugh and laugh.
You go back to the seamstress’s house for a final-final fitting. You are 14 years and 360 days old. You weigh the same amount you did the last time you were here. The dress opens like a bell around your high-heeled feet. The zipper goes up easily, but it closes near your skin now. It feels wrong. You are no longer used to things fitting right. You shrug your shoulders against the sleeves, frowning. This is not what you had envisioned. You can’t remember anymore if it’s the same design you sketched. The woman says the dress fits perfectly now. You can’t gain or lose even an ounce. She takes your hand and walks you to the three-way mirror in the living room.
The other women crowd around the mirror, smiling. They shake their heads and murmur, Mirála. Que bella. You feel sheepish. They savor your youth like it’s a delicacy. You can’t look at your reflection. Instead you find your mom’s face among them. She is off to the side, one arm crossed over her chest, the other up near her mouth, which you know means she wishes she had a cigarette. The phone rings; the seamstress runs over to pick it up while the other women gossip about who could be calling. They grow louder until she yells for them to quiet down. ¡Por dios! You keep looking at your mom. You can’t see if she’s smiling, but her eyes are shiny. You wish she would move her hand down from her mouth. You want to know what she’s thinking. Is she happy? She begins to walk over to you. Don’t move. Stand there, waiting. Wait for her to tell you the dress is everything you wanted.