Heather Michelle Marsh
Every Girl's Dream. . . or NightmareType your paragraph here.
Two months earlier . . .
“Oh, Papi, this is ridiculous! Why do I even have to waltz? No one waltzes anymore.”
A wide grin peeked from under the wiry ends of my father’s long black mustache as he laughed. “La quinceañera must waltz. It is only one dance, Angelia,” he implored in his careful, slow, and accented English, pronouncing my name with the American “g” as I preferred.
I flopped onto the soft, worn cushions of the sofa in our tiny living room. Reluctant, difficult, and bratty were all good words to describe my attitude toward the traditional fifteenth birthday ceremony my Mexican papi had decided we needed to celebrate. “I don’t even want a quinceañera,” I whined. “If we have to do this, can’t I just teach you a dance I already know?” I brightened at the thought. “How about the cha-cha?”
My older brother, watching us from his perch on the counter between the living room and kitchen, snorted. “Yeah, right, that club stuff you kids dance to is not the real cha-cha.”
“Stop acting like you and Tristina don’t dance to it, too. Besides, what do you know?”
“More than you.” At the ripe old age of twenty-two, Apolinar thought he knew everything. He snapped the end off a dark red licorice stick.
“Are those my Twizzlers?”
“Didn’t see your name on them.”
I sprang from my seat and lunged for the bag in his hand. “You’re gonna see my name on your—”
“Ay yi, enough!” Papi shouted. “We are hosting a quinceañera tomorrow and my children will be civilized if it kills us all. Now, both of you, right here.” He pointed to the cleared center of the cramped room.
I yanked my bag of Twizzlers from Apolinar’s grasp, but Papi snatched them out of mine with the same deft motion that lifted the one remaining piece of stolen candy from Apolinar’s fingers. “Would you two prefer to waste your time with treats you have not earned or to make your father happy with a perfect waltz?”
On paper, it may seem like Papi’s words gave us a choice, but Polo and I both knew better. Some days I regretted teaching Papi the subtleties of English that allowed him to be almost as much of a smart-aleck as I was.
Malevolent sparks darted between us as we moved, but Polo and I followed Papi’s direction and held arms in the frame for the dance that our father had been drilling into us for weeks. As he counted out the beat, Papi’s feet moved instinctively, modeling the moves he wanted us to make. “One, two, three. One, two three.”
An eternity or two later, he declared it a passable waltz. “You take a break,” he said as he returned my candy, “but you be ready for your last rehearsal with the whole group first thing in the morning.”
I groaned as I imagined the reception hall at the church filled with fourteen couples focused a lot more on flirting than getting the steps right. I was not the flirtatious, boy-crazy type and my best friend Rosa and I spent a lot of our leisure time making fun of girls who were, including the ones in my court. They—and everything else—had been picked by Papi. He gave up on asking me to help plan this fiasco when I suggested we have my quinceañera at Chuck E. Cheese and that Polo could be the rat.
I’m certain that my inability to take boys seriously stems from having Polo as a brother. I once caught him flexing in front of the mirror and kissing his biceps. I was able to control my laughter as I watched him secretly from the doorway until he put on a wannabe sexy Antonio Banderas accent and said, “Check out those guns, baby.” He tried to slam the door in my face when I couldn’t control the giggles anymore, but I was lying on the floor in front of it laughing so hard that he couldn’t without rolling me out of the way first. Whenever I see a boy puff up with that macho swagger they all get when they’re trying to impress a girl, that image of Polo pops into my head, and the encounter usually ends pretty quickly when I start laughing uncontrollably at their efforts. I’ll probably be alone forever, but I don’t really care.
Pulling a Twizzler from the bag, I stretched out across the ragged, flowered upholstery of our yard sale sofa. We could have a whole houseful of new furniture for what Papi was spending on this stupid party. I didn’t understand because he hardly ever spent a penny without making a list of the pros and the cons, the needs and the wants. But Papi was Papi, so there was no figuring it out.
Tomorrow loomed over me like the blade on the pendulum in Edgar Alan Poe’s pit. All I could do was watch it sink ever closer as it ticked the seconds away and hope it would be quick and painless when it finally arrived. I’d already put this off for a year, convincing Papi that Americans waited until sixteen to celebrate the big birthday and passage into womanhood and all that nonsense. Armed with pages of internet searches printed from the computer at school, the testimony of my fewgabacha friends, and the help of the grove-owner’s wife, I’d convinced Papi to wait. But he still wanted to call it my quinceañera, so we were celebrating just four days before I turned sixteen with Papi’s rationalization that we were still celebratingquinces—fifteen years. Crazy Papi was always trying to find some way to strike a balance between the America he wanted me to embrace and the Mexico he could never let go.
“Tell me again why I have to do this,” I whined, popping the end of my Twizzler into my mouth.
Papi sighed and I groaned softly to myself as a serious and thoughtful look crept into his eye. Crap. I thought maybe I should switch to taffy for my sugar fix so my teeth would be stuck together and I couldn’t open my mouth to say stupid things. I recalled a vocabulary sentence I’d written once: “My loquacious father feels an incessant need to expound upon every minute detail when he pontificates.” My teacher had drawn a little smiley face and jotted “LOL” next to it, apparently having no idea how painfully true it was. My idle comment had opened a floodgate which I had no hope of closing now.
He gently pushed my legs to the back of the cushions so he could sit beside them on the sofa. “Your Mami never had a quinceañera, mi’ja. All of the families in Pazhuela were simply too poor. If they had a celebration for a girl at fifteen, it was an effort to find her a husband so there would be one less mouth to feed in the house, one more son-in-law to help in the field. This fiesta is a sign of success. When I take the pictures and the videos to Mami, maybe she will finally see this was the right choice. Maybe she will come to America with me and bring your brothers.” My younger brothers were ten, six, four, and two—apparently conceived on every visit Papi had made to Mexico since we’d moved. He didn’t think it was funny when I suggested that he just take her a Mickey Mouse t-shirt and a bag of Florida oranges as a souvenir instead.
“She hates America, Papi. She’ll never come.” I hated to hear the hope in his voice, imagining the hurt that would linger in his smile and his eyes for a month after he returned without her.
“She doesn’t hate America, mi’ja. She fears it; sometimes fear and hate sound the same.” Papi folded his hands in front of me, almost begging. “Being laquinceañera is an honor, Angel. I wish you would feel more joy for this. It is every girl’s dream, yes? To be the princess for a day?”
“Not this girl’s dream, Papi. You know I hate to be the center of attention, especially for this. If it’s grades or soccer or volleyball, at least that’s something I achieved. Growing up is just biology and nature.” I hadn’t done anything to make myself “become a woman”, not even eating my veggies. I hate veggies.
Papi smiled at me as though I had told him that I knew the moon was made of cheese. “Growing up is much more than nature if you become an adult and not just a big child.”
My brother excused himself then, probably to avoid being targeted in the conversation about big children, but as soon as he was out of Papi’s line of sight, he mimed placing a crown on his head, held his hands out in front of him like he had humongous boobs—which I do not have—and swayed his hips dramatically, mocking my horror. “Besides,” I pleaded to Papi, “you know that Polo will tease me every minute I’m in that frou-frou dress.”
Papi laughed. “Have you seen yourself in that frou-frou dress yet?” His lips struggled to recreate the strange word I’d used, undoubtedly thinking he was mimicking those crazy kids and their made-up words. I didn’t make it up. I just read a lot.
“I’ve had a hundred fittings.”
“You’ve had four, but Yolanda did say she would be by in the morning to make sure the last one got it right . . . but have you really seen yourself in the dress?” he asked, his eyes lit up like a little boy’s in anticipation of that new Red Ryder under the Christmas tree.
“I’d rather wear shorts and Keds, Papi. Why is all of this so important to you?”
“Angel, back in Mexico, before you were born—”
Apolinar ducked his head back into the kitchen through the side door.
Save me, Polo! I concentrated on sending that silent plea to my brother so hard that I was sure he heard it.
“Papi, Hectòr’s out here. Says it’s important.” Polo spun around with his hand on his hip, swinging his butt back and forth again. Maybe he didn’t hear, but I was saved anyway.
Papi sighed. “I promise I will answer your question, Angel.” He checked the scratched face of his watch, another yard sale purchase, I’m sure. He was always pleasantly surprised at the items Americans considered too imperfect to keep as he rummaged through their cast-offs for treasures he could use. “Tomorrow is a big day, so you get ready for bed, but I will come to talk to you when I’m done with Hectòr,sì?”
“Okay, Papi.” I hopped from the couch, thrilled to be free for the moment and hoping he’d forget about it all together. After all, nothing I said was going to make this over-planned party go away, so was there any point in making me suffer death-by-lecture from Papi, too?
I showered, changed, and crawled wearily under the shaggy purple blanket on my bed, aching all over from the endless dance routine rehearsals. Papi insisted all fourteen couples wanted nothing more than to be a part of my court, but if they were hurting as much as I was at the moment, I’d bet they were up late plotting my demise. As I settled into my nest of pillows and stuffed animals, I tucked an earbud into one ear so I could listen to my favorite eighties rock tunes rather than the Julio Iglesias and mariachi music that had filled every waking moment during the past weeks. I used only one earbud so my other ear was free to hear if Papi and Apolinar began talking about something they didn’t want me to know.
They, like most Mexican men I’ve known, were much too overprotective and tried to keep things from me that didn’t fit in with the typical American teenage life they wanted me to feel like I was living. Oh, sure, they wanted to torture and humiliate me with the quinceañera, but they thought that was a beautiful part of being Mexican in America. The parts they hid from me were the ugly ones.
I’d almost drifted to sleep when I heard Papi’s soft knock on my half-open bedroom door. “Angel?”
Should I pretend to be asleep?
“Angel?” He said a little louder.
I exaggerated my drowsiness as I sat up, hoping to encourage him to keep it short. I loved my Papi, but once he got started on something, especially if he thought the listener wasn’t fully comprehending and agreeing with his point of view, he’d just keep talking. He should’ve been a politician instead of a farmer. “Yeah, Papi?”
He smiled, making his shaggy mustache turn up at the sides. “I promised you I would not forget.”
“It’s okay, Papi,” I said, shrugging, knowing this would never deter him, but it was worth a try.
“No, you deserve to know my reasons.”
I shrugged again. “You’re a leader in the community and they expect it. I understand.” I did understand that much, but that fact didn’t explain his enthusiasm.
He nodded as he sat down on the edge of my mattress and gently pulled the earbud from my ear. “Yes, but it is more, and since you are the young woman this is meant to celebrate, I think you are old enough now to understand my reasons. You deserve that much.” He took my hand in his and held my gaze with eyes so deeply brown they were almost black. If it weren’t for the streaks of slightly lighter brown, it would be impossible to tell where the iris ended and the pupil began. When Papi fixed me with just the right expression, as he did then, I felt as though those bottomless black eyes could see every thought I’d ever had and read words written on my very soul that even I didn’t know were there. It was an expression that stilled me to rapt silence as he spoke.
“You know, Angel, that Mami and I married very young; she was only sixteen and I was eighteen. We had Polo right away, and I came to America with some of thetìos to make enough money to support my new family. We worked in fields and groves and orchards all across the country, moving along to a new place each time the harvest was finished. I sent money home to Mami, but I saved every penny of the rest so when I returned, I could build my family a house—a stone and brick house with real floors, not dirt ones. I wanted nothing more in life except to be able to stay with my family and provide for them. Then you were born, and I truly thought I had everything a man could want—the woman I loved, a home, a strong son, a beautiful daughter. Life was very good for a couple of years. Polo came with me to tend the fields during the days, and I came home to the arms of my two beautiful girls at night.”
I grinned as Papi tweaked my chin and his eyes sparkled with pride.
“Then, just before harvest when you were four, a hurricane destroyed the crop and I had to leave. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but it is the job of a man before anything else to provide. My heart broke every day for the next couple of years while I was in America and my family was in Mexico, but I had taken a loan to buy a tractor and try a new method—it would have worked too if not for the hurricane—and the debts I had on the seed kept me here. I could pay it back faster in American dollars and then try again.
“One day when we were completing the blueberry harvest in Michigan, a man offered me a ride to Florida where the citrus was ready. I took the ride, and I worked in the groves for a few weeks. One day when I was telling Jorge about my bad luck inMexico and my plan for a new crop rotation there, he told me about the work the Tanners had done to balance the ranch in such a way that there would always be some type of citrus or tomatoes or watermelons in harvest. They’d done it not only so that the ranch would have income all year long, but also so that the workers could put down roots and their children could stay in school because there would always be work here. Then they began the process of becoming a completely organic ranch, partially because it was better for the land and the people to eat, but also because it was safer for the workers—no pesticides and poisons—and required more labor. They could provide steady work for more families.
“The more he told me about it, the more excited I became about the idea of bringing you and Polo and Mami here. Then one day his daughter, Mayra, came to the grove office dressed in her doctor suit to bring Jorge his lunch and I knew in my heart it was a sign from God; this is where He wanted us to be.”
“Her doctor suit?” I asked. “You mean her scrubs, Papi?” I’d met Mayra when I worked at the office on the weekends, and she was not a doctor.
He ignored me, refusing to be swayed from his story by my comment, and continued, “She had no accent and she went to school to be a nurse, but she was born in Mexico just like you. In Mexico, you could never go to college. I could work in the fields or a factory every minute of every day, but poor is poor in Mexico. I wanted that life so much for my daughter, but I couldn’t have it there, understand?”
I nodded silently thinking of a younger Papi, seeing in his eyes even as he spoke all the impossible destinies he’d envisioned for his little girl back then. He’d always been a dreamer. I imagined that when he talked in Mexico of his elaborate plans that people there looked at him with the same bittersweet humoring smile that I gave him now as he clung to the futile hope that Mami would change her mind.
“So I went to see an immigration lawyer Jorge recommended. She was born inMexico, too, and she’d become a lawyer in America. I asked if I brought my family if they could have that success, too, and she said that in America, you could have anything if you wanted it bad enough and were willing to work hard. She tried to find a legal way for us to come here together, but it would take a long time.”
“Papi, I know. You’ve told me this story before,” I said in an attempt to escape the back-in-my-day-we-appreciated-a-quinceañera story.
“You haven’t heard it all, mi’ja. I returned to Mexico to see my family and to wait, and I could not believe how big you had grown. You were almost six, and inAmerica you would be in school. In Pazhuela, we didn’t even have a real teacher in the schoolhouse then. Mami had taught Polo to read and write, and you imitated everything he did, but you both needed more. I called every week, but the lawyer said it could take years. I knew that every day you were losing opportunities; years would be too late. I told Mami I could get you all across the border. I knew lots of coyotes who could take us through the desert or sneak us through a crossing. By then, she was pregnant with Oscar and she refused to trust any outlaw. She wouldn’t leave the house I’d built for something she didn’t know. I told her to come visit because I knew if she could see the life we could have at the Tanner ranch, she would never want to go back. She refused.”
“Why didn’t you just pack her up and make her come?” I asked. “I thought Mexican women always did what their husbands told them.” I scoffed and rolled my eyes dramatically at the idea, but I’d seen enough immigrants fresh from rural Mexicoto know that it was true.
“I wanted her to come so that my daughter could have choices in life. I couldn’t take her choices away to give them to you. What do they call that? A 52-catch?”
“Catch-22,” I sighed, nodding my understanding.
“Every week you got older and every week the lawyer said there was nothing new to tell. Then one day when I came in from helping tìo Felipe in the fields, you were gone and Mami was furious.”
I perked up to listen. I didn’t remember much of my life in Mexico, but I remembered the sternness of Mami’s voice and the hardness of her hands. Mami and I mixed like lit matches and gasoline. She was always angry at me for something, but Papi had never told me about a time he recalled. She usually tried to hide it from him.
“She said you stomped out in a temper when she told you that you were patting out the tortillas wrong.” Papi chuckled softly at the memory. “The tortillas were still in the pig slop bucket where you’d thrown them because you said the pigs didn’t care how thick they were. She told me I needed to go find you and beat that fire out of you. ‘I could never hit her, Nita,’ I said, ‘but I’ll talk to her.’
I chuckled as Papi’s voice switched to a high falsetto to imitate Mami.
“‘Enrique,’ she said, ‘if you do not beat that fire out of her now, her husband will. It will hurt much worse then and you’ll have failed her. You spoil that child, and she is the one who will pay'."
The image wiped the grins from both of our faces. Papi laid his rough palm against the softness of my cheek as gently as if he were examining a new orange blossom. I knew he’d collected honey from the beehives that day because I could still smell the sweetness on his hands. “While I was out looking for you, I had almost convinced myself that Mami was right. No Mexican husband was going to stand for that strong will, so if I let it continue, would it not be my fault when he took his hands to you someday?” Papi’s voice caught on the emotion of his words as his hand dropped hopelessly back to his lap. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, and they were red and moist when he opened them again.
I sat completely still, keeping my breathing shallow, hoping to just disappear into the pile of pillows on my bed. I already regretted giving Papi a hard time about anything since the day I was born, and he hadn’t even gotten to his point yet.
“I found you hiding in the staircase of the old mission in the square. I used to take you and Polo there to look at the stars at night. Do you remember the place?”
“A little,” I mumbled through my shame.
“You came right to me when I called and threw yourself into my arms, apologizing for wasting the cornmeal. You asked me if you couldn’t come to work with me and Polo and tìo Felipe. ‘Papi,’ you said, ‘I can’t cook. Can’t I just be a boy?’ I laughed so hard that I cried, and I knew I would not beat the fire out of you that day or ever because you reminded me of that lawyer I had back in Florida. She was tough and mean and fiery when she had to be, but she had a big heart and worked hard for all of her clients even though most of us couldn’t pay her much at all. I decided then that legal or not, I was taking you to a place where you could put that strong will to good use because I could not break that spirit back then any more than I could today.
“So I want to give you this quinceañera. I want to show the world that my spirited little girl has become the most beautiful, intelligent, elegant young woman in the world despite the fact that I was too weak to beat the fire out of her, but if you stomp into your room and lock the door and refuse to come out for your quinceañera, I still will not raise a hand to you.” He sighed deeply. “Maybe they were right. You would not be fighting me on this if I had been willing to break your spirit then.” I saw a smile twitch at the corners of his mouth and sighed my resignation.
“Maybe they underestimated your talents for manipulation. You know I’ll do anything you ask, Papi. You don’t have to tell stories.”
He pressed his lips to my forehead. “Cross my heart, Angel, every word is true.”
That night, after Papi left me alone to allow the guilt of an ungrateful Mexican daughter to subdue the sarcastic American teenager I’d become, I couldn’t sleep for a long time despite my exhaustion. As I lay awake, one earbud in my ear so that the other was free for eavesdropping, I heard Papi and Polo talking in the kitchen. Our house was a tiny cement-block rectangle with two small bedrooms at one end and a space that was to serve as the kitchen, living room, and dining room at the other. It wasn’t hard to hear their conversation even from my bed, but their voices were low murmurs about nothing of much consequence as far as I could tell. Who would pick up the cake? Had all of the chambelànes been for their tuxedo fittings? Then the quiet murmuring was stopped abruptly by quick, urgent knocking on the kitchen door which opened to the side of the house by the carport; no stranger would ever have used it.
I turned my head so that my ear was closer to my bedroom door, but I switched off the music and lay the second earbud loosely on my ear. If it was anything interesting, one of them would be sure to check if I was asleep. With my eyes closed and ear buds in my ears, they wouldn’t give me another thought the rest of the night.
“I’m sorry, Señor Zapata,” I heard a contrite, quiet voice say in Spanish. “Sofia seems okay to me, but Mari says that she needs to see a doctor.” I recognized the voice. Hectòr and Marisol lived at the end of my street. I sometimes babysat for their twin girls, and I knew that they were expecting Mari’s sister and brother-in-law to join them here soon. Sofia was her sister; I guessed they had arrived.
“Is she talking much yet?” Papi asked quietly, also in Spanish.
Footsteps shuffled in the hall outside my door, and I closed my eyes and held my breath as Polo stood there for a moment. So predictable. Then the door clicked shut and my brother’s heavy steps moved back down the hall to the kitchen.
I slipped stealthily from the bed and slowly twisted the knob, willing it to turn quietly. With the door cracked enough to hear, I slid back under the covers and rearranged my silent headphones to maintain the illusion in case they decided to check again.
“She cries so much that I can’t understand what she is saying. Mari says she only wails that she wants to go back for Raul. I don’t know what to do for her.”
“For her to go back and be caught by la migra will not help Raul now,” Papi said firmly. La migra was the immigration authority; we all did our best to avoid drawing their attention every day. If Sofia had made it across the border and her husband had not, it would be best for her to sit and wait until he had another chance. I knew from my years of spying on the late-night conversations of new arrivals that you didn’t attempt that crossing simply because you were too impatient to wait for your husband. I wished Papi would let me talk some sense into the lovesick little fool.
“I have said this,” Hectòr insisted. “It only makes her cry more and Mari tells me I don’t understand.”
“I will come talk to her,” Papi said. “I’ll call Doctor Alvarez if there is reason, but she can do nothing for a broken heart. Only time will heal that.”
“Gracias, Señor. Gracias,” Hectòr said reverently.
So often, Papi was the lifeline for these people of the barrio. He encouraged them to learn English, helped them find work, found a doctor who would come for whatever they could pay, even if it was only labor in cutting her grass or painting her office. He told them all that education for the children was the only way to find the new life they’d come looking for in America, and he was very strict about the fact that every child must be in school every day. He organized childcare circles, made sure there was always someone available to translate for appointments, and would help them find extra work on the weekends if they needed extra money, but if boys skipped school to work or the girls were kept home to clean or baby sit, Papi would warn them only once. If it happened again, he would ask them to move on and give the house and the work to a family who was serious about making a new life in America.
The community that we called the barrio was about a hundred houses, most just like ours, and most of them were on land adjacent to the Tanner groves where nearly everyone here worked in one capacity or another. Papi had arranged with the grove manager to rent the houses to families who were trying hard to build a life in America, families like Hectòr and Mari. Families like mine. Not everyone here was illegal, but many of us were. Papi preferred to say “undocumented” to refer to the workers who’d entered the country without the proper paperwork or stayed after their visas had expired, but I don’t see the point in softening the facts, especially on a night like that one when there was an unstable, heartbroken woman just down the street thinking of ways to get her husband back from la migra. One mistake could bring the authorities into the barrio and spell the end of this fragile American dream for all of us.
That was the first time La Migra hunted me as I slept. A faceless figure with a gold badge pinned to his chest, he chased me through the neat rows of citrus trees that faded to inky, impenetrable darkness at the edge of my dream’s vision. My bare feet bled where the sharp pieces of sea shell that covered the path had sliced the tender soles of my feet. I slipped on a rotten grapefruit and sprawled across the ground, my pajama bottoms drenched in the swampy muck of the meadow between the edge of the grove and the machine shed where I was supposed to hide. I scrambled out of his impossibly long reach and raced to the meeting spot by the silo. We were all supposed to join up here if there was a raid, but I was the only one there. I opened my mouth to scream for Papi, but as so often happens in dreams, the sound wouldn’t come out.
A young woman I recognized as Sofia from the pictures Mari had shown me sat crying in the shadow of the shed. You did this, I accused, but not out loud. My lips didn’t move and neither did hers, but she heard me.
I need my Raul, she whined.
What you need is a swift kick in the behind. Get it together, chica. He’ll get here eventually. Even if he doesn’t, maybe it’s meant to be. You’re one of those stupid little girls fresh from Mexico who lets some guy define your whole life. You’ll get over it. Did you think about all of us when you called that thing to find Raul?
I pointed an accusing finger to the edge of the grove where the dark figure had become a hulking beast with pointed teeth as long as my fingers jutting in ragged rows from a humongous muzzle. Thick, dark green saliva dripped from the teeth, and a low rumbling emanated from its chest with every step. Glowing from beneath the shaggy black fur, bright yellow eyes locked on us like a spotlight.
My heart pounded in my chest as I grabbed Sofia’s arm. I tried to shout for Papi again, but the words still wouldn’t come. Get up! Run!
No, he has my Raul.
You idiot! Grow a freakin’ backbone and run!
She wouldn’t budge. I pulled and tugged, unable to leave her as the thing hulked toward us in the moonlight. Step by step, his grumbling and his gnashing teeth crossed the meadow toward us. Sofia looked right at the yellow eyes when he was close enough and asked, Where is my Raul?
He ate him, you moron! Now get your butt off the ground and run!
The beast laughed and laughed until I awoke to the grinning face of my big brother. “Yolanda is here,” he said, still chuckling. “Awesome dress, Ang. I think we should stuff that big, puffy skirt with candy and hang you up like a piñata. Think Papi will go for it?”
So I left the horror of my dream for the horror of my reality—the impending quinceañera.