At the far end of the backyard, nestled in overgrown summer grass, the girls huddled around their private nitrous oxide tank. One at a time, they collapsed into the waiting arms of the other Ladies. The more experienced ones knew when to pull the colored balloon from their painted lips. A few seconds longer and a girl could have a much harder fall, like the stupid boys over there who mostly toppled over, smacking their teeth against the concrete patio floor, drooling and bleeding onto their mom-ironed shirts. The Vicious Ladies knew better and they took care of each other. Partying, they’d learned, was not only their business, it was also a way of life and they were going to do it right.
I watched the scene like I was watching a clandestine baptism. The girls faithfully dropped their bodies into the invisible waters that would make them new. And the noz did. Each emerged from their trip smiling, like they’d all seen some variation of a god that was gentle and kind and sometimes very funny.
Since we started bringing the noz, the parties are even more unbearable. From my seat on a plastic milk crate next to the empty beer cans and stench of dog urine, I can’t stop watching the kids suck on balloons, and roll their eyes back into their heads and open their mouths like they’re about to speak in tongues. They don’t know that this god they experience has a name. It’s called Samira. And this is all part of Samira’s plan that has only begun to unfold, exactly as she expects it to. Her genius evades and disgusts me. And I hate all of them. I hate the Vicious Ladies.
The older Vicious Ladies, too old for nitrous oxide, were getting down. They bounced their fat chichis and asses all over the place to whatever monotonous beats the DJ played. The homies mostly stood around hugging their beers looking for thongs through the daisy dukes. A few early drinkers waddled their way onto the dance floor and swayed in their oversized pants, circling the buoyant Ladies as closely as they could. Their dumb drunken smiles made me feel sorry for them. These guys had no clue what they were dealing with. One bad move and any of these Ladies could disembowel them, no problem. Bunch of assholes. They paid money to party—after all, this was a Vicious Ladies party.
This is what I’ve come home to.
The same old shit. Except worse. Older and shittier. Rebecca is the same slut as always, but with blonder hair and more stretch marks. She rubs her ass, packed all tight into a tiny white miniskirt, up against a boy that is young enough to be her son. Watch him get a hard-on for that saggy piece of Rebecca ass. They are too old to be doing this. I am too old to be doing this.
But they don’t care what I think. The Vicious Ladies took me in like an adopted little sister. A lost puppy they felt sorry for and ended up loving. It doesn’t matter that I hate them all. Samira finds my disgust endearing, which only fuels my hatred even more. It’s a terrible cycle.
When the Ladies pull up in front of my house, I have no choice. I have to make a quick exit before one of them gets out of the car and my mother can catch a good look at them. Already, sitting inside the car, their AquaNet-teased bangs form an aura of hair suspicious enough for my mother to scowl at through the kitchen curtains. When she asks “¿A dónde vas?” in that tone of voice of hers from the couch, I have to hurry up and make up a new baptism or quinceañera party that I’m late to before I walk out the door. When she’s too insistent I have to slam the door extra hard.
I don’t know which is worse, my mother pacing around in the house like a caged parrot or the Ladies waiting for me like a car full of clown buzzards. I often think about escaping both, running into the shadows of the neighbors’ yards, hurdling over fences from one lawn to another until … well, I don’t know what. That’s part of the problem, I guess. I wouldn’t know what I’d be running toward.
I rush to the curb and leap into the Ladies’ packed Honda before anyone can see. I make sure to slump low in the backseat before we peel away with a screech like we’re a pile of witches in a hurry.
Every time, I start out by convincing myself it might not be so bad. Lately, I have to try harder. This night, I even dressed up, squeezed into a pair of tight jeans and a sexy tank top. Gel-slicked my hair into a shiny ponytail. When the DJ got going I even tried dancing out there on the patio with all the other nalgonas. I tried to feel the synthie rhythm in my blood, the thumping beats in my bones, fill my brain with flashing colored lights, cloud my eyes with fog. I wanted to forget about the balloon girls giggling in the grass.
Only a month ago, this time, I was drilling into books and drinking pots of coffee over all-nighter papers like the pending apocalypse depended on the defense of a thesis. Something about postcolonial this or that, blah blah blah. So long as I read the books, the essays and articles, I knew what to do. Now the objective was to stop thinking altogether and find the urge to move with a beat. To simply go with the flow because any hypothesis I could possibly come up with would be no good at all.
Defeat weighed on my entire being and made for bad dancing. I felt my limbs stiffen, falling out of sync with the music and everything around. I stood paralyzed in the middle of the patio among a swarm of bobbing bodies that seemed to be frothing in the fog machine clouds.
I dragged myself out toward the street and perched my feet over the curb, staring down at the gutter. I needed a breath of cool air, a suggestion of black sky, something resembling peace. All around the trees cooled the rose bushes and mint leaves. Even shadows rested.
I inhaled the sweet air when that familiar white Town Car with tinted windows rolled silently from behind and stopped beside me. The engine’s heat rose up my legs and car exhaust invaded my nostrils. I knew that on the other side of the windows was Samira. Of course, Samira.
“Where you going, girl?” Her voice cut through the darkness.
This was no pleasure visit. Samira was here to check up on business. She stepped out of the car with jaguar-like grace, her smile radiating and her eyes shining like obsidian blades.
“Why so lonely?” she said, leaning to kiss me, her gold-hoop earring brushing against my cheek.
I shrugged, staring at the asphalt to avoid her face.
“Sounds like it’s bumping in there.”
I didn’t answer. I could feel her inspecting me.
“C’mere mija, I wanna show you something,” she said, leading me into the white leather cocoon of her car’s backseat, a veritable office on wheels. She had an arrangement of notepads, calculators, colored pens, a stack of color-coded binders, and clipboards covered in neatly columned spreadsheets. Pages and pages of numbers warbled off a language that I didn’t understand but found oddly comforting.
The first time Samira told me about the noz, I didn’t know what she was talking about. “Nitrous oxide? What the hell are you supposed to do with that? We’re gonna gas kids?”
“Noz is harmless,” she assured me. “It’s like laughing gas but you inhale it from a balloon. Makes you feel good all over, but just for a few seconds. It’s a quick high. Then it’s over and the kids line up to buy another.”
I imagined kids flopping around the floor like dying fish, vomiting all over the place from their gaping mouths. I had Fox News Undercover on replay, police raiding the house and kids running everywhere like cucarachas, Samira and I in handcuffs getting shoved into the police car. My mom watching everything on the eleven o’clock news. We look ten pounds fatter on TV.
I knew we already made plenty at the door and with the alcohol. Even the weed, which Samira didn’t sell directly—she found a way to take her cut anyway. With Samira, all of the Vicious Ladies took their cut.
“It’s harmless,” she repeated, trying to assuage me. I knew this was not a conversation. Samira was showing me what was coming.
“You and I are Vicious Ladies. Partying is our business and, more importantly, a way of life. It’s us, not their mothers, who teach the young ones to respect each other and their elders. We teach them how to be women. When to close their legs and when to open them. We teach them how to stand in front of anyone and look them in the eye with a straight face. We teach our girls how to defend themselves and take what’s theirs because no one else will.”
Sure enough, Samira’s got it all under control. The numbers on the spreadsheets were evidence that things were going better than I could have imagined. But not Samira. Nothing surprises her because nothing is outside of her calculations. The DJs, the equipment, the door guys, the flyers, the dancers, the alcohol, the weed, the noz, and, of course, us— the Vicious Ladies—were part of a serious, thriving business. Legitimate or not, legal or not, this hustle was real. What else were we gonna do? Work fast food or retail for shit money and dick bosses?
I surrendered myself to the soft leather. Samira laid it out simply like a nice little math equation with proofs. This was not the life I imagined for myself at all. But the truth is, I couldn’t really imagine anything else.
* * *
Walking gets desperate. Standing at corners waiting for lights is the worst, which is why I usually ride the old dirt bike my brother abandoned and I adopted as my own. I found it in the garage leaned up against all the shit my father also left behind.
After a long ride around the neighborhood, in the cool shaded garage, I can be alone to rest, to think. My books are all stacked up in about a dozen boxes against the back wall. I pull them out by their spines like small animals that I love. I inspect each one of them, paging through them, petting the paper, fingering the words like coaxing out the little nagual animal that is mine to go, Castañeda-style, way the fuck somewhere else to another universe.
In the first days of summer, I’d go in the house and look around at the old framed photos and award plaques from grade school. They were covered in dust next to dozens of smashed spiders. Before long my mother would start moaning about something I didn’t want to hear, like, “Mija what are you doing? What are you gonna do with your life? What are you going to be?”
Like what I do and who I am is not enough. Like there’s gotta be some payoff or a whole different, marvelous world at the other end of this tunnel—one she’s been expecting this whole time. Here I am, on the other side, and there is nothing, just my feet skidding on the blank air like Wile E. Coyote. The trick is to keep running across the void like you don’t know there’s nothing there.
When I look at my mother, I can see her moonwalking in place inside her own personal tunnel, going nowhere. Suspecting the edge and the unknown beyond, she will never arrive. Then I realize I’m all on my own to figure things out. I gotta keep going.
Except for Samira, I’m really on my own.
My mother’s aches spread all over her body and she started spending more time in bed, so she went to Mexico with her sisters to get treatment. The pills she was taking weren’t doing anything except make her vomit all day. And since I haven’t really been around much these days to help, she decided to try her luck with the prayer breathers and hierberos. They have pretty potent plants down there. Here all we’ve got is palm trees that are good for nothing and some damn persistent weeds that keep pushing through the pummeled parking lot land. I don’t blame my mother for leaving. She needs to be in a more nurturing environment.
* * *
The first Vicious Lady I knew was Patricia. No one would believe it, but she was in algebra class our seventh grade year, with me and all the other dorks and nerds. A few weeks into our first semester, I watched her slip into a seat across the room and thought, Oh God, what is she doing here. She sat, smiling quietly to herself, surrounded by boys shoving one another for their turn to tell her another stupid joke. They said anything, no matter how stupid, to get her to laugh. Perfectly smart boys acting like dumbasses. Her lips were a dark, nearly black, burgundy. The boys were desperate to see the velvety curtain of her lips part. Her eyes, rimmed in black charcoal, were always laughing too. But it was her huge breasts that at thirteen years of age eclipsed everyone and everything. Their soft mass quivered gently with every giggle with which she generously awarded their ridiculous efforts.
For all I cared, she could keep her big obstructive tits. I kept waiting for those burgundy lips to say something that would reveal her fraudulent presence in Algebra I for overachieving seventh graders.
But Patricia didn’t have to say a thing. Whenever the teacher asked her to do a math problem on the blackboard she knew exactly what to do. She rose from her seat, magnetizing every eyeball. Her ringed fingers expertly held a piece of chalk and laid out a white map that dribbled perfectly down the green chalkboard. Math was nothing to her. Every movement was simple and clear, unlike my own desperate markings that scrawled over themselves and smudged into murky clouds that always threatened to entrap me.
Of course, our teacher assigned Patty as my math buddy. Before long, I realized the logic of the pairing. Patty was going to help me keep up in class, which she did with great ease and patience. I resented this deeply. While I wrestled with unwieldy math equations, she chatted away about boys, family, and the Vicious Ladies as if she’d known me forever. She’d make some brief edits on my sheet, realigning my toppling stacks of numbers and confide to me “I know one day you’re going to be famous. I know it. You’re all smart and shit, get good grades, think for yourself. But if anyone fucks with you, ever, we’ve got your back.”
How could she talk like that? I could not imagine saying such touchy-feely things to anyone. That easy confidence was the kind that I imagined is shared between people who go way back, survived famine or war together. This was middle school.
I inspected my worksheet with her adjustments. I always got the variables wrong, lost track of the positives and the negatives, strayed from the columns and mixed up the numbers.
“Look,” Patty said, “all you gotta do is hang with us. Just chill there, you don’t even have to do a thing. Just hang with us.”
That said, in the following years and through the end of high school, I did my best to keep as far away as I could from the Vicious Ladies. Despite their misshapen feelings of solidarity, I wanted to have nothing to do with them. When the pack of girls rolled around campus, as they always did, keeping close vigilance over an invisible territory they believed they claimed, I made sure to stay on the exact diametric opposite end of their orbit. But nothing I did or didn’t do seemed to bother them. Not even when I said no to them. They simply ignored me and absorbed me into their little galaxy, though I kept away like a renegade space rock, hanging as far as I could on the outer edges of their ring.
* * *
There was no way of knowing how old Samira was. When I first saw her standing and waiting by the fence outside the school field, she seemed old, yet ageless.
“That’s her,” Patty said to me in a low voice. I was only twelve years old but already I knew we were walking toward a terrible fate. Mine in particular. I felt something heavy shift at the bottom of my belly. My backpack felt heavy too. We were walking down the sidewalk toward Samira. To be accurate, I was walking to the liquor store on the corner to buy a nice cold popsicle because I was on my long sweaty way home. I had cartoons to watch and homework to do. I was not walking to Samira. But like always, she was inescapably in the way.
As we got closer, more girls gathered around Samira, solidifying the circle one girl at a time. Girls trickled down the street, others drifted across the field and squeezed out of an opening snipped through the chain link fence.
“Patty, I gotta go home,” I said, but she was used to my whining. She linked her arm through mine, and pulled me along anyway. “Don’t worry, we’re just going to see what’s up.” The dread in my belly persisted. I knew that “seeing what’s up” could mean anything. It could come to mean something entirely different from what you had intended. It was not up to you to control “what’s up.” “What’s up” might never end.
We arrived at the crowd and waited like everyone else. There was something sparking in the moist air among the girls, laughing and snapping sharp and shiny things. I recognized Patricia’s friends, the Vicious Ladies.
In this crowd, I was the blunt one standing cold and reluctant. I wanted to go home. I thought about the latest book I’d checked out from the library and wanted to hide in a corner of my house with it so I could breathe through this book—a portal—the right kind of air from a different atmosphere, where I was sure I belonged. I wanted to be left alone. Instead, I stayed close to Patty.
There were several dozen girls, mostly ones that I had never seen before. Although I could not see Samira, I could sense her in the middle of everything.
Nadine’s heart-shaped smiling face and black cherry lips pushed through the crowd at us. “Patty! Here, here.” She was her best friend. They called her TearDrop because of the small scar she had below the corner of her right eye. She handed us colorful glossy cards and nudged tightly against Patty’s side. Then the party flyers came darting and drifting from overhead. Hands and flyers flashing in full color all around. The closest thing I knew to snow besides Easter egg confetti. Through the multicolored snow I caught a glimpse of Samira’s black smile and her knowing eyes.
I was swallowed into their circle of perfumed bodies, the jangle of gold hoops and glow-in-the dark jewelry. The more I tried to push myself out, the closer Samira got. The Vicious Ladies closed in around me and, in the center, it was always Samira. She generated her own gravitational pull, like a black hole. She was a star that had imploded into itself and was the very substance of the void, made of nothing but the relentless suck of unsuspecting matter and energy. She sucked the light from everything and made it cause for celebration.
* * *
Nearly a decade later, it’s clear to everyone: I’m not gonna get into the daisy dukes and I’m not going to twirl on the impromptu dance pole in the back yards. Even if I wanted, I’m not going to bootie pop or krump or anything that requires that much muscular coordination or energy. I’m not going to take lunch money from minors for pissy cups of kegged Coors. I’m not gonna mix screwdrivers for assholes to booze up the teen tontas.
My assignment seems natural to everyone except me. From now on, I’m the noz mom. Of course, Samira doesn’t call it that, nor does anyone else—not to my face. Samira said, “Look girl, you’ve got a good watchful eye. You’re a natural observer and thinker. You can assess situations. That’s an asset the Ladies could really use.”
What was I supposed to say to that? No one had ever found my “observation skills” to be anything but creepy or obnoxious. Worthy of nothing but a “What the fuck are you looking at?” Samira thinks it’s an asset.
I watched Samira hard for irony to seep out of a crack in her powdered face, but it remained smooth and steady, cementing with certainty what she wanted me to do.
Essentially, as noz mom, I do what I already do. I watch the kids get sky high and then crash down from their short-lived ascent, their soft deflated bodies drooping like balloons snagged on power lines or bushes. If kids get too stupid with the gas, I go to Big Boy at the door to come check them. I’m not about to step in and intervene myself, you know.
It’s the boys that I have to keep my eye on. They seem to be getting younger as the summer weeks go by. Tonight, a pack of them have checked in their trading cards and Nintendos at the door for the noz. Where are their goddam mothers? I think when I watch them suck on the balloons like it was their mama’s milk filling them up again. Probably same place as my mom, I figure—sick in some bed, or biting their nails in front of the TV, or pushing fabric under an angry needle in a garment factory.
One kid’s bones have turned into overcooked noodles. His friends laughed and pushed each other as they tried propping him back onto his feet, but before long, they started grunting and getting annoyed, saying, “Hey man! Enough already, you’re ass is heavy!” Not knowing what to do, they dropped him to the ground.
It was time to call Big Boy. Through the crowd and flashing lights, I could see that he was blocking the gate entrance with the full breadth of his body, every inch of him saying no to someone. “Big Boy!” I shouted through the noise. He chose to ignore me as he pushed back several guys, telling them “Gottapayupyougottapayup!”
“Big Boy!” I shouted like calling to a mountain, “I SAID we’ve got a kid down.” By now, nobody likes the noz mom, squealing around every time some kids are trying to have a good time. Especially not Big Boy who has to stop them because I say so.
With a single hand, he shoves the three idiots and slams the gate locked before charging like a bear across the patio toward the noz.
“Sit your ass down!” He grabbed the limp kid by the collar from the concrete and threw him in a plastic lawn chair. The kid slid off like cold spaghetti. Impatient, Big Boy pushed him up on the chair again, turning around to watch the door where one of the asshole sneaks had started to climb. The kid stayed in the chair but his head hung off the end of his spine, rolling side to side, like it was floating on gentle waves of water. “Come on dumbass, wake the fuck up!” Big Boy shook the kid hard in the chair. The kid’s head flopped around helplessly. The kid was gone. “Fuck!” Big Boy saw one of the sneaks jump over the gate and disappear into the dancing crowd. He’d had it with this kid and started smacking his face, pushing it around, saying “Comeondumbasscomeondumbass!” like that was supposed to help. But it didn’t and Big Boy gave the kid a final shove on the forehead before taking off after the other guys who also jumped in.
The sound of a forehead splitting against concrete is one I can’t bear. I kneeled on the ground, his bleeding head on my lap. I held his face in my hands and listened to him breathe. He was really a kid, maybe twelve or thirteen years old. Gone, not dreaming. Just vacant. The eyeballs under their lids had stopped rolling. So still under there I could see an emptiness so vast that I could feel myself in it.
He bled all over my hands. I called for Big Boy, who did not arrive. I held his face, all smooth and brown. He got younger, as people sometimes do in sleep. A child in my arms, he was warm and sticky. I recognized the scent of childhood through the cologne. And blood. “Mijo, mijo, get up. Come on, mijo you gotta get up.” I heard my voice all trembly. “Mijo, please.” He began to stir and nuzzled against my body. He whined softly. “Mijo, you better go home,” I said. Suddenly he jumped and pulled his face away from me. He squinted through dark lashed slits. “Aw, fuck,” he said all hoarse, as he grabbed his head with both hands. “Aw, fuck,” he said again. His friends, relieved, started laughing. They elbowed each other and smacked him on the back as he pulled himself to his feet. He looked at the blood on his hands and then looked at me like I had done this to him. “Shit,” he said glaring at me sideways like I was some kind of mañosa. “Pinche noz mom,” I heard him grumble.
Later, Samira gazes through the tinted windows as I tell her what happened. When I’m done, I realize she’d already heard the whole story from someone else.
“Samira, I’m pretty sure that kid’s in middle school. He shouldn’t have been there.”
She shakes her head. “This is a new and changing world we’re living in. There’s no room for no goddam babies. Boys best grow some balls cuz they are gonna need them. And ladies, we all gotta learn to use the ovaries we’ve got. We all gotta to keep up.” She shifted her eyes and fixed them, finally, on me. “You understand what I’m saying?”
And suddenly, I did. She was watching that changing world through the tinted glass and put it right in my eyes. I recognized that darkness.
* * *
I woke up to the sound of a loud truck parked in the driveway, its heavy exhaust breathing like a monster in waiting. The coded shouts and whistles of several men straightened me up. They must have been there a while because when I threw the curtains open, squinting hard through the light, they were already unloading the last tanks. Samira supervised and marked notes on her clipboard. They seemed decisive but unrushed, as if this was a thing they did normally. As if coming to my house, and unloading their shit without my permission or knowledge, was something they did on a regular fucking basis.
I ran out barefoot looking around for neighbors. “Samira, it’s six in the morning!” I could hardly hear my own voice over the truck engine. Samira was wrapping up the transaction, tipping the boys like she’s a Vegas kingpin.
She smiled past me, gazing into the garage. Look at her. She doesn’t give a shit about me. Her hand resting so confidently on her waist. Her nails, long and arched, sharp like the blades tied to rooster’s talons.
The garage was half full with tall nitrous oxide tanks, all lined up like loyal servants of this queen. She’d taken it upon herself to clear out most of my family’s personal crap, rusty tools, deflated basketballs, bags of old baby clothes. She’d had my bike fixed up. The rust and mud had all been thoroughly cleaned away, the chain was well oiled. The cracked tires and broken spokes replaced. The new chrome shone beautifully.
“Ride around on this proper bike, mija,” is all she said without looking away from her clipboard.
I was almost too stunned for words. Illegal purchase, possession, and selling of nitrous oxide. To minors. And I’m supposed to be appeased with a bike? What am I, ten years old?
Before I could say anything I noticed that along with the obsolete heirlooms, Samira had also gotten rid of my boxes of books. They were gone. I had nothing left. Samira took all of my books.
“We’ve got a lot of work do girl,” Samira said looking over her notes.
I had tolerated noz, I had tolerated all of the cruelty of the Vicious Ladies and their dirty-ass parties, I had tolerated all of Samira’s manipulation and tyranny, but I was not able to tolerate this.
“Samira!” I heard myself shout. “You have to stop. I won’t do this. This is not right.”
She looked at me with holy-like patience. Her face unrippled by my outburst.
“That’s the problem with a lot of you who come back. You come here to me running around in circles trying to convince me of something. That you’re right. That you’ve got something to bring here that we don’t have, that we don’t know already. And the whole time I’m here watching and listening to you make all that noise doing nothing but showing me that you don’t know what you’re talking about. And what I gotta say is this: shut up! Shut up and put those ideas you’ve got spinning around in your head to rest for a while and pay attention to how we do it here.”
“Get out,” I said.
* * *
The next day, I offered my definite renouncement from the Vicious Ladies. In a solitary procession across the neighborhood, I walked my bike’s chromed wheels over the concrete and asphalt, over burning dirt sidewalks, to the swap meet where I would find Samira. At the entrance the ticket guy usually lets me in with a nod. Today I pushed a dollar into his window and he pushed a crumpled paper ticket back in return.
I walked the bike through the usual swap meet noise and crowd, for whom it didn’t matter that it was a Tuesday, or noon, or August, or one hundred degrees. Like the Vicious Ladies, this hustle didn’t fit into the usual quadrants either. It couldn’t. We weren’t gonna be in offices or factories. And so the hustle never stops.
I found Samira in her tent sitting still as a Buddha, untouchable. She sat at the center of the blue tarp tent, in the largest lawn chair I have ever seen. A throne. It was padded with cushions and draped with thick towels to absorb her slow glistening sweat.
Shining like moist clay, loose rings of skin hung from her neck and encircled her oval face. Tiny echoes in a dark pond. At the center, her laughing eyes brightened when they fell upon me. The tent flapped and billowed gently in waves, filling with the oscillating winds of the great steel fans that guarded Samira on both sides. The raucous foot traffic and noise of the swap meet was hushed, only mellow strains of bluesy oldies slipped inside. Her small son, a toddler still, crouched on a large beach towel spread on the ground that was also covered with blue tarp. He was laying out old baseball cards and crumpling them between his wet and sticky fat fingers. He looked up at me, smiling and baby-babbling.
Samira was smiling at me too. She moved as if to embrace me within the ample brown arch of her fleshy arms. Maybe she did not move at all, but merely gave the impression with even the slightest gesture of welcome. A raised Sharpie-black eyebrow. A hand uncurling fingers open like fern frond. I moved toward her and hugged her; she was still seated in her lawn chair. I felt her long braid against my cheek, the cool stickiness of her cleavage. Her hair smelled like almonds and vanilla and cigarettes.
“Samira,” I said, “I need to be left alone. The Vicious Ladies can’t come over to my house. I can’t party anymore.”
I could tell by her serene smile that she was unmoved. She watched me in silence, still smiling.
“Samira, you have to understand, please. I don’t mean any disrespect to you or the Ladies or anyone. It’s nothing personal in regards to any of you. It’s personal only to me. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I can’t.”
Samira seems to see right through everyone, everything. I wanted her to look at me, into me. I stood there, ready and transparent. I wanted her to see right through my skin so she could see what I was feeling, that I really meant it. I wanted her to see that I loved her, that I wanted nothing more than to please her, to earn her approval, her respect, but I could not continue partying with the Ladies. I wanted her to see that I was afraid and exhausted because I couldn’t tell her how afraid and exhausted I really was. She had to see it.
But I know that when I try to explain things, it instantly makes things opaque. Out in the air of this world, my words merely hung between Samira and me like a cloud.
“Mija,” Samira began, her voice filling the tent. “I’m going to tell you what it’s all about but I already know you’re not going to understand it. Not for a while, knowing you. It’s about taking care of yourself and everyone who takes care of you. That’s it. You never really got that. I know. This whole time we’ve had your back, we took care of you. You’ve been our girl because you needed us. Here, we take care of each other because no one else will. That’s what the Vicious Ladies is all about. Our fathers ain’t taking care of us. Our mothers aint taking care of us. No one knows what we need like we do. All we got is each other. I’m going to take care of my girls and they’re going to take care of me. That’s all I know.”
“Yeah but selling kids noz is not taking care of anybody.”
“And you care about taking care of others?” She smiled.
“Girl, you are like me. I know that you’re looking for answers, something to believe in, something to save you. And I’m telling you, because I know, that there ain’t no such thing. This is where you came from, this is where you grew up, this is where you came back and this is who you’ll be. There’s no way around it.”
“What do you want?” I asked. I really wanted to know.
“The same thing you do. Why do you think I want you around? Let me ask you, what do youwant?”
“To get out of this fucking place.”
“Do you really? Why are you here now? You didn’t have to come back.”
“You don’t understand what it’s like.”
“What it’s like to be what? To be smart? To look for your place in the world and not find it? Don’t give me that. Girl, the truth is, you never really left. You think I didn’t see you marching around the neighborhood every weekend waving around your little attitude. Or rolling on that bike like you were checking up on your very own little empire. It was cute. Kinda. In an old-school-homie way. Except it was you, a snotty skinny thing acting like she owned the place just cuz she went to college. But we were always watching. At least I was. It was cute. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to kick your ass or hug the shit out of you. Let me tell you, I been around a lot longer than you. I know the neighborhood and the people who live in it like I know my own self. Even the people I don’t know, I know. That’s how I knew you.”
Samira leaned ever so slightly from her chair, toward me.
“I like you because you’re mean.” Her eyes narrowed and her smile spread with tremendous pleasure.
Mean? This bully of a woman who was running a drug business from my sick mother’s house was telling me that I was mean.
“Yeah. You know what I’m talking about,” she said grinning with teeth I’d never seen before. “You’re mean, not like some of the Ladies. You don’t go up to anyone’s face and talk shit. You’ve never even been in a fight. But in a way, you’re worse than any of them.”
For the first time, I knew Samira was looking at me. Really looking at me. She seemed like someone who’d just stepped out of a cutout of herself. I felt like a different person too. Something seemed to be shining all around her and cast onto me. As if the light had finally been turned on for the first time and we found ourselves both sitting in it. She did not look old at all. She was made of bronze.
“You think you’re better than everyone around you. And in your own smart ways, you let them know it.” Consumed in her pleasure, something both exquisite and grotesque began bubbling in her.
“You even think you’re better than your own mother,” she said and laughed not the throaty cigarette laugh I expected, but clear and loud, almost girlish. Her son rolled his eyes up at us from the beach towel he was lying on, sucking on his baby bottle.
“That’s okay. Our mothers don’t know shit. What was the last valuable thing your mother taught you? I mean something real. Something you got from her and said, ‘Hell, yeah! This is good stuff, I better hold on to this.’”
Right then and there, I saw myself more clearly than I could have ever imagined in her perfect obsidian heart. There I was, reflected back to myself in full form and great detail. It was that other me, the shadow me that I had never truly seen, except in glimpses in the corner of my eye, where they say your furtive death hides until it’s the right time.
* * *
When I returned home, I called my mother to see how she was doing. I had not called in several weeks. My mother, who mostly slept now, my tia informed me, only asked for water and for me. Her illness was mysterious and had an unfamiliar name that didn’t translate into anything I could look up in English, except in vague terms that referred to unresolved anger and nostalgia. Same as your grandmother, she noted. She could only be helped with the knowledge of prayers and herbs that I never inherited or perhaps simply didn’t bother to learn among all the other stuff I was hurrying to keep up with. I offered to come down to see her. My aunt fell silent before responding, “Also, you could wire money.”
I hung up and remained on the mushy couch inhaling the stale air. Despite the glaring light outside, the house was dark. I took a deep breath letting the old but familiar air fill my body. Then it was time to go again.