Before there was Dorian and before there was Hector, there was 1980 — the year that things began to change. Diana Ross was pumping on the radio, Angel was sixteen years young and already she felt she was being turned upside down, inside out, boy oh boy, everything was turning around-around. If the seventies were the decade of disco, then the eighties would be what? — the beginning of a new era? — the decade of the sequin? It was the time that Angel the he became Angel the she — even if it was only something felt within the deepest layers of her soul, she knew that it was there, underneath the skin and the bone, as thin as a sheet of silver foil.
It’s not that she felt trapped in her boy body. She felt as libre as a paloma on a humid summer night, flying up and around the project buildings of Da Boogie Down. How good it felt to say she! — because she didn’t need to be a woman as much as she needed to have the air of a woman. So when her mother and brother Miguel were out of the house to run the weekly errands, Angel would take off her jeans and shave her legs. She stood there naked in front of Mami’s vanity. She tucked her stuff back — up and away with a piece of duct tape — and closed her legs so that they crossed like an X.
Her skin was so smooth, her body so lean. But then there was her face. She knew she wasn’t nobody’s conception of cute, pero maybe when she got older she could cover it up with makeup. She could put on fake lashes, tweeze her brows, and put liner on her lips to make them look more plump. Years later, she’d think back on those nights and wonder what in Christ she was thinking being all tacky-tacky like that. Pero in the moment, it all felt right and she — for the first time that day — felt beautiful.
In the moment, it all felt right and she — for the first time that day — felt beautiful.
She took out the crumpled picture of Bette Davis that she hid inside her science textbook. She loved Bette Davis because she loved her sass. On summer nights, she sneaked down to the midnight showings of Bette’s flicks in the Village and Chelsea multiplexes. She loved the drama of it all. She had picked up smoking because Bette Davis made it look so classy. Then eventually she found herself hooked to the damn things.
Miguel, who was only two years younger than Angel, had a stash of Newports hidden under his bed, so she took one and watched in the silver reflejo of the mirror as the smoke curled out of her lips. She walked to the bathtub and finished smoking while lounging in the water.
Once the cig was done, she dipped the end of it into the water, got out, and dried herself down. She always feared that Mami and Miguel would arrive home earlier than expected. (Ay, Dios mío, the Pathmark was closed down, Mami would say, but I forgot my wallet on top of the microwave, and what the fuck are you wearing?) What would Angel say then? Caught red-handed, smooth-legged, in her mother’s silk kimono that was so long, it looked like she was a tree made of flowing silk.
She imagined it would go something like this: Mami would cry and smack her with the broom, scream the Apostles’ Creed and threaten to call the santera lady to cleanse Angel with chicken blood and soothing tree oils, or some mierda like that. Miguel would watch, too stoned para decir nothing. And as this fantasy-nightmare played in Angel’s mind, she practiced the lines from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane in the mirror:
—You wouldn’t be doing these awful things to me if I weren’t still in this body.
—But you are, Angel! [mouthing to the mirror, pointing a finger at her reflection as the bath water got swallowed by the drain] You are in that body!
She met Jaime one day when she was gliding around St. Marks looking for an outfit that would pop. Jaime worked behind the sales counter even though he looked so bored at it — the kind of guy who seemed to have stumbled into fashion because he was beautiful. But it was his boredom that looked mad cute, like it was some kind of accessory that he was working. He had a fitted light-denim jacket and black pants that were so tight, Angel got a peek at his bulge.
Pero Jaime didn’t give her no time of day. He just sold her the glitter nail polish she wanted with that same blank look of boredom. As she walked toward the door, she could feel his presence walking right behind her. She thought of what she could do: side-glance at a pair of black leather pants to ask the price (she was too flaca to make them pass), or drop the nail polish on the floor (and risk breaking the damn bottle?!), or just turn around and say, The weather today is crazy, ain’t it (but girl, her stomach was in knots, and besides, the weather was perfectly natural), so she didn’t do or say nada. And it was for the best, because homeboy was just looking to take a drag on his cigs, not nothing more, not nothing less.
He became Angel’s recurring daydream. In these fantasies, Jaime and Angel were never in the same spot. In one, they’re on a dance floor and nobody stands between them. Blondie is on blast. Even though she can’t hear the music, she can feel it and knows that it is so. In another, they’re at the Botanical Garden next to some flowers she never knew the names of. In yet another, they’re on the subway platform at Grand Central watching a tourist scream at a rat. And the same thing happens in each one: that is to say, nothing. Nothing happens: they make uninterrupted eye contact, the kind of eye contact that feels like it is penetrating warmth into her body, but Angel can’t think of anything to say. They stare and stare and Angel knows she gotta say something to fill the silence, and because she’s daydreaming, it’s almost like she can feel the words dangling from the tips of her fingers, but they can never travel to the tip of her tongue and come out of her mouth.
Nothing changed in her fantasies, nothing ever changed, day after day, night after night, except what she was wearing.
Nothing changed in her fantasies, nothing ever changed, day after day, night after night, except what she was wearing. Sometimes a tight silver lamé onesie, or leather chaps (that one gave her cold sweats when she woke!), or another time it was just a simple little black dress or pair of jeans. She’d want to tell him that he was cute, that her body longed for his, but nothing would come out of her mouth, and then she would force herself to wake.
A month later, she decided that she had to go back to the store to throwdown. And by throwdown, she didn’t mean nothing violent or whack. By throwdown, she meant, ask for his number. When she arrived, however, he wasn’t at the counter. In his place, there was a chica as pale as costume pearls. She was wearing black lipstick, black pants, black eyeliner. Angel watched as she leaned against the counter and glanced back at Angel, probably to calculate if Angel was worth helping. The girl gave Angel a once-over, then went back to her nails.
“Pardon me,” Angel said. “Can I ask you something?”
The girl didn’t look up from the ferociousness of her nail filing. Angel asked again.
“I heard you,” the girl said. “I heard you the first time.”
Angel did not appreciate the tone or the attitude. “Well,” Angel said. “Can I ask you then?”
The girl gave her a long set of eyes. “I suppose,” the girl said, planting the nail file down on the counter as if she were in pain.
Angel explained that she was there the month before to buy, well, it didn’t matter what she bought, but she was helped by this dude. She didn’t mention the bored face or the cigarettes or the dreams she had of making awkward, uninterrupted eye contact while wearing nothing but silver lamé. Instead, she described the way his chin pointed just so, the way his eyebrows were groomed, and how his hair went just a tad over his ears, like some cover model for Christopher Street magazine that Angel had once seen with the caption: INTERVIEW WITH THE BUTCHEST MAN ALIVE.
“Oh, you mean Jaime?” the girl said. She rolled her eyes and Angel wanted to pry those eyelids open with her fingernails. “Of course you would be looking for Jaime. I should’ve known. Every little queen south of Fourteenth is looking for Jaime.”
“Well I got news for you,” Angel said, the sass in her voice unintended until it actually came out. “Do I look like one of those Fourteenth Street hippies? Girl, I am from da Boogie Down Bronx. Just look at this style.”
It was true that Angel shouldn’t have given off any other aura than that of the Bronx, and maybe if that girl wasn’t rolling her eyes up to the back of her head every time Angel spoke, she would’ve seen Angel’s cute white T-shirt and Yankees cap. Angel’s style that day was giving vibrations of the little flaco Boricua boy that Angel’s body inhabited. Only in those dark moments at night, when she was alone at home, would she allow herself to indulge in her feminine beauty.
The girl blew a giant gum bubble. A pink ball against black makeup. Angel watched as the bubble grew bigger and bigger and hit the tip of her nose. Then it popped. As she reeled the deflated gum back into her mouth, Angel saw the black lipstick smudged on the gum.
“Ugh,” the girl said, like it was a statement. “The Bronx.”
“Yeah,” Angel said. “What of it?”
“What a shithole.”
As it turned out, Jaime was on his lunch break. Angel should have figured that out, and even though the girl clearly wanted Angel out of her nose hairs, Angel stayed and pretended to finger through the racks of clothes that were too punk rock for her to ever pull off. When Jaime returned with a McDonald’s soda cup in his hand, the girl raised her eyes, popped her gum, and said, “Jaime baby, you got another visitor.”
The girl punched out and left without any goodbye. They were alone in the store and Angel was fishing for something to say. She settled on asking him what he got at Mickey D’s.
“That’s the question you’re gonna ask me?” Jaime said. He was smirking at her from where he stood at the back of the store, near the dressing room that was really nothing more than a side alcove with a red curtain as a door. “I remember you,” he said.
Angel was too nerviosa to ask something else, or dish out her usual dose of sass that she usually flung when someone was short with her. “Yeah,” she said. “I just wanted to know.”
Then, just like in her dreams, they stood at opposite ends of the store, alone, giving each other long eye contact in total silence. At least in the comfort of her fantasyland, she could startle herself awake, but she knew that now, since this was a real-life moment, she couldn’t do none of that. His eyes scanned her up and down and she felt naked under the heat of his attention. “Come over here,” he said. “There’s something I want you to do.”
Her heart raced as she walked over to the dressing room. Once they were inside together, Jaime pulled the curtain shut. Angel wanted to ask what would happen if a customer came in, but she knew better than to say anything. They both faced the mirror, which was an eight-foot ordeal leaned against the wall in all its hand-smudged glory. She loved that Jaime and the girl hadn’t even bothered to clean the glass that day, as if there was no point to cleaning a surface that would be smudged again.
Jaime sat down on the stool and told her to undress. When she was finally naked, nipples tight with excitement, Jaime said he’d be right back and swooshed around the curtain. He returned with a tight silver dress, size who-knows-how-small, but it fit Angel’s figure like plastic wrap over a plate of chuletas: tight but giving. She slipped it on and when she finally stared at herself in the mirror, then at Jaime staring at her through the mirror, she raised her arms to the side like she was about to launch into flight. Head back, mouth open, she closed her eyes and laughed. Free, she thought, totally free.
It was the kind of freedom you felt when someone was looking at you and finally saw what others couldn’t see because it had been bottled away for so long.
It was the kind of freedom you felt when someone was looking at you and finally saw what others couldn’t see because it had been bottled away for so long. Angel had walked into that store in boy clothes, and there was Jaime, who had seen her and knew. How Jaime had known that Angel was the type of maricón to wear a dress, Angel didn’t know.
When she turned around to face him, she saw his eyes devouring her. She felt it — like she had an invisible hook attached to her body and she was going to reel him in, until he was closer, closer, closer.
“Turn around,” he told her, grabbing her shoulders in order to swivel her body back around. “I wanna do something to you, you slut.”
She faced the mirror as he bent her body down enough so that he could pull the bottom of the dress above her hips. He bit her right nalga, then he slapped her ass. She wasn’t expecting it, as if it were a sheet of glass about to smash into a concrete slab. The next morning, she would look at the bite mark in the mirror and think about how it looked like an itty-bitty bear trap had closed in on her, but then, when the bell at the front of the store jingled, Jaime stopped slapping her ass. He told her not to make a sound, and then he left her there all alone.
The next weekend, Jaime told her to wear the silver dress and meet him at The Saint, where he worked as a bouncer. It was a side gig, he told her, so he could treat himself to some booze and angel dust every now and then. She was faithful to Jaime’s request: she wore the silver. Once she stepped outside, she was dressed like a woman for the first time outside the confines of her bedroom.
She took a jar of Vaseline, smeared it all over her face, and dabbed the rest on the bits of skin that were still exposed once she had the dress on. Then she dowsed herself in a bottle of glitter like she was shining brighter than a quinceañera dress. The goal was for her to embody silver in all its element — head to toe, didn’t matter if it was radiating off her skin or the fabric — she was silver.
“Girl, what is this, what is going on?” Jaime said when Angel arrived. His fingers buzzed around her, snapping here and there. She loved the way his triceps bulged whenever his arms moved. He was the kind of man who looked so lean in his clothes, even his muscles came as a surprise.
Behind her, a group of five denim-clad muscle-gods stood with crossed arms until they flashed their membership cards and Jaime waved them in.
“What?” Angel said. “You don’t like?”
“Oh, honey, I love me some glitter,” Jaime said. “But you took it way over the line.”
“What line!” She snapped her fingers once, then got closer to his face so she could whisper, “You know I don’t give no care about some line.”
“Ay, mi Angel,” he said. “Whatchoo think this is — Baby’s First Ballet Recital? You ever heard that saying, ‘Too much of a good thing’?”
“No,” she said, trying to make sure she didn’t cry in front of him. She knew that Jaime was right. She looked like a glitter factory exploded and she was caught in the center of it all. “But if it’s a good thing,” she wanted to know, “how can you ever have too much of it?”
“Honey,” Jaime said. “Look, it don’t matter. Next time, use enough glitter to accentuate, not distract.” He placed his hand on Angel’s culo and guided her through the door. “Come see me later,” he said and winked.
The Saint was off the hook. Shirtless chulos in leather pants, feather headdresses, crystal-encrusted nipple tassels, a man dressed like an Egyptian pharaoh pushed up against the side wall getting a blow job from not one but two boys dressed like Cleopatra. (There were normal guys too, in jeans and tight tees, but it was the locas that caught Angel’s eye.) A man in a neon-yellow thong walked over to Angel and grabbed her ass, smiled at her, and gave her a plastic cup filled with bubbling white wine and a strawberry slice that floated to the top. “On the house,” the chulo said before giving her an air-kiss. “The next one ain’t free though.”
The theme, Angel noticed from the posters that were taped to the golden theater doors was “history,” emphasis on the “his.” A shame that Jaime had not informed her of the theme (think of the possibilities!), although she thought she could always throw down the claim that glitter was timeless, and therefore, fit the essence of the theme.
Time passed not in minutes, but in drinks and the men who bought them for her. The Long Island from the club kid in the green spandex bodysuit, the Manhattan from the daddy in the blazer, the Bloody Mary (really? — it was one in the morning) from the muscular Italian guy with the gold chain crucifix that he told her was for bumping coke straight from the baggie.
When she was drunk enough to feel everything spinning, she leaned her head back. The dome ceiling was designed like a fucking planetarium. There was a chandelier of sorts with dozens of multi-colored lights projecting stars onto the dome in a dizzying jodienda. Angel could feel the booze tingling in her brain and buzzing with each pulse of her heart to the tips of her toes. Her chin, she was sure of it, was numb.
She turned around to search for Jaime, but everyone looked the same. Each man, almost identical to the last, with the exception of their outfit. She looked out again, through the sea of muscled bodies gleaming with sweat, and there he was, twirling around in his white tank and black jeans. But who the hell was next to him? Jaime was dancing with some boy dressed in a white toga. The garb was clipped together at the shoulder with a golden olive branch brooch. Angel took the celery stalk garnish out of the plastic cup and took a mean bite. She lit a cigarette and threw the Bloody Mary down to the floor. The liquid splashed at her ankles.
Smoking with one hand, chewing celery with la otra, she walked up to White Toga Bitch, finished eating the celery, and placed her free hand on Jaime’s crotch. And she squeezed. Squeezed like his balls were an orange and she was making Sunday morning juice, fresh for church. “Who is this?” Angel said to Jaime, but White Toga Bitch beat Jaime to it.
“Who the fuck are you?” White Toga Bitch screamed above the music.
“What?” Angel screamed back. “Who the fuck are you? You’re dancing with my man, girlfriend.”
“And what are you gonna do about it?”
Angel thought about ripping the olive branch out, for starters, so that the toga would fall to the floor and he’d be left standing there naked. How dare he take that tone with her when she was only asking a question.
White Toga put a hand on Angel’s shoulder to push her out of the way, but they were both too drunk for the fight to trip them up.
“Get your hand off me,” Angel said. “Or I’ll burn you.”
“Oh, you’re gonna burn me?” White Toga said, unbelieving.
Of course Angel didn’t mean it in a figurative sense. She wasn’t going to burn him with words, or dish out a piece of shade so dim it would melt the tears out of his eyes. Oh no. Angel was going to leave a literal mark. She was drunk, sure, but she was also learning how to be ferocious.
She was drunk, sure, but she was also learning how to be ferocious.
“I’m not gonna ask you again,” Angel projected so that the music wouldn’t hold back her words. She watched as Jaime watched them, just standing there. And with that, Angel took the tip of her cigarette and dug it into White Toga’s arm, on the inside-side of the elbow, where a heroin addict would shoot up. Most sensitive area of the arm. That’s why she picked it.
“You fucking bitch,” White Toga said, holding rage. “You fucking burned me.”
“You sound surprised,” Angel said.
“Fine, bitch,” he screamed. “You can have his skanky ass.” He snapped twice in her face, twirled around, and walked away.
“Damn,” Jaime said. “Didn’t know you had it in you.”
“Like hell you didn’t,” she said. “And don’t pull that shit on me again. I don’t need to see you macking it up with other people.”
He pulled her close and rubbed his hard dick against her leg. “You turn me on with your feisty spitfire.”
Jaime, with eyes that could melt the pyramids. Jaime, lean muscle fit perfectly in a leather jacket, as if he were the Puerto Rican James Dean. Jaime, the model on The Saint poster — his head thrust back as if in mid-orgasm, with rays of painted rainbows shooting upward. She placed her other hand around his back and on his shoulder blade and pulled him in, and even though she knew that he was a malcriado, a sinvergüenza, an up-to-no-good puto, she didn’t care because as the coke and the drink and the lights swirled around within her, she pressed her body up against his, trying her best to silently communicate everything that she desired.
If sex was a language, then Jaime knew all the letters, all the words. The next three months she spent in and out of Jaime’s bed, in and out of the claw-foot bathtub in the middle of his kitchen. He would make her huevos estrellados as she smoked cigarette after cigarette in the bubble bath, saying, “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed ma hair.”
She absorbed his sex. All it took was his hand on the inside of her thigh, or a serving of bedroom eyes at the right moment from across the bar, and she was his. And it was good. He taught her how to untwist a bottle of poppers with one hand. He held her other arm against her back as he fucked her. She huffed the poppers until she could feel her face flushing red, begging for him to go harder or deeper.
One day at the end of May, the birds that lived inside Jaime’s AC unit were chirping. It sounded like they were trapped and screaming to be freed. She was starting to get the feeling that Jaime wasn’t much of a bargain. He was conceited and thoughtless and messy. But it was a problem, of course, because she could tell that Jaime was falling for her — the sex had gone from Intensity So Rough She Couldn’t Sit For A Day to Intensity Cariñoso Como La Flor. It wasn’t that this set her off, but that she had come to view any trace amount of gentleness with distrust. After all, she thought, what was it that he wanted from her other than sex? She couldn’t wrap her mind around the possibility that anyone would want something more from her.
She couldn’t wrap her mind around the possibility that anyone would want something more from her.
She lay there next to him and wondered when he’d wake up so they could get the fucking over with and she could go home. She wondered how many side-boys he had. That is, if he had any.
It had been three years since Angel had fallen in love for the first time. His name was Kevin and he had lived in the same building as Angel before going off to UCLA on a soccer scholarship — one of the only boys in their building who was lucky enough to get out of state for college, or rather, to go to college at all. Angel was thirteen then. Kevin was on the verge of eighteen, had leg muscles harder than ripe aguacates, and was painfully straight. That didn’t stop Kevin from inviting Angel over to the apartment when his parents were out of town every other weekend. He poured the rum out of the plastic handle and mixed it with whatever they had at their grasp — jugo de naranja, Sprite, that coconut soda that was so sweet it burned the roof of Angel’s mouth.
He fucked her slowly because he said he didn’t want to cum too quickly. He was gentle but he kept his eyes closed. When he turned her over, she put her hand on his cheek and said, “Don’t you wanna see me?”
“Shh,” he said.
When he came, he told Angel to bite his nipple hard enough to make him feel, but not hard enough to draw blood. He pressed the back of her head into his chest and said, “I love you, Ana. Don’t ever leave me.”
And who the hell was Ana?! Angel had no idea, but she played along because that was easier than bringing it up. Angel’s worst fear was that Ana was some girl at the high school who had left him. The loca — who would ever leave a boy like him? So Angel thought that she could be Ana if that was what Kevin wanted. If Kevin wanted to fuck Angel facedown so that her boy parts weren’t showing, if Kevin wanted to close his eyes when he came and dream of a blonde girl with long flowy hair and nails that could scratch his back, then that was what Kevin wanted.
When Kevin left, he promised to write, he promised to call, but then nada. More silent than a fly in outer fucking space. She vowed she’d never open herself again. She smoked a cigarette and stared at her body in the mirror, wondering what it was that Kevin didn’t find good enough. She cocked her head like Bette and said to her reflection, “I’m still not to be had for the price of a cocktail, like a salted peanut.”
Jaime was still asleep and his arm was holding her down, close to his body. She slipped out from under his grasp and went to the cocina. She took out two eggs from the nevera and set a pot to boil. Her plan was to wait until they were perfectly hard-boiled. She would eat breakfast, then she would walk out of the door for good.
She could hear his snores from where she stood, as if someone were strangling him in his dream and he was struggling his best to fight for air. It never bothered her while she was in bed with him (when she was out, she was out cold) but listening was a different story.
When the eggs were done, she cooled them down under running water and cracked the outer shell off. She popped them into her mouth, looked around the apartment, and thought, What a dump.
She slipped on her heels and walked out the door to face the sunlight for the first time in lady clothes. Now she was a woman, she thought, as she walked out the door and up Avenue A in search of the nearest uptown bus. Now she was a woman, because now she had learned to muster up the courage to walk out that door for the first time in her life.
When she was outside her building, she called the apartment from a pay phone and Miguel picked up. She told him to meet her in the hallway, just outside the elevator, and when they were finally face- to-face, Miguel gave her a look like, oh shit.
Angel was still wearing the silver dress from the night before. Her hair was frizzy with sex, and she bet that she probably still smelled like Jaime — the whiskey and Camels and lavender incense that clouded his apartment.
“Shit,” Miguel said. “You walk here like that?”
“What do you think?” Angel said. “Course I did.”
“Damn lucky nobody beat the shit out of you.”
“What you think Mami’s gonna say?”
“Shit, pues no sé,” Miguel said. “Damn, Angel. Gonna get yourself killed. Whatchoo thinking?”
“Hasn’t happened yet,” Angel said, “so I dunno what to say to you.”
“Yet? Whatchoo think — she’s been drinking like always,” Miguel said, moving his hand up like he was draining a bottle, neck back.
When they entered the apartment, Angel tried her best to keep her head high like she was some Miss Universe runner-up, too proud to cry in front of the audience. Save the tears for when the doors are closed, she thought, just save them.
“Ma,” Miguel said. “Don’t flip out, okay?”
Y entonces, they just stood there, where the little hallway met the even smaller cocina, where their mother was preparing the tostones and the little dish of olive oil with mashed garlic chunks. Angel watched her as she looked at the silver dress, at the heels, at the hair-mess atop her head. Mami’s face went sour. “Ay, m’ijo,” she said. “So that’s where you went? Go fucking change into your right clothes. I pay for you to have jeans and shirts and you go off and dress like a puta?”
Mami placed the glass so gently on the counter that Angel could see the ice cubes sway, but couldn’t hear them clink together.
Angel regretted every decision she had made in the last hour. She wished that she could turn back time, crawl back into bed, and stay with Jaime. She had no idea what kind of bullshit was spinning through her mind to make her think that she could walk out the door dressed like that, like a whore. And of course Mami was drinking. Angel could have smacked herself for thinking so selfish — for thinking that just because she had made the decision to walk the streets as a woman, that her mother would be ready to accept that decision right there with her.
Angel could have smacked herself for thinking that just because she had made the decision to walk the streets as a woman, that her mother would be ready to accept that decision right there with her.
“You look like a no-class whore,” Mami said. So calm, like she was reading a time slot out of TV Guide.
Angel walked to the bedroom to change. He put on the T-shirt and sweatpants and looked at the boy in the mirror. The word whore sliced through him. Maybe Mami was right. Maybe he did look like a whore.
He glanced at the silver dress on the floor, as it lay there like a puddle of fabric, and began to cry. He looked at himself in the mirror again — at the face that was too fea to ever be beautiful without makeup or glitter, at the legs that were too flacas to be manly, at the hair that was growing out, but could never be long and luscious like a blonde swimsuit model. He stared at the reflection in the mirror and he saw a boy — a flaco little boy in sweatpants and a dirty T- shirt. He saw a boy who was now wearing his right clothes. He lay on the bed and cried into the pillow.
“No llores,” Miguel said. “C’mon, wipe those tears.” Angel didn’t hear the door open or Miguel walk in. He didn’t know how long he’d been all alone. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” Miguel said. “But you won’t look pretty if you’re crying all the times.”
Angel looked up at him, at that goofy smirk on his face. She smacked the side of his arm gently. “You joking?” she said. “Don’t joke with me like that.”
“Come on, Angel,” he said. “She’s drinking. She had a bad day.”
“Means tonight’s only gonna get worse.”
“Maybe, but that don’t mean you gotta be a bitch about it and cry. I got your back.”
Angel had never loved her younger brother more than right then. She would come back to this moment years later, after everything that happened, and marvel at how knowing her brother had been. How understanding. How comfortable in his own body that he could still look at his older brother, who was dressed like a whore in a silver dress, and understand.
“Be straight with me though,” Angel said. “You stoned right now?”
“Nah,” Miguel said. “I’m out of stuff. Why? You want some?”
“No, I don’t want some,” she said. “I want you to stop with that shit.”
Miguel laughed. “Look, I got your back. If you wanna dress like a girl or whatever, that’s alright. But I love my weed and you gotta let me love what I love, okay?”
Angel was standing too close to the pan. Pops of oil jumped up and burned the skin on his arm. He lifted each flattened banana chunk out of the bowl, where they’d been marinating in olive oil and minced garlic, and placed them in the pan so they could sizzle like burning chunks of flesh. When they were crisped just right, he took a fork, stabbed each one, and placed them on a paper towel to soak the oil out. He loved tostones, the way they crunched in his mouth and then settled into their own mushy kind of sweetness. Another droplet of oil burned his arm and he squealed.
“Mira,” Mami screamed, “you’re standing too close.” She grabbed his arm tight to pull him back and away from the stove. “You wanna get burned like that?”
Mami was downing a glass of water now to sober up because Miguel had drained the rest of the rum bottle down the sink when Mami went to the bathroom. Angel looked in the glass and saw the cubes of ice were melting away into little shards of their former selves. Mami’s breath stank like a pack of cigs left to curl in a bottle of Don Q.
“I’m fine, Mami,” Angel said.
“Yeah,” Miguel said from the kitchen table, as if he were backup support. He was doing his algebra homework. “It’s no biggie. I get burned all the time when I make tostones.”
“Oye, peanut gallery,” Mami shouted.
“Why don’t you take a seat,” Miguel said.
“I’m just telling him to move back so he doesn’t get burned.”
“Whateva,” Miguel said.
Angel admired the way that Miguel was good at algebra problems. There was a kind of beauty to it. One night, when Miguel was balancing an equation, he told Angel about something called equilibrium. He said that in order to solve a problem, you just had to make sure shit was balanced on both sides of the equal sign.
He formed the plátano and moved it from the burning oil.
“Así you’re just selling your culo down there with the maricones,” Mami said, “as if it was a pussy, is that what you’re telling me?”
“Ma!” Miguel said. “Stop it right now.”
“¿Y qué?” Mami said, swirling her drink and taking another gentle sip as if it were a fine brandy. “You think I don’t know how it is? I wasn’t selling nada when I was young because your father was a good man — it’s the truth.”
Angel added another tostón to the pan and it sizzled as it hit the oil. “I wasn’t selling nothing, Ma,” Angel said.
“Pues, I didn’t raise no mothafucking tonto, tampoco,” Mami said. “If you’re gonna do it, you better at least do it right and get paid, shi-i-t.”
“Ma, I said that’s enough,” Miguel said.
“Cállate, Miguel,” Mami said. “No estoy preocupada por ti. At least you got the looks to get a nice girl. Pero that one over there?”
Angel turned around and said as soft as the cotton fabric on her pillow, “Mami, por favor. You’re not being very nice.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Angel,” Mami said. “I didn’t raise you to be nice. The world ain’t nice. You think shit was nice when they pushed your father off this building?”
Mami started drinking more heavily the summer that Papi fell off the roof of their building. When the cops had arrived, Mami had screamed, Don’t tell me, don’t tell me, which in the months and years afterward had changed to, You’ll never understand, my husband was such a good man.
Angel was convinced that it was all her mother’s fault. That she had driven him off that roof with her misery. Miguel had said that he thought Papi was too sad to even think about any kind of life. Pero it was Mami who insisted that he had been pushed, and there were some days that Angel entertained the possibility that, just maybe, she was right.
“Nobody pushed him,” Angel said. “He fucking jumped so that he could get away from your crazy ass.”
Mami slapped Angel so hard, Angel had to catch her balance so she didn’t fall into the oil pan. “I am your mother,” she said. “Don’t you ever talk to me like that. You want to be a woman, then you better learn how it is, my son.”
Miguel watched from the table. Angel gave him a look that said, I got this. “You know, Mami,” Angel said. “You’re totally right. Papi was a good man.”
Mami held her head higher and closed her eyes. Her head moved like the bobblehead that Angel and Miguel had got at Yankee Stadium on Angel’s ninth birthday — all Papi’s idea. The best birthday gift Angel had ever got. Angel refused to believe what Miguel believed: that their father was too depressed to want to live, because then that would mean that Angel was part of the problem, o por lo menos, if Angel wasn’t part of the problem, she wasn’t part of the solution.
“He was a good man,” Angel said, digging deeper. She was searching for the right string of words that would burn Mami so hard. “And it’s amazing that he’d ever marry a woman like you.”
Mami slammed the glass against the floor and reached her hands out to grab hold. Before Angel knew it, Mami’s fingers were around her throat, squeezing mad hard. Angel only had a couple of seconds to think about her options — grab the pan of oil and clock Mami over the head? No, she could never burn her own mother. Kick her with a knee? Tampoco.
Miguel swooped in and carried Mami down the hall. She was screaming sounds that weren’t words, as if pain had no vocabulary comprehensible to the human ear. He pushed her into her bedroom, slammed the door shut, and locked the door from the outside.
“Go to bed,” Miguel shouted at her door as Mami banged on the other end. “You’re drunk, Ma. Bo-rra-cha and you don’t wear it good.”
Angel turned off the stove and poured the hot oil down the sink. When Miguel walked back into the kitchen, she handed him two tostones that were plopped on a bed of paper towels.
“¿En serio?” Miguel whispered to Angel. “You’re gonna bring up Papi when she’s fuckin’ wasted like that?”
Angel didn’t say nothing.
Miguel grabbed her arm and pulled her into the sala. “Okay, listen to me,” he said. “Punch me.” He puffed up his chest and swagged back and forth on both feet.
“What?” Angel said. “Are you buggin’?”
“Just punch me.”
“Mira, Angel,” Miguel said. “You gotta learn how to protect yourself. If you wanna be a chica, whatever. I still love you. But I’m not always gonna be there to throw shit down. You gotta learn how to throw a punch. So punch me.”
How was it, she thought, that two brothers could be born so different?
She punched him and her knuckles hit his chest muscles, which were harder than she expected. How was it, she thought, that two brothers could be born so different? That night, he taught her how to spray a guy straight in the eyes with a can of PAM. He told her to aim her knees at a dude’s balls and to really dig in as hard as possible. Because, he said, if she went after a man’s junk, they won’t fuck with her no more. She readied her second punch, then a third. “You think Papi would love me?” she asked.
“Damn, Angel,” he said. “That’s quite the fuckin’ question.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m just wondering.”
She watched as Miguel thought about it, one second, two seconds, three. “Sure,” Miguel said, but Angel could hear it in his voice — he wasn’t sure at all. Miguel had lingered too long before answering. But she smiled anyway, because she knew that Miguel was lying just to make her feel better about what they both would never — could never — actually know. She readied her fist and punched again, but this time, it landed like a gentle tap over her brother’s heart. ●
Joseph Cassara was born and raised in New Jersey to a Puerto Rican mother and Sicilian father. He graduated from Columbia University in 2012 and taught English lessons in Barcelona before completing an MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He received a 2016-17 writing fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. The House of Impossible Beauties is his debut novel. He currently lives in Iowa City, where he is at work on another novel. For more information, please visit www.josephcassara.com.
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