Papel Picado

By A.J. RODRIGUEZ

Right before her twenty-fifth birthday, Chacha shaved her head, shearing the long black hair I’d known my entire life down to tiny-ass stumps. Having not spoken to my half sister in months, I learned about her haircut through Cero Reyes in the hallway of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where I was a sophomore. He was the little brother of her number-one homegirl, Cici, and had been there that past weekend at his parents’ hacienda up in the North Valley, banging on the bathroom door while our hermanas conspired Chacha’s new look.

I had to take a fucken piss, he said. Real bad too, but they spent over an hour in there, all giggling n’ shit.

You got a fuckload of bathrooms, I replied, gathering books from my locker to show the huevón I had other priorities. You coulda pissed in any of them.

“Cero” was a nickname that translated to nothing. It had carved this wiry, tacuache-looking vato since the day he could talk. Dude blabbered so much as a baby, stringing together words in an order that, according to his parents, made zero sense. He belonged to a family that made a name for itself in Juárez through some maquiladora empire. They’d moved to Albuquerque once his mami announced her desire to start a turquoise jewelry business. A couple years later, Cici popped into their world, who then met Chacha in a dance class for toddlers, and next thing you know they form this lifelong bond, a friendship so strong it forced me to spend too much of my childhood on a giant estate where I couldn’t help but wish my parents never divorced—wish we had enough skina to get out the varrio—wish my mother wasn’t such a pinche gringa and my pocho father spoke better Spanish.

That ain’t the point, Cero continued. It’s my bathroom, cuh. They used my shaving kit. Your sis’s hair was on the sink, shower, mirror—even the fucken toilet seat!

Dunno whatchu want me to do about it. Chacha’s not my problem—she’s all grown.

A sore reminder squeezed my stomach then. Earlier that year, Chacha had landed a gig as a social worker for migrante children who’d lost their parents at the border, which prompted her to move out from Pops’s pad into a casita near Old Town with Cici, who was bartending or designing clothes or running some gallery. Even though it’d been years since she was the teenager that bathed, fed, and dressed me during my father’s weeks, some part of me felt vacant with Chacha gone, like a wall in my life was missing half its bricks. And through the gap she’d created, stripping her books and plants and artwork from our home, I was left with nothing but Pops’s stare and the entire weight of his expectation for me to turn into the man I’m supposed to be.

Goddamn, Cero wheezed. I’m just saying they used my shit n’ now her hair is all over my fucken bathroom.

Whatever, joyo. You smell like skunk roadkill, n’ I’m not tryna be caught with your pot shit.

You saying you wanna bake? I got that loud right here in my pack, cuh.

Cero was leaning against the lockers, broadcasting puffed eyelids and an acne-speckled gaze caught in the distance between us. Seeing cabrón all faded reminded me why I stopped hanging around his ass as soon as our sisters left for college. Dude had turned into one of them chamacos who wanted to live in a 50 Cent music video—hence the bleached and patterned jeans, the square-cut studs on each ear. ’Cus of the neighborhood I came from, which he’d never visited, Cero acted as if our relationship gave him some kind of cholo ID card, even though I was the pale ese on my block who cared more about collecting comic books than racking up stacks or hynas or whatever.

But avoiding Cero had become impossible since scoring a wrestling scholarship to this gabacho-ass school. I’d ended up at Our Lady ’cus Pops had pushed me to follow the same path he’d paved at my age. That’s how my father had punched his ticket, starving and hurling his body against the weight of others. That shit got him into college—got him a steady systems-manager gig—got him to break the cycle of his delinquent, dropout hermanos and teenage-pregnancy hermanas. So now it was my job to take it one step further, do what Pops couldn’t: escape the Burqueño ghetto for good.

I looked sideways, past Cero and down the white linoleum hall. My gaze weaved through the river of bobbing backpacks, and my thoughts swam to Chacha. When she was at Pops’s place those last months, and I was tryna keep my head afloat between practice and studying, the voices of my father and half sister would thunder off the walls nightly. Neither of them could unpack their own baggage, especially about Chacha’s never-ending refusal of our father’s wishes, so most of their arguments had to do with what was too much or not enough for me. It was an old game of theirs, using each other’s faults to prove how they knew what was really best for the family’s baby. The echoes of it all still filled the silence of Pops’s pad, and it was starting to scrape away the lining of my nerves.

I don’t got time for this Cheech n’ Chong shit, I finally said, straightening myself. I got class. So do you, foo’.

Damn, aight, cuh, Cero replied. But if Chacha wants to give herself some fucken lencha haircut again, that puta perrita better not use my—

Maybe it was the way he said it, how easily this dickhead could degrade Chacha in a language I couldn’t speak without sounding like my tongue was swamped in peanut butter. Or maybe it was just a long time coming, the end of a fuse that burned faster the more I watched the leaves of my world change and fall without any say in the matter. Either way, I had my forearm jammed into Cero’s neck and his body slammed against the hollow metal like a crash dummy. The bang created a car-accident reverberation, and for a split hair of time, quiet sealed the hall, alarmed kids surveying the scene. In that second, shock shredded away the smirk that’d been scrunching the peach fuzz on Cero’s lip. I was staring into the naked, vibrating eyes of someone who saw me as a friend, who couldn’t believe what this friend was doing to him. It was almost enough for me to let go.

But the moment snapped when a voice screamed Worldstar!, which ignited a cacophony of adolescent roars, propelling my fist through the air. As my bones crashed into Cero’s, I didn’t think about how I was giving these gabachos what they wanted, how I was ruining Pops’s dream for me. Instead I felt the memories of Cero Reyes calling me a joto for singing along to Selena with our sisters, of him drowning bugs and lizards in my lemonade, of Chacha and Cici cleaning horse shit off my body after he’d convinced me it had magical powers that would bring my parents back together.

I landed as many knocks as possible before the school security guard ripped me off Cero’s limp frame. While I was being dragged away, my heart was a machine gun, each pulse shooting bullets of triumph and dread through my blood vessels.

 

Moms was the one to pick me up. It was her week, and when I hopped in her Outback, she faced me directly, frizzy hair rustling in the AC’s blast. Even though she didn’t want to put the car in drive until I offered an explanation, I stayed mute, staring down the road, which arrowed east, aiming at the Sandias. The thirty-mile journey to Moms’s pad way out in Placitas ran north, parallel to these mountains. Ever since she relocated there a couple years back for that librarian gig in Santa Fe, I’d started shutting my mother out. I wanted to let the gabacha know how much it killed me to spend time away from the varrio I was raised in, the varrio where we’d once been a family. On our rides, I’d ignore my mother’s small talk and focus on the sunset painting the Sandias’ colossal rocks in deepening shades of pink. Their glow gave me a flicker of comfort, a reminder that no matter whose house I found myself in, the mountains of my city would be right there, unmoved.

Well? Moms finally asked, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel.

I said nothing and passed her a note from Father McAllister, the egg-shaped gabacho who served as Our Lady’s principal and wrestling coach. He’d been there since the late seventies, back when hynas weren’t allowed to attend and Pops led his squad to the school’s first and only state title. Father McAllister was all boastful about Pops, brought his accomplishments up every time I underperformed. He said I should be more like him, that I was spoiling all the God-given talent in my genes. That shit boiled my blood, inflamed a desire to show Father MacAllister and every other motherfucker that I deserved my spot, which was exactly the response he wanted from me.

I’d been sent to him after my beatdown of Cero. The gabacho was supposed to come up with a punishment, but all he did was talk about prepping for the weekend’s meet, interrogating me about making weight. I’d given assurances—even though my ass had pushed 180 on the scale that morning, ten pounds above where I needed to be. Near the end of our meeting, Father McAllister finally got around to asking what Cero had said to earn him the butt-whooping. I mumbled through the translation of what he’d called Chacha, throat tightening with nausea as my mouth mirrored the shape of those words. The Father gasped all dramatic before saying my precious sister didn’t have an ill bone in her body, and I thought about how she would’ve gagged at that, how she’d always tell me about her grind to keep a grade-based scholarship at Our Lady while dealing with teachers who constantly measured the length of her skirt and sent her home whenever she dyed or put glitter in her hair.

Father McAllister used Cero’s blasphemous speech as an excuse to make my suspension short enough so that I could wrestle Saturday. Despite my relief, guilt was spilling into my gut. Hadn’t I punched a kid so bad that the flesh of my knuckles had ripped? Maybe I was just let down that I still had to lose all those pounds by the end of the week, but part of me wanted some guarantee that Cero was okay, to tell him I didn’t know what had come over me.          

Moms glanced at Father McAllister’s note, which contained a detailed dietary and exercise regimen. She closed her eyes and sighed.

This seems excessive, she said.

Gotta make weight. Big meet this weekend.

Do you even want to do this to your body?

I shrugged and kept my head straight.

When Father McAllister called me to come get you, he said you and Cero Reyes got into it. Care to tell me what happened?

I sat on my swollen hand to keep it from my mother’s view. Ignoring the pain, I started throwing her half truths and half lies. I said Cero was being disrespectful, that he’d pushed me first, that it was self-defense. I didn’t mention what he’d said about Chacha. I was sick of reliving those words, of having to think about them and her in the same sentence. All Moms gave in return was a tongue click, the kind she used as a substitute for yelling and swearing.

You know better than to act out like that, she said. Just remove yourself from pointless arguments—from mean-spirited people like Cero. Making reckless decisions can cost you a lot.

I winced and turned toward Moms for the first time, my face wrung by exhaustion. Her blue eyes wilted like she’d been shown a wounded animal.

Can you just drive already? I asked. I wanna go home.

Halfway through our ride, as the urban scenery bled into shrub-speckled hills, Moms asked if I’d heard about Chacha’s new haircut, disrupting my mindless tracing of the landscape.

How’d you know about that? I shot back, feeling a needle in my stomach at how everyone except me got this update from my half sister.

I talk to Chacha on occasion, Moms said. She may not be mine, but I practically raised that girl before your dad and I ended things. I reached out to wish her a happy birthday, and she sent me this selfie.

With her available hand, Moms scrolled through her phone, lips settled in a grin as she offered it over to me. On the screen, with her hair reduced to grains of black sand, Chacha’s face was a full moon. Two hoops hung freely from her ears. They dangled next to the angular jaw that framed her stare, which was highlighted by wine-colored lipstick and punctuated by soil-brown eyes, the same color as mine and our father’s yet somehow able to reflect more light. ’Cus of her half-Sicilian blood—which flowed from a mother who ditched Pops for Scottsdale and the businessman she’d been fucken on the down-low—Chacha shined two or three shades darker than me, passing as full-blown Raza. It showed in that image. Without the billowing hair, Chacha’s skin took center stage, so warm and glowing that it brought to life a memory of pinching my flesh in front of our bathroom mirror to make it match the tone of hers and Pops’s, which only turned it pinker and pinker till bruising purple. I put my mother’s phone in the cupholder before cooling my reddened face against the window.

Is this the first time you’re seeing her new look? Moms asked.

I nodded tightly and tried to texture indifference onto my expression.

I’m sure Chacha will reach out soon. She has some big plans for this weekend.

The lifting of my mother’s voice made it seem like she was hyping me up for Santa’s arrival, which prompted a sneering Oh boy! from me. But Moms took this like she always did, a cue to ignore my ass and start rambling about whatever was on her mind.

Have I ever told you about the wedding dress I wore when I married your dad?

Without waiting for a reply, she began recounting every single damn reason that brought her to Albuquerque: the gabacho she married in Orange County instead of finishing college—the years spent in his controlling way of life—the rebellion against him and her parents’ wishes—the divorce and the nighttime degrees and the impulsive move to New Mexico—that smitten IT vato with the cute daughter she met while working at the community college library—the happy makeshift family they glued together—the unexpected pregnancy that changed everything.

I’d heard each of these details throughout the years, picked them up anecdote by anecdote, constructing what I’d thought was a solid fossil of my mother’s past. But something about hearing it come from her mouth all at once slapped me with the feeling that I didn’t really know this woman. She went on to say that when her and Pops found out I was growing in her belly, my father wanted to make things official, legitimize his family in the eyes of God and the law. My mother couldn’t see any other way to give me a stable upbringing, so against her better judgment she agreed to get married a second time. But she said she needed to make it different somehow. That’s why, for my parents’ wedding at the Bernalillo Municipal Courthouse, Moms bought a blue dress from some flea market. She claimed wearing that casual, colorful thing gave her a way to reject the repetitive expectations of life, a small but necessary reminder that she still had some say in how it all played out.

Whatever point my mother was tryna make flew right over my head, even though part of me wanted to give her story a worthwhile meaning, maybe turn it into a conversation. But my hand was screaming in protest, so I just leaned farther away from her as we approached Placitas. The Sandias had tailed out behind passing hills, and the sun was nearly done with its goodbye to our sky, dyeing the desert in a cool indigo. Although my mother didn’t specify the shade of her blue wedding dress, I imagined it looked a lot like this, the hue of a day ending, a calm before the bullshit of tomorrow comes.

Upon pulling into her driveway, Moms cleared her throat one last time before explaining that she’d been thinking about her old dress ever since talking to Chacha and seeing that new haircut.

I’m proud of the woman your sister is becoming, she said. Lord knows Chacha figured it out long before I did, making her own choices despite the obligations life throws at us. You could learn a thing or two from her.

Then she slammed the door, leaving me to sit with nothing but a ringing in my ears.

 

Chacha hit me up a couple days into my suspension. I’d spent most of that time in bed with the shades shut tight. Father McAllister’s note, which I hadn’t followed beyond eating less, was pinned against the fridge like a No Trespassing sign. The text from my half sister, full of exclamation points and question marks, asked if I was down to grab dinner with Pops. I thought of sitting through an entire evening of my father’s wordless disapproval, of Chacha calling out that disapproval, of me being stuck in the middle. I began typing a rejection, using my suspension as an excuse, but the effort to convince myself of that reasoning stopped my fingers midsentence. I dropped my phone next to me and wrapped a blanket over my shoulders. After what could’ve been seconds or minutes or hours, I felt the vibration of another text from Chacha, which I already knew would contain an inescapable assumption, that she’d confirmed my attendance as if she were still in charge of my whereabouts. If my hand hadn’t been so sore, I would’ve beat my pillow to death.

Chacha and Pops were waiting outside Delgado’s when Moms dropped me off. Once she came into full view, Chacha looked more chingona—more new and grown—than she had on that small-ass phone screen. She wore the same hoops and lipstick along with a leather jacket caped over her black tank top. Between two fingers, sharpened by scarlet nails, rested a cigarette. Pops had positioned himself upwind from her, as far from my mother’s car as possible, hands crammed into his work khakis, wrinkling his nostrils as if to reject the smoke swirling around him. The vato never approved of his daughter’s cancer habit, but was too aware of all the shit she did for him—for me—to police her life choices. Or maybe he just felt ashamed at how early he’d let Chacha turn into an adult, that telling her to quit would be too little, too late.

When I was in range, Chacha stomped the frajo and ran to me with arms spread-eagle. Without warning, she clamped her hands around my cheeks and planted her lips on the center of my forehead, imprinting a red brand onto the same spot she’d always kissed ever since holding me as a newborn.

Ay, mi ’ermanito, she said. You’re so fucken big! Has it been that long? Sorry for giving you a third eye there.

Chacha licked her thumb and jammed it into my brow. After assessing the damage, she snickered at her failure to wipe the mark off me.

Guess you’re stuck with it tonight, she said. Maybe someone will think you’re some kinda player.

I tried to muster a laugh, but all the time spent in bed resenting the world had clumped together in my throat like hair in a drain. I could only manage a compliment about Chacha’s new ’do, saying she looked like a bad-ass chola, following it up with a happy birthday.

Y’know, she said, people usually spit that well-wishing shit right before handing over a present, so whatchu got for me, huh?

My eyes opened to an embarrassing width, which Chacha read easily, reacting with a curl of her smile.

Órale, she said, shoving me. No present? Pues, you better make up for it by buying me some pinche margaritas. I don’t care if you’re fifteen or whatever—you gotta start learning how to treat a bitch right!

Pops approached us then, the jacket that’d fallen off Chacha in her rush to greet me draped over his forearm. She swiped it from him with an overexaggerated bow and sauntered toward the restaurant, leaving me alone with our father. We traded nods and hugged, a compromise for not wanting to speak to one another. My right arm, still tender, crept around Pops’s short, bearlike frame, while his patted my back cautiously. The vato had always been unsure of how to touch his ’ijos, which I figured was a consequence of living a childhood defined by fists and belts and chanclas. As we peeled off each other, I felt the ghost of my father’s championship body creak underneath the weight of middle age, reminding me that he’d been through a lot. Guilt sprinkled over me again—guilt over how I was failing to make equivalent sacrifices. But as I walked alongside Pops without exchanging a single sound, annoyance took over at how my emotions kept running around the same damn circle.

Delgado’s was the one New Mexican chain all ends of the color spectrum found acceptable. Their menu was cheap and had enough sabor to make you feel like less of a traitor to your abuelita’s cocina, yet also featured enough Tex-Mex crowd-pleasers so as not to scare off the gabacho palette. Growing up, I saw the boom of their success, watched franchise after franchise sprout up around Albuquerque. But not too long after my parents’ divorce, the Delgado family expanded across state lines, opening joints in Phoenix and even fucken Las Vegas. Six months later they went bankrupt, forcing the Delgado family to sell their name and close all locations except this one—the one we ate at. Their shit never tasted the same, but I still felt a sense of pride here. Our joint was still alive. Our joint had survived.

Facing Pops, me and Chacha sat shoulder to shoulder in a booth across from the cantina. A collage of papel picado hung above us. Delgado’s went over the top with it, every square foot woven by laundry lines of colorful tissue flags. My favorite game as a chiquito was picking a handful of these sheets with my family and coming up with stories based off the images we saw. Together the four of us constellated a whole universe up there, each piece of papel picado a different page from a different world. Despite it all seeming pretty fucken silly to me at that point, the first thing I’d done upon sitting down was look up to the canopy in search of another story. There was a red calavera, some yellow flowers, two blue palomas. I couldn’t think of shit to connect them. I shook my head to scold myself, kick out the childish part of me longing to play my dead family’s game again.

So, ’ermanito, Chacha said after slurping down her fourth margarita, dafuck happened with you throwing all those jodasos at Cero, huh?

I grimaced down at my plate, which was just a collection of soggy tortillas, ’cus Pops had suggested, repeatedly, that I eat nothing but the chicken on the tacos I’d ordered. Until then the meal had been uneventful—even entertaining at times, with Chacha starting to get all peda—but I figured my actions had to be addressed sooner or later. Her question hung in the air, and I could feel Pops breathing in and out like a chain-smoker.

Cabrón was talking shit, I said. Guess I just snapped.

Talking shit about what? Chacha asked, eyes narrowing, naked head emphasizing the severity in her stare, making it seem like she wanted to tear into something with her teeth.

I knew details of the fight would snake back to her—probably through Cici. So, understanding Cero, Chacha wanted to find out what pendejada thing he’d said to detonate her baby brother’s fists. But over the past few days, I’d begun questioning what he’d really done. The culero’s words never felt like the complete reason for my eruption. Even Cero himself wasn’t big enough to fit the bill. How could I explain that? How could I pack a life’s worth of discomfort into a couple lousy-ass sentences?

Y’know, I said. The usual.

Pops took advantage of Chacha’s dissatisfied pause to bulldoze into the conversation.

So you jeopardize everything? he asked. You jeopardize your education and your future and all those years of hard work over some trash talk?

A you-don’t-know-shit was ready to burst out my mouth, but I bowed my head instead, feeling like I always did in these situations—like each of my father’s words was a brick on my back.

Chale, Apá, Chacha said. You never had to deal with that mamón before. If it weren’t for Cici, I woulda beat Cero’s ass so many times.

Never mind that Reyes boy, Pops said. You don’t think your father had to put up with heinous things those kids at that school said?

We all did! Chacha responded. Stop tryna act like you’re some perfect role model. Sometimes the shit just gets to you, n’ you can’t blame your own fucken son for having enough. Give him a damn break for once.

Well—

Nah-uh, Apá. Not tonight. Not at my fucken birthday dinner.

We sat in each other’s silence then, a thousand unsaid things simmering along with the cantina’s buzz. I looked up to those sheets of papel picado, wishing to float away from our table, from the size of my body. But the images and colors remained stubborn, refusing connection. Finally, Chacha gulped some of her new drink and cleared her voice.

Oye, ’ermanito, she said, kicking my leg to stop its bouncing. They taught you about La Malinche at that white-ass Catholic school?

I shook my head as fast as I’d been tapping my foot.

Go figure. I had to take out some fucken student loans for that.

I glanced at Pops, expecting something to snap, since him and Chacha used to argue over her desire to experience life outside Albuquerque and major in Chicana studies instead of a more practical pursuit. But rather than commenting, my father kept his brow furrowed at his watery michelada, which he stirred intently, pinching the straw hard enough that his whole arm shuddered. Normally I’d see this restraint as a display of power, but something about his eyes or posture or greying goatee made me think the only fight left in him was to stay awake. Chacha didn’t seem to notice, jumping right into a lecture about some Nahua woman who changed the world.

From what I could pick up, back in whatever century, the hyna was traded as a slave from tribe to tribe, learning all these languages until she fell into the hands of Hernán Cortés. Once the head conquistador understood she could read the tongues of his savage enemies, Hernán made homegirl his translator, and she ended up playing this big role in helping the OG gabachos overthrow los Indios. But somewhere along the way, Hernán knocked his translator up, which meant he had to get this babymama baptized. As the hyna raised her half-colonized, half-colonizer kid, accounts of her life evolve, pass through the filters of history until La Malinche becomes this larger-than-life thing: a symbol of betrayal, the ultimate victim of whiteboy patriarchy, the creator of the first mestizo, a piece of nationalist propaganda, the root of our ancestral tree.

While listening to Chacha weave all this together, I remembered the papel picado game was her idea. She’d been doing it with my parents before I entered the picture, which got me wondering why she felt the need to imprint her imagination onto those pages hanging from the ceiling. Had Chacha also wanted to escape a world that didn’t seem to have a place carved out for her?

At first I didn’t understand what to make of La Malinche, she said, speaking as if she wasn’t five drinks deep. But the more I think about it, the more I recognize we don’t know what the fuck La Malinche, the woman, actually did. All we have are legends n’ interpretations. That shit has me questioning who I am n’ what kinda stories I’d like to live in. So now that I’m about to hit twenty-five, I’ve decided to start a new chapter, n’ I’m gonna do something to mark the day it begins. This was the first step, she said, making a windshield-wipe gesture over her shaved head. The next step is a quinceañera, a celebration I’m throwing Friday to debut the woman I wanna be. But I’m not pulling any corny-ass church shit; it’s just gonna be a pachanga in our backyard with my own kinda ceremony.

Why a quinceañera? I asked before realizing I’d opened my mouth.

’Cus I never had one, baboso! Fifteen was when I was going through it at Our Lady, n’ life at home was a fucken desmadre with your baby ass n’ Apá’s whole second divorce. I don’t think I woulda even wanted a quince. But now I’ve learned from La Malinche that I can remix history any damn way I please.

And what? Pops asked, his voice taking one big bite from the air. You want us to participate in this… gathering?

Actually, all I need is mi ’ermanito.

What? Me and Pops responded in unison, but the drunken shouts of strangers drowned out the growl of his reply and the breathless scratch of mine.

Look, Apá, Chacha said, vowels loose and slurred. I love you, but this thing doesn’t require you—or any parent. Just us this time.

She put her arm around me, and I felt my leg going all jackhammer again.

So this is why you brought us here? To tell your father he doesn’t fit the theme of your birthday party?

Even though Pops was sticking to that typical way of arguing—refusing to refer to himself in first person, relying on questions packed with accusations—there was a strangeness to his voice. It didn’t slap me with its usual sting, as if something tight had wrapped around his chest, restricting his fire. It reminded me of how I found myself speaking most of the time—guarded, preoccupied with tending some unseeable wound. I was surprised by how much disappointment I felt at the thought of that similarity.

Don’t be like that, Apá, Chacha said, pulling me even closer. I’m not tryna shut you out. Tonight’s our night together. You wouldn’t even like that scene—I’m doing you a favor.

That’s fine, our father replied, punching two pieces of gum from its packaging with his thumbs, which I knew he planned to grind between his teeth like red meat. But your brother can’t attend an event where alcohol is involved. He has a meet the next morning.

Too bad, Chacha snapped. I already cleared it with Eileen, n’ it’s her court-ordered week. But I promise to keep your son safe. He’ll be all ready-to-rumble come Saturday.

Then she squeezed my shoulder, as if letting me in on a secret, which ignited a tornado of exhilaration and terror in my brain. Pops rattled his squinted eyes between us, chomping away at the gum. Chacha uncurled her arm from me and leaned forward, a batter anticipating a pitch. My nearly empty stomach growled, and I realized that I was over these standoffs. I was ready to care about anything other than the same tired story.

So be it, Pops sighed, motioning for the check. It’s in your hands now, m’ijo. You should think on your mistakes and discern the responsible choice. Don’t forget how thin the ice is.

Then he stood and excused himself to take a piss. As our father walked away, Chacha slouched against me and laughed softly, a smoothie of alcohol and salsa polluting my nose.

Don’t worry about him, she said. If the culero tries to start something, I’ll shut it down real quick. I gotchu. Pa’ siempre. Okay?

I inhaled, ready to repeat her okay, but my lungs froze once a recognition hit that Pops wasn’t going to do shit, that he’d abandoned our table and left Chacha to steal another decision from me, one I’d been hoping, ashamedly, he’d save me from. The idea of having to place myself in an environment with so much newness, so much room for the guardrails to disappear, made me feel like I’d be walking some impossibly narrow tightrope. The disappointment was bleeding all over me then, and I wanted to crawl out of my skin. So instead of accepting Chacha’s weight against mine, I pulled away and let her slump over. I swallowed everything in my mouth, creating space for independence.

I don’t need you to protect me—

Oye, Chacha interrupted, swaying upright like nothing had been said or done. Be sure to wear something redFriday.

My eyelids sputtered. I tuned my ears to the cantina’s frequency, tryna gauge if the drone of our surroundings could’ve really washed my words from the world.

Did you actually not hear what I—

Just wait, ’ermanito, Chacha said into her empty drink, as if she were completely alone. Wait till you see what life is like when you start living for yourself.

Whatever you say, I replied through gritted teeth, deciding then that there was no fucken way I was pulling up to her stupid-ass quince.

 

Moms had other plans. An hour before the event, she knocked on my bedroom door and asked when I needed to be dropped off. I muttered my intentions, repeating them louder after she told me to, which set off an exciting firework of numbness in my chest.

You can’t do that to your sister, she said while swinging open the door. It’ll break her heart.

What happened to saying no to life’s obligations?

Moms did one of those things with her face, turning it into the perfect reflection of her emotional state. I could read the disgust in her frown lines.

You know that’s not what I meant, she said, yanking open the shades. You don’t do that to people you love.

If so much light wasn’t clawing my vision, I would’ve thrown a comeback that’d stay lodged in Moms’s heart for the entire drive to Chacha’s, something to make the journey as painful for her as it would be for me. But the sun felt inches above my body, so, as my mother told me to get ready, I just put a hand over my eyes.

I don’t have anything to wear, I said into my blindness.

Wear what I bought you for homecoming. It’s hanging in your closet—dry-cleaned and everything.

But I—

And be downstairs in ten, she said. We’re already going to be late.

The eagerness tickling up my spine was the worst part about rolling out of bed and fishing through the rack of clothes. But as much as I wanted the feeling to stop, it only intensified as I slipped on the starchy black dress pants and the matching button-up and the turquoise vest and bowtie. Shit reached an unbearable peak when I fastened my splash of red to my chest, a plastic rose boutonniere my date had given me, which I’d kept in a shoebox as a trophy for finally getting to second base. Still, on our way to Chacha’s, I made sure to avoid all mirrors and windows and glass, afraid that I’d see a childish grin staring back at me.

Their casita was flat, plastered in a grainy white paint, and shaped like every other adobe-looking joint. Behind it loomed the Sandias, their vastness turning the house into a dot on Albuquerque’s sunset canvas. A note was taped to the front door saying guests should head to the backyard. As soon as I stepped onto the strawlike grass, a realization that I was both over- and underdressed kicked me in the nuts. My formal-dance-looking ass was the only one who missed the memo that “wear something red” really meant wear all red. Even the light bulbs zigzagging across the trees had been covered in a crimson film, making the air glow with a warmth that vibrated along with cumbia beats bumping from professional-grade speakers. The small yard was stuffed with tattooed and nose-ringed artistas, beret-capped Che wannabes, and tired-looking people with glasses who must’ve been Chacha’s colleagues. When their eyes began drifting my way, a bucket of humiliation spilled over me like that scene in Carrie with all the pig blood. I was seconds from sprinting off into the streets when a voice chirped my name. Cici Reyes emerged from the red horde, catwalking toward me in a long scarlet dress, her auburn, waist-level hair dancing around like a campfire. She slipped an arm around me, the other holding a cup of some loud-smelling liquid, and every confused boyhood attraction to her flooded back into my cheeks.

El Hermanito finally arrives! she said. Lookatchu all dressed up for your sister’s big night. Que pinche adorable!

Mortified, I twitched my head in thanks and attempted to meet her gaze, but Cici had rimmed her eyes with a cherry shadow that made me feel even more self-conscious. I surveyed the crowd and asked where Chacha was, tryna throw as much bass into my voice as possible.

It’s her quince, dummy! She’s gotta wait inside until it’s time for La Entrada.

I moaned like I knew what she was talking about, but Cici laughed and told me not to worry, that she’d explain the whole process and my special role in it. Before I could respond or gather the will to escape, she grabbed my hand and started parading me through the mob of strangers. We arrived at a line of foldable tables joined together under one giant tarp, a clutter of tinfoil-wrapped dishes sprawled on top of it. While I tried not to think of all the food I’d missed out on that week, Cici pulled a nude Barbie doll and a rhinestone tiara from underneath the red sheet.

Mira, she said. La joya y la última muñeca. Normally Mami and Papi present these to the quinceañera, but since we have our own version of family here tonight, you and me will be the ones giving them to Chacha. When she makes La Entrada, we’ll be waiting, and you’ll give your sister this doll. It’s supposed to represent the last time she plays with her baby toys. Ya sé, bien culero, pero that’s kinda the point Chachita wants to make—same thing with the red—a fuck-you to the pink girls wear at quinces. Anyway, once she receives la última muñeca, I’ll crown her with this tiara, and then we party!

Cici pried my palm open and placed the Barbie in it. I felt the synthetic hair against my skin and noticed its blank, plastic crotch. I remembered when I found one of Chacha’s old dolls while unpacking at the place Pops moved into after getting kicked out for sleeping around. I took it to the bathroom and peeled off the tiny dress, my heart thumping hard as I tried to uncover what my father was chasing those nights he stayed out too late. But all I found was a smooth nothingness. For a long time that’s what I believed every naked woman looked like.

A hush grew over the yard as some hyna zipped out the backdoor and whisper-yelled to shut up and get ready. Everybody shuffled into position, a red sea parting before my eyes. Me and Cici stood facing the casita, our backs to the darkening mountains. With the sun now a fingernail, the atmosphere was once again that shade of cool indigo.

An explosion surged from the speakers. Cymbals crashed over the melody of some karaoke-sounding synth, paving the way for a cowbell and bongos to infect our bodies with rhythm. It was Selena’s “Amor Prohibido,” a jam I was convinced every Burqueño could sing along to whether they spoke Spanish or not. But none of them could belt the lyrics as perfect as Chacha. If I had closed my eyes then, I could’ve attached to each word a different memory of her serenading the world.

As Chacha emerged and stepped into the red light, the song’s pulse seemed to magnet onto her, making her its heart. She’d donned an obsidian Charro suit accented by ruby stitching that laced across her figure, threading a design of bird wings and feathers. Her face was painted like a calavera, complete with a wispy mustache and unibrow. Geometric flower petals looped around her eyes, matching the giant rose crowned on her head. Had Chacha also seen those same sheets of papel picado at Delgado’s? Or had the images just smeared together in my remembering?

The chorus hit and Selena’s voice soared through the air, tickling the back of my neck and causing Chacha to sashay through the aisle of people, hands on hips, high-heeled strides falling in time with the percussion, the crowd shouting and clapping along. When she reached me and Cici, the music had faded, and I was left feeling like I’d witnessed someone walk on water.

I think you have something to give me, ’ermanito, she said, using a lullaby tone I thought I’d never hear again, one that immediately evaporated all the bullshit of that past week—that past year—that whole length of time separating me from the days when the family was together in one home and life was as infinite and bright as Albuquerque’s sky.

I handed Chacha the Barbie. She held it against her chest, grinning at me while I choked on laughter and tears I hadn’t realized were hiding behind my face. Then she turned toward Cici, who had her own streams leaking out and the tiara wobbling in a raised hand. When Chacha plucked it from her, their faces were inches away, eyes perfectly aligned.

That’s when it clicked—not when Chacha tossed the doll over the fence and snapped the tiara in half—not when she embraced Cici and kissed her—not when they danced with their limbs woven together. It was there, always there, in the moments when they were so close to touching, swimming in some immeasurable space. How could I not have seen love when it’d been waving at me all these years?

After their kiss, the backyard burst into a full-on pachanga, the cumbia roaring back to life. All around me were jumping, ecstatic bodies, each with their own way of moving and smiling. Someone gave me a cup filled with whatever potion Cici had been drinking, and I chugged it down, craving to reach whatever level they were on.

As the night blurred on, I drank and ate with the crowd, feeling alcohol’s hot hug around my heart for the first time. Shit felt so good it melted away the horror that would’ve suffocated me if I dwelled on the consequences of my actions. It also turned the loco stories Chacha’s friends had about her into spiritual revelations. There was the nipple-piercing disaster, the coke-fueled road trip to Tijuana, the night spent partying with Neil Patrick Harris at that gay bar downtown. Throughout each telling, I found myself swaying in everyone’s laughter, and whenever I made eye contact with Chacha, she’d beam at me, teeth and all, looking otherworldly with those colors painted onto her face, yet somehow more like herself than any other day or month or decade I could remember.

But once the stories trickled out and everybody got up to dance, Cici pulled me aside.

I didn’t wanna bring this up before the ceremony, she said. But it’s been bugging me all week.

I hiccupped a ¿qué pasó? in response.

I’m talking about Cero, wey. Pobrecito’s got a black eye, a chipped tooth, a pinche concussion!

I stumbled through a nonsensical explanation, drunkenness and remorse punching it out between my temples.

Fíjate, she said, cutting me off with a finger on my lips. Nobody knows better than me how much of a mamón Cero can be—and I understand how shitty he was to you growing up—but seeing his face broke my heart. I never expected such violence from you.

The alcohol’s heat had dripped down into my guts, a pool of acid now eating the walls of my stomach. Was this how Pops felt when he woke up in other women’s beds?

Sorry was all I could gulp out.

You know I’m not the one you should be apologizing to, Cici said, folding her arms.

Where’s Cero?

Psh, not here.

Why?

Same reason your dad isn’t.

Oh, I muttered helplessly, my confusion blatant enough for Cici to exhale a tired laugh.

They’re just not ready to handle this, she said before pausing and turning toward the crowd. Or maybe we aren’t. Hard to tell with family sometimes.

I didn’t get what she meant, not entirely, but I nodded my head, making the world spin like a kaleidoscope. The boutonniere—which I’d clipped to my hair to mimic the rose Chacha wore—tumbled to the ground. Panicked, I bent over, and the shift in altitude sent me hurtling toward the earth. It was a surprisingly familiar sensation, one I’d been fighting in my attempts to cut and sharpen and starve my body. But instead of letting me faceplant, Cici caught and set me upright like she’d done so many times during those years when I wasn’t any taller than her waist. With an arm still secured against my shoulder, she scooped up the boutonniere with the other, teasing me at how borracho I was.

¿Sabes qué? she said, fastening the plastic flower back behind my ear. It’s not any easier for Cero at Our Lady.

What? I replied, still swirling with amazement at Cici’s ability to hold a much heavier me.

He doesn’t fit in with all those gringos, she said. It’s the same shit me and Chachita went through—your father, también. It’s why Cero calls you his only friend.

I opened my mouth, but my tongue was knotted up by a desire to agree with her and argue that it wasn’t the same for us, not exactly. Cici put her fingers to my jaw and patted it closed, saying I had to make a decision about Cero on my own time. I said I’d visit him, that I’d fix everything, and I believed it. I believed I could deal with whatever tomorrow would bring. But as I followed Cici toward the dance floor, into a waving ocean, doubt started to creep up my throat. She disappeared into the crowd, and I felt myself falling again. And even though I finally hit the ground, a hand as warm as home was there to grab my own.

 

A.J. Rodriguez is a Burqueño writer. He holds an MFA from the University of Oregon and has received fellowships from MacDowell and Yaddo. His stories have won CRAFT’s Flash Fiction Contest, the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize, second place in Salamander’s Fiction Contest, and the Kinder/Crump Award for Short Fiction from Pleiades.

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Papel Picado

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