The first time Juan Ruiz proposed to me, I was eleven years old, skinny and flat chested. I was half asleep, my frizzy hair had burst out from the rubber-band holding it together and my dress was on backward. Juan and four of his brothers showed up past midnight, on their way to serenade our neighbor Dolores who lived in the next town in Alta Mayor.
That night, the first out of many, the brothers parked their car on the dirt road and clanged on Papa’s colmado’s bell as if they were herding cows. We huddled near the house while Papa walked toward the darkness with his rifle in position ready to shoot. The roads were especially dark with the absence of the moon, the cloudy sky, and the power outages that lasted fifteen hours at a time. There’d been some cow-stealing and our store had been robbed twice in the past year so everything was locked down. It hadn’t been too long since Trujillo died, which meant all the shit from the bottom of the sea was stirred up and we had to be vigilant.
—It’s us, it’s us, the friends of Dolores, Juan yelled out, the brothers waving their instruments in the air and laughing.
—Come. Step forward, Mamá yelled and soon they sat in our front yard with beers in their hands talking about New York, politics, money and papers.
Papá didn’t care for politics but he knew not to trust a man in a suit. Juan wore a suit and was drunk like a fish. Slurred, —Marry me Ana and I’ll take you to America, then tripped over himself and onto me, pushing me against the wooden fence. —Tell me yes, he insisted with his lit breath and his thick sweat dripping over my face.
Papá went for his rifle. So Mamá stood between them, laughing it off in the way she does where she shows all her teeth and dips her chin to her neck then flirtatiously looks away. She gripped Juan’s shoulder and guided him back to the plastic lawn chair to sit with his brothers who all had too much to drink and acted like boys and not middle- aged men.
When Juan sat, his chest folded toward his round stomach, his jaw, the corner of his lips, his cheeks, and eyes all came down: a sad clown. Juan stared at my knees that came together tight tight as if I held a secret there for him to discover.
The four brothers, differing widely in size and facial features all wore suits and clumped together near Juan like a band on a stage. Their eyes glassy and pink. Their instruments their crutch. They serenaded my sister Isabel who was thirteen going on twenty, born kicking before the sun had risen, before the roosters crowed. She reveled in the attention, and swung her skirt side to side clapping her hands to the music.
—Girls, to bed, Papá announced with the resonance of a cowbell. He sat with his rifle across his thighs pissed like I’ve never seen him. Two of his sisters had been taken by military men back when Trujillo was still alive.
—We should hit the road, Tadeo said. He stood up lean and tall like a flagpole, always polite, always apologetic for his younger brothers who couldn’t control their liquor.
Before Juan left he bent down to look right into my face. I stared straight back into his eyes as if I had the power to scare him. He made a gesture of retreat and suddenly he pounced toward me and barked, loud and insistent. Bark. Bark. Bark. I jumped back and away from him, tripped over the plastic bucket we kept by the door to fetch water. He laughed and laughed. His large body shook when he laughed. Then everyone laughed except me.
Mamá made nice and told them to come back soon, and don’t be strangers, and that the best of girls are worth waiting for. Maybe we’ll go eat at your restaurant in the city one day, she said, knowing well we never go to La Capital or eat at restaurants.
Years went by and the Ruiz brothers kept comingfor free beer at all hours of the night, flooding Isabel and me with promises and proposals. Come with me now? Let’s get the Justice of the Peace? —You making the stars jealous with that face of yours, Juan said to me more than once. —Never did I see a green-eyed bird like you, he said and his blood-shot glassy eyes would stare into mine making the fuzz on the back of my neck lift.
From the day I was born Mamá said my eyes were a winning lottery ticket. Inherited from my grandfather who was from the Cibao.
—If we choose the right man for you, we can all get out of this hell, she would told me.
It didn’t matter if Juan’s intentions were serious or not. Mamá had lived long enough to learn a man doesn’t know what he thinks until a woman makes him think it. So when I got my period at twelve and eight months, she undid my pigtails and pulled my hair back tight away from my face so not a kink could escape. So tight, my eyes pulled at the ends. When he came by, she made me wear my Sunday dress I had outgrown a while before and it pushed the little fat I had up and around my chest for all to see. Juan was often too drunk to know the difference between a dress or a potato sack, but she colored my lips pink and when I talked, the lipstick bled onto my teeth. She made me sit with the men, my dress rising high up, the back of my thighs sticking to the plastic chairs.
My brothers, Yohnny, a year younger than me, and Lenny, who still didn’t know how to blow his own nose, sat a ways away and made faces at me, imitating the Ruiz brothers in their fancy suits who stumbled and slurred all their words. The men talked in a loop: about papers, the value of the dollar, the baseball games they gambled on, if Balaguer was going to do something for them after they had campaigned for him. Money, papers, money, papers, money, papers, they talked as if we weren’t even there. Until Mamá cleverly changed the subject to our precious farmland filled with possibility, and then to me.
—Ana is very good at math, Mamá said, —Isn’t that right, Andres?
She looked pleadingly towards Papá, who no longer kept a rifle on his lap but wore a scowl on his face.
When Juan didn’t visit for a long while, he did live and work in New York City after all, Mamá would make me write him letters.
—Tell him you miss seeing him and that you’re a flower, untouched and ready for the perfect vase. You’re the kind of flower that doesn’t do well in the hot sun.
But what kind of flowers didn’t love the sun? We had flamboyan trees overrunning our yard. They were so happy. Even when it didn’t rain for days they held up fine.
—Tell him how hot it’s been. Unbearable. And how you long to see the snow. Tell him how handsome he looks in a suit and how wonderful it is to see men dress like men, serious men.
But don’t you think it’s ridiculous to wear those heavy suits in this heat?
—Tell him how you wish you could dress as fine as him. That your favorite color is green, like your eyes. Remind him about your eyes. There are few women around here with such a color. Tell him how well you’re doing in school and how much you love to study. How you hope to continue to study for many years, if only you had an opportunity to do so. That in your class you’re the best in math. How you love numbers so much you dream of them while you sleep.
That was true. I counted everything, the steps to school, how many times the teacher had to repeat herself, even the impossible things I tried to count, the stars in the sky, how many limoncillos there were in a tree.
—Tell him how much you enjoy to cook. Be specific. Don’t just say food, say pescado con coco, so he knows you’re the kind of woman who’s not afraid to grate the coconuts or clean the fish.
But what kind of woman would be afraid to grate a coconut? Pure silliness.
—Tell him you wish he could visit during the day so you could cook him a proper meal at a proper time. How much you would enjoy feeding him. Tell him how good you are with a needle and thread, there’s nothing you can’t fix.
—But most of this is a lie, Mamá. Pure lies, I finally said.
—Love letters are just words so people understand things about each other. Trust me.
—But what about what I want?
—What do you want?
—I don’t know.
—So until you know, I’ll decide for you. A mother knows what’s best anyway. When you have your own children you will see.
Papá says even one drop of water could fill a bucket if you wait around long enough. So it was no surprise to me, between Mamá’s letters, the free beers, and visits every few months, one day Juan Ruiz would ask properly for my hand in marriage. When I was about to turn fifteen, he was thirty-two, he showed up during the daytime with his older brother Tadeo. Sober, or as sober as I had ever seen him, not flailing his arms or grabbing at me, at Mamá, the chair, at a tree, to hold himself up. For the first time ever I could see him. He even took off his suit jacket. Wore only a tailored vest. Without the shoulder pads, his shoulders became small. He had a small hump at the top of his neck.
—Ana? Juan said in such a serious way everyone stared with baited breath. I wore my Sunday dress, a faded yellow one, from all the times it had been washed and line dried in the sun. I couldn’t breathe well in it. My hair so frizzy and out of control it looked like a nest. My tongue dry. My throat ached. I knew the moment would come. I looked at Juan towering over me. I focused on the thin gray lines on his vest, the way they intersected at the lapels. The sweat streamed down his cheeks dodging his large pores. His thick nose. I tried not to look at him. But they all stared. Isabel stood close by with her son on her hip. My mother’s teeth exposed, her bright red lipstick caked on her bottom lip. Yohnny and Lenny lay on a bench like overheated dogs, so thirsty their tongues hung out of their mouth. I looked for Papá, who stood quietly as if defeated.
Where is your rifle? Where is your scowl?
—What is it? I asked Juan wondering if the lipstick had already stained my teeth.
—Will you be my wife? He asked.
Tadeo, who anticipated a yes from me, stood behind Juan, cornering him as if without him there, Juan would split, run away, take it all back. And it was then I understood that maybe Juan didn’t want to marry me after all. So why was he there? Why was Tadeo there? I pressed my shoes into the rich soil, the leaves on the mango trees were especially vibrant that day.
I could’ve said no. Isabel waited for me to say no. Her mouth, tight-lipped and up to one side in disapproval. —You have rights, she said. —You are the boss of you.
I looked to Papá for an answer. —Go ahead, answer him, Papá urged.
Mamá grabbed Papá’s arm in solidarity. It was an unusual gesture for her to make, but one understood by Tadeo, because he smiled and shook my father’s hand as if I had said yes. And Yohnny and Lenny ran about singing interchangeably, I like to be in America. Okay by me in America, everything free in America, Ole.
In minutes the adults had moved away from me to make the arrangements. Yohnny and Lenny grabbed my hands and spun me around and around reminiscent of the West Side Story musical we had seen many times at the theater in the center.
—Get the refrescos, Mamá yelled over to Yohnny. —Today is a good day.
Every bride deserves a new dress. So on the next available appointment Mamá took me to Carmela’s in San Pedro de Macoris for a fitting.
—But I have school, I said.
—You don’t need to go there anymore.
—But I haven’t said goodbye. I haven’t said goodbye to everyone.
She was suspicious from the moment I said everyone. What I meant was Gabriel, the only boy who showed interest in me. She wouldn’t let him ruin everything now.
Mamá wrapped a scarf over her head and pulled the keys for the scooter off the hook. And without any hesitation she swung her leg over and sat on the scooter and yelled, —Com’n, get on.
I slipped behind her. She took up most of the seat. The sun blared above. She handed me an umbrella and waited for me to open it. After some fits and starts, the scooter peeled onto the road, leaving a cloud of dust behind us. For a long while we were alone on the narrow road, miles of cane fields on each side. I hugged my mother, pressed my head against her sweaty back and could taste the ocean on her skin. You would think we were close. That she wasn’t about to give me away to a stranger.
Then suddenly the clamoring of tin pots, the horns of the ships, the stink of trapped water inside the numerous potholes hit us. Cars and scooters competed for every inch of the city streets. The Malecon burst at the seams, people shopping, hanging, talking, drinking. Selling lottery tickets and coconuts. Men whistled and hissed at Mamá whose skirt hiked up exposing her brown thick thighs, even thicker next to all my bones. -Cochino! my mother yelled back at the gaping mouths of horny men.
—There’s not a good one in that bunch, she said and demanded I hold on tight as she pushed through the traffic, around the park in the city’s center, shaded by palmettos and almond trees, a refuge from the blazing sun.
Mamá pulled up to Carmela’s house. The only house made with concrete on the block. It was once painted red, now pink. Dwarf palm trees cluttered her front yard.
—Carmela! Mamá yelled through the iron gates. We looked into the house. Everyone was out back. She looked back at me, my eyes watery, my chin pressed against my neck. My imminent departure had become too real.
—Cheer up. This is the beginning of great things for you. For all of us!
Carmela led us to the room where she slept and worked. There were a few reams of fabric on a shelf, a black metal sewing machine on a small table by a window. A bald bulb hung from the ceiling. A loud fan propped on the floor, faced the chair she worked at. A rope strung from one side of the room to the other, where she pinned fabric pieces, photos from magazines of dresses her other customers had ordered.
—Bad news. Carmela said, —There’s not an inch of white fabric in town. The communion ceremonies are in two weeks and every girl between six and eight is dressing like a bride.
Mamá fanned herself with the McCall pattern on Carmela’s table. I smiled to myself. This was a sign the marriage was ill-fated and my mother believed in signs. Maybe she would cancel the marriage and my life could go back to being simple.
—What other colors do you have? Mamá asked.
—What? The response flew out of my mouth startling them.
—Other colors, my mother repeated and Carmela pulled out the three possibilities. There was a shiny gold lamé that was a definite no. Black linen. And a roll of red cotton.
Mamá sighed and fingered the red fabric on the sewing table.
—It’s more pink, a flaming pink, Carmela said. She turned around and pulled out a large piece of white lace from her storage cabinet. —We could put this around the neckline.
She stood behind me, placed the lace on my chest so my mother could get the effect. There were no mirrors in the room for me to look at myself. I was supposed to be in school. Gabriel would wonder where I was. I couldn’t go off to America without saying goodbye.
Mamá scrutinized the flaming pink and white lace.
—That pink is so bright. Don’t you have anything else?
—I have black but she’ll look like a widow.
—I like the black, I said.
They both looked at me as if I had gone mad. As if they cared what I thought or what I wanted.
—Make her something pretty in the pink. And put as much white lace as you can. I don’t want anyone to think my daughter is indecent.
We walked out into the midday sun. Mamá opened the flowered umbrella she stored inside her purse. She locked her arms into mine. Pulled me over to sit on the ledge of Carmela’s house to sit. Across from us some men were setting up a cardboard over stacked crates to play a game. Women were lining the wash in their front yard. Two boys played catch.
Mamá revealed a cigarette she had hidden in her bra.
She stopped a teenager pretending to be a man, asked for a light, cupped her hands over his and then waved him away.
—Only on special occasions, she said.
She took a drag and passed it to me. I made a face of disgust to hide surprise.
—Lesson number one to survive this fucking life, learn to pretend. You don’t need to smoke if you don’t want to but you can embody one of those movie stars and make the gesture.
—I’m not like that.
She shook her head in disapproval then leaned her head back, took a drag and exhaled. The sun behind her drew her silhouette. We had the same lips, the shape of our eyes, large and wide. The same bad hair at the nape of our neck.
When she came back for air, she winked and smiled at me.
—They’re gonna eat you alive in New York if you don’t change that face de pendeja. You need to toughen up. You think I like being the way I am. But your father has no backbone. Never fought for anything in his life. Not even me.
—But you once said he went after you like no other man?
—Ha. You better open your eyes, before someone else opens them for you. You hear me?
That day, Mamá was a wolf pushing away her pups. But I wasn’t ready. Nothing about me was ready.
—You go to America and you make Juan understand that without you he can’t survive. And you stand back and pretend you don’t care about what him and his brothers are talking about but listen carefully and take notes. The Ruiz brothers started poor like us. And look at them. They own a restaurant in the capital right by the sea, a fancy one, with cloth napkins on the tables. And his other brother, Raymundo, I heard he has a school with over one hundred students. And in New York, Juan is working with his brother to start businesses. Not one, but many. They are detailed people. Organized people. These are people with intelligence. You want to study, don’t you?
I fought to hold back the tears.
Mamá took the last drag from her cigarette and put it out on the wall. She picked up my chin and was so unusually tender she took me by surprise.
—Think of your Tia Clara, her daughter married a man who works in New York and every month he sends the family money. He never fails. They have a cement floor and a new bathroom.
—But, I cried.
—Oh mi’jita please. Stop it. Now everybody’s looking at us. You’re being ridiculous. Look at those kids. You see those kids?
Mamá pointed at some barefooted boys carrying baskets of bags filled with peanuts and peeled oranges. —Do you know what your brother Yohnny is doing every day while you and Lenny spend your days at school?
Mamá grabbed my chin and made me look. Everything looked blurry from all the tears.
And as soon as Lenny can write his name and add his numbers he will be out there too.
Everyday I pressed Yohnny’s shirts so he could get them dirty again sitting by the road waiting for someone to buy Papá’s fresh meats and fruits, carrying baskets twice his weight. He wasn’t allowed to come home until he sold everything. So, yes, I knew. I knew.
—There’s no future for you or your brothers here. Please try and be happy. It kills your father to see your sad face all the time.
Before shipping me off to New York my mother smeared red lipstick on my lips and covered my body with talcum powder. I was fifteen. A dead fly.
Mamá instructed me to sit and wait patiently for Juan who was expected before noon.
—Ana, get out of that dress, Isabel insisted, —El Guardia’s taking us all to the beach. Her words and hair bounced around her head like ribbons on a present.
My brother, Lenny, already in his cut-off shorts, slapped his sweaty arm against mine.
—Gabriel will be there, Isabel said as if I needed a reminder of the fun I’d be missing.
Not a hair out of place. Not a speck on the dress or else.
—Ooh Gabriel, Lenny teased.
I tried not to blush. I hadn’t told Gabriel I was leaving. How could I? When he gave me a lift home on his bike, across the field, my hands grabbed his hips and when he stopped peddling, my chest and head pressed against his back. That’s when the feeling my mother called the devil who steals reason, came up between my legs. Without reason women make mistakes. Big ones, like Isabel who got caught by the devil the day El Guardia stuck his cucumber inside her and gave her a baby Mamá had to care for.
—Go already. Mamá’ll kill me if I get up from this chair.
Isabel’s tits sat on her chest like hand grenades. She was born with hooves as feet, stubborn as any mule.
—You really want to go away with that old man? She asked.
Juan Ruiz was 32. It’s true, he was old, but he hadn’t married yet and had no children. Besides, out of all the girls Juan could marry and take to America, he picked me.
Isabel took a small towel from her bag and patted the sweat from around my hairline and neck, her breath fresh from chewing on fennel.
—You’re a ghost with all this powder. And this ridiculous dress? Poor little thing.
—But I like the dress.
All my life I wore Isabel’s hand-me-downs that were wider and shorter than me. This dress was made to measure by Carmela, a top-notch seamstress in San Pedro De Macoris, special for the wedding. I wished it had been white and not a common bougainvillea pink, but a white lace stitched over and around the neck made it so I didn’t look like a whore.
—Com’n Ana, if the old man wants you he’ll wait until we get back from the beach.
El Guardia’s clunker pulled up. One of the doors had fallen and was being held up with duct tape. Merengue blasted from his radio. He honked on the horn.
—You don’t have to marry him. You’re old enough to choose your life, Isabel said, extending her hands. El Guardia’s car had the engine on. Gabriel was waiting for me at the beach. I touched my lips. Underneath my lipstick, I could still feel his kiss. Everything in me wanted to see him again.
Mamá must’ve known I was tempted because she rushed out of the house and swatted Isabel away with her kitchen towel.
—Get away. Why do you want to ruin her life the way you ruined yours?
—I want Ana to know she has a choice.
Mamá turned to me and asked, —Do you want to stay here and end up with a good for nothing, pigeon-toed, disgraceful man like El Guardia? Or do you want to go to New York with a respectable, hardworking man so you can make something out of yourself and help your family?
—At least El Guardia loves me, Isabel shouted back.
—Ay, love, love, love. You children don’t know anything about love. You live in the clouds.
I couldn’t look at either of them so I stared at Yohnny tying a goat to a cherry tree. If he let her loose she would run. I wanted to pet her milky white fur. Her eyes, shiny and mysterious like a zapote seed. She looked at me confused, with longing.
Isabel’s hooves cut the ground, her nostrils flared, she was ready to hold Mamá back so I could make a run for it.
I bit the insides of my cheek and breathed in the fresh mown grass, the scent of lilacs and manure, the decay of mangoes fallen from the tree. I listened for the hummingbirds that flapped flapped flapped their wings. For the gravel under Lenny’s feet, for Gabriel’s breath in my ear when he told me secrets. At least I kissed him when I had the chance.
El Guardia honked again. He knew not to step out of his car when Mamá was home. When she first caught his devil eyes on Isabel, she warned El Guardia, if he stuck it in her daughter she would chop off his dick. Everyone knew Mamá could carve a chicken blind.
—Com’n Ana, stand up for yourself.
Isabel pushed but the agreement to marry was done. Hand shaken and hard liquor sealed the deal.
—Leave her alone, Yohnny called out to Isabel. The more I was bullied the smaller I became. I wasn’t like Mamá or Isabel who fought for every inch of land or man.
—Yeah, leave her alone, Lenny repeated then stood in front of me with his arms crossed high on his chest knowing well Isabel could flick him away with her pinkie.
—Don’t worry. We’ll all be together in New York one day. You’ll see.
—And we’ll ride the subways? Yohnny chimed in.
—And spickee inglis, Lenny said.
—Over there you’ll have no one to protect you, she said and pressed her forehead against mine, our sweat glued us to one another, our eyes became one.
Yohnny karate kicked the air and split us apart.
—I’ll protect you. I’ll fly there and kick whoever’s ass, he said. He had a man’s heart in a child’s body.
I held back from laughing, to not upset Mamá. She counted on me to follow through on this.
—Stop it Isabel. I don’t want to go to the beach, okay!
Isabel rolled her eyes and hugged me as if it were the last time I would ever see her. Mamá’s chest puffed up like a rooster, pride swelled inside of her. Finally I accepted what she knew was the only answer for me. She had won and waved them away.
—Enough already. Leave now. I rather Juan not see you hooligans being such a bad influence on Ana.
Lenny and Yohnny whooped and hollered their way back to El Guardia’s car. They slid into the back seat through the open window and stuck their arms out, waving goodbye. Isabel was disappointed. She thought I was weak like my father who let Mamá boss him around, who accepted things as they were. But this marriage was bigger than me.
That day the sun bit hard into one side of my face. I tried not to cry. To think of the beach, the way the waves crashed against the rocks, the fun to be had. Of Gabriel and the keys he carried in his pocket. The way he traced my body, his eyes like fingers. I had memorized the ends of his tight curls, his skin an orange-brown glow, as if someone had lit a candle inside of him.
All morning, my father rocked on his chair and smoked his pipe. My mother poked her head out the kitchen window checking on me, smiling and waving. I didn’t want to leave our house in Los Guayacanes painted the color of buttercups by my late grandfather; the only house in miles that had survived all the hurricanes. Our house that I shared with my parents, Yohnny, Lenny, Isabel, where there was everything I knew and could imagine, for all of my life.
By the time Juan arrived,way past the hour he had said he would come,all the makeup had washed away with my sweat. My dress was wrinkled. My hair a mess. I had dozed off in sitting position waiting, because any minute now, he was to arrive. I wished desperately Isabel would’ve not gone to the beach and stayed to keep me company. That she would’ve given me, at the very least, her blessing.
He drove his car over the grass, close to the entrance of our house. A film of dust covered it.
—He’s here, he’s here, Mamá squawked, worse than the chickens.
In the daylight, Juan looked even more pale and hairy than I remembered him. Mamá said that’s better for the children’s sake. Dark children suffer too much. She gave me a paper bag and inside of it, a botella for me and Juan to drink every morning so the babies come fast. She said a man without children was not a man.
Juan was in a hurry to leave because he had borrowed a car to fetch me.
He told us his brother reserved a room for us in El Embajador for the honeymoon.
—Is that so? Mamá lit up with every word about my future life: New York City apartment, on the top floor, a view to the city.
—The nicest hotel in the country, Juan continued.
The last time I was alone with a boy it was with Gabriel. Juan was a man. A head taller, twice as wide. Gray hairs around his ears, thinning around his forehead. Soft and pillowy hands and cheeks.
Mamá talked to Juan as if I wasn’t there. She didn’t know about Gabriel who could still show up to the wedding and speak now or forever hold his peace like in the telenovelas.
—Don’t worry Señora, I’ll take good care of your daughter, Juan said in cowboy style. Then he turned to me, pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped all the makeup, lipstick, and sweat off.
—What are you doing?
—You really are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.
I pushed him away.
—More beautiful than the girls in New York?
—You don’t need any of that stuff. You don’t need anything.
He was undone just by looking at me.
Everything free in America. For a small fee in America . . . be in America!
I opened my eyes wider, held my chest higher and a smile escaped the side of my lips.