From the moment Ana saw Isabel slip into Mama’s favorite dress, she knew that her sister wasn’t planning to return. Stealing that dress was like cutting Mama’s heart open with a toothpick. Isabel was tired of Mama controlling their lives and wasn’t about to let anyone get in her way from being with el guardia, the man Isabel called- El amor de su vida.
Isabel met him while staying in the city, with their cousins, who were caliente. Not caliente as in hot, just trouble. But Isabel was no dead fly. She had a nose for trouble too. And Mama had names for the men who gave eyes to Isabel. She could say them all in one breath, like a breath of fire--- opportunistas, pendejos, cabrones, no silven para nada.
-But Mama, I love him, Isabel said when she met el guardia.
Mama tried to put sense into her who was born kicking before the sun had risen, before the roosters crowed. Even before Isabel’s tits popped into a D cup, she had her eyes on boys. But not just on any kind of boy, but troublemaking, no good mocosos who didn’t know how to wipe their own asses. Just thinking about boys getting their way with Isabel made Mama clench her fists and pull out her hair, so much so that she had a bald spot at the nape of her neck dedicated to Isabel’s escapades.
-Love? Love fly out the window when the stomach go empty, Mama warned her daughters.
El Guardia, watched over the government building in San Pedro de Macoris. Mama tried to keep Isabel from that no-good guardia, but no yelling, or making her kneel over rice, telling her he’s no good, could stop her. When a women sets her mind on something, no es facil to change it. When she walked by him on her way to school and saw him hold up the wall, gun on his hip, eyes fixed on the waves, waves taller than the three story building behind her, Isabel lost her head. She had a thing for men with guns, especially small men she was sure to win in a fistfight. She made a hole on the steps of the building waiting for El Guardia to say something. If it weren’t for that umbrella she carried like an extra limb; to protect her from the sun; to keep the make-up around her eyes from melting all over her face, the sun of medio dia, que pica and didn't forgive, Isabel would’ve killed her. Before he knew what hit him she was pregnant and living in his government subsidized apartment in one of those barrios Mama spits on.
But then one day el guardia pushed her against the bathroom sink in a drunken rage and Isabel lost the baby. Mama showed up to their house with Papa’s gun and pointed it right at his balls, looked him in the eyes and told that no good guardia, -If you ever hurt Isabel again I will… And before she could say another word she swore to the God that put her on earth, that the devil took over and shot el guardia on the foot. That day, Mama took Isabel home with her and told El Guardia that he better stay away from them or else.
Ana didn’t try to stop Isabel from escaping even though Mama would’ve wanted her to.
-Go to sleep now, you’re just dreaming, nena, Isabel whispered to Ana as she shuffled about like a mouse. The night was ripe; frogs mating outside in droves. They sounded miserable when they called for each other. Papa said it’s because love hurts, and if possible one should postpone love for as long as they could.
Juanita and Betty, who shared a bed with Ana and Isabel, were dead asleep and their brothers snorted and grunted in harmony like a pile of puppies.
Mama’s white dress fit Isabel like a glove. It was tight in all the right places, and hugged Isabel knees in a way that made it difficult for anyone other than Isabel to walk. She glided it in. As if both her legs were one and her heels had wheels attached to them. She was only two years older than Ana but a world apart. Her body, pear shaped and full and womanly, something out of a soap opera. She had the kind of body that their brother, Johnny would call, una mujerota. Not just a woman, a grand woman. She had heart shaped lips that parted because of her big teeth, but not big as in bad, but with character. Her lips gave the illusion that she was about to kiss someone. Where Isabel was full, Ana was all bones. In the way she was sexy and open, Ana felt like a clam.
She watched Isabel toss off the rollers in her hair, one by one, into her bag, fingering through her thick dark locks. Juanita had blown Isabel’s hair out for one full hour that morning. Isabel liked to say that hair called back the dead and their ancestors had kinks more stubborn than the mules in their backyard.
Where they live, there’s nothing but dark. Not a house for miles. And the electricity came on when it felt like it. So when the electricity went out, Mama and Papa sent all the kids to bed because there’s no point in wasting away candles. They saved the candles and firewood for late night customers who come to buy stuff at Papa’s colmado. Their store was in front of the house, right up on the road, in prime position to catch the beach traffic heading for a swim in Los Guayacenes, a beach where the waves went up high above people’s heads and the starfish pricked the unfortunate ones on their feet. The colmado was open to anyone at anytime. When they rang the bell, they woke up to attend them. Not the boys, because they had to save their energy to go to work in the morning. None of the girls were allowed to complain because according to Mama all men have limits, -Push a man too hard and they’re worth less than a sack of birdfeed.
-Don’t worry about me, hermanita. El guardia is a good man, Isabel reassured Ana.
-El guardia? He almost killed you, Ana said.
-Love’s complicated. One day you’ll understand.
-Mama’ll kill you both, if you leave now.
-We can’t stay here forever, one day we’ll all be gone from here.
And by the way she took a look at all of them: Johnny, Lenny and Andres who slept on a bed next to theirs, Juanita and Betty, Ana knew that Isabel only spoke the truth.
Everyone else in their campo had left. Papa and Mama talked about a time when the land was thriving and the animals mated. But for as long as Ana could remember it was just them. Their house, built by her grandfather with his own two hands; wood planks etched with his initials. Built back in the day when people had skills. No matter the strength of the storm their house stood erect for over eighty years. The layers of paint peeled off like lipstick on dry lips. Papa liked to give the walls a good slap when people came over to show how solid it was.
-Something to be proud of, Papa said and would sit for hours in the back of the house on his chair that rocked and wobbled from the years of use, as if his rocking could bring Los Abuelos back alive, who made magic with the seeds from their own fruit. Abuela would rub them in her palm, ask god for a blessing and plant them in soil rich with cow shit. She patted the soil down as if burping a baby. -You know what to do, she would tell the seeds. She would then stretch her back and bend down to plant something else. Mama couldn’t stand the smell of cow shit and refused to stick her hands in the dirt. This frustrated Papa. Because there were things only a women could do, like plant seeds and make a satisfying meal. Mama said that Papa was a different man before his parents died. He was an optimista, with an accent on the A, and worked the land with them like a mule. His back hunched over as he harvested. From far away he could easily be mistaken for a goat. But when they died, something died in him. Because Mama didn’t share his love for the land. And she never let an opportunity go by to remind them how Los Guayacanes was a shit of place. When the electricity went out, when the well water went low, when the mangoes were mealy, she cursed her in-laws who were dead in the grave and she sucked her teeth to reinforce her thoughts and anger toward Papa who refused to leave. That was why it was so important that her daughters choose their men well.
Ana wanted so much to embrace Isabel and tell her how scared she was to be left alone with Mama. Of course, there was Juanita and Betty who also lived with them, but they weren’t blood and Mama paid them no mind. They were the bastard children of a step uncle who declared them when his wife drowned in a flood. So Mama took Juanita and Betty in, not because Mama was overly generous but because there was so much work to do on their farm. Mama called them las muchachas, and they looked much older than they were. They worked all day and sucked their teeth and whispered behind their backs and only when the novela was on the radio and they prepared lunch together in the kitchen did they feel like familia to Ana.
Juanita and Betty’s limbs tangled up when they slept. It was difficult to see where one body ended and the other began. Ana listened to them purr like kittens. Her brothers were separated from them with a sheet. It hung from one side of the room to another. When the lamp was on, before they all went to sleep they watched each other’s silhouettes against the faded blue and yellow flowered print. Andres, who’s the second oldest and had a body that stretched out like chewing gum would morph in ways that brought shivers all along Ana’s backs and arms, making the sweat on her skin cool off.
Before leaving, Isabel blew out the sage she was burning in the hotpot to kill the funky smell the boys reeked at night. Especially Johnny who was going through the change. He took to slipping out of bed at night and meeting Juanita outside. On many nights Ana watched them from the window, climb on each other like the pigeons do.
Johnny would say, -Te quiero, and Juanita would ask if he was being sincere. During the day they acted as if nothing had happened between them, as if they never touched. Isabel said that’s because what happened in the night between two people had nothing to do with what happened in the day.
-Will I ever see you again? Ana asked her.
-Of course, Isabel said, -The world is not flat you know.
That night Isabel glided out of their room, outside their house, lugging a tote on her shoulder. She looked back at Ana and winked, licking her lips as if life itself was the most delicious thing she ever tasted. Ana wished she had a camera. She imagined her mother young like Isabel wearing that white dress for the first time. She too had escaped to marry Papa. They looked so much alike. “Pin pun, la Mama,” is what everyone said when they first saw Isabel. Pin pun, thought Ana, making a note to remember Isabel on that day; wearing a white dress, beautiful and free, following her heart and losing her head.
Angie Cruz is the author of two novels, Soledad, and Let It Rain Coffee, which was also a finalist for the Impac Dublin Award in 2007. Her shorter works have recently been published in South Central Review, Callaloo and The New York Times. Her activist work and writing have earned a number of awards including, the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, The Camargo Fellowship, Yaddo and the Barbara Deming Award.
She teaches creative writing at Texas A&M University and works with the National Book Foundation's Bookup Texas. She is currently at work on her third novel, In Search of Caridad and also co-writing the adaptation of Soledad for the screen with Gloria La Morte (Co-director/writer of the film, Entre Nos).