I close my eyes and I’m a pair of legs in a brown satin skirt. I’m finally a college graduate, and this is my welcome home party, but my friends don’t know it yet. Yes, they’ve forgotten to call or invite me to look for records in Whittier. Yes, they hang out with Beto my ex who cheated on me, but they haven’t seen me in a miniskirt. And they forget things sometimes, so I just have to remind them that I’m here, home in Bell Gardens not Williams College anymore, that I’m just across the LA River which I just drove over. And here I am in Bell at this party and walking up a short cement path at their duplex. My deliberate steps click up to Eva’s house, a gift bag dangling from my pinky. Eva opens the door. We missed you! she yells and hugs me hard. And what’s this? It’s a surprise, I say and tell her to open it later. She smells like Donna Karan, the wave-shaped beige bottle. The living room and kitchen are one room, which smell like vanilla candles. Their gray couches are crowded with bodies. Their stereo is playing cumbias and not Led Zeppelin, which is weird, but I guess we all grow up and learn to love who were are. I weave between people dancing on their carpet and even the girls are smiling at me, which is really weird because, around here, what I get most are buenas tardes from older people or total no-looks from everyone else. It has been hard being a nerd, but I’m home now, just like everyone else. Dude, is that Vickie? She’s fuckin hot. This is what Karlos with a K says when I walk past him, He’s a fool from high school who slouches too much and whose tight curly hair is always wet with gel. The whole room is whispering this. I can tell because they’re talking to each other sideways, looking at me but not at each other. I pretend not to hear and kiss Eva on the cheek. Vick! says Rudy from across the living room, You need a drink. He gets up and puts down his beer. In Eva’s small and clean kitchen, Rudy makes me a Kahlua with milk. Moses comes and hugs me- he is all grin and a mop of emo hair over his left eye. Sorry we couldn’t make your graduation party, Vick, he says. Moses shakes his head, We had to work. I nod. Don’t worry, I say, I know you love me. Fernando the ex-basketball player comes to greet me too. From this angle, which is me, always looking up at him, his lips are still peachy juicy. The way he looks at my legs tells me he regrets breaking up with me. We sit and talk about school for two seconds. And by the way, he says, that skirt is deliberate. No shit, I think. Karlos is staring. Maybe you should pull it down. I tug at the hem, but it’s no use. Fuck him, I say. I don’t care. This is my welcome home party, holmes. My victory lap. I got a job and a car, even a man. Next month I’m going to start dating a sexy actor with a one-man show, and I’ll feel special watching him from the audience; I’m an artist by proxy. He’ll be arrested for rape ten years later in Texas and my best friend from Maywood will have fought him off of her, but I don’t know this so how I can prepare? Moses goes to the CD player and puts on “Sweet Jane,” the Velvet Underground version, for a small crowd of boys in glasses. My friends have the house they always wanted and I have a job. I’m a legal advocate helping women fill out restraining orders. And though I share a bed with Amá, I have a college degree and so, don’t we all have what we need, which means money and each other? But Beto the ex has been here the whole time. He’s walking in from the outside and he’s making Moses put on Sonora Dinamita. Rudy has walked back over to me. Este guey. He laughs and points at Beto with his chin. I put my drink down. Watch, I say, He’s going to ask me to dance. Rudy shrugs. You can do so much better, Vick. Beto has not made eye contact and is dancing near the stereo for most of the song, like he’s some captivating snake, trying to charm me with his moves. I snort. The side-to-side cumbia is beneath me. Beto’s shirt is stained on the hem. His face is sweaty and I know he smells like beer. I lock arms with Rudy. His forearms are ropy and strong. Too bad Rudy can’t dance or I’d swing him around and make him look amazing. Beto does a full turn and spots me, as if for the first time. He starts dancing toward me like some bad freestyle song where you don’t want that dude to come find you again. I squint at him like, Fool you better not. But he’s himself and doesn’t care what I want so he extends his hand. Can I have this dance? he says, but the music is louder so I see his lips move. This is happening very slowly as if we’re inside of a cup of red Jell-O. It takes forever for me to shake my head no. Beto is still walking toward me, bopping his head. Then by habit, I shrug and say why not. I take two steps toward Beto, but the CD skips. Beto sucks his teeth and has to go back to fix the music. I snatch my hand back like a crocodile was about to get me. The song skips so much that it ends. Before Beto can come talk to me all pedo and say shit he might regret, Rudy says, Let’s get out of here. We say laters to people and get in his Falcon. We cruise up Whittier to get Tommy’s fries and a root beer. The bubbles in my drink are perfect and brown. And this is what I wanted last year when I was a senior at Williams: that my friends should pick me over Beto, Beto and his new bitch, some whitewashed chick from Calabasas. My friends don’t want that vieja, they want me of course, the hometown girl who did good and now she’s back home. In Rudy’s Falcon, I can hear Amá’s voice saying, Ya ves, Chata. I told you you would win the lottery. Me and Rudy drive home and play Pearl Jam too loud so we can’t talk. When he drops me off we make plans to get records the next day. Amá le da abrazo and tells him to say hi to his mom. I tell Amá’s about how I dissed Beto on that cumbia and she laughs. Eso le pasa por andar de cabron, she says and we fall asleep on the full size mattress, where I belong. Dreaming next to the river, the freeway — at this hour, so still and black ¹.
¹ I open my eyes and it’s December. We are driving to Bell for Eva’s party. It is not my welcome back party. It’s Eva and Moses’ new year’s party. It’s also my vete-a-la chingada party, but I don’t know that yet. I get in my friend’s Ford Taurus, the seats soft fabric but cold, at first. Harvard has brought two friends, but I don’t know where they’re sitting; it doesn’t matter. I know I’m in the back seat with Laura and we’re not talking about kissing girls. Laura, my frenemy from the high school softball team. Laura who also slept with my ex-best friend Claudia. (Two months later, I’ll be having drinks with Claudia and she will say: Laura wanted to see what it was like. I will be jealous. Gross, I’ll say. Did you fuck the whole team? Claudia will grin). Our faces are lit by passing streetlights and though they are weak and orange, being out this late makes us think something amazing will happen: maybe Eva’s party will be crowded with shapely girls in spandex dresses. Maybe there will be boys who can dance bachata and won’t bother you if you don’t feel like dancing. Maybe the music will be better than any cumbia remix I’ve heard that they play at gay bars. I haven’t gone to those yet, but after I do, no party will ever be as good as dancing to Selena at Esta Noche in San Francisco. Then one day that place will be gone. But it’s not then yet, it’s still 1998 and almost new year’s and I’m brave in my brown satin mini skirt. My homie Harvard parks his Ford. He went to Harvard from Norwalk and is pulling up his sleeves. He’s gonna get in there, in that party, va meter las manos en la masa. I pull down my skirt and she walks a few steps ahead of me. There is no one taking swigs of beer outside the small house. The grass is neat, the dew reflects the porch light fluorescence. The lights are on inside, but we can’t hear any music. I give Laura a look like What the fuck? We could have been at Denny’s. She shakes her head like I told you, fool, but you wanted to come. She looks pretty in this light, her permed hair is gelled to perfection. Eva opens the door and is every bit herself: red lipstick, a trim brown bob, great, white teeth. She squeals at the paper bag I hand her because she loves presents. She frowns when I tell her I’m just returning a blouse. We say our hellos and Eva waves us in the direction of the drinks. Harvard gets a Tecate and his friends go outside to sit on the cement steps. I mouth the word cabron. Harvard shoots me a look like We’re going to Norm’s after this mess. I suck my teeth. They’ve left us in this tiny house with fifteen strangers who don’t smell anything like a party: no Cool Water or Sunflowers or any discernible mall fragrance. Estos ni llegan a Calvin Klein. Laura sees Fernando and makes a beeline for the ex-basketball player, an old crush she will fuck if he’s into it; of course I made out with him first back then like it was a competition (because it was). Left on my own for real, me and my skirt drift into the spare room where Eva does step aerobics. There are pink weights in the corner, a bookshelf about five rows tall and lots of photos of her (and other people enjoying her company). The room is lit by a bedside lamp. It’s not dark, so I can see that one bitch Beto is dating is in several of these pictures. Mira no mas. I turn on the light to get a real good look, but Beto walks in and closes the door behind him. I cross my arms and glare. What the fuck can he possibly have to say? He smells of rancid beer. I’m sorry, Vickie. I really am. A beat hangs between us. I can see the photo of him and my old friends from the corner of my eye. He’s so sorry. He’s still sorry. But what for? Sorry for dumping me for a white-washed Mexican girl? Okay then. I forgive you, I say. But he can’t be sorry for what I really hate about him: in one year he’ll join the army corps of engineers and go to Afghanistan to “protect his country.” He’ll work for Homeland Security after that. We used to organize together, go to anti-war marches, not march into wars. Whatever lye his current bitch uses on herself has gotten on him. He will never be sorry enough. Beto stays near the door. Thank you for saying that, I say. I can taste his sorry in my mouth– it is a last sip of warm beer, though I wish it tasted like a peach wine cooler, which is in the next room if I could just get to it. Okay, then, I say and look at the door behind him. Yes, right, he says. Maybe you’ll dance one with me later? he asks. Maybe, I say. Sure. Dance to what I don’t fucking know because these fools don’t play shit you dance to. All they have is 60s rock and 90s punk. We open the door and Rudy is leaning on the wall like a lost guard. I hug Rudy and say people are acting super weird. I don’t mention that Fernando told me to pull down my skirt because of Karlos’ gross staring because it doesn’t matter. Rudy’s plaid button-up is very tight over his shoulders. He is tan because his family is from Guerrero where everyone is the color of piloncillo. I need to tell you something, he says all dramatic. We go back in that little room. I’m in love with you, he says. I blink. I don’t miss a beat. What are you even talking about? You need to go get your girlfriend who just threw up in the buses, dude. I say it all mean like we were never homies. Like he hadn’t listened to me bitch for a year about Beto and how heartless he was, whiny whine whiny. Rudy who would have done anything for me, pero yo de cabrona. Just leave me alone, I say. Rudy shakes his head. When you needed me, I was there. My skirt and I are exasperated. What? I’m no boyfriend stealer. This is what matters right now, that my ex cheated on me, fell in love with some cabrona and was still apologizing for the wrong things. That’s not what I was asking, Rudy says. He looks at me like You only care about what you think. This is the last time we talk. And I don’t know what I’m saying but my face says, Fine, then, I don’t need friends like you. I do manage to say, I know all the shit you’ve talked about me, but I keep coming back because I care about you, but fuck me if I ever do it again. I storm past Rudy into the living room because what could he say to that? My brother Chuy and I will drive past Rudy’s house 20 years later and be jealous that his family owns a duplex. I will still be a renter with my two advanced degrees. The houses in southeast LA will be too expensive for me and my boyfriend to buy. Rudy will have no advanced degrees and will put out his mom’s reindeer at Christmas. I’ll slink down in my seat so they won’t see me when we drive by. Somehow I won’t die. I have talked to Moses but I don’t know what we said; he is already blurry in my heart. Moses and Eva snuggle near their front door. The light is dim but I can see she has reapplied her lipstick. Eva hangs on to her husband’s arm. We say goodbye. Moses says, I’ll call you tomorrow. She shoots him a look like No you won’t. She can have him and Rudy too. Laura is outside with Harvard and his two friends. And if I walk fast enough I will not have to see Beto or Rudy again, just on Facebook a million years later. Both of them will be smiling at their respective weddings, the buttons straining on their shirts. They will have no idea that the photo settings are public. But I walk so fast out of that party that I smack into my eighth grade ex-boyfriend; he is a bucktoothed lover of geometry. I bump into his chest and he’s the only one wearing cologne: Drakkar Noir. Me lleva la chingada. He says some pendejada and I talk shit back, wave a finger. I even put my hand on my hip. Then, like a mensa, I turn my back. And, like I deserved it for trusting him, he kicks me hard in the ass with his nasty Nike. I turn around and say fuck off! all loud and maybe he wants to get in my face. Harvard comes inside the house to pull me out by my arm. Harvard says, All right, Sugar Ray Leonard, let’s go. That is, I hope he’s saying this; my dad loves Sugar Ray and so do I. What an amazing smile Sugar Ray has and maybe he can dance bachata. I can’t tell what Harvard is saying because I’m hot in the face– my hands are fists and I have so many things to punch. But I tug at my skirt. And these nice people who I drove here with, they live off of Eastern Boulevard, or Garfield or Pioneer Boulevard, and they are driving me and my skirt to Norm’s in Downey. Harvard’s future wife and I will eat there with two Cuban boys that same year. I will go to their wedding and dance El Sonidito at Pomona College. But right now we’re at Norm’s, and Harvard will buy us chilli fries and they will not make us sick. Our educations will pay for some things and not for others. And though I don’t live in Downey, and never will, it is home. It is home because that’s where I break my piñatas. Under this neon, I am home, where I belong.
Vickie Vértiz is a writer from Bell Gardens, California. With degrees in political science and creative writing from Williams College and the University of California, Riverside, her work can be found in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and KCET Departures, among many other publications. Her second collection of poetry, Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut, was published by the University of Arizona this September. She’s the first in her family to attend college.