Two Weeks of Summer
Saturday, May 4, 1996
My mother looks about the small shop with a New Yorker’s skepticism, her expert eyes gazing at polyester dresses squeezed too tightly into shelves. She fans through rows of gowns, some on sale, some not, which is odd because we always look for items marked off. “No, no,” she says critically, pulling back another dress. She can always recognize quality. “I want it to be gorgeous. Something fit for a princess.”
“What about this?” asks the saleswoman, revealing an enormous, bright pink taffeta ball gown that Cinderella might have worn had she been on Percocet.
I watch my mother and know she’s thinking this woman is judging her for her unsheddable Brooklyn accent and is not taking us seriously. My sister, Dena, and I are used to this. Ever since our father died, we’d become experts at how others view us. We hide our Puerto Rican heritage as best as we can, but one look at my mousy brown hair and olive skin always has people guessing and judging. Poor Mom. Between her accent and my looks, the people of Little Rock, Arkansas, are always second-guessing us.
“You can’t be serious,” says my mother, not even bothering to touch the offending skirt. “This is her senior prom. Can’t you find something elegant?”
The woman sighs. “I’ll see what else there is. But with your price limitations—”
“Just bring us whatever you have,” she cuts in.
As the saleswoman stomps off, I move to stand next to my mother. “It’s okay, Mom,” I say, flushing with embarrassment. “Let’s go somewhere else.”
“No,” she grounds out. “This is where all the mothers bring their daughters. They’re not too good for us.” Then, under her breath, “Carrajo coñyo.”
Carrajo coñyo. My first Spanish phrase. It means something like “fucking shit” and when I heard my mother say it when she burned her hand on the stove when I was six, I repeated it proudly. My mother had sighed, looking down at her non-fluent daughter who would never learn Spanish because her husband—a dark-haired, dark-eyed half-Puerto Rican—was ashamed of his heritage in an English-speaking country.
“If you’re going to say it,” she said, “say it right. Roll your r’s, hija.”
“Like this.” And her tongue marched a fandango on her palate.
“Carrajo coñyo,” I said, exaggerating the R and laughing at myself.
“Bueno,” she said proudly. “Now, here is a dog. Perro…”
“This one?” offers the saleswoman, holding between her arms a midnight blue, floor-length gown with shiny blue sequins and a halter neck. One look at my ecstatic face and my mother nods approvingly.
In the dressing room, I slip it over my shoulders and it falls to the floor like rain. I move and the blue sequins shimmer like light on fresh snow. But when I see the price tag, my heart falls: $360. A lot of money for my single mother who’s also trying to put my sister through Rice University.
When I step out, my mother’s eyes fill with tears. “Oh, honey. You look beautiful!”
“Yes, lovely,” says the saleswoman, clicking her tongue.
But I cannot smile, because I know my mother will take the words back when she finds out the cost, demanding something cheaper, with fewer sequins. Something not as perfect.
“What’s wrong, Kimmy?” she asks, looking concerned. “Don’t you like it?”
“I love it,” I say, but I’m tortured because I know I’ll eventually have to return this gorgeous piece to its hanger. Sighing, I walk over to her and whisper, “But it’s too much, Mom.”
I wince. “Three sixty.”
Her eyes grow a little wide. Slowly, her lips pull into a broad smile. “I don’t care. If you love it, we’ll take it.”
“Really?” I touch the dress, disbelieving. But then I’m shamed by my vanity, and protest, “But Mom. It’s too—”
“Do you love it?” she interrupts.
“Ye—yes.” I don’t think I’ve loved any dress more.
“Fine.” My mother signals the saleswoman. “We’ll take it.” Then, back to me, “Honey, for you, I’d buy the moon if it’d make you this happy. Never forget that, okay?”
* * *
As Mom lines the paper bags filled with groceries along the kitchen countertop, I suspend my new dress, encased in a fabric bag between my arms and bound upstairs. I open my closet and carefully pick up the dress, smooth the bag, and clear a space on the row of hangers. After hanging it up, I unzip the bag a fraction, and peek at the incandescent blue sequins.
I cannot believe I have such a beautiful dress. And to prom! For once in my life, things are fitting together. True, I may not like my date like that, but Derek is sweet and promises to dance, which is all I really need. It’s quite a departure from my dateless wonder days of junior high.
I push the painful memories of those years away, instead reverently touching the blue silk between the sequins. I’m going to look so beautiful. Perhaps I will even rival my sister.
At length, I return to the kitchen where Mom is reheating her famous chicken fricassee in a Dutch oven on the stove. Steam is filling the small kitchen and I breathe in the heady scent.
“Yum,” I say, hugging her. “How much longer?”
“About ten minutes.” She kisses the side of my face. “So, are you excited about prom?”
“Oh, yes!” I exclaim, staring into the orange depths of the pot as the pieces of chicken buoy like little white triangles.
“I’m glad you’re going with Derek,” she says absently. “Your father would have approved of him.”
“Oh, Mom,” I say, already tiring. “You know I don’t like him. I’m just going with him because you guilted me into it.”
“That’s not true!” She removes the spoon and gives it two firm taps on the side of the pot. “But you know how we feel about you going out with Spanish boys.”
Anger’s quick to boil. I can’t stop myself from saying, “It’s such a double standard. You and Dad were both Puerto Rican. Yet you forbid me from dating a Puerto Rican.”
“Your Dad was half Puerto Rican,” she corrects, “and anyway, it’s only to watch out for you. You know how they are. When your father and I lived there for a year, I was the only—”
“Yes, I know I know! You were the only wife whose husband didn’t have a mistress,” I finish for her.
“Right.” She nods solemnly. “I went to that hospital party and found no women but mistresses. They shunned me like an outcast. Can you believe it?”
“That was one party—”
“It’s how they are—”
“That doesn’t mean Juan would’ve been like that!” Ugh, what a pain. I really like Juan Rodriguez. He’s far more clever than Derek. Plus, he’s kind, and handsome, and knows how to salsa without stepping on my feet.
Mom takes the spoon and points it at me. “It’s how they’re raised, if they’re any kind of Puerto Rican. I was lucky with your father. Very lucky. You would not have been so lucky. We met in Manhattan. There’re millions of people there. The odds are better. You’re in Arkansas, where the options are slim. Why can’t you just marry a gringo and make your mother happy?”
“Oh, Mom,” I say desperately. “Can we just drop this? I get it already, okay?”
She gives me a look, then sighs and returns to her pot. “Fine. Just promise me one thing.”
“Don’t marry a Mexican. They’re even worse.”
I can’t stop myself. “Why? Because they beat their wives?” I will never understand this hierarchy of acceptable Latinos. The crème de la crème are the Spaniards, then Puerto Rico, and some areas of South America, like Argentina. Then follows places like Chile and Venezuela. At the bottom rung—like me not so long ago—is Mexico. I know it’s awful and stupid. But that’s what they taught us.
“To start with,” Mom warns. “Just promise me.”
“I promise, I promise,” I say, just to make her stop. “Can we please just change the subject?”
“Fine.” She tastes the spoon. “Mmm. Have you called your sister?”
The good feelings of today quickly evaporate. “No. Not yet.”
“Kim,” she says, turning down the heat of the stove before balancing two bowls in her hands. “It’s important that you stay in touch with Dena. She loves you very much.”
I cringe with resentment. “If that’s true, why doesn’t she show it?”
“She does,” Mom insists. “Listen, when you were kids—”
“When we were kids,” I interject, spitting out the words like a foul taste. “That was how long ago? A decade? We’ve changed a lot since then, Mom.”
“I know.” She passes me a bowl.
I follow her to the table, and we eat for a few moments in silence. “It’s just so hard. She puts this wall between us on purpose.”
Mom reaches out to take my hand firmly in hers. “Just promise me you’ll try. Try to make a better relationship with your sister.”
“But she’s the older one!” I protest, feeling like I’m nine again. It’s this constant dance Mom and I play. No Spanish boyfriends, be good to your sister, her pulling, me resisting.
“It doesn’t matter. Like you say, you’re older now and both responsible. Please promise me.”
“What’s with all the promises?” I ask, annoyed.
Mom sighs and drops her spoon with a loud clatter into her bowl. She puts her face in her hands and looks like she’s about to cry. The image strikes me like a hammer. Mom never cries.
“Mom? Are you okay?” I touch her shoulder. “Mom?”
“You don’t know how long I’ll be around,” she murmurs past her hands. “You don’t know. I just want you both happy.”
“We are happy,” I say, wanting her to smile again. “Come on. Don’t worry about us. We’re fine.”
“You’re not!” She drops her hands and her eyes are wet. “There’s such a distance between you both. What has happened to this family?”
I meet her gaze but find my voice stopped, as if a cotton rag filled my mouth. How can I tell her it’s because of Dad? That his death changed Dena? How his unknown debts and selling our big house and Mom taking two jobs turned Dena cold as ice? How she’s never been the same towards me?
“It’s nothing,” I say. Then, to placate her, “It’ll get better.”
“Promise me, querida.” She reaches out to take my hands in hers. “Promise me.”
“I promise.” She looks so sad, so unlike herself, that I’m racking my brain for anything to change the subject. “You really think Dad would have liked Derek?”
There’s a strained moment between us before Mom releases me. “Derek is okay,” she says, her voice soft and distant. “Honestly, we just want you to be happy.”
“I’d be happy with anyone who really loves me,” I say, a little self-righteously.
When Mom smiles, there’s something in her eyes I don’t recognize. “Well,” she says. “Sometimes even that’s hard to find.”