By Gloria Clemente
The van that we drive can fit up to eight people, but nine of us squeeze inside the car. That’s Big Eva and Ma in the front. Then Little Eva, my five sisters, and me. The adults are laughing in this gigantic way that has me and the girls all excited. The radio is playing a song that Big Eva just loves. She’s the type of woman who can sing “Turn the Beat Around” just like Gloria Estefan.
The woman who does choir at St. Paul’s always gives Big and Little Eva the best parts. Personally, I think I have a good voice, too. But when I try to reach the high notes, it’s like climbing too many stairs and then feeling your knees give out.
“That’s because you are an alto,” Little Eva says, because she thinks being a soprano is the best thing in the world.
But I can reach some low notes she won’t ever be able to touch.
Ma and Big Eva do almost everything together. They cook, and they watch novelas, and they go to the Caldor’s on Sunday, and on the weekends during lunch they talk about the woman who lives next door and doesn’t take care of her kids: “Letting the thirteen-year-old walk out the house like that.” They throw joint birthday parties for us, take turns babysitting, and in 1993 they both got dressed up and went to my elementary school to vote for Clinton. They speak Spanish very, very fast, and they both drive ugly yellow cars. (Though, personally, I believe Big Eva’s car is uglier than ours.)
We’re heading down the street singing, and I’m pulling my little sister’s hair, till she starts yelling, “Ma, tell Vicky to stop.”
And I try not to laugh when Ma turns around with both hands still on the steering wheel and says, “Touch her hair again, and I’ll beat the living shit out of you.”
“Big baby,” I whisper to the back of my sister’s head, which is curly and matted. I look outside the window, at some tall grass pushing against the chain linked fence of a closed off lot.
“Sigue,” Ma says. “Wait till we get back to the house.”
Little Eva laughs because she enjoys when I get in trouble. We’re always fighting because we’re both the oldest and a little bit bossy. But she’s older than me, and weighs about forty pounds more than I do. In the past, she’s used those extra pounds to knock me down during fights, and once she tackled me and punched me hard in the leg five times, in the basement where we used to dress up and push a VHS of Madonna music videos into the VCR and dance.
I hated her for that.
I wanted to peel her droopy cheeks away from her chin, but instead I resorted to sneakier methods – such as slapping Little Eva in the back of the head when she least expected it, then running away, fast, as she yelled, “You freaking punk.”
Once, I can no longer pull my sister’s hair, the car ride quickly becomes boring. I look out the window and dream about the constellation of lives denied to me. It is true, maybe, that secretly I was adopted and that really I’m from Australia or Japan. And maybe if I stare at the jeep in front of us long enough, I’ll be able to lift it with my eyes, then make it land on Little Eva. Or maybe if Big Eva gets out the car, and if I ask Ma alone, so that I don’t “embarrass her in front of other people,” or act like I’m “starving,” just maybe she will buy us ice cream for dinner tonight.
Richmond Terrace is so long and gray and ugly that it reminds me of all of these other boring things, such as, for example, how my favorite TV show is going to be a repeat tonight. We drive past a high school and stop at a red light next to a circle of teenagers, all girls, whose excited mouths are both smiling and snarled at the same time. One girl is jumping and grinning like a jack-in-the-box. The girls’ arms are pumping up and down as if they are hammering a nail, as if their elbows are being pulled by an invisible string. Somebody is screaming from the center of their fists.
I see the strangest thing. Two girls move to the side, and in front of the school building, against its black gates is this girl whose shirt is lifted over her head, so that I can see her fully grown breasts flop out of her bra, reddening inside the cold. I think of my own breasts, which have not grown, yet, and then say, “Mom!”
She looks outside, too, brakes the car beside the curb, then shouts, “Open the door, Vicky.”
I slide it open, and then me and my sisters and Little Eva stare at the crowd of teenagers. The girl who had her breasts out has pulled her shirt down and is getting pushed back and forth with in the circle. Every time, she reaches out for someone’s neck, another hand pulls her back into the center, beneath the crowd’s fists. She has a skinny friend, too, who’s wearing glasses and trying to fight the circle of kids.
“Get in,” Ma yells through the open door at the girl who’s getting jumped.
The skinny one grabs her friend from the middle of the circle, and the two of them leap in to the van, so that now there’s eleven of us sitting on top of each other. The beaten up girl is sitting right next to me, thin lines of blood forming on her face where they’ve scratched her. And all I can think of is the strangeness of her body almost on top of mine and bleeding.
“Where am I taking you?” Ma asks the girls.
“I don’t know,” says the one next to me and then to the skinny one, “I told my mom that I didn’t want to go to that fucking school.”
Now, me and my sisters aren’t allowed to curse, at all, and once Ma smacked me hard for calling Little Eva stupid. So, I look at the girl and then I look at my mom, who’s just sitting there. “Where do you want me to take you?”
The skinny girl with the glasses asks the girl beside me, “What do you think, Toya?”
But Toya is bent into her lap, crying.
“I’ll take you to the precinct, so you can report it?” Ma says.
“They took my shirt off. I told her that school was fucked up.”
“Take us to the precinct,” says the skinny girl, lifting her wet glasses away from her cheek, which is dotted with acne.
Ma pulls up next to the ferry, and both of the girls step awkwardly out of the car, in front of the tall dark precinct. Before sliding the door shut, the skinny girl says to my mother quietly, “Thank you, very much.”
This is a story I like to remember about my mother, in spite of anything that has happened to us, in spite of anything that will happen to us: Ma yelling at me to open the door and that skinny girl whispering to my mother through her broken lips, “Thank you.”