My mom acted like she was just one good fuck away from becoming a millionaire. Every Saturday night she squeezed into the same hoochie dress from The G Spot, her ass hanging out one end and her tits falling out the other, and she wiggled her middle-aged-lady feet, bunions and all, into magenta strappy stilettos she had to glue back together every morning because they were plastic pieces of shit.
While she clipped on her big hoop earrings, she saw my reflection in the hallway mirror and said, “Wish me luck, nena. I’m getting me some of that rich yucca tonight.”
I was going out, too, so I stood behind her, painting liquid liner onto my lids. I didn’t need a mirror. I could make my eyes smokey riding a bus on the fucking BQE. “Good luck.”
“Mira,” she said and turned to face me. Then she slid her hand down my tanktop and scooped my tits up to the top of my bra. “Let those chiches out. They can’t breathe stuffed down in there.”
“Mai, don’t touch me like that. It’s weird,” I said, pushing her hand away.
She pushed me back and made a clicking sound with her mouth. “When did my daughter become such an uptight gringa?”
She said that because she knew it was the meanest thing she could say to me, and she’s kind of a bicha.
“It isn’t my fault I never been to Puerto Rico. But that don’t make me any less of a boricua.”
She smiled like she felt bad for me. “Yeah, querido. It kind of does.” Then she pinched the side of my tit to piss me off. “So, you seeing Angel tonight?”
“Don’t tense up like that. You’ll get wrinkles.” She pressed her thumb into the spot between my eyebrows. “He isn’t perfect, but no one is. At least he makes that bank. With him as your man, you’ll never have to stand in the welfare line. And believe me. That ain’t nothing.”
My mom knew Angel kept putas on the side. “It’s just fucking,” she said. “As long as you’re still seeing that plata, that’s all that counts.”
My mom was what happened when you grew up poor in La Perla, and your bedtime stories were about life on the mainland, where streets were paved with oro. That girl fell asleep, dreamed in currency, and woke up a gold digger in her forties.
But I grew up different. Watching my mom drool over any chacho with a fake Rolex taught me there were more important things than money. Like self-respect. Dignity. Strength. This wasn’t Puerto Rico, and it wasn’t the fucking 1940s. You didn’t need a man anymore. Look at women who were so badass they only used one name: Selena, Oprah, Beyonce. That could be me: Lucia.
I said that, but then I kicked it with a guy like Angel.
Maybe I liked him at the beginning because I knew it’d make my mom proud, and after years of banging one loser after another, searching for her ticket to a cushier life, I thought she could use something good. And he was everything she ever wanted. His wallet was always fat. He wore bling, and sometimes bought it for me too. He smoked expensive cigars. He bought rounds for everyone at the club. But he also checked out asses right in front of me, even chatted up other sluts while I waited on the sidelines. And he didn’t even bother to hide evidence of booty calls in his apartment. One night in bed, I got some other puta’s thong caught in my toes. He didn’t even say sorry. He just laughed.
I was so pissed, I jumped out of bed and threw the thong in his face. “Stop laughing, you piece of shit!”
He didn’t like that. He crossed the bed and a shadow fell over his face. “Do you know who I am, traga leche? Do you know who I am?” He slapped my face. I’d never been hit by a man before. When I was a kid, my mom hit me all the time. But this felt different. While my mom hit me with everything she had, I knew Angel was holding back. There was more rumbling beneath that slap, it was warning of more to come, and that’s what scared me. He hit me again and said, “Tell me who I am.” I backed up against the wall and he slapped me again. “Say it,” he said. Another hit. “Say it.”
I was crying almost too hard to speak, but I said it anyway. “Angel Perez.”
“That’s right,” he said, and then gentler, “That’s right, corazón.” He swiped his thumb under my eye to wipe away my tears. “Don’t you forget that.”
When my friend Alondra saw my face the next day, she said, “Mierda, Lucia. Look at you. That motherfucking mama bicho.”
I touched my cheek. “It’s just an allergic reaction. New face cream. I guess that’s what you get for buying discount shit.”
Her mouth bunched up and she rolled her eyes. “That ain’t no face cream, and it ain’t the last time that’s gonna happen either. Trust me, my mother has been with her Angel Perez for ten years. I know. Do what you want, it’s your life, but if you ever want to get away for a little while, I know a place.”
“What do you mean, you know a place?”
Alondra stepped closer and lowered her voice. “Mira, this black chick from my block? She and her boyfriend were just chillin’ on the corner, and this cop starts giving them a hard time. He was all like, ‘This is why you people never amount to nothing, hanging around up to no good when you should be in school, bettering yourself or whatever.’ And when my friend steps up to him, just to tell him there was no school that day, he shoves her back against the wall. Then this chubby old lady comes out of nowhere, yelling at the cop like, ‘Get your hands off that girl! What’s her crime? Existing in your world?’ And she’s waving her arms and squawking like a bird. Turns out she’s a nun, not like in a habit or nothing, but still a holy woman, you know? And when the cop left, she told my friend if she ever had a hard time again, with the police or anybody else, there is a safe house for women like us in Brooklyn. Even if you don’t want to stay over or nothing, they can just give you advice. I can get the address for you if you want.”
I stuffed my fingers in my back jean pockets. “Thanks, but I don’t need a safe house. My place is fine.”
Back in our apartment, as mom and I were about to head out, one boricua in search of her rich chacho and one boricua americana returning to the one she found, I felt like one of the cockroaches we caught on a glue trap on our kitchen counter. Stuck, its antennas reaching and twisting, probably looking for a way out, so blinded by its instinct to survive, it couldn’t even see there was no use. It was fucked.
“Say ‘Hi’ to Angel for me,” my mom said, and she tucked a loose curl behind my ear. “You’re lucky, you know that, nena?”
I nodded, but I didn’t feel lucky at all.