On the Night of San Juan, Nana built a gigantic ﬁre. She built it in the middle of the garden, and it was several metres tall. On the Night of San Juan, you couldn’t breathe for all the dry grass that folks were burning after collecting it all year long. Billows of smoke joined the blanket of clouds that skulked over the neighbourhood and formed a heavy white mass that stuck to our skin. Pieces of car tyres and paper rained down from the sky. It was me, Nana, Tío Ovidio and my ma and dad. From the attic you could see the whole neighbourhood covered all over in small dots of ﬁre. The swallows had been in a frenzy all afternoon, chittering away as Nana and Dad tossed in the debris from that year’s building projects, as well as all the plants they’d weeded out. Looks like rain, Ovidio kept saying as he watched the birds darting frantically across the sky, looks like rain.
In the middle of the bonﬁre there was a doll with eyes painted with a felt-tip pen and a hat from Los Dos Caminos hardware store. Dad grabbed an old mop handle and dressed it in Grandpa’s old clothes: a blue-and-white striped shirt that was too tight on him and had a large breast pocket – I remember how his belly used to jut out, big and round like a boulder – and a pair of black pleated trousers, also his. When I saw the clothes they’d picked out for the doll I got nervous, because what if Grandpa decided to leave the German lady one day, then came home and started asking for his clothes.
Only after the doll’s body turned to pure ash did the raindrops start falling. Summer rain made me uneasy. First came the damp, then the cascade of water rushing down the road, then the puddles in the furrows. Nana had some taters baking in the ﬁre. By the time we rushed out of the garden, the rain had put out the last ﬂames. As I ran I had the feeling that even though Isora and me had vowed to do whatever it took to get to the beach that summer, it wasn’t gonna happen. Everybody worked round the clock. Dad said he was riding the dollar, which was why he needed to go South on Sundays too. We headed back into Nana’s house. There was grilled pineapple and coriander mojo. We ate the chinegua taters we’d harvested in June, when I was still in school. I hadn’t helped because on the Sunday they decided to pick them, I was working on a project with Isora. I hated harvesting taters. We had to get up early and throw on old sneakers and clothes, then spend all morning bent over – Nana and me and Ma, if she wasn’t away cleaning one of the holiday homes – gathering the taters that Dad and my uncles dug up. Nana and me sorted through them on the go, tossing the big taters in one bucket and the small ones in another. Daddy always said I was a lost soul, that I was a lost soul because I drove him crazier than a minister. When we did the taters, my back hurt like hell and my boogers went pitch-black like asphalt. The only thing that made me feel better was when I picked them out and rolled them between my ﬁngers. Just me and my black snot, far away from the buckets of taters.
When we were done eating, I went to Nana’s kitchen cupboard and grabbed a bar of La Candelaria chocolate. I broke oﬀ a piece with my ﬁngers and scraped the chocolate with my teeth like a sad little mouse. I thought of Isora and wondered if she, her nan and her aunt were eating grilled pineapple too, and if she was wishing for the beach as much as me. I went into the TV room and picked up the phone. I dialled Chela’s number. Sup, Shit? Isora said. I’m bored, the fire went out. Am I coming by early tomorrow? I asked her. Yeawhynot, Shit. Bring your swimsuit, in case somebody can shift us to the beach.
I got into bed early just so I could lie there and think about the beach. Last time I went because Dad wanted to ﬁsh at Punta de Teno and me and Ma had tagged along. It was Easter and blustery, but I got in anyway. My ma sat on top of a crag where she could keep an eye on me because Nana always said the ocean’s the devil and the girl’s no good in the water, and she ate pumpkin seeds and ﬂipped through cross-stitch magazines and home décor magazines for rustic-style houses. The tide was high. I stayed near the edge and dunked my head all the way to the bottom, grabbed ﬁstfuls of pebbles and tried to bring them all the way back up. But when I got to the surface, my hands were practically empty. One time, I wound up with a small, empty burgado seashell that looked like a shiny, worn moon.
We spent all morning trying to ﬁnd someone to take us to San Marcos, but everybody said no. The old ladies were the only ones who wanted to come because they couldn’t get enough of Isora, except they didn’t have cars and they didn’t know how to drive either, and it’s not like they were gonna walk the three hours there and back with us and, anyhow, the pavement was super-narrow and the cars got real close. We ﬁgured we could go on our own. Isora gathered up all the stuﬀ we’d need and shoved it in a backpack: the towel, the sunscream, the swimsuits and a couple of Revilla chorizo and cheese sarnies. Chela was at the counter and heard the clatter coming from the room beneath the minimarket, where Isora was rummaging for a pair of old sneakers. She rushed downstairs to ﬁnd us. And where the hell do you think you’re going? To the beach, bitch, Isora said. Chela pulled oﬀ her slipper so she could hurl it at Isora’s head and screamed I’ll show you a beach, you little cunt! I cowered against one of the shelves that was stacked with bottles of Libby’s juice covered in dust and cobwebs. Isora ran behind the fridgerators and started muttering foquin bitch, foquin bitch, I wish you’d die, you foquin bitch. Cheeeeee, muchacha, the candy guy’s up here waiting for you! yelled an old woman from the market door. Chela rushed upstairs still clutching her slipper. Iso, you can come out now. Your nan’s gone upstairs, I said, and peeled myself away from the shelves. I said it again and waited, but she stayed behind the fridgerators. I sat on a plastic crate in a corner of the room and waited a while longer. At one point I thought she must’ve fallen asleep or that maybe she was touching herself because her breathing sounded heavy, but I couldn’t bring myself to check. I was kind of scared, I don’t know why. About an hour or so later she crawled out from behind the fridgerators like a poisoned lizard and said, Shit, come to the bathroom with me, I’m about to crap myself. I looked at her and saw that her eyes were froggy, like she’d been crying.
We ate at Nana’s. We ate fried chicken wings, stewed taters and red mojo. Nana’s mojo was runny because she mixed in water from the well. Olive oil had been hard to come by when she was small, and she’d just never kicked the habit. We ate goﬁo amasado too. Nana put the goﬁo dough in a bowl and we each tore oﬀ a piece, rolled them into little balls and dunked the balls in the runny mojo. She let us eat everything with our hands because, according to Nana, it was yummier that way. Whenever Chela saw us eating like that she’d say we were pigs and then ask me how my nana let us get away with that disgustful behaviour. And when she said ‘your gran’ I could hear the resentment in her voice. She knew that Nana was too soft on us. When we were done eating, Isora said she had an idea. We should go to the canal and pretend it was San Marcos beach.
On our way out we grabbed a couple of Tío Ovidio’s gardening hats, then went next door to invite Juanita Banana to swim and monkey around with us on the made-up canal beach. Juanita Banana cried whenever we called him by his nickname. Isora called out his real name and Juanita Banana came to the balcony with an egg and pork-loin sandwich in his hand. Juanito, come down, we’re gonna pretend the canal is a beach and trash-talk women with cellulite. I can’t, he said, Ma says I’ve gotta weed the garden. Juanita Banana was hardly ever allowed to play because he always needed to weed the garden or feed the animals or mop the patio or wash the cars or hose down his brother’s moped. His dad wanted him to work. Juanita hated studying, and his dad was always saying that if he didn’t study he’d send him to pick tomatoes in the ﬁelds, and sometimes I suspected that it was more than just a threat and that his dad really did want him to start picking tomatoes as a lilboy. I pictured him as an old man with a great big bald spot in the middle of his head, a head like a scorched ﬁeld. I pictured him with a beard too, a beard peppered with white hairs here and there. I pictured him all grown up with a tomato cupped in his hands as the men around him said Juanita Banana this and Juanita Banana that, and he looked all glum as he thought back on the time when he was a lilboy who played Barbies with us and Ken dolls with us and used the Barbie doll to say: Heygirlmyname’sChaxiraxiandI’mcute.
The canal was below the minimarket and behind the cultural centre. The high-school boys – we called them the kinkis – met at the cultural centre to smoke weed. I always felt embarrassed walking past them because I had no clue how to act. Isora knew the name of every cultural centre boy, and she reeled them oﬀ like a song: yeray jairo eloy ancor iván acaymo. She said hi to all of them, and for her seeing them wasn’t a big deal or anything, she was famous, she had a minimarket, and if they didn’t say hi back her nan could turn round and not sell them their chorizo sandwiches or their ﬁve o’clock Colas, which was when the boys got together after school to smoke weed and eat sarnies and chat on mésinye whenever there were computers available at the cultural centre, which had only got them a few months ago.
The cultural centre stank of weed, even from afar. The cops used to come through the neighbourhood all the time back then, because according to them lots of drugs were sold there. Juanita Banana told us one time that his brother said the men at Bar de Antonio did drugs there, and even though I didn’t really know what drugs were or what they were good for, when Isora and Juanita talked about it I always said yeah, this place is crawling with drugs.
Isora knew about this section of the canal where some of the concrete slabs covering it were broken and you could see the water streaming down littered with pine needles and pine cones and rocks from the mountain. Our bodies were small enough to ﬁt through that secret entrance. We followed the canal on the far side. The trail was super-narrow and one wrong step could mean ending up smashed to pieces like a rabbit. When we got to the section of the canal with the lifted-up slabs we could see the whole town, every last bit of it. There was Redondo, the neighbourhood to the left, and all the other neighbourhoods around ours whose names we didn’t even know. All under a cover of clouds and drizzle, of dark-grey gloom. We looked out at the centre of town and at the lower neighbourhoods, at the lucky neighbourhoods all aglow in bright yellow, and behind them, right in front of the ocean, was San Marcos beach. Chos, said Isora, and her eyebrows arched so high they just about touched her hairline, ’magine being born near the beach.
We took our towels out of our backpacks and set them folded on the edge of the canal entrance. Me and Isora didn’t wear our bikini tops out because Chela and my ma wouldn’t let us. Besides, Isora said that girls who wore bikini tops were sluts and that they’d get knocked up before all of us, and I agreed. But the honest truth was that we couldn’t wait until we were ﬁnally allowed to wear them, because that way we wouldn’t feel embarrassed about our puﬀy nipples ever again. There was no one around that day, so we decided to put on our bikini tops for the ﬁrst time. Isora had two tops that her family in Santa Cruz had given her for her birthday, and she let me borrow one.
Isora took oﬀ her sneakers and slipped her feet in the water. Then it was my turn. The stream was cold, colder than the water that ran down the drains by Nana’s house ﬁrst thing in the morning. As we soaked our feet, I couldn’t stop staring at the ocean. Shut your eyes, Shit, and picture us at San Marcos beach, said Isora. And I pictured myself walking along the water’s edge. The twigs and pine cones that ﬂowed down the canal bumped me in the ankles and I imagined they were pebbles crashing into my body, leaving my shin bones sliced up and bruised. Isora kept her eyes closed as she started the game: chacha, that blonde lady over there that’s getting in the water, d’you know who she is? Yeah, isnit María? Yeah, María, the town bike, they say she’s got two boyfrens on the go at the same time. Isn’t she married? I asked, screwing my eyes shut. Yeah, but Moreiva, the one round the bend, told me she’s a slut and that she’s always going round bars tryina pick up men and that she’s a drunk. I cracked open an eye and saw Isora seated above the canal making circles with her feet in the water. She was scratching at the sides of her minky because it itched all the time from shaving. She scratched herself, and then carried on: and Doña Carmen bought her a mattress ’cause she doesn’t even care if her kids sleep on the ﬂoor. I looked at her thighs covered in soft, long fuzz, like the kind on a plush toy, and dotted all over in moles. They were shiny, almost golden. Eulalia says she was caught necking a man from the beach behind Plaza San Marcos on the day of the Baile de Magos, she went on. I ran my eyes from the tips of her toes, which were pudgy with dug-in toenails trimmed down to the quick, all the way up to her minky, then closed them again. As she told me all about María the town bike I had a crystal-clear, realer-than-real image of the two of us all grown up, sunbathing on San Marcos beach, our legs and staches waxed. I was rubbing sunscream on Isora’s thighs. I was stroking the tops of her thighs and she was stretched out like a cat. Her moles sucked up all the sunscream and I had to squeeze more out of the yellow bottle of SPF 30 into my right hand and then rub sunscream on her thighs again. I felt Isora’s ingrown hairs beneath my ﬁngers. I felt the hairs on her thighs again, pushing out like cannons, and again I ﬁlled every pore with sunscream and she laughed and her chin mole glowed and I rubbed her with more sunscream. Sunscream round her neck, sunscream between her ﬁngers, sunscream on her nipples and behind her ears. Sunscream on her eyelashes, because Isora’s lashes were long like worms. Her lashes were long and thin and blonde and almost see-through in the sun.
We wandered home from the canal. Isora took oﬀ her sneakers because her toenails hurt. She said chos, Shit, I shouldna trimmed them so short, and then stepped carefully on the tarmac so that she wouldn’t get stabbed by the gravel, so that she wouldn’t cut herself on shards of the drunks’ smashed bottles. We picked loquats and nibbled on them as we made our way back down. They were hot, but Isora said it was better that way, because then they’d give her the shits and ﬂush the food she didn’t need out of her system.
I licked the gooey, dribbly loquat juice oﬀ one hand and held Isora with the other. I wished I could’ve held her hand the whole walk home, but all I could reach was her arm. I told myself that we weren’t touchy-feely friends. The hand that held Isora’s arm burned. We kept on and by the time we reached the cultural centre I had let go. The boys were done smoking weed and the streets were empty. It was dark out and the sky was a cavern. Isora went behind a line of parked cars, the ones that belonged to the men guzzling wine at Bar de Antonio, and I followed. When I caught up with her she grabbed hold of my arm, hard, like she was trying to keep from falling down a gully. I saw our bodies joined together in the rear-view mirror of a white car, the palm of her hand ﬂush against the skin of my arm. It lasted less than a second. By the time Chela showed up at the counter, Isora had already let go.
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