Bulevar-Ve is, as the name suggests, shaped like a V, defying the norm of the neatly gridded rectangular city block. It’s a small, crummy, close-knit Latino neighborhood, and it’s also my home. I like to compare it to the Flatiron in Manhattan, because even though it’s shorter and made up of multiple buildings instead of one, it’s got that same weird two-dimensional effect. If I’m in a poetic mood, I might compare it to a flock of winter geese. Not that we see many flocks of geese in the city, but still. I read once that the geese take turns flying at the tip of the V, because that’s where the force of the wind is strongest and most tiring. It’s nice how they take care of each other.
I wonder sometimes if the geese ever look up from their flight and notice each other as they switch positions. Bulevar-Ve is like that. Two streets intersect, and people are caught off guard as they suddenly stumble upon each other, because no matter how many years you live here you never get used to the sudden V. I would know; I’m a product of Bulevar collisions, in more ways than one.
My parents moved here from some all-white town in upstate New York after getting hitched, with nothing but some crazy city dreams and my mom’s college debt. Living was cheap on V-Boulevard, so they decided to settle there until they could move on to bigger and better things. That never happened, which was fine with me.
My parents adjusted pretty quickly: learned passable Spanish, got jobs, had me. I grew up speaking Spanglish, the language of immigrants’ children. English words snuck into our conversations even when we meant to use Spanish. We called edificios “buildings” and grey hairs “canas.” Sometimes Mom and Dad were Mami and Papi. We only refrained from using Spanglish in front of our teachers, who expected us to bring only proper English or Spanish inside the school doors, not our hybrid slang.
I went to the district elementary school with Celia, the daughter of our close friend Kati Garcias, who lived in our building and was a good friend of my parents’. She pronounced her name SEH-lee-ah; whenever we had an English-speaking teacher, she would inform him of this as soon as possible. Everybody waited for it, her raised hand during roll call, the teacher’s irritation, the giggles. “But it’s worth it,” she whispered to me once. “I hate the way people say it in English, SEE-lee-uh, like I’m one of those fat sea lions at the zoo.”
Really, I was good friends with most of the other kids in my building, especially Maria and Panchita. We went to a big school, but somehow I can’t remember a single year where any of the four of us were in separate classes; I guess we were just lucky. We graduated fifth grade together and went to the even-bigger district middle school, and although we didn’t always see each other in class, it didn’t seem to matter. Life never changed much. It was only in eighth grade that Catalina moved in, and that I noticed, for the first time, how different I was.
* * *
“If you won’t read it, then I will,” Maria said, and before Panchita could protest she had the notebook in her hands and was reading aloud:
“Las floritas que
Crecen en las agujeras
“’The flowers that grow in the cracks, will grow strong,’” I translated. “That’s really nice, Panchita. Metaphorical, you know.”
She grabbed her notebook and began stuffing it back inside her backpack. Her loose hair fell over her face like a curtain. “The second line has only five syllables,” she mumbled. “Haikus are supposed to have five, seven, five.”
“So? You can revise it,” Maria said. “Your poems just keep getting better and better, even if they are only three lines long!”
We – Celia, Panchita, Maria and I – were sitting on the steps in front of our school, a brick building with small windows and big double doors. The schoolyard was empty. We had been released ten minutes ago; if we stayed ten more the security guard would come out and tell us to get lost. But my friends liked to stay and talk for a while before parting ways to go home or to afterschool. Last year I wouldn’t have minded, but today staying near the school seemed like a bad idea and splitting up an even worse one.
Relax, I thought irritably. You’re being paranoid.
“Que rara,” I said, nudging Celia with my elbow. She was hunched over her math homework. “Celia isn’t talking! When was the last time that happened?”
She looked up. “Huh?”
“Look, now you’ve ruined it!” Maria said.
“Did I miss something?” Celia said. Then, without waiting for an answer, she asked, “¿Cómo era Catalina hoy? How was Catalina after what happened in lunch today? Did you have to take crap from her about that?”
I shrugged. “She isn’t in any of my after-lunch classes on Fridays. I haven’t seen her since – ”
“Since I dumped my lunch on her!” Maria crowed as she pulled La casa de los espíritus by Isabel Allende out of her backpack. She loved to read and was on a Latino classics streak.
I smiled uneasily and tugged at my long pale hair, which Catalina loved to make fun of. Maria, Celia and I had been leaving the lunch line with our trays when Catalina saw us. She had cut through the crowd and started talking at me, the same old routine about how I didn’t belong here because I was a blondie, a gringo. Her words stung me, but I was used to them; I could take it. But Celia started calling her names in Spanish that even my parents knew were bad, and just when it looked like Catalina was going to give her a shove Maria tipped her lunch tray on top of her head. I winced; I could still see her standing there, her face tipped down, dripping with milk, bits of food sticking in her mirror black hair and in the red ribbon she used to tie it back from her face. Her eyes were shut, but I knew they were endlessly dark and angry. I pursed my lips.
“When does afterschool start for you and Maria?” I asked.
Celia looked at me questioningly. “Three-thirty. But you know that, we’ve been doing this every day since the beginning of the year, Sofia. What’s up? Is it Catalina?”
“I’m just worried about walking home just me and Panchita. Usually it’s all three of us,” I said. “And usually she’s not this mad. And, no offense, Panchita, but I don’t think she’ll think the two of us are very intimidating.”
“So you’re afraid she’ll jump you on the way home,” Maria said, coming out of her book just long enough to give me a sympathetic look.
“I’m positive she won’t,” Celia assured me, putting an arm around my shoulder. “Because, a) she’s una cobarde, a coward, b) she’s mad at Maria, not you, for getting salad dressing in her ears, and c) I see her all the time in afterschool. She doesn’t walk home at the same time you do, so she won’t harass you guys today.”
“No debes tener miedo a ella,” Panchita said softly, with barely masked terror. Celia put an arm around her too and squeezed us until we burst into nervous giggles.
Feeling better, I asked, “What are you working on in afterschool?”
“Papier-mâché fruit bowls,” she replied.
“Mine sucks,” Maria put in. “Yours is really good.”
“Not as good as your grades are!” Celia said. Then she turned back to me. “So you think you’ll be all right walking home?”
I nodded reluctantly.
“Good,” she said, standing up. “Maria, we’ll probably be late now. Let’s go.”
They stood up, Celia dusting off the seat of her jeans and Maria slowly closing the covers of her book.
“¡Con cuidado!” she said as they headed back inside. “Call me when you guys get home, okay?”
“Okay,” I replied. Panchita and I watched as the heavy doors slammed shut.
“We should get going. Quickly,” Panchita said.
My school is situated on the corner of left side of V-Boulevard. It’s the quieter, more respectable residential side – not as many old guys sitting on the street in lawn chairs. Fewer radios with the volume turned up. Air conditioners sandwiched between brick sill and window pane, silently dripping and shuttered.
When Panchita and me turned off that street we were met with the noise of swollen traffic. Shops with plastic awnings spilled over into stalls of cheap clothes, bracelets, handbags, cigars. Plastic bags caught like ghosts in the barbed wire that trimmed the storefronts. Everything smelled of gasoline and cooking oil; the sidewalk thumped with music. This was the kind of place where the cashier working night shift could be shot in a holdup; this was the kind of place where boys met to play basketball at the concrete courts just a few blocks away.
I loved Bulevar-Ve, despite all its dirt and poverty and crime. We said hi to about seven people in the first two blocks before we hit the V, where those two odd streets cross each other.
Suddenly Panchita whispered, “She’s following us.”
I knew who she meant instantly. My back stiffened and I clutched my backpack straps tightly. “Maybe she hasn’t noticed us yet,” she said, sounding slightly panicked. “Don’t look behind you.”
I didn’t turn around, but I could see her out of the corner of my eye, strolling past a fruit stand with maybe three other kids trailing behind her. She was staring straight at us. I felt frozen; blood washed numbly through my body.
Panchita twined an arm around my waist, and we started walking faster. I could see Catalina motioning for the other kids to hurry, and they got closer, and suddenly we were running. Panchita refused to let go of me, so we dodged in and out of traffic joined at the hip, somehow not screaming, praying that we would get to our apartment before Catalina did. My mind was paralyzed, even if my body wasn’t; I couldn’t bring myself to imagine what she would do if she caught us.
Over the sound of my own short, dry breath I could hear Catalina yelling. “¡Vamos a matarlas! ¿Me oyes? ¡Matarlas!”
I could see our building just half a block away. The kids behind us were whooping and pounding their feet against the pavement. They were close. Panchita’s knees were trembling so hard she stumbled, and I had to pull her up and drag her on. We crashed into the glass door of the apartment building and I fumbled with the keys. Please, please open, por favor nuestra amada Señora de los Cielos… I had never seriously prayed before then. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if those were the right words.
“Hola, mocosa.” I turned around and Catalina was standing there, smiling. She had the eyes of a cat.
I threw open the door and tried to slam it shut, but she caught it and stepped inside. I grabbed Panchita’s hand and we raced up the stairs, taking steps two at a time. I had a stitch in my side. I could hear Catalina’s friends hurrying into the lobby.
“Upstairs!” she shouted in Spanish.
When we got to my floor I mashed my fist against the buzzer, two times, four times, waited. Panchita was watching the stairs. My heart thudded against my ribcage. Where was my mom? She always answered the door…
“They’re coming!” Panchita cried. We stepped back as Catalina and her friends appeared at the top of the steps and surrounded us. There were three of them, one boy and two girls. Their faces were all the same for a moment, angry and twisted, hateful, eyes slitted with excitement.
The boy stepped up and grabbed my wrists. I let out a yelp and banged my elbows against the door, hoping my mother would hear me. The boy yanked me away and pulled me around to face Catalina. “Please,” I whispered in Spanish. “Don’t listen to her.”
“Cállate,” she snapped. “Shut up.” Then she pinched my freckle-spattered cheek, hard. I tried to jerk away, but the boy held me still. She had never touched me before, under the pretext that the touch of my skin stung her.
Panchita grabbed Catalina’s arm. I could see her hands were trembling. “Leave her alone!”
Catalina shoved her away and she stumbled into two girls who caught her and held her tight against the wall.
Then she turned to me and smirked. The clean red ribbon was back in place, giving me a clear view of her pretty doll’s face. Every horrible thing she’d ever done or said to me flashed through my mind: the hateful, incredulous looks on the first day of school. Her first attack, so painful and shocking then, but slowly blurring into an everyday trial. Her repertoire of names. Her face so close it nearly touched mine.
“Who wants to save the little white girl?” She looked around, like she expected volunteers. “No? All right then, let’s give her a haircut,” she said, pulling a pair of school scissors out of her messenger bag. They were the kiddie kind, with the rubber handle and dull blade. The boy who was holding me pulled my closer. I craned my neck around and spat in his face.
“Aggh!” He dropped me for just a moment to wipe his eyes, and I ran for the stairs, not even thinking about poor Panchita. Catalina caught me just in time and slapped me. I screamed.
“Catch!” she called out, pushing me toward the girls. They squealed, and one of them let go of Panchita just long enough to shove me toward the boy.
I stumbled toward him feeling numb and helpless, a paper cup rolling on the surface of the sea. The boy wrapped his arms around my waist and squeezed me as Catalina wound her fingers through a hunk of my hair, opened the scissor blades, and made the first cut. I watched the soft lock of hair fall to the ground and curl in defeat. “This is for going where you don’t belong,” Catalina breathed in my ear. “This is for looking down on me and for what – ”
The door across from us flew open. “¿Que estás haciendo? What are you doing?” Kati Garcias’s tiny frame filled the doorway. She was wearing slippers and sweatpants, and she was gazing at Catalina with more fury than I had ever imagined her capable of.
There was a shocked pause. “What we do is none of your business,” Catalina snarled, but she sounded less sure of herself. She lowered the scissors.
“You won’t be so smart when I tell your father about this,” Kati said. “No puedo creerlo. You changed so much, Catalina. What are you picking on Sofia for?”
I could feel the boy holding me glance indecisively at Catalina, then at Kati. He let go of me and brushed his hands off on the front of his T-shirt. The two girls pushed Panchita away and stepped back from her. Then the three of them gathered together at the top of the stairs.
Catalina gazed at them, her face flat and empty. “Fuck you!” she screamed suddenly, whirling around to face me. “You’re all the same! Liars and cheats and – and rapists!”
Before she could get out another word Kati swept forward and pushed Catalina toward the stairs. “Go. Now,” she said, low, threatening. “Or I bring you to your father’s door and tell him what you’ve been up to these days.”
Catalina swiped fiercely at her eyes and then, very slowly and stiffly, she descended the stairs. Her friends watched. Her footsteps clicked loudly on the steps.
“You too,” Kati said to the others, in the same dangerous voice, and they hurried down the stairs after Catalina, looking back at me and Kati, whispering.
We remained frozen until the lobby door clanked shut and we knew they were all gone.
“Kati – ” I whispered. My face was streaked with tears.
She spun around and kissed me fiercely on the cheek, and then she grabbed Panchita, who looked smaller and shakier than ever, and kissed her too. Tingling spread from the place where her lips had touched my face throughout my body, and only then did I realized she was hugging us both at once. Somehow her short arms made it all the way around us. I pressed my head deeper into Kati’s neck, and she tightened her embrace. I wished I could find the words to ask her something, about Catalina, about what I was to Bulevar-Ve, even if she didn’t know the answers.
She held us for a few moments. “Ay Dios,” she sighed. “It’s time I told you something about that girl. Let’s go inside. My husband isn’t here right now, so we’ll have the apartment to ourselves.”
Her apartment had never looked warmer, or brighter, or more clutter-cozy than it did then. She made us sit down at the folding card table just outside the kitchen and went to the stove to make us some hot milk. While she was busy, she made us tell her everything: how Catalina had followed us home, how she had pushed Panchita and slapped me, and called me names, and tried to cut my hair.
I closed my eyes and leaned back in my chair. My hand found Panchita’s underneath the table. I was too tired to ask questions or even talk; all I wanted was to fall asleep right there at the table.
“When Celia first told me about what Catalina was doing to you, I started asking around about where that girl had come from, who her parents were,” Kati said tiredly. “I don’t believe in attacking kids through the school board – it doesn’t seem right to me, much better to let the family know. In any case I never talked to her parents, I just heard bits and pieces from friends of friends. She’s an illegal, that much I know for sure, and something happened while she and her mother were coming over the border…her mother never made it across…”
Kati paused. My throat was unbearably tight and I knew what had happened, but my mind kept asking What?
“She lives with her father now, just off V-Boulevard,” she said at last.
We sat at the table in silence for a moment. I wasn’t crying. I couldn’t cry for Catalina, not anymore, but there was an ache deep in my chest where the tears should have been.
“The milk must be ready by now,” Kati said abruptly, and stood up. Stopped. Put her arms around me from behind. “Oh, mija, I’m so sorry.”
She went to take the milk off the stove.
I leaned closer to Panchita and tried to think of something to say, but there were no words, no words to describe what had just happened.
“I need to use the bathroom,” she said quickly and left.
I listened to the clear, echoing sound of pouring liquid from the kitchen. Then Kati came back out with two chipped, misty mugs and sat back down with me. I took a sip of mine; the milk was hot and rich and sweet, as if she’d added honey. She didn’t say anything about Panchita’s not being there. Instead, she said, “I’m not excusing her, mija, but I hope you can understand now. Catalina has an angry heart.”
I turned away. So many feelings were tumbling through me that I thought it best not to speak.
“I never told Celia about Catalina because I was afraid she would tease her about it. She would have, for you. My daughter adores you, you know that?”
I could hear Panchita sniffling in the bathroom. If she was crying for Catalina, she was a better person than I was. But I didn’t think that was why. She was crying for something else, for something broad that was hard to explain – for the walls that we all put up around ourselves and for the hurt they conceal and the things we block ourselves off from.
I thought back to Panchita’s poem.
Las floritas que
Crecen en las agujeras
Age 13, Grade 8
School of the Future High School