When we knew they were busy reading their Corin Tellado romance novels to each other, and watching their telenovelas, we locked the bedroom door to whoever’s apartment it was. They’d recently started calling us by our baby names and trying to make us their nenas again, offering to take us shopping and sharing their Vanidades Magazines in Spanish. We saw their fear, and we played up to it. “Ramonita, Carmencita, Inesita, Vengan! Let’s go downtown and do a little shopping.” We saw it was a trap. They told each other where we were and paid each other visitas when we happened to be there. They claimed it was to roll each other’s hair in those hideous pink curlers, or to exchange books and magazines in Spanish. But we knew they were spying on us. We didn’t fall for it, no Señoras. “No tengo ganas,” one of us was sure to say, not in the mood for shopping, or, “We are working on el homework.” We knew our mothers wanted to curb our tastes and desires and we said “no, gracias.” It was the year of diminutives.
Three of us were turning fifteen in the next month and we were ready to bust out of our Catholic school uniforms. Not so much for me; the school insignia and Sacred Heart patch on my school straps barely stood out. But Ramonita and Carmensita, chests out, proudly displayed their school pride. Our mothers, two primas and a neighbor all three as close as triplets, saw our wildness and worried. “Pero, Hija. You are too young for bras with stuffing,” my mother would say. She refused to buy me a padded bra, so I stuffed it myself with tissues. I did it right before I stepped out on the street from our front door. I once overheard my male cousin tell other boys that he was planning on giving me a box of bandaids for my quincean͂era. “Save her bra money.”
* * *
With the bedroom door closed, we turned the radio up loud, and we whispered our secret plans while Cousin Brucie played 96 Tears, a good song, over and over—we liked hearing a guy say he cried for a girl. Or he plays the stupid These Boots are Made for Walking, sung in a teeny voice by that girl with Frank Sinatra’s face—who could be Sinatra in a frilly white mini-dress with knee-high white boots. She can’t dance, either. She takes these baby steps as she screeches out “these boots are made for (‘Baby walking!’ ” we yelled out every time we heard it).
“I’m gonna be a professional dancer,” Carmen declared, doing a total body spin like she was on ice-skates. “I’m gonna do the hair and make up for movie stars,” Ramona, the Woolworth’s make-up queen, yelled out while wearing a huge hair drier bonnet attached to the motor by a pipe that sounded like your own private tornado. The whole time her long hair in big plastic curlers dried, she’d be doing our nails, though we’d have to use smelly acetone on them before school Monday—we could get detention for nails in any other color but virginal transparent pink: why paint them at all?
The smell of the nail polish remover would fill the apartment, making my father say, “You are a walking fire bomb, Hija. If anyone lights a match next to you, you’ll explode like una bomba atomica.” And this made my mother pause, if she was in the middle of lighting up a Salem mentholated cigarette (good for sore throats; it was la pura verdad if she heard it on the TV), and give me the cuchillo look—death by eye dagger. I kissed my azabache hanging from my gold chain, a little ball of coral and ebony, right next to my confirmation crucifix, to protect me from the Evil Eye. “Gracias por darme el mal ojo, Mami” I might say disdainfully. My own mother giving me the Evil Eye. “Malcriada y maleducada” she’d shoot back. So, if I was the badly raised, ill-mannered daughter, whose fault was that? Better to let it drop. Ay, Dios mio.
* * *
When we were satisfied with our make-up and outfits, Ramona, Carmen (we did not baby-fy our names once we left our apartments), and I walked to downtown Paterson. Bought our Cosmopolitan Magazine from a disapproving clerk at the Woolworth, ate our hamburgers at the White Castle and planned our lives. We shared our break-out plans from the barrio. Fantasies of being discovered for the talents we knew were our gifts from God. If asked, I talked of being a reporter or a teacher in the City (which always meant New York; just across the Hudson, but a million miles away in our minds). I earned good grades in English mainly because I read everything. But for las muchachas there was no serious talk of college yet. It was hard to imagine. We didn’t even know what a college campus looked like.
When I did think about going away to college, I day-dreamed it like high school, except the students as older versions of the kids I knew. I’d live in a dorm, my own furniture and my own key to my own room, no nosey parents checking for “funny” cigarettes in socks, or evidence of la vida loca in my private possessions—that was the best part for me; thinking of owning my days, no more reglas at the house, rules your parents invented on the spot to keep you from making any decision on your own: curfew times, eating rules, even the etiquette of Puerto Rican greetings: If you meet an older relative, or family friend, you ask for a blessing “La bendición;” If you didn’t, they complained to others about your lack of respeto “No me pide la bendicion.” She doesn’t ask for my blessing. Snob. Changa. Americanized. Too good for the barrio. If I went away to college I could open the door of my own room, and not have to ask for permission; I could eat pizza in the middle of the night; I could take a bath that lasted for hours. At home, I couldn’t even take a quick shower without announcing it, since the only toilet in the house was in the same room with the tub. No luxurious long tub baths for me; someone always needed to use the bathroom. Small dreams of privacy were attached to my break-out plan. This was the year of easy dreams, no effort on our parts. We were destined to be rich and famous for being us. El destino, we believed in it like we believed in the Starship Enterprise. To explore new worlds, to boldly go where no muchacaha from the barrio had gone before. Oye, you better believe we were going places.
Weekends you might find us in the parking lot of White Castle; we leaned on somebody’s car, a new one preferably, shiny and smooth; we traced its curves with our hands. We’d seen how boys touched their cars. We were mostly sharp angles and fins jutting out, but the hips were sure to round out like eye-catching hubcaps. One of us always brought a transistor radio. When they played one of the songs that made our bodies twitch, and we felt something like desire rising from our toes up to our scalps, sometimes we danced in front of the customers eating their burgers and ogling us. I could read their lips, at least I knew how lips moved when someone said “Spanish girls,” and I knew how the eyes changed when the looking was in contempt: but sometimes it was something else, something more exciting we wanted to elicit from strangers with our bold moves.
We swayed to Wild Thing, going at it like corkscrews, until it built up to a little bump and grind. We trembled at the thought someone we knew would see us, but the fear was part of it. We needed to feel it. So we danced in a parking lot, we laughed at ourselves, wild things that we were, and waited for someone to say “I think your dancing is fantastic, Muchachas. Come on tour with us. You can be a Go-Go girl behind one of the British invasion bands.” Oye, hey, it it’s just a matter of time.
Then it’s time to go home, our two hours of freedom up. Our parents would send brothers or other male relatives or, worse, they’d come themselves to drag us home. Outside our building, we’d rub the lipstick and eyeliner off each other’s faces with a little spit on our pan᷉uelos, the linen squares our mothers embroidered for us with our initials, no sharing hankies, which I threw in the tub with me when I took my baths, to wash off the evidence. Like a good girl, muchacha decente, I washed my panties, and little bra, and my hankie at bath time every night. I hung them smelling of Palmolive soap on a string or wire my father made into a laundry line across one end of the bathroom. But it was OK, only family saw the pastel with tiny flower print underpants, and the A cup bras hanging like caught white fish. If company knocked unexpectedly, I rushed take them down. A woman takes care of her own intimate garments. These secret clothes never took the trip to the Laundromat on Saturdays. A woman’s underwear is not for public display.
Oh la vida was full of lurking danger, and we, las muchachas, could not wait to find it, or for it to find us. A blind desire for experience drove us, and what we couldn’t articulate, we mimed through our electric bodies, wild things; our open palms said, give us the world, we are ready, and our feet danced us and took us as far as we dared. We loved our lives, until there was nothing more to love with a passion.
One day, the diminutives were dropped, and we claimed our grown women names. Eventually we stopped being atrevidas, the wildness seemed to fall off like a baby bird’s down, or we shed it, a snake’s skin. We did not feel it slip off, but it happened. And one year, we walked away from each other. We went separately into the fog of adulthood. No longer las muchachitas atrevidas, we learned to fear what once we sought, the dangers, the blinding surprise. We walk with caution now, having learned that la vida is doling out what we wished for, the unknown. Sometimes it’s a minefield that bursts into shrapnel, leaving us scarred, and other times, more rare, the days surprise us like a tossed bouquet, floating right into our hands. It goes on and on, this slow adventure, la vida, just like our mothers’ telenovelas, postponing the happy ending, but promising one in every episode.
Her work appeared in The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, Glamour and other journals, and has been included in numerous textbooks and anthologies including: Best American Essays 1991, The Norton Book of Women's Lives, The Norton Introduction to Literature, The Norton Introduction to Poetry, The Heath Anthology of American Literature, The Pushcart Prize, and the O. Henry Prize Stories.
Judith Ortiz Cofer passed away on December 30th, 2016. Her extraordinary life and work were celebrated at The University of Georgia on January 27th, 2017.