El Sexo

El Sexo

Magdalena could see from the car window all the way into the long hallway beyond the front door of la casa, lit yellow the way she hated light to be. Lit yellow windows in the night made her shudder but not this time because there was something bright red, drawing her attention, just as frightening as whatever secret things went on in yellow lit nightrooms. She couldn't believe her eyes. The red object was her cousin Dulce's thighs and calves, muslos y pantorrillas, encased in the red tights Magdalena's Papi had brought from Miami. Mujer Mala. Was Dulce a Mujer Mala? This must be how a Mujer Mala dressed. She was perched on the porch railing in her red tights, really almost naked, talking to Robertico who lived two doors down and was already almost a man.

Magdalena clenched her hands. Her palms, just where they met her wrists, were sore from practising cartwheels most of the afternoon on the pebbly street outside her house. She kept on practising long after Mami began calling her in for her bath. She'd thrown her body over and over full weight onto her hands, kicking her legs up, until at last she'd discovered the secret: stretching her waist. She stretched her waist now, turning a cartwheel in her mind, as she approached and reached the porch close up to her cousin Dulce in the bright red tights.

See through tights right on the front porch was even worse than the lastex toreador pants, the ones with black curlicued appliques along the sides of the legs. Magdalena prayed Dulce would one day hand them down. If only one of these years Magdalena would open the box of handed down old school uniforms and threadbare gingham dresses from Dulce and find the white lastex pants folded right on top!

Dulce had just seen Magdalena and her Papi and her Mami getting out of the car and she was waving both hands, leaning forward as if she might fall from her perch on the molded concrete porch railing, the red tights meant for skinny Magdalena stretched almost see through on Dulce's round hips, thighs, legs. The pink flesh glowed under the red nylon, bursting like an overripe mamey. "Practically naked". Papi shook his head. She studied Papi's grimace. Was he thinking Dulce's a Mujer Mala? Was this El Sexo? The sin he said in his sermons was the worst of all. He looked grim as they crossed the narrow street and entered the pool of yellow light from the streetlamp right in front of the house, shining on Dulce's mamey red flesh like a spotlight on the tv rumba dancers, the vedettes on the Cabaret Carnaval.

Dulce teetered forward as they got closer to her perch. She just missed her enamorado Robertico and threw herself right into Papi's arms as he crossed in front of her. The grimness left his face. He hugged her and laughed almost as much as Dulce laughed. She straddled his hips with her Mujer Mala red legs. El sexo? Magdalena walked between them and the porch rail, her head no higher than Dulce's perch. "Puta". Magdalena's mind formed the word. Papi must be thinking that word. All the neighbors must call her puta behind her back. Even that fool blonde Robertico must be calling her puta as he looked at his watch and waved goodbye. But nobody called Dulce puta to her face.

Tia Mila and Abuela got up from where they sat in the wide hallway on their cane seat rockers catching the breeze and listening to the Novela de las Siete. First Abuela and then Tia rushed into Papi's open arms. Abuela headed for the kitchen. Before Mila could finish saying, "Voy a colar cafe," Dulce grabbed Magdalena's hand and pulled her into her bedroom. She came at Dulce with a bright red lipstick from the dozens scattered on top of her dresser among small jars of makeup and perfume, costume jewelry, hairbrushes and combs. Dulce stood Magdalena by the dresser. "I'm going to make you up."

The dresser was covered by a thick film of face powder. Magdalena licked her finger and wrote her name in the dust. Dulce tilted Magdalena's face back like a giant doll, dipped a tiny brush into the lipstick, and carefully painted bright red lips. The younger girl squirmed. She had the funny feeling that made her want to squeeze her thighs tight, like when she had to pee but somebody else was in the bathroom.

After she was done with her lips Dulce tied a cotton nightgown to Magdalena's waist like the train of a vedette's costume on Cabaret Carnaval, and tied a gossamer negligee from Miami to her own waist. She turned on her radio. "I'll teach you how to dance." She jumped onto the bed and hefted Magdalena up by the armpits. "No one can teach her." Dulce said this to the dresser mirror facing them a few feet away from the foot of the bed. The round mirror stood for the audience of their cabaret. Dulce was a good dancer. She was allowed to dance and Magdalena was not. Dancing had to do with being a Mujer Mala and with "El Sexo", that most terrible of sins her Papi bellowed about in so many of his sermons. But at Dulce's house Papi didn't mind the dancing.

He sipped his cafecito with Abuela, Tia Mila and Mami in the hallway telling stories about the Rebels, saying if Cuba had a revolution so would Ventura, acting like there were no Mujeres Malas anywhere, especially not right down the hall. She thought of Papi and the bellowed "El Sexo", pictured herself cartwheeling, and bounced faster and higher on the bed, faster than the wave of puke wanting to shake out of her. Dulce jumped higher. She shook her butt faster, turned her back to the mirror and gave their audience her rump.

Magdalena was laughing so hard she didn't notice when she jumped clear off the bed and landed on the floor on top of Dulce's slippers, still laughing so hard tears popped out of her closed eyes. She looked up and hairy legs were straddling her, Dulce's brother Chama's legs. Above her eyes was a crooked guiro gourd, his pinga. The hairy sack of his huevos dangled underneath. She'd seen all this before, every time he barged in on them naked except for his bathrobe whenever he heard them dancing. He'd gotten hairier. "Vete, vete, vete." Dulce started the 'get out' chant. Magdalena slid from underneath him and rolled under the bed. She stared up at the bouncing bed frame until the door closed behind Chama.

She was still under the bed when Papi came to the door. She saw his legs in the tan trousers and his polished brown shoes with little holes. He was wearing his preaching clothes. He was going off to the Interior to preach for a week and was leaving her and Mami at his sister's. She lay perfectly still waiting for a secret to be revealed. He was hugging Dulce. "Y Miga?" One of his nicknames for her was Miga. It sounded a little like Magdalena but it meant a little crumb of bread. She rolled out, bounced up, clutched his legs."Don't go away." How she didn't want him to leave. But Papi was always leaving.

Spent from their dancing Dulce and Miga lay on their backs on the bed staring at the ceiling fan. Breathless. Dulce turned onto her side and put her hand on her young cousin's belly. "Does Paquito come over to your house?" Magdalena shook her head. She wasn't sorry her cousin Paquito never came to visit. He was loud and pushy and the one time he did visit he wanted the crusts of his toast cut off and his toast cut into tiny triangles. "You live in the culo del mundo." Magdalena nodded. She didn't want Paquito to visit, but she wanted Dulce who'd never once come no matter how far back Magdalena thought. Why did Mami make them move too far for anyone to ever come?

"When Paquito comes he's going to tell you about the bidet." Magdalena turned on her side to face Dulce. "I know about the bidet." Dulce must mean using it when your family ran out of toilet paper. Her family almost never did, but at Dulce's sometimes there were neat little squares of newspaper where the toilet paper should be. One time Dulce's Father told them all, gathered in the hallway, that washing with the bidet and drying with a cloth was a far better way to clean the culo. Magdalena couldn't get over how it was alright at Dulce's house to curse. Culo, mierda, cono...these words she'd been slapped and shaken for accidentally blurting out were just plain words at Dulce's. Papi didn't appear to notice when Dulce or her brother Chama or her father Nelo said them.

Dulce squirmed closer. She whispered so close Magdalena felt her breath right on her earlobe prickling the hairs on the back of her neck. "Paquito told me to sit on the bidet and squirt the water hard on myself and think about him. It's like singar but without singar." Magdalena squeezed her eyes shut tight. She thanked God right then Tia Mila appeared at the door. "Are you hungry?." She flicked off the ceiling fan. Tia Mila and Abuela were the only ones Magdalena hadn't heard cursing.

While Dulce was giving the dancing class the other tias and primos had come home from work and gathered in the hallway to tell what they'd heard at work and on the bus about the rebels. As she stepped out of Dulce's bedroom Magdalena pictured all of her aunts and cousins stepping aside to admire her cartwheeling the full length of the long hallway, all the way to the dining room, where they were all now beginning to gather by the table around Tia Laura. "You don't believe me? I'll prove it to you." Tia Laura jumped up from her place at the kitchen end of the table. She was tall like Papi and had the same long face and big nose. Magdalena sat close to Dulce and leaned her elbows on the red flannel backed rubber cloth. She pictured herself cartwheeling under the table to hide from the rising din.

She wanted to hide but couldn't stop staring at Tia Laura who was coming up to each person around the table bellowing over and over, "I'll prove it to you." Laura worked her way around the table to the chair right beside Magdalena where Tia Claudia, the youngest Tia, was bouncing her infant daughter on her lap. Before Claudia could stop her Laura lifted baby Pituca, lay her on the table right by Magdalena , undid the diaper pins, pulled down the yellow drenched diaper, and pointed to the baby's vulva. The others stood from their chairs and gathered closer to stare at the baby who laughed and airswam her legs.

Tia Laura turned to Magdalena. "Now I'll show you. Get up Miga." Tia Laura hefted Magdalena onto the table, grabbed her knees, yanked open her legs and pulled down her panties. "You see. The papaya does not grow. The baby's papaya is the same size as the girl's." The part of Magdalena wanting to scream no, no, no dove deep inside into the blackness behind her closed eyes. Just before she closed her eyes she looked among the faces for Mami's. They'd never have done this if Papi hadn't gone. Why wasn't Mami making them stop? She couldn't find her. Just as she closed her eyes she caught the glint in Chama's eyes, staring at her center. No, no, no, no, no...

Later that night Magdalena broke her bottle. Mami had told her many times that when she broke the next bottle she would not get another. Enough was enough. She almost never drank out of her bottle around Dulce and Chama. But that night she didn't care if they made fun of her for as long as she lived. One moment Magdalena was sitting curled up in Tia Mila's big rocker in the hallway sucking the sweet milk, eyes closed, the wall light shining on her closed eyes, filling up with sweetness and yellow light. Next moment she felt the bottle slip from her hands, crash on the tiles, shatter. She screamed, she pulled at her hair, she made fists with her hands and hit her head.

"Diantre muchacha, diantre, diablo, diantre. Break everything. Sigue asi. Don't you hit yourself. Let me do the hitting." The flat of Mami's hand caught Magda on the side of the face. Her hands yanked her off the rocker, shook her shoulders. Magdalena shuddered when Mami's nails dug into the thin flesh over her shoulder blades. "I'll hit you ten times harder if you cry." Magda felt her neck snap each time Mami shook her shoulders hard.

At last Mami was gone. Magdalena curled up face to the wall on the bed alongside Dulce's, Chama's old bed. He now slept in his own room, behind the kitchen, a room that would have been a maid's room in a house that didn't have so many Tias. Thank God Dulce had not yet come to bed. She was on the porch again, perched on the railing wearing the red tights like they were pants, entertaining Robertico. Magdalena longed for her bottle and the sweet pleasure of sucking herself to sleep. She imagined herself cartwheeling on her own pebbly street. She threaded the long double bed pillow between her legs, Tia Mila's old marital pillow for two heads. She squeezed the pillow tight.

The door creaked open. "Miga." Dulce didn't whisper. She stomped her feet. Magdalena pretended to be asleep. Her shoulders still hurt from Mami's nails and her head after getting shook hard always felt like it wasn't screwed on right onto her neck. She didn't want to listen to Dulce's stories of Robertico's courtship. "Come mierda." Dulce didn't whisper. Magdalena breathed slow like sleepers breathe. She heard Dulce drop her shoes, peel off the tights, pull off the lacey white blouse, and slide into one of her see through nylon nightgowns from Miami. In a few minutes Dulce would begin to squirm and moan.

Magdalena shut her eyes softly the way sleeping people really shut their eyes, until Dulce got quiet, letting out tiny sleeping sighs. At last Abuela and Tia Mila finished their night rounds of the house, shutting off the radio in the front of the hallway, and the light just outside Dulce's door. Magdalena squeezed the pillow between her thighs and listened hard in the dark for the sounds coming from the bedrooms with doors opening at either side of Dulce's room. To the left of her narrow bed was the door, always ajar, to Tia Mila's and Tio Nelo's bedroom. She could hear Mila's slippers scraping on the tiles as she tossed them and raised her legs onto the bed. The metal bastidores under the cotton mattress squeaked. Magdalena shook when Tio Nelo let out a loud laugh. What were the secret words of their night whispers?

Alongside Dulce's big bed was the door, always ajar, to Abuela's room where she slept alone. Abuelo had moved into a room of his own across the hall. Seconds after she finished her nightly whispered prayer Abuela began her whistling snores. The whistling blended with the frog croaks, the cricket chirps and cat meows, the distant dog barks.

Beyond Abuela's was Tia Laura's enormous room with the huge double bed in the middle which she'd shared forever with her younger sister until Claudia got married last year and moved away. Laura now shared the giant bed with the big woman from the bodega. Magdalena pictured Laura examining the woman's papaya, boyo, chocha. She shuddered and wanted to throw up.

She was glad she couldn't possibly hear Abuelo's barking snores, nor Chama's screaming laughter. For their visit Abuelo had moved behind the kitchen, in with Chama. Across the hallway Mami slept in Abuelo's room, alone, waiting as always for Papi to get home from being an evangelist.

All of them breathed and moaned doing whatever it was people did in their dark moist caves at night. She hated their night sounds and erased them in her mind by killing them all and strewing their bodies on a field. She walked among the bodies in a see through nightgown like Dulce's, holding a candle. She'd seen just this image in one of Chama's horror comic books. She couldn't be good and have that thought, but once it sprung she couldn't think it back in.

Once she was sure Dulce was asleep Magdalena opened her eyes and gazed at the moonlit walls of the room, and through the bedroom door, beyond the pasillo and its rockers at the terrifying shadows falling from the ceiling beams and flying off the plants hanging from the eaves into the patio. Sleep wouldn't come after the murder field and she lay wondering when the shadows might swoop down like parachutes. Parachutes were creatures she'd seen in Chama's horror comic books that sucked blood, a kind of vampiros.

She wanted to pee and poo but she couldn't brave the vampire shadows. Sleep began to suck her in. A delicious melting began below her waist, in her center, in that secret place they'd made the whole world see. First she pretended it never happened at all, then she thought, it happened to Pituca too, then she thought it only happened to Pituca. Sleep was sucking her in deeper. She wanted to pee and poo and it wouldn't be so bad to do it right here. She felt a melting golden light in her secret place, a delicious easing. Slowly, sweetly, she wet and soiled herself. She'd be sorry in the morning but now, she surrendered to the delight of letting go.

She woke up early, even before Abuela, gave herself a scrubbing with cold water in the bathroom, changed into clean shorts and a blouse, and washed the soiled sheets in the pila outside. If they asked she'd shrug and they'd guess she wet the bed. After the sheets were hanging with the rest of Mila's laundry, Magdalena went to the flat end of the patio behind the pila, behind Nelo's workbench, to practice her cartwheels. She had a picture of the movement in her mind and she could make her body do it. She brought down her hands and kicked up her legs. The first two times she folded in at the waist, but the third time, she could feel her waist stretching her cartwheel nearly perfect.

That was when Mami found her and yanked her by the hair. "Diantre, cochina, devil pig." After beating Magdalena Mami dragged her to the dining table, made her drink cafe con leche, and shoved into her mouth buttered pan de manteca she'd dunked in the milk. The white scalded milk with three drops of coffee and floating rings of melted butter made her retch. She squirmed away, ran to the bathroom, bolted the door shut and threw up. She stood at the long bathroom window staring at the adjoining house to see if anyone was looking in.

She looked beyond the house at the purple mountains. She didn't believe any more the mountains were the heaven they spoke about in Sunday school. She'd been much less lonely when she believed the people in the Sunday school stories lived in those purple mountains and their stories had happened in the mountains just that week. She was less lonely when she believed her Papi went to the purple mountains when he went away to preach. Now she knew the mountains were where the Rebels were. She shuddered from the longing for her Papi, the one who loved her. She thought she saw eyes peering from the shutters of the next house and she slammed the bathroom shutters closed.

Chama pounded on the bathroom door. When she came out Magdalena saw he was getting ready to go to the patio with a handful of long, thin wooden rods in one hand, and a dozen strings in the other. "La Vomitona." He tickled her under the chin on the way into the bathroom. She shook him off but waited until he was done to see if this was one time he would let her watch him make things. He grabbed his stuff and strode outside. She caught up with him way at the rear of the patio at Nelo's workbench. He hummed as he made notches at each end of a long flexible wooden rod, and slid the knotted end of a string into each notch. He took the string out of the notches, made it shorter, tried again. Each time the rod curved tighter.

"You're making a bow." She stood closer. He kept on humming. The sun felt good on her back and head. She was absorbed completely in his industry. She leaned into him, breathing on his neck and ear. If she stayed very quiet would he let her make a bow? In her mind's eye she saw herself repeating his efforts and imagined how she might do it better, imagined how to tie the knots on the string, how to ease them into the slots so they would stay. She'd seen bows and arrows in cowboy movies and believed she could also make them as well as Chama. She put her arm around his shoulder. "No me jodas. You're a pest." She laughed. This must be a choteo. All her cousins liked to chotear about her milk bottle, her bed wetting, her big feet, her dark skin. Papi said it was just jokes, fun. Something was wrong with her because she didn't laugh. Choteo made her want to cry.

Chama elbowed her in the chest, brought his face up close. "Te voy a joder yo a ti." He tickled her hard under the armpits, under the neck. She laughed hard and wanted to run away. He pushed her off the chair onto the hot sunlit cement patio floor. Chama pushed down her panties. Before Magdalena could tear away he opened her legs like Tia Laura had done, took a good close look, and shoved his index finger into her center. It burned. It burned. Her closed eyes were facing up and the sunlight filled her head with light. She saw from far above, from higher than the teja roof, the girl, and the big boy who bent over her, his long fingers burning her insides, the girl burning and drowning in light.

Magdalena felt herself, a tiny figure, walking on a field of ochre sand, not the flat yellow sand of those other dreams in which the ocean roared nearby. This was oceanless desert sand. She walked and bottomless craters exploded in the ground. The ground cracked zigzag bottomless ravines. Magdalena walked. And Chama walked ahead of her. She followed him. In the far distance a tall ochre tower jutted from the ground. On the tower stood two tall monks in long brown robes. The monks brought bows to their chests. They aimed the bows. Magdalena knew what they would do and wished there was something she could do about it. She watched as the monks shot arrows. She watched the arrows fly. Each arrow took out one of Chama's eyes. She screamed. Her own screams woke her. The moonlit nighthouse silenced her screams. Dulce stirred. Tia Mila moaned next door. Abuela hissed her whistling snore. O please, please God. Don't let them wake up.

Early in the morning Tia Mila called Magdalena to her bed. She crawled in between Mila and Nelo, closed her eyes and let Tio Nelo crush her to his chest. "Miga, mira." Tia Mila put Tio Nelo's morning cigarette gently between her lips. She had called Magdalena in because Magdalena liked to see Tia Mila lighting Nelo's cigarettes. Tia Mila took one puff. "Daselo tu." She gave Magdalena the cigarette to hand to Nelo. He laughed. "Pruebalo." Magdalena took a tiny suck of the hot foul air. It tasted awful. But it didn't matter. When she grew up she would smoke even if that was what a Mujer Mala did. She would live in this house and there would be a floor made of ashtrays like a piece of a beehive she had once seen. She would be free to walk, smoke, toss out her cigarettes into the hive of ashtrays made into a floor just for her.

Magdalena sat on the cold tile floor by one of the big rockers in the pasillo at Tio Nelo's feet listening to him tell the Tias that the Rebels were never going to win. Her Papi believed they would and wanted them to. How she wished he were here to tell Nelo how wrong he was. Tio Nelo was making her rub his smelly feet. He rubbed her head. "Ahi. Ahi. Press harder right there." Magdalena pressed her thumb into Tio Nelo's right arch. She too had an instant of pride at being selected among the nieces to rub his feet. But now she wanted to puke. "Huelen a queso. Yo no los toco." Dulce never rubbed her father's feet. The foot Magdalena was kneading now was hot, moist. The black socks had left tiny worms of lint between the toes. They might come to life at any moment.

"Ahi. Miga. Ahi." Tio Nelo moaned and laughed the way he laughed at night in bed with Tia Mila. This was not alright with Magdalena. She tried to catch Mami's eye but Mami was pretending to listen to the novela on the radio. Mami was in the clouds. Everybody said that. Papi said that. "Esta en las nubes." If she was in the clouds then she came down as lightning. Magdalena wished she could be in the clouds too but she floated only as far as the vigas, nestled into one of the high hanging plants, and watched them all from above. Abuela, Tia Mila, Tia Laura, and even Dulce, out shouted each other talking back to the bad woman of the novela who had convinced her husband she was in a wheelchair but moved about the house doing evil things when no one was around. And to the husband. Mila waved her sewing."No la creas." Laura banged the arms of her rocking chair. "Que come mierda." Mami said nothing.Tio Nelo's eyes rolled up into his head. The little girl kneading his feet would never want to eat cheese again. Up on her plant perch Magdalena laughed.

Magdalena pushed as hard as she could against Dulce's shoulders. "Quitate. Sueltame. Quitate." Dulce dropped her full weight on Magdalena, pressed her chest against Magdalena's face. "I know you shit the bed. Cagona." Magdalena squirmed her legs, squirmed her shoulders side to side. Her scream was muffled. She couldn't breathe. She burned with rage. "Pero que hacen?" Dulce stopped the instant she heard Tia Mila, rolled off Magdalena, and gave her mother the angel smile. "She started." Tia Mila smoothed Dulce's long braids.

Magdalena jumped off the bed and took off running to the patio. She did cartwheels until an intention formed. She walked to the workbench. Chama was away. Rage shuddered through her and burned tears down her face. She took Chama's best bow and his best arrow and she walked out through the wooden gate of the patio to the empty lot behind the casa where he had his target nailed onto a tree. She found a spot barren of weeds and rubble and stood with her feet planted wide the way she'd seen Chama do. She placed the arrow into the string and pulled the string the way he did. The arrow tumbled off. She bent down fast and tried again, again, again. Her fingers were red raw when she at last got the arrow to glide into the air and hit the bottom of the mark.

She swept off rubble between the roots of the target tree and she sat down leaning into the fat trunk and gazing up at the sky through the branches. She resolved to sit perfectly still until somebody came looking. It was dark when she saw Chama approaching her through the monte. She didn't know if she was more scared of being alone or of having Chama for her rescuer. "Estas loca? Magdalena la loca." He took the bow and arrow from her hand, gave his dog howl laugh, and started pulling her by the hand through the monte back to the house.

Papi's voice woke her up. He was home. She listened to his whispered voice melding with Mami's in the room across the way. She felt a wave of warmth from her feet to her chest. Their voices were a kind of song together so Mami's shout came like a blow. "Who is she? Quien es la otra?" Mami got louder. Papi got silent. Magdalena wrapped the long pillow around her head leaving out just her nose and chin. Next morning she lay in the bed waiting. Waiting. Any minute Papi would appear at the door the way he always had since before she could remember. He'd watch her until his presence woke her.

And here was Papi now, walking in, approaching the bed, "Mi Miga. Mi Miguita de pan." He pulled her up gently and folded her in his arms. Inside she was filling with tears. But she mirrored his giant smile, drank in the light from his yellow brown eyes. She sank into his chest for just a moment. Mami stood in the doorway, smiling. The Good Mami emerged when Papi came home. There would be no more shrieks and beatings as long as Papi was here.

For the hallway rocking party Magdalena was princess on Papi's lap. He rocked her. He bounced her. He sat her on his legs sideways and told the story about, "I was walking on an old road..." opening his legs for her to fall between them whenever he came to, "and then I fell." Magdalena's head hung over his thigh. She looked up at the vigas and the plants swaying gently in the afternoon breeze. Everyone was laughing. Magdalena was the princess. Not even Dulce could get the others to look away when Papi was home and Magdalena was on Papi's knee.

In that night's dream Magdalena lay alongside Papi wearing Mami's red Sunday dress. Magdalena was the real wife. The little wife. Mami was gone. She'd taken Mami's place. She was big enough to be the woman, in the dream. Woman sized. And she was the real wife. La Otra.The one Papi truly loved. When Mami appeared at the door of the dream room, dressed in the very same dress Magdalena wore, Magdalena rose and slunk away.

She woke up, brimming with badness, bad through and through. She'd stolen Mami's husband. She remembered Mami's screams: Who is she? Quien es la otra? Magdalena. Magdalena was la otra, la Mujer Mala. La otra. She felt the badness rise up her throat, turn her inside out. She ran as fast as she could barefoot on the cold tiles and made it to the bathroom just in time. The vomit was the bitter kind, so bitter it burned the back of her throat and her tongue and made her gag and throw up more of the badness. It was her badness coming up. She fell beside the toilet sobbing until she heard Chama pounding on the door. "Sal ya Vomitona. Get out."

"Vamos a darle la vuelta a la manzana." For their journey around the block Dulce took Magdalena by the hand and laughed when Magdalena shook free and raced ahead to the left past the big nave where Abuela kept her milk goat, past the fat, fat tree, over the tree's roots which had cracked the sidewalk, and its dry brown berries, crushing the brown berries into the brown stained cracked cement. "Mira." Dulce stopped her to point into the dark interior of a house with its door ajar. In the front room a woman in a house dress leaned over a mop. The porch rockers were still leaning against the urn shaped concrete pillars of its railing, waiting for the pine oil mop water to dry. "Es puta. They're all putas in that house. Men are coming in and out at all hours of the day and night. And they make dirty sexo movies of people singando to sell in El Norte."

They ran because the woman came onto the porch singing as she set the rockers right. The next house was set in further from the street and the doors and windows were nailed shut. "Exilados. They left everything. There's a watchman who comes by every night to make sure nothing's been taken. All the furniture is covered with sheets. It's turning into a ghost house." Dulce ooooood and Magdalena raced Dulce to the corner. Dulce followed good and slow. Magdalena let terror squirm her where she stood under the yellow glow of the corner street light, waiting to make the thrilling turn onto the other block. From here she could see the quincalla's narrow entrance with the small toys, earrings, coloring books, notebooks, and colored pencils hanging from the open door.

The best part of the journey was walking past the Chocolatina factory. Dulce smiled and begged and a workman who'd been outside the door smoking a cigarette gave her a bag full of broken cookie bits. They sucked on the chocolate covered crumbs all the way back home.

Magdalena stood smiling on the church steps beside Mami in her Sunday black dress. The twentyonlydress is what Dulce called that dress. It was the one Mami wore almost every Sunday. Magdalena wore one of Dulce's old party dresses, yellow, see through, with a sewn in yellow satin slip and a big bow tied behind at the waist. Tia Mila had braided Magdalena's hair like she braided Dulce's and had woven yellow ribbons into the braids. She'd splashed lots of agua de violeta on her hair and on her neck and inside her elbows. Dulce was not the only special girl today.

Because Papi was preaching at Abuela's church everyone had come come, even Chama and Tio Nelo, and the others, with Abuela, had already gone inside to sit in the front pews. Lots of people came to hear Papi preach. Already he'd put on his big black robe, and he was shaking hands with the people filing in, all of them smiling at Mami and Magdalena. "Que familia tan linda." She'd heard it too many times today. When they bent down to kiss her she prayed the agua de violeta had covered up the smell of puke. But no amount of bathing and agua de violeta could wash away that smell.

She got the spot by the aisle on the third row, left side of the church. There was nothing much to look at. The ceiling fans were turning, the shuttered windows were open, and still it was hot enough to fall sleep. As the choir filed in Magdalena imagined they were flinging off their robes to reveal Cabaret Carnaval vedette glitter suits, exposed legs and arms, feet doing dance steps, butts swivelling. Their song the program called introito became a rumba. She watched them dance all the way to their perch behind the pulpit. She stared up at the ceiling fan, watching for possible parachutes, or signs that they'd been there at night, until Papi began his sermon. His preaching could be a song, if she didn't pay attention to the words and mostly she didn't. He started with a low hum, like when he stood by her crib and sang her lullabyes, and slowly the sound grew to thunder. The choir was still dressed in their cabaret vedette clothes when he first bellowed "el sexo", the most terrible of the sins.

Magdalena sat on the porch swing letting it glide front and back and watched Dulce wobble to the corner in a tight navy blue straight skirt and high heels (Already! And, also she wore a bra). She dangled from her hand the little baby blue sweater Papi had brought her from Miami. "Adios, Miga." Dulce, Tia Mila, Tia Laura and the tall woman from the bodega turned the corner and disappeared. Going to the movies! Magdalena wasn't allowed to go to the movies on Sunday. She didn't know what was worse, the pain of being left behind, or the pain in her right eye that she would get from all the cigarette smoke in the cine. She felt a buzzing inside her ears from being so mad.

Magdalena walked out to the patio and practiced her cartwheels over and over. She imagined the world when she grew up. Everybody would go to the movies on Sunday. They'd wear cut out clothes Magdalena had invented, with holes so that the women's breasts could be seen, nipples and all. The dresses would be like vedette costumes or bathing suits, but not for the water. The future women wobbled on high heels, their soft breasts bouncing, their legs naked, into the movie theatre lobby where they stood around in their cutout clothes making conversation as if those clothes were normal. And they were. After all, in the future that was the normal way to dress para diario, just the way the vedettes got to dress on stage.

"A la cama." Mami, already in her nightgown, called out from the back door. Tomorrow they'd be getting up early to go back to their own little house in the Reparto Playa Nueva, the culo del mundo according to Dulce. She could practice cartwheeling as much as she needed to again. Magdalena ran past her, down the long hallway to the bano at the very end. She knew Mami would have given anything to go to the cine too. When she grew up she wouldn't let her husband stop her from wearing the cut out dresses and wobbling on high heels to the movies or anyplace at all.

But next morning nobody was drinking their cafe con leche. They were gathered in the hallway like in the afternoon. "They found him by the river bank." Tia Laura rocked fast. "Robertico, el hijo de Catalina?" Tia Mila paced by the wide doorway to the side patio. She was sobbing. Magdalena stood by the doorway staring hard. She'd never seen Tia Mila cry. Dulce was screaming. "Robertico, Robertico, Robertico. He was on the porch with me last night." Right then the tall woman from the bodega arrived. She sat on the arm of Laura's rocker. She knew everything. "He had no nails. They pulled them off. They dragged him out of the house in the middle of the night. They took out his eyes. They threw him into the river naked. He had a load of armas largas in the trunk of his car. He was going to drive them to the mountains. That's what the soldier said who came in for a palo de ron an hour ago."

"Cabrones." Abuela made her hands into tight fists. She was one person Magdalena had never heard curse until now. "Cabrones sin madres." Tia Mila threw herself into Abuela's arms. Magdalena couldn't believe how the two women were shaking. Dulce squeezed herself between them. She was wailing. "Robertico. Robertico. Robertico."

"You put your hands down flat." Magdalena knelt by Dulce and spread her fingers flat on the little patch of concrete toward the far end of the patio. "When you kick up your legs you stretch your middle like you're stretching a rubber band." Dulce tried and although it was much better, she looked more like leapfrog than cartwheel.

"Show me how."

There was one thing Magdalena knew how to do that Dulce didn't do much, much better. Cartwheels, and vueltas de carnero. Last night after the cine Papi had asked her to show the Tias in the pasillo and Magdalena had been allowed to move the sillones to the side. She'd set up the rocking chairs like her very own audience. She'd done cartwheels coming and going. The Tias applauded when she was done. Even Dulce was clapping. Tia Laura had hefted Magdalena and given her a big kiss on the cheek. "You can work in the Circo."

And now, this morning, after the trip back to Playa Nueva was postponed because Papi had gone to pray with Robertico's mother, Dulce had asked Magdalena to show her how to do cartwheels.

Magdalena took Dulce to the back end of the yard, past the workbench. She demonstrated and she instructed. "You set your hands flat. You kick your legs up. You stretch your waist like a rubber band." Dulce tried it. She was more like a leapfrog than a wheel. Dulce tried again and again. Magdalena teaching Dulce! The cowering Vomitona was stretching her waist out, and she wasn't shaking. Magdalena teaching Dulce, imagine that.