Excerpt from What Can't Wait by Ashley Hope Pérez
You’d think that by now I’d know how to get out of the house.
Easy, right? Scrape together an outfit, make Papi and Gustavo some breakfast, grab my books, walk out the door. Finding two people camped out in the living room shouldn’t change things much.
The snoring lump on the couch is my sister Cecilia, and the niña curled up on the couch cushions by the wall is my five-year-old niece, Anita. They show up like this whenever Cecilia has a big throw-down fight with her husband, Jose. He’s definitely the bigger jerk, but I don’t approve of all the screaming and door slamming that she does in front of Anita. Or of how Cecilia drags her out of their apartment in the middle of the night, trash-talking Jose the whole time.
Cecilia is the last person that I want to deal with right now, so there are some simple rules I should follow. Don’t close the bathroom door because it squeaks too loud. Wait until Cecilia is in the middle of a good long snore before slipping past. Avoid saying anything that sounds even remotely like “Jose” (that always stirs up the demon in her). And definitely do not stand around watching Anita sleep when I should be walking to school.
But I can’t seem to help myself. Anita is the best thing that Cecilia ever did. Right now she’s curled up tight as a snail and sucking both her thumbs. A tiny strip of her tan skin shows in the gap between her pink tank top and her Dora the Explorer shorts.
I smile at her, which is a mistake. Because a smile has the same effect on Anita as whispering in her ear, “Hey, someone who loves you is awake. Don’t you want to get up too?”
So I’ve only got myself to blame when Anita’s eyes pop open and she kicks free of her blanket.
“Do you got any juice, Tía Marisa?”
“What do you say?” I scoop her up and swing her into the kitchen with me.
“Please do you got any juice?” She kisses me on my left cheek, aiming like she always does for the ugly, thumb-sized birthmark I have there, which she says tastes like chocolate. Then she squirms away from me and starts to play hopscotch across the cracked kitchen tiles.
I pour her orange juice and set it down at the table. I’m watching her hop over when I notice a flash of something metallic between her lips.
“What’s in your mouth?” I ask her.
Anita pretends not to hear and clambers onto her favorite chair, the one with the yellow seat cushion and padded back that doesn’t match the others. I don’t know where it came from; it just appeared one day after one of the wooden chairs broke. Anita likes it because it’s the same bright yellow as a smiley face.
“Anita? Answer me.”
“Don’t want to tell.” She picks up a paper napkin from the holder on the table and drapes it over the bottom half of her face.
“Well, you have to.”
I lean closer, but Anita drops the napkin and shoots a hand up over her mouth.
“Déjame, chica.” I pry back her fingers as gently as I can and see silver caps on her two front teeth.
She looks like she’s going to cry. “We went to the denter and he put metal on my teeth.”
“The dentist? That’s all?” I flick her nose. “I thought you were eating nickels for breakfast without me looking.”
She giggles a little, then covers her mouth again. “My teeths is all ugly. I’m not going to smile no more.”
“No fair, I love that smile. What if somebody tickles you?” I wrap my arms tight around her and pull her halfway up from her seat.
“Suéltame, Tía!” she shrieks and slaps at my hands.
I shush her, but it’s too late. So much for the art of leaving.
Cecilia’s up. At least her feet are. I can see them through the doorway groping for slippers that aren’t there. Time to get out.
I toss my lunch into my backpack and kiss Anita on the top of her head. “Te quiero. Be good, and don’t eat nickels.”
I slide out the back door and into the sticky Houston humidity. It’s like the air in a dryer full of wet clothes. It’s the Monday after Thanksgiving, but it’s not even cold enough for a sweater. Right now I’d like to fall right into one of those pictures from calendars that show pretty trees with their leaves all different colors and geese flying over nice clean ponds. The scrubby yards on our street are still green, and the only sign of wildlife is a pile of dog crap in the middle of the sidewalk. I notice it just in time to step around it.
I’m halfway down the block before I turn and look back. Of course, there’s Cecilia running up the driveway in her socks and ratty sweats. Once she sees me looking, she starts hollering my name.
God, she doesn’t even have a bra on under her stained Astros shirt. I’m not all proper about things like bras, so when I say my sister needs a bra, I mean she really needs one. Without it, there’s way more moving under there than anybody should have to face. I think about ignoring her, but I know if I don’t deal with her she’s going to make a scene for sure.
To give her a chance to catch up to me, I stop and pick up a Jumex juice box out of Mrs. Flores’s yard and toss it into a grimy recycle bin by the curb. There, that’s a good deed. If only I could be off the hook so easily.
“God, Mari,” Ceci wheezes when she finally reaches me. “You didn’t have to make me chase you. I don’t even got my shoes on.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve got school. What is it?” I try to sound even more irritated than I feel. With Ceci, you have to lay it on thick.
Cecilia rakes a hand through her hair and lifts it off of her neck. She exhales, and I catch a whiff of something foul, like month-old burrito and seaweed. Clearly yesterday’s visit to the dentist did not impress her with the importance of nighttime brushing.
“So get this,” she starts in, “last night Jose waltzes in at eleven all stinking of booze and has the nerve to ask me, ‘What’s for dinner, mujer?’ He knows how I hate it when he talks like that. Well, then the cabrón pulls out a joint and tells me I got to cook for him. Flat out like that. When it was his ass supposed to be home at seven o’clock. And then--”
“Hang on,” I interrupt. Somewhere a lawnmower engine starts up, sputters, then dies. “You don’t have to convince me he’s a loser. You’re the one who’s still married to him. So skip to the point.”
“What I’m saying is he crossed me one too many times. I mean it. Let him try to tell me to cook for him, wash his dishes! I’ll break a plate over his head before I wash it for him. I--”
“The point, Ceci. You’re making me late.”
She reaches under her shirt and pulls a business card from the waistband of her sweats.
“See? I got an appointment at nine-thirty. Help me out with Anita, OK? Just this once.”
“This once?” I stare at her. Ceci hardly ever opens her mouth without asking me for “one more” favor.
“Yeah, just so I can figure things out.”
“You expect me to skip school so I can babysit for you? Don’t say another word unless you’re actually planning to do something. I want to know where divorce comes in.”
“Cállate! Somebody’s going to hear!”
It’s odd that Cecilia doesn’t mind going outside looking the way she does, but she’s suddenly paranoid about neighbors with superhuman hearing. The only person out besides us is somebody’s abuelita rolling her trashcan back up the driveway across the street, and I’m pretty sure she can’t hear us over the racket the wheels make over the asphalt.
“Fine.” I start walking away.
“Hang on,” Cecilia says. She grabs the sleeve of my shirt. “Mira, the whole reason I’m asking you is because I don’t want Ma to know yet. But I’m serious about it this time, te prometo.”
“Fine, díme. What’s your plan?”
“I’m going to find out, for real, what it would take for a divorce. So me and Anita can start over on our own.”
I keep quiet, poker-faced. Ceci is probably conning me. I’m 99 percent sure that this is the case. But there’s also the chance that she really might get it together and leave Jose. It’s a long shot, but Jose’s ten kinds of bad, and I don’t want Anita to grow up like we did.
Cecilia goes in for the kill. “Just for a little while. Anita will be psyched. And you’re so smart in school it don’t even matter if you miss a couple hours.”
“You shouldn’t have left Anita alone,” I say finally, turning and walking back toward the house.
“That’s my sis,” Cecilia says. She hurries to keep up, and her socks scuffle against the sidewalk. “No more baby money going for weed.”
“I’ll take Anita to the library until 1:00. Then you pick us up and drop me off at school. I can’t miss calculus.”
“No problem, I got it.”
I push open the kitchen door and toss down my backpack. Maybe I get A’s in school, but I give myself an F in self-defense.