Jenny opens the mirrored bathroom cabinet looking for lipstick. Behind dusty bottles of Avon perfume is Amá’s brown-red Revlon. It’s a color for señoras and grade-school teachers, quietly pretty. It’s not the latest showy red that Kate Moss is wearing on the cover of Bazaar magazine. That color would make people think Jenny’s conceited. She doesn’t want any trouble, just new friends most of all. She’ll make sure to keep the ones she has left.
Her friends from softball are dogging her out. “I don’t know what guys see in you,” said one girl with crooked bangs. “Your teeth are yellow and you have a mustache.”
“He kissed me,” said Jenny. “It’s not my fault he didn’t like you.”
The boy in question had a dewy pout and played varsity basketball. It didn’t last long but it cost Jenny all of her three friends. But if anyone was going to punch Jenny, it was going to be Eva. For nine months, Eva had been taking stabs at her with pencils and razor-sharp eye rolls.
“I smell wet dog. Oh wait, Jenny must have taken a shower.” Eva would say things like that and look directly at Jenny. Jenny wouldn’t look up and instead press her pencil down harder into her notebook. There was at least one asshole in each class. They were mostly girls who hated her for reminding the teacher she’d forgotten to give out homework or because of a boy who’d ignored them and inched after her.
Jenny’s lipstick goes on easily. She wipes wisps of thread from her clothes to make sure she’s presentable. The sleeveless mustard blouse with tiny polka dots was carefully ironed over her parents’ bed. She’d rather wear a stretchy black dress, but that’s not her style. Every morning since seventh grade, no matter how conservative her outfit, at least one man would greet Jenny with lewd teeth-sucking. They scared her out of trying to be sexy.
The expensive version would come in suede, but the black pumps look like the real thing. Her new shoes make tonight’s outfit. She sits on the toilet seat to put them on. They’re soft against her hands, with a slight lift at the toe. The heel is sturdy but modern, something Cindy Crawford or Linda Evangelista would wear. She stands up and is magically two inches taller. She’ll see eye-to-eye with everyone she meets.
The chain-link gate is being unfastened outside her window. Her new friends have arrived. Her old loser friends with crooked bangs and hairy legs take the bus or get rides from parents. Jenny slips the lipstick in her pants pocket. Her new friends have cars, either borrowed from their parents or the kind that look like narc rejects, but they have them, at least. The new friends are boys, decent ones who’d rather kiss her than punch her.
Jenny hears Beto and Moses saying hello to her mother. They’re listening politely. When she emerges, the boys beam. They haven’t seen her in lipstick. She is a serious girl. Jenny loves how they see her, like she is someone else, unafraid to be beautiful.
Amá tells her to be careful and not come home too late. Jenny’s heels make careful clicks on the concrete until she gets to the alley. They pile in the wagon shaped like a bread box.
“What’s up, fea?” says Beto, smiling. He sprayed on too much cologne that smells like cinnamon and pepper. Jenny’s eyes water. His blue-collared shirt is so nicely ironed that his mom must have done it for him. His black sports jacket doesn’t fit.
“Is that your baby brother’s jacket?” Jenny says. She tries to button it.
“No, foolia. It’s the one I used for my first communion.” He backs out of the alley, careful not to get too close to the walls on either side.
The hotel where they’re having the quinceañera is close by. It’s across the street from the Golden State Freeway. Big rigs pull off the highway about once every ten minutes to get coffee at the diner on the corner of Telegraph and Slauson. Near the entrance, little kids in rumpled suits and juice-stained dresses chase each other in circles. They run inside the Holiday Inn. A waltz blares through the open sliding doors.
“Let’s wait till all that stuff is over,” says Moses. Jenny and Beto nod; they’re not that into the ceremony part of the party. She doesn’t know the quinceañera anyway, so there’s no reason to watch the first dance with the dad. Jenny wanted to have a quinceañera last year, a dress and the whole thing. But it was all so expensive, she told her parents she’d rather have a pizza party and a homemade cake. That’s what she got. They didn’t really have a choice.
They sit on a low wall painted glossy green. Jenny likes Moses’s version of dressing up: a black band shirt under a brown sports jacket, his hair parted down the middle with a little bit of gel. Brown strands of hair fall into his eyes every so often, and he has to brush them back to see.
“How do you know this chick?” asks Moses. He takes out a stick of gum from a yellow packet.
“We were in drama together,” says Beto, “since sixth grade.” Jenny takes a stick of gum. Beto turns it down. His blue button-up is tight over an undershirt. He’s unusually tall and bright. When he was little he was precociously cute, his tíos talking to him like an adult. It made him think he was the most special boy around, his chest always a little too puffed out.
Jenny worries. “Are you sure she won’t mind us coming?” She twirls a strand of her hair between her fingers. “We didn’t bring a gift.” She could have wrapped up presents Amá re-gifts: pink perfume from the pharmacy, pearly barrettes, something anyone could like.
“She said to show up and bring friends,” says Beto. “It’s cool, don’t sweat it.”
Two ladies walk by who look like tías, with ponytails so tight that they get temporary face-lifts. Jenny and her friends say buenas noches and the women say good night in return. Jenny doesn’t want to be a jerk just because she’s crashing a party.
A car pulls into the lot and parks two cars from Beto’s wagon. It’s a white Falcon, a ’64, with a red stripe painted right above the door handles that wraps all the way around the car.
“Cute car,” says Jenny.
“Cute girl,” says Moses. Jenny looks at the driver. Her heart starts thrashing around in her blouse.
“Why is Eva here?”
“Relax. She knows the birthday girl,” Beto says. He asks Moses for a stick of gum after all.
“Dude, you know she wants to punch me,” says Jenny.
The day before, Jenny had gotten up to sharpen her pencil in class, and Eva got up too. Just as she turned around, Eva rammed her shoulder hard into Jenny’s. Now her shoulder aches just thinking about it. She knows she can’t ignore Eva at a party where she doesn’t know other people. Her two friends don’t get it.
“I don’t feel good. Maybe you should take me home.”
“Eva’s not going to fight you at a quinceañera,” says Beto. “She’s not a chola. She’s a cheerleader.”
This does not make Jenny feel any better. Cholas aren’t the only ones who like to fight.
“But if Jenny says she’s an asshole, then she’s an asshole.”
Jenny fidgets with her blouse, making sure all the buttons are in their holes. She looks at her shoes again. At least no one else will have those.
Eva steps out of the car in a black, sleeveless jumpsuit. Her long hair is curled at the tips, the consummate pretty girl. She’s holding a square-shaped black satin purse. It’s nothing fancy, but she’s well dressed. If Jenny didn’t know what Eva was like, she could pass for cool. Then her eyes land on Eva’s shoes.
Poking beneath the car door are the exact same shoes Jenny is wearing. They are barely visible under her pant legs, but they’re the same ones. On her, they look like just another thing, not special; just what she would normally wear.
“She’s wearing my shoes,” Jenny whispers.
“Another Payless shopper,” says Moses.
Jenny laughs because it’s true, but she clams up as Eva approaches them. She picks off lint from Moses’s jacket like it’s the most important thing in the world.
Eva hugs Beto for two seconds too long then she turns around. In her nicest voice, Eva says, “Hey guys!”
Jenny crosses her legs. She turns her ankle so her shoes are lit by the fluorescent parking-lot lights, hoping it’ll be like a spotlight on a runway. But no. The shoes look practical, like she’s dressed for the office, not a party.
“Hey,” says Jenny. She smiles so hard her eyes shrink into half-moons. Moses nods hello but doesn’t smile.
Eva tells Beto she’s going to find Sam, the quinceañera.
Beto follows her with his eyes. He chomps on the gum like a burro. He straightens his jacket and gets up to follow her inside. Once in the hotel Beto tells Jenny she shouldn’t trip.
“Watch,” says Jenny. “She’s just waiting for the right moment to fuck with me. Smash cake on my face, a plastic knife to my back, just watch.”
Moses gets up. “Don’t worry,” he says. “You can take her.”
The boys go inside. Jenny wishes she had her own car so she could go home. She doesn’t have a choice. There is no car. There is no bus. She takes a deep breath and catches up.
Moses says he thought Eva was bigger, built like a truck. “She’s kind of skinny and her head is so tiny,” he says. “You could squish her like a grape.”
“Look at me.” Jenny tries to flex her arm, showing just a small mound of muscle. “Do I look like a boxer to you?”
“Your nose does.”
Jenny punches him on the arm. He frowns and rubs his arm where she connected.
“I thought you couldn’t hit for shit. That hurt, fool.” They poke their heads into the hall and see nowhere to sit. The guests are still eating dinner, which is smoky and smells like birria. Goat sure can stink up a party. Beto waves at the quinceañera, who waves back but is busy changing into heels. Several other girls and women stand around helping. The women are dressed in various versions of the same mint-green satin dress, except for Eva, who’s in black. One older woman, with small, brassy, beehive hair, takes a pair of satin pumps out of a box—they’re dyed to match the mint-green accents of the decor. She hands them to the birthday girl, who puts them on and heads to the dance floor. The quinceañera’s dress is white with a frothy mint-green bow on the chest, in a sea of mint-green dresses. It seems like a good idea, a color scheme and matching dresses, but when the time comes, it looks like everyone is trying too hard to be pretty.
The friends sit on the ledge of a small round fountain in the darkened lobby. Jenny sits between the boys, but when Eva walks up, Beto moves and makes a space. Jenny crosses her legs to face Moses so she doesn’t have to look at Eva.
“How cute does Sam look?” Eva says to Beto.
“I know, huh? I’m gonna find her later and give her a little sugar.” He shimmies his shoulders, his favorite move these days. Jenny can see Eva in her peripheral vision. She pretends to ignore them.
“Wait, did I introduce you guys earlier?” Beto says this to everyone, turning them into a group when they were pairs a second before. Moses says no and nudges Jenny to talk. He reaches over Jenny to shake Eva’s hand and says his name.
“Nice to meet you,” Eva says softly.
Jenny doesn’t buy it. She jumps to her feet.
“I have to pee.” She regrets it is as soon as she says it. It’s yet another thing to make her look lame.
“We’ll be dancing soon,” Beto calls out after Jenny.
The lobby is crowded with plants, some tall with narrow leaves and some palms with yellow tips. They’re probably fake. Nothing natural can thrive inside forever. Jenny takes deep breaths walking to the bathrooms behind the front desk. The hotel smells like flowery fabric softener.
She’s relieved Eva hasn’t said anything bitchy yet, especially walking up in those shoes. The bathroom has three crowded sinks. Grandmas come in to adjust their girdles. Other girls from school are there too, some too cool to talk to her and some not smart enough to be in the same classes. There are also girls she’s never seen, probably from another high school nearby. A few of them re-apply fuchsia lipstick, and others put on fat coats of mascara from pink and green wands. Some have wide brown curls styled so perfectly they could only be made by machines. Eyebrows in every kind of curve. One girl’s are plucked so thin she looks mad even when she’s happy.
They’re all wearing tight dresses that end above the knee, cut-outs above the chest, cleavage covered by sheer polyester. Jenny senses their eyes on her clothes. The girls with eyebrows intact raise them, mirandola de lado. They don’t look for long, getting back to flicking mascara clumps from their lashes.
Jenny is too distracted to feel bad about those girls. She goes into the middle stall and wishes the seats had lids. Two songs finish, heavy with laser-beam sounds and synthesizers. The dance floor is open. That’s what she can do: go dance so they don’t have to talk. She may not be in the dance club, but she can do a generic side-to-side—enough to blend in.
“Jenny?” A voice is coming from the other side of the bathroom stall. A pair of shoes identical to hers tap a toe.
She knew Eva would start trouble. She gets up and moves toward the door.
“Cute shoes,” says Eva.
Jenny scrunches her eyebrows. Is Eva playing nice? She can’t hide forever. She will play along. She opens the stall door and feels her upper lip beading with sweat.
“Thanks,” she says. Jenny walks quickly to the sink. The bathroom is empty except for them and a pair of grandma shoes under the first stall.
Jenny sees Eva’s gaze drop to Jenny’s shoes. This is it. It’s over.
Jenny washes her hands. She smiles, pretending they just met. Pretending she was never afraid of Eva, like nothing ever happened. Fake it till you make it. Whatever gets her out in one piece.
“How funny that we have the same shoes, huh?”
“I know! Who would’ve thought we had the same taste,” Eva smiles. She leans on the counter with her arms crossed.
“They were the right price,” Jenny goes on.
Eva looks at her nails and moves closer to Jenny. “Normally I go to thrift shops for clothes, but these were too cute to pass up.”
“That’s what I thought when I saw them,” says Jenny. She’s so surprised at the shopping habits she shares with her bully. The bathroom has become a parallel universe where they both go to thrift shops and wear the same shoes.
“Moses liked these when I tried them on,” Jenny says. “He’s pretty picky, so I figured, why not?”
“He seems really cool.” Eva plays with the curled ends of her hair, still in a good mood.
“He is,” Jenny agrees. “He likes bands I’ve never heard of, like the Velvet Underground. Weird, right? I don’t even know how he would find their music around here.” Jenny fishes for the lipstick in her pocket and turns away to put on more.
“I wouldn’t call them weird,” Eva says. “My favorite is the Nico album.” Jenny makes brief eye contact before Eva glances at the ceiling. She talks to Jenny’s reflection instead of her face.
“I mean ‘unique,’ ” Jenny replies, “Like, it’s not what you hear all the time.”
Eva nods. “I know what you mean.”
Jenny puts her lipstick away. Now there’s nothing left to do. A moment passes and Jenny tests her ability to look at Eva. She doesn’t blink.
“Let’s not get our shoes dirty hanging out in here,” says Eva. “Let’s go.”
Jenny walks a little bit behind Eva to go find the boys. She’s holding her breath. She doesn’t know how they went from enemies to friends in a few minutes. All she knows is she’s glad not to have a black eye. That’s what she thinks Eva’s been building up to, a smack here, a shove there, and then one day, wham! She thanks Nico’s deep German voice for giving them something to talk about. She can’t wait to find Moses and tell him what happened.
“I’ll meet you in there,” says Eva. She leaves Jenny at the entrance to the dark hall. Jenny can barely see Beto and Moses sitting at a table in the back of the room. Styrofoam cups are tipped over, and pink punch stains the tablecloth. The dance floor is alternating bright red and orange from the deejay lights. A smoke machine chugs out a few clouds of fumes. The birthday girl is swirling around in the center of a circle of friends.
Beto pulls out a chair for Jenny. “Took you long enough,” he says.
“You look relieved,” Moses cackles.
“Dude, you won’t believe what just happened.”
Before she can say anything, Eva walks up with brown soda in a plastic cup and sits between Jenny and Moses. Jenny smiles like she just learned how to do it. Beto’s favorite song of the week comes on.
“Ey, Jenny,” he says. “Let’s dance.” He grabs Jenny’s hand and she snatches it away.
“Not to this,” she says. “Maybe if they played Depeche Mode or something.”
“I know, huh,” says Eva. “These deejays are so cheesy.”
Beto’s eyes widen. He looks at Jenny like she won a prize.
“Come on,” he says. “It’s Young MC. Everybody likes Young MC.” Jenny obliges because she can’t come up with another excuse.
Eva turns to Moses and asks something only he can hear. Beto and Jenny walk between everyone dancing, talking loudly over the music.
“Can you believe we’re wearing the same shoes? She even talked to me in the bathroom.”
“And she’s being so sweet,” he nods to the beat. “Good for you.”
“Why do you think she’s being nice?” Jenny moves side to side like the other girls.
“I told her I didn’t like you anymore,” he shouts.
Jenny had not known exactly why Eva had been punking her for a year. She chalked it up to the way girls learn to be jealous and hate each other for no reason. What was more confusing was that Jenny had turned Beto down. He was too nerdy, even for her. But hearing that Beto wasn’t interested in her anymore was insulting. She is the one who tells boys it’s over, even if it’s only in his head. She can’t show any of this on her face. She feigns confusion.
“What do you mean?”
“Her friend used to like me, but I liked you, so that pissed off Eva.” Beto turns and wiggles his flat ass at Jenny.
Jenny stops dancing. She can only pretend so much. Beto grabs her arms and shakes them to make her move. She gives him a dirty look.
“It’s not your fault you’re so cute.” He winks at her. That’s more like it.
Jenny starts dancing again and tries to think of a comeback. She’s not going to start a beef with one of her two friends. The thing is, Beto’s right. It’s not her fault she’s cute. She’s perfectly happy being cute. Cute is safe and it keeps boys around even when she’s told them to fuck off.
Beto tilts his chest as he dances, towering over her. He’s sweating up a storm. He might be funny, he might be smart, but she’s glad they’re just friends.
“We’re cool, right?” Jenny yells over the music.
“Of course!” In one move, he takes off his jacket and flings it at the quinceañera. She catches it and comes up to him, swinging it around. She bumps Jenny, grinning. In the spirit of the evening, Jenny grabs the quinceañera’s hand and spins her around. She might even be having fun. She forgets she is faking being happy.
They dance for a few more songs about girls with big butts and a smile, but a slow R& B song takes them to their seats.
“You need some cake.”
He puts his jacket back on and walks away. Jenny goes to the table and finds Moses and Eva giggling.
“Moses, you’re so funny,” says Eva. She smacks him lightly on the arm.
“Thanks,” he says. He shrugs his shoulders at Jenny.
Jenny shrugs back. She doesn’t know what’s up either, but she’ll take it.
Beto comes back with a slice of yellow cake. He puts it in front of her and sticks his fork in it.
“Get your own,” she says.
“Beggars can’t be choosers.” He takes a big bite. Jenny rolls her eyes but doesn’t fight him. Even when she does, he thinks it’s funny. There’s only so much she can do.
“Jenny,” Eva says. “I’m so glad you brought your friend.”
Beto purses his lips at her and says Moses is his friend too. Eva agrees, and Beto’s face goes back to smiley. Eva’s eyes open wide with an idea.
“Why don’t we all go to Venice next Saturday? There’s a really great record store next to a vintage shop.” She looks at Jenny, “Lots of cute shoes.”
Jenny is not sure what to say. She doesn’t want to keep pretending to like the meanest bitch in school. Beto nudges her with his knee. If she says no, she’ll look like she’s the one with the problem. Maybe this girl can make Jenny cool. Maybe Eva can keep other shitty girls away. No matter what, no one is taking Beto and Moses away. “Let’s go, then!” she blurts out.
She’s getting good at this faking business. If Eva can turn the friend shit on and off when she feels like it, Jenny is the type who doesn’t easily forget. But she’s never been to Venice, and it beats being home. It might even be fun.
“I’ll drive,” says Moses. The deejay plays the one song Jenny will dance to. It’s about people not getting enough.
“Finally!” Eva says. They jump up and hop around on the dance floor. This is how you dance to the synthesizer. Jenny hops a little closer to Eva to see what happens.
Normally, she is a piece of bloody meat and Eva is the wolf, but not today. Right now everybody’s happy. Maybe Eva doesn’t hit people when she’s happy. Jenny is careful not to get too close. But nothing happens.
They just keep dancing.
Vickie Vértiz has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, KCET Departures, the Cobalt Review, and in the anthologies Open the Door (McSweeney’s and the Poetry Foundation) and Orangelandia (Inlandia Press). She has taught creative writing to adults and young people at places like 826 Valencia, the Center Theatre Group, the Claremont Colleges, and UC Riverside. She was also the Lucille Clifton Scholar at the Community of Writers this summer. Vickie is at work on a memoir about her education currently titled: Smart: Growing Up Gifted and Brown in Southeast Los Angeles. Selected by Kamala Puligandla.
Image © Alessandra De Luca via Flickr Creative Commons.