by Jennifer Murphy
The first time I ditched school to hang with Boca, she broke my nose. It was in the beginning of ninth grade. It was the only time anything inside of me broke and left a mark. The only time that I had proof that it was broken. I asked her to hit me. We’d seen the boys on the basketball court hit each other before. Five boys against one. A younger boy who asked for it. A stray with something to prove. All of the older boys kicking and punching a young one before they’d let him play.
It was only her, but she hit me hard enough that it felt like five people. I heard the static mute in my head like a steady bell after the pop, tasted the warm metallic blood as it streamed down the back of my throat, and saw her feet as they kicked up the dirt around me. I kept my lips closed and swallowed the blood as it pooled in my mouth. Right there in the grassless courtyard of Boca’s apartment complex, on a muggy autumn day, with plumes of dust clinging to our sweaty ankles, I became a cholita.
When it was over and I opened my eyes, Boca pulled a red bandana from her back pocket and wiped my face. She said I could keep it. That it meant I survived something. The blood tightened on my skin as it dried. The yard was murky with dust and the thick muddy taste of it coated my tongue. We lingered in the courtyard like a pack of dogs. When she called me Blanca it no longer meant I was white or Navajo to her, it meant I was familia.
Before we met, I watched Boca from the catwalks on the third floor of my apartment complex. I snuck off to get away from Mom and Tonio yelling at each other. She smoked cigarillos on the fire escape of her apartment in the early morning glare, in that cleaver of light that sliced through the alleyway between her building and mine. She was up there wrapped in a cloud of smoke, red-eyed listening to some freestyle tapes, and hollering the fine notes. She was the only other halfie on the block, half Mexican and half white, but hard enough that it didn’t matter. Not like me. I was too dark to be white and too white to be anything else. My lightness was from my real dad and I wasn’t even the right kind of brown.
Most of the girls that still bothered going to school began to wear makeup. When I asked Mom to show me how to put black eyeliner on she said no. She was full Navajo and said that black liners were for the evenings. But she showed me how to put lipstick on and said the key to keeping a man is soft lips. Looks were important. Our best face on, always. To separate us from the sucia. That’s what she called the girls who hung on the corners. They caked black eyeliner around their eyes and flirted with the boys that played on the basketball courts. They were all skin in short tight skirts leaning into car windows and asking for dates. She kissed my forehead before leaving and I breathed in the smell of pressed powder on her face. Once she was gone I tore through her makeup basket until I found the black liner.
When Tonio caught me, he put his callused hand on my back and whispered into my hair how pretty I was getting. He said he wouldn’t tell my mom. It would be our secret. He started to get up earlier to see me so I left the house while he was still asleep, before he could paw at my face with is hot breath. I kept the eyeliner in my book bag and put it on in the fogged and dimpled mirrors at school beside the other girls in the bathroom who weren’t allowed to wear makeup.
I’d get to school before everyone, even the teachers. I sat on the planter in front of the office and waited for someone to unlock the gates. A month into high school, all of my teachers were asking if everything was alright at home. To dodge the answer, I stopped hanging out in front and began to hop the fence in the back of the school. I did this for about a week. I’d sit under the bleachers and wait for the first bell. My face was coated in sweat by the time the bell rang. I couldn’t get any of the eyeliner to stick and even when I did it dripped in black streaks from the corners of my eyes over my cheeks, and off my chin.
The first time Mom took a night shift at the diner I cooked dinner for Tonio and cleaned up by myself. He caught me in the kitchen. His loosed jaw and hips, my body trapped between him and the sink. He called me puta bonita and told me I had baby skin. His tequila breath filled my nose. I pushed back against him to feel how serious he was, to see how far he would take it. He told me that I looked prettier without that shit on my face. He said I didn’t need it because makeup is for the ugly girls. His hands moved over my shoulder blades and down my spine, before he stepped back. We watched TV until he passed out. He lay slouched on the couch with weighted breaths. Through the open window, I could hear the empty slap of the basketball against the blacktop ring through the streets as the cholas and hoodlums played on the courts across the street, the shuffle and screech of clever foot work, the breathy awe of a good layup, their cackle laughter that bounced between the backboards, poured into the courtyards, and climbed up the brick buildings into my window.
As I walked home from school the next day, I thought about Tonio. He was a day-laborer and usually home by the time I got back from school. He sat in the dark a lot, smoking green leaf Vegas. Once, he told me I was lucky. That I had more than he had growing up. He’d only been dating Mom for a few weeks, then. I was in the fifth grade. Mom told me to listen to him. She said that he was right. That I didn’t know what it was like to want. He gave me presents every time he came over. My favorite was when he’d bring me polished rose quarts pebbles. He said he knew a guy and that they’d bring me luck. I kept them in a cloth pouch made for sunglasses, beneath my pillow. When I got to my door, I sat outside for hours and listened to the neighbors fighting in Mexican. They spoke so fast, I couldn’t catch a word. I stared at my door knowing he was inside.
It was the dull strike of the basketball against the peeling paint of the wood backboard that pulled me from my door that night. The boys hollered at each other. Their shallow whoops carried through the catwalks of my building and bounced off the rusted iron railings. My feet shook the metal steps into a sway as I jogged down them. I could hear the echo of the boys calling shots as I walked through the courtyard.
I saw her from across the street. Boca was about as small as me but you couldn’t tell it by the way she stood. She wore her pants baggie with red boxers bunched in the back, her tinted black Ray Bans even in the night, and her hair buzzed short and slicked back with Tres Flores like a boy. She picked fights like a boy, wore tight undershirts like a boy, and tugged on her crotch when she walked like a boy. She was wearing a black wife-beater. Her small breasts pulled the gapping arm holes from her chest and exposed the slim seam of a red bra.
She sat on the wood bench near the hoops, looked right at me, and tilted her head, calling me over. I turned to go back home but then she whistled a high pitched yelp and called me Blanca, like she knew me. Like she’d never heard no before. The shuffle steps on the court paused as the boys in baggy sweat soaked shirts and the boys showing their shinny concaved chests and lanky arms all stopped to look at me. I crossed the dewy soaked street. The red flash from the stoplights and the neon flicker of open signs lit up the slick black tar below me.
I seen you looking at me. You want some? … How much? She said.
Some what? I looked at the boys on the court as they got back to chest checking each other and clawing for the ball.
Some what? Boca smiled. Some mota, some maría, la hierba…Some smoke, chiquita.
How much is one? I asked.
Boca smiled again and put her hand in her pocket. Here puff on this with me, she said. She pulled a slim cigar from her pocket, took it to her lips, and sucked the flame of the lighter through the tip of the cigar. Her cheeks dimpled as she inhaled. Columns of smoke curled from her lips. The glowing cherry on the cigar grew longer as she puffed again. Her face was enveloped in a haze of heavy smoke. She looked into my eyes and leaned forward. Her hand was on the back of my neck. She guided me to tilt and pressed her lips to mine. Veils of smoke drifted between our cheeks. She pushed her hit into my lungs. My chest expanded. I put my hand on the back of her neck and felt the grease in her hair between my fingers. She smelled like flowers and Old Spice. She called it a shotgun.
After that, I followed Boca into anything. And she let me. I went to the courts every day after school. I came home later and later in the night, when Tonio was three-sheets passed-out, usually one shoed, draped over the couch with the TV on. I juggled both school and the courts for about a week. After Boca broke my nose I stopped going to school completely.
The first time I ran away Boca took me in.
Tonio was on a bender that night and started throwing Mom’s good tea cups at the walls. It was late. They must have started going at it when Mom came home. He jerked me out of bed by the ankle and tossed me across the room. Mom screamed static in the background but he didn’t stop. When I stood up he grabbed my neck and pushed me into the wall. I went down and stayed and hoped he was finished. But he wasn’t. He took me by my hair and led me to the mirror that hung above my dresser. He grabbed the pink lipstick Mom bought me for my quince, called me hija de puta, and began to smear it all over my lips and face. He pulled my hips into his and smelled my neck. He stank like wood chips and stale beer. I tried to push him away but the more I fought him the tighter his grip became. I felt the strands of hair prick my scalp like needles as they tore loose from my head. Mom grabbed at his shoulders and he dropped me to push her away. He shook a piece of paper in my face and started to yell at me in Mexican.
The letter was from school. It was a truancy notice. If I didn’t go back to school they were going to send someone over to check on the house. I’d been absent two and a half weeks, which was above the allowed limit for the year. My mother began to pull on his shirt and yell. She struck the back of his neck and the sound of it hit the walls of my room in a sharp smack that rang over and over inside me. Tonio turned to her and she struck him again across the cheek. He took her wrists and pushed her into the hallway.
I grabbed my shoes and took off out my window onto the catwalks, into the muggy night air. It was no time at all before I was past the courtyard and across the street. The ball courts were empty. I sat on the wooden benches that side-lined the courts, took out one of Tonio’s cigarillos that I’d stolen the night before, and lit it. With the sleeve of my shirt, I whipped the greasy lipstick from my face as best as I could.
I’d thought about it a thousand times before. I thought about how I would leave. When I’d lay in bed listening to Tonio yell at Mom, I made a list of everything I needed. Everything I couldn’t live without. I chipped away at that list until it dwindled to a few items that would fit into a duffle bag. And I thought when I finally left that it would be more deliberate, more permanent. But, there I was, empty handed with nothing but the hot smoke inside of me, the burning thick air rising from the street, the splinters from the wood bench pricking the back of my thighs, and the heat relentless around my neck and behind my ears pulling the breath from me, my head throbbing like it might explode, the blissful ache of it.
I knew Boca would be around at some point. She hardly ever left the courts. She always asked me to stay out all night with her, like she might miss something if she didn’t. It wasn’t long until she showed up. She came out of the corner store at the bottom of her building with a pack of smokes. She was whistling Easy-E while she clapped the box against her palm. I whistled back and she came over. We hung on the bench and smoked. I wiped the lipstick from my face with her rag and told her about Tonio. I felt all of my anger curl into the tips of my fingers as I was telling her what happened. We became quiet. Clouds of smoke lingered in the air around us.
A group of boys came to the hoops, divided themselves into teams of shirts and skins, and started to play. One of them walked up to us. He told Boca that Christy was around the corner in the alley getting drunk. Boca and Christy had beef over some small shit. Christy was mad when she thought Boca skimped her on a quarter bag of grass. She went around telling everyone that Boca was a pincher. Boca was looking for her ever since. She told me to head around the corner to stop Christy if she ran.
We split up. When I turned the corner into the alley I saw Christy. She was throwing back a green 40oz. bottle of Mickey’s Malt Liquor. Boca’s shadow cast tall across the side of the brick building and as soon as Christy saw it she took off in my direction. I could hear Boca yell out to me, drop her. So I did. Christy disappeared into the black shadow at the center of the alley. I could hear her grainy footsteps against the pavement. She emerged from the shadow like a car speeding towards me at full throttle. She was chunky in the center and her thick legs pounded the concrete, sounding like she was trying to break through. I put my elbows into her chest as she came at me and she hit me so hard we both went down. The green bottle rolled into the gutter. I scrambled to get to my feet before she could. I saw Boca’s shadow sprinting towards us.
Christy looked up at me. Her eyes caked thick with liner and black streaked tears inched down her cheeks. I called her sucia and swung my fist at her face as hard as I could. I landed the punch on her cheekbone. When she looked back at me her eye welted up in a ball of bright red. The skin around her eye tightened and raised as she tried to keep it open to see what I’d do next. I cocked my fist again. The air cool and stinging against my knuckles. I swung my leg over her chest and pinned her down with my knee. I looked through her and swung again. And again. I’m not sure how many times I hit her before Boca pushed me off. I felt the warm hot blood surging through my stomach.
Boca started to kick Christy. Christy curled onto her knees and coughed up strings of blood that clung to her lips. I grabbed the green bottle from the gutter and tossed it against the wall. Shards of glass came down on us in a chime of green confetti. I threw in another punch, this time at the back of Christy’s head. Her arms went limp. Her right cheek slammed into the ground. Christy lay in her own mucus and blood not moving, not struggling, but still. I stopped and stood in the motionless alleyway with nothing but the dull smack sound of Boca’s boot against Christy’s ribs, ringing in my head, bone against skin against boot.
Boca’s eyes were glossy black. She kept kicking. I waited to see if she would stop on her own but she didn’t. I stood there in the cyclic rhythm while I watched Christy grow soft. Boca looked through Christy as she continued to hit her. She labored for half breaths in between each swing. Blue and red lights lit up the walls from around the corner. I said her name, Boca. She looked at me. Her eyes were black and her hands twitched. I hooked my arm into Boca’s elbow to pull her away. She pushed me and cocked her fist back. Her hot breath came in gusts onto my face. Then she shifted her stare to the lights moving across the walls. She hopped over Christy and tapped my shoulder as she motioned and skipped towards the alley. The shards of glass crunched beneath our feet as we took off.
We jogged up the fire escape behind Boca’s building. It shimmed against the brick walls as we climbed the stairs. Her bedroom was small. I twisted my hair into a bun and wrapped the bandana around my head to keep it off my shoulders. Her brother was playing hip-hop albums in his room. The bass shook the windows. There was a mattress with a heap of sheets and no pillows wedged in the corner of her room and her closet door was propped open with a mound of dirty clothes. I leaned against the wall and sank into it. My knuckles were swollen and hot. Her window was open and I could hear the boys down the way holler as they played on the courts. A breeze pushed up from the alleyway and blew the heat through her window. The hollow knock sound of the ball against the blacktop pounded over and over.
I was tired. I could see my building from out her window and looked for my door from there. I tried to ignore the noise of the basketball and the bass. I listened to the street. Someone outside was yelling but it wasn’t my Mom. It took me a while to place it. The clicking notes of something I’ve heard before; my neighbor yelling at her husband on the cat walks. The vinegar smell of hot garbage drifted over me as I stuck my head out the window. A pack of dogs sifted through the alley, knocked over a trash can, and picked at the tasty bits.
I asked if I could use the shower. Boca gave me a towel and showed me the way. The tub was stained black like someone changed motor oil in it. There were pink stains streaked against the plastic walls. Mom cleaned our shower every Monday night. She’d spray foam soap on the walls and wait for it to run down the sides to the bottom of the shower before she wiped it off. Boca didn’t have a Mom. She lived with her brother and sometimes their Dad.
I turned the water all the way hot. It beaded and rolled off my face where the lipstick grease was. I pulled and scrubbed at that spot. My skin turned pink under the water. When I put my head under I felt the bruise where Tonio grabbed me throb. I smoothed the scabs that formed on my knuckles with the pad of my finger. The jagged dry skin twisted away from the cuts. Steam gathered behind the plastic curtain. I stayed until the water ran cold.
I toweled off. As I looked in the mirror I could see the slight grease tint from the lipstick still around my mouth. My hair knotted and my scalp pulsed as I tugged on it to dry. I wanted to see the bruises for myself. I wanted to feel the sticky thick air on my bare skin. Boca’s clippers were under the sink. They buzzed and vibrated in my hand. The metal was cold at first then warm on my scalp. I think it pulled more hair out than cut. My bruises screamed as the clippers passed over them. The wet strands clung to my body as they fell. For some reason I thought I’d look bigger, rough, like I’d seen something, liked I’d been through something. But when I was finished all I saw was me somewhat smaller, less of me.
When I came out of the bathroom, Boca laughed. She said she could’ve shown me how to work the clippers if I wanted a cut. Pocks of blood dimpled my scalp. My head hurt. I sprawled out on her bed. Boca put her hand over the back of my head. Pain shot down my neck and into my gut. She kept her hand there, her palm curved around the slope of my skull. After a minute it didn’t hurt and then it felt good, the warmth of her, and the stillness in the room.
Boca told me that before her father went to prison he taught her everything. There wasn’t anything she couldn’t do for herself. He told her that she wouldn’t need a man for anything but the bed role. She laughed and said she didn’t even need them for that. When she lifted her palm from my head I felt the cool air against my skin. The bass from her brother’s room clapped against Boca’s empty walls. The yelp of the dogs echoed against the brick walls in the alley below as they nipped at each other for another bite.