“Okay, podemos ir a caminar pero si te cansas, es tu problema. No cargo bebes,” Lina says meanly to her four year old cousin.
“I’m not a baby!” says Teresita predictably but then insists on bringing her large plastic car, a hideous yellow contraption with giant painted eyeballs instead of headlights. Teresita gets in the toy car and looks at Lina expectantly. Lina sighs and begins to push her down the street.
“This is just a stroller, you know.” Lina grumbles. “You’re not making any progress into becoming a real person.”
Teresita either does not hear or pretends not to understand the English sentence. Lina suspects that rather than being a child “confused by the dichotomies of her bilingual upbringing” as the pre-school teacher suggested, that Teresita is just selectively deaf.
“Mailbox!” Teresita responds, pointing to a mailbox painted to look like a frog. “Es una rana!”
Lina hums in acknowledgement and keeps walking, peering under the yellow hood of the plastic car every now and then to make sure that Teresita is still safe in there. They’ve walked farther than she thought, the shitty multi-colored houses jam packed with people all running together after a while. They hit the ultimate destination of any walk through this neighborhood: the liquor store.
Teresita rouses from her plastic car-induced reverie to demand candy. “Paletas! Paletas!”
“Okay pues,” Lina says, feigning irritation. At fifteen years, Lina is not yet free from the childhood thrall of candy. She gets a strawberry lollipop for Teresita and a Mango-Chile one for herself. The cashier, an older man with a pot belly, first leers at her but then gives her her change without saying anything. Lina guesses it’s because her age is so ambiguous–her body is at odds with her face. Her face is scowly but very young, chubby cheeks and round eyes but her body is bewilderingly womanly with overly generous curves. Her mama just calls the curves “lonjas” and tells Lina to lay off the Cheetos.
As Lina and Teresita turn to leave, the cashier calls out, “Hey next time, don’t bring that car in here okay, baby?”
“I’m not a baby!” Teresita says automatically. Lina laughs–cackles actually and pushes Teresita out of the automatic doors. She runs away, knowing that she will be too embarrassed to visit the liquor store for at least a month. Maybe she will have to lay off the Cheetos, Lina thinks.
Teresita seems unperturbed by the run down the street but Lina realizes now that it is getting late, the November chill seeping into the air, the sun long ago set. Her Tia Teresa will start to pretend to worry about Teresita, her precious only daughter, precious only when Tia Teresa is not at work or flirting with a new boyfriend.
Last week, the newest boyfriend, Raul, had cornered Lina in their living room, his breath smelling like hot sauce and beer. He’d leaned in really close and said, “You’re a very smart girl, huh? You got a real snobby face pero ese cuerpesito te va dar problemas.” He’d pinched her stomach and laughed for a long time. Lina had run up the stairs and burst into furious tears. Later, recounting the story to her mama, she had been admonished.
“Oh por dios, it was only a joke, Lina! Por que eres tan sensible? Don’t you want your aunt to get married so someone can take care of her and Teresita?” Lina’s mama had barely looked up from the carrots she’s been chopping.
Lina stops now and moves in front of the little car to crouch in front of Teresita. “What do you think of Raul?” she asks with the insane hope that someone else will believe he is a slimeball.
“He’s stinky,” Teresa says simply, her mouth a bright smear of red lollipop. Then she pauses, considering the question more carefully. “He makes my mami put on all her pretty clothes and nicest face.”
Lina stands up. It’s painful to be taught lessons in unselfishness from a child. Also, it just feels wrong to let Tia Teresa be with that guy–she feels like if she were in a sitcom, she could get rid of Raul in a series of escalating funny pranks and Tia Teresa would be mad at first but then hug Lina and say it was okay in the end. Somehow Lina would also make them very rich in this daydream.
It’s pointless to fantasize about changing those things though. Lina whirls the yellow car around in a sudden but controlled loop.
“Weee!” says Teresita.
They head home.