Big Chicas Don’t Cry by Annette Chavez Macias
Fifteen Years Earlier
“I’m running away.”
I stopped flipping through the CD cases and glanced over at my cousin Mari.
“Yeah, okay. Don’t forget to write.” I turned to look at my other cousins, Gracie and Selena, and the three of us rolled our eyes and snickered.
We were sitting in a circle underneath the big lemon tree in our grandparents’ backyard, passing around the saltshaker and eating the lemons we’d picked off the ground. The tree’s full branches hung low and shaded us from the hot July sun as we looked for something to listen to on our abuelo’s old CD player.
Mari sighed loudly and stood up. “I’m serious, you guys,” she insisted as she brushed grass off the back of her denim shorts. “I’m going to leave tomorrow, or maybe even tonight.”
We ignored her because we knew better. Mari was a mentirosa and a major drama queen. She threatened to run away as often as I called my younger brother a pinche cabrón behind my parents’ backs.
And that was a lot.
“Whatever you say, Ma-ri-sol,” I answered, exaggerating the roll of the r in her full name because I knew it irritated her.
“How about Kelly Clarkson?” Gracie asked, oblivious to Mari’s death stare.
“Nah. Erica, where’s your Green Day?” asked Selena, who had now gone from eating a lemon to rubbing one back and forth across her right knee. She’d already explained to us last week that she’d read in one of her fashion magazines that the acid in lemons lightened up dark skin. She had also started squeezing lemon juice onto her wavy brown hair while lying out in the sun since my tía refused to take her to my mom’s salon to get highlights.
Gracie’s chubby face scrunched up at her sister. “Selena, you know I don’t like them. How about Mariah Carey?”
“My parents are getting a divorce!”
Mari’s scream shut us up. This time we all looked up at her. Her greenish eyes brimmed with tears, and her bottom lip trembled. “My mom is moving to Whittier, and I don’t want to go with her. So I’m going to run away.”
Then she let out the most awful cry and crumpled to the ground. She slapped her hand over her mouth as if to stop the torrent of sobs and gulps that now filled the afternoon air around us. But we could still hear her pain. Feel it even.
Pure sadness made my heart quicken in anxious beats, and my mouth went dry.
Gracie scrambled over to her and cradled her in her arms as she tried to soothe her crying with soft words. Selena went to her, too, and brushed Mari’s golden-brown bangs away and gently bent down to kiss her forehead.
The highlights that Selena searched for in the drops of lemon juice came naturally to Mari. She was also blessed with a perfectly flat stomach—the kind Gracie might have had, too, if she didn’t eat so much pan dulce. And the big chiches I kept praying would magically appear on my chest one morning had set up shop on Mari’s instead.
We all had our reasons to be a little jealous of Mari. But I knew none of us wanted to be her at that moment.
“What happened?” It was all I could think of to say.
Gracie let Mari go so she could sit up and wipe her face. In between hiccups, she told us everything.
Mari’s dad had lost his job a few months ago, and that had triggered all sorts of problems between her parents. The fights were always the same—Mari’s dad yelled at her mom for spending too much, and her mom yelled at her dad for drinking too much.
“They sat me down last night and told me. My dad is going to move in here with Abuela and Abuelo, and I have to go live with my mom in Whittier—wherever the hell that is!”
All of us had lived in the same city since we were born. I could walk to Mari’s apartment if I really wanted to (I never did, but in my defense, I never walked anywhere). And something told me Whittier was a lot farther than that.
“What about the rest of our summer?” Selena cried. “Remember, we were going to make up more dance routines and go see that new road trip movie. Why can’t you live here with your dad? That way we’d see you every day like always.”
Mari shook her head and started wailing again. “I don’t know. I asked my dad if I could live with him, and he just told me I had to go with my mom. Maybe he doesn’t want me?”
“There, there,” Gracie whispered as she patted Mari on her shoulder. At fourteen, Gracie liked to think she knew better than the rest of us.
“I’m sure your dad wants you to live with him,” Gracie soothed. “But you’re a girl. You need your mom. Remember how he freaked out when you started your period?”
Even though we were all still very sad, I knew I wasn’t the only one smiling at that memory. Tío Ricardo had walked into Mari’s room to wake her up for school that morning. But then he ran right out, yelling at Tía Vangie to call 911 because he thought someone had attacked Mari in the middle of the night and left her to bleed to death in her own bed.
A tiny snicker escaped from Selena. But Gracie shot her a look that shut her up fast. She told Mari that everything would go back to normal once her dad started working again. But Mari wasn’t convinced.
An amazing idea popped into my head, and I stood up to announce it. “Mari, if you want to run away, then we’ll all run away with you,” I declared.
Gracie spun her head around to look at me, arching her bushy eyebrows to the sky. “We will?”
“Yep. It’s Monday. That means Abuelo is going to take Abuela to the market in a little while. We’ll just ask to stay with Welita and sneak out while she’s watching her telenovela.”
Welita was our abuela’s mother. She was seventy-six years old and had lived with our grandparents for as long as I could remember. We called her Welita because it was short for Abuelita. I had no idea what her real name was.
That meant she would be the one to tell our parents that we were gone. She might even cry. Shame and sadness washed over me.
Welita was always saying how family was the most important thing in this world. And we were doing this to stay together.
She’ll understand. Eventually.
So there, under the lemon tree, we hatched our plan to run away to the beach. I was in charge of picking our favorite CDs while Mari filled up her backpack with lemons and whatever else she could find in our abuela’s pantry. Gracie took the bus schedule from Welita’s dresser and said she would figure out the best route to the beach. Selena pulled down all the sheets and towels that had been drying on the backyard clothesline and stuffed them into a trash bag. Between the four of us, we had almost twenty-five dollars.
We were about three blocks away when Gracie stopped in her tracks. “Selena, who’s going to feed Gidget?”
Selena didn’t even look at her sister and kept on walking. “Mom, I guess? They’re not going to let the cat die just because you’re not there to take care of her.”
“And what about Joanna’s pool party on Saturday?” Gracie continued. “She’s your best friend. Don’t you think you should call her and let her know you’re not going to be there?”
That made Selena stop. She told us we needed to go back so she could call Joanna.
We stood there arguing for a good ten minutes about it before Mari finally threw up her hands. “Forget it! Just forget it! You three go back, and I’ll go by myself.”
Mari spun on her heel and marched away. I had to stop her before it was too late.
“Wait, Mari. I’ll still go with you!” I yelled. Mari turned and ran back and practically tackled me with a big hug.
“Mari, if you still want to go to the beach, then we’ll all go with you,” Selena interrupted. “But I think maybe you should wait a few days, or even a few weeks, and see what happens. Like Gracie said, you never know—they could still work things out.”
It took a little more convincing, but Mari eventually agreed to stay. We turned around and walked hand in hand back toward our grandparents’ house. But once we turned the corner onto their street, we froze.
There, standing on the sidewalk, was Welita. She wore a gray sweatshirt over her flowered housecoat and brown chanclas. And ay caray, did she look pinche mad.
By the time she’d corralled us into the kitchen, I thought she looked less mad and more relieved. But she was mumbling in Spanish, and I couldn’t make out if she was saying that she was going to spank us or feed us. Turned out it was neither. Instead, she asked us in Spanish where we had gone, and—“¡Madre de Dios!”—why had we taken all her sheets and towels?
Since I was the only one who knew enough Spanish to answer her, I explained it all. Then I translated what Welita said back to everyone else. She knew about the divorce, but running away wasn’t the answer.
“Pero, we’ll never see her again,” I cried in my usual Spanglish.
“No llores. Big girls no cry,” she told me. When she had to, Welita used the small vocabulary of English she’d learned thanks to ’60s American music and ’80s sitcoms.
“She says it’s time we learned that family is forever and that won’t change,” I told my cousins. “But it’s going to be up to us to stay close.”
Later, when our parents came to take us home, she never said a word about our failed beach adventure. Instead, as we each headed out the door, she kissed us on the forehead and whispered, “Que Dios te bendiga.”
It was the blessing she always gave us whenever we would leave her. She once told me it was better than goodbye because she knew that she would see us again soon.
So a few weeks later, when we gathered together underneath the lemon tree, we told Mari, “Que Dios te bendiga.” We swore to each other that we would always be close and be a part of each other’s lives . . . no matter what. One by one, we took turns etching our initials into the trunk of the tree. And underneath, I carved the letters BCF.
“What does that mean?” Gracie asked.
“It stands for Best Cousins Forever,” I explained.
“But that’s silly,” Selena said. “Of course we’re going to be cousins forever. We’re related. Duh.”
I traced the rough lines with my thumb. “I know we’ll always be cousins. But this way we’ll always remember that we promised to be Best Cousins, okay?”
The other girls nodded, and we crashed into each other for a hug.
How could I know at that moment that the lemon tree and the promise we’d just made would only survive a few more summers?
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