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During Noche Buena, Doña Teresa recounted the time Alvaro’s corpse fell on her. Don Alvaro was a South American stereotype: brushed mustache, Roman Catholic, intolerant. He was the step-father of the Suarez siblings’ grandfather, Rodolfo: dubbed “Rudi” by his Texas co-workers. Rodolfo embraced “Rudi” in a way that Marco would never embrace “Mark.” There were positive associations with “Rudi.” For instance, their neighborhood German restaurant, Rudi Lechner’s, playing live polka music on Wednesday evenings. When Rodolfo was a child, his father died after fighting in La Guerra Del Chaco. The Suarez siblings pieced together fragments of their grandfather’s story. They couldn’t imagine their own father succumbing to a war – no Marco to force them to participate in Fun-Fair-Positive-Soccer; no Marco embarrassing them at the Houston Public Library: “You’re saying that you can order any book for me, any book that I want, even if you don’t have it, and I don’t have to pay you anything, ever?”; no Marco to yell at them when he caught them watching Sponge Bob Square Pants. “Disgusting,” Marco said while cackling at Johnny Bravo. “Mamasita!! Johnny Bravo, M.D., want to take my pulse?”
Rodolfo’s father ate rats to survive the war. He would sweat in the same underwear every night; killing Paraguayans solely for being from Paraguay. Bolivia lost. When Rodolfo’s father returned from the war, he sat outside in silence, refusing to make eye contact with his son until his wife found him on the hammock, dead from cirrhosis. She married Alvaro immediately. “Alvaro was walking home,” Doña Teresa said. “A gang of miscreants – high on drugs of course – beat him up.” Adriana smiled as she watched Todd’s eyes widen. It was Todd’s first Christmas Eve with her family. Todd always acted surprised at drama, as though these things didn’t happen. “Alvaro had a blood clot in his brain but no one noticed because he refused to see a doctor,” Doña Theresa said. “Typical-stubborn-Bolivian-idiot.”
Todd was a white, Texan hypochondriac who would give himself WebMD panic attacks. Todd would say something like “conversate” instead of “conversation” and he would become sure, so sincerely sure that he had survived a silent stroke. “Your aunts were useless,” Doña Teresa told her grandchildren. “Totally useless. We flew in from Houston, but it was, eh, Moni, how do you say – toque de queda?”
“Curfew,” Monica replied to her mom.
“Exactly,” Doña Teresa said. “Curfew. The president fled to Florida. Rudi and I were stuck until morning in the empty loft with Alvaro’s dead body.” For context, this story wasn’t from the seventies or eighties when there were still curfews. This story wasn’t from the nineties when people were still upset about the massacres in Latin America, the disappearances, or the shadow of the United Fruit Company. Don Alvaro died of a treatable blood clot in La Paz, Bolivia during the 2003 gas wars that led to the end of the Goni presidency. However, his death had nothing to do with the internal conflict raging in Bolivia. Don Alvaro was mugged on his walk home.
“The loft was empty except for the casket, Alvaro’s body, and two pinche candles,” Doña Teresa said loudly. “Man, your grandfather! Boy, did he help.” She shook her head, scoffing. “Moni, how do you say – embalsamar?”
“Embalm! Well, it was freezing. We had no phone, no computer, the useless military walked around the apartment in circles because they don’t know how to do anything, and we had no contact with your stupid relatives.”
“Embalm?” Todd asked.
“Embalm,” Doña Teresa repeated. “I had to inject him – by myself – because your grandfather,” she said loudly, staring at her grandchildren, “your pinche abuelo went upstairs and refused to come down. I had to inject Alvaro in his blood vessel, I had to search for it – in the dark, I had to search for Alvaro’s pinche blood vessel – by myself, in the dark!” Adriana smiled, satisfied. Todd was laughing, staring at her grandmother. Teresa was too pretty to be a grandmother: long eyelashes, black arched eyebrows, a tiny waist that made Monica and her sisters jealous of their mother. Teresa refused to wear seatbelts and would rename Todd “Tomás,” because what kind of name is Todd?
Todd and Adriana began dating at the end of high school. They met at a house party. He gave her a ride home. It was easy: Big Lebowski quotations about Donny and the nihilists, making fun of Matt who was throwing up in the bathroom, teaching Todd to pronounce her name correctly. Adriana had never dated a white guy before and she would slowly grow irritated by the way he said “y’all” and judgmental over his preference for “no-pulp” orange juice. Adriana never wanted to watch Jeopardy! with him. “It’s my favorite show,” he would whine. “We should share this,” he said to her.
Adriana had a curfew of 1 am. One night, she took ecstasy with Todd and his friends. They were the last generation to take X instead of Molly. They took the “Green Alien” tablets that were supposed to give them a “big waves kind of high.” They went outside. Matt, Dave, Todd, and Adriana got into Matt’s 1981 Ford Bronco to “ghost ride the whip.” Adriana went along with this even though she didn’t know what ghost riding the whip meant. She watched them from the back seat: sweating, laughing as Matt, Dave, and Todd attempted to climb out of the moving Bronco. Todd had more trouble, he was bigger than his friends. Todd leaned out of the Bronco with half his body out of the front window, his anxiety kicking in. Adriana was content as she watched them, aware that this was how people her age died.
Summers in Houston could be unbearable. But at night – when the mosquitos went away and the wind masked the humidity and the sun stopped burning and the frogs started to croak and the cicadas began to talk, Adriana liked the heat. They sat outside Matt’s apartment. Matt, Dave, and Todd took their shirts off and Adriana glanced at them to compare her boyfriend’s stomach to that of his friends. Todd’s stomach was doughy and translucent. They smoked in the dark and wiped the sweat from their bodies. Although Matt, Dave, and Todd seemed to be rolling, Adriana didn’t feel any different. Even so, she couldn’t help perform.
Adriana extended her legs and began cartwheeling across Matt’s apartment complex, with the occasional round-off and backbend, counting each kick-over as she circled the street in linen shorts. She hadn’t cartwheeled in a long time, but her body remembered. In the eighth grade, Sarah Wilson, Caitlin Turner, and Adriana Suarez were the only girls in their class who could do a hands-free running backhand spring without an adult spotting them. Adriana was focused. She liked the feeling of controlling her body. As a freshman, Adriana made the mistake of trying out for the cheerleading squad. She wasn’t excited about the idea, the way the girls who brought their cheer-alum moms were, but she enjoyed tumbling and Adriana was good at it. Coach Jackson and Coach Laufer recognized that Adriana’s backhand spring would benefit the homecoming pep rally. Adriana could stay in a straight line, there was no pause between her round-off and her kick-over, and she would land triumphantly on both feet – skidding backwards from the force of her run. But Adriana failed at the most basic part of cheerleading: Adriana couldn’t cheer. She would chant motivational phrases about athletics in a painful, monotone sound that bewildered the squad. At cartwheel forty-six, Todd grabbed Adriana and wrapped his arms around her waist, bringing her down to the pavement. Adriana wrapped her arms around his neck. “You smell,” she said.
Todd was sad, but not surprised when Adriana broke up with him. She saw herself with someone else. Someone in a gray hoodie wearing long white socks as though he had never learned how to dress. She would later wonder if she made a mistake. The next guy she dated was also white. His name was Chris and he would say “quasi” and “pseudo” for no reason. Adriana used “dichotomy” incorrectly in a sentence and Chris said, “I love the way you speak.” He bought her the Wes Anderson Criterion Collection Bundle after Adriana made one reference to Rushmore: “I saved Latin. What did you ever do?” Chris laughed and laughed. Chris would play the Bottle Rocket soundtrack in his car while he tried to leave hickeys on Adriana’s neck. She would cry quietly when “2000 Man” by the Rolling Stones came on. Chris’s parents were architects. He would tell them proudly that Adriana received a 5 on her A.P. Art History Exam. Adriana broke up with Chris while he bobbed his head along to Katy Perry’s “Hot n Cold.” The next guy she dated was Greek. His name was George and he made sure their first kiss was outside, under the sun. He would hold her face, stare deeply into her eyes as though they had always known each other and state, “Your eyes are the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. Like Chocolate M&Ms.” Adriana would break up with George over the phone.
When Todd took her home the following morning, Marco Suarez was outside with Basil, watering the yard. Basil ran towards Adriana and Todd, wagging her tail in excitement. Todd was the only guy besides Marco and her brother that Basil approved. “We went out for breakfast,” Adriana lied. There was something so remarkably unthreatening about Todd which made her lie believable. Todd wore flannel and smiled stupidly. “Some soyrizo in the morning?” Marco asked, leaving Todd dumbfounded. “We have to go to the bank,” Marco reminded Adriana. “You need to set up a savings account.” At the bank, in front of her father and the Westchase branch manager, the X kicked in. Adriana’s jaw clenched and her teeth began to grind loudly, completely out of her control.
Doña Teresa cleaned Alvaro’s body by herself. She took off his clothes and made him presentable, although most people were happy he was dead. Teresa dressed him in his military uniform, strapped on his awards, and exaggerated his tough expression by coloring in his eyebrows with eyeliner. Teresa and Rodolfo barely talked to each other during the toque de queda. Occasionally, Teresa would sigh obnoxiously to guilt her husband. Rodolfo couldn’t look at his step-father’s corpse without wanting to vomit. Teresa and Rodolfo sat wide awake throughout the night, huddled together in the cold, empty room, as far from the body as possible, watching the two candles – their only source of light and heat – burn out. Teresa would get up mechanically to stab her dead father-in-law in his arteries.
Teresa grinned. “It gets worse.”
“But the curfew was over by morning, right?” Todd asked.
“He fell on me in the morning,” Teresa said. Todd made a loud sound that made Basil bark. “There was a hearse waiting,” she said. “He was supposed to have a huge procession with those pinche wailing women that almost made me deaf.”
“They pay for mourners?” Todd asked.
“Certain people do. We had to get the body out, but we were on the eighth floor and the elevators weren’t working.”
“Shit,” Todd said.
“Exactly,” Teresa said. “Shit! He was so heavy. A soldier in the complex helped, but we had to take breaks. When we got to the third floor we set the casket upright, leaning against the wall.”
Monica laughed as she added sugar to her coffee. The Suarez family had finished dinner and were drinking their dessert coffee. Adriana, Annie, and Olmo were too snobby for their grandmother’s Nescafé, but they liked this tradition. There was alcohol at the table, tequila, rum and coke, but Monica was thoughtful and bought a six-pack of Dr Pepper for Todd. Marco thought Dr Pepper tasted like medicine. Adriana thought it tasted like toothpaste. Annie and Olmo could tolerate it but they preferred not to. Todd would catch himself staring at the soda longingly, too embarrassed to drink it in front of Adriana’s family.
The grandchildren ran to the presents. It wasn’t midnight, but they wanted to shake the boxes and guess: barbies, Legos, hot wheels, journals, NOW That’s What I Call Music! CDs? Those were the gifts the Suarez children received. Their cousins, on the other hand, came of age during the apple-store era. They would receive large screens with repetitive letters: iPhones, iPads, Wiis, MacBooks, MacBook Pros, Kindles, One Direction concert tickets, virtual-reality glasses. The Suarez siblings were accustomed to large Noche Buena dinners that their parents always seemed stuck hosting. There would be tension: someone randomly decided to be allergic to their cat. Someone thought the house was “warm.” Marco would unknowingly say something sexist or mansplain to his sister-in-law: “There is a reason your son is overweight.” The same question that everyone knew the answer to: wait, you can’t even eat cheese?
There was a moment in time when their relatives were busy with their own lives, so the Suarez family had intimate Christmas dinners of five. One year, Marco and Monica went all out, surprising their children with their level of detail. Marco and Monica bought Kim Gordon’s memoir, Girl in a Band, and tickets to a Patti Smith concert for Adriana. She would go to the concert by herself because she had no one to go with. Marco and Monica bought Annie a pink suitcase and donated to Defenders of Wildlife in her name. In gratitude, Defenders sent her an adoption certificate and a stuffed animal that was supposed to be her child, a Tasmanian Devil named “Taz.” Marco and Monica bought their son, Olmo, an overpriced utility jacket and an acrylic print of Einstein with a background of E = mc2 thought bubbles. Adriana was overwhelmed. Their childhood was gone. They would never tug at their parents’ ear lobes again, captivated by how cold this body-part was. They would never be tickled innocently again: masajitos! masajitos! Sana, sana colita de rana. Their family members wouldn’t embarrass them in public anymore: corazón, corazón, corazón de melon, melon, melon.
“I was sweating,” Teresa said. “We hadn’t showered. I always shower. We were so hungry. And God, was I pissed at your stupid grandfather when, and I am being completely literal here, the pinche casket opened and Alvaro’s pinche cuerpo fell right on top of me,” Teresa said – her mouth thinning. “I’ll never feel fear again. Never.”
Adriana, Annie, Olmo and their mom shook with laughter. Marco shook his head in annoyance, positive his mother-in-law was lying.
“Holy shit!” Todd said. “What did you do?”
“What could I do! I screamed! Rudi got the body off me – finally. It took ALL of that. ALL of that for the cabrón to do something! A DEAD man had to FALL on me!” Teresa and Rodolfo and the young soldier carried Alvaro’s dead body and reached the plaza where the funeral procession was still set to occur. The heat burned the streets of downtown La Paz. Alvaro’s male relatives led the procession, holding up his casket as they walked uphill. Teresa and the other mourners walked behind them while the wailing women screamed, clutching their faces violently.
For some unknown reason, when they first began dating, Todd thought it would impress Adriana that his parents had grown up eating squirrel. The minute he saw the flash in her eyes he recognized his mistake. “I mean, they don’t often,” he added. “They’re really country. I mean, I’ve never eaten a squirrel.”
“Would you though?” Adriana asked him.
“Would I what?”
“Eat a squirrel?”
Todd never completed college. He went directly into sales. He learned to control his anxiety. He learned to convince older women to buy tempurpedic mattresses and to ignore the men with the pickup trucks who didn’t respect salesmen with skinny legs. The customers who went in unsure of what they wanted would leave with their queen-sized Cloud Supreme Breeze, shaking Todd’s hand, repeatedly calling him a “wizard.” Todd would move to Bryan, Texas. He would try to order vegetable fajitas at a Los Cucos, and would be served a plate of steamed broccoli. The waiter would take the tortillas back into the kitchen before Todd could say anything. “You probably don’t want those either.” Todd would learn to tuck in his shirt and say, “yes ma’am” and “no sir.” Adriana went to graduate school. She would frantically call Todd, in shock, when she realized that at least four students in her program were Creationists. “The Lord put us on this Earth to reign supreme over the animals in his dominion,” they said. They would stare at Adriana with sincere sadness that she wouldn’t be saved.
Adriana had been the first Suarez sibling to stop believing in God. When she was ten years old, Doña Teresa took her to Sunday school. Adriana was forced to attend the English-speaking class.
“Hi – I am John. Will you be my girlfriend?”
“Yes,” Adriana replied automatically.
“Great. Sit by me. That’s my other girlfriend, Jennifer.” Ten-year old John pointed to the blonde on his left. “Mary is also my girlfriend.” Adriana was very uncomfortable. John was a short, pudgy white boy with black, slicked-back hair. He had a strange confidence for a child in suspenders. He was determined to be the boy with the most girlfriends in Sunday School. Adriana learned the “Our Father” in English. The Sunday School teacher would explain to the class that “crossing oneself” “opens and closes” a connection with the Lord. When Teresa picked Adriana up, she found her granddaughter manically crossing herself, almost in tears.
“Adriana – que te pasa?”
“I don’t remember if I closed the connection!”
“I don’t want him to hear everything!”
When Adriana graduated, Todd bought her a year’s subscription to ANTENA TRES, an international channel that specialized in dramatic period pieces, so she could stream the shows she loved in secret, because Todd knew she would never admit how often she re-watched the same scenes, where the women curl their hair and the men they love have painful facial expressions when they make difficult decisions.
Rodolfo sat in the living room, petting Basil while Theresa told her story in the dining room. He was pretending to sleep but would occasionally give himself away by glaring or grinning at his wife. He got up when Theresa finished her story and placed his hands on her shoulders. He massaged them carefully and smiled. Theresa closed her eyes and moved her hand to hold her husbands. She kissed his palm. “Burn me,” she told him. “When I die, burn me and throw my ashes as far away from your stupid family.” Rodolfo laughed in a way that he only laughed with Theresa. Theresa and Rodolfo met in Mexico when Theresa was seventeen. She grew up in Mexico City, a chilanga at heart, but she learned to make the United States her home because of her husband’s job, and when he retired she learned to make Bolivia her home because of her husband’s nostalgia. She tolerated the cow-tongue and the falso conejo. She learned to ignore the judgment in his hometown of Tarija. Every time one of Rodolfo’s drunk relatives saw her they would bellow the one Thalia song they knew, as though it were the first time they met a Mexican. Theresa would take it, the way wives always learn to take things: ¡Amor a la Mexicana!/ Caliente al ritmo del sol/ despacio, y luego me mata/ mi macho de corazón.
Todd and Adriana went outside and sat on the porch. They were too old to receive Christmas presents, although someone bought Todd a $25.00 J. Crew gift card so he wouldn’t feel left out. Todd wore a light-colored sweater that hid his wrinkled dress shirt. He would never buy an iron. On one of their first dates, he wore a worn-in UGK shirt. Todd would alternate between country and rap. Between Hank Williams Sr. and Pimp C. He wore vintage sneakers and almost got jumped twice in Sharpstown. Men would look him up and down and ask him, “What size you wear?” On that first date, they went back to his place to watch Caddy Shack. “Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, AND Bill Murray!” Todd said. They sat close to each other on his bed. Todd told her she smelt like “essential oils.” They would watch The Goonies next and half of Fletch until Adriana made him change it to Burn After Reading, but she lost interest in the plot faster than she expected. Adriana moved toward him and straddled his lap. His eyes opened in shock and he kissed her instinctively.
“Who painted ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’?” she asked him.
“Who painted ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’?” she repeated.
Adriana raised her eyebrow. “Magritte?” she asked. “Yes!” Todd said, holding her tighter, satisfied to have an opportunity to use his Jeopardy! facts.
“Nicht das, was Sie erwarten.”
“Nicht das, was Sie erwarten,” she repeated.
“Wait, that’s not French, right?”
“Would you ever go vegan?” she asked him, immediately feeling his boner recede.
“Would you ever go vegan?” she repeated.
“I don’t know.”
“If it was easy?”
“If it was easy, then, yeah, why not,” he said.
Adriana kissed him again, stopping him when his kisses became sloppy and loud in their desperation. She heard his breathing change. When they first began dating, Adriana would stare at Todd’s nose, completely fixated by it, trying to deconstruct its function. Adriana was attracted to Adrian Brody falcon-like noses or sturdy, menacing noses à la Vincent Cassel, that would thrive in warm climates. Todd had an inoffensive, porcelain-doll nose and porcelain-doll skin that she knew needed sunscreen if it didn’t want to get red the way porcelain skin does if it stays out all day making out at Free Press Summer Fest while Gogol Bordello screams angry gypsy-punk: And my grandma she was anti!/ And my grandpa he was bounty!/ And stir it twice/ And then just add me!/ Party party party party party party/ now after party. There she was, outside burning in the midday sun, falling for the guy who would never pronounce the “ing’s” of words: bondin’ bitin’ ballin’ breathin’ bein’ – the guy with the Lone Star belly, with Dr Pepper in his cantaloupe heart.