ONE YEAR OF UGLY
Here was the story with Vanessa, Mauricio’s first kid on the side and illegitimate little Fidel’s predecessor by seventeen years in the potentially still-unraveling yarn of Mauricio’s evidently long history of infidelity. As we eventually found out, she was the product of an extramarital fling Mauricio’d had while visiting his parents in the rural hamlet of Isla de Gato. Ever since Vanessa was born, he’d been visiting annually and regularly sending money to Vanessa’s mother, entirely unbeknownst to Aunt Celia, of course. So when, through the ever-active Venezuelan gossip network, word filtered all the way back to Isla de Gato that Aunt Celia and her formidable bitchiness were out of the picture for good, Vanessa decided it was time to make a better life for herself with her dear old daddio. She found a man with a boat all on her own, and made her way to Trinidad, then up to Port of Spain, relying on her outstanding physical attributes and a wardrobe consisting primarily of Lycra to get free transport and food along the way.
The bulk of this information would be gathered the following day when Mamá, under the guise of the Kindly Aunt, invited the twins over to her nail spa in our annex for free after-school mani-pedis in a transparent bid to plumb them for intel on Vanessa.
Since I share my mother’s proclivity for family gossip, I was also waiting on the twins to turn up that afternoon, grappling with that same incredulous hangover feeling like when you can’t quite believe what went down the drunken night before. Did I really do nine Jägerbombs? Did I really kiss/sleep with/get finger-banged on the dance floor by ______? Had Ugly really happened? Were we really being blackmailed? Had yet another of Mauricio’s side kids actually manifested in our lives?
I was standing at the kitchen window, lulled by the drone of a heavy downpour on our roof as I brewed coffee and mused on what Ugly might expect us to do. Though it was obviously a surreal situation to be in, I felt relatively sanguine about the whole thing. We hadn’t even discussed it when we got home from the fiasco of Mauricio’s barbecue-turned-blackmail-bonanza the night before. I’d overheard my parents speaking in hushed tones, Papá saying that he’d told Ugly at-out that no daughter of his was going to be prostituted to clear Celia’s debts if that’s what he was thinking, that Ugly would have to kill him first. “He said killing me could be easily arranged but I’m o the hook because he’s a ‘mogul’ of the relocation business, not the prostitution industry. at’s all he said. He wouldn’t tell me what we have to do.” Anyway, with my instinctual fear of sex slavery mercifully o the table, I felt no need to panic. Or who knows, maybe it was just emotional shock and my brain had numbed itself to the reality of what it actually meant to be blackmailed by a criminal.
Just then, what had been Aunt Celia’s car came tearing through the rain to stop in our driveway, Ava at the wheel. She and Alejandra tumbled out in their school uniforms, running toward the annex and squealing at the rain. I took my coffee, grabbed an umbrella, and ventured out, holding the mug close to breathe in the steam while my flip flops squelched through the sodden grass, flecking my calves with mud.
In the annex, the twins’ muddied sneakers and socks were heaped at the door. Ava was already seated at Mamá’s table, having her nails led. Pornographically wet in her uniform, Alejandra was draped across the couch like a lounging Cleopatra, wriggling her newly liberated feet and pointing her toes like a ballerina warming up. When they all turned to see me, I was met by a chorus of “¡Hola, Yola!” which no one ever got fed up of singing at me anytime I walked into a room.
My mother arched an eyebrow at me. “You’re not expecting any freebies this afternoon too, I hope? You know that everyone who walks into my spa is a paying customer—I don’t care if you’re my mamá resurrected from the dead. This is just an extra-special treat for the girls.”
Treat my ass. What she wanted was the inside scoop. But I did too, so helped speed things along. I joined Alejandra where she was stretched across the couch. “So,” I said, smacking my lips at a bitter sip of black coffee, “what’s she like?”
I waited eagerly for the onslaught of bitching at how much they hated their unfaithful father and this unwelcome interloper in their home. But instead: “Oh my gosh, Yola, I know it’s such a mess, but Vanessa is such a sweetheart.”
Mamá and I shared a confused glance.
“She really is sweet,” added Ava, nodding earnestly at my mother. “We freaked out yesterday when she turned up—I mean freaked . . .” Alejandra was even laughing. “But Papá told us that it was this big mistake, the only time he’d ever slipped up, right after Mamá told him she was getting a divorce.”
“He was heartbroken, you know,” said Ava.
“Was he heartbroken when Fidel was conceived too?” I asked.
“It really took a toll when Mamá got a lawyer and everything. She even kicked him out for a while. He said it totally crushed him,” chirruped Alejandra, ignoring me. “And of course, whatever Papi did isn’t Vanessa’s fault. It was his mistake. Vanessa’s always wanted to meet us. She’s never had a real family, just her on her own with her mother in Isla de Gato.”
“And she really is just so sweet,” added Ava.
“Verga, we get it, she’s sweet,” I said. “But you seriously like her? How can you when . . .”
Mamá was glaring at me. Eyes like an owl on speed. I knew what that look meant: drop it. But if anyone had to stick up for Aunt Celia, it was me.
“Sorry, chama, I don’t see how you can be okay with everything . . .” I started, but Ava interrupted me.
“I guess we realized that you really never know how long you’ll be around. You could die at any second of any day. at’s what Mamá’s last lesson was to us. All that matters is love and family. And Vanessa’s our half sister. We want to know her and love her.”
“That’s a beautiful attitude to have,” beamed Mamá, who’d been nothing if not vocal about her dislike of Aunt Celia, so couldn’t give two shits about whether Mauricio ever cheated on her or not. She was just tickled at having new gossip fodder for her and Zulema to discuss over their pink zinfandels when they had “girly nights.” But as much as I wanted to call my mother out for her hypocrisy (Think she’d want to “get to know family” if family constituted a Shakira-shaped teen Papá had fathered in the early days of their marriage? Bitch, please.) and as much as I wanted to cajole the twins into ripping Mauricio a new one, I realized it wouldn’t be worth my while. The twins were gonna stick by Mauricio’s asinine story of heartbreak-fueled adultery no matter what, because nothing I said could ever shift the female impulse to forgive and justify the picaresque wanderings of the male member. Maybe we all have the natural compulsion to make excuses for men, or else the world would descend into anarchy as wives, girl- friends, and daughters mass-murdered all the cheating husbands, boyfriends, and baby daddies out there.
So I boarded the denial canoe alongside the twins and picked up my oar. “You’re right, guys. Mistakes do happen in marriage. Your attitude is great.” Because when your family members are cruising along a river of bullshit, sometimes it’s best not to tell them how to navigate. The only thing to do is help them paddle ahead into clearer waters and leave the bullshit behind.
*From the book ONE YEAR OF UGLY by Caroline Mackenzie. Copyright © 2020 by Caroline Mackenzie. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.
Posted: July 9, 2020 at 8:53 pm