Good peopleby Sergio Gutiérrez Negrón
Maritere walked into the Caguas branch of The Creamery where ice cream meets heaven with the baby in her arms and María C., her cousin, to her side, and there she was once again talking the latter’s ear off with the same indiscriminate ardor that she put into anything, whether it was that beautiful purple dress she wore for prom two years ago, or that bendita grocery list that she always forgot when she actually went shopping, but which, even if she had taken with her, she wouldn’t have been able to purchase in its entirety because, like she repeated over and over, las cosas están bien malas. That said, perhaps that one Wednesday the tone was right. It just so happened that, as she was in the process of revealing, she hadn’t gotten her period that week, nor the previous one, and let’s not even mention the one before that. This could only mean one thing, and that one thing, you can imagine, would’ve definitely thrown a wrench into any well-oiled machine, and hers was far from well-oiled and already pretty wrenched out.
She whispered that last part, and nudged her head to the tender bag of skin and bones held warmly against her chest, hoping to not wake it up. If awake, it would start asking to be fed and she couldn’t bear it anymore. She didn’t say it out loud. She’d done so two days ago and her mother, with whom she lived, had overheard and slapped her across the face and gave her a sermon and that was the first time that had happened in a long, long time. But the truth was that her nipples were so sore and whenever the baby was sucking on her it made her feel like a huge, silver, scrunched up Capri-sun. That image actually came up in her nightmares and it scared her senseless. She knew it wasn’t logical, but she was afraid she would run dry and the baby would continue sucking and sucking and she’d be emptied out. And being emptied out and sola was the worst thing she could imagine in the whole world.
That’s also part of it, she said, that she was supposed to be “alone”. She tried to pull off the scare quotes with her one free hand, but failed. Almost everybody knew that the father of the baby had left her well before she gave birth, and Maritere was still dealing with that betrayal, of which she hadn’t heard until about thirty-six hours after it happened, when she received a collect call from Philadelphia at her mom’s landline, from her boyfriend’s older sister, who wanted to let her know that her younger sibling wasn’t ready to bear the responsibilities of being a dad. The woman, whom she hadn’t really ever met, apologized and said goodbye with a dios te bendiga a ti y a la criatura.
It was precisely because she couldn’t deal with all of this that had happened that she hadn’t been careful with Bimbo. Bimbo had been her neighbor her whole life. He’d been into her for almost as long, even though she’d only ever thought of him as a shoulder to cry on. And with good reason. He was buena gente, good people. The sweetest boy she’d met so far, and also the most decent. Much like María C., the cousin who listened to her with encouraging nods as they progressed in the line towards the ice cream counter, Bimbo was a great listener and somehow always said just about the rightest thing in the world. When “just about the rightest thing” had to do with Maritere and came out of Bimbo’s mouth, it also happened to always be the sweetest and most loving words in the whole wide universe. The one bad thing was that, and Maritere lowered her voice once more, even if this time it wasn’t for the baby’s sake, Bimbo was a fatty, un gordito.
Their relationship changed last month, Maritere continued. There was this one Friday night when Maritere gave the baby to her mom, and went to her neighbor’s house. She needed some warmth, some loving, and, yes, some heavy petting. She was in luck, she said. She’d seen that Bimbo’s aunt, with whom he lived, wasn’t there. This wouldn’t have been the first time, she told her cousin. You know how it is with that one friend one always has, right? María C. didn’t and shrugged, and Maritere continued, saying that one thing led to another and she had miscalculated how much warmth she needed. Suddenly she just let go and, surprisingly, Bimbo didn’t stop either, as he had in the past. The whole deal didn’t last long, and that is great in retrospect, she said, but she came out feeling really good about herself, and really satisfied, which is what mattered, right? When she stepped out of the bathroom after cleaning herself, she saw Bimbo smiling widely and felt as if she’d earned un pedacito del cielo, dios nos bediga. Seeing her friend that happy made her finally understand what real saintly charity was about.
She used protection and all, of course, she clarified, unlike the one time that led to the baby. And this isn’t even the complicated part, she added and pointed through the child and into the general direction of her womb. What was worse was that, unlike her now ex-boyfriend, who’d abandoned her without any consideration, Bimbo would never ever leave her while she was pregnant. In fact, if it were on him, he’d stick to her side for the rest of their existence and probably after. That, she said, scared the hell out of her.
Maritere stopped, took a deep breath, and confessed that what she was about to say she’d never tell anybody that wasn’t her cousin, but she had to say it even if sounded terrible: what overwhelmed her, even more so than the fact he’d never leave her, was Bimbo’s size, he was huge, and, like her cousin knew, she’d been huge, too, and so had spent each and every one of her teen age years, until she turned seventeen and succeeded, fighting with her weight, skipping breakfast, eating chicken breast sandwiches for lunch and dinner, and running around the block under the oppressing sun of Puerto Rican summers, with a sweat belt tightened around her abdomen and, underneath it, a dozen black plastic bags bound together with masking tape, a technology she’d perfected to melt the fat away, day in and day out. She had struggled against her excesses until finally her outside matched the image of herself she’d always known possible. It had been so hard, but oh so worth it.
Bimbo had pined for her even then, avoiding the most accidental of glances at las flacas del barrio. He’d never even checked Isabel out, the most beautiful of them all, with her dark skin and green eyes. It had always been Maritere, ever since they were kids. And, yes, of course, Maritere thought that it was sweet and still remembers the day she considered it, when she was about fourteen. Back then, she’d told herself that she didn’t have to work all that hard, that she could simply accept the love that was offered and concentrate on having a boyfriend and getting kissed for the first time and losing her virginity and all of that, instead of starving herself, instead of insulting herself to sleep on days she stumbled into a delicious bottle of Malta India or a bowl of whatever the generic brand of Lucky Charms was called.
But some people were just simply not meant to be fat, and Maritere really believed herself to be one of them. She also believed that anybody who was fat at fourteen would always think like a fat person and, in that sense, she had to always preempt herself, even now, and she should’ve done so that one day she was feeling more bothered than usual and thought that being charitable was a great idea. She was still the gordita who wore her mom’s old cashmere sweaters in July and locked herself in her room with her windows shut, and ran in place until she slipped on the sweat that accumulated in the floor tiles. That’s why she dieted even through the pregnancy, against the doctor’s orders. That’s why she started exercising as soon the last stitch of her C-Section settled and perhaps a bit before that. That’s why she got to the counter and ordered the one fat-free ice cream they sold at The Creamery, and she asked the boy serving her, whose name was Carlos, to add small pieces of guineo but nothing more. That’s why she was still hurting for the boyfriend who knocked her up and then left her, even after everybody sighed in relief and whispered “good riddance, ese tipo es un cabrón”. Sure, he was, but he was also oh so beautiful, oh so in shape, and he had the most perfect six pack that she’d ever seen in her life. On the days when they’d driven up the Carretera #1 and checked into one of the many Caguas motels, not with the intention of spending a quick hour, bang bang, but of lazily staying for all of the eight your twenty-five bucks got you, she spent at least one third of that time with her head on his chest and her fingers tracing that dream-like set of abs. If that arroz con huevos of admiration and desire wasn’t love, she didn’t want to know what love was.
There was no doubt about it: she was still that chubby girl and, in fact, that was precisely the reason she was struggling right then and there with all of this. If Bimbo happened to her, she could see herself letting go—of her body, of all that suffering, of all that drive, of all that passion—, and if that occurred what would be left of her? She’d be just as good as that emptied out pouch of Capri-sun that haunted her at night.
Maritere handed the baby to her cousin and put her phone down on the table, so she could eat her ice cream, which started to melt almost immediately. The oppressing July heat seeped into the store even against the will of the AC-unit just above their heads. María C. hadn’t ordered anything. She was actually there because she worked at the shop and had asked for a ride. As Maritere ate, the cellphone began to vibrate. Both cousins stared at it for what seemed like an eternity. The baby did so, too, quiet. The device slid through the metallic surface, drawing strange circles, like the eye of a Ouija board, and, soon enough, defenestrated itself down the edge. It continued vibrating on the floor, like a thing possessed. Eventually it stopped moving and the name BIMBO disappeared from the screen. Maritere sighed.
ContributorSergio Gutiérrez Negrón
SERGIO GUTIÉRREZ NEGRÓN (Caguas, 1986) is a novelist, columnist, and visiting assistant professor at Oberlin College. He is the author of two novels, Palacio (2011) and Dicen que los dormidos (2014). The latter of these won the National Prize for the Novel awarded by the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña. In 2015, he received the New Voices Prize, a distinction granted by the Festival de la Palabra (PR) to up and coming Puerto Rican writers. That same year, he was part of Latinoamérica Viva, a selection of new promising Latin American authors curated by the Feria Internacional del Libro de Guadalajara (MEX).