Chapter Excerpt

Chapter 1: Xio

My name is (drum roll, please) María Xiomara Iris Juárez Hidalgo, but nobody calls me María. For short, I just go by Xio -- pronounced C.O. It rhymes with Leo, my sign. Like most Leos, my best quality is my unfailing loyalty. I'm utterly devoted to my friends....and of course, to me.

Just kidding. Well, maybe it's a little true. Madonna is a Leo. (Yes!) So was Napoleon. We love to conquer and take charge, plus we're generous, fun, openhearted and love to speak our minds.

On the downside, we love to speak our minds. Sometimes it gets me into deep, deep caca. Then if I tell Mami about it, she laughs and says I need to learn to keep my mouth shut.

"But that's totally impossible," I tell her. "When I've got something to say, I have to say it."

My other faults: I can be pretty lazy when it comes to housework. Like on weekends? My all-time favorite thing is to laze in bed, talking on the phone with friends -- hopping from one call to the next. I think Call Waiting is the best invention ever.

But then Mami comes in and makes me get off the phone to do chores. "You need to learn the world doesn't revolve around you," she says, which makes no sense.

"If the world doesn't revolve around me," I argue, "then why do I have to get out of bed?"

Mami shakes her head and rolls her eyes heavenward, asking God for paciencia.

"Okay..." Climbing from bed, I give her a big hug. Sometimes I wonder how Mami handles being a single mom. I know I can be pretty high maintenance. But Mami's strong, in a quiet way. I don't know if I could ever be that strong....or that quiet.

Both Mami and Papi are from Mexico, but they met here in California. I remember when I was little Papi used to stand me on his shoes and dance me around the living room as mariachi trumpets blared on the radio. Mami would wave her arms, warning him to be careful. Then he'd reach out for her too, all of us dancing together with me tucked between them.

When I was seven, my little brother -- Esteban Jesús Francisco (Stevie for short) -- was born. He's a pain in the butt, always getting into my stuff (a typical curious Aquarius), but I love him. He looks a lot like Papi, with lighter skin than mine.

I look more like Mami. We're both morenas -- with skin that's golden colored. But I'm more chata than Mami. That means I have a flat, catlike nose -- which I hate. My best feature is my hair -- thick and black. Mami calls it my mane.

I was seven when Mami and Papi broke up. It came gradually, not with yelling or fights, but with a lot of rumblings and low voices. I remember putting my ear to their bedroom door, trying to figure out what was going on and wondering, Was it because of something I'd done?

I've asked Mami a million times why Papi left. Was he in love with another woman? Didn't he love us anymore? But the only thing she says is, "Your papi and I had differences."

"Like, what's that supposed to mean?"

Mami sighs. "It means that sometimes, no matter how much two people love each other, they just aren't meant to be together. When you're older you'll understand."

I hate it when she says things like that.

Papi moved north to San Francisco. At first he'd phone me every day. I'd run home after school to hear his voice. But slowly his calls became once a week. Then one time a month. Then only Christmas and my birthday. I begged to visit him but he wouldn't let me. Instead he visited us once a year, but last year he didn't even do that.

When I turned thirteen last August I didn't go out of the house, hoping he'd call. As usual, Mami threw a party for me and all my friends came. Every time the phone rang I jumped for it, certain it would be Papi. But it wasn't.

That night after everybody left, I went to my room and stared at my nightstand's Little Mermaid lamp. Mami says Papi got it for me on my second birthday.

Across the shade swim tropical fish, a little faded now. The stem is Ariel with her long flowing hair, sitting on a porcelain wave. Her green tail curves around an empty space where a clock used to be. When it stopped working Papi took it to find a replacement, but before finding a new clock he left.

The lamp looks kind of weird with Ariel sitting on an empty space. I've tried to fill the space with stuff. Once I wedged in a little tray filled with chocolates, but that lasted about two seconds, before I ate them all. I'm a total chocoholic. It's my favorite comfort food.

I could've used some the night of my party. When Mami came in and put her arm around me I burst into tears, burying my head in her shoulder. "He doesn't love me anymore."

"Shh," Mami whispered. "That's not true. You're the daughter he always wanted."

Yeah, right. "I don't care if he never calls again!"

In the month since then, I've rehearsed in my mind every day for when -- or if? -- he phones. "I don't want you to ever call again!" I'm going to tell him. I really will. I mean it.

Anyway, enough about him. Back to me: I'm in eighth grade at San Cayetano Middle. Classes started two weeks ago. And today a new boy arrived in first period -- white, kind of small, with kick-butt blue eyes and sandy blond hair spiked in front that made me want to whoosh my fingers through it. Of course, I didn't. At least not yet. But hello! I'm thirteen already. Where's my boyfriend? I'm waiting!

Ms. Marciano (that's Spanish for "martian") introduced the new guy as Fred.

Big mistake.

"Excuse me," he told her. "But, um, my name's not Fred or Freddy or Rick, or Ricky. It's Frederick."

Ms. Martian stared at him like she was peering out of a spaceship.

"Okay, Frederick. Can you take a seat beside Xio, please?" She pointed to the empty desk next to me. My best friend, Carmen, had sat there till we got split up for talking too much -- after only two days. How unfair was that?

While Frederick-not-Fred weaved between rows, Carmen gave me a huge grin from across the room. She kids me because I seem to always go for shorter guys. But can I help it if most boys my age are so shrimpy?

"Hi," I whispered as Frederick slid into the desk beside me.

"Um...hi." A cute little smile crept across his face. He has really pretty lips, too -- kind of pouty.

Ms. Visitor from the Red Planet started babbling something for the class to write down. Frederick pulled out his pen but the ink wouldn't come out. He rubbed the ballpoint on his paper till he practically gouged a hole in it, without saying anything. He must be shy. I know if I needed a pen I would've stopped the entire class.

"Here," I told him, holding mine out. "I have an extra."

"Xio?" Ms. Space Alien scolded. "Can you pay attention, please?"

"I'm lending him a pen," I shouted and handed it to him.

Everyone had turned to stare at us, and Frederick was apple red. But after everybody glanced away again, he looked at me and whispered, "Thanks."

Oh, my God, I love his eyes.

Tonight at dinner while scooping some arroz con pollo onto Stevie's plate I told Mami, "I want to get blue contact lenses."

"Oh, don't be silly." Mami passed me the bread. "Your eyes are beautiful just as they are."

"But I'm so bored with brown eyes. They're so unoriginal. Everyone in the world I know has brown eyes."

At least until today.

Copyright © 2004 by Alex Sanchez

Excerpted from So Hard to Say by Alex Sanchez
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.