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 -- pronouncedC.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, deepcaca.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'sFrederick."

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 onlytwodays. How unfair wasthat?

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 somearroz con polloonto 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

Chapter 2: Frederick

The pen girl (I couldn't figure out her name) reminds me of my best friend back home, Janice -- funny, smart, nice hair, and kind of loud, but in a good way.

It's always been easier for me to make friends with girls. I'm not sure why.

I did say hi to a couple of guys today, but they only replied, "'Sup?" and turned away as if I was weird for talking to them.

It's the opposite of my school in Wisconsin, where I knew almost everybody. We'd all grown up together. I couldn't walk three steps down the hall without someone talking to me. Here everyone already has their own cliques.

I wish we hadn't moved. What if I never make any friends?

It would probably help if I spoke Spanish, since so many people here are Mexican. They constantly switch languages. The only thing I know how to say is Taco Bell. I doubt that would score me any points.

At lunch I looked for Pen Girl but she sat surrounded by her friends. It felt too strange to just carry my tray up and ask, "Hey, can I sit with you?"

So instead I ended up sitting by myself -- and feeling like a freak.

After lunch, on the way to my locker, I did notice this one Mexican boy who looked friendly. He was laughing with a group of girls and was small like me, except tan, with brown hair and eyes -- and dimples in his cheeks. I'm not sure what attracted my attention to him. Sometimes I just notice people.

He saw me and did a double take, like he thought I was somebody he knew. I glanced over my shoulder thinking maybe he was looking at someone else. But when I gazed back he was still staring at me, his dimples growing even deeper as his grin grew wider.

My heart started racing and my chest tightening. Suddenly I wanted to leave. But why? Hadn't I wanted to talk to another guy? Yeah, but there was something about him. I wasn't sure what.

Just then a bunch of rowdy boys walked by, hissing and hooting at Dimple Guy in Spanish. Although I didn't know what they were saying, from the way they waved their wrists I could guess they were calling him gay.

Dimple Dude yelled something back at the boys as they swaggered past. And I hurried to my locker thinking,What if I'd been caught talking to him?That would've been suicide, especially my first day at a new school.

At the end of the day Mom picked me up. "Hi, honey. How did it go?"

"It sucked," I told her, climbing into the car.

Of course, that sent her into Mom overdrive. "What happened, honey? Did something happen?"

"No, nothing happened. It was okay, I guess."

"Well," Mom said. "It takes a while to fit in. You'll make new friends soon." She reached over and stroked the back of my neck like she usually does. Normally I like it, but not when parked in front of the whole world.

"Mom!" I ducked down in the seat. "Can we go now, please?"

She'd made plans for us to show Dad the new house we'd found. (Meanwhile we were living in a hotel.) Since Dad had already started his new job, Mom and I were in charge of finding a home to buy. We'd seen about a dozen places before Mr. Garcia, our real estate agent, had shown us this one.

Mom and I really liked the layout and interior detailing -- with hallway skylights and granite countertops. I always notice stuff like that. Dad says I should study in college to become a designer, but I haven't decided yet.

Sometimes at the supermarket I'll get a design magazine and flip through the pages, thinking how I'd do a room with different furniture or colors. I guess I'm weird that way. With my guy friends back home I'd play along with combat video games, but what I really liked was sketching house plans, buildings, and stuff. Maybe that's why I've always been better friends with girls.

When Mom and I arrived in the driveway of the white stucco town house, Dad and Mr. Garcia, a big guy with a thick black mustache, were already waiting.

I led Dad through each room, pointing out where everything should go. "We could put the sofa here...and your chair there. It's perfect -- and only six blocks from school, so I wouldn't even have to take the bus. Come check out the counter space in the kitchen!"

In our old house Mom always complained that the counter space wasn't enough. I noticed it too, the times when I made everyone breakfast.

I like to cook. My specialty is omelets -- mushroom, ham and cheese...I like to experiment with different kinds. Usually they turn out really good, except for the disaster I filled with popcorn. Not even Dad would eat it, and he was pretty hungry.

After the kitchen I showed him the den. "This could be Mom's office. Right, Mom?" She's an accountant and sometimes works from home.

Upstairs I'd already picked out my bedroom. On one side a picture window looked over the back patio. Across the room a door opened to a huge closet -- great to organize my stuff.

My friend Janice (who Pen Girl reminds me of) says I'm a neat freak. She laughs because I arrange my clothes by color, but it looks really cool.

I hauled Dad to the master bedroom and pressed my finger against the windowpane. "Look, you can see the golf course at the foot of the hill."

I was sure that would win him over. Dad's a total golf fanatic. It's part of the reason when he got laid off he looked for a job someplace warmer. Even though I'm not crazy about golf, sometimes I like to go with him just to be together.

"Dad," I said, looking up at him. "We've got to get this place."

Dad's a lot taller than me -- over six feet. Apart from that, people say we look alike. I guess we do.

"All right." He patted me on the shoulder, laughing. "You sold me."

For the next hour Mr. Garcia wrote up a contract and called the seller's agent. I tried doing my homework but I was too wired to concentrate.

"When can we move in?" I asked on the drive to dinner.

Mom explained we'd have to wait for our offer to be accepted. "Hopefully we'll hear by tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" I groaned, not knowing if I could wait that long.

After we stopped for pizza, I rode with Dad. He asked me about school and gave me a pack of chocolate mints a coworker had given him as a welcome present. Dad's allergic to chocolate, which sucks for him, but it's great for me.

When we got to our tiny hotel suite, he let me use his laptop to get online with my Wisconsin friends. In addition to Janice (screen name: LifeHuggerXXOO), there's Marcie (SN: No_Broccoli_Please). Marcie's the complete opposite of Janice -- quiet, brainy, and a really fussy eater. Then there's William (GameBoy353), my best guy friend. He's a total gamer, constantly downloading new ones off the Web.

The four of us always hung out together, and even when apart constantly phoned or instant messaged each other. We also led my school's drama club. Before I left they gave me a mini Oscar statue as a going-away present since I was heading to California. I thought that was pretty funny.

Tonight I IM'd them about my sucky new school that I found out doesn't even have a drama club. And I told them about the awesome house. They caught me up on stuff back at home. Today marked ten days since the last time I'd seen them. It felt so great to talk I didn't want to log off. But because it's two hours later there, they had to go. The time-change thing really blows.

After finishing my homework I prepared my backpack for school and checked to make sure my pen worked, so I could return Pen Girl's.

A little later Mr. Garcia called to say the seller had accepted our offer on the house. I leaped off the couch, jumping up and down. Dad raised his arm, high-fiving me, and with his other arm hugged Mom. It was after eleven before we all finally calmed down. Dad helped me unfold the sleeping couch.

I climbed beneath the covers thinking about the different ways I might lay out the furniture in my new bedroom. Then I thought about school, dreading lunchtime and sitting by myself. Suddenly I thought of something else.

I got out of bed and put one of the chocolate mints Dad had given me next to Pen Girl's pen in my backpack. Then I climbed back beneath the covers and went to sleep.

Copyright © 2004 by Alex Sanchez


Excerpted from So Hard to Say by Alex Sanchez
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