My cousin Anna had the height and the natural stride of a model. She was slimmer than most girls, and if you asked me, she had the beauty and personality that could land her on the covers of magazines. Anna and I were goofing around. She was trying on various outfits and pretending to walk a runway like Tyra Banks and Adri-ana Lima. I was playing music for her as she strutted back and forth. Anna then asked me to join her private fashion show, but neither one of us could stop laughing long enough to walk from one end of the bedroom to the other. We decided to have more fun by dancing. Anna set up her webcam so we could post videos of our foolishness on YouTube and some popular social networks. What I didn't realize was that in addition to being very pretty, Anna could dance. If I were her manager, I'd enter her in a reality television dance contest. Seriously, she had some moves that left my mouth wide open.
"Oh, girl. You are tripping. You should be getting paid for dancing the way you do," I said, feeling envious of how well she moved.
"I'm just flexible, that's all," Anna said as she got up and moved toward her dresser drawer.
"Didn't you used to take dance lessons when you were little?" I asked, vaguely recalling hearing Grandmother Esmeralda praising one of her performances.
"That was years ago, when I was a little girl. Mom had me in ballet class and modeling classes. I wasn't very good at ballet, so I tried modern dance, which was more fun. All of the dancing made me look more muscular, which my modeling coach at the time said was unacceptable. I stopped doing that stuff when I was around eleven."
"Why did you stop?" I was curious.
"I was forced to choose between dancing and modeling, and I couldn't, because I enjoyed both equally," said Anna as she removed a purple belly dancer's hip scarf from the top dresser drawer.
"What the heck is this?" I said louder than I intended to as I reached out to touch the silky fabric.
"Mom and I took a beginner's belly dance class last year," Anna explained. "It was only four classes, but I learned a lot and it was fun."
Anna tied the scarf around her hips. She looked very cute in it. She reset her webcam, put on song by Shakira called "Hips Don't Lie," and right before my eyes she began working her hips just like the singer. She rocked those bad boys like a belly dancer, and the movements she did with her torso were nothing short of mesmerizing. About the only thing I could really do well was make my booty bounce. When Anna was done, she posted her video for the world to see.
"You have to teach me how to dance like that." I was practically begging her.
"Sure. It's really easy, and I'm sure you can make it look far sexier than I can," Anna said.
"You're doing it in the sexy dancing department if you ask me." I chuckled.
"Then why was Carlo more interested in Maya than me?" she asked.
"Because he was stupid, and the last thing you want is a stupid boyfriend," I assured her.
Anna laughed. "You're right. Come stand next to me and I'll show you how to do some hip snaps."
"Hip snaps?" I asked, because it sounded painful.
"Yes, like this." Anna demonstrated the move, and the coins on her hip scarf shimmied and jingled.
"That move is so hot," I said as I moved closer to her and tried. I knew I looked silly, because my hips wouldn't snap the way Anna's had.
"No. You have to bend your knees like this, tuck your pelvis forward, squeeze your butt and then shift from one hip to the other," Anna instructed.
I did the move right twice but felt as if something got dislocated. "Oh, my God. I think I broke my hip," I said.
"No, you didn't. Your body is just not used to moving in that way," she said and encouraged me to keep trying. Anna and I were having a blast dancing, posting videos and being obnoxious. We were in the middle of dancing when Anna's older sister, Maya, entered the room unannounced.
"It's one-thirty in the morning. Why are you guys up so late?" Maya asked.
"We're having a party and you're not invited," Anna said.
"I wouldn't party with your bony behind, anyway." I could tell right away that Maya had caught an immediate attitude.
Anna shook her hips and rattled the coins in Maya's direction as a sign of defiance.
"You know, Anna, for someone who almost died recently, don't you think you're overdoing it a bit?" Maya asked.
"No, she isn't," I said. "She is only showing me how to dance, Maya. Do you have a problem with that?" I asked.
"I have a problem with everything. Especially you, Viviana." Maya was kick-starting some drama.
I was happy that Anna was back home from the hospital and doing well. I still couldn't believe she'd accidentally ingested crystal meth. Seeing her lying in a hospital bed with tubes and needles connected to her arms wasn't a nice experience. I thought for sure she was going to die and I'd get blamed for it. I was just so glad that didn't happen. Besides, I didn't know what I'd do if my favorite cousin wasn't around. I loved my cousin Anna but totally hated her sister, Maya. Anna was so much easier to get along with. She didn't judge me or treat me as if I was beneath her the way Maya did.
"Don't come in here taking out your anger on us because Misalo has dumped you," I snapped back at her. I wasn't about to let her nasty comment go unanswered.
"I'm not taking anything out on you guys. All I'm asking is for you to be quieter. I'm trying to get some rest." Maya tried to come off as if she wasn't trying to be confrontational, but I knew better.
"Anna, you don't have to listen to her. We are not being loud," I said.
Maya decided to play dirty. "Do you guys want me to get Mom involved? Because I can."
"Fine, Maya. We'll keep it down." Anna gave in to her sister.
"Thank you," Maya said and paused briefly. "By the way, it is good to see you up and moving around again," she said as she exited the room and shut the door.
"That girl needs to get a life," I grumbled. "I don't see how you can stand living with her."
"Maya is just Maya. She always feels like she has to be the mature one," Anna explained.
"Well, she should try being a kid sometimes. I mean, seriously. She could've come in here and asked if she could join us and had fun being silly," I said.
"That's not Maya," Anna said as she selected another song for us to dance to. She turned down the volume and began shimmying her hips again when the music began. I watched as Anna lost herself in the rhythm of the music.
"Come on. Stop pouting and dance with me," Anna said, snapping me out of my daydream.
I smiled, rose to my feet and joined her.
The following morning I was sitting at the kitchen table, eating breakfast with Aunt Raven, Maya and Anna. Uncle Herman was at a friend's house, helping out with some type of home-improvement project. I was enjoying the buttermilk pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage links and hash browns Aunt Raven had prepared. I really didn't have anything exciting planned for my day, with the exception of just hanging out and doing whatever. Living in the suburbs was so much different than living in the city. The suburbs were totally boring. I just didn't see how people functioned when there was absolutely nothing going on. At least in the city there was always something to enjoy—a block party, a festival or a barbecue—and if nothing like that was going on, you could always just hang out on the street, where it was guaranteed that something would come up. Heck, out here I couldn't even get away and walk along the lakefront, something I enjoyed doing when I was staying with my mom and her trifling boyfriend.
"So, Viviana, how well were you doing in school?" asked Aunt Raven. The question came out of nowhere and caused me to stop chewing my food and glare at her.
"What do you mean?" I asked as I swallowed my food. I wasn't sure what she wanted to know.
"Well, you and Maya are the same age. What high school were you attending?" she asked, rephrasing her question.
"Why?" I didn't understand why she even cared to know that information.
"Well, you've been staying with us for a few weeks, and since it looks like you'll be staying here for a while longer, I have to see what I can do about getting you registered at Thornwood. You may luck out and get to take some classes with Maya," she said. Obviously, Maya and I were hiding our disdain for each other very well.
"Can we talk about this later? School is a rather touchy subject for me," I said, wanting her to drop the conversation.
"No. I feel that this is an appropriate time to discuss this. You have nothing to be ashamed of," she assured me.
At that moment, I wanted to push away from the table and storm out of the room, but I knew that wouldn't go over very well with my aunt.
"Seriously, can't we just talk about this issue later?" I tried pleading with her in hopes she'd catch my drift.
"What is wrong with you, Viviana? It's just a simple question," my aunt said, pressing the issue.
"Yeah, Viviana. I'd also like to know what school you went to," Maya interjected. "Were you on the cheerleading squad? No. Scratch that question. You don't look like the cheerleading type. Maybe you were on the school dance team? You seem to know how to dance like a—"
Aunt Raven cut her off before she finished. "Maya!"
"What? I was going to say like a trained professional," Maya smirked. I could tell from her condescending grin that her comment was loaded with sarcasm.
"Now, Viviana, what's the name of the school where you were last registered?" Aunt Raven wasn't going to let our conversation rest. I really didn't want to tell her, because I was carrying a secret I was certain she'd find inexcusable.
"Roberto Clemente," I answered, not wanting to offer any more information than necessary.
"So, you should've finished your junior year, right?" My aunt had asked the question that I had hoped she wouldn't. I stopped eating my food and exhaled loudly. I shot my eyes over at Maya, who was glaring at me as if she were trying to read my thoughts. When I didn't answer, she made her own assumptions.
"OMG," Maya blurted out.
Startled, Aunt Raven asked, "What?"
"Mom, isn't it obvious? She didn't finish her junior year." Miss Know-It-All Maya Rogers pointed her shameful finger at me. I wanted to rip it off and shove it up her nose until it came out of her eye socket.
"You shouldn't talk about things you don't know about!" I snapped.
"Wait a minute. There is no need to argue or get nasty with each other. Viviana Anita Vargas, is what Maya said true?" My aunt had called me by my full name. I took my eyes off of Maya and cut them over to Aunt Raven.
"No," I answered her.
"Good. I'll look up the address of the school and request a copy of your transcript. I'll have to figure out how I'll explain to them that I'm your current guardian."
"I haven't been there in a long time. They probably don't have it anymore," I said, hoping that the administrators and teachers had completely forgotten about me.
"It's because you've been on summer vacation, right?" asked Anna.
I glanced at her briefly before lowering my eyes with humility. Embarrassment began swelling in my heart like the sun rising in the morning. I felt as if I were being judged.
"Viviana, hold your head up and stop slouching. There is no need to look as if someone has beaten the life out of you," said Aunt Raven.
"I didn't attend school for most of my junior year. I haven't earned the credits needed to pass, okay? Are you guys happy now? I said it!" It was very hard for me to admit that. It was an awful burden weighing on my heart.
"That explains a lot," Maya remarked and snickered.
My humiliation immediately evaporated. I wanted to reach across the table and scratch up her face like a dog digging a hole in the backyard. I slammed my hand against the table and rose to my feet. I was ready to leap across the table and kick her butt for making me feel like crap. "I've got more smarts than you'll ever know about, Maya!" I barked at her.
"Hey, hey, hey!" Aunt Raven wasn't about to let my hostility go unchecked. "There is absolutely no need for that. Maya apologize to her."
"What for?" she asked.
"For being so insensitive."
"You're kidding, right?" Maya looked as if she'd just been asked to pick up dog crap with her bare hands.
"No, I'm not."
Reluctantly, Maya mumbled, "Sorry."
Aunt Raven released a deep sigh as she pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger. "Okay. So, you haven't been in school for a while. How did that happen?" she asked.
Shrugging my shoulders, I said, "It just did. Mom was always moving. She'd pack our things at the drop of a dime and move on. It didn't matter if I was in the middle of the school year or not."
Aunt Raven focused on me and remained silent for a long moment. It was as if she wanted to say something but didn't know exactly how to phrase her words.
"It's not that serious," I snapped. I wanted to disappear. I reasoned with myself that it would be best for me to go back to the city and do my own thing. I didn't need or want their pity. I hustled toward the back door that led out to the driveway. I was more than willing to hitchhike all the way back to Chicago, to Grandmother Es-meralda's house.
"Viviana!" I heard Aunt Raven call my name, but I ignored her.
Just as I was about to sprint down the driveway, I saw an old, brown, rusted-out Chevy pickup truck pulling in.
"Who in the hell is this?" I heard Aunt Raven ask from behind me.
Excerpted from Back to Me
by Earl Sewell
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provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or
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