That's it. I exchange heated words with Carlos in Spanish so Brittany can't understand. "Vete, cabron no molestes." Is he trying to make my date have a shitty time? With a huff, Carlos heads for the food.

"Where's your other brother?" Brittany asks.

We sit at one of the many small rented tables in the middle of the yard. I drape my arm over the back of her chair.

"Luis is right there." I point to the corner of the yard, where my little brother is the center of attention doing imitations of barnyard animals. I have yet to inform him that talent isn't as much of a chick magnet when you get into junior high.

Brittany's eyes are focused on my cousin's four little kids, all under the age of seven, running around. Two-year-old Marissa has decided her dress isn't comfortable and has tossed it in the corner of the yard.

"They probably all look like a bunch of rowdy mojados to you."

She smiles. "No. They look like a bunch of people having fun at an outdoor wedding. Who's that?" she asks as a guy in a U.S. military uniform walks past us. "Another cousin?"

"Yep. Paul just came back from the Middle East. Believe it or not, he used to be in the Python Trio, a Chicago gang. Man, before the Marines he was really fucked up with drugs."

She flashes me a look.

"I told you before, I don't mess with drugs. Not anymore, at least," I say firmly, wanting her to believe me. "Or deal them."


"Yeah," I say, remembering at the beach when I got fucked up with Carmen. That was the last time. "No matter what you've heard, I stay away from the coca, 'cause that stuff ain't no joke. Believe it or not, I'd like to keep all the brain cells I was born with."

"What about Paco?" she asks. "Does he do drugs?"


She watches Paco, laughing and joking with my family, desperately trying to be a part of it, instead of his own. His ma left a few years ago, leaving him in a crap situation at home with his dad. I don't blame him for wanting an escape.

My cousin Elena finally appears in a lacy white dress and the wedding starts.

While the vows are recited, I stand behind Brittany and gather her into my arms, holding her snugly. I wonder what she'll be wearing at her wedding. She'll probably have professional photographers and videographers capturing the moment for eternity.

"Ahora los declar. Marido y Mujer," the priest says.

The bride and groom kiss and everyone applauds.

Brittany squeezes my hand.

CHAPTER 39 Brittany

I can tell Jorge and Elena are madly in love with each other and it makes me wonder if I'll be as in love with my future husband.

I think about Shelley. She'll never have a husband, never have children. I know my own kids will love her as much as I do; she'll have no lack of love her entire life. But will she ever internally yearn for something she'll never have--a husband and family of her own?

Looking back at Alex, I can't see myself involved in gangs and who knows what else. It isn't me. But this guy, smack dab in the middle of everything I'm against, is connected to me like nobody else. It's my mission to make him change his life so, one day, people might say we're a perfect couple.

As music fills the air, I wrap my arms around Alex's waist and lay my head on his chest. He pushes stray tendrils away from my neck and holds me as we sway to the music.

A guy approaches the bride with a five-dollar bill.

"It's a tradition," Alex explains. "He's payin' to dance with the bride. They call it the prosperity dance."

I observe, fascinated, as the guy attaches the five-dollar bill to the train of the bride's dress with a safety pin.

My mother would be horrified.

Someone yells to the guy dancing with the bride and everyone laughs.

"What's so funny?"

"They're sayin' he pinned the bill close to her ass."

I study the couples on the dance floor and try to replicate their moves as I get into the music. When the bride stops dancing, I ask Alex if he's going to dance with her, too.

When he says yes, I push him forward. "Go dance with Elena. I'm going to talk to your mom."

"You sure you want to do that?"

"Yeah. I saw her when we first walked in, and I don't want to ignore her. Don't worry about me. I need to do this."

He takes a ten-dollar bill out of his wallet. I try not to notice, but it's now empty. He's about to give all the money he has on him to the bride. Can he afford it? I know he works at the auto body shop, but the money he makes probably goes directly to his family.

I step back until our hands separate. "I'll be back soon."

At the row of tables where the women are setting out platters of food, I walk up to Alex's mom. She's wearing a red wraparound dress and looks younger than my mom. People think my mom is pretty, but Mrs. Fuentes has the timeless beauty of a movie star. Her eyes are big and brown, her eyelashes touch her eyebrows, and her skin is slightly bronzed and flawless.

I tap her on the shoulder as she's setting the napkins on the table. "Hi, Mrs. Fuentes," I say.

"Brittany, right?" she asks.

I nod. Re-introduction over, Brittany. Stop stalling. "Umm, I've wanted to say something to you since I got here. And now seems like as good a time as any, but now I seem to be rambling and not getting to the point. I do this when I'm nervous."

The woman is looking at me like I have a screw loose. "Go on," she urges.

"Yes, well, I know we got off on the wrong foot. And I'm sorry if you felt disrespected in any way the last time we met. I just wanted you to know that I didn't go to your house with the intention of kissing Alex."

"Forgive me if I'm curious, but what are your intentions?"

"Excuse me?"

"What are your intentions with Alex?"

"I . . . I'm just not sure what you want me to say. To be honest, we're figuring it out as we go along."

Mrs. Fuentes puts a hand on my shoulder. "The dear Lord knows I'm not the best mother in the world. But I care about my sons more than life itself, Brittany. And I'll do anything to protect them from harm. I see the way he looks at you, and it scares me. I can't bear to see him hurt one more time by someone he cares about."

Hearing Alex's mom talk about him makes me yearn for a mother who cares and loves me as much as Alex's mom loves him.

Trying to swallow what Mrs. Fuentes said is close to impossible; her words leave a lump the size of a golf ball in my throat.

The truth is, lately I don't even feel like a part of my own family. I'm someone who is expected by my parents to do and say the right things all the time. I've played the role for so long to help my parents concentrate on Shelley, who truly needs their undivided attention.

It's so hard sometimes, trying desperately to make up for being the "normal" kid. Nobody told me I didn't have to be perfect all the time. Truth is, my life is filled with never-ending, humongous amounts of guilt.

Guilt for being the normal child.

Guilt for feeling that I have to make sure Shelley is loved as much as I am.

Guilt for fearing that my own children might be like my sister.

Guilt for being embarrassed when people stare at Shelley in public places.

It'll never stop. How can it when I was born with guilt right up to my ears? To Mrs. Fuentes, family means love and protection. To me, family equals guilt and conditional love.

"Mrs. Fuentes, I can't promise not to hurt Alex. But I can't stay away from him, even if that's what you want. I already tried that." Because being with Alex takes me away from my own darkness. I can feel tears welling in the corners of my eyes and falling down my face. I push my way through the crowd to find a bathroom.

Paco is walking out of the bathroom and I rush past him.

"You might want to wait before you--" Paco's voice fades as I close the door, locking myself in. Wiping my eyes, I gaze into the mirror. I'm a complete mess. My mascara is dripping and . . . oh, it's no use. I slide down and sit on the cold tile floor. Now I realize what Paco was about to tell me. The place stinks; it really reeks . . . almost to the point where I want to throw up. I put my hand over my nose, trying to ignore the offending smell as I think about Mrs. Fuentes's words.

I sit on the bathroom floor, wiping my eyes with toilet paper and doing my best to cover my nose.

A loud knock interrupts my crying fit. "Brittany, you in there?" Alex's voice comes through the door.


"Please come out."


"Then let me in."


"I want to teach you somethin' in Spanish."


"No es gran cosa."

"What does it mean?" I ask, the tissue still on my face.

"I'll tell you if you let me in."

I turn the knob until it clicks.

Alex steps inside. "It means it's not a big deal." After locking the door behind him, he crouches beside me and takes me in his arms, pulling me close. Then he sniffs a few times. "Holy shit. Was Paco in here?"

I nod.

He smoothes my hair and mutters something in Spanish. "What did my mother say to you?"

I bury my face in his chest. "She was just being honest," I mumble into his shirt.

A loud knock at the door interrupts us.

"Abre la puerta, soy Elena."

"Who's that?"

"The bride."

"Let me in!" Elena commands.

Alex unlocks the door. A vision in white ruffles with dozens of dollar bills safety-pinned to the back of her dress squeezes her way into the bathroom, then shuts the door behind her.

"Okay, what's goin' on?" She, too, sniffs a bunch of times. "Was Paco in here?"

Alex and I nod.

"What the fuck does that guy eat that it comes out his other end smelling so rotten? Dammit," she says, wadding up tissue and putting it over her nose.

"It was a beautiful ceremony," I say through my own tissue. This is the most awkward and surreal situation I've ever been in.

Elena grabs my hand. "Come outside and enjoy the party. My aunt can be confrontational, but she doesn't mean any harm. Besides, I think deep down she likes you."

"I'm taking her home," Alex says, playing the role of my hero. I wonder when he'll get sick of it.

"No, you're not takin' her home or I'll lock both of you in this stinkin' smelly room so you'll stay."

Elena means every word.

Another knock at the door. "Vete vete."

I don't know what Elena said, but she sure said it with gusto.

"Soy Jorge."

I shrug and look to Alex for an explanation.

"It's the groom," he says, clueing me in.

Jorge slips in. He isn't as crude as the rest of us because he ignores the fact that the room smells like something died. But he sniffs loudly a few times and his eyes start to water.

"Come on, Elena," Jorge says, trying to cover his nose inconspicuously but doing a poor job of it. "Your guests are wondering where you are."

"Can't you see I'm talkin' to my cousin and his date?"

"Yeah, but--"

Elena holds up a hand to silence him while holding the tissue over her nose with the other. "I said, I'm talkin' to my cousin and his date," she declares with attitude. "And I'm not finished yet."