At every party I sit in the back. Once in a while, I do that cholo two-step thing with one of my cousins or some ruca that feels sorry for me. I lift my big panza up of whatever chair is about to break under my weight, listen to it groan, then shuffle off to pull my fists together and slowly, clumsy as a bear, move my feet.
I hate those dances. I really do. Everyone thinks that’s all us vatos know how to do. That two-step. Nah man…we all grew up with salsa, cumbia, quebraditas, and more. My abuleos danced valses, polka and even the tango. That makes me stop thinking about food for a minute and smile…just remembering them. How they used to cut a rug when a certain bolero came on, my abuelo bowing to my abuela and her blushing like a young girl, then taking off her apron and putting her tiny hand in his. Off they would go, in great sweeping steps, my abuela light on her feet like a fairy princess and my abuelo – dashing and strong. I miss them.
I hate that I’m fat, but I can’t seem to stop eating. The vatos – they cool. They call me Panzon out of love, not disrespect like the fuckers at school; either that or Little Payaso. Those assholes…well to hell with them. They make pig noises and imitate how I walk. Now my ma, she wants to throw my sister Trini a quincienera and I gotta be one of the dudes in a tux. Which means I gotta partner some ruca who ain’t gonna wanna be stuck with me and I gotta dance. Worse – I gotta be fitted for a fucking tux. Great. Just fucking great. Well, I guess I will live up to my name – Little Payaso. Dopey gave me that name a while back. Said if fuckers were going to be making fun, let me get to it first. Like a big, fat fuck you. So Little Payaso, I am even though I sure the fuck ain’t little and I ain’t no one’s clown. Or at least not till I’m a fucking chambelan in Trini’s quince.
Something strange is happening in the hood. First we had aliens and beat them down, then a ghost in car and now I’m tripping. Seeing shit that ain’t there. What the hell? I ain’t smoked nada. I ain’t like that…some vatos like the homie down the street lives in a cloud of weed, another one sniffs paint. Nah, chale – not for me, give me a taco, dripping with hot grease and salsa, and that’s all the drug I need.
Just last night I was stressing this quince and thinking about the beautiful ruca from the Tiny Winas, the one with the long black hair. She’s firme, man. Firme. Her name is Liz and they call her La Giggles because she is always laughing. I wouldn’t mind being her chambelan if I didn’t weigh 350 pounds. Anywayz…back to what I was saying before I got distracted by the beautiful Liz. I was sitting on the old recliner of my heffa’s and watching a Cantinflas movie here at the canton and I think I must have dozed off or something because damned if Cantinflas wasn’t showing me how to do a proper cumbia. I blinked and shit, but the vato was still there, all loose like ule and yelling at me to follow his steps. Crazy, man – just crazy shit. What’s even crazier is that I woke up and I felt like rubber, man. Like I somehow sucked up old Cantiflas and my legs just wanted to go all crazy.
Just now, sitting here eating some of my mom’s chocoflan, I heard some music. Cumbia music.Like…wait a minute it’s…holy fuck!
This shit is a dream. Gotta be. Cuz here I am on the floor where I think I fainted, and Celia Cruz is kicking me in the panza and telling me to get my ass up and dance with her. Every time she opens her mouth she shouts “tumbao” and my fat legs are twitching. Fuck it, I’m just gonna get into this crazy dream and see what happens, but I’d better get up because those yellow shoes of hers hurt worse than my mom’s tacones. Goddamn! top kicking me, Celia Dreamwoman Cruz!
Celia says nothing, but she keeps on kicking me and singing and suddenly, I am up. I’m up dancing and holy shit, I can move! The movidas dreamtime Cantinflas showed me are working and I can’t seem to stop dancing to this crazy, dream of a cumbia. Celia sings and the caderas move. Celia shakes and so do I. Celia moves her head and my feet are flying. In fact, I can’t stop them from dancing. It’s like that crazy story Elena told me once about the ballerina with the red calcos that just kept on dancing till she died. Shit man, am I going to die dancing with Celia Cruz?
Just when I think this shit can’t get any weirder, there’s that vato Cantinflas again and he’s dancing with Celia, and she’s so into dancing with his movidas de ule, that she stops singing and thankfully, my feet stop. I stand there breathing hard, big old panza still trembling like jelly with sweat dripping off my face in big, wet sheets of salt. I just stand there, breathing hard and watching them dance. What a crazy fucking dream, man, what a crazy dream.
I sleep finally because those two are still dancing and I can’t even stand anymore. When I wake in the morning, my legs feel like jello. They hurt too. I stumble into the kitchen and ma is making papas and eggs, but the smell that I usually love is giving me asco and I just gulp down some juice.
“You ok mijo?” ma asks. “You want I make you burritos? How come you ain’t eating?”
“Nah ma, gracias.” I don’t want to hurt her feelings so I lie. “Dopey’s tia is making a big meal to celebrate him coming over and I’m going over to his canton and wanted to save room for empanadas.” Well, it’s not much of a lie, Dopey’s tia probably is cooking up a storm.
My ma gets a big old smile on her face. “Que dios te bendiga, mijo.”
Tell Connie I said hello. Here, let me send over some burritos. That Carlos, he likes my burritos.” Before I can say shit one way or another, my ma has a massive square of foil paper out and is wrapping like ten burritos. She’s some kind of loca my ma, but she’s the best. I say thank you and grab the burritos before she decides to throw more shit in there. I stand patiently by the door I almost don’t fit through and I wait while she makes the sign of the cross over me, splashes on a little holy water and sends me on my way. They all do that, the moms. We all say we hate it and we stand there taking it like it’s killing us, but sabes que? We don’t feel safe without it. Especially in times like these with ghosts and aliens all around us. I hobble out the door and head for Dopey’s since now I gotta at least hand over the burritos. That’s what I get for being a mentiroso.
Dopey is in the garage with that green car of his. “‘Sup homes” he says as I walk in the door, still carrying burritos. “Those your ma’s burritos?”
“Yup. I told her I was coming over and you know my ma, ese.”
Dopey laughs. He’s still jittery. It’s been a couple of days since he scared the crap out of us at the park with that crazy space ship. We all thought the vato was dead, yo. He wasn’t. He got sucked into some kind of space portal and was trapped on the ship with the other homies who are now unfrozen and acting a little weird, but they a’right. I think.
“Elena says hi” Dopey says.
“Dude, en serio? She a ghost?” I have to ask. I mean I seen Cantinflas and Celia Cruz, but I ain’t ever seen no ghost.
“Yeah, she’s a ghost dude and she can hear you so be respectful and don’t talk like she ain’t here. Er, isn’t here. Elena is correcting my English.” He laughs again. Personally, I think he’s losing it, but then so am I with this dancing shit.
“Hey Dopey,” I say after a few minutes of him inhaling one burrito after another.
“I think I’ve been seeing things.” Instantly Dopey gets all trucha, setting the remaining burritos down and going for his can of Aqua Net. “Nah, homes, not like aliens, but like hmmm…” I can’t even explain.
Dopey relaxes a bit and then cocks his head to the side for a minute. “What you seeing then, Panzon?” He looks at me, cocks his head again and then says, “Elena wants to know if it’s ghosts because she smells them on you.”
“I dunno, maybe. I thought I was dreaming” Then it all comes flooding out, about Cantinflas, about Celia and about how sore I am.
Dopey doesn’t even blink. He just listens, fascinated until I finish. The story has exhausted me and I stand there heaving as if I’d run six miles uphill.
When Dopey is done processing it and talking to his ghostly ruca, he looks at me and says, “Yeah man, you got ghosts. Elena thinks you’re being possessed by the spirits of Celia Cruz and Cantinflas.” Shockingly, it doesn’t make me feel any better and my look must be dripping with sarcasm, because D pats me on the shoulder and says, “We’ll figure it out, homie. No te preocupes. I got out of space, right? We’ll fix this too.”
But we don’t fix it.
Every night, it’s the same fucking thing. Celia starts belting out them cumbias and I dance. When I can’t dance anymore, the Cantinflas comes in and dances with her. Sometimes he gives me pointers, patiently going through the moves of his crazy cumbia de ule and something is happening. I’m starting to love these crazy sessions. I love the music, the dancing, the way I feel the next day. I have energy and I’m not stuffing my face as much. That ruca Liz, from the Tiny Winas, she’s been talking to me lately, and if it wasn’t me, I’d swear she was flirting.
You know what’s even crazier? I went for my tuxedo fitting the other day and you know, I don’t look half bad. The tux is a few sizes smaller than what I thought I wore, and as I look in the mirror, I see Celia and Cantinflas, now just grinning. Celia winks at me and Cantinflas smiles. Sabes, this quince might not be so bad. I show up for the dance class, you know how we all gotta practice the waltz and how we walk in and shit? Yeah so, I show up for the class in the salon where my parents are holding the quince and guess who’s gonna be my partner? Yeah, it’s Liz. As we do the march, she puts her small, but strong brown hand in mine and something clicks. I don’t feel stupid and oafish. I don’t feel fat or like a loser. I’m just me, Daniel and I’m holding hands with my girl. Liz looks up at me and says, “I asked your sister to be your partner. Hope you don’t mind.”
Mind? Hell nah, it’s a dream.
After a few practices like this, Liz and I are spending time taking walks around the hood and talking. We talk about everything under the sun. Sometimes we go hang out with Dopey and Elena the ghost. Liz takes everything in stride. She just yaps away to Elena like it ain’t no thing. She never hears anything back, she tells me, but she can feel Elena there. Kind of cool hanging out with a beautiful ruca like Liz who ain’t scared of nothing, not even looking foolish talking to a ghost that don’t answer back. Sometimes, when she’s talking, she reaches up in this cute little habit she has of pulling her hand through her hair before she swings it back. She does that and she gives me this look. You vatos know that look, right? That Chicana flirty look that promises everything and nothing. That look.
The day of the quince finally arrived and I’ve had two fittings since the last one because my tux keeps getting bigger on me. The nightly dances with Cantinflas and Celia have continued and sometimes, they’d bring some crazy drummer. I ain’t sore anymore like I used to be and I don’t trip. I just go with the baile and get my cumbia on. Sometimes we salsa, but lately, Cantinflas has been all about teaching me how to tango while Celia hums out the beat. I woke up still humming that beat, made some cafecito for my ma who was up later than me for once. She takes it and smiles before getting around to making a quickie breakfast for everyone before the madness begins.
We make it through. The church ceremony goes fine and my sister looks beautiful. I’m so proud of her. At the salon, the band sets up and the dancing begins. Liz, looking pretty damned firme in that sky blue, fluffy dress with her hair all up in like a braided crown, puts out her hand and I take it in mine as we head over to watch my sister dance with my dad, before the real dancing begins. My pops is beaming, so proud of his girl and I see my ma’s eyes shining, so I look down and Liz who just nods. I step over to my ma, hold out my hand and she looks at me, startled, then smiles and puts her hand in mine. I lead my ma out onto the dance floor like a queen and swing her into a waltz.
Somewhere in the distance, I hear clapping but all I really hear is the music and all I really see is my ma’s happy, surprised face. At the end of the waltz, I do a little bow and hand my ma over to my pops who is wiping away a tear. Yeah, we Chicanos are proud, but we ain’t too proud to show how we feel. Those tears on my ma’s and pop’s faces – that’s pride. I notice people are staring at me and as I walk back to the Liz, whose eyes are suspiciously bright, the clapping starts again. I hear “Go Danny!” and ain’t no one, not one calling me Panzon or Payaso. It’s an amazing feeling and my heart is about to bust with happiness and love for my gente and homies. Instead, I lift Liz up over my head and she squeals laughing as I bring her down to the ground, then pull her close and kiss her. Her lips are soft and she smells like apple shampoo, perfume and something that is uniquely Liz. She wraps her arms around my neck and kisses me right back then pulls away, laughs and says, “well what are you waiting for, Danny, let’s dance.”
We dance all night – one cumbia after another, waltzes, some disco and even the tango, which completely shocks my parents. Liz is an amazing dancer and knows her tango. In the background, smiling indulgently, are Celia and Cantinflas. As the last bolero plays with me holding Liz close, I see them shake hands and walk away smiling. Cantinflas turns back once and waves, but Celia just keeps on walking till she almost disappears and as she starts to fade, I hear her huge, glorious voice singing “Tumbao!”
Teller of tales, writing about the Choloverse, short stories, essays, and historical fiction. PEN Emerging Voices Fellowship finalist 2013. Author of stories in Ban This! and Lowriting. Published poet. English major. Medievalist.