Jaquira Díaz is the author of Ordinary Girls: A Memoir (Algonquin, 2019), a Summer/Fall 2019 Indies Introduce Selection, a Fall 2019 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection, a November 2019 Indie Next Pick, and a Library Reads October pick. Her work has been published in Rolling Stone, the Guardian, The FADER, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and The Best American Essays 2016, among other publications. She is the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes, an Elizabeth George Foundation grant, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Kenyon Review, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. A former visiting assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s M.F.A. Program in creative writing and consulting editor at the Kenyon Review, she splits her time between Montreal and Miami Beach. Her second book, I Am Deliberate: A Novel, is forthcoming from Algonquin Books.
An excerpt from Ordinary Girls:
As Papi tried to carry Mami toward our front door, she slid down and got loose, and all the street kids exploded, Pito and Anthony and Eggy calling out, “Light her up! Knock her out! Préndela!” It was the same kind of shouting we heard in our living room during boxing matches, my father and his friends knocking back Medallas in front of the TV, everybody jumping to their feet when Macho Camacho started wailing on José Luis Ramírez, hollering, Knock him out! Light him up! Préndelo!
My mother tangled her hands in la vecina’s hair, pulled her down out of Gigante’s arms and onto the ground, and started kicking. My father got a hold of Mami again, picked her up in the air, my mother red-faced and shrieking, spit flying out of her mouth. He carried her inside.
Gigante helped la vecina get up. She had three long, bloody scratches over her nose and mouth, like claw marks.
Just then, as la vecina was getting to her feet, Mami burst through the front door, a steak knife in her hand. The crowd moved back, opening up more space between themselves and my mother, and everything seemed to slow down, Pito and Anthony and Eggy, all of them, disappearing until it was just me and my mother and my mother’s knife, the three of us echoing through the years, propelled forward in time. And because I am my mother’s daughter more than I have ever been my father’s, it will be this moment I think of when I’m a fourteen-year-old hoodlum tucking razorblades into the sides of my Jordans, brass knuckles and Master combination locks and pocketknives in my backpack, when I am fifteen and getting jumped by five girls at the bus stop, when I am sixteen and trying to decide how to deal with a friend who has betrayed me, when I am seventeen and fighting with my brother. How I would always come back to this, my mother and her knife and all that rage, la vecina leaping back out of her way. And then my father, my father’s face, my father’s hands, my father’s voice, Jeannette, let go of the knife, how he took both of her hands into his, saying it over and over, Suelta el cuchillo, suelta el cuchillo, suelta el cuchillo.
But my mother would not let it go. Instead, Papi lifted her hands above her head, trying to pry it from her fingers, and Mami bit his shoulder, kicked him. He leaned her up against the doorway, pressing his body against hers until she couldn’t move, subduing her, and when he was finally able to get the knife, some of the onlookers rushed to help. It took three grown men to get Mami, kicking and slapping and hurling insults at them, back inside our apartment.
Outside, as the crowd split—while la vecina was still fixing her hair and clothes, limping around looking for her chancletas—I saw Jesenia. She saw me, too. Standing on the front lawn, outside the crowd’s perimeter, Jesenia in one of her Jesenia dresses, a white one with big yellow flowers, her hair parted down the middle, braided. How she stood there, alone, her face stained with tears, how nobody else seemed to see her, how nobody stopped as they headed back to their apartments or the basketball courts or la plaza, how nobody asked if she was okay, if she needed help, anything. I’d like to say that when I saw her, Jesenia looking back at me, yellow ribbons in her hair, that we had a moment. That as we looked into each other’s eyes, we both understood that we had been lost, that we had been lucky to find each other in a crowd, and we both thought, Here is a girl who sees me. Here is a girl who understands.
The truth is we did have a moment, Jesenia and I, seeing each other, knowing each other, and it was clear: We were the same. I hated her and she hated me. Because we were our mothers’ daughters. Because we could not turn back time to the days when our mothers were just girls, or forward, when we would finally break free of them. Because back then we could not see what either of us would become.