We are all sitting around the fire pit, talking about how not to get raped. We have advice, opinions, instructions because we are the adults and Gertrude is the kid, and we’ve been to college, so we think we know what we are talking about. She lets us talk at her all night, ruining her graduation present because she’s an exceptional kid, an obedient kid. She’s not an eye roller. She doesn’t text while people are trying to talk to her. She’s not the kind of kid you’ll overhear calling somebody a cunt or her mother a bitch. Whatever is not in her vocab. She’s super adjusted and polite and so “she deserves everything she gets,” her parents say all the damn time. And this kid gets a lot. Always has. Therefore, like an idiot, she believes that everything in her life, her brand new Prius, her house that her parents bought for her so she could have a place to live when she gets to college, this vacation to San Diego, because she saw a picture of the house and the beach in a fucking magazine, and everything leading up to this moment, sitting in front of a fire pit with explicit instructions on how not to get raped, all of this, is what happens to people who are good. “Why does she get under your skin?” her uncle, my husband, is always asking me. “It’s not normal,” he says. He thinks it’s because I’m middle-aged. That I’m jealous of her flat stomach and eyes with no bags underneath. Her ability to do the splits. “Jealous of a teenage girl,” he says. “You really need to figure that out.” And then I roll my eyes and say, “Whatever.”
Talking about rape is something we can do because her little sister and brother are in bed now, upstairs, tucked away in their kids’ room, the ceiling and walls blanketed with stars, the universe at their fingertips. Because it’s Southern California, the day started out warm and the night is cold. The fire pit is nestled in the front yard, which jets out toward the San Diego ocean, which nobody can see because of the fog that’s rolled in. We can hear it though, big waves coming in like big feelings, roaring and then breaking up, like talking big, big shit with nothing to back it up. Catastrophic crashes turn to hisses you can barely hear, but still. You hear.
Gertrude’s dad is drunk, so he’s starting to talk to his daughter like a bro, saying stuff like, “Some dude, some rando, is going to try to hook up with you and you need to know what to do—”
“I know,” Gertrude says. She nods and her red ponytail sways all over the place. “You can trust me.”
“He’ll try to put something in your drink—”
“Give you a roofie,” her mother says, tilting up a Corona and then putting it down with a loud clink.
My husband, her uncle, says, “Do not, under any circumstances, let some asshole buy you a drink. Get your own drinks. Tell him you’ve got your own money and that you could buy him drinks for a year, if you wanted to. You know why?”
“Because. I know. Mom already said.”
“You have to be really, really careful,” I say. Nobody’s ever tried to give me a roofie, not that I know of. I’m talking out of my drunk ass. “Never trust somebody who says they’re going to take care of you. Nine times out of ten they’re full of shit.”
Because Gertrude is going to college, everyone wants to reminisce. Her father is big on his frat days, nights of drunk driving and puking and hooking up that he now warns his girl not to do, ever. Ever. Her mother is all about her student activism, Students for Peace and Justice, Take Back the Night. To me, college is overrated. It’s not what I thought it was going to be, not at all. Gertrude asks me, “What was your favorite part about college?” I say, “Let me think for a minute,” and stare at all the faces around the fire, underlit like something spooky. And the fog, so sneaky, looking thick out in the distance, as if it hasn’t settled in all around us, invisible up close but there just the same.
“She liked the music,” my husband says after a while, even though he didn’t know me then, but he’s right. I did. I forgot about that.
“The eighties were the best,” Gertrude says. She is, in fact, wearing the same enormous ugly tortoise-shell glasses that I wore in college, only because I had no choice. That’s all we had to choose from, me and Josefa, my best friend. We couldn’t afford lenses that didn’t jut out inches from your face, like binoculars. They call girls like we used to be “outliers” now, and they mean that word as a compliment. Back then, it just sucked. We did not know who we were, me and Josefa, who didn’t want to go to college but who needed to go to college with me. I was a freshman. I had filled out all the forms to get in myself, not like now. The parents fill out everything. Josefa didn’t want to bother. “I’m never going to get in,” she said. So I was a freshman and she wasn’t. “Just come for the weekend,” I told her. “I can’t,” she said. “I have to work.” “Bullshit. One night. I got your back.” And so she came to college.
I was going to show Josefa everything she was missing out on, and all the things I wanted for her were the things that she deserved. But like me, that night she had nothing, coming off a bus and into the apartment with her clothes in a little plastic grocery bag, like a hobo out of a Steinbeck novel. All that was missing was the stick. She came from the San Gabriel Valley, from a job bagging groceries and pushing shopping carts at Stater Bros. The job I had was no better, asking people if they wanted fries with that. Still, I had more sense than Josefa. I understood, at least, that a job asking people questions about french fries was not the kind of job you were supposed to keep. By the time she rang the bell, everything had already started. People were roaming around the apartment I shared with my roommate, María Fernanda, sitting on her couch, playing their Rick James and REM on her tape deck. María Fernanda. I made the mistake of calling her just María at first. “It is both,” she said. “Both names together.”