I had just opened a letter from my bank: overdraft. Only by a few dollars, but it was Christmas money and any presents I'd intended to buy were now stalled. It depressed me. I sat in my decade old maroon Chevy Cavalier and tried not to cry.
At least I had gas in the car. I drove to my friend's house in our old town, a town so small that you'd miss it if you blinked, and pulled into her drive. She lived with her parents but would leave for college in the fall—a feat I admired and coveted. College was about as likely for me as finding a five dollar bill in my coat pocket. Believe me, I'd already checked. I crushed a cigarette out in my car's overfilled ashtray, slapped on some lipgloss and looked in the rearview mirror. Pale, irish, red hair, nose too big. Me.
She was there to greet me at the door. Renee was a gentle person, very giving and welcoming. She possessed a booming laugh and seemed to love the way I entertained her with my endless string of sarcastic comments and stories. Though sometimes I imagined the real reason we were friends was because of her dream of getting a psychology degree. I was a nut case. Depressed, total lack of confidence, unresolved issues with both parents, and I was desperately in love with a dead rock star. One time Renee invited me to a class at the local community college and dared me to impersonate a British exchange student. So I did. For a full hour the teacher asked questions about mental health care in the UK, and I told a load of lies with a slightly undone accent. The whole class listened and believed. Renee held in the laughter, and then later when we shared a smoke in the student courtyard she said, "You're insane!"
What I was, was unloved. Oh sure, I was loved. But I didn't feel loved. I felt alone. Oh my God, so freaking alone. Never pretty enough to date or to even exist in the world. It would take me years and years to get over all that. You know that story about the ugly duckling and how it later turns out to be a swan? Well, I was smart enough to know I wasn't a swan. So what the fuck was I? I didn't know.
I walked into her house and saw the whole family was there. Her mother, her father, and her little sister—a beautiful dark-haired girl with a gritty disposition. They were Puerto Rican but very Americanized. Her mother loved Elvis, her father worked construction. Although the food remained authentic to their heritage: tortillas, chile sauce with pork, cactus, fried tacos, refried beans, fresh salsa, and sweet tea in the fridge. For me, it was heaven. I would gorge myself on this wonderful food and then sneak back to my own house of boxed meals and strict Catholicism.
"We're making tamales," Renee said with a look of warning.
I'd interrupted a tradition. They made tamales on a secret night in December and then passed them out to family and friends.
"Should I leave?" I asked.
"No. You stay and help. It's hard work."
I took off my coat and joined the production line at the kitchen table. My job was to spread the masa onto pliable corn husks, the person next to me added cheese, then the next person meat, with the final set of hands tying off each bundle. Each batch went into a steamer to cook.
With all this hard work I forgot about my overdraft at the bank. All I knew at that moment was working with a happy family, and Christmas music, and the hot bright smell of jalapeño.
Afterwards, I was invited to join them in delivering the tamales. We piled into Renee's father's truck and shivered as he drove because the heater didn't work. We went through our small town, across the highway, over the bridges and into the lights of the city. Then we entered an apartment building and went up to the third floor. Renee's grandmother answered the door.
"Mija!" she sang out to the girls. They gave her the tamales and everyone made small talk. There was a tiny aluminum tree in her living room with a picture of Jesus above it. I stayed back so I wouldn't intrude family talk. My troubles entered my head again. How would I tell my mother? She was so hard on me sometimes—the youngest. I failed and failed, and each time, felt her displeasure.
"What is it?" Renee asked, coming over. "You're so quiet tonight. You haven't made me laugh once."
"Oh, I made a stupid mistake on my account and went overdraft at the bank. It's nothing."
"Mistakes happen," she said. "I'll loan you a few dollars." Renee turned and looked over her shoulder. "Grandmother asked if you'd join me and sis in the back room. She's giving out presents. She does it every year."
"No, I can't."
"She wants you to."
So we went back there, into her Grandmother's apartment bedroom with plants everywhere and macrame ropes on the ceiling, and stood around her bed. And waited. Out came a box of jewelry. Renee's grandmother dug through it with round and tanned fingers. Careful, oh so careful she picked. "Mija," she said to the little sister, "hold out your hand." A ring.
"Thank you, Grandmother."
Then Renee. "For you, mija." Silver earrings.
"Thank you, Grandmother."
Then she dug in the box one more time, and turned to me. "And for you too, mija."
I bent down so she could place a gold chain around my neck with a matching gold heart dangling from the end. My fingers went up to touch it.
We left a while later, back out into the cold. Back to her father's loud truck with the broken heater. My fingers just couldn't stop touching that heart.