THE FIRST TIME EMI AND FRIDA traveled to the United States, it was to appear as paid participants on a Jerry Springer–style, Spanish-language talk show filmed in Miami. ¡Hablamos!, Univision called it. Emi hadn’t known anything about it until one day when Frida came screaming into their shared bedroom.
“¡Ganamos!” she yelled. We won!
“¿Ganamos qué?” Emi replied.
On a lark, Frida had entered them both into a contest, the grand prize being an all-expenses-paid, three-day trip to film an episode of ¡Hablamos!
“¿Qué? Pero—okay,” Emi said. “Si lo dices.”
That summer, Americans listened like classic gringos to “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” and Emi and Frida, her best friend, sang it aloud on the flight from Mexico City. They mimed dancing girls from the video as Frida belted out the silly words, SHE WILL WEAR YOU OUT! The panzón beside them pretended not to be bothered. Emi wasn’t surprised to notice how Frida’s perfect freaking figure undercut his annoyance.
An airport shuttle picked them up and ushered them along the Dolphin Expressway, past downtown and over MacArthur Causeway to South Beach. As it eased along a main drag, skyscraper glass angled the sun down at them with a fierceness the smog of Mexico City never allowed. Gaps between buildings provided snippets of ocean views where tanned men on jet skis carved out sea foam from the green Atlantic. Lines of yachts floated in perfect rows behind them. A boardwalk teemed with half-naked white people desperate to be brown.
They mocked this excess casually, much as they’d always mocked Americans from afar. As kids growing up in Frida’s house after Emi’s dad left and her mother died, they’d seen Miami Vice reruns and wondered how anyone could possibly say those sorts of things, act those crazy ways. Did Miami cops really take a full five minutes to watch a girl in a bikini oil herself up? Was a saxophone always playing in the background while it happened? Well, no, it turned out, but almost.
The show had bought their plane tickets and reserved them a suite at the Grand Marriott. They offered to comp room service too, and the first thing—the first thing!—they did on arrival, was order a single hot dog. Frida’s idea, of course. Just for the fun of it. A bellhop brought it to the room on a silver platter, yellow mustard pretentiously dolloped onto a porcelain saucer. Already down to bare feet and boy shorts, Frida thanked the bellhop with a Marilyn Monroe knee-bend and blown kiss, which turned the boy red. Emi slipped him a bill and nodded in sincere thanks to make sure he didn’t get the wrong idea.
Frida squealed when the door shut, clapping at the sight of the hot dog. She grabbed it and jumped onto the bed laughing. Emi followed suit. Crumbs fell as Frida tossed the sheets in the air. Outside, the sun scattered diamonds into the ocean. Emi reached for the hot dog, but Frida gobbled down the whole thing. Emi yielded to the playfulness of the moment. “¡Puta!” she yelled.
“Who, meeee?” Frida said, going into her character for ¡Hablamos!
According to a treatment sent to them by Hugh, an assistant producer for the show, Emi and Frida were to be disgruntled sisters vying for the attention of their father, a copy shop employee of modest means named Rodrigo. This was ironic, given Frida’s family’s wealth. Hugh included a photo of the man cast to play the father. He could’ve played a part in Angel Rebelde, the telenovela on Univision. Emi’s estranged father had worked a similar job as a copy shop clerk long ago, but this man bore no resemblance to Manuel.
In the role of disaffected daughter Conchita, Emi was to be sleeved with gang tattoos and wear a studded vest to show them off. Meanwhile, Frida—or rather, Maria—would wear a pink cardigan with a white collared blouse and designer jeans, so as to play the dutiful daughter who would try to bring her wayward sister back into the family’s fold. Maria was to be frustrated at how much time their father spent trying to save her sister, while she herself had always been such a princesita perfectita.
But, of course, Frida was no Virgen de Guadalupe. That irony unsettled Emi, for it reminded her of something she wished she didn’t know. At thirteen, as they gossiped in their bunk beds late one night, Frida had casually admitted to sleeping with her own cousin earlier that year. He had been twenty at the time. “It was just for, como, three seconds. Then mom came in. He pulled out, y ya. Nunca hablamos de eso,” she’d offered. We never talked about it. In the awkward silence that followed, Emi considered recounting her visit with her father in Veracruz when she was six, how one morning she’d walked into his bathroom and accidentally seen him getting out of the shower naked. But in the aftermath of Frida’s scandalous revelation, that story seemed childish, and Emi decided to keep it to herself. She wished she could’ve responded with more empathy, but she didn’t know how. Often, when Frida told stories about her recklessness—with boys, with her family, with herself—Emi could only think to nod. In moments like these, she clung to Frida’s nearness—that pungency of oversweet perfume, that familiar slackness of posture post-revelation—hoping her willingness to listen without judgment would maintain her access to this improbable friendship.
In the aftermath of Frida’s scandalous revelation, that story seemed childish, and Emi decided to keep it to herself.
That first night in Miami, they went out. Frida in heels and Emi in Converse All-Stars, they roved the strip near the hotel, spry with mischief. They mocked the well-lit shops and clearly signed streets. The heart of Coyoacán near their prepa offered so much more interesting decrepitude, Emi thought. She had expected more from the States: more ads, more debauchery, more everything. In D. F. the capitalism was worn down, baldly omnipresent: a stray dog pooped on a fallen ad for Absolut; vagrants robbed businessmen beneath the tattered billboard gaze of a mini-skirted flaca holding a bottle of Coca-Cola. Here, capitalism presented itself so cleanly. Sharply bordered edges framed ads. Neon beer signs in bar windows burned bright. Despite what the white women they passed on the streets might’ve thought, Frida and Emi weren’t from a village in the rainforest. Capitalism came naturally to them, and they approached it with the malaise and recklessness that D. F. required of its youth.
Under the mandarin-orange glow of a neon sign, they entered a club. Inside, purple strobes subdued pink walls. Soft candles effused steel tables with their shimmer. No music played yet. This early, just a few souls lingered at the bar, and the paucity of conversation gave their low voices the illusion of importance. A dance floor spread out to the side, but no one braved it this soon after sundown.
Frida tried to order a drink but the bartender asked for their IDs. Emi and Frida looked at each other. In D. F., this never happened. They looked old enough, and it never mattered there anyway. When the bartender saw they were seventeen, he laughed. “Good job,” Emi said, praising him like he’d passed a test, and then ordered two Shirley Temples. The bartender looked as though he might kick them out, but Frida flashed him a coy gaze, and instead he mixed their drinks.
Sprite, ginger ale, and grenadine: a drink Emi knew because of her father Manuel. On that childhood visit to Veracruz, he’d told her a story over Shirley Temples about the immigrant adventure of his youth a decade before her birth. “Necesitamos hablar,” he started. After crossing, he found his job at the copy shop, in a small Louisiana town. He met a Cajun girl there and they had a son, born in a trailer home by the Gulf of Mexico. “Last I heard,” he added when Emi asked, “your brother is living in New Orleans.” Her father gave her a black-and-white picture of him from a local daily in Louisiana. In it, he’s playing basketball, jumping into the air, catching a ball, but his face is turned away from the camera. How she wished she could adjust the angle of the shot! It was the only photo of him she had, and she wondered about his eyes: Would she recognize them? Would they remind her of her father’s? Of hers?
Mocktails in hand, Emi and Frida sat on leather couches by a cube sculpture illuminated by the multicolored reflections of a disco ball. Soon, a boy entered, and Frida locked onto him. In his twenties, he wore a blue oxford shirt and gray pants lined with perfect creases. Black boots polished to a sheen. Blond crew cut, square jaw. Cold, blue eyes that were, Emi imagined, not at all like her brother’s. His teeth glowed as if under black light when he smiled. Frida bumped knees with Emi under the table, meaning either she couldn’t wait to make fun of him, or else: He’s mine.
For the first time, music permeated the bar. Emi knew the American punk song. It was the kind of disaffected, mopey tune she’d sought out for herself, apart from Frida’s influence, while browsing music shops alone in La Zona Rosa, thinking of her brother and whether he was someone she could ever relate to. But maybe he was just an asshole basketball player. Anyway, in this bar, she found it an odd choice, strangely fitting for this early evening hour. She knew that Frida would never have heard of it. Indeed, her friend ignored its melancholy, focused instead on the new boy.
“Hi,” he said. “Mind if I take a seat?”
“Not at all,” Frida said, affecting with her English a tone of formal invitation.
“You don’t look like the typical trendy Cubans that come here.”
“That’s because we’re Mexican,” Emi deadpanned.
“You’re from there?” he said.
“We live there, papi,” Frida said. “Where are you from, the land of Oz?”
He put his hands over his heart, miming hurt at the jab, and then laughed vaguely as if it was charming. Frida giggled.
“What are you in town for?”
“Visiting our father,” Frida said. “She doesn’t like him, but I think he’s great.”
They could’ve told him about ¡Hablamos!, of course. But when they were out, Frida liked to play these kinds of games. And Emi, she liked watching them play out. Liked rehashing these encounters blow-by-blow with Frida later—as a way of gleaning lessons on how to interact with boys, as a way of getting a better handle on Frida. And so she played along with the deception.
“Yeah? Well, I don’t like my dad, either,” he said.
“What about you?” Frida asked. “What are you here for?”
“I play ball at Florida International. It’s a college around here. Name’s Duke,” he said, extending a hand to Frida.
“Call me Frida, if you want.”
“And your friend?”
“That’s Emi. Don’t mind her. She’s crazy.” At that, Emi stifled a smirk. “What kind of ball do you play?”
So, she thought, Duke would be sticking around. Emi glared at her friend. Frida averted her eyes. Duke didn’t ask her age, and Frida didn’t let on. When he finished his beer, he got up to get more for everyone.
“What are you drinking?” he asked.
“Vodka and cranberry,” Frida said, and then winked at Emi as he walked away.
“Frida,” Emi warned. But Frida, being Frida, kept her eyes fixed on her Shirley Temple.
BACK AT THE HOTEL, while Duke and Frida banged the headboard against the wall in the bedroom, Emi folded out the sleeper sofa in the suite’s living room and propped herself up. She changed into pajama pants and a worn-out T-shirt from grade school, and put her earbuds in (collected Ozomatli). She read from a Miami travel guide, but her eyes just passed over the words. Through the techno-Latin beats of “Cumbia,” she felt the headboard thudding. She took off her headphones and walked to the bathroom to brush her teeth. There in the mirror, she looked at her face and tried to conjure her brother. He’d be about Duke’s age now. Was he tall? Charming? Awkward? Did he look Mexican at all? Would she have somehow recognized him if he’d showed up tonight in the club? Of course, he probably still lived in Louisiana, so that wasn’t likely. She’d tried to look him up many times before, but all she’d found was a newspaper article about an award he’d won in high school for perfect attendance.
Abruptly, the headboard stopped banging. “Asshole!” she heard Frida yell through the door. Duke’s deep baritone came in, laughing. She couldn’t make out his words, but they sounded harsh. She heard no movement through the door. Emi kept the toothbrush still in her mouth, foam building at the back of her throat. That silence, awful. Then: talking again in muted tones. With a crack in the door, she might’ve made out the words, but even with the door firmly shut, she could hear the tension. She resumed brushing her teeth, scrubbing at her molars with her mouth open, making a point to pitch the sound outward. She turned on the faucet full force, spat, cleared her throat, and sang the words to “Cumbia de los Muertos” as loud as she could: Aquí no existe la tristeza, solo existe la alegría. Here there is no sadness, only joy. She watched herself in the mirror, belting out the song. Focused on her body. The shaking of her hips in the reflection, the moving of her lips, they dampened those tense voices from the other room. She smiled at the sight of herself. Soon no more sound filtered through the closed door. Emi decided she wouldn’t knock.
HUGH HAD ALREADY ARRANGED TO MEET THEM in the lobby at ten the next morning, and Emi woke up at nine to the sound of Duke closing the door behind him as he left. Frida came out of the bedroom in short shorts and a white top. “¿Quieres coffee?” she managed. Emi tried to measure out Frida’s emotions, gauge the right response, but her friend was a brick wall.
Down in the lobby, Frida donned her sunglasses and shuffled her sandals across the carpet. “Cómo fue Duke?” Emi asked. Frida shrugged. Emi let it go. Frida walked a step ahead, and Emi sized her up. Her shorts showed off her muscular legs. The spaghetti-strapped top accentuated her broad, slumped shoulders. She walked with her hands at her sides, uninterested in this new place. She took out a pack of Camels and went to light up beneath a no smoking sign, but then saw Emi wince. Emi could tell, even with Frida hiding behind those sunglasses, that her friend was rolling her eyes as she put them back in her purse.
At a counter with a steaming coffee maker, the a/c blasted so cold Emi swore she could see her own breath. Frida made herself a latte and Emi poured a water. They sat at a pair of plush chairs across from the hotel’s main entryway. Frida took off her sunglasses, revealing dark and baggy eyes. The lobby was crowded with Americans coming and going. “Mira, Emi. Esas personas, qué horror,” Frida said. Two middle-aged women with fake breasts wore triangle-top bikinis and sarongs that clung to their flat asses. Three men wore muscle shirts imprinted with the names of surfing companies, and sunglasses atop their heads, their tanned faces etched into fake smiles that turned into leers for a young girl who walked by. “Is the whole country like this?” Frida asked.
“So many muscle men, so little time,” Emi teased.
“Porfa,” Frida pleaded. She rolled her eyes.
“Dukie Dukie!” Emi squealed, testing those waters.
Frida put her hands to her face. “Estaba loco,” she said through her fingers.
“He kept talking about this plan he has. He wants to open a chicken restaurant in his hometown. Someplace que se llama Missouri. Patetiquísimo, Emi. I sucked his dick just to shut him up.”
“A chicken restaurant? What the hell is that? What were you fighting about?”
Frida traced an amorphous pattern on the tabletop with her finger. “Nada,” she said. Emi thought to respond, but Frida glanced up at a man in a skinny tie, chic and stout, his beard well-trimmed. “Ladies,” he said in English. “I’m Hugh.” They stood to greet him, surprised by his whiteness, and he extended his hand to Emi. She took it limply, too entranced by his American confidence to shake back. “And you must be Frida,” he said. Frida leaned in and offered her cheek. Amused, Hugh gave her a peck.
“We’re excited you’re here!” he said. “This production’s a well-oiled machine, so we should get going. There’s lots to do. I’m eager to introduce you to some people.”
In the car Hugh played the role of a sprightly docent. “Now, don’t be anxious, girls! We’ll take good care of you. The show’s format is pretty simple, so don’t worry. More than anything, I’m here to make sure you have a good experience, okay? I mean that.” Emi noticed Frida watching Hugh as he gesticulated. “Do you think he’s gay?” Frida whispered to Emi. Hugh gave them a glance in the rearview. Frida sat up, caught in the act. “Do you think we’ll meet any celebrities?” she asked him.
“Well, nobody like Brad Pitt, if that’s what you mean. But there’ll be plenty of things you’ve never seen before.”
At the studio, Hugh led them to a conference room with a long table where a group of interns sat. An older man looked out of place. Emi recognized him from photos as the man who would play their father. So, she thought. She wondered how long he’d lived in Miami. He didn’t look like Manuel. He was shorter, rougher looking, less roguishly handsome than her father. More the family man, though he wore no wedding ring. Hugh closed the door and the room fell silent. Emi caught the father’s eye. He smiled, revealing crow’s feet and yellow teeth.
“Everybody, Frida and Emi,” said Hugh. “Frida and Emi, everybody.”
The interns chirped back hellos. The father approached Emi, extended his hand. She was taller than him, and he looked up at her with kind eyes. “Rodrigo,” he said, and bowed. “Encantado de conocerla.” His look didn’t surprise her, but his voice. Emi had never met anyone besides Manuel who skimmed over their rolled r’s that way, exaggerated and extended their e’s and a’s like that. Emi wondered if that’s how she would sound if she’d grown up in Veracruz.
“Everyone, let’s go over the basics of tomorrow’s taping,” Hugh started. As Emi listened, she scoffed, wondering how an English speaker got this job with this production. “Before we start, has everyone seen the show? You’re all big fans, am I right?”
Frida and Emi had seen it a thousand times. A hybrid of Springer and Oprah, it boasted a melodramatic, Univision flair. Meaning, in part, that it held absolutely no obligation to real life, even though it was supposed to be a real-life talk show. The host, Susana Desertiados—what kind of name was that, anyway?—wore pastel pantsuits and blouses that exposed her balloonish breasts. Blond highlights streaked her light brown hair, which waved like Farrah Fawcett’s in old episodes of Charlie’s Angels they’d seen, and she outlined her lips a shade darker than her lipstick. She bugged her eyes out when she turned from her guests to the camera to ask a rhetorical question to get the audience riled.
Frida and Emi had seen it a thousand times. A hybrid of Springer and Oprah, it boasted a melodramatic, Univision flair.
It was like Oprah because, for certain segments, Susana tinged her questions with empathy. Still, the audience rarely seemed to care about the guests’ lives, instead biding time like circling vultures, waiting to erupt in disgust. By the show’s penultimate segment, the Springer in Susana would emerge. She’d ask judgmental questions to match the audience’s budding contempt. And how they pounced! Snarls, jeers, pointing. But in the final segment, she’d reveal something cheaply sympathetic about her guests. The camera would show audience members bursting into tears, their rabid thirst for the blood of the stagebound swept up into a sea of melodramatic empathy, matched only by La Virgen herself.
Hugh called them to attention to go over the third act: the segment of the show between the second and third commercials, where the action would crescendo. “Tell me what you think, Emi. Maybe you could take off your belt and throw it at Frida in a fit.”
“That could work,” an intern offered. “Rodrigo, you could start crying.”
“And Frida,” another interjected, “you could break character, go full crazy, and, like, come at Emi full force with a roundhouse to the face.”
“Don’t worry if we do it that way, Frida,” Hugh said. “You won’t have to strike her. Our security guys will break it up before anything happens. What do you say?” In a shared glance of mischief, Emi and Frida exchanged a thought: it would be impossible not to laugh through all this. “Sounds great!” said Frida, answering for both of them.
As Hugh walked the interns through the choreography of that exchange, Susana walked in, wearing tight jeans, a blouse with a matching headscarf, and a pair of sunglasses. She looked like Cher on a sidewalk trying to avoid the paparazzi. A hush fell over the interns as she said hello. She took off her glasses, sat down at the head of the table, and smiled a prefab smile. Hugh introduced Emi, Frida, and Rodrigo. “Bienvenidos, dulces,” Susana intoned with import. “Tomorrow, you will be stars. But today, you must listen to Hugh!”
Frida bumped Emi’s knee under the table. “¿Puedes creerlo?” Frida whispered.
WHEN FRIDA SAID SHE DIDN’T WANT TO GO OUT that night, Emi conjured dramatic scenes behind those locked doors from the night before. “Está bien,” she said, trying to hide her eagerness to simply stay in and talk. “Tal vez, mejor una peliculita?” After getting bags of chips and bottles of Coke from the vending machine, they turned on the TV and settled in to The Godfather on HBO. Snuggled together on the bed, they snacked and watched like they would’ve at home. “I believe in America,” the old family friend said to Marlon Brando in his study. The camera panned back as he continued his story of coming to this country, slowly revealing the back of Brando’s head as he gestured for his assistant to get the sad storyteller a drink. Beneath the quiet words, Emi could hear Cheetos crunching in Frida’s mouth. She took a sip of her Coke and turned up the volume.
Somewhere around when Michael Corleone retrieved the gun from the bathroom, Frida started snoring. Her head fell against Emi’s shoulder, and gradually, she slumped down onto Emi’s lap. She’d always been such a heavy sleeper, Emi knew, but this slumber seemed like something else. Emi hoped that, one day, Frida would feel close enough to her to tell her what was really on her mind. Whatever that was.
As she had so many nights back in D. F., Emi undertook her solemn routine. She shifted beneath Frida’s slumped body—slow, so that she wouldn’t wake her, knees open so that there was a space through which she could slip her hands beneath her friend. In the time it took Michael to flee to Italy, Emi slid her fingers under Frida’s head. By Michael’s marriage to the Italian beauty, she’d painstakingly moved Frida’s body out from under her lap. She spent another few minutes sliding a pillow beneath her head. Throughout the process, each time Emi sensed the slightest change in Frida’s breathing, she froze until the tenuous moment passed. By the time Michael had shut the door on his new American wife and the credits ran, Emi had laid Frida in her favorite position (the fetal), and had moved far enough away from the bed that she could resume a natural disposition. She let out a controlled sigh, feeding the air slowly out of her body so as not to negate the meticulous work with a waking sound.
Though she’d never smoked, Emi grabbed Frida’s pack of Camels from the nightstand and went out onto the balcony. She looked over the ledge, down to rain-slick Ocean Drive. She lit one and tried to inhale, but the smoke caught in her throat and she stifled a cough. She’d always figured that, one day, Frida would teach her, but now she decided that she might as well teach herself.
She surprised herself with how quickly she picked it up. Within a few puffs, she’d mastered a deep inhale that put her in mind of mysterious characters on American TV dramas that ran on syndication in D. F. She practiced her smoking expressions in the reflection of the sliding door’s glass. Here is how to be pensive. Here is how to be pained. Here is how to be secretly satisfied. Here, one day, is how you will look after anonymous sex. She morphed through her new expressions to the faraway oontz beats of the neon-saturated clubs below, the single light of a ship blinking on the dark sea near the horizon.
Reaching for another cigarette, her fingers grazed the top of a piece of paper rolled up beside the remaining Camels. She took it out and unfolded it. It was an unsigned affidavit from a court in Mexico City. In an impersonal Spanish, it read:
Personally came and appeared before me, the undersigned Notary, the within, named Nenetl Frida Coaxoch, who is a resident of Distrito Federal, México, and makes this his / her statement of and General Affidavit upon oath and affirmation of belief and personal knowledge that the following matters, facts, and things set forth are true and correct to the best of his/her knowledge: . . .
There was a gap then, and in that space, Frida had written out a small paragraph. Emi read, caught Frida’s cousin’s name. It appeared that the cousin had been charged recently with rape, that Frida was being subpoenaed to provide information about her incident with him.
She peered back inside the room through the balcony’s sliding door. Frida lay asleep, fetal and dreaming. A burst of lightning and thunder destroyed the moment. Frida shifted positions. She opened her eyes and seemed surprised to find her head on the pillow. The way Frida looked at her, Emi imagined herself a dark and ominous figure standing there at the entrance to the bedroom. She inhaled, thinking of what the orange ember glowing bright at her lips would look like to Frida in the dark.
“¿Qué hora es?” Frida asked. Her eyes were squinty. She put her hand to her face and touched the imprint of wrinkles from the sheet on her cheek.
Emi exhaled, tried on her new mysterious face. “Morning’s a long way off,” she said.
“You don’t smoke,” Frida replied.
Emi didn’t say anything.
“Ya no tengo sueño,” Frida said.
“¿Qué quieres hacer?” The ash on Emi’s cigarette grew long.
Frida got up and brought her an ashtray. The Godfather had been perfect to fall asleep to, but now the calm of the turned-off TV left them with only each other and the quiet. Frida slinked back down onto the bed. Her languid arm stretched out over a pillow beside her head. A constant rain fell outside, and Emi watched it with her.
“This is a strange place,” Frida said.
“Los Estados. Los Yunaites. Los Yanquis.”
Emi hesitated, unsure what to say. “I wonder where my brother is,” she offered.
“You have a brother?” Frida looked at her, mouth open, like the betrayed.
“He lives here, in the States. He’s from here.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“I’ve never known what I should and shouldn’t say.”
“To anyone.” Emi took a drag, exhaled. Tried on her pained face. Then the nausea of smoking for the first time set in, and the pained face became real.
Frida observed her and smiled. “Mi Emi,” she cooed. “You can tell me anything.”
“Listen to you. My little Emi. Of course you can. You know what? Maybe we could stay here. You know, after the show is over. Or, fuck it. Forget the show. In the morning, we could just pack our things and hitchhike to—where is your brother?”
“Yeah. New Orleans. Forget ¡Hablamos! What do you say?”
“Just like that,” Emi snorted. She moved from the sliding door to the bedside. Frida cast a casual wrist in her direction. Emi’s own hand fell down on top of it.
“We could be our own gang,” Frida said, in English. “Not on ¡Hablamos!, but in real life.”
Was it a sincere plea? Emi wondered. So little between them ever seemed to be.
To stay, Emi thought. To search out her brother. To find him and tell him all of the things, whatever they were. And for Frida, lying there in all her cultivated whimsy, why would she stay? Her friend’s expression was something between a promise and a wink. By the bed, Emi plucked another cigarette out of Frida’s stash and laid the carton on the nightstand, making sure the rolled-up affidavit remained flush against the base of the cardboard. She put the cigarette to her lips, lit it—a clear violation of hotel policy—and inhaled with a cough. Frida laughed. “Seriously, puta,” she said. “Tomorrow? We don’t even have to show up for the taping.”
The phone rang. Frida answered. It was Hugh.
“You girls ready for your big day tomorrow?”
“We’ve got just the right outfits,” Frida said, smirking at Emi. Habla Hugh, she mouthed across the room. “Just the right makeup, too.”
Hugh asked officious questions about their familiarity with the episode’s premise. Frida placated him with that mischievous smile. “Don’t worry, Hugh,” she said, “everything will be perfect.”
After she hung up, the two girls raised eyebrows at each other. “¿Qué piensas, chica?” asked Frida.
The moment was ripe—anything could happen—but their practiced rapport muted the drama, and Emi chose to envision this moment as being like so many other similar ones: The silky comfort of their meaningless words. Late-night proposals. Banalities as numberless as the stars. This, their way: gentle mm-hmms and clearings of the throat, sighs of comfort and cackles of laughter, playful interjections of ay chingón and a la chingada. No actual things being sorted out, just this lingering: there was relief in it. Emi closed the lid on the cigarette carton and placed it on the nightstand. In the wake of the question, she said nothing, only shrugged, and that, for now, was that.
BEFORE SUNRISE, EMI IRONED THE BLACK VEST she’d brought for the show, the one she’d called ahead about for Hugh to approve. Frida stripped down to her lingerie and looked at her modest outfit laid out on the bed: her cardigan and blouse, faux-designer jeans from Forever 21. The clothes looked so unlike her.
“Pues, ¡mira tus bragas!” Emi noted. Look at your panties! Frida wore a green silk thong and an underwire bra from Frederick’s of Hollywood, a trashy number she’d bought on a whim during a night out in La Zona Rosa, back when they were too young and flat to worry about bras. Frida filled it out now. Emi was pretty, but she didn’t have those curves. Frida zipped up her jeans over the thong with a smile.
Frida stripped down to her lingerie and looked at her modest outfit laid out on the bed: her cardigan and blouse, faux-designer jeans from Forever 21.
“Ellos nunca sabrán,” she said with a wink. They’ll never know. She pulled her blouse over her head, down to her waist. Her curves disappeared in its loose folds. When her head popped out with her hair messed up, she looked at Emi, pregnant with silliness.
“Pues, te toca a ti, Miss Hot Pants,” Frida said.
Emi made tough faces as she pulled on her ripped-up jeans. She couldn’t quite pull off the coked-up gang-girl look yet, partly because she needed fake tattoos to complete the façade. She wondered what tattoo designs the show would have. Skull and crossbones? The giant lips of the Rolling Stones? Che Guevara?
At the studio Hugh led them to a green room. While they waited, Frida joshed Emi about what ridiculous nightclubs she hoped to go to later. Makeup girls arrived and sat them in chairs like marionettes. Emi and Frida faced a mirrored dresser flooded with harsh light. These girls were themselves made up for a night out, and they commanded the room with their airy gossip, indifferent to Frida and Emi’s presence.
As one of them brushed and blushed Emi, she watched her transformation in the mirror. First, the eyeliner, black and thick. Then the pop-orange lipstick and purple lip liner. Next the hair: flat-ironed and lowlighted to make her look brooding. She turned to Frida, who looked back and exploded in laughter, the way Emi had seen her laugh at hapless boys before.
“Emi!” Frida said, pointing.
Emi shrugged. She wanted to imagine they were getting ready for a costume party. In that case, she would laugh at how she looked, too. But this wasn’t like that. Now she knew she was supposed to act like someone real. “Are we done yet?” she asked the makeup lady.
“No,” she replied. “Jenny!”
A fake tattoo artist entered with a binder of designs. “Who do we have today? Oh, right. Druggie bitch gang whore.” She flipped through the binder. Emi took her in. Orange and green Pipi Longstocking-style tights. Four-inch black heels. Stud through her nose and an eyebrow ring. She assessed Emi’s arms and shoulders.
“Let’s see, hon,” she said. “How’s about an AK on your forearm and some Neruda poetry on your bicep? A little cartel cross on your shoulder. Maybe some letters on your knuckles could spell out C-U-N-T or something. That sound about right? For Conchita, I mean?” Jenny took Emi’s silence as assent and applied the stamps to her bare arms.
Meanwhile, the makeup artist put on Frida’s face. As she did, she muttered under her breath: “Let’s see if we can lighten up those cheekbones, sweetie.” Frida was Nahuatl, and her beauty, Emi had always thought, owed largely to the severity of her jawline, the darkness of her skin contrasting with the arched angle of her thick brow—what the light-skinned of Mexico City often called her exotic features. The makeup girl looked at Frida’s face as if it were a puzzle. “I wonder how we can soften that jaw,” she said. Frida acted like she didn’t understand. Of course, Emi knew that she did. And she knew she should say something—cut off this gringa’s arrogant mumbles—but once again, Emi was at a loss.
“Thirty minutes to air,” someone said from the hall.
The tattoo artist escorted the two girls to the side of the set, out of the cameras’ view. Through a sliver in a curtain, they saw the audience gathering. Women in the front row gabbed in Spanish. Bored souls in the back tried to start the wave. Most of the audience was Latina, though a few white faces clustered in spots. Emi and Frida each felt a hand on their shoulders and turned to see Susana.
“¡Cálmate, niñas!” she said. “These people, they won’t ever know who you really are. Hugh prepared you, right?”
“Entonces, no pasa nada!” she was saying. “This is show business!” She motioned to the booms and wires and lights and dollies surrounding them. Between the stage and the audience stood a bank of cameras big as cars. On set, grips moved a loveseat and repositioned a folding chair. Opposite a coffee table stood a high-back throne of a chair for Susana. Maria and Rodrigo would take the loveseat, and the folding chair by itself was for Emi—Conchita, the outcast.
“Trust in the magic of the show, little ones,” she opined. La magía del show. Okay, Emi thought. “Wait for your cue,” Susana continued in Spanish, “and join me on set when Hugh gives the word. You will be unforgettable!”
With that, Susana left them alone. The lights came down and the theme music played. Lights on set blazed up. Hugh cued Susana, and the girls watched her posture change as she walked into the cameras’ view. The microphone she held tunneled her voice away from Emi and Frida, toward the audience, which stood in applause, hoping a camera might glimpse them. Some flailed their arms like concertgoers. Others wore expressions of bemused calm, and golf-clapped.
Susana took it all as her due, bowing deep as a Beatle when she reached the X marked on the floor. Emi guessed that in these moments, Susana felt most like herself: those assured gestures, that confident expression. The crowd’s rapt attention reaffirmed her every word. She opened with a canned line about the good show in store for them all. In a lilting Puerto Rican Spanish that dropped in tone to reflect the pending drama, she summarized Rodrigo and Maria’s sad predicament: the Conchita problem. At the mention of Conchita’s affiliation with a drug cartel, the crowd booed. Frida jabbed Emi in the ribs.
At the first commercial break, the camera’s green lights went red. The audience buzzed with excitement. An assistant fetched Frida, who kissed Emi on the cheek and then whisked her onto the stage. “Here we go, sister!” she called back. On set, Frida sat beside Rodrigo on the loveseat. She practiced crossing her legs primly, trying to become Maria. It didn’t come naturally. She looked up at Emi offstage and shrugged her shoulders.
The director motioned for the audience to stand, and they did. When an applause sign lit up, they complied. Lights shone on Susana, who held her microphone and stood in the bleachers chatting insincerely with audience members. As the director fed volume to her mike, she looked up at the camera and acted like she was emerging out of a real conversation, and was only now getting back to moderating the show. As she recapped the problem of Conchita facing Rodrigo and Maria, she sauntered to the stage, ending her summary standing next to them. She introduced them to the audience. The crowd applauded moral approval at their sad plight. She sat down, hands folded on her lap, and asked them about Conchita.
Behind the curtain, Emi waited. Hugh joined her silently and she felt his gaze. “When she calls your name,” he whispered, “wait a bit before you walk out.” Live on air, Maria answered Susana’s questions about Conchita. At first, Frida’s gestures seemed playful, actress-like. She just couldn’t help worrying about poor Chita, she was saying.
At a certain point, Frida’s expression changed.
When Susana asked her about Conchita’s reckless dalliances with dangerous men, Frida nearly started crying. Susana pressed, interjecting an anecdote about Conchita’s indiscretions with their aunt’s husband. The crowd exhaled exasperated sighs.
Emi looked out into the audience. A single face jolted her. Resting his hand on his crotch, with an indifferent lean and his shoulders hiply unsquare, sat Duke. With a friend. Two white faces in the brown crowd. Emi looked back at Frida, who was stone still, petrified.
“Let’s bring out Conchita,” Susana said.
It wasn’t Hugh’s imploring that caused Emi to wait a dramatic moment before going out. Quickly enough to prevent alarm, she composed herself and walked on set. To a chorus of boos, she flexed her bicep to show off her tattoos. She felt Duke looking right at her. She ran through the faces she’d tried on the night before, and decided to egg on the crowd by raising her clenched fists in a bring-it-on gesture. They responded with jeers and hisses, just like Hugh had said they would. She tried not to focus on Duke, worried this would break the spell of the show. She sat in the lone chair and folded her arms. Hoping her snarling upper lip was convincing, she stared at the floor as sullenly as she could muster.
In her mediator’s voice, Susana implored her to recognize her faults. Only when she beckoned “Conchita” for the third time did Emi turn. At that, Susana relaxed her posture in the way of a ten-cent therapist, as if relieved to have brought Conchita back into the present. Emi saw the makeup cheaply faded at the base of Susana’s neck. How the blush didn’t hide the creases in her smile lines.
“Mi amor,” Susana asked, “do you see the hurt you are causing your father and your sister?”
Emi looked at Rodrigo. He was trying and failing to feign his disappointment with her. Really, he just looked like he had to fart. Beside him, Frida kept her hands tensed in her lap, legs crossed tightly at the knee.
Emi had memorized her immature, introductory line, and she recited it now. The audience burst into a thousand varieties of vitriol. Some stood up and pointed. Others shouted insults with a rage she hadn’t anticipated. Others simply shook their heads in disbelief. She dared not look in Duke’s direction, though she imagined him and his friend cackling, their white faces filled with casual disdain.
Meanwhile, Frida was buckling. Susana seemed to notice it but let the scene play.
“Maria,” Susana said. “¿Quieres decir algo a Conchita?” Do you want to say anything to Conchita?
Frida snapped out of it. She looked at Emi. Emi returned the gaze with a prescribed look of rage, but as they found each other’s eyes for the first time on set, they couldn’t maintain the façade. Rodrigo put his hand on Frida’s knee and patted it like a father. After a beat, she spoke.
“Deseo que podría hablar contigo,” she said to Emi, and for the cameras, too. I wish I could talk to you. She placed her hands between her legs like she had at the café. Emi wondered: was this movement real? It didn’t seem like Frida, and yet the sincerity in the gesture was unmistakable. The crowd quieted. They waited for the show to turn from Springer blowout to Oprah catharsis. Emi caught sight of Duke. He sat with his legs open. As Emi was about to deliver the saccharine line she’d rehearsed, Duke’s friend stood up and yelled out: “The Aztec-looking chick’s the real whore!”
The camera’s light went red. The director commanded the cameraman to resume taping. The light went green again. Emi felt the audience unsettling. Backstage, Hugh made a beeline for security. Duke didn’t say anything, just slouched with his hand to his mouth like he had nothing to do with it. Two security guards walked up to Duke’s friend. “What?” he protested. They grabbed him by the arms. “What the fuck is this? I’m being thrown out? What about them? They’re the fucking liars, not me! That Aztec chick is a whore!”
The audience watched, stone-faced. A whiff of violence filled the air. The Spanish suspicion latent in the crowd clashed with the English hate in Duke’s expression. When the friend was gone, a nervous applause rose up. The sharpness of the boy’s words about Frida rang in Emi’s ears. Frida was still trying to hold a prim posture, like Maria would. She refused to look up at Duke. Rodrigo only watched, just like everyone else. He was no father. Duke leaned back in his seat. He scratched his chin and smirked like Skeet Ulrich in Scream. Glaring at Emi, he raised his arms as if to absolve himself of all recrimination.
Her show of bravado might have looked credible, but inside, she was shaking and her heart was thumping like a frightened rabbit’s.
Emi wanted then to become Conchita, to call on her drug cartel friends to fucking smoke Duke. Instead, she did the only thing she could think of. She got up and walked around the stage clucking like a chicken. The audience sat dumbfounded. Emi looked right at Duke and said, in her best redneck English accent (which wasn’t very good): “Fry me up and serve me hot! I could make you a million dollars!” Frida’s mouth morphed from a quivering tilde to a perfect O, and then she machine-gunned a staccato laughter that split the silence. There she is, Emi thought.
Everyone looked stunned.
“This gringo thinks he’s gonna run a chicken shack one day!” Emi continued in Spanish.
Duke rose, flush-faced, squinting his eyes. He smiled as he looked Frida up and down, then scowled at Emi as he walked to the exit. Someone in the crowd yelled an obscenity at him, but he held his glare. Others yelled out their frustrations at Susana. “¡Qué chafa!” some screamed. “Quiénes son esas putas?” one yelled. “Fuck these girls!” another offered. As Duke walked out, he pointed at that heckler in approval. Emi mock-waved. “Good-byyyyyyyyeeeeeee!” she taunted. Her show of bravado might have looked credible, but inside, she was shaking and her heart was thumping like a frightened rabbit’s. Some burst into applause at her gesture. Others booed.
The show’s live taping continued, but Frida and Emi didn’t fake it well. They were too in need of each other’s affections to play prescribed parts. The storyline unfolded unconvincingly, and Emi could sense Susana’s anger beneath her rote, Oprah-like advice. Afterward, the two friends walked off set alone. Nobody talked to them. They stood outside the green room, not sure whether to leave, or even how to get back to the Marriott. Frida stood with her arms folded around herself. Emi had never seen her friend so clearly the center of such scorn. This whole thing, it was supposed to be a lark.
Eventually Hugh and Susana found them. Susana cursed them out, in English, yelling how they’d fucked everything up. After she stormed off, Hugh remained. “Oh, brother,” he mumbled. “Don’t worry about that,” he told them. “She’s just really particular about the plotlines. She was really hoping y’all could pull off the rivalry, you know?” He patted them on the back, seeming to have done this before. He affected the sincere manner he’d shown when they’d arrived. Rubbed their shoulders. Feeling empathy for his plight, they let him, their hands awkwardly at their sides. With what grace he could muster, he escorted them back to the hotel, never once apologizing, never once admonishing.
Alone together for the first time since watching The Godfather, Frida and Emi packed their things. Their flight would leave that night, and a couple hours remained before the shuttle would arrive to take them to the airport. Emi watched as Frida took the cigarette pack from the nightstand and threw it into her purse.
“Espera,” Emi said. Wait.
Frida looked up. “¿Qué?” she asked.
“¿En serio?” Frida asked.
Emi nodded. Frida took the carton out of her purse and handed it to Emi. Emi looked to see if it made Frida nervous to see how close Emi’s hands came to the affidavit in the carton, but her friend gave no sign. Emi put a cigarette to her lips. She conjured the faces of angst and melodrama she’d practiced the night before on the balcony.
“I think that I might love basketball,” Emi said, “but I don’t like Duke.”
“Also, I don’t love this country, but I do think there is someone here I might love.”
“Emi!” Frida raised an eyebrow. “Quién es?” she asked, as if she thought Emi might be talking about a boyfriend.
Emi sighed. Not that kind of love, puta!, she thought. She took a long, dramatic drag. She tapped her cigarette against the nightstand. “Maybe,” she said in English, “we could try to talk to each other. For real. Do you know what I mean?” And this time, it was like some kind of magic: they were different people when they spoke this other language.
Frida sighed. “There are some things I need to tell you,” she allowed.
Emi let the silence hang for a moment. To be loved. To love. To see. Truly, to be seen. She breathed in. Exhaled.
“Bueno,” Emi said. “Hablemos.”