Hello, I'm Cora
When Elena was seven, eight, nine, she cried in her bed. I'd come to her, say, "You crying, little Ellie?" and she, little devil, she'd look at me, water soaking her cheeks, snot running down to her mouth, and say, "No, Mama, you're dreaming, must be some other girl."
How was I to know she was missing her Papi, no one ever told me he was gone?
"You having nightmares, little Ellie?" I'd ask, touching Ellie's cheek, my hand almost as big as her face.
"I'm not little!" she'd shout, and push my hand away.
"Charly's the best thing for a nightmare," I'd remind her. "Abuelita always told me so. She was always right."
(Ellie never had an abuelita: I didn't know my mama. But I wanted her to have a nice grandma on my side, even if she wasn't real.)
Elena would squint at me, look at the doll, look back at me, not at all sure.
Something in her never let her think I was right, not ever.
"You read this story to me," she'd say, putting Charly to the side, pulling a book from her pillow. "Then I go to sleep for sure."
"Not now," I'd say. "Too late. You sleep now." I'd pull her blanket up to her chin. "Later, for sure," I'd say.
She was only seven, eight, nine--already I knew there was nothing I could do for her.
"Help me with this arithmetic," she'd say, the next day, the day after, until she stopped asking. "Help me with this reading, this social study."
"Too busy now," I'd say. "You do better on your own."
I guess she believed me.
"Celebrate the woman you've become!" This is what Joyce, our Self-Recovery Facilitator, said each week in Diet and Exercise class. "Celebrate yourselves! Self-celebration is the key to self-esteem!" She'd raise her arms in the air, like she was a Holy Roller preacher and self-esteem her gospel. When we achieved our Personal Milestone she said we had to celebrate, and not alone. So Carmel and I made plans for when I reached my Target Weight: double date, dining, dancing, but first, a Meaningful Personal Ritual. We had coffee at my place, then I took my fat things--my size 16, 14, 12, even my size 10 clothes, my uniforms wide like double-bedspreads, high-waisted all-cotton briefs, rubber-soled work shoes big like flowerpots, kitchen scale, bathroom scale, my diet books, Jane Fonda video--threw them all in an extra-large television box. (Carmel bought a big screen when she lost her weight, but she was already skinny: she diets just so she can celebrate herself with major appliances.)
I tossed things at the box, Carmel shouting "Yeah!" every time I landed something.
When I finished that, I said, "Whew!" and wiped the pretend sweat from my brow. Carmel jumped up from her folding chair, and hugged me, said I was well on my way to a brand new life. I thought she might be right: I could feel it. I laughed like I didn't care, but I was happy, really, ready for anything.
The box was only half full so I thought maybe I could do more. Out with the old, in with the new. I went to Elena's dresser, pulled out her blouses, her white socks, her Sunday dress from when she was little, her two handbags, one pink with cartoon characters, one black vinyl I bought her for high school. Elena threw nothing away, saved everything, gave it all up when she left home at sixteen, book bag on her back, my paycheck in her pocket, left for who knows where, anywhere, her note said, was better than here.
I put her things in that box (I placed them there, didn't throw them). Her books, six of them--two about Catholic saints (where did those come from!), one about a girl who learns a lesson (or so said the title), two about a girl detective, and a beginning reader someone forgot to return to school. When Elena was sleeping I used to tiptoe behind the curtain that separated her part of the apartment from mine and borrow one of those books. I'd bring it to my fold-out, whisper the vowels, the consonants, stare stupidly at the words, the pictures, under the light of the living room lamp, turned down low to not disturb Ellie.
At the back of Elena's drawer, I found that photograph, the only thing Elena ever got from her father after he left Texas. In the photo, Ernesto's got one hand on a shiny red car, the other on a tall, thin woman with bushy hair--Janey, I assumed. She had this amused expression on her face, like she was thinking, Now I got him what am I gonna do with him! On the back, Ernesto wrote: "Minnesota 1977. Your Papi not doing so bad! Missing his baby girl!"
I first found this photo in Elena's drawer three years after she got it. I slapped her face, said, "Three years I been leaving you at the mall Sundays to be with your Papi, and all that time he's in Minnesota? All those presents he gave you, you steal those things or what? What's wrong with you, Elena, lying and stealing all the time?"
Elena was ten years old. She stared back at me, face like stone; she wouldn't answer.
I put the photo inside Elena's black vinyl handbag, dropped the bag back into the box.
To think: everything I was able to give that girl fit in half a television box.
The curtain. I almost forgot the curtain. I found it on the floor at the back of the closet under a heavy box. Carmel couldn't help me because her nails were wet, but I dragged it out anyway. The day we got that curtain, Ellie was so happy: I carried one end, she carried the other, twelve blocks from Goodwill. I could have carried it myself, but Elena wanted to help. She knew the purple drape meant she was big enough to have her own room; I knew it meant I couldn't give her anything worth having. She shined with pride that day; I burned with shame.
I took one last look around, found Charly under the daybed where Ellie used to sleep. All these years, I'd thought she'd taken him with her. It'd made me feel better, thinking this: maybe my dolly was giving her comfort, wherever she was. That's what I get for not sweeping in hard-to-reach places. Charly's head was strangled, he had no stuffing left in his neck; he'd been lying face down on an empty Oreo box, dust bunnies stuck to his ears and skinny legs. Charly is all-over skinny--he's one doll who doesn't need Diet and Exercise class.
I tossed Charly at the box. He landed on the box's edge, spindly legs pointing in, tired head dangling out. He hovered there a second between in and out, then fell, soundlessly, to the carpet.
Carmel squealed and toddled toward the doll on spiky black heels. She squatted down, moving her knees to one side, holding the box for balance, picked up the dolly with two fingers, her other fingers spread out to protect the nails, like a lady holding a teacup.
"This is one cute dolly," she said, standing again.
"It's Charly," I said, stepping over to take another look.
"Hello, Charly!" Carmel said, shaking Charly's fingerless hand. "He's got no hair!"
"I pulled it out when I was young," I said.
"Bad girl!" Carmel said, smoothing her skirt.
"I was preparing him for brain surgery," I said. "I wanted to be a doctor." I'd never told anyone this before. "My father's girlfriend said I was bad, said I didn't deserve nice things. She made that dolly herself, out of toilet rags from houses she cleaned."
"Really!" Carmel said, covering her mouth with her hand.
Well, not really. My father's girlfriend did say things like that--she was always telling me I was expensive, she and Daddy were going to go broke taking care of me--but she wasn't a maid, and she never made a doll. Actually, I stole Charly from my cousin Luella: she had lots of dolls and I thought I should have one too. (He was Carlito then. I was so stupid: I thought a doll was like a person who had to keep his name his whole life. I didn't like Mexican names, so I called him Charly--same thing.)
"Nah, not really," I said. "He wasn't made of toilet rags. I think he was some lady's underpants before he became my doll."
"I mean really you were gonna be a doctor," Carmel said, looking at Charly, as if he could explain the difference between what was and what could have been. I blushed red and looked away. "Why get rid of this dolly?" she asked. "Isn't he good for some memories?"
I shrugged: some things you can't explain, not to a brand new friend. I got no use for a neckless doll with a floppy head, no hair, a missing button nose. These memories belong to Elena, and if she doesn't want them, I don't either.
I took the doll back from Carmel and walked over to the box, lifted my arm and let him drop. Then I leaned into the box and covered Charly's face with the drape.
It was time for Carmel to cut, file, and paint my nails. I'd been growing them--only broke one--since we'd made our vow: Celebrate Cora's Target Weight with a Double Date! (It was Carmel who said my vow had to rhyme.) My date was Fred, someone known personally to Carmel's boyfriend Gerry. Carmel said the date would be "extra incentive"--something she learned about at night school for business administration--and it was: I'd been thinking about it for weeks.
Carmel had picked out nail polish for me at the Rite Aid: Color of Sin, the darkest red I ever saw. I thought she'd picked out the same color for herself, but Carmel said no, she'd never do that--wear the same color on a double date? We were friends, right? Her color was Raspberry Cocoa--a different thing altogether.
Carmel knows about these things, which is why I'm glad she picked me out of all the girls in class to be her friend. She is thirty-five, but looks younger--because of her positive attitude, and the clothes she wears, which show off what she calls her physical advantages.
"Forty-five's too old for hooker nails!" I said for the fourth time, as Carmel pulled the brush out of the fingernail polish bottle, shiny red like a jewel.
"Shush," Carmel said, holding my hand flat on the newspaper. "It's time for you to adopt a future orientation."
"So tell me again about Fred," I said, putting on my new-woman's makeup like Donna, the department store lady, showed me: foundation first, then blusher, then highlighter, and so on. Corrie's first date in twenty-five years, Carmel said to Donna, hoping, she told me later, that Donna would give me a discount.
"Well, he's no Robert Redford, but he's got a good job, head of a sales team, and he doesn't drink much. He likes to ballroom dance, kids are grown, owns his own home. He's a card, you got that in common. You're gonna like him, and he's gonna lo-ove you."
"Will he really? How do you know?" I asked. We'd been through this before but I wanted to hear it again.
"Trust me, as long as you don't . . ."
"I know!" I said, and laughed thinking about it. "As long as I don't mention his ex-wife!"
"Right. He's a widower, not a divorcé," Carmel said.
"The mere mention of her makes him go green. It would be funny, though, wouldn't it?" I asked. Carmel didn't see the humor; in fact she looked downright panicked. I forgot she didn't know me so well. "Don't worry," I said. "I'll be good. But not too good," I said, wiggling my eyebrows.
"You are wicked!" Carmel squealed, jumping off her chair. "Girl, we're gonna have a good time tonight!" Then she started singing that song, and shaking her hips. I thought about how Fred might sweep me across the dance floor; I thought about what we might say while we were dancing, how he might look at me; I thought that maybe this could be the start of something new.
"Don't worry," I said, "I don't intend to be too good . . . ," and smiled in a way I thought looked wicked so Carmel would laugh again, but already she was sitting and looking at her nails.
"Almost time to go," Carmel said, looking up. "You wearing that thing?" she joked.
"What a knockout!" Carmel said, zipping up my red knit dress. It was so tight! I looked over my shoulder at Carmel, scared to death. "Look at you!" Carmel said. "A new woman!" She pushed me in front of the full-length and fussed with my newly permed, three-shades-lighter hair. "See what I mean?" Carmel said. "All new!"
This is what it came down to. Eighteen months of six A.M. jogging--on day one I jogged only to the corner, pressed both my hands to my chest the whole way home, thinking maybe my heart would burst, old Felipe sitting there on the stoop with his red nose and rotten teeth, laughing at me, but I ignored him. I chose low-cal salad bar the first time that day, said no to Jesse's apple cake--Jesse frowning at me from under his white chef's hat, saying, "You change your mind, Cora, I leave a piece right here," and there it sat, all day, untouched, Cool Whip melting on the plate around it, on that open shelf beneath the cash register where I sat, smiling at the doctors and nurses, who called me by my first name, because there it was, on my nametag, Hello, I'm Cora.
When we walked into the hotel where the restaurant was, I gave myself a pep talk: "Okay, Cora. You're wearing lacy panties, black stockings, and a garter belt; your dress shows off your legs, your best feature, the whole class said so. You're a new woman, a new woman!" My ankle buckled--I had to hold onto Carmel to keep myself from falling.
"Remember," Carmel said, stopping me at the door to the lounge with her arm, as she looked around the room for Gerry and Fred, strobe lights flashing off the silver in her skirt. "Only one glass, wine or spritzer. Eat light, cheap, clean--no ribs, no corn on the cob. Don't talk politics or religion; especially don't talk about children or your ex. Be positive, smile, ask lots of questions. We meet at the ladies, nine o'clock sharp."
"Corrie," Fred said. "Now that's a pretty name." Fred was older than I'd thought. He looked like Fred Mertz on the Lucy reruns: half bald, gut hanging out.
"Cora, actually," I said. "Short for Corazón."
"They make excellent fried cheese here, Cora," Fred said, waving the plastic menu at me. "With sauce. You know."
I looked at Carmel across the table: she was holding hands with Gerry. Their knees were touching, they were staring into each other's eyes. This is what Carmel said about Gerry: "He's a good guy, kinda boring but he treats me like a queen."
"Sorry," I said, "Late lunch. Think I'll skip the cheese. But thank you very much for the offer."
"Suit yourself," Fred said. "Just don't try sneaking any offa my plate! Just kidding," he said, looking at me, then looking at Carmel and Gerry. "Hey, you guys!" he said. "This isn't a motel, you know!"
"Can I help it, such a beautiful girl?" Gerry asked.
Carmel took a sip of her spritzer, then turned to Fred. "Corrie worked for many years in food service," she said.
"Is that so," Fred said.
"I still do," I said.
"No," Carmel said, "Corrie's a manager now."
"I still work at the cafeteria," I said, trying to smile, wondering why I'd said that to Carmel.
"Upwardly mobile, watch out for this one!" Fred said, swishing his scotch around in his glass. "Another?" he asked, nodding at my white wine with his forehead.
"I'm fine, but thank you very much for the offer," I said, holding my hand over my glass.
"In her spare time," Carmel said, "Corrie is a teacher." Carmel sounded so proud of me.
"Is that so?" Fred asked, resting his elbows on the table, his chins in his fists. "Teachers are underappreciated, I always said so."
"I just volunteer," I said. "At the library," I added, when no one said anything.
"Don't be shy," Gerry said. "Tell us."
"Well, I'm teaching a woman to read. Her name is Lidia."
"She can't read?" Fred asked.
"All her life she couldn't read," I said. "It never bothered her. One day she found a note in her husband's pockets, then another. He said they were notes from work, but she knew perfume when she smelled it."
"She kick his butt?" Fred asked.
Carmel was giving me a look. I'd picked the wrong story to tell.
"No," I said. "She didn't."
"She left him, sued his ass, got the house and car, right?" Fred asked. He looked confused. He didn't understand--how could he?
"She just wanted to read so she could know what was going on," I said, not knowing how I should end my story. "She didn't want her husband making a fool out of her."
Carmel was still giving me that look, Gerry was smiling politely, Fred shrugged his shoulders and looked at Gerry, I turned red and looked back helplessly at Carmel.
"Time to dance!" Carmel said, yanking on Gerry with one hand and pulling Fred's drink from his hand with the other.
"So, Corrie, Gerry tells me you lost a lot of weight, is that so?"
Fred was dancing close to me; his hands were on my back, my hip. I could feel his stomach, drooping and soft, pressed against my dress, his trouser buckle too. My weight was not my favorite subject.
"Hmm," I said, looking over his shoulder.
"You look great to me," he said, rubbing my hip with his hand. "Meat in all the right places, ha, ha. Gerry says you haven't had a date in twenty-five years. You got some catching up to do, don't you!" he said.
I tried to change the subject. "I understand you like to ballroom dance."
"Huh?" he said, pulling me even closer. I felt a quivering in his crotch; I thought I was going to be sick.
"Ballroom dancing," I said, trying to maneuver an inch between us, but not so he'd notice. "I understand you like to ballroom dance."
He didn't answer me. Instead, he put his tongue in my ear.
I don't know why I did what I did. It's like in all those years a devil grew in me, and I never knew it.
"Fred," I whispered, turning my head just a bit.
"Yes, Corrie," Fred whispered back, his breath damp in my ear.
"Carmel tells me you like to say your wife's dead, but actually she's in L.A. with an upholsterer named Douglas."
"You bitch!" Fred said, pushing me away from him. "I was trying to be nice to you, goddammit!"
I couldn't move. The music kept playing, the lights kept flashing, as if nothing had happened. I looked at his sweating fat face and understood how pathetic his lies were, they weren't funny at all; I saw how lonely he was. I wanted to ask why we make up stories about our lives--do we feel we need them in order to get by? But I couldn't: his face was too full of hate. I turned away, walked toward the ladies'. "Bitch!" he shouted again; I pretended not to hear, heard only the sound of the music, the clacking of my heels against the floor.
When I got home, I pulled Ellie's things out of the box. I folded them neatly--her white blouses, her socks--put them back in her drawer; I put her Sunday dress back on its plastic hanger, the photo of Ernesto on the table by my bed; I found a button for Charly's nose, gave him hair from an almost new mop, made him a shirt out of that grape-colored drape, covered my face with my hands and cried.
"Lidia?" I asked, putting down my book. My eyes felt tired. It wasn't easy thinking so hard after a long day. The bus to work broke down just two blocks from my house; the manager shouted, "Late again? Last warning, I'm telling you!" The letters in my book swam together, they wouldn't speak to me, it wasn't the first time; I wondered was it worth it.
"Yes, Cora?" Lidia said.
"How do you do it?"
"How do I do what?" Lidia asked.
"I don't know," I said. "All of it."
"Don't cry, Corita," Lidia said, putting her hand on my shoulder. "You'll get the hang of it. You've come this far! Try it one more time, from the top of the page."
There's no saying why Ellie left. She knew I wasn't smart, she knew I was fat, she knew people were always shouting at me ("I asked for cheeseburger with fries, not hamburger with chips!"), but she knew I loved her. As soon as she turned sixteen she ran away. When she didn't come back, I thought, I got nothing left. I barely kept my job. Some mornings, the blackness of my dreams wouldn't let me get up. I covered my head with a blanket, thought my life had to be over. Jesse'd call; he'd whisper, "Where you at, girl, they're asking for you!" I'd say, "Tell 'em I got a migraine." Charlene, the manager then, always had a migraine, that's why I said that--better than saying, my body won't move, I'm sorry, I don't know why.
Then one day Ernesto showed up at my door, about two years after Ellie left; it was her birthday, her eighteenth, but Ernesto didn't remember. I hadn't gone to work: it was three and still I was in my nightgown, my hair all over the place, mascara on my cheeks. I looked at him, felt almost sorry for him: he looked tired and old. I thought, his mother must be giving him a hard time or maybe that woman he lives with up in Minnesota. But then I saw how he looked at me: he couldn't hide his disgust, as if he were thinking, how could I have married a fat old cow like that?
"Any word from Ellie?" he said.
"Ellie's gone for good," I said. Your doing, I thought but didn't say. Because I didn't believe it myself.
"I've come to see Ma. She's at a home," he said. "Fell down fighting with a nurse. Just like Ma, huh?" He wanted me to laugh about his mother, but I didn't feel like it. "Don't look good for her," he said. "She don't even know me." Still I said nothing. I didn't invite him in. All I could think was that look on his face. When he left, I thought, I gotta choose now: live or die, it's that simple.
The next morning I forgot about work, went straight to the library, I don't know why--it was the only place I could think to go.
"This is your lucky day!" the lady at the desk said before making me wait an hour in the periodical room. Then she introduced me to Lidia: she was thin and wore a business-lady suit and had a briefcase. I thought maybe Lidia would be too busy to talk to me, but she said, "Tell me why you're here, Cora." I thought maybe I'd keep my story to myself, or make one up, but instead I told her everything--about the notes in Ernesto's jacket, not being able to read Ellie's report card, turning away when Ellie said, "How many steps to the moon, Mama, can a grown man walk there in a day, you think a girl will ever walk on the moon, what about me?" I asked why Ellie left, why she didn't come back. I cried and cried; I didn't mean to.
Lidia said, "I was just like you, Corita! Look at me now."
Things have changed in the eighteen months since Ernesto came by. Lidia helped me find the Diet and Exercise class; I lost sixty-three pounds. I have self-esteem and some friends, Carmel and Lidia. I can read most things. I'm not a manager--don't tell Carmel!--but I still have my job, and once in a while someone asks me out, an orderly, maybe, or a custodian. An x-ray technician once, but I said no: I saw his ring. When I go out, I try to remember Carmel's rules, but always it seems I talk about Ernesto, or Ellie, and the man doesn't ask again.
Ellie's all grown up, she's twenty now. Before I go to sleep sometimes I say a prayer, but not to God, who never did anything for me: Let her be well, I say, please let her do better than me.