Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
It was the year my uncle got arrested for killing his wife, and our family was the subject of all the town gossip. My dad and uncle were business partners, so my parents were practically on trial themselves, which meant that most of the parents didn’t want their kids to hang around me anymore, and I lost the few friends I had.
We were foreigners, spics, in a town of blancos. I don’t know how we ended up there. There’s tons of Latinos in New Jersey, but somehow we ended up in the one town that only kept them as maids. All the kids called me brownie on account of my permanent tan, or Indian because all the Indians they saw on TV were dark like me. I thought the gringos were all pink, not white, but I never said so. I was a quiet kid. Lonely, and a hell of a lot lonelier once my family became the featured topic on the nightly news.
That’s how I took up with Lucho. He moved to our block with his mom when she married the bachelor doctor who lived in the big house on the hill. Lucho had a Spanish name because his mom was living with an Argentinean guy when she had him, but Lucho’s dad was someone else. Some other guy who came and went with the sunrise.
He was 16 and I was 14, which meant we could be friends on our block but had to ignore each other at school. He had squishy lips and a small round nose, smooth shiny skin and greasy dark hair. All the girls checked him out. But Lucho was kind of dirty for a town like ours. He always wore the same thing: faded jeans with holes around the pockets, and a white button-down shirt that looked like it only got washed in the sink. He was sort of tall, taller than me at least, and skinny the way boys are till they discover beer. He smoked cigarettes and sat around on patches of grass on the school grounds sort of taking it all in. The other guys didn’t talk to him, except the loser kids who are always the first to befriend someone new. Lucho wasn’t interested though.
He discovered me without my knowing it. One day he came knocking on our front door. My mom never answered the door or the phone. She went into this depression with the whole trial, was always crying, seeing the shrink, talking about how we should just move to Italy so we could go to museums all day instead of having to deal with people calling us immigrant criminals all the time. Usually when the doorbell rang it was a reporter wanting a statement, or a neighbor with the newspaper wrapped in a paper bag. Our maid didn’t answer the door anymore either because Papi said the last thing we need is people coming down on us for hiring illegals.
So I answered it and Lucho was standing there, looking bored on our front steps. I saw him once or twice on the block, knew he moved in and that he made some people nervous. He looked at me like we knew each other for a while already and said, “Why don’t you come for a walk with me by the river?”
“Do you even know my name?” I asked him, which I guess was a dumb thing to say but you know how it is when you get caught off-guard.
He gave me that look, like I was a silly kid and he was just going to endure me. He didn’t say anything, just stood there and waited. I shouted to my mom upstairs that I’d be back later, and she didn’t respond so I walked out the door. It wasn’t until I stepped on the concrete that I realized I was barefoot, but I kept walking and followed him to the river in the woods at the end of the block.
When we were there he started smoking like an old pro, which I thought was impressive because around here, they card you to buy smokes and nobody has the nerve to break any kind of rules. It’s a town full of wusses, a polo-shirt army of numbnuts.
“This town fuckin’ blows,” he said, and I was kind of scared of him because my mom always told me that when you’re alone with a guy, he could totally kill you. I mean, look at my poor tia who got strangled by her own husband.
“I think I’m gonna go,” I started to say, and Lucho looked at me like I was a waste of time.
“Don’t be such a baby,” he said. “I’m not gonna do anything to you.”
Then he started to crack up.
“Besides, you’d be the wrong chick to mess with. I hear your uncle’s a killer.”
That was the first time anyone ever said that to me, and I felt a little pride in it. I smiled. Can you believe it?
“So whatcha gonna do when you get out of this place?”
“I don’t know,” I said, because it was the only place I knew. “College?”
“College is for pussies. You gotta get out there and live, Sabina.”
I don’t know who told him my name. Probably the same people who told him about my family. I didn’t say anything and he stopped talking, just sat there and smoked while we stared out at the shallow river. This river used to be full of trout, but they’re all gone now. I remember you could swim across it, and now it looked like a stream of sludge and mud. My feet were covered in the stuff, and there was a huge beetle crawling up my leg. I let it hop onto my finger and showed it to Lucho. He smiled at the little green creature, took it onto his fingertip and stuck it in his mouth, crunching down. He stuck his naked tongue out at me to show me he’d really eaten it.
• • •
Of course they found my uncle guilty of murder. He was always saying he was innocent, that someone framed him, even suggested that my dad set him up so he’d get the whole company, but nobody bought it. We knew he was guilty because that’s the kind of guy my uncle was. Always smacking the shit out of his wife, so that my mom would have to take her to the hospital and let her stay at our house until the two of them finally made up again. My uncle would show up with jewelry or a new car. And she’d eat it up. And once or twice my uncle turned to me and whispered some dark shit like, “You see, mi amor, all women are whores for money.”
My mom really hated my uncle. She said I wasn’t allowed to be in a room alone with him. I said, “Mom, if he ever hits me I’ll stab him.” She said it wasn’t him hitting me that she was afraid of.
Now it was the business of the sentencing. Life or death. We’re Catholic and officially against the death penalty, but I won’t lie: I think we all knew we’d be better off with my uncle underground. The next step was that he was going to be sued by his dead wife’s family for every penny he had, which was actually every penny my dad had, due to their shared business interests. Mom was freaking. She knew Papi was going to be paying off that murder for the rest of his life, and then she started cursing Papi, saying how she always told him going into business with my uncle was a big mistake.
I was telling all this to Lucho one day. We were sitting on the front steps of my house, me drinking a Coke and him smoking. My mom thought Lucho was sucio, but she was glad I had a friend, although she kept telling me not to let him kiss me, and I was embarrassed because my mom has this thing where she thinks every guy is trying to seduce you.
Then this car pulled up in front of my house and this skinny lady with red hair and a blue linen dress that was so see-through in the sunlight that we could make out her lace panties and everything came wobbling up the hill in her cheap heels. She stopped right in front of us and looked nervous. She was carrying a leather folder stuffed with papers and she looked like she had a ton she was waiting to say.
She asked if this was the right house and Lucho said, who wants to know.
“You must be Sabina?” She looked like she was trying hard to be warm, like she knew me for years already. “I’m a friend of your uncle’s. I’m writing a book about his struggle with the legal system and his unlawful incarceration.”
Oh, no. Not one of those locas my uncle manages to screw and brainwash to become his crusaders. He’s got this talent for converting any kind of woman, be it one of his female lawyers or his former cleaning lady, making them fall in love with him and be willing to give their whole life away just so they can give him blowjobs in the visitors’ room at the jail and write letters to the governor on his behalf. I know the part about the blowjobs because I heard my mom telling her sister in Colombia about it with major disgust one day.
“You know there’s like five other chicks writing books already,” I told her. “You better think of something new to say.”
She looked hurt and I almost felt bad for her. I always feel bad for dumb women. Don’t ask me why.
“He’s a wife beater, not a serial killer. Pretty fuckin’ simple. Asshole killer. Period.” That was Lucho talking. He was a really good wingman.
“So how do you know my uncle?” I asked her, suddenly trying to be sort of nice because really, I don’t want anyone saying I have bad manners.
She wouldn’t say. She started fumbling with her folder, took out a pen and said she wanted to ask me some questions, that she knew me from when I was little, that she and my uncle were friends for a long time.
“No way,” I told her.
“She’s not answering shit without her lawyer present.” Again, that was Lucho.
The lady looked amused. “He your boyfriend?”
“I’m the watchdog, bitch. Now get off this property before we call the cops on your slut ass and give you’re a real fuckin’ reason to write a book.” Lucho didn’t even raise his voice. He said it cool, calm, like he was ordering a pizza, and the lady in the see-through dress looked like she was going to have a heart attack. She started walking off on her rickety legs, almost tripping on the stone path back to her car.
• • •
You know, I was kind of a late bloomer. I was playing with Barbies till I was 13, way later than normal, and believe me, it was hard to give them up, because I loved the freedom of the Barbie world, making up stories for their skinny bodies. I never really got into liking boys much, even when girls my age were getting boyfriends and going to the movies with them and stuff. Boys didn’t like me much either. Lucho was cute though, and I started to think I might like him in that way, but every time I started to think about what it would be like to kiss him I got nervous around him, and I hated that feeling so I pushed it all out of my mind.
One day he said I was pretty but shouldn’t act pretty because that’s not attractive at all. I knew he had a thing going on with this 11th-grade girl named Courtney whose mom sold us our house and whose dad owned the car dealership in town. Courtney was blonde and blow-dried her hair for no reason. She got manicures and wore makeup that never melted, even in gym class, which we had at the same time. She had an official boyfriend, who played lacrosse and was a senior on his way to Lehigh like everyone else in this town, but she and Lucho snuck around the graveyard together, and he told me that she even laid her naked boobs down on the headstone of some Dutch settler and then laughed like a madwoman.
This made me uncomfortable. I pretended to be really busy retying my shoe when Lucho was telling me the details of making out with her behind the old colonial church. I reminded him she had a boyfriend, and he was like, “Who cares? It’s not like I wanna marry her.”
We were lying in the grass in my backyard. My mom was on the phone with Colombia, like usual, and my dad was at court, like usual.
“Hey, don’t you have a brother?” Lucho rolled over on his belly. He had a blade of grass between his teeth and the sun made his cheeks red and spotty.
“He’s at boarding school.”
“You never talk about him.”
“I forget he exists.”
“You want to make out?”
He was lying there, propped up on one elbow, squinting the sun out of his eyes. His hair was extra greasy today and he stunk a little. I wonder how often he showered. I showered twice a day, because my mom had an insane sense of smell, and she’d tell me she could smell my dirty pits at least twice a day.
“My mom can totally see us from her bedroom window,” I said.
“So let’s go to my house. The doc took my mom to the city. No one’s home.”
I started shaking my head but I was smiling.
“Come on, Sabina. You know you want to.”
You know how it is when you’re a teenager. Just when things start getting good your mom calls you in for some urgent bullshit reason like your aunt is on the phone and wants to ask if you liked the crap she sent you for your birthday.
• • •
My mom loved her shopping trips. She gave up smoking when she had me, and she never drank. Clothes were her thing, and my role was to sit on the chair in the dressing room and tell her whether or not my father would like the outfit, because if he didn’t like something, she took it right back the next day. Lucho came along once which was sort of funny. While my mom searched the racks, Lucho and I wandered into the panties and bra section and he held up a sexy bustier and told me I had stuff like that to look forward to when my boobs came in. He stayed for dinner at our house a lot, and that evening, as we ate, my mom started asking Lucho how his mom met the doctor and he got all flustered, like he was in trouble or something.
“I’m not supposed to say but they met through an ad in the paper.”
“What paper?” I swear, my mom is so nosy sometimes.
“Well, not really a paper. It was an agency kind of thing.”
I kicked my mom under the table so she’d stop asking questions, but she gave me this look like it was her house and her right to ask whatever she wanted.
I only knew that Lucho and his mom lived in California before coming to Jersey. She was living with another guy out there. A Mexican guy who sold horses and taught Lucho how to ride. Lucho said he wasn’t so bad, but that he threw them out one day and they had to find a new situation.
“Have you thought about college yet?” This was my mom’s favorite question to any kid over ten. All nouveau riche immigrants have a thing about American colleges.
“Yeah, I’m not going. The doc says I gotta work. I think I’m going back to California to be an actor.”
“What does your mother say about that?”
“That I gotta leave when I’m 18.” He turned to me and then to my mom. “I’m taking Sabina with me.”
My mom laughed, but I knew she thought he was being fresh. Fresh enough to ban from our house from here on out.
“Oh, no, you’re not,” Mami hummed. “Sabina is staying right here with us.”
• • •
I hated school. Even the teachers were whispering about my family’s place in the news. How my grandparents had to beg the judge to spare my uncle’s life. How my uncle had a couple of illegitimate kids around the state. And then all the gruesome details of the murder itself, which my mom was careful to keep from me. She attended the trial on most days and alternated which side of the courtroom she sat on. She always came home sullen, and when I asked her what happened that day, she said it was better I didn’t know.
Lucho and I were sitting by the river, which was almost dried up and it wasn’t even summer yet. We sat side by side on this old tree that curves over the river, growing sideways like a cripple, our feet swinging in the air. Lucho was smoking. One day I asked him how he bought them without getting in trouble, and he said the doctor buys them for him, and I thought that was pretty cool of him to do that for Lucho, to treat him like an adult like that.
He never tried to make out with me. We were just sitting there, listening to the crickets and flicking the ants off our thighs when out of nowhere Lucho goes, “I heard your uncle raped that lady before he killed her.”
“My aunt, you mean.”
I shrugged because I had heard that before—I heard my mom tell it to her sister on the phone—but I didn’t understand how you could be raped by someone you were already married to.
“You ever been raped?” Lucho asked me.
“Not even molested?”
“Not even a little bit when you were a kid? Your brother never tried to feel your tits or anything?”
“Ew! No!” I was laughing. My brother was a total computer nerd till he got sent away because he fell into a bad crowd.
“Not even by someone else’s dad at the town pool or anything?”
“Lucho . . . You’re such a perv.”
“I’m just asking.”
He got quiet, and then I felt kind of bad for calling him a pervert. He threw his cigarette stub into the dry soil and lit a new one right away.
• • •
The way the court arranged it, my dad could buy my uncle out of his half of the company and make monthly payments that would go straight to the parents of his dead wife. My uncle got life in the slammer and dad got 30 years of payments. And those people got a dead daughter. My mom said that on our end of it, it meant we had to watch our spending.
“Does this mean we can’t afford to send me to college?”
“No,” said Mami. “It means we’re being audited by the IRS.”
Summer vacation hadn’t even started, and I thought I was going to kill myself from overexposure to my parents. I went over to Lucho’s and knocked on the door. His mom answered. She was a nice-looking lady with fake blond hair and a tan that you know nobody is born with. She had some kind of accent. I asked Lucho where she was from, and he said she’s a Jew, which means she’s from everywhere. Bulgaria. Denmark. Turkey. Israel. A bunch of places.
Her name was Shula, and the thing I liked best about her was that she let me call her Shula, not Mrs. Whatever like all the other stiff moms in town. My mom was a first-name kind of lady, too, and it wigged all my friends out when she told them to just call her Maria. Shula waved me in and told me Lucho was out by the pool so I trekked through the doctor’s fancy house and found him under an umbrella, shirt off, wearing cut-off jeans I’d never seen before. He was stringy and tan, and then I saw them. Scars all over his arms, big welts and bruises and a big one on his chest.
“Lucho, what happened to you?”
“The doc kicks the shit out of me,” he laughed.
My parents never laid a finger on us, even when my brother made my mom cry, which was often.
“What does your mom say about it?”
“She tells him not to, but he doesn’t listen.”
Just then Shula came out and said she had to go to the mall and that she’d bring us back some Kentucky Fried if we wanted. We said okay and when it seemed like she was really gone, Lucho stood up, peeled off his shorts and jumped in the pool. I caught a glimpse of his wiry behind, the shadows of his groin, and I swallowed hard. It was the first time I saw a boy naked in real life, except for babies and once when my brother left the bathroom door unlocked.
“I don’t have my bathing suit, Lucho.”
“So take your clothes off.”
I don’t know what came over me, but I started peeling my clothes off right there, dropping my shirt, then my shorts onto the plastic lounge chair. I was down to my underwear, some pink cotton ones my mom bought with a matching pink bra. I was unhooking the bra when Shula reappeared, looking like she forgot something, setting her eyes on me and her naked son in the pool.
“Sabina, I think you’d better go.”
“I forgot my bathing suit . . .”
“Go now, please.”
I got dressed quick-style and flew down the block to my house, terrified that Shula was going to call my mom and tell her I was trying to get naked in her house, but then it occurred to me that if she did such thing, I could just shoot back that her husband beats the crap out of Lucho and that would shut her up good.
That night I heard clanking on my window while I lay in bed thinking about Lucho’s stinky naked body and how badly I wanted to see it again. I went over and opened it and saw him in the shadows of our yard, flinging his sneaker up at my window.
“Hey, I got the doc’s car! Come on, I’ll take you for a ride.”
I probably would have jumped right out the window if it hadn’t been for the fact that two years earlier, when my brother was 15, he tried to sneak out of his own bedroom window next to mine to go to a party and broke his collarbone in the process. Our neighbors heard him screaming before we did and called the police. I told Lucho to wait for me. I hadn’t taken three steps out of my room when I heard my mom call out to me, “Sabina? Are you going to the kitchen?”
Fuck. I told her yes, and she told me to bring her a glass of water. Lucho met me by the back door, and I told him I couldn’t go anywhere with him. I was standing there in my nightshirt, one that my dad got me on a business trip. It had a big fat cat on it and said “Hong Kong” across the chest. The maid shrank it so it barely covered my butt.
“You look cute,” Lucho said. “Want to sneak me into your room?”
“My dad will kill me if we get caught.”
“Fuck it. Your dad doesn’t hit for shit.”
“I’ll be grounded.”
“Lucho . . .”
“Okay, you give me no choice. I gotta go throw my sneakers at Courtney’s window now.”
This made me jealous. Courtney with her hot ballet body and her country club tan. The country club where they only let in Mayflower people. I told Lucho how they didn’t let Jews in there either and he laughed and said Courtney lets Jews in, no problem.
He left, and I got my mother her glass of water, crept across the creaky floors and went to sleep with the window open.
• • •
My mother came into my room that morning and told me just like that, you don’t have to go to school today if you don’t want to, Sabina. Something terrible happened last night.
Lucho drove into the highway divider. No car got in his way, nothing pushed him that way. It was just one of those things. The poor kid lost control of the car, is how my dad put it. The poor kid. That’s what everyone called him. Most people didn’t even know his name because he was still so new to the town. But everyone in school put on a sad face, went to see the guidance counselors, and took advantage of the school’s lenient attendance policy for post–student deaths. I went to my classes.
Then there was the funeral. You’d never guess it but kids love a fucking funeral when it’s for one of their own. They dress up in black, and the girls cluster together and cry, cry, cry like preemies. All the parents came too, showed support and looked concerned, although nobody really gave a fuck. Lucho was the good-looking smelly kid, the one all the moms said needed a shower. The one who lived with the rich doctor who, with all his loot, wouldn’t buy his new stepson some new clothes. The doc looked really upset at the funeral, and Shula sat there crying her eyes out. The casket was closed, though I’m not sure if it’s a Jewish thing or because he was so mangled from the wreck.
My brother stole my dad’s car years earlier and went on the highway, got pulled over, arrested, and sentenced to a million hours of washing fire trucks with a bucket and a sponge. That was reason enough for him to keep to the back roads. My poor Lucho never had a chance.
What’s worse is that at the funeral, people got distracted by the sight of my parents, and the whispers started. Every detail of my dad’s payout to my uncle and the victim’s family had been offered up by the stupid local papers that always implied Papi was a trafficker. My mother was dressed to kill, as always, in some designer getup that was always way too much for a town like this where all the mothers were doughier versions of their husbands.
I sat between my parents at the funeral. Mom cried, but she cries for anything nowadays. I think she felt bad because just the week before, she told me Lucho looked like a criminal waiting to happen. My father held my head close to his chest and kissed my hair. “He was a nice kid, Sabina. He knew you loved him.”
Papi surprised me. I didn’t even know I loved Lucho till that second. But I did. Because so what if he was a little smelly and weird. He came looking for me back when I was invisible. And when he was with me, he acted like I was the only thing he could see.
Courtney didn’t come to the funeral because people said she was way too emotional which I didn’t really buy. I thought she got more attention than if she actually showed up and had to sit in the rows of chairs with the rest of us. This rabbi came and said some Hebrew prayer, and I heard kids giggling behind me. And I thought of Lucho and how he’d say that was fucked.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.
What we have achieved this year—and our plans for 2023.