What promise. Incorporated in 1850, she was awarded medals and monikers: Birthplace of Volleyball, Queen of Industrial Cities, Paper City of the World. Of the world.
Paper. Paper was like gold here. The paper mills, which opened in 1849, started everything. Twenty-five paper mills at its zenith. The population boomed, rising from 4,600 to 60,000 inhabitants from 1885 to 1920.
The streets teemed with Irish and Polish immigrants and with cultured people who were able to make this small western-Massachusetts town a city in which soon-to-be-released Broadway shows were previewed. A place that was about to come into its own in the shadow of New York City.
That was then.
Today, there are new monikers, new people: “Highest Teenage Pregnancy Rate in MA,” “Crime Rate Above the National Average,” and girls like Veronica.
• • •
What I notice most about her is her ripe body. The way her tits stick out and everything curves down the back of her skirt. She wears black sandals that show off her orange painted toenails. Gold rings on three fingers on her right hand, her punching hand, and two on her left hand. Her lips are sometimes plum, sometimes maroon, a Holyoke-girl standard. Her hair is dyed lighter than nature intended. And if I sat behind her and traced its history I would get her life story; it has grown harsher and coarser over time, but it believes that it is happier at each stage, and it knows no other.
I saw her first in the book Holyoke Schoolchildren. It quoted a girl saying she wanted to be a doctor. Sometimes I think Holyoke people are cliché. And who was this idealistic ethnographer? Nobody will burst dramatically out of Holyoke. Maybe he was from Vermont or New Hampshire, from a place that was supposed to be quaint like Massachusetts and actually was. He certainly wasn’t from around here. Not like me. My ethnography is the truth.
• • •
When Veronica is called on in class, butterflies gnaw at her stomach, and it is sometimes worse than being with boys. Her social-studies teacher Miss O’Donnell looks at her. Tramp, Miss O’Donnell thinks. It is not Veronica’s beauty that Miss O’Donnell detests, but rather the looking, the thinking about, the whispering about, the rustling and shifting that is done when Veronica is in the class. But Miss O’Donnell calms herself because she knows that while Veronica is hot shit here, nowhere else would girls turn from looking at Veronica to looking at themselves, to see how their jeans match up, their shoes, their color lipstick, the shade of their hair. Only here, in Miss O’Donnell’s class.
Lucky for Miss O’Donnell, she doesn’t have to call on Veronica too often. Veronica doesn’t talk much in class. Since kindergarten, Veronica has rarely raised her hand. She usually sits there with a hard expression on her face, popping gum.
For a small sense of amusement, Miss O’Donnell calls on Veronica today. Veronica, flustered, stares at Miss O’Donnell as she considers if she should ignore her by not saying anything or by offering something nonsensical; she chooses neither and opens her plum-colored lips and speaks inaudibly. But no matter, her classmates are certainly not concerned with Miss O’Donnell’s questions or Veronica’s answers. What they want to know is who Veronica is fucking and if it’s true that she once slept with Papo and Hugo or if she really is pregnant by Ralfy.
Maria slips Veronica the question book that has been passed around since Miss O’Donnell took roll call 35 minutes ago. There is a question on every page and everybody has chosen a number alias. Page 3 asks: Is Veronica Diaz really pregnant? Veronica looks down at number 6, number 9, and all the other numbers on the page who have one simple answer to that question: YES. Veronica looks around the room and notices that the boys and girls are staring. They look at Veronica and think that it is certainly about time that she was pregnant. She is pretty and they are surprised she has made it this far without getting pregnant. They think, any day now.
Veronica again looks down at the question and at all the yeses and the one “Ralfy fucks her all the time. She has to be pregnant.” Veronica writes: “No, she isn’t!!!” She presses her nails into her palm and thinks about something she truly hates. Firms her heart up. Looks back at Maria and rolls her eyes, so everyone can see that she doesn’t give a fuck.
• • •
Veronica and Maria go to lunch together and wait for Cassandra. Veronica can’t remember a time when she hasn’t been friends with Maria. Since going to high school they have not been as close, but Veronica can imagine all the drama that would occur if she stopped being friends with her. Maria has benefited more from this friendship, but you have to contribute something in order to hang with pretty girls. Maria is average-looking, but she is tough. She has a big mouth, and everyone knows that she is willing to get down if necessary. In short, Maria is cool. So people are less apt to fuck with her.
“I like how everyone thinks I’m pregnant,” Veronica says to Maria. She knows she has to mention it, otherwise she will look like a punk. She has to make sure to laugh loud at lunch, to talk loud, or do something so no one will think she’s been affected in the least.
“Yeah, I saw the question book. But fuck ’em. You’re not, and even if you are, what’s the big deal?” Maria responds.
“I just don’t want Ralfy hearing any of this shit. I don’t want to piss him off. I think he’s playing me.”
“Have you heard anything?”
“No, I haven’t seen him in like a week and he’s never on Chestnut Street when I’m looking for him. But I don’t know who he’d be with because everybody knows I go out with him.”
“Yeah, well, you never know about these chickenheads. Maybe he’s been arrested,” Maria says.
“Maybe, but I figure that he would’ve called or someone else would’ve told me. This shit is so wack. I’m real tired of it.”
“Well, it’s not like you don’t have options. You gonna break up with him?”
“No. I wanna find out what the deal is first.”
Cassandra walks over and sits down. “What’s up girls? Hey V, I hear you’re pregnant,” Cassandra says, laughing. “These people seriously have nothing better to do than to talk shit all day.”
“Yeah . . . we were just talking about that,” Veronica says and adds extra loud, “Like I give a fuck what these people have to say.”
The white girl from their class, Gail, the one that lives in the Flats—a Puerto Rican section of Holyoke, even though, if truth be told, most of Holyoke is Puerto Rican even if white people have their own sections and outnumber them—walks by the three girls and says hi. Veronica gives her a dirty look; she has heard that Gail has been talking to Ralfy.
Veronica watches Gail stop to talk to Franky, the only Puerto Rican boy at this school that Veronica, Maria, and Cassandra would even entertain going out with. Veronica sees the way Gail giggles and flips her dirty brown hair. Veronica has refused to believe that this girl could be competition. But today she ruptures.
“Gail, come here,” Veronica says.
“Hey,” Gail says, not sure of what’s going on.
“Yeah, I hear you’re real tight with my man. Is that true?”
Others turn to look at them in the cafeteria and Cassandra laughs.
“Uh, we’re not that tight. I barely know him. I mean I know him in passing, but that’s about it,” Gail says.
“Well you should make sure to keep it that way.” Veronica stares Gail down until she knows she has given her classmates something new to talk about. Normally, bringing fear into a white girl’s eyes is not what is going to make Veronica feel empowered. White people don’t know how to fight. Only fights with other Puerto Rican girls and the few black girls that live here count. But today, she needs this. Veronica turns back to Maria and Cassandra and says, “I can’t stand that bitch. She’s always talking to Ralfy. She’s lucky she doesn’t get smacked. If I catch her talking to him, it’s on.”
“Please V, you don’t need to worry about her,” Maria says.
• • •
Cassandra keeps telling her story, since she knows that silence will draw more attention from the girls they are about to walk by. She also knows not to be too loud. She is telling Veronica about a party they can go to next week. Veronica listens, but she also strains to hear if anything will be said. She thinks she hears “Stupid bitches,” and her heart races. She is about to turn around and look in the direction of the girls, but she looks first at Cassandra. To her relief she sees that Cassandra has not heard anything. She is saved. And she convinces herself that she may have misheard. But her heart does not stop pounding for another few blocks. She wonders what it would be like to not have to deal with this shit every day.
When Veronica gets home she lays on her bed. She listens to the cars in the alley, to the noise of the TV in the living room and the raised voices of her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. They are not necessarily fighting, but they always speak loudly to each other. She rolls her eyes and turns on her side and thinks about Ralfy. She wonders where he could be, and why she hasn’t heard from him. Veronica doesn’t like being home, but she likes the few minutes of refuge she can usually find there, when she can let her mind wander.
Veronica can hear her little sister bossing around some other girl in the alleyway, and Veronica thinks about going out there and telling her it’s not nice to pick on people. She puts the pillow over her head.
• • •
“But Maria said she saw him last night at Tito’s house. Do you want to see if he’s on Chestnut now?” Cassandra says.
“Is that what she told you? She didn’t mention that to me. What the fuck is going on?” Veronica says.
They walk through Jackson Parkway, and for the first time in weeks Veronica spots Ralfy in the playground across the street. She is disappointed that he is there and has not called her, but she is relieved that she can finally talk to him. She thinks about what approach to take. If she should make pretend like everything is okay or if she should just be angry with him.
“Ralfy,” she calls from across the street.
He waves when he sees her and starts to walk toward her.
“So what’s up? I haven’t seen you,” Veronica says as she leans over to kiss him.
“Nothing, you know, the same old shit. The cops were sweating me so I’ve been chilling at my mom’s house in Springfield. I just got back last night.”
“Nice to let me know. I’ve been looking for you.”
“Well shit, Tito knew where I was. Did you ask him?
“No, but is he your girl or me? You should have told me.”
“All right, next time I’ll call you. Happy? Come on, don’t be mad. I haven’t seen you in a while; I don’t want to fight with you. Yo, defend me here, Cassandra,” he says as he reaches over to hug and kiss Veronica. “Tell her not to be mad at me.”
Veronica looks at his brown face and sees that beautiful grin. She remembers seeing him at different parties since she was 13. She always thought he was cute and was so happy when he asked her to be his girl. She is glad that Cassandra is there to watch this moment so that all those people that talk shit can know, can see he really does love her. She pulls back and kisses him on the lips and asks him what he’s up to now. He says that he’s waiting for Tito, but he tells her that he’ll call her later so that she can come over.
Veronica beams with energy, and she and Cassandra walk away. She turns back to look at him. She loves the way that he looks with his hands in his pockets, a hoodie over his curly hair. She feels the heat of her heart spread.
• • •
His skinny frame leaned over her in bed. This was not the first time they had sex, but this was one of the first few times; it was a few weeks after they had first met. She wishes now she could pinpoint which time exactly it was. When she thinks she is ready to cordon off her heart to him, she always goes back to this memory. He leans over her and tells her stories about who he is. She knows as she listens that she is special.
She remembers the most random story. It was about how when he was 12 he had a crush on this chubby girl, a girl no one else would like. He couldn’t figure out why he liked her; all the boys liked this one other girl. One day he finally worked the courage up to go and talk to her, and the girl started crying when he asked her out. He couldn’t figure it out then, but later he realized that she thought he was making fun of her. He felt stupid after that and didn’t talk to the girl again.
Veronica likes imagining him as this young kid scared to talk to a girl. Then she knows he is not so unlike her.
• • •
It’s funny how we think we’ll be better than our mothers. How even though they’re all we’ve seen, we think we can have things they’ve never had. We are taught to dream only of what we can reach out and grab with our two fists, and whatever we can’t doesn’t exist and is certainly not worth thinking about. Yet we resist. We believe in love.
This is not learned behavior, but some primordial belief that comes to us from our mothers. They must talk to us when we are in their wombs and tell us that it is going to be okay, that it will be better for us. But when we are born, they stomp around the house, pulling at their hair, beating their breasts, decrying men as the ones that led them right over the abyss. Free-falling. We get all sorts of advice on how to tread carefully, but this is the one rule we don’t follow; we wait all our lives to be different from them in this one way. We want to be noticed, to have some effect on a man’s life.
• • •
Ralfy lies in bed in his boxer shorts looking up at the ceiling. At 18 he has a hard face. He is thin but has large bruised hands and a reputation for being a hard rock. He strokes Veronica’s hair and kisses her cheeks. She rubs his forearm and turns to him.
“Have you heard how people are saying I’m pregnant?”
“No. Are you?”
“So then why are they saying that?”
“I don’t know. I told Cassandra weeks ago that I wanted a baby. Maybe somebody heard that.”
“You want a baby from me? Shit, I can give you a baby.”
Veronica laughs. “I want to get out of my house. If I had a baby I could just leave and have my own shit. I wouldn’t have to go to school anymore and we could be together more.”
• • •
The last ones to come were the Puerto Ricans. They came in the 1950s. Not the 1950s memorialized on TV. These people came to work. Not in offices. No clean crisp white shirts at the end of the day. No nice homes to return to by six o’clock. No doting wives. They came to work with their hands. Maybe just like they did in Puerto Rico. Tobacco instead of sugar cane. Now, this tiny western-Massachusetts city has the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans anywhere in the world outside of Puerto Rico. By the time they came though, everything was almost gone. All the promise. All the upward spirals. All the paper like gold.
• • •
All this week they’ve said they weren’t sure if they were going to go to the party. Again, Maria complained. Last weekend, Veronica and Cassandra had decided to have a girls’ night instead of going out. Maria went to a party without them. Veronica and Cassandra wore plush pajamas. They watched the The Little Mermaid and did each other’s hair. They laughed most of the night away, and Veronica enjoyed herself and for once did not think about Ralfy every second.
They had so much fun last weekend, Veronica and Cassandra thought of staying in again. But at the end of the school day, Veronica heard that Gail was grinding with Ralfy at a party last weekend, and Veronica would not be punked any longer. Veronica put on baggy jeans, black boots, and a black halter top. She looked in the mirror one last time before leaving for the party, wondering if she looked pretty enough tonight to keep her man. She thought about Gail with her small tits and flat ass; she thought Gail was no competition, plus Ralfy has always said that he would never date a white girl. But Gail is different. She’s not a regular white girl; she’s been known to go out with some of the Puerto Rican boys, and a long time ago, in elementary school, she used to be good friends with Maria. A month ago Veronica never even paid attention to Gail. Now Veronica looked at what Gail was wearing and if she was hanging around any Puerto Ricans, because when she was, that changed her status, made her more competition.
The thing about Holyoke girls is that they don’t realize how important other girls are to them. When Holyoke girls walk into parties, their hearts start beating rapidly because they don’t know how the night will unfold. It has nothing to do with whether they will start rapping to a new guy but if they will end up in a fight with another girl. If they fight another girl they have to think about all her friends and whether they will jump in. And they have to figure out who won’t talk to them Monday morning. One part of the formation changes, and then they have to wait to see how all the other parts will react. Mutation.
• • •
They get to the party and survey the crowd. She sees Ralfy first, then she sees he is dancing with Maria. Maria has her arms around his neck and from across the room, between the crowded bodies, Veronica can see Ralfy smiling at Maria. Veronica turns to Cassandra and says, “What is this shit?”
“Easy. You don’t know anything for sure yet,” Cassandra says.
Veronica walks over to Ralfy, pulls him away and purposely bumps into Maria.
Maria sucks her teeth at Veronica. “Damn, what’s your problem? I know he’s your man.”
Veronica, ignoring Maria, asks Ralfy to come outside where she immediately gets into it. “Listen, I feel like you’ve been mad shady lately. If you’re cheating on me, then just let me know because I don’t want to put up with this shit.
“Veronica, please, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. I don’t know what you’ve been hearing, but if I was cheating on you, you’d fucking know it. Why the fuck would I keep you around if I was?”
“Don’t you fucking talk to me like that. Why the fuck were you dancing with Maria like that? Are you fucking her?”
He laughs. “Veronica, why would I fuck your girl? We were just dancing,” he says, then he flashes his smile at her.
“You’re a fucking liar,” Veronica says as she slams her fists into his chest.
I wonder if she ever sat down and thought for just one second that perhaps love doesn’t exist. That bards sang about love because it was elusive and untrue, perhaps they made it up themselves. Because who has she ever known that has ever known love? Not her parents, not her neighbors, and most certainly not her friends. Real love—a love that lasts, a love of understanding. How can you start believing in something when you have never seen proof of it?
But girls will be girls. Girls in love in Holyoke is as inevitable as tripping in the streets, as inevitable as the boys in love with money.
Veronica turns around and walks back into the party. She goes back to Maria.
“Are you fucking my man?”
Veronica doesn’t bother to wait for an answer. She raises her hand and smacks Maria’s head back into the wall. She grabs Maria by the hair and bangs Maria’s head against her knee. She knocks her to the ground and Veronica only stops when Ralfy pulls her off of Maria. When he touches her, Veronica’s heart bursts.
Everyone is crowded around them. And then she does the unthinkable.
Veronica starts to cry.