EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE
Nora Pierce

We decided to dance our way out of the ghetto. After a four-hour marathon of dance movies—Breakin’, Breakin’ 2, and Flashdance—and a careful assessment of our strengths and flaws (I could do a backflip, but Janelle couldn’t do the splits), we were pretty sure we had what it took. We carried Janelle’s boom box out to the vacant lot on the east side of Butchers Hill and unfolded cardboard boxes stained with grease spots. Our paper-plate sign read DANCE SHOW DEPOSIT COINS PLEASE.

We’d been practicing in front of the mirror, pursing our lips and shimmying our shoulders. We looped our T-shirts up through the collar, trying to squeeze cleavage out of our flat eleven-year-old chests. We fastened towels to our heads for long hair, leaned over and tossed our hair around like they did on Solid Gold.

Our take so far was pretty good. By noon, we’ve made a dollar from the boys playing basketball in the rec center court. Then we got a real windfall when a Quinceaños spilled out of Our Lady of Guadalupe. They were all in a partying mood and kept throwing coins onto our plate and saying, Encore! Encore! The Qinceañera herself even danced with us, in her poofy white dress and tiara. She threw candy and pictures of saints in with the coins. I was counting the change when Janelle stopped dancing and went rigid all over. It was Selena, crossing the lot toward us. She was like a train coming down a track, and we were trapped on the rails. On either side of us alarm bells went off and lights flashed emphatically: Run!

Selena picked up her pace as she got closer to us. She stepped on the candy littering the ground around us. Selena was a one-person leper colony: everybody was afraid of her, and nobody wanted to be her. She wore the same clothes every day, and she lived in Murphy Homes, the high-rise housing project that divided the east and west sides of Butchers Hill. Our older siblings forbade us from going more than two blocks in any direction, so Janelle and I stayed near her parents’ pretty Section 8 home. I felt as if I were misbehaving when Selena crossed the lot to our side.

Her hair sprung out in every direction. One pigtail was a full four inches higher than the other. It looked like she put it up at night and then slept on it. She’d been left back at school three times, and you could smell her desk even when she wasn’t sitting at it.

Selena turned off the boom box and lifted it into her arms, shifting it from side to side as if she were in the middle of Radio Shack, inspecting the merchandise. Janelle gave me a worried look. “My sister will kill me if I get that stolen,” she whispered.

But Selena set it back down in front of us. “What you gone give me if I join?”

I just stood there, biting my nails, my cheeks burning up. Janelle’s eyes blinked nervously. She said, “Huh?”

“How much you gone give me to join your dance club?”

“It’s a dance troupe,” I said.

Selena looked at me as if I’d just arrived from another planet and she couldn’t figure out what I’d said in Venusian.

We’d made seven dollars and fifty cents, but by the time we split it three ways it amounted to a measly two-fifty each. Janelle and I decided to pool ours and split a fish sub and French fries. Selena caught up with us as we made our way down Pratt Street.

We filed into the Chinky’s for subs. I couldn’t stop calling him that, even though now I knew his name was Mr. Lai. Until my brother hit me last month, it never occurred to me not to call him that. That’s what everybody I knew called him. My brother gave me a dollar and I said, “Can I go get a bag of chips at the Chinky’s?” And smack—you’ll never say that again!

“What’s it even mean?” I asked as I threw shoes and stuffed animals at him from my side of the room.

“It means you’ve got no business saying it, is what it means!”

I secretly wished the Chinky would adopt me. He was the nicest person I knew. Sometimes he’d make me a sandwich when I’d missed the school breakfast, or pack me a lunch bag with chips and a soda, when I had nothing from home. “One day, you pretty lady,” he’d say.

We sat on his stools facing the window and squirted gobs of ketchup onto our fries. Selena sucked some of her Coke up into her straw, then stopped it up with her finger and released it onto the floor. The Chinky looked through the Plexiglas at us, and shook his head. He opened a closet and pulled out a mop.

“What should we buy when we get discovered?” Janelle asked.

Selena didn’t hesitate. “A Mercedes 450 S-L Sports Coupe. What you gone do with your money, Mariposa?” She pronounced my name Marie Posa.

“Invest in McDonald’s.”

Janelle touched her French fry to mine. “You’ve always been smart with money.”

It was true. I once collected everybody’s food stamps on the entire block and traded them for seventy-two dollars to pay for Ms. Mabel’s new walker. I walked through self-satisfied clouds for weeks afterward. Ms. Mabel stopped in the liquor store where my mom works and told her what a gem I was. At Santa Claus Anonymous, they gave me the biggest present in the room.

“What should we call ourselves?” I said.

“How about we use our first names like Special K did in Breakin’ 2,” said Janelle. “Janelle and Mariposa: The J and M Aces.”

“Ooh, that’s good!”

“Don’t you mean J, M, and S Aces?” Selena said. “Anyways, that sucks eggs. We’re gone be the East Side Queens.”

I look at her slack jaw and dirty teeth, her vaguely crossed, lazy eyes. There’s nothing queenly about her. Once, my mother made my brother throw out a plastic school binder because he’d copied a gang symbol from the basement wall onto the front of it. He’d etched it in like a tattoo, by methodically puncturing it with a ballpoint pen. I had to take the stupid thing to the Dumpster myself, because he was in a mood, and punched me seventy-two times on my upper arm until I gave in. A week later, I saw Selena take it out of her book bag in Ms. Saunders’s class. It was filled with fresh loose-leaf paper. “Hey,” I said before I realized what I was doing. “That’s my brother’s.”

“Nu uh,” Selena said. “My uncle got it for me at Lexington Market.”

I just shut up then, but I felt better about myself. At least I wasn’t Selena, picking through other people’s trash.

Sitting on the stool next to her, I expected at any moment that she might decide to whoop our asses on a whim. We tried to ignore her and concentrate on our fish sub, but she kept interjecting like a fly. As she leaned in blabbering about Camaros and Trans-Ams, I realized my hands were actually making swatting motions. She sucked on the end of her ponytail and looked out through the window with her mouth hanging open. Our school custodian, Mr. Rogers, walked by, and Selena hopped off her stool and poked her head out the door to call after him. “Hey, Mr. Rogers,” she said, “will you be my neighbor?” Then she came back and stuffed her fingers into the Styrofoam fry tray. She dug out a French fry, dripping watery ketchup down her arm, even though there was a container full of plastic forks for anybody to use. I imagined she was a fly, a big, ugly, fluttery fly buzzing around us, landing on our fish sub, cleaning her dirty antenna fingers on our French fries, grating our nerves with her incessant buzzing and circling.

 

The next day on the subway, Selena sat next to me. In DJ’s seat. DJ usually got on downtown and made his way to the seat next to mine, while his friends elbowed one another and drew hearts in the air with their fingers. He’d put his arm around my shoulders and say, “What’s up, Shorty? You’re Sexy Smurf today.” I couldn’t imagine why I was sexy. I didn’t even fill out my seven-year-old cousin’s hand-me-downs. I was so skinny and small, everybody called me flaca or Smurfette. But I wasn’t going to argue: I got up a half hour early every day so I could ride the subway on the gamble that DJ would sit with me, even though the Number 7 bus stopped right in front of my house.

But this time it was Selena and Mariposa 2gether 4ever all the way to school. As we filed off the bus, DJ and his friends held their noses. “P-yew,” DJ said. “If you hanging out with Selena now, you gonna smell like a Dumpster.”

I raced ahead of her and ducked into the girl’s bathroom at school. I rolled up a piece of toilet paper and pretended to smoke it while talking to DJ. “What’s up, Shorty?” I said, and then blew out imaginary smoke rings. But in the dented bathroom mirror I looked misshapen: insect-like, black-haired and bulging with dirty little antennae hands. I swatted the mirror, tried to smoosh myself. At school, nobody talked to Selena. When she said something to someone, they just stared off about ten feet in front of them and made little reassuring grunts whenever she finished a sentence. Then they’d hightail it out of there, happy they escaped without getting pummeled by those thick, sloppy fists.

“Did you hear?” Janelle said, as we banged open our lockers. “Ms. Felicia’s putting on a talent show in the gym. I signed us up to get discovered.”

I felt dizzy. Ever since I saw a bunch of kids win twenty-five thousand dollars on Star Search, I’d wanted to be discovered. In the movies, talent scouts and record producers are always showing up in the hood looking for new talent. I thought I was getting my chance when I got a scholarship to go to ballet classes at the City Ballet, but I was only able to go every other week when we had extra bus money.

We practiced our routine as we walked down the hallway, singing and snapping our fingers to keep the beat. Ms. Felicia looked up from the office window and smiled at us. But then Selena popped up from the office referral chair and followed us down the hall.

“Aw, man,” said Janelle, “I forgot about her.”

Selena wormed in between us. “Ms. Felicia said there’s gone be another dance group in the show. They just signed up yesterday.” She pounded her fist into her palm.

“What’s their name?” asked Janelle.

“The West Side Queens.”

“They stole that from us!”

“I’m gone kick some ass!” Selena said. “Aaww!”

The West Side Queens turned out to be two Mexican girls I recognized from my late-night visits with my brother to the taco truck. They always came with their father. When they refused to order in Spanish, he’d say, “Don’t be like that. You’re Mexican, aren’t you? Then you better be Mexican when it counts, m’íntendes?” One was fragile-looking and pretty, her hair pulled into a tight bun, and the other was a lanky and loud girl named Dena. They shared five new outfits between them every year, and wore them in the same rotation starting every Monday.

We practiced after school in the parking lot next to the playground. Selena stood in the middle because she was the tallest, but she wouldn’t stop staring at her feet. Her posture was so rounded and so downward-sloping that she looked like a decorative fountain, running off of herself. We tried to get her to follow the routine, but she just shuffled her feet haphazardly. Every now and then she stopped in the middle of the routine and looked over at the playground, giving kids dirty looks. We kept bumping into her.

The west side girls leaned against the fence, smoking cigarettes while we practiced. During our finale, Dena crossed the playground toward us, swinging her hips emphatically. She wore a purple tube top that matched her purple eye shadow. She held one hand at her hip and the other palm up, as if she were carrying an imaginary tray of food.

“Yous suck,” she said. “The West Side Queens is way better.”

I knew it was just because Dena hated me—ever since last year, when the boys rated us during lunch. They gave me a nine and Dena a two. But at least she wasn’t a minus five hundred like Selena. According to the survey, the only ten was Ms. Felicia, the school secretary, and her gigantic boobs. I was just supposed to have pretty eyes. The boys drew a picture of my pretty eyes next to Dena’s big, round pudgy ones. Underneath her picture, they labeled it Dena a.k.a. Fish Head.

Janelle and I practiced inside all weekend without Selena. We even wrote out a rehearsal schedule and signed our names to it, promising to practice for four hours each on our own.

I tried to rehearse in my front room at home, the only place where there was space for dancing, but my brother and his friends were there, smoking. They leaned into one another, as if they were trying to keep the smoke inside a little circle around them. I couldn’t appeal to my mother either, because she wouldn’t be home from work until ten.

“Can I practice in here?” I asked without hope.

“Gimme a break,” my brother said. “Ain’t nobody getting discovered, and nobody gives a shit about some goddamn talent show.”

I cried. I was ashamed but couldn’t help it: I smelled the sweet, earthy odor of marijuana, and we had just finished a unit at school, informing us that drugs will immediately kill you. I was imagining my brother in the boarded-up house next door: his eyes were empty, he stumbled around the room, hand on his heart, before fainting in a whirl of cartoon birds. I loved him.

He said, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” He sounded like my father did before he left. “Git!” he said.

One of his friends smiled at me. “She’s cute.”

I went into the kitchen and made myself some spaghetti. To test if it was done, I threw it against the kitchen wall to see if it would stick. There was nothing to put on it but salt. I stomped on a roach, carried my bowl up to my room. My brother’s side was neat, even his shoes were all lined up against the wall. He hated it when I ate up here, so I smooshed a noodle between my fingers and dropped it onto his bed. From my window I could see the massive, oblong shadow of Murphy Homes. It was plunked in the middle of the downtown commercial district, like a meteorite that fell on the city. Everybody treated it like one, too. It was dangerous to get too close, so people locked their doors when they drove past. They took another route, or if they were walking, they went all the way around Little Italy to avoid it.

Last year, a dozen kids from Murphy Homes came over to the East Side and beat on everybody in sight. I watched from my window as my brother ran down the alley toward our house. A mob of kids ran toward him with baseball bats and broken bottles. I watched him put his head down and run through them. When he got home, his face was covered in fine welts and scratches that looked like hundreds of delicate pinpricks. His face bloomed yellow-green and purple. Splitting bruises bubbled around his forehead and jaw. “Hey, little woman,” he said when I opened the door. “Get me some ice.”

In History on Monday, someone passed me a note on lined paper. It was creased in quarters, then eighths, then fourteenths. It was folded down so tight that it looked like a spitball, and I had to use the post from my earring to pick it open. The edges were fringed from being ripped out of a spiral. Inside, it read:

Meet us in the lot.
IF you aint scared.
You are (check one)
1. The suck-eggest dancers
2. The Smelliest dancers
Yours,
The West Side Queens

Selena snatched it. “Aaww, yeah,” she said, bouncing up and down in her chair, and pumping her fists. “Fight, fight, fight!”

In the parking lot, everyone formed a tight circle around Dena and Selena. Janelle and I stood with DJ and his friends, who made a barricade around us with backpacks.

“Beat her ass!” the boys chanted to Dena. They were like cheerleaders, hoping for an impossible upset. “Go on! Beat her smelly ass!” But Selena sat on top of the girl, landing fists on her face and neck. Dena’s legs were twisted and awkward under Selena. “Ow!” she cried. “Git off me! Git off! You broke my leg!”

The ambulance was there in no time, and the school police wanted to talk to Selena’s mother. Selena wouldn’t tell where she lived, all the school administrators had already gone home, and we all clammed up reflexively. But then Mr. Rogers walked across the parking lot, carrying his mop on his shoulder like a fishing rod. For a moment I thought he was going to hit Selena and Dena over the head with it, but he leaned in to the police car. “She nothing but trouble,” he said. “She live in Murphy Homes, Number 124.”

The next day, Dena came to school with a cast wrapped around her leg all the way up to the thigh. Ms. Felicia stopped me and Janelle in the hall and said, “You can bet your skinny butts you two little troublemakers won’t be performing in no talent show of mine.”

Because Selena was expelled, and her Mother didn’t bother to keep her home, she had nothing to do but torture me. She spied on me every day. She knew stuff about me now that even Janelle didn’t know. She knew I had to go to the White Horse Bar every Friday to ask my father to give my mother her child-support check. She’d probably figured out that my father was Uncle Charlie, who was always passing out drunk on the playground bench. She knew I had to go to the American Indian Center down on Broadway on Mondays and Wednesdays for after-school daycare and Homework Helpers. She’d followed me home twice already. I would act like I was going in the back door of my pretend-house until she was out of sight, and then go to my real house on Baltimore Street, that nobody knew about. The house next door to ours was condemned, and its boarded-up windows were covered in graffiti. It was full of rats and junkies that made a regular appearance on our side of the fence.

But I’d forgotten my key again. I was trying to bang the baseball bat out from where it was lodged in the front window, holding it shut, when I noticed Selena crouching behind a car. I could see her floppy high-tops with no laces peeking out from under the rim.

She popped up like a jack-in-the-box.

“So that’s where you live. Aaww! This house is crummy,” she said. “How come you always wearing pretty clothes and you live in a house like this?”

“Shut up,” I said. “At least I don’t live in Murphy Homes with twelve other people.”

She ran toward me, and I braced myself for the blow. Nobody but my brother had ever hit me. But she reeled back and then stopped her fist inches from my face. She laughed. “Scared you, didn’t I?”

I looked away.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s practice our routine.”

I spit at her feet, like Michael Jackson did in the “Beat It” video. “You can’t dance.”

Now I knew she was going to hit me. But she ruined my chance to get discovered, and she made me feel ugly and poor and worth nothing more than my crummy house that did smell like a Dumpster. Making her feel bad was suddenly worth getting beat up.

“You’re ugly!” I yelled at her. “You’re ugly and smelly, and you had to get your school supplies out of my trash!”

She hit me hard in the face, and I felt like my nose was running. Then she yanked my hair from the front so that I doubled over, and she kneed me in the stomach. But there was no stopping me. “You’re gonna be stuck in Murphy Homes till you’re old as your granny ’cause you ain’t got the sense to piss in a pot!”

She slammed me against the concrete wall and pressed into my shoulder harder and harder until my chest seemed to fold in on itself. Once I’d blacked out, which felt more like white-ing out, or cloud-ing out, I dreamed it was my grandfather, Papa Luis, holding me. He swung me in a circle, saying muñeca, muñeca. When things came into focus again, it was Selena holding me up. She had me by the forearms, and I was leaning into her chest.

“You all right?” she said. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I blacked out.”

“Ain’t it cool?” she said. “My sister taught me how to do that. It shuts off your windpipe. Wanna try it on me?”

“No.”

I was getting a headache, and there was blood all down the front of my blouse, the one Tia Belia sewed for me from my grandfather’s mariachi shirt.

“No, I want to sit down.”

We sat on my concrete stoop, and Selena giggled.

“This is one fugly house,” she said.

“Shut up,” I said.

And to my surprise, she did.

 

Nora Pierce is a Wallace Stegner fellow in fiction at Stanford University. Her first novel, The Insufficiency of Maps, is forthcoming from Atria/Simon & Schuster. Her story “Guess Who Loves Me Now?” appears in the January issue of The Barcelona Review.

 

© 2007 Swink, Inc.