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Judith Schiess Avila

Chapter 1

Virgin-white Nike’s slap against the New York City sidewalk. My racing reflection slides from shop window to shop window at street level, the sneakers beating out an insistent rhythm.

Fifteen pounds.

Pulling the New York Mets baseball cap from my head, I mop at sweat with one forearm, not breaking stride. Mental images keep pace with my reflection. I am onscreen, the part gritty, touching, honest. I am Ibsen’s frustrated Nora or Shakespeare’s mad Desdemona. Audiences ache at the tragedy of these women. What have fifteen pounds got to do with it?

Sweat streams down my back. I am a heroine with a Marilyn Monroe-like innocence who falls hard for a powerful man. Love grants her the hubris to believe she can save her man’s soul, repairing what power has done to him, but he views her as a liability. Tragedy results. It’s a classic that will someday be written just for me. What have fifteen pounds got to do with it?

I stop to massage my calf, then resume the pace. I know that casting directors cram me into a box labeled “LATINA” in bold letters. That will change.

Gasping for air, I slow a bit. Running is
so not my style. With no desire to be skinny, I find a five-foot-four-inch, size-ten physique suits me fine. The fashion model ideal – face gaunt with an animal hunger, body desperately thin – insults my Latina soul. I’m an actress. A whole, real person.

But last week’s audition for a TV commercial pried my reluctant eyes open. One of the casting crew whispered to another, “She’s good.” The other answered, “Chubby, don’t you think?”

Chubby? Haven’t they heard the Native American saying, “Everything strives to be round?” My Mexican background incorporates the wisdom of both Spain and the Native races.

Still, it’s so difficult to get a part – any part – that there’s no way I’m going to let a few pounds stop me. In six weeks I will be fifteen pounds lighter. I’ve promised myself. I take a deep breath and kick up the pace. Brakes screech from down the block, an eighteen-wheeler, as I turn north from Christopher Street onto Greenwich Avenue. The roar of Manhattan overwhelms the early morning. Later in the day, by some unlikely alchemy, the din recedes to steady backdrop as the streets fill with people.

America the Beautiful
plays in plinky harpsichord style from the vicinity of my hip. I skid to a stop by Grano Trattoria. Already, the pungent aroma of simmering marinara sauce wafts out into the October morning. Ever since I began these early morning outings – when they were brisk walks, not lung-bursting jogs – I’ve loved to snake my way through the Village, discovering new shops and restaurants, trying not to lock myself into any one route.

A call at this hour?
I should have switched the phone to vibrate, and am lucky to have heard it. Gulping for breath, one arm extended to lean against a tree, I pray silently to the patron saint of desperate causes, Saint Jude, don’t let it be bad news. My prayer comes out in English, not Spanish. Latin roots give me passion, strength, history, but I’ve vowed that here, in the city of possibilities, I will perfect the demeanor of a sophisticated gringa.

Slipping my smartphone from the pocket of my shorts, I resume a slow jog. Yellow leaves shush against my sneakers as I slide the green icon to answer the call. My roommate Brittany’s skinny-girl smile is evident as she speaks into the phone. “America, where are you?” Brit has just arrived home from the overnight shift at Dunkin’ Donuts.

“Running,” I squeeze out between huffs. “Fat-burning project. Day five.”

“You go, girl…Uh, would you bring me – ”

The sidewalk vibrates. A subway passes under my feet, the rumble drowning Brittany’s voice. Like always, the sheer power of this city sends a tingle from my toes to the roots of my hair. I gulp the emission-filled air. I couldn’t live anywhere else.

“What?” I say into the phone.

“Bagel,” she shouts. “Cinnamon with cream cheese.”

“Sure.” I turn back, panting, toward the deli a block or so behind me.

“Oh, and you had a call, your – ”


Brittany’s high-pitched shout pierces my ear. “Your aunt.”

Tía Teresa?” The sweat on my brow turns cold. “Any message?”

“Call her back A-SAP.”

Dios! It’s only four-thirty in the morning Albuquerque time. Something must be wrong with Mama.

It’s too noisy out here on the street to talk to my aunt. Abandoning Brittany’s bagel and my plans to turn west and jog along Hudson River Park, I duck into a recessed entranceway. I dial
Tía Teresa’s number, leaning my forehead against the wall and cupping my ear to mute the city sounds.

she answers.

Teresa, it’s America.”

“Madre de Dios,
I forgot how early it is in New York. Only six-thirty. I’m sorry.” My talented aunt, an artist, keeps unconventional hours, sleeping and painting whenever she chooses.

“Is everything all right?”

There is a silence. I picture Teresa shaking her head, silver earrings swinging. “Your Mama is complaining. She wants you home.”

For several seconds my tongue won’t work. “Is she sick?”

Mi’ja, it’s so difficult to tell. She says she’s nervous, her legs hurt, and she’s scared to drive. She thinks she needs you here, but I think she is okay. Mostly just cranky.”

I press the phone to my ear as a car dragging its bumper in a shower of sparks drives by. “Do you think I should come home?”

Teresa sighs. “I think you should wait a few days. See how she does. I’ll let you know.”
She clicks her tongue in a scolding way. “Your mama is a good woman, but she always wants things her way.”

I let out a gust of air. I’ve been holding my breath. “You really think it’s okay? To wait, I mean?” I close my eyes and feel tears of relief, hot against my lids.

“You need to live your life,” my aunt says. “I think it’s best to wait.”

When I hang up, I collapse against the cool bricks of the entrance wall. Just when I know I’m about to make big headway in my career. Dammit! None of this is new. Mama has been a hypochondriac since…well…forever. Over the years she has perfected her complaints so that even I believe them sometimes. But the fact that my
tía called is unusual. Should I make plans to fly to New Mexico? No, Teresa said to wait; I will wait.

I head for my apartment, jogging again, swerving to miss the few people who are out at this time of morning on Saturday.
Relax. Everything will be okay.

But will it?

I love getting out early, but a lens of moisture distorts my surroundings. I scrub at my eyes with both fists.

Today, as always, familiar sounds and aromas announce the start of day – the squeal of truck brakes, the warm, yeasty smell of baking bread, the muted bleach fumes where the Korean green-grocer has disinfected the pavement. The expected secrets still unfold before the sun rises. Owners ready their shops for business like stagehands setting up for a play, activities patrons aren’t meant to see. But abruptly with Teresa’s call, I feel like an outsider, temporarily glimpsing this tableau.

Heart beating like a snare drum, a cramp shoots up my side. I slow for a moment, and the pain eases.
Suck it up, girl. Just fifteen pounds. I resume my pace.

Just ahead, construction scaffolding surrounds the first floor of a twenty-story condo. Bright blue canvas partially masks the apparatus, giving it the look of an awning. A man jogs from under the scaffolding, dressed only in sneakers, tight shorts, and sweat. The October morning is a bit chilly for this light dress, and I force a smile.

“Looking good, America,” he says.

A big Shepherd-cross dog runs close to his leg. When the dog spots me, his tail beats the air in a frantic arc. He jumps up, front paws on my shoulders.
“Parkway,” I say, ruffling the fur on the back of his neck. “How are you, boy?”

I bury my face in his furry neck before he dog drops back to all fours and follows his owner. I watch them for a second or two, jogging backwards, then turn towards home. I found Parkway nearly a year ago. He cowered by the side of the Saw Mill, at the Pleasantville exit, when I returned from visiting a friend in the country. For a few weeks he’d stayed in our cramped apartment. Brittany and Rachel were good sports, but I could see the concern on their faces as he wolfed his food, packing on pounds every day. In two long strides he’d cross the living room. Another stride and an easy jump landed him on the kitchen counter. The cramped quarters were unfair to both the fast-growing, energetic dog and to us. So Mark took him in.

Strays find me. Unerringly. Like my father, who – when he was young – had seven dogs and five rabbits, I cannot ignore an animal in need. Chiquita, a Chihuahua-cross I found snacking on a cheeseburger behind a dumpster, now rules the roost at our apartment.

How can I leave all of this?

A girl I’ve seen several times before waves from a display where she arranges hats on blank-faced mannequins. She holds up a garnet-colored soft-brimmed number.
Hot. I should come back later to try it on. Carrie and her Sex and the City gal-pals can spend their money on shoes. My vice is hats. I pull the bill down on my Mets cap and keep running.

I pass a vendor setting out baskets of Cortland and Macintosh apples, then jog by a sidewalk coffee cart. I slow to a fast walk. My Greenwich Village neighborhood stands apart from the rest of the world, a community of possibilities I would never find in New Mexico. Here, in this city, I am on the cusp, the brink of something wonderful. And the Manhattan skyscrapers soar like my hopes.
I stop moving and bend over, my left hand pressing the cramp in my side.
You’re an actress, girl. Act through this. I take a deep breath, then force my feet forward. I tell myself it will all work out. New York is my home now.

The move to New York was pure treason, according to my family. Holding my Columbia diploma up like a crucifix, I kept the demon of tradition at bay. But each call from home deposits a measure of guilt. My freedom is pitiless sand trickling through an hourglass. I fear it is using itself up.

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