Soon after Yennifer went to college, she phoned home to tell her mami the readings for her Contemporary Civ 101 class were difficult. Very difficult. Although she had been valedictorian of her City High class, she feared she could not keep up with the Anglo kids who, nurtured in suburban settings and New England boarding schools, roamed the leafy grounds of their liberal arts college with leisured insouciance and ready answers to their professors’ succinct questions. Homesick for mangú con salami breakfasts and an authentic cup of café con leche, she wanted her parents to send money for the three-hour bus trip that would take her home for the weekend, but she knew their money was tight, so she refrained from asking. Instead, she talked about the impenetrability of her readings.
It’s, like, two hundred pages each night. Sometimes more.
That’s nice, dearie, her mother said. Things are busy here too. They finally dropped off the backhoe this morning.
Yes—it’s much more effective than your papa just shoveling out all the dirt himself.
And so it was that Yennifer learned her parents were building a swimming pool in back of their house. Her parents labored at various jobs—brick layer, dish washer, seamstress, and the temporary gigs with Municipal Recreation emptying porta-johns after national holidays and city festivals—and if it weren’t for the scholarship she won, she’d likely already have joined them as a dues-paying member of the working class. Their dilapidated shotgun house lay smack in the middle of a derelict neighborhood populated mostly by the urban tumbleweed of discarded fast food wrappers, used condoms, and crushed beer cans. When not picking up odd jobs after dinner, her father regaled the family with tall tales of the renovations he would one day perform on the house. He envisioned aluminum siding and the modest addition of a wrought iron-railed porch. The house will be a castle. A castle, Yennifer would ask, raising an eyebrow. Si, mi senorita. A castle. In America, each man’s home is a castle, her papa insisted, plopping himself down living room sofa, the weight of his frame causing the yellowed vinyl slipcovers to crinkle. And someday, we will surround this castle with a moat.
A moat, she asked, taking in his smile.
Si, mi senorita.
But listening to her mami on the phone, Yennifer wondered if their backyard was big enough for a swimming pool. Growing up, the inflatable kiddie pools occasionally puffed up for her benefit overwhelmed their cramped backyard, their edges pushing up against the fence lines and forcing her parents to move aside the upended plastic milk crates they used as lawn furniture.
Do you think maybe I can come home for the weekend? To the castle?
Yennifer mentioned the money the bus trip would cost, an amount which now did not seem unreasonable given what they must be splashing down for a pool.
Silence greeted this request.
It’s okay if I don’t come home, Yennifer said.
Oh, honey, it’s not that. Do you know how expensive backhoe rentals are?
Backhoe rentals not being part of her curriculum, Yennifer hemmed. Well, goodbye, mami. Say hello to papa for me.
Most mornings, Yennifer feared she couldn’t breathe, so great was her anxiety about being able to achieve the 3.5 GPA required to maintain her scholarship. She was learning new things—mostly, snarky deconstructive literary theories about the exploitation of the underclasses, the radical theories coming at her so fast she had little time to sit and reflect upon this knowledge. The illuminated clock on the library tower tolled nightly at midnight, the hour of the library’s closing, and she’d wend through the twisted foreboding shadows cast by the campus’s gothic spires onto the moonlit path she’d take to her dorm, where she’d re-open her books and write papers that were due in the morning.
Her parents would not pick up the phone when she called. The phone would ring and ring. One day, after the sixth ring, an electronic tone sounded at the other end of the line, the tone followed by a stodgy mechanical voice instructing her to leave her name so that “someone can zing you back shortly.” She suspected she dialed a wrong number, but moments later her mother returned the call.
Mami. Wow. Thanks for calling me back. Wow. I’m just wiped out from studying.
Her mother’s voice sounded strange. She rolled her Rs in the exaggerated rumbling way of someone who had been drinking. In the background, merengue music played. Many many people seemed to be talking at once, all of them loud and laughing.
So what’cha doing, Mom?
Having friends over for a pool party. You know.
Yes. You know. When you have a pool—her mother laughed—everyone’s always dropping by and having fun. Fun! Fun! Fun! That’s us!
Yennifer heard the unmistakable splash of someone jumping into her parents’ pool. Because weeks had passed since she last spoke to her parents, she had forgotten about the pool.
Where’s Papa? Can I talk to him?
Her mother put down the phone and, like with a doctor’s office, the call switched over to Muzak. Vibraphone- and trombone-heavy versions of “Tequila” and Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” did little to soothe Yennifer’s agitation. Every thirty seconds, the mechanical voice that earlier asked her to leave a message interrupted the Muzak to say, “Please continue to hold because your call is very important to us.”
Dearie, I’m afraid your papa can’t come to the phone right now.
Then her mother cackled.
He’s doing the Limbo! And you should see that man go! Go! Go! Go! That’s us: The Go-Go-Go-sters!
Two days later, a photograph arrived as an attachment to an email her mother sent. The photograph showed her father in a black Speedo swimming suit, not quite what Yennifer wanted to feast her eyes upon. What struck her most was the unfathomably energetic way in which he threw himself into the Limbo dance her mother spoke about—this, from a man who worked two full-time jobs most of his adult life; for years, he had groused about an incurable pain in his lower back. Hawaiian leis made from coral-colored frangipani blossoms bobbed around his neck. His skin looked smoother, and tanner. Blond highlights now softened the tone of his salt-and-pepper hair. The two shapely blondes who held the Limbo bar under which he slithered wore matching pink bikinis while, behind him, flaming Tiki torches cast lurid reflections on the pool’s surface. An earthen hill had been erected at one corner of the yard to accommodate an electric-blue water slide. Long ago, back when the yard was flat, her papa sat her at that very spot and told her his aspirations for her. It was Cinco de Julio, the day after the Fourth of July, and he reeked of the sewage he had emptied from the city parks’ porta-johns. He clasped his hands around hers, and she fought off the urge to squirm free. I want you to be something better than another pissant Dominica, he said. He flicked crud off the cuff of his blue work shirt, the crud splashing in a puddle she silently told herself not to step in, and when he caught her staring at the puddle, he gripped her hands tighter, regaining her attention. Study and go to college so you don’t have to do the things your mami and me do to survive.
Society is comprised of different socioeconomic pools, one of her professors announced, much to the indifference of her classmates. The professor was inordinately fond of her sleek gold pen, so much so that she often delayed class while she rummaged through her suede tote for the instrument, but when it was in her hand (as it was on this occasion), she waved it about with great animation while speaking. Yennifer detested the pen. As much as she would try to concentrate on what her professor said, she’d find herself distracted by the pen’s flashy movements.
Ideally, the professor said, a liberal democracy will foster conditions for social mobility to empower citizens to swim upstream from one pool to the next.
Students’ hands shot up in the rows around Yennifer.
What about property rights?
Yes, property rights, another student demanded. Isn’t the safeguarding of property rights the rightful principle concern of government? Why must we privilege the aspirations of the unpropertied over the propertied?
The professor twirled her pen from one hand to the other. Anyone else care to speak?
Yennifer raised her hand. It would be the first she spoke in this particular class all semester.
Yes? What is your name?
Yennifer’s voice became scratchy. Yennifer. Yennifer Castillo.
The professor looked down at her class roster, stabbing her pen tip to the line on the roster where Yennifer supposed her name appeared. Go ahead and speak.
Isn’t dignity a form of personal property?
Classmates tittered around her, giving the impression she had said something so stupendously stupid as to not warrant a respectful response. After some moments, her professor glanced at the glowing digits on classroom’s digital wall clock. Her eyes widened. Normally a stickler for time, she had let the class run five minutes longer than scheduled. She tapped her pen against the palm of her other hand. Let’s talk more about this next week, okay, she said.
Yennifer got up to leave. Most of the other students had raced out of the lecture hall and the few who remained texted friends or played video games on their cell phones. The professor beckoned Yennifer to come meet with her. Yennifer gulped, unsure what could be gained from a longer discussion with her professor.
Um, it’s Yennifer, she said, exaggerating the first syllable. With a Y.
Oh. The professor made a note with the gold pen on the class roster. What you said was brilliant. I could see how you were expanding the definition of property to include a person’s intangible yet unalienable entitlement to self-respect.
Yennifer thought of her papa, how he toiled in the worst jobs imaginable. Even those who made their living emptying shithouses and cesspools shouldn’t be made to feel condemned forever to the cesspool.
That’s quite an analogy.
What is, Yennifer asked.
Your cesspools. It’s positively Dickensian.
Yennifer had been thinking aloud, something she rarely did and, realizing the professor heard her, she cringed.
Yennifer, do yourself a favor. Speak more often in class. We need to hear voices like yours.
Of course we do.
It was the first time Yennifer felt as if she actually belonged at the college. She phoned her parents, left her name and number on their answering machine. No one zinged her back. She pictured the grime wedged under her parents’ cracked fingernails, imagined the exhaustion they must be feeling from their back-breaking jobs. Even if they had a swimming pool to show for their toil, she did not envy their lives.
One thing puzzled Yennifer: she never saw other students study. Except for the alcove near the circulation desk where DVDs were displayed, the library was always empty. She assumed maybe they did their homework in their dorm rooms. One night, needing a sugar fix to fuel her reading stamina, she wandered into the Student Union Hall for a candy bar. Hundreds of students were playing pool and foosball in the Rec Center. A Karaoke Night was going on in the ground-floor coffee shop and, while she waited for the cashier to ring up her Snickers purchase, a pair of sophomores giggled their way through an incoherent rendition of the old Sam Cooke classic, “Working on the Chain Gang.”
Yennifer handed the cashier a dollar bill to pay for the candy bar.
Yeah? the cashier said.
Just the candy bar for me. I’ve got to get back to work.
The cashier ran the candy bar over the register’s optical scanner. A moment later, the register displayed the price: $2.84.
Looks like you owe me more money, chiquita.
My name’s not Chiquita.
Whatever. Just give me the money.
Yennifer dug through her pockets. She hadn’t the money on her and, knowing she’d incur a 50¢ service fee, she didn’t want to use her debit card. Um.
What, the cashier said.
Why’s everyone here? Yennifer asked, motioning towards the karaoke stage.
The cashier shrugged.
Really. I mean, why isn’t everyone studying?
Duh! It’s Monday! Who studies on Monday?
Outside, candy-less, she stormed back to the library. Three hundred humorless pages of The Federalist Papers awaited her attention. She just didn’t get it. Midterms were around the corner and she was deep into writing her end-of-semester research papers. Wasn’t anyone else worrying about their GPAs, or did they expect to get by in life solely on the strength of their blond hair and bleached teeth?
In mid-November, Yennifer called her parents. She had aced her mid-terms, and a student in her American Social Dynamics colloquy asked her to write his term paper for the class. She resisted, knowing she risked expulsion if found out, but the guy offered a hundred dollars, peeling off five twenties from a wad he kept in his backpack. The subject of the paper (his choosing) was the largely forgotten wave of African-Americans who fought in the Civil War on behalf of the Confederacy, a subject she found strangely fascinating for she couldn’t fathom how anyone could take up such an odious cause so at odds with their self-interest. With the money, she could afford a Greyhound ticket home for the upcoming Thanksgiving break.
You want to come home? her mother asked.
I’m so lone-ly here. I really want to see you and papa.
I’m looking forward to a few good nights’ sleep in my own bed again.
You want to sleep on your own bed? The bed in your old room? You want to sleep there?
Sure. What’s wrong?
Nothing. It’s just—
A moment later, Muzak played over the phone line. A mechanical voice informed her that “your call is really important to us, so please remain on the line.” Outside, snowflakes fluttered past her dorm room window. Somehow the seasons had changed without her noticing. She used to curl up with a blanket in her bed when she was younger, bedazzled by each year’s first snow and finding it impossible to sleep.
Yennifer? Dear? Your Daddy and I are both touched, really, that you want to visit, but there have been changes to the house that, uh, may make your visit uncomfortable.
We needed space to expand the ballroom. So we knocked down a few walls. One of the walls we knocked down just so happened to be the wall to your bedroom. I am sorry to have to tell you this, especially now that you’ve sweetly offered to visit. But where your bed was, now there is a bandstand where, six nights per week, the hottest samba band in all the land plays merrily for us.
We didn’t tell you about the ballroom, did we?
Ever since we got the pool, we have discovered so many friends. Aren’t you happy for us? But these friends, ahh, they get so worked up after a good swim. When they finish, they want to go dancing. Everyone wants to Cha-Cha-Cha, and who are we to deny our dear friends the pleasure of a good Cha-Cha-Cha? So the ballroom was a necessity—no?—if we are to be Cha-Cha-Cha people?
You tore down my bedroom?
Sadly, yes. But frankly, we worried about the kind of people a vacant bed would attract to our house.
Yennifer was shattered. She wanted to tell her mother that she worked hard. Most nights, she didn’t fall asleep until two a.m., waking at six to energize herself with coffee and a biscuit at the cafeteria before hitting the books again. Although studying wasn’t physically demanding like the pipe-laying work her father did the previous summer, it exhausted her.
Can you afford all that you’ve done to the house?
What do you mean?
With all this Cha-Cha-Cha-ing, do you have the time to go to work anymore?
Work? Ha! her mami said, cackling. This is America, where only the riff-raff need to work!
Over the phone, Yennifer heard the finest samba band in all the land mount the bandstand in her parents’ ballroom and launch into a wild rhythm. Her mother cackled. People flooded onto the glazed maple dance floor, many, she guessed, having changed out of their swimwear into elegant tuxedos and flamboyantly beaded taffeta gowns. Someone started singing. Others were laughing, having fun, digging their hands into silver serving dishes of cocktail nuts and chocolates. Unable to stand the merriment any longer, Yennifer laid the phone on her bed pillow. The previous spring, she had torn open an envelope and discovered the college had awarded her a full scholarship should she accept their offer to attend the school. Excited, she squealed. Her papa, having just come home from an afternoon ditch-digging job, took the letter in his mud-caked hands but was unable to understand her excitement. Full scholarship? he asked. How much is this going to cost? Nothing! He did not trust his English, so he had her translate aloud the scholarship offer into Spanish, yet still the concept eluded him. Libre? The opportunities a degree from the prestigious college would afford her were unfathomable. She thought she would be on Easy Street. Easy Street? He scratched his cheeks, the dirt that crumbled from the tips of his fingers getting caught in his chin stubble. But, mi senorita, everything costs, no?
The pillow that the phone now rested against muffled the gaiety of her parents’ party. Everything sounded more distant, and further from her reach. She leaned over and disconnected the call. Many more hours remained in her day. Carefree parties were taking place up and down her dormitory hall, but she had three books to read for her morning classes and even if she had been invited to party, she still needed to enter her responses to her reading into the electronic journals she emailed nightly to her academic advisor.
Outside, on the way to the library, she stumbled amidst the oak trees that lined the moonlit campus quadrangle. In her tired state, she imagined the quad’s vast empty space of lawn to be a swimming pool. She could almost imagine springing off a diving board and hurling herself into the cool chlorinated water, the psychological weight of assigned readings and research papers pulling her down. Gasping, she’d watch her breath bubble from her mouth and float to surface, each tiny bubble a perfect sphere. The clock on the library tower tolled, awakening her from her reverie, but she could not escape that sinking sensation and the idea of so many bubbles of air slipping away from her as she descended to the bottom of the pool.