By Zoe Morales Ervolino
Yenny met him at the bodega on the corner of 190th street and Grand Avenue. He was the only other person in the place besides the cashier—who was distracted by the Yankees game playing on a small TV in the front of the shop—and she could tell immediately that he wasn’t from the Bronx. He was wearing jeans and a collared shirt that was slightly tucked in the front and stood facing a wall of cleaning supplies. She watched as he picked up a package of baking soda, looked it over, and then carefully put it back. He repeated the gesture several times: picking things up, inspecting them, and then returning them delicately to their rightful positions on the wire shelf. She decided that he looked like one of those blanquitos de la YUPI her tía Marcela had been going on about during her bouts of unsolicited advice. “Son lindísimos pero peligrosos,” her aunt had cautioned, but now Yenny was looking at this white boy and doubting her tía, because the pasty flaco not only lacked sex appeal, but also looked like he could barely lift a bottle of Windex. It occurred to her then that she could probably scare him just by sneezing. When he looked up at her, she realized she was staring.
She wasn’t supposed to have been in the bodega at all. It was a Friday night, which meant she had just finished her double shift at the Dominican restaurant on 195th and University Ave, and typically after finishing her double shifts, all she wanted to do was pass out. She was tired in the way that made her eyelids heavy and her knees stiff like the old bagels the Jewish lady, who lived in apartment 8a, would sometimes leave in front of the door for her family, who lived in apartment 8c, when bad shit about Latinos was reported in the news. Yenny never understood whether or not the bagels came from a good place or a fearful one, but she ate them all the same and never thought about asking. After work, she counted her tips, rinsed her face in the bathroom sink, locked up the restaurant, and walked straight across 195th to get home. But when she arrived, her mamá blocked her way, standing in the doorway of the apartment holding a glass in her hand.
Yenny noticed the Mary Magdalen, which adorned the glass’ side, and remembered the santaría candle that she had only ever seen lit on the makeshift altar in the front hallway, next to the photo of Jesus her abué had hand painted. Then her mami was saying ‘se acabó’ and ‘hay que ir ahora para reemplazarla’ and she, with tired, bagel legs, had asked ‘ahora?’ Her mother had given her that look which meant ‘do I look like I’m fucking around?’ to which the implicit (but unspoken) answer was always, ‘no.’ So she had turned around and walked down the block to the only place that she thought would be open: the bodega on 190th and Grand. And sure enough, it was. And under the fluorescent light of the small shop, she found him. And then, she was staring at him. He noticed and smiled.
The smile confused her. She decided he must have had some kind of problem, and she smiled back in an empty effort of basic courtesy. She redirected her attention back to the search for the candle and turned right down the first aisle. There wasn’t anything besides different kinds of twine and wire, so she turned left to continue on her search, and there he was again, empty-handed, inspecting, looking at her. He smiled again, which stressed her out. She returned the smile nervously this time, and then turned into the next aisle, attempting to avoid any further interactions. She scanned the rows of chucherías and junk food with no luck, and when she turned to move, he was standing right there. She jumped.
“Oh shit,” he said in a thick New York accent she couldn’t quite place, raking his fingers through his dark hair. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Oh no, don’t worry. I’m okay,” Yenny responded, collecting herself.
“I was just…” He paused, taking a moment to consider what he was saying. “I was trying to ask if you needed any help looking for whatever it is you’re looking for.”
Yenny examined the man’s soft eyes and saw that he was being entirely earnest. A restrained chuckle quickly escaped from her lips, and quickly, it grew and grew into an uncontainable roar which took over her entire body. She was laughing so hard that she couldn’t keep her eyes open and her bagel legs were so weak that she had to grip onto the wire shelves for support. When she finally calmed down, she unlatched her grip from the shelf and looked him straight in the face.
“I’m looking for a santaría candle,” she stated plainly. “Can you help me find that?” For a moment, he seemed hurt. He glanced down, as if to think, and then met her gaze again.
“I can try?” and she decided that this was a Brooklyn accent.
“I guess I’m just saying that I don’t think 9/11 jokes are a big deal anymore.”
Yenny shifted her position in front of the mirror in her friend Ceci’s bedroom, twisting an uncooperative curl towards the front of her face. Ceci was laying on her stomach by the base of the mirror, resting her cheek inside the crevice of her right elbow, and twirling a spliff with her other hand.
“Jesus, Yenny,” Ceci said, taking a hit, and blowing the smoke towards the open window.
“What? Don’t be annoying. You know what I’m saying.”
“No, I don’t. There’s a difference between being annoying and disagreeing with you.” Ceci looked up at Yenny fixing her hair and readjusted herself on the floor.
“Mija, you agreed to go on one date with a white boy and now you’re talking crazy.” She passed Yenny the joint, ribbons of smoke escaping from it.
Yenny nudged Ceci with the side of her leg. “Callaté. My argument makes sense. When bad shit happens, it’s not funny when it’s upsetting only to a specific group of people. That’s why racist jokes aren’t funny. Or jokes about, like, deportation or shit like that. But shit that makes everyone upset? That’s allowed. And shit that makes rich whites upset? Eso tambien. Entonces, 9/11.” Placing the joint between her parted lips, she moved to adjust another ringlet.
“9/11 was bad for brown folk too, Yenny. Airport security and shit. And also—you know what—there were mad hate crimes against brown folk in the Bronx. Against Muslims.”
“No, I know that. I’m just saying you can’t separate the event from everything that came after.” Pinching a perfect spiral between her thumb and forefinger, she looked down at her friend.
“It’s more fun to laugh, Ceci.”
“Truth hurts, puta.”
“Not if it ain’t true, loca.” Ceci laughed—one of those quick laughs that was just an exhale. Yenny gestured to the mug on the table next to Ceci’s mirror and Ceci nodded. It was a faded red mug with the words “IT’S COLOMBIA NOT COLUMBIA” printed on both the front and back. Yenny twisted and tapped the lit part of the joint against the well worn ceramic until the fire went out. She finished fidgeting with her hair and sighed, draping herself over Ceci, who, when Yenny’s weight was pressed against her, muttered “gordita.” Yenny hit her. The two laughed easily now.
“Entonces,” Ceci began once Yenny had found a comfortable way to lie on top of her, “Where are you two going? Cerquita o que?”
“No. Vamos a Brooklyn. A really good comedy club in Sheepshead Bay. He says he goes there all the time with his friends.”
“So he’s not from here.”
“So why was he?”
“He said ‘he likes to explore.’”
“A comedy club, huh. So he’s funny then.” Ceci rolled her eyes.
“That’s why I agreed to do this in the first place. Typically, Bodega men aren’t my first choice.”
“I never know with you, Yenny.”
Yenny pinched her. “No seas un bitch.”
“I’m not. Sheepshead Bay. Is that Brown Brooklyn or White Brooklyn?”
“No sé. I don’t think Brooklyn works like that.”
“Tan boba. Brooklyn definitely works like that, Yenny. Everywhere works like that.”
“No sé. I didn’t ask him.”
“You didn’t ask the Gringito Flaquito if he was bringing you to the North Pole?” Yenny laughed and Ceci felt her stomach pulsating on the small of her back like a familiar drumline.
“Tranquila. He says he goes there all the time.” The two were quiet for a moment, stacked delicately like two alternating Jenga blocks.
“Well if you end up going to the North Pole, you better bring a warm-ass coat.”
The wind brought the cold through the open window and lifted the curtain as it drifted into the sacred space between them.
“Maybe, this is the North Pole,” Yenny said, and the two laid there in the crisp and cold silence.
Yenny met him at the Comedy Cellar on Emmons Ave, just off the Belt Parkway. It was dark out, except for the flashes of white light which leaked onto the street from the cars passing above. He was wearing the same outfit as when she had met him, but a slightly different variation. The lapels on his shirt were exaggerated and she suddenly felt as though she was in a bad remake of Saturday Night Fever. But he was smiling and when he leaned in to embrace her, she remembered his gentle disposition.
“I like your earrings,” he said over the sound of cars whizzing by, pointing at the golden hoops which brushed the tops of her shoulders. “They’re like hula hoops,” he added.
“Thanks,” she replied instinctively, though his comment had caught her off guard. She looped a finger through the left earring to make sure it was still there, and then realized she hadn’t been wearing the earrings at the bodega.
“I wear these all the time,” she added and immediately regretted, undermining her authenticity in her very attempt to defend it—though he didn’t seem to notice. He was squinting at a glossy poster, trying to make out the text.
“Andrew Dice Clay,” he finally revealed. “Shit. The Diceman! I’ve heard he’s incredible.” He slid his finger down the poster to find the date. “We just missed him.”
Yenny didn’t know who the Diceman was, but it didn’t matter because people started showing up and next she was being ushered through the front doors and inside. They were seated in the lowlights of a small club at a sticky table facing a makeshift stage. There was a white man with a thick neck reciting his standup set, and then, everyone was laughing. The Bodega Gringo ordered a rum and Coke for each of them, and brought the drinks over. The air inside was thin but warm and Yenny was shocked by how unfamiliar it felt to breathe, like inhaling powdered chalk. She sipped her drink slowly, and he leaned towards the stage. The self-proclaimed ‘comic’ was now talking about his mom, and the audience seemed to be enjoying it.
“The thing about my mom is that she’s not like other moms. She’s hot.” The audience laughed, and Yenny started looking around. She saw white faces.
“I mean no disrespect to my mom. I love her. But also she’s fucking hot. I would fuck my mom.”
Yenny realized she had the curliest hair of all the people in the club. “The only difference between my mom and my girlfriend is that I fuck my girlfriend. And also that my girlfriend doesn’t exist.”
Yenny realized she might be the only non-white person in the place. “My girlfriend and I don’t fight. Except when she doesn’t want to fuck. She’s my fantasy so who told her she got a choice?”
The stage swelled like a dream. “The thing about wetbacks is it’s hard to tell who is one.” Yenny froze in place. A chill washed over her, pulsing through her body like a powerful river current. She felt the cold biting her cheeks like she was caught in a snowstorm, but the storm was inside. Or was it outside? She couldn’t tell. All she could tell was that it was freezing and she had never been cold like this before. The air felt even thinner and she could barely endure the arid drought dominating her sinuses. The audience was cheering. She wondered if this was what it felt like to suffocate. She turned to look at the Bodega Gringo, and saw his eyes glued to the stage, unbothered.
Yenny realized that people were looking at her. The thing about wetbacks is that it’s hard to tell who is one. Yenny tightened her grip around the glass. “I mean there could even be one here tonight.” The cold continued to lap against her, and she saw white frost building up on the side of the glass where she remembered her hand was, but which she could no longer feel.
She looked down and saw that the frost was climbing up her legs, forming a thick layer of bleached ice that easily engulfed her entire torso. The polar force was working too quickly for her to resist and, when she looked back at her glass, a disapproving Mary Magdalen appeared in ice crystals as if to cement her fate. The ice kept crawling up her arms and legs and finally she was overtaken by the carnivorous cocoon of cold, which, in one final stroke, crawled over her face so that she could no longer see.
She kept her eyes open, watching through the frost, as the darkness of the club faded into a dull but uniform white.
Zoe Morales Ervolino is a born-and-bred New Yorker and recent graduate of Yale University where she earned a dual-degree in American Studies and History (concentrating in Latin America). Zoe has crafted, directed, and performed in artistic projects of all stripes and she is excited to bring her unconditional love of the arts to The Ford Theatre this summer. Since graduating in the midst of a global pandemic, she has devoted her frenetic energy to making music and keeping a newsletter on culture and politics. You can find Zoe at @zozodotcom on IG.