In high school, I used to go to my best friend Susu’s house and watch “Cristina” on a tiny TV next to the parakeet cage in her bedroom. Cristina was the latin diaspora’s version of Oprah– an exiled, Cuban, bottle-blonde with a sugary voice that could turn stern if the occasion demanded. She was the benevolent-but-tough older cousin that every woman needed to teach her how to handle “Mothers in Law from Hell,” how to cook “Fat-Free Flan and Other Guiltless Pleasures” and how to answer the question “Is He Cheating?”
Susu’s Spanish was better than mine because her father was born in Panama, but after watching so many hours of Donohue and Sally Jesse Raphael, I could follow the general gist of things. Cristina was fairer than my mother. She favored two-piece business suits in tropical colors and chunky necklaces that matched her lipstick. Her sensationalism was always saturated in the pretense of self-help. “Today on ‘Cristina,’” she would say, staring at the camera as if it were a long-lost sister, “teen pregnancy disasters: tips for saving our daughters.”
Back then, “Cristina” was a somewhat kitschy and exotic escape from my white-bread existence. The Mexican Telenovela stars that she often interviewed, with their over-plucked eyebrows and skin-tight blazers, seemed far away from the kind of woman I would become.
Ten years later, I studied Cristina and her guests for the key to being the perfect latina mujer—how much adobo to shake onto the chicken breasts, how not to char the arroz con gandules, the ideal method for folding boxer shorts. I tuned in every day, settling back into the couch and resting my hands on my expanding belly as I waited for Junior to finish the evening shift at the factory where he worked.
Sometimes, between “Cristina” and “En Rojo Vivo,” I would go to the bathroom and stare at myself in the mirror. My mother had recently decorated my father’s study with old pictures of his ancestors, and there was an 8 by 10 photo of my great grandmother, who grew up in Ireland and died in New York, in all her matriarchal glory. Her eyes, I noticed, were just like my father’s and mine: large and green with a slight bloodhound droopiness at the corners.
The baby liked to turn summersaults while I lounged on the couch. He had started kicking so hard that the skin of my stomach bulged with his extended foot. I kept thinking of the scene in “Alien” where the bloody spawn cracks out of that man’s chest, but Junior’s mother assured me that the kicking was normal. “If he’s anything like his father,” she said, “that will be the least of your worries.” I thought of the pictures I’d seen of Junior as a boy in Puerto Rico. His wooly hair, trimmed short at the sides, stood up from his head and his wide eyes stared dark and flat as mahogany tabletops.
Every night in the last months of my pregnancy I tuned in to a Mexican telenovela called “Betting on Love.” It was about a powerful gambling landowner’s attempt to tame a dark-haired woman who everyone in the town called the Black Philly because she was so beautiful and difficult to break. The eight o’clock hour was the highlight of my day
All of the leads in the show were light-skinned with narrow European noses. Occasionally a Mexican with indigenous features made an appearance as a maid or gardener. There was also a subplot involving an hechicera who looked like a Mayan princess and spent her time boiling herbs in a cauldron. Her assistant, a dark-skinned man with wooly hair whose accent gave him away as Caribbean, had large blue eyes that glowed eerily long after the set lights had dimmed.
When Max-Yamil was two, I moved out of the apartment. I didn’t have cable anymore, couldn’t watch Cristina or Jorge Ramos or Don Francisco on “Sábado Gigante.” I put my TV in the basement and began reading long Russian novels in the evenings. I spent a lot of time scrubbing conditioning powder into the fibers of my new townhouse rugs to keep them crisp and white.
After he realized I was gone for good, Junior signed himself up for child- support collection. “So I don’t get behind,” he told me. As we sat waiting outside the courtroom, a Cuban woman in a bright yellow two-piece suit introduced herself. “I’ll be your translator,” she said to Junior. “When we go into the courtroom, I’ll tell you everything that the judge says.”
I thought of the doctor’s appointments I’d gone to with Junior, sitting in the chair next to the examining table as he had me explain where it hurt or how long it had been since he’d slept. I thought of family dinners at my parent’s house—the things I’d chose to translate, and the things I’d left unsaid. I thought of the two of us sitting in my therapist’s office as I made myself translucent and parroted Junior’s words: “Lindsey just doesn’t understand me. I feel so alone.”
Most of all, I thought about the girl on the couch with the rounded belly bathed in blue Telemundo light. I thought of her stubbornness–the pots and pots of rice that came out soggy or charred every time. And I thought about the somersaulting baby inside of her, his wisps of wooly hair, his otherworldy, emerald-city eyes.