By day, Lechonera 46 functioned as the General Store. Eggs, milk, sweets, and smokes were kept behind the counter. Canned goods and chicken feed lined the shelves. At sunset, Esteban balanced the cash register and turned over the keys to his son, who’d convert the place to a pool hall. Nights belonged to the young. While my grandfather conducted nightly rosaries, his son led cutthroat games of billiards. He’d blast the jukebox to Ralphy Leavitt’s latest tunes. I’d hum along discreetly and fall asleep to the clacks of pool balls and slamming dominoes competing with coquis, while Esteban, my grandfather, grumbled.
Junior pointed at me. “Is that the one you wanna meet?”
“No way,” said the kid. “She’s got a big nose!”
I winced. I already owned a few unflattering monikers: four eyes, Cousin Itt, and the dreaded skinny klutz, inclenca. Now an 11-year-old stranger carelessly tossed big nose to my growing list of insecurities. Shame rose. My neck burned. I turned away quickly, hoping no one saw my reddening face. There was scuffling.
“Hey, whatja do that for?”
“Don’t ya dare disrespect my cousin!”
The world is filled with insensitive people, but at that moment I learned family sticks together.
The first time I saw Evelyn, she was leaning against an almond tree with a large lavender ribbon tied around it. She looked pretty in a pleated skirt and crisp white shirt. When the morning sun began to climb, she squinted and wrinkled her nose. Freckles appeared from inside her pores. The school bus approached. We lined up. That’s when I noticed the prosthetic leg. Evelyn pushed off the tree and boarded ahead of us. I later heard she had been struck by a car at that very tree with the lavender ribbon. She was forever tied to that tree.
We picked neutral ground for the big introduction; our best friend’s house. We hoped that her festive home filled with laughter would soften the tension. Yet, my youngest complained of a stomachache the entire car ride. The thought of meeting mommy’s boyfriend for the first time caused too much anxiety and she refused to face him that first hour. My stomach knotted. Then an angel walked in with her homemade three-tiered coconut frosted cake with mango sauce on the side. Our eyes filled with stars. My daughter and my boyfriend simultaneously asked to taste the frosting. A new bond formed.