The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian meets Jane the Virgin in this poignant but often laugh-out-loud funny contemporary YA about losing a sister and finding yourself amid the pressures, expectations, and stereotypes of growing up in a Mexican-American home.
Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family.
But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role.
Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed.
But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out. Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal?
What’s surprised me most about seeing my sister dead is the lingering smirk on her face. Her pale lips are turned up ever so slightly, and someone has filled in her patchy eyebrows with a black pencil. The top half of her face is angry–like she’s ready to stab someone–and the bottom half is almost smug. This is not the Olga I knew. Olga was as meek and fragile as a baby bird.
I wanted her to wear the pretty purple dress that didn’t hide her body like all of her other outfits, but Amá chose the bright yellow one with the pink flowers I’ve always hated. It was so unstylish, so classically Olga. It made her either four or eighty years old. I could never decide which. Her hair is just as bad as the dress–tight, crunchy curls that remind me of a rich lady’s poodle. How cruel to let her look like that. The bruises and gashes on her cheeks are masked with thick coats of cheap foundation, making her face haggard, even though she is (was) only twenty-two. Don’t they pump your body full of strange chemicals to prevent your skin from stretching and puckering, to keep your face from resembling a rubber mask? Where did they find this mortician, the flea market?
My poor older sister had a special talent for making herself less attractive. She was skinny and had an okay body, but she always managed to make it look like a sack of potatoes. Her face was pale and plain, never a single drop of makeup. What a waste. I’m no fashion icon–far from it–but I do feel strongly against dressing like the elderly. Now she’s doing it from beyond the grave, but this time it’s not even her fault.
Olga never looked or acted like a normal twenty-two-year-old. It made me mad sometimes. Here she was, a grown-ass woman, and all she did was go to work, sit at home with our parents, and take one class each semester at the local community college. Every once and a while, she’d go shopping with Amá or to the movies with her best friend, Angie, to watch terrible romantic comedies about clumsy but adorable blond women who fall in love with architects in the streets of New York City. What kind of life is that? Didn’t she want more? Didn’t she ever want to go out and grab the world by the balls? Ever since I could pick up a pen, I’ve wanted to be a famous writer. I want to be so successful that people stop me on the street and ask, “Oh my God, are you Julia Reyes, the best writer who has ever graced this earth?” All I know is that I’m going to pack my bags when I graduate and say, “Peace out, mothafuckas.”
But not Olga. Saint Olga, the perfect Mexican daughter. Sometimes I wanted to scream at her until something switched on in her brain. But the only time I ever asked her why she didn’t move out or go to a real college, she told me to leave her alone in a voice so weak and brittle, I never wanted to ask her again. Now I’ll never know what Olga would have become. Maybe she would have surprised us all.
Here I am, thinking all of these horrible thoughts about my dead sister. It’s easier to be pissed, though. If I stop being angry, I’m afraid I’ll fall apart until I’m just a warm mound of flesh on the floor.
While I stare at my chewed-up nails and sink deeper into this floppy green couch, I hear Amá wailing. She really throws her body into it, too. “Mija, mija!” she screams as she practically climbs inside the casket. Apá doesn’t even try to pull her off. I can’t blame him, because when he tried to calm her down a few hours ago, Amá kicked and flailed her arms until she gave him a black eye. I guess he’s going to leave her alone for now. She’ll tire herself out eventually. I’ve seen babies do that.
Apá has been sitting in the back of the room all day, refusing to speak to anyone, staring off into nothing, like he always does. Sometimes I think I see his dark mustache quivering, but his eyes stay dry and clear as glass.
I want to hug Amá and tell her it’s going to be okay, even though it’s not and never will be, but I feel almost paralyzed, like I’m underwater and made of lead. When I open my mouth, nothing comes out. Besides, Amá and I haven’t had that kind of relationship since I was little. We don’t hug and say, “I love you,” like on TV shows about boring white families who live in two-story houses and talk about their feelings. She and Olga were practically best friends, and I was the odd daughter out. We’ve been bickering, drifting away from each other for years. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to avoid Amá because we always end up arguing over stupid, petty things. We once fought about an egg yolk, for instance. True story.
Apá and I are the only ones in my family who haven’t cried. He just hangs his head and remains silent as a stone. Maybe something is wrong with us. Maybe we’re messed up beyond crying. Though my eyes haven’t produced tears, I’ve felt the grief burrow in every cell of my body. There are moments that I feel like I might suffocate, as if all my insides are tied into a tight little ball. I haven’t taken a crap in almost four days, but I’m not about to tell Amá in the state she’s in. I’ll just let it build until I explode like a piñata.
Amá has always been prettier than Olga, even now, with her swollen eyes and splotchy skin, which is not the way it’s supposed to be. Her name is more graceful, too–Amparo Montenegro Reyes. Mothers are not supposed to be more beautiful than their daughters, and daughters are not supposed to die before their mothers. But Amá is more attractive than most people. She hardly has any wrinkles and has these big, round eyes that always look sad and wounded. Her long hair is thick and dark, and her body is still slim, unlike the other moms in the neighborhood who are shaped like upside-down pears. Every time I walk down the street with Amá, guys whistle and honk, which makes me wish I carried a slingshot.
Amá is rubbing Olga’s face and crying softly now. This won’t last, though. She’s always quiet for a few minutes, then, all of a sudden, lets out a moan that makes your soul turn inside out. Now Tía Cuca is rubbing her back and telling her that Olga is with Jesus, that she can finally be in peace.
But when was Olga not in peace? This Jesus stuff is all a sack of crap. Once you’re dead, you’re dead. The only thing that makes sense to me is what Walt Whitman said about death: “Look for me under your boot soles.” Olga’s body will turn to dirt, which will grow into trees, and then someone in the future will step on their fallen leaves. There is no heaven. There is only earth, sky, and the transfer of energy. The idea would almost be beautiful if this weren’t such a nightmare.
Two ladies waiting in line to see Olga in her casket begin crying. I’ve never seen them in my life. One is wearing a faded and billowy black dress, and the other wears a saggy skirt that looks like an old curtain. They clasp each other’s hands and whisper.
Olga and I didn’t have much in common, but we did love each other. There are stacks and stacks of pictures to prove it. In Amá’s favorite, Olga is braiding my hair. Amá says Olga used to pretend that I was her baby. She’d put me in her toy carriage and sing me songs by Cepillín, that scary Mexican clown who looks like a rapist but everyone loves for some reason.
I would give anything to go back to the day she died and do things differently. I think of all the ways I could have kept Olga from getting on that bus. I’ve replayed the day over and over in my head so many times and have written down every single detail, but I still can’t find the foreshadowing. When someone dies, people always say they had some sort of premonition, a sinking feeling that something awful was right around the corner. I didn’t.
The day felt like any other: boring, uneventful, and annoying. We had swimming for gym class that afternoon. I’ve always hated being in that disgusting petri dish. The idea of being dunked in everyone’s pee–and God knows what else–is enough to give me a panic attack, and the chlorine makes my skin itch and eyes sting. I always try to get out of it with elaborate and not-so-elaborate lies. That time, I told the thin-lipped Mrs. Kowalski that I was on my period again (the eighth day in a row), and she said she didn’t believe me, that it was impossible for my period to be so long. Of course I was lying, but who was she to question my menstrual cycle? How intrusive.
“Do you want to check?” I asked. “I’d be very happy to provide you with empirical evidence if you want, even though I think you’re violating my human rights.” I regretted it as soon as it came out of my mouth. Maybe I have some sort of condition that keeps me from thinking through what I’m going to say. Sometimes it’s word-puke spilling out everywhere. That was too much, even for me, but I was in a particularly foul mood and didn’t want to deal with anyone. My moods shift like that all the time, even before Olga died. One minute I feel okay, and then all of a sudden my energy plummets for no reason at all. It’s hard to explain.
Of course Mrs. Kowalski sent me to the principal’s office, and as usual, they wouldn’t let me go home until my parents came to pick me up. This had happened several times last year. Everyone knows me at the principal’s office already. I’m there more often than some of the gangbangers, and it’s always for running my mouth when I’m not supposed to. Whenever I enter the office, the secretary, Mrs. Maldonado, rolls her eyes and clucks her tongue.
Typically, Amá meets with my principal, Mr. Potter, who tells her what a disrespectful student I am. Then Amá gasps at what I’ve done and says, “Julia, que malcriada,” and apologizes to him over and over again in her broken English. She is always apologizing to white people, which makes me feel embarrassed. And then I feel ashamed of my shame.
Amá punishes me for one or two weeks, depending on how severe my behavior is, and then, a few months later, it happens again. Like I said, I don’t know how to control my mouth. Amá tells me, “Como te gusta la mala vida,” and I guess she’s right, because I always end up making things more difficult for myself. I used to be a model student, skipped third grade and everything, but now I’m a troublemaker.
Olga had taken the bus that day because her car was in the shop to get the brakes replaced. Amá was supposed to pick her up, but because she had to deal with me at school, she couldn’t. If I’d shut my mouth, things would have worked out differently, but how was I supposed to know? When Olga got off the bus to transfer to another one across the street, she didn’t see that the light had already turned green because she was looking at her phone. The bus honked to warn her, but it was too late. Olga stepped into the busy street at the wrong time. She got hit by a semi. Not just hit, though–smashed.
Whenever I think of my sister’s crushed organs, I want to scream in a field of flowers until I’m hoarse.
Two of the witnesses said that she was smiling right before it happened. It’s a miracle that her face was okay enough to have an open casket. She was dead by the time the ambulance arrived.
Even though the man driving couldn’t have seen her because she was blocked by the bus and the light was green and Olga shouldn’t have crossed one of the busiest streets in Chicago with her face in her phone, Amá cursed the driver up and down until she lost her voice. She got really creative, too. She had always scolded me for saying the word damn, which is not even a bad word, and here she was, telling the driver and God to fuck their mothers and themselves. I just watched her with my mouth hanging open.
We all knew it wasn’t the driver’s fault, but Amá needed someone to accuse. She hasn’t blamed me directly, but I can see it in her big sad eyes every time she looks at me.
My nosy aunts are whispering behind me now. I can feel their eyes latched to the back of my head again. I know they’re saying that this is my fault. They’ve never liked me because they think I’m trouble. When I dyed chunks of my hair bright blue, those drama queens almost needed to be put on stretchers and rushed to the hospital. They act as if I’m some sort of devil child because I don’t like to go to church and would rather read books with them. Why is that a crime, though? They’re boring. Plus, they have no idea how much I loved my sister.
I’ve had enough of their whispering, so I turn around to give them a dirty look. That’s when I see Lorena come in, thank God. She’s the only person who can make me feel better right now.
Everyone turns to stare at her in her outrageously high heels, tight black dress, and excessive makeup. Lorena is always drawing attention to herself. Maybe that’ll give them something else to gossip about. She hugs me so tight she nearly cracks my ribs. Her cheap cherry body spray fills my nose and mouth.
Amá doesn’t like Lorena because she thinks she’s wild and slutty, which isn’t untrue, but she has been my friend since I was eight and is more loyal than anyone I’ve ever known. I whisper to her that my tías are talking about me, that they’re blaming me for what happened to Olga, that they’re making me so angry, I want to smash all the windows with my bare fists.