Frosted Glass

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Gabriela Gar­cia

The news re­porter an­nounced an­other shoot­ing be­fore cut­ting to com­mer­cials. An­other un­armed black teenager shot by an­other white cop. Then the Chan­nel Eleven jin­gle cut to the lit­tle curly­haired girl that re­minded Mrs. Men­dez of her own Eloisa be­fore she’d be­come a surly teenager. Al­ter­nate Eloisa hawked pa­per tow­els. She spilled ce­real milk on a pris­tine counter, and her com­mer­cial mom in­stantly wiped the mess with a smile that said, Aren’t you adorable every time you trash this house. “Here we go again,” Mrs. Men­dez said to her hus­band. She didn’t un­der­stand why he in­sisted on watch­ing the news channels all the time—all those ter­ri­ble bur­glar­ies and stab­bings and ac­ci­dents. And the pol­i­tics. The pol­i­tics even worse. Mrs. Men­dez placed a steam­ing plate of rice and beans on a tray ta­ble and grabbed the two empty beer cans that lit­tered the floor. “Only a mat­ter of time now be­fore the neigh­bors start up again with their protest­ing and com­plain­ing,” she said. Mr. Men­dez grunted and dug a fork into the small moun­tain on his plate. “Hope Eloisa has come to her senses and isn’t plan­ning to go off bang­ing pots and pans again. Do you want an­other beer?” “Mmfffhrmm.” “I think it’s her friends, you know. I think she has friends she doesn’t tell us about.” “Rfff.” Mrs. Men­dez set­tled into the brown pleather couch be­side her hus­band and squeaked and skid­ded her way into a com­fort­able po­si­tion. She watched a cou­ple on the TV bliss­fully rid­ing a dou­ble-seated bi­cy­cle and walk­ing hand-in-hand on a peb­bly beach. The her­pes com­mer­cials. The her­pes com­mer­cials al­ways got to her. She threw her head back and felt ex­haus­tion weigh her down like an an­chor. The liv­ing room—all its porce­lain knick­knacks and col­lage photo frames, its ten-piece fur­ni­ture set from Lux­ury City Dis­count Home—all of it an ocean try­ing to gob­ble her up. “I think we need to re­place the cof­fee ta­ble, Arse­nio.”

He’d fallen asleep. Mrs. Men­dez turned off the tele­vi­sion and ate her hus­band’s left­overs at the kitchen ta­ble, wait­ing for Eloisa. Lately the girl ar­rived in the evenings on Mon­days and Wed­nes­days claim­ing she was at an after-school ac­tiv­ity. But that wasn’t all. She also in­sisted her mother call her Lucy, said ev­ery­one at school knew her by Lucy, said Eloisa was old-fash­ioned, as if she hadn’t loved the name as a child. Mrs. Men­dez watched her neigh­bor pull up to her drive­way, get out of her car, and in­spect the brand-new hedge that had ap­peared be­tween their homes. Mrs. Men­dez had spent all day di­rect­ing the con­tract work­ers, telling them ex­actly where to plant and how to spruce and where to trim. Now the tall woman with her dread­locks in a bun like a wo­ven bas­ket atop her head leaned over to in­spect the bushes. She shrugged. Then Mrs. Men­dez watched the woman— with her own eyes, right be­fore her— open her trash can to throw in a piece of pa­per and then leave the lid on the drive­way. “Arse­nio!” she shouted, not tak­ing her eyes off the woman. “Hr­rrf,” came a grunt from the liv­ing room. “Arse­nio, she’s do­ing it again!” “Mmph.” “She leaves the trash lid on the floor so that all the rac­coons and stray cats can have a ball— a ball— all night in her drive­way and guess where they are com­ing next? Just guess? Here! That’s where they are com­ing.” Even the hedge wouldn’t be enough. Mrs. Men­dez fumed. She watched the lights go on at the neigh­bor’s house. The Men­dezes had in­stalled the trendi­est win­dows they could find—frosted glass, cut into iden­ti­cal squares. They could see out, but any­one look­ing in would see just blobs and shapes. They’d see sil­hou­ettes mov­ing in and out of shad­ows like crea­tures stretch­ing and curl­ing into their caves. This is why Mrs. Men­dez had busted her back for twenty-five years. This is why she had ar­rived with her one suit­case and cleaned homes for so many years while tak­ing classes at the com­mu­nity col­lege where all her teach­ers as­sumed by her ac­cent she un­der­stood noth­ing. Why she’d stud­ied ac­count­ing with an Eng­lish-to-span­ish dic­tio­nary at her side and spent years work­ing her way up a lad­der full of splin­ters and snapped legs at every turn. So she could have god­damn frosted glass spy win­dows she could see out of but no­body could see into. And now this neigh­bor woman with her lid­less trash and her hus­band, who seemed con­tent keep­ing house while seem­ingly un­em­ployed, were try­ing to ruin a neigh­bor­hood full of hard work­ers like her. These neigh­bors weren’t like the Horow­itzes, who swept their drive­way every morn­ing. They weren’t like the Her­nan­dez-smiths, who dis­played not

one but two pris­tine Amer­i­can flags. And yet none of the other neigh­bors seemed an­gry; she’d even spied Mrs. Horowitz bring­ing the new­com­ers fresh-baked chal­lah. Mrs. Men­dez couldn’t un­der­stand why no one cared about the qual­ity of peo­ple mov­ing into the neigh­bor­hood any­more. No one ex­cept her. She watched as the neigh­bor woman’s hus­band placed food be­fore her. “Arse­nio!” she huffed. “You wouldn’t be­lieve how this woman’s hus­band lets her walk all over him.” Well, Mrs. Men­dez wasn’t let­ting this woman walk all over her. She stood and yanked open the front door. Mrs. Men­dez squeezed her bathrobe tight around her and ran bare­foot down her lawn and around the newly planted hedge. She grabbed the neigh­bor woman’s garbage lid and slammed it on the can. She looked to­ward the neigh­bors’ house, but the cou­ple wasn’t look­ing out. Too bad, she thought. She would have wel­comed their shame if they saw a re­spectable woman like her hav­ing to teach them how to act like proper hu­man be­ings. “What are you even do­ing?” Eloisa stood in the mid­dle of the street. Her face was scrunched into a scowl. She stood in the judg­men­tal pose she al­ways pa­raded be­fore Mrs. Men­dez, star­ing at her with a hand on the strap of her book­bag. “And where are your shoes?” Mrs. Men­dez crossed her arms and walked to the door. “I’m teach­ing peo­ple some man­ners. That’s what I’m do­ing,” she said, pass­ing her daugh­ter with­out a glance. “Well, are you com­ing in­side, or are you go­ing to stand in the mid­dle of the street all night like a street­walker?” Eloisa rolled her eyes as she pa­raded be­fore her mother, ad­just­ing a choker that, with her di­sheveled hair, made her look some­thing like a stray poo­dle. That un­ruly hair, Mrs. Men­dez thought. That hair she had paid so much good money to heat and press and wres­tle into sub­mis­sion each week, driv­ing to the clos­est Do­mini­can hair­dresser, a full forty-five min­utes from their house. Now Eloisa was re­fus­ing to keep her ap­point­ments, claimed she wanted to wear her hair nat­u­ral, in all its curly anarchy, tak­ing a cue from some-or-other black pop star. “But you’re not black, Eloisa,” Mrs. Men­dez had said in con­fu­sion the first time this hap­pened. “Re­ally? Tell that to my hair,” Eloisa had re­sponded, a hand to her bony hip. “You’re Do­mini­can, Eloisa.” “It’s Lucy. I al­ready told you I’m go­ing by Lucy.” “Do­mini­can is not the same thing as black. Haitians are black. And no Do­mini­can has ever named their child Lucy.”

They had sim­i­lar fights each week now. Eloisa acted like she knew more than her mother, even though she’d been handed ev­ery­thing in life. Even though she’d never had to scrounge and save and claw her way through these Bro­ken Eng­lish streets to fi­nally ar­rive in Mi­ami’s suburbs. Eloisa didn’t have to force her mouth into un­nat­u­ral shapes to curve around im­pos­si­ble words like tur­tle, like cin­na­mon. Eng­lish spilled out of Eloisa’s mouth like a new­born baby, slip­pery and loud and un­afraid to an­nounce its ex­is­tence. The worst wasn’t when Eloisa got mad and yelled back at her. The worst was when Eloisa said noth­ing and looked at Mrs. Men­dez like she couldn’t com­pre­hend the ge­net­ics that bound them to­gether. When the cor­ners of her lips edged up into a smug half-smile, and she stared back at her, blank, like she did now. “Mala­grade­cida,” Mrs. Men­dez said un­der her breath. Un­grate­ful. “What?” Eloisa slung her back­pack off her shoul­der and dumped it at her feet. “Why are you so late again? Did you eat? Don’t leave your things on the floor.” Eloisa leaned against the kitchen par­ti­tion and con­sid­ered the chipped black pol­ish on her nails. Mrs. Men­dez didn’t un­der­stand why she wanted to look un­kempt. It was some kind of state­ment, and Mrs. Men­dez wasn’t go­ing to give Eloisa the sat­is­fac­tion of notic­ing. “Oh my god how many times do I have to tell you I am in a club and we have meet­ings where we talk about im­por­tant things hap­pen­ing in the world that you don’t care about and yes I ate.” “So much hap­pen­ing in the world. Ex­actly why I don’t want you out there with all those crim­i­nals.” “Uh-huh.” Eloisa slumped to the couch, where she sat be­side her fa­ther. “They shot an­other un­armed black teenager,” Mrs. Men­dez heard Arse­nio say to her. “Makes me so fuck­ing mad,” Eloisa re­sponded. “The prison-in­dus­trial com­plex.. .” “Lan­guage!” Mrs. Men­dez in­ter­rupted Arse­nio with a shout. “Arse­nio, tell her to watch her lan­guage!” She got no re­sponse. Arse­nio had told Mrs. Men­dez, many years ago when they first courted, when she was a ju­nior ac­coun­tant on the rise and he the new owner of a handy­man busi­ness, that it was pre­cisely her am­bi­tion and con­vic­tion that at­tracted him. But lately he seemed to shrink and shrivel in the shadow of her suc­cess and strength. She couldn’t un­der­stand how the same man who had once com­manded all the at­ten­tion in a room with his easy, gar­ru­lous man­ner, who had danced bachata as if the rhythm

coursed through his blood, who had in­sisted on the name Men­dez Fam­ily Dream Re­pair Ser­vice LLC, now stayed silent as their daugh­ter turned her back on ev­ery­thing they’d built. Yet she was not go­ing to push him into an al­liance with Eloisa. She wasn’t go­ing to al­low the two of them to gang up on her. If she had to main­tain the fam­ily or­der on her own, well god­damnit she would. Mrs. Men­dez looked out the win­dow to­ward the hedge as the tele­vi­sion droned on. She watched as shad­ows crept be­neath the branches and stretched over the lawn like lan­guorous cats, how the leaves shim­mied with each breeze. She won­dered if the neigh­bor woman had no­ticed. If she’d thought, as she leaned over to ex­am­ine the brand-new ad­di­tion like a fault line be­tween their homes, If only I could af­ford such a gor­geous hedge.

She pur­chased a fence. It was ex­pen­sive and made of metal, and the con­trac­tors fol­lowed her home the same day she made the pur­chase to in­stall it. The work­ers hauled the chain-linked metal strapped to the bed of a pickup. The Home De­pot was far from Mrs. Men­dez’s home. She drove, and the truck trailed be­hind her, and Mrs. Men­dez watched Mi­ami’s gaudy down­town cityscape come alive: pur­ple and pink lights creep­ing on as the sun set, high­ways criss­cross­ing like em­broi­dery threads, a sin­gle party cruise with a cir­cling spot­light off in the dis­tance of the inky bay. Arse­nio waited by the door as Mrs. Men­dez drove up the drive­way, and the truck bounced to a stop at the curb, two work­ers in dirtsmeared khakis and base­ball caps hop­ping out. “What the hell is this?” he yelled above the sound of metal crash­ing onto con­crete and in­struc­tions shouted be­tween the two work­ers. “Arse­nio, I told you we can’t live like this,” Mrs. Men­dez said, calmly wip­ing her shoes on the wel­come mat. “We have to pro­tect our in­vest­ment.” “I don’t un­der­stand.” Mr. Men­dez shook his head and looked from one worker to the next. “How much was all this?” Mrs. Men­dez opened the door and pulled Arse­nio in be­side her. Eloisa sat at the kitchen ta­ble look­ing amused. “Give me one sec­ond, mucha­chos!” she yelled at the two work­ers who were each hold­ing one end of a metal panel and shuf­fling it be­hind the hedge as she closed the door. “Look!” she said, nudg­ing Arse­nio be­side Eloisa at the win­dow that looked out on the neigh­bors’ house. “Look at their lawn filled with po­lit­i­cal pro­pa­ganda. And they have a bunch of chairs on their drive­way,

Arse­nio. As if they’re still back in what­ever is­land they come from sit­ting on their porch to wait for the fruit-and-veg­etable truck.” “But you have a chair by the door.” “I have a porch chair by the door, Arse­nio. Christ. It’s shiny and glazed and matches the bed­room win­dow shades. What they have is made of straw, Arse­nio. That chair looks like some­thing my grand­mother would sell back in the Do­mini­can Repub­lic.” “Hmm.” “And the woman has like twenty fam­ily mem­bers over to her house each week­end—this is not an ex­ag­ger­a­tion. All this com­mo­tion. All these ba­bies. Thirty ba­bies, and you don’t see thirty fa­thers if you know what I mean.” Mrs. Men­dez raised an eye­brow to­ward Arse­nio. “I don’t trust them. I’m in­stalling the fence, and it’s go­ing to lock. I’m not stay­ing home with­out know­ing I’m pro­tected.” “They’re re­ally nice peo­ple.” Eloisa stood and opened the re­frig­er­a­tor, jum­bling through stacks of Tup­per­ware un­til she found juice. “How would you know? Eloisa, please stop drink­ing straight out of the car­ton.” “Can you hand me a beer?” Mr. Men­dez turned to Eloisa. “I’m go­ing to go watch the news.” “Be­cause the woman, Mrs. Port­man, teaches at my school,” said Eloisa, hand­ing over a bot­tle. “What? Arse­nio are you hear­ing this?” “Did we run out of the Pres­i­dente?” “Why is that so shock­ing?” Eloisa said. “She is a so­cial stud­ies teacher for the tenth graders. And she spon­sors the So­cial Jus­tice Club.” “The what?” “All I see is Bud Light,” Mr. Men­dez said, tak­ing the re­frig­er­a­tor door from Eloisa. “God. How many times do I have to tell you? The So­cial Jus­tice Club. That I joined at school.” Eloisa stepped out of her fa­ther’s way and thumbed the rub­ber bracelets at her wrist. “What kind of club is this?” “You wouldn’t un­der­stand.” “I guess Bud Light will do.” “What kind of club is this, Eloisa? An­swer me right now.” “Je­sus, mom. Why are you freak­ing out?” “Is this the black thing again? Is it that neigh­bor woman who is mak­ing you be­lieve you are black?” Eloisa bored into her mother. Her face twisted. Mrs. Men­dez could hear the drilling start out­side.

“Do you re­ally think that all the white peo­ple out there—the cops— that they care whether I’m Do­mini­can or Haitian or from an­other freakin’ planet? All they see is this skin that’s the same color as yours, the same as Mrs. Port­man’s. Can’t you see that you’ve spent all your life try­ing to prove you’re not some­thing you are?” Eloisa left her there. She left Mrs. Men­dez by the win­dow with a hand on the cool frosted pane. Mrs. Men­dez felt ill. She looked out, past the hedges, past the work­ers pound­ing the fence into the ground, to­ward the neigh­bor’s house. Mrs. Men­dez no­ticed a trash lid on the ground.

The fence was not enough. The neigh­bor woman was flaunt­ing it in Mrs. Men­dez’s face now. She was flaunt­ing the fact that she was try­ing to ruin the neigh­bor­hood, to ruin her daugh­ter, to ruin ev­ery­thing Mrs. Men­dez had worked so hard to pro­tect. Three times a week now Eloisa came home later than usual. She had started watch­ing the news with her fa­ther every night now and ig­nor­ing Mrs. Men­dez when she com­plained that the world was go­ing to shit. Eloisa acted like it was a prob­lem Mrs. Men­dez had worked so hard, saved all her money, gave Eloisa this life Mrs. Men­dez pined for when she was a girl liv­ing in a two-room shack who had to wake up at five in the morn­ing each day to feed chick­ens and scrub laun­dry on a zinc board while sweat plas­tered mos­qui­tos to her face. And this woman with her prim­i­tive-look­ing hairdo, with her for­eign-look­ing jew­elry, with her hand­made-look­ing fur­ni­ture. This woman wasn’t just dis­play­ing elec­tion signs on the lawn any­more. She had erected a gi­ant flag from some other coun­try Mrs. Men­dez didn’t even rec­og­nize and stuck a sticker that read Black Lives Mat­ter on her nice-look­ing car. Mrs. Men­dez was mor­ti­fied. But the worst, the worst grievance had oc­curred as Mrs. Men­dez pre­pared din­ner the pre­vi­ous night. She’d looked out the kitchen win­dow, won­der­ing when Eloisa would show up, and had seen her daugh­ter and Mrs. Port­man en­gaged in lively con­ver­sa­tion out­side. The neigh­bor woman smiled and laughed and Eloisa smiled and laughed back. Mrs. Men­dez couldn’t re­mem­ber the last time her daugh­ter had smiled or laughed with her. She’d de­manded that Eloisa ex­plain what she and the neigh­bor woman had talked about. And Eloisa had given her a smirk and said sim­ply, “She wants to make Lucy Men­dez pres­i­dent of the club. Moi!” Mrs. Men­dez couldn’t take it any­more.

“Can’t you get one of your men to graft a hedge onto the hedge?” Mrs. Men­dez said as she shaded her eyes with her hand. The con­trac­tor walked the perime­ter of the fence out­side Mrs. Men­dez’s home.

“Ma’am,” said the con­trac­tor in an ac­cent that matched Mrs. Men­dez’s. “With all due re­spect, ma’am.” “Yes?” Mrs. Men­dez was grow­ing im­pa­tient with the man’s bum­bling. Why was it that so many like him had no idea how to act be­fore a suc­cess­ful per­son like her­self? When Mrs. Men­dez had ar­rived, white Amer­i­can ladies at gro­cery coun­ters had smiled with prim po­lite­ness as she tried to mime her de­sire for fry­ing cheese. Older im­mi­grants, the Mi­ami elite—cubanS­pan­ish de­scen­dants and Venezue­lan busi­ness­men, Colom­bian so­cialites and Ar­gen­tine doc­tors—kept to them­selves, of­fered only char­i­ta­ble greet­ings, seemed si­mul­ta­ne­ously sur­prised and dis­ap­pointed that a woman with a smooth hazel­nut com­plex­ion spoke their tongue. Men like the con­trac­tor liked to as­sume they were the same, Mrs. Men­dez and him. She’d worked hard to prove they weren’t. She’d worked hard for re­spect. Mrs. Men­dez was never go­ing back. “Señora, graft­ing is not at all prac­ti­cal, or. . . pos­si­ble,” the con­trac­tor said, no longer smil­ing. “And I’m afraid that a hedge that tall would not be stable. If what you’re wor­ried about is safety—” “Who said any­thing about safety? Did I call you here to pry into my life? I’m the one pay­ing you.” The con­trac­tor re­moved his ball­cap. He wiped at his fore­head with a hand­ker­chief. Then the con­trac­tor’s lips curled into a smile. It was so sud­den a change of fa­cial ex­pres­sion that Mrs. Men­dez frowned. Was he mock­ing her? She didn’t care. “I don’t care,” she said. “Okay, señora.” The con­trac­tor made a se­ri­ous face again. “How about this? We can build an­other fence on the other side of the hedge you al­ready have.” “A hedge nes­tled be­tween two fences?” Mrs. Men­dez looked to­ward the neatly pruned fi­cus, its leaves packed tight like sugar cubes. She liked her hedge. She hated to cover it up with an­other fence. But she won­dered what, in the end, mat­tered more, what, in the end, en­sured her sur­vival—beauty shin­ing from the out­side in or the ugly, the re­minders of the world as it was at its ugli­est, kept out? “I sup­pose that could work. But it would have to be a thick one. I don’t want to hear the neigh­bors ei­ther.” More con­trac­tors ar­rived. They dug and shov­eled, pow­ered tools. Mrs. Men­dez grew tired of watch­ing the process from her kitchen win­dow and took a nap on the couch. Mr. Men­dez and Eloisa were to ar­rive in a few hours and Mrs. Men­dez was go­ing to tell Eloisa she was for­bid­den from at­tend­ing her after-school meet­ings with the black club. Mrs. Men­dez was putting her foot down. She was not go­ing to stand idly by

while Eloisa tried to drag her fam­ily back to the so­ci­etal cesspool from which Mrs. Men­dez had es­caped. She woke to her phone ring­ing and heard what sounded like shout­ing and protest­ing out­side. Eloisa’s name flashed on her cell screen. “Eloisa?” “Mom what the hell. What in the ac­tual hell.” “Don’t speak to me like that. Where are you? Why aren’t you here?” “I’m lit­er­ally out­side. Out­side this . . . prison wall. . . that you’ve in­stalled. Dad is try­ing to fig­ure out if he can knock down a sec­tion or find a lad­der. We’ve been call­ing you. Why haven’t you an­swered?” “What are you talk­ing about lad­der?” “Why would you in­stall an­other fence? And all the way around the house with no open­ing or en­trance? This doesn’t even make sense—” Mrs. Men­dez rushed to the kitchen. She turned on the light, but even so, a dark­ness per­me­ated through the frosted pan­els of the win­dow and cast a hazy gray shadow. She saw it then: the thick, cor­ru­gated metal— the cor­ru­gated metal of her mis­er­able child­hood home—pro­trud­ing over the top of the hedge and cast­ing a shadow down the lawn. She put her cell phone down and could hear Eloisa’s muf­fled voice: “Mom? Mom?” She could hear Arse­nio’s voice in the back­ground: “I’ve stayed quiet for so long just to pla­cate her! Just to avoid trou­ble!” And what was un­mis­tak­ably the neigh­bor’s voice: “I’ll get my sledge­ham­mer.” Mrs. Men­dez rushed out the door and up to the edge of the mon­strous con­struc­tion. She fumed, think­ing, This is why that fuck­ing con­trac­tor is get­ting nowhere. How could he be so stupid? She could hear voices on the other side. “Eloisa? Arse­nio?” she called out. “Mom?” she heard Eloisa cry out. “Mom, is that you?” “Eloisa!” Mrs. Men­dez shouted. She un­latched the door of the orig­i­nal fence, which now felt flimsy, al­most gen­tle. Mrs. Men­dez pushed and nudged her way into the fi­cus bushes un­til she was sur­rounded by their dark cloak. Branches splin­tered and scratched Mrs. Men­dez’s bare legs and face. Leaves nested into her hair. She fi­nally reached a tiny clear­ing in which the new wall tow­ered and topped a foot above her. Each panel seemed sol­dered onto the next, the gray tin chalky and un­even, rusted in places. She placed a hand on a cold metal ridge and shiv­ered. “Eloisa!” Mrs. Men­dez shouted, hear­ing a strange echo. “Arse­nio!” She could make out only the neigh­bor woman’s voice now. “I’m com­ing,” the voice said. “I’m go­ing to save you, Mrs. Men­dez. I’m go­ing to knock down this wall and get you out of there.” “No!” Mrs. Men­dez screamed back. She tum­bled and fell back on her butt in the fresh-packed dirt, a nest of twigs and leaves crunch­ing on

the ground be­neath her. She’d cre­ated an in­dent in the hedge and could feel her weight push­ing back on the orig­i­nal chain-link fence. A tan­gle of branches and crushed bushes now blocked the exit to­ward her house. “Eloisa!” There was no re­sponse. Mrs. Men­dez crept and placed her face on the wall’s sur­face as if a cool hand pressed to her cheek check­ing for fever. Mrs. Men­dez heard a faint hum, her ear to the gal­va­nized metal, like a wave lap­ping be­fore her, like all the earth sigh­ing be­neath her. She could hear noth­ing now. She could see noth­ing. “Mrs. Port­man!” she fi­nally called out. “Mrs. Port­man!” But she couldn’t even hear the neigh­bor’s voice any­more.

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