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Crystal Palace

Look, mi’ja, when I was maybe seventeen or eighteen years old, I worked at a boutique selling fancy French beauty products, over there in Guadalajara.

The boutique was luxurious, with crystals and mirrors everywhere. Everything sparkled like a diamond, even the little glass bottles filled with the fine lotions. But I felt a bit nervous there, you know, like if I moved too quickly or carelessly, I would break something. I was used to doing things using my strength and with ganas. That’s how my amá taught me. You do things with ganas, mi’ja, she would say to me. With ganas you pick up the kids, my little brothers, to wipe off the dirty snot dripping from their noses. With ganas you scrub your father’s hard denim pants over the lavadero, and with ganas you sweep our part of the street so that no one can say we are not clean people.

But in this place, La Freu Freu, it was called, you did everything very delicately. 

“With finesse, my dear,” the Señora Sanz, my boss, would say. “Look,” she would correct me, lifting her tiny little nose. Then she would demonstrate how my work was to be done. With the tippy tips of her fingers, she would pick up a tiny flask containing some precious fluid and carefully place it on the glass display case. You could hear the sweet little sound, a ting, like a little bell every time she showed me how it should be done. 

I had the habit of taking the glass bottles and jars five at a time, picking them up and securing them against my breasts, soft and safe. You better believe that breasts are the safest place to keep important things. This is where I keep my coin purse, and mind you, I have never had a single cent stolen. Of course, it’s safe so long as you keep it that way and you don’t allow busy hands to make their way in there. But to each her own chi chis, I always say.

This is how I would set up the boutique more quickly, pressing the precious containers against my breasts, until one day la Señora Sanz came in with her little shoes going clic clic clic over the polished floor, and she screamed so suddenly that it made me jump with fright.

“Dios mio!” she shrieked.

I dropped all of the glass jars and bottles, and they broke into a million pieces on the checkered tiles. The floor was splattered with precious white creams, like the pigeon shit that covered the plaza outside.

“Such a stupid girl!” she screamed at me, spitting out the words between her pearly teeth and red lips. “What are you doing? You are a careless fool, a brute!”

It was the first time anyone who was not my mother had screamed at me that way. I stood there stunned with my hands hanging at my sides and my breath frozen in my lungs.

“How could you carry these things in that way? Cómo se te ocurre? These,” she said pointing at the white puddle on the floor with her sharp fingernail, “these are fine products.”

Still frozen, watching her red mouth and pearly teeth open and close, close and open, I thought, What does she mean, cómo se me ocurre? This was the only way I knew how to do things carefully and well. Just that way, in the safety of my hands and breasts, I carried the finest, most delicate things in the whole world. This was how I carried my little brothers and sisters from one place to another, de aquí pa’allá. Just imagine what would happen to me if I ever dropped one of them and broke their head. What did she mean, how I could carry these things that way? I couldn’t understand what this woman standing in front of me, moving her jaws, waving her arms and bony hands, was saying.

“A hopeless brute!” continued the Señora Sanz. When she saw my confusion, she moved to show me what she meant.

She gathered her rage, rearranging loosened strands of hair back into her hairdo. She licked the specks of saliva off her lips and walked with her little high heels clic clic clic to the display case. She took a tiny jar from a box and fixed her eyes on mine while she explained. 

“Look dear, in this boutique, we only have the best of the best. Here, only the best of the best people come in through our doors. This is not a place for stupidities, or clumsiness. We save those for the flea market.”

Although the bits of glass that shattered across the floor hadn’t touched me, I felt wounded anyway. I stood there remembering the Ponds cold creams and Avon perfumes that my mother and I bought from Doña Cosme on Thursdays at the market. I felt something deep inside me hurt, as if a splinter of glass had somehow penetrated my heart.

“I am going to have to ask you to please be more careful. And this must never happen again. Now, get to work and clean up this mess.” She placed the tiny crystal bottle onto the illuminated display case and walked off, leaving me standing there alone at the counter.

I stood without moving for several minutes, staring at that stupid little thing, so delicate, so pretty. To me, it seemed as precious as a jewel. It was something my hands were never meant to touch. And suddenly, I felt terrified, afraid to move, since any clumsy gesture of mine could make the entire crystal palace come tumbling down, and those marvelous elixirs of eternal beauty and infinite perfection would be lost forever. 

I could feel my bones growing thick, my legs and arms like monstrous tree trunks. My breasts transformed into tremendous masses of flesh, mountains, dormant volcanoes. My feet seemed enormous and permanently disfigured from going around barefoot most of my life. My face was far too wide to turn and look at my surroundings, so brilliant, cold, and sharp. 

I stood there motionless for a long time, afraid to even breathe lest I stir up a cyclone. I waited, taking tiny sips of air until I shrank back down to a size that would not cause a disaster. I stepped forward warily, measuring each one of my movements. Slowly I mopped the floor and carefully cleaned every surface. When I had finished, I bent over to pick up my morral from behind the register, making sure my butt had enough space so as not to destroy yet another magical potion. All I wanted was to leave. I crossed the boutique as silently and quickly as possible and, turning off the lights behind me, I locked up and hurried out into the evening wind.

I walked and walked, staring at the broken pavement and black gum spots, eager to leave that place far behind. After a few blocks, I began to feel more at peace, making my way through the black streets illuminated with crude lights and neon signs blinking all around, with the bars, the bakeries, the bookstores. When I got to the bus stop, I stood beneath a naked light bulb at a churro booth and, finally exhaling out all the breath I’d been holding, I asked for a two-peso churro, please.

What a day, Dios Santo. What a pinche día. Who would have thought it would be so traumatic to work at a beauty boutique? Although my body had returned to its regular size, I was still hurting inside and preferred not to think about what had happened. I just wanted to get home so I could take off my pantyhose, the tight shoes, and slip my feet into my favorite pair of tire-soled huaraches, so broken-in and soft. I wanted to put on my apron to help my amá make supper for the kids. I wanted to be standing in the kitchen, in front of the tin comal with hot tortillas in my hands, warming the milk for the little ones to drink from their clay cups. I wanted to kiss my amá on the cheek and hold baby Tavo in my arms. 

I suddenly remembered that in my fright and embarrassment, I’d forgotten my pay at work. Imagine that, mi’ja! Híjole, what a dummy! I had to go back for it now, because tomorrow Amá and I had to pay Don Fermín for the beans he let us take on credit. And there was nothing my mother hated more than owing people money.

I didn’t want to go back to La Freu Freu, but I didn’t have a choice. Well, at least that Doña wouldn’t be there and I still had the key to open up. I’d just get my little envelope with my little money and in a flash I’d be on my way home again. 

When I arrived at the boutique, everything was dark. All you could see were black silhouettes. That luminous salon of crystals and mirrors and sparkling surfaces was transformed into an opaque space, a puzzle of shadows and weak echoes of streetlights.

As I approached the glass door, I heard a voice coming from inside.

“Arturo, honey. It’s just that I don’t understand…” It was the voice of la Señora Sanz. 

“Arturo, please. I beg you.” I froze and held my breath. It was the voice of la Señora, but at the same time, it wasn’t. It was somehow different. I had never heard her like that. 

“Arturo, please, don’t do this to me. For the love of God…” 

It wasn’t the hard, sharp voice that I knew. This voice was soft, full of pain, and fear too, I think. I heard when she started to cry, and I just didn’t know what to do. She cried with sighs that shook out from the depths of her chest. I was afraid to move but I dared to shift my eyes to look inside, and when they adjusted to the kaleidoscope of shadows, I could see her leaning against the counter with the telephone to her ear.

Her meticulous hairdo had tumbled into a fragile chaos over her face. She tried to silence her sobs by biting her lips. The red of her lipstick had crossed her cheek. 

“Arturo, no more. I can’t take this any more,” she implored. “Please…”

Was this really la Señora Sanz? I couldn’t believe it. This woman clawing at her hair, her face and chest with so much desperation, was this la Señora Sanz?

“Arturo,” she continued. “Arturo, no more. No more. NO MORE! Son of a bitch, no more!!!”

And right then, la Señora went crazy and threw the telephone against a mirror. She swiped her bony arm across the length of the display case and sent bottles and jars flying.

“You son of a bitch!!!” she screamed, throwing whatever was within her reach until she had flung the very last jar of Ultra-Softening Anti-Cellulite Cream, shattering it to pieces. She let herself fall to the floor with great sobs that shook her entire body. Her hair covered her face as she cradled herself in her own arms. She just cried and cried, lying there. I don’t know how long she cried. I decided to leave, without a sound, and go home. I would pick up my pay the next day. Don Fermín could wait a little longer for his money.

I turned away, walking back to the bus stop. I could hear her sobs for a long time as they continued to echo in my mind. I listened until they finally dissolved, joining the lament of a police siren on its slow, persistent way through the emptying streets. And then came the voice of Lola Beltrán, one of her weeping songs floating out a car window, calling down the summer rain from the darkness of the sky.

From the forthcoming Eat the Mouth That Feeds You, © 2021 by Carribean Fragoza. Reprinted with permission of City Lights Books.


Carribean Fragoza was raised in South El Monte, California. She co-edits UC Press's California cultural journal, Boom California, and is the founder of South El Monte Arts Posse, an interdisciplinary arts collective. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared numerous publications, including BOMB, Huizache, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is the co-editor of "East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte" (Rutgers University Press) and coordinator of the Kingsley and Kate Tufts Poetry Award at Claremont Graduate University. Her debut collection of stories, "Eat the Mouth That Feeds You," is forthcoming from City Lights Books.

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