I am too old for an imaginary friend. But I am too young for most other things. In the middle of 1999, I turn thirteen. My best friend Maria and I don’t have the internet yet to occupy ourselves with sketchy online chat rooms. We don’t have cell phones. No money. No cars.

It is summer in Las Vegas—too hot to enjoy anything outdoors—so Maria and I mostly stay inside, entertaining ourselves with Spice Girls singalongs or softcore porn on Cinemax at night. We get creative in our adventure-seeking. It’s the season of new avocations. And our distraction du jour, our escape from the realities of our fucked up homes, is the party line.

The party line is for finding dates. You call and create voice personals to connect with other lonely singles, or with married dudes on the DL. It works like this:

Sexy lady voice: After the beep, please record your personal ad. Remember ads that include more information—what you look like and your hobbies and interests—typically receive more responses. Don’t keep your next date waitiiiiing.

Maria and I record a dual message, giggling as we say that we’re sisters looking for lots of fun. We know that coming as a pair makes us more popular, but at thirteen, don’t yet understand the nature of adult men’s kinks and fantasies.

We come up with hot girl names: Hi, we’re Sasha and Margarita and it’s too hot to go outside. What’s everyone doing today? We’re ready for some fun!

Then we sift through the men, pressing 3 again and again to hear the ads of each possible suitor, while waiting for requests to chat with us to come rolling in.

This is our weekend ceremony. My mom works long hours managing housekeeping at a Holiday Inn Express, and my dad hardly works but is rarely home. He’s always at the neighbor’s, helping her fix things, even though he’s not that handy. Maria’s parents are poker dealers but have never lived together. Her mother suffers from bipolar disorder, and mine from depression. Both of our dads are drunks.

The party line is our solace. We come here for comfort—we don’t get much of it elsewhere. On the line, we can be anything, or anyone. Sometimes we’re supermodels with sexy signature moles on our faces. Sometimes we’re kindergarten teachers. Sometimes we’re bored Mormon lady-missionaries from Idaho. We’re always adults.

After some weeks on the line, pretending to have just celebrated our eighteenth birthdays while chatting with forty-year-old dudes gets stale. We search for ways to switch it up. To turn things up a notch.

Baa baa.

The man on the phone—a fancy lawyer with a new house in The Lakes who is trying to convince us to let him come over and take us for a ride in his convertible—gasps. “What was that noise, girls?”

Baa baa. Baa baa.

“This is our sheep,” I say, cupping my mouth to muffle the laughter.

“Her name is Betty,” Maria adds through her snorts.

Baa baa.

“Girls, stop goofing around!” The lawyer’s voice goes deep and stern. “I’m trying to come over. Just give me an address to write down.”

Baa baaBaa baa.

Click.

We break into laughter on the couch, fall over onto our sides. “Your Betty voice is getting better,” Maria says, raising her hands for a double high-five.

“Betty is the best part of this year,” I say, and she agrees.

* * *

In September, the weather cools down some and my inner thighs stop chafing. The thirty-minute walk from Maria’s house to mine is pleasant this time of year, and at night, even a little chilly. Maria and I became friends in elementary school because we had the dysfunctional family thing in common, but also because we’re both lifelong fatties. We both know the struggle of being teenaged girls in larger bodies—the thigh chafing, sure. But worse: the limited clothing options, none of them cool; the teasing at school; boys who beg to finger us, but only in secret. Our mantra this year: The boys in high school are gonna be so much better.

My dad is in between jobs. He is often in between jobs. In his defense, his English isn’t great—it’s actually pretty terrible—but my mom says he’s just allergic to work. She pays the mortgage all by herself, so I get why she yells all the time.

During the day when my dad is home and my mom is at the hotel, he turns the AC down low and he, me, and Carlos—my brother, younger than me by eleven months—play ping-pong or card games while our hands freeze. When he has a few bucks, he’ll pull a dollar out from his pocket and tell me to treat myself to a chili dog from 7-Eleven, “But not with too much chili if you don’t want things to get ugly in the bathroom.” (I don’t listen, things always get ugly.) My dad is a cheerful man. Only once have I ever seen him cry—about a year ago, when his little sister in Cuba died, and he couldn’t make it back home. He hadn’t seen her since he was twenty-nine, since 1980—the year he came here on the boat. I heard noises coming from my parents’ room that afternoon—I figured it was my mom, or maybe my brother, before I saw my dad’s body curled up on the bed, wailing.

Linda, the Greek lady next door, used to come over at night to chit-chat with my mom and watch La Ursupadora. “The telenovelas are helping me learn Español,” Linda would laugh. “They’ve already taught me how to yell and flirt.” My mom and dad both think it’s cute, listening to her try to boost her vocabulary. But now she mostly visits our house during the day, when my mom’s at work. Linda, like my dad, is apparently also allergic to work.

One Friday night, my parents invite their friends Santiago and his wife Sherry over for dinner. My mom makes the dish she always makes: a potful of pollo fricassee, with white rice and black beans on the side. These beans are from the can, so I know she’s tired from work today. Santiago and Sherry arrive carrying a tupperware full of guava and cheese for dessert.

Santi is my dad’s close friend from Cuba. He’s Afrocubano, has oak-brown skin like my dad, and is also married to a white lady. He and my dad came here on the same boat in 1980, off the Mariel Pier—Marielitos, people call them. They are both dressed the way Cuban dudes dress, very Al-Pacino in Scarface: dark, clean leather loafers with tassels; white trousers; summer shirts—guayaberas—buttoned up, but not all the way. This way, everyone can clearly see the centerpiece of their look: a thick gold chain with a dangling pendant of Saint Lazarus, the Cuban saint of the poor and sick.

Santiago is always dressed a little better than my dad, his clothes always a little newer and more fashion-forward. Tonight, his shirt is bright pink; it’s from Armani, he says. My dad told me once, when he was smashed, that Santiago has better clothes because he’s gay. “Then why is he married to Sherry?” I asked.

 “You’ll understand this when you’re older, but a lot of people get married and stay married because nobody wants to be alone,” he said.

I nodded the way we all nod at drunk people.

Everyone sits down at the table. My dad is already on his fourth Heineken, so he’s extra fun. I watch from the living room as he leaps up from his seat, pulls his longish curly hair back into an almost ponytail, and announces: “I told you all that I look just like Steven Seagal with my hair up like this!” He pats Santi on the back as he says this, and everyone snickers. Yes, Reinaldo. You look just like him, they lie.

I head to my brother’s room after the party switches from beer to rum, from salsa to sad boleros, after I tire of my dad’s celebrity impressions (once he does his Robert De Niro Are you talking to me?, I know it’s time to abandon ship). I shut the bedroom door. Carlos and I play Sonic on his new Dreamcast, whacking each other with the remotes whenever we lose. He mostly wins, since video games are his escape, and eventually I fall asleep on the cold tile floor. When I wake up in the middle of the night, there’s a pillow under my head, a pillow my brother placed there.

I stand up, put the pillow next to his snoring body and step out of the room. It’s the middle of the night, but I head to the kitchen for some Ho Hos and notice the back patio lights are on. There is the outline of my father, kissing a silhouette. My mom, I think. These fools got way too crazy tonight. I start to sneak an extra pack of Ho Hos. But the silhouette shifts, moves into the light, and it is Linda he is kissing. And not the pretty stuff I know from 90210 and Saved By the Bell, but tongue-in-mouth, saliva-all-over-the-place making out. It’s drunk, gross kissing. Occupied, neither of them notice me there, standing in the kitchen, seeing everything I’m not supposed to see. I take my Ho Hos and split.

The next day, I tell my mom nothing.

* * *

Just before Halloween, Maria shaves her head and becomes an instant trendsetter. The popular girls at school start chopping off and dyeing their hair, and invite Maria into their exclusive friend groups. Maria still comes over on the weekends, but now that she believes her shit doesn’t stink, she’s stopped saying hello to me in public.

We call the party line one Saturday night, while my mom naps and my dad is at Santi’s, and we tell a man to come pick us up and take us out on the town. Maria wants beer, and I want a burger. He says both sound good to him.

The man we choose says he’s thirty-one and owns a landscaping company. He’s the first one we’ve agreed to meet in person. We’ve selected him because when Betty showed up on the call and the baa baas started, he didn’t freak out; he actually started chuckling. He seems warm. He says he lives in a house in Summerlin and has a giant pool with a waterfall and slide. Maria and I have always loved pools. For her, it’s the sun that’s enthralling: sleeping under it, the burn. For me, it’s floating. When my body feels light, when nothing anchors it anymore.

I watch a white pickup truck roll down my block. Slowly, intentionally. We didn’t give the dude with the pool an exact address, just my street and cross street. He has a cell phone so he calls, tells us to come outside, wherever we are. “Is it the blue house? Or this green one that looks like a barn?”

Maria pencils on more eyeliner and I tell him that we’ll be right out. “A woman needs to take her time,” I say into the phone. I look back out the window and watch his truck drive past my house again. This time even more slowly, like an ice cream truck. It’s a giant Ford F-150, the kind of truck I imagine a dude with a gun and rope and a shovel would drive around.

Maria yanks at my arm. She’s all ready to go—I know this because her eyeliner is so thick it’s scary. I pull my arm back into my chest; all my excitement has dissipated. I don’t want to meet this dude anymore. It’s just a gut feeling I have.

“I changed my mind about doing this,” I blurt.

Her eyes narrow. “But why?”

Maria’s new friends definitely don’t know about the choreographed Spice Girls dances we do in matching jumpsuits. I don’t want her to think I’m not open to having fun anymore. I think of a lie. “Because he’s not cute,” I say.

“Fuck!” Maria lurches toward the window, tries to get a peek, too. His truck isn’t out there anymore. She presses her face against the glass, waiting for him to make another appearance.

“Yeah, he’s actually super fugly.”

“I should have known!” Maria turns away from the window, plops down onto the bed.

“They’re all connivers, anyway,” I say. I join her on the bed, kick off my shoes, let my sweaty feet air out. I hadn’t actually seen what he looked like. The windows on the truck were tinted, but he was bound to be lying about something. Aren’t they all full of shit? That’s what I hear my mom say when she’s on the phone with her best friend in Miami. “Yeah, I can’t believe he said he looked a little like Fabio,” I say. “More like Hulk Hogan, if you ask me…but, like, way uglier.”

The light in the bedroom dims with the sun. The phone rings, but we ignore it now. Neither of us is into the Hulk Hogan type.

Maria lays her head on my shoulder. For the remainder of the day, we give the party line and Betty a rest.

* * *

“Where’s your father?” my mom roars over the phone. It has now been a month since I saw the kiss, and it’s cold enough outside to wear jackets and sweaters.

I put the receiver down and go look for my dad. He’s asleep in his bed, wearing just his man-bikini underwear. They are purple with a geometric pattern. I remember how Maria said that only foreign men wear tiny underwear like that. I hope to one day see more men in underwear, so I can confirm or refute this theory.

“Papi,” I say. He’s snoring and doesn’t move. I say it again, louder this time. “Papi, Mami’s on the phone. She sounds super mad.”

He doesn’t budge, keeps snoring. The room smells post-party: liquor and smoke and mansweat. I walk back to the living room and grab the receiver.

“He’s not waking up,” I say.

I hear my mom sigh. My dad is supposed to pick her up. He always does. Since he’s allergic to getting a job, everyday he drops her off at 8:30 a.m. and is there waiting for her at the side entrance of the hotel by 5:30. It is now 6 p.m. She tells me to forget it, that she’ll be home from work in a while.

About an hour later, the front door flings open, wildly, like it’s no more than a screen. My mom rushes past me without saying hello, her body moving toward her bedroom at a strength and speed I’ve never seen. In that moment she reminds me of Rogue from X-Men—my favorite character—just a sweaty, chubbier, Latina version.

I watch from the hallway as she opens the bedroom door and shrieks, in Spanish, “Don’t lie about where you’ve been.”

“Angela?” my dad mumbles. I can hear in his voice that he’s still blitzed.

I hear the solid jingle of her car keys hitting the floor. Then the screaming starts, from both of them, and I think: How did I end up with this Jerry Springer drama at home? With this telenovela shit? I am not religious, but once, when I was riding bikes with friends, one of my Mormon neighbors told me that in her church they believe we all choose our families. That before we were born, God let us choose our gender and our mother and father, too.

“Wow, God is a fucking idiot then,” I’d said.

My Mormon neighbor isn’t allowed to be around me anymore.

* * *

The best part of having a parent who works in a hotel is the occasional access to an indoor pool. My mom sneaks us in every once in awhile, on nights she has to work late because she’s covering for another housekeeper who has called in sick. When she knows that Carol, the hotel manager, is going to be gone for the day, me, Carlos, and Maria slap on our bathing suits and take the bus up Sahara Ave to swim. The hotel pool is almost always empty.

Carlos closes his eyes and the three of us play Marco Polo in the water. When he gets close and I know I’m about to lose, I pee in the water and tell him I’ve done it. He screams, calls me a fucking gross pig, and Maria and I laugh until our stomachs cramp. If there is a God, I believe he gave us younger siblings so we could torture them like this.

When it’s just the three of us at the pool, I don’t think about the fat on my body. First of all, fat helps you float and, besides, all three of us are fat. Here, we can all leap into the water without worrying about the size of the splash; we don’t worry about saggy skin or the wrinkles on our legs; we don’t worry about skinny bitches who give us side-eye. When we’re at the pool, we don’t need to worry about anything happening at home either. We don’t think about anything beyond our lives right here, right now.

When work is slow, my mom comes in to check on us. She kicks off her shoes, rolls off her socks, and steps up to the shallow end. “Nobody better splash me,” she says in her I’m not fucking around voice. We laugh and wave her closer to the water, promise not to get her wet because we don’t want to die today. She crouches down and sits at the edge of the pool, then dips her feet in slowly. I glide through the water and get closer to her. I notice the chipped red paint on her toes. “I’m tired as hell,” she says. She dunks her hand in the water, moves it around in a circle.

We all float below her. We know what my mom means about being “tired.” At least Maria and I do—she’s talking about my dad. Our time spent on the party line, chatting with dudes we know are often married, has shown us as much. Maria and I know that my dad isn’t the only grown man like this—so many of them are trouble. Something to be prepared for when we get older, I guess.

“Okay, I love you guys but I gotta get back to work.” My mom pulls herself up and dries off her feet. “Please don’t kill each other,” she says on her way out. “Or if you do, please someone hide the body. I can’t deal with anything else right now.”

* * *

On Christmas Eve my mom, still in her slacks and collared shirt with the hotel’s logo, drives me to the local dog shelter. We made a deal: If I earned good grades this semester, we could visit the dogs. “But only to look,” she says. “I’m so broke right now. Until after the New Year.”

This is my first time in an animal shelter. It’s crowded. The barking is relentless and depressing, and there is poop everywhere. A lady shouts that all the dogs are half-off because of the holiday. From one hundred to fifty dollars. “I really don’t have the money,” my mom says again.

We walk through the rows and stare into each kennel, look into all the sad eyes. My mom likes the small dogs, the tiny, fluffy ones that wealthy ladies on TV carry around in handbags. I hate the little ones. Their barks are high-pitched and awful. And I’d be afraid I would roll over and kill it in my sleep.

We stop in front of a six-month-old, brindle pit bull with a bandage wrapped around its hind leg. “What happened to her?” I say, grabbing my mom’s arm. She shrugs. She picks up the paperwork hanging in front of the dog’s cage. “It says she had a small tumor they removed this week. But she’s healthy now.”

“I want her,” I say, and crouch down.

“Can’t you play with one of the neighbor’s dogs? Or doesn’t Ana down the street have a lizard? I’ll get you a stuffed dog for your birthday.”

“My birthday is in June,” I say. “And I’m thirteen, not five.”

The pit bull moves in closer to us. She licks the gate and I put my hand against it, so she keeps licking. I wipe the slobber off on my jeans.

“But you brought me here to look at dogs,” I plead. “And it’s Christmas. And I got good grades. And she can meet Papi whenever he gets home.”

It’s the holiday and my father is nowhere to be found. This is a normal occurrence now. Last time it happened, a few weeks ago, he turned up in the middle of the night, incoherently drunk and covered in cactus needles. My mom and I took turns pulling them out, one by one. She seemed annoyed by this. I thought it was hilarious.

One of the shelter volunteers, a woman about my mom’s age, walks down our row. My mom stops her. “Ma’am, is there any way possible to get the price lowered on this dog? Any chance you can do less than fifty?”

The volunteer places one of her hands on her hip, moves the other around while she talks. “No, the price is the price and we’re not allowed to budge on the puppies.”

My mom nods.

“Let’s go, Mi’ja.” My mom puts her arm around my back and we start making our way out. I don’t fight. When my mom says she doesn’t have the money, she means it.

“Wait,” the volunteer says, waving us back. “You know what? It’s Christmas—can you do twenty-five dollars?”

Puppy—this is the name I came up with in a pinch—rides in my lap on the way home. When we enter the house, the scent of pine washes over us. I flick on the tree lights.

I stay up long past midnight, sharing spoonfuls of peanut butter with Puppy, flipping between Cinemax porn and infomercials, waiting for my dad to get home. In my family, Christmas Eve is the real holiday. When I was little, my parents used to wake us up, right at midnight, to let us unwrap the gifts they’d been hiding. Rarely could they buy us gifts throughout the year, but my mom always found a way at Christmas.

Puppy and I wait all night for my dad to return, but he doesn’t, and I pass out in a peanut butter hangover.

The next day he still doesn’t show. Carlos and me open our presents, without any fanfare. My mom says nothing about my father’s absence.

* * *

It’s almost Valentine’s Day and Maria and I are on the party line looking for our future husbands, who will regularly wine and dine us—and not just on special occasions. It’s been a month since my dad moved out to live with Linda. She’s pregnant, I heard my mom tell her BFF on the phone recently. Last week, my mom ran into Linda at a casino. Linda was sitting at a slot machine playing Keno, rubbing her belly. My mom, who almost never touches alcohol, was walking around and drinking away her sorrows with her friend Gavin. When she spotted Linda, she poured a drink over her head. I heard my mom describe the experience on the phone as pure ecstasy, pouring the vodka and watching it splash all over. It felt great, she said, until Linda called security, and my mom and Gavin had to bolt.

Maria and I press 3 over and over to hear ads. Tonight the line is full of duds. We talk to a dude who works at 7-Eleven and says he can get us free beer. But when he says he still lives with his mom, and he doesn’t have a pool, we lose interest. We bring Betty in with some baa baas, but it doesn’t excite us much anymore.

Eventually we give up on the line and lay head to feet on the couch. Puppy is cuddled up against my belly. My mom is at work and my brother is at a friend’s, so it’s just Maria and me at home, the AC blowing on our bare legs.

“We’re gonna meet cool, nice dudes one day,” Maria promises and tickles my head with her toes.

I jerk my head away, slap her foot. “Sure,” I say and massage Puppy’s neck. “Maybe once we’re grownups.”

Puppy hops off the couch and I watch her walk toward the kitchen. I almost clap my hands to call her back. But I let her go, her tail wagging in curiosity and delight. She’ll return, I think as I watch her disappear, feeling reassured by this kind of predictability. I imagine meeting a beautiful man one day—maybe tall, maybe handsome, but with the disposition of this dog, this animal exactly. The kind that never leaves for good.

Natalie Lima

Natalie Lima is a Cuban-Puerto Rican writer and a graduate of the MFA program in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona. Her essays and fiction have been published or are forthcoming in Longreads, Brevity, The Offing, Catapult, Sex and the Single Girl (Harper Perennial), and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from PEN America Emerging Voices, Tin House, the VONA/Voices Workshop, the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, and a residency from Hedgebrook.

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