Gessy Alvarez



Gessy Alvarez is a cross-genre writer and founder and editor of Digging Press. Her prose has appeared in Feminine Collective, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Hobart, Asteri(x), and other publications. She hosts the podcast, Digging Through with Gessy Alvarez. Follow her @CultOmnivore on Twitter and Instagram, or visit her website:

Ramona surprised Sabi after school. It had been one of those days when it felt like all the other fifth-grade girls had transformed into aliens that only cared about lip gloss and eighth-grade boys. Ramona was waiting for her next to all the other mothers, looking like a forgotten movie star in her unbuttoned, white rabbit fur coat and hand-sewn red dress. Ramona preferred not to dress like a typical grandmother.

Hurry! Hurry!” she cried while waving a rolled-up newspaper in the air. The other mothers pulled their children away from the crazy woman in the outlandish outfit.

When Sabi reached Ramona, she asked, “Why are you all dressed up?”

“We’re going to check out an apartment,” Ramona said. She pushed her granddaughter through the crowd.

On the subway train, Sabi read the newspaper ad three times before it sunk in:

1RM in FEM ONLY BLDG, $50/wk

They rode the “1” train to Times Square and walked through the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Ramona held Sabi’s hand as they walked down 42nd Street, past a line of homeless men standing in front of a church waiting for the day’s hand out.

Ramona lit a cigarette. She smoked Kools and not Marlboros like her father. When no one was looking, Sabi liked to stick Ramona’s cigarette in her mouth and suck in the menthol until her tongue grew tingly.

They stopped in front of a three-story building at the corner of 9th Avenue and 38th Street. A short man with glasses was waiting for them by the entrance.

 “You’re here for the room?” he said. He didn’t even bother to look at Ramona and say hello, Sabi disliked him right away.

Ramona acted as if she understood when the short man said they were in a “Women Only Residence.” Ramona held onto Sabi’s hand as they walked down a dark hallway. A white lady came out of her room and said hello to them. She looked dirty, her hair oily and limp and her “I <Heart> NYC” t-shirt had a purple stain on it. While the short man struggled to unlock the door to the vacant room, Ramona pulled Sabi by the hand and walked away.

Sabi never knew that women lived that way. Alone, in dingy rooms, sharing one bathroom. She wondered about their families. Didn’t they have anyone to take care of them?

Ramona didn’t say a word as they rode the train back uptown.

Sabi wanted Ramona to jump out at the next subway stop and say, “Let’s run away, hija.” She knew if Ramona did that, she would say, “Yes, yes, yes.”




Ramona surprised her again the next day.

“I spoke to Ibrahim,” she said, “I told him what your mother did.”


“He said, she had no right to invite your Abuelo to New York. He’s going to lend me the money for my apartment."

“What about his wife?”

Ramona laughed. “Hija, forget her. That’s over. He still loves me. Don’t you see?”

“What do you mean that’s over?”

Ramona became agitated. She picked imaginary lint off her sleeve. Without meeting Sabi’s eyes, she said, “Ibrahim knows about a one-bedroom near the George Washington Bridge. He’s going to help me pay the rent.”

Sabi shook her head. Whenever the evil guy in a telenovela helped a heroine out, he always wanted something. For months, Ramona called Ibrahim a worthless scumbag. He had moved out of the apartment they shared together. Leaving her no choice but to move in with Sabi’s family. Both Sabi and her mother were convinced that Ibrahim was an evil guy and evil guys always made good girls bad in telenovelas.

Ramona lifted Sabi’s chin. “Hey,” she whispered, “I’m taking you to the movies after school tomorrow. Got it.” She said with a wink.

Sabi stared into Ramona’s feline eyes. “I don’t want you to move out,” she said.

She hoped Ramona would tell her not to worry, that moving out was a stupid idea. Instead, Ramona said, “Don’t be silly.”




The next day after school, Sabi spotted Ibrahim standing next to Ramona. He looked like he had poured a whole bottle of baby oil on his bald head. This time, Ramona wore Sabi’s mother’s black wool coat with gold buttons. Sabi’s mother only wore that coat to go to Sunday’s Mass. Ramona’s hair was up in a tight bun, and her lashes looked thick like she had dipped them in black paint. She looked like a prima ballerina.

Ibrahim hailed a cab for them, one of those big, checkered cabs with the rear fold-down jump seats. Sabi sat on one of the fold-downs, facing Ramona and Ibrahim.

“Life’s complicated,” Ibrahim said.

Sabi half-listened, her attention focused on the wedding ring Ibrahim wore on his left finger. “You’re still married.”

In a baby voice, Ibrahim said, “We need to keep today a secret.” He switched to his normal adult voice and leaned close to Ramona. “This kid’s too smart,” he said.

Ramona ran her hand underneath her bun like she was afraid it would fall off her head. “What can I say she takes after me.”

The cab dropped them off on the corner of 175th and Broadway. They followed Ibrahim down the block to a basement entrance with a sign over the door that read “Rental Office.” Ibrahim asked Ramona if she wanted to look at the apartment first before they signed the lease.

“You’ve seen it. Let’s get this over with,” Ramona said and pushed Ibrahim through the door.

Ibrahim wiped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. Inside the office, his scraggly, dark skin glistened under the fluorescent lights.

“What are you so worried about?” Ramona said, looking like she wanted to swat him like a fly.

When he reached for her hand, Ramona smacked him away. “You brought the money?”

Sitting behind a steel desk, a white lady with bright orange hair asked, “Can I help you?”

Ibrahim turned to Sabi. For a second, Sabi thought she could fool them. She could say the apartment was no longer available, smile at the orange-haired lady, and walk out, but then the lady flashed a piece of paper with the word “Lease” typed on top in bold letters. Ibrahim recognized the form. He turned to Ramona.

“Sign it,” she said.

Fifteen minutes later, they left the rental office. Ibrahim placed a hand on Sabi’s shoulder. “You’re a mature little girl,” he said.

Ramona agreed and kissed Sabi on the forehead.

Sabi didn’t like Ibrahim’s attention. The way he looked at her and how he spoke down to her like she was a five-year-old made her suspicious of him. She didn’t quite understand why he talked to her that way. She was glad when Ibrahim left them to go flag down a gypsy cab. “Abuela, are you sure about this?”

 “Very sure. Besides, it’s done.”

This time the three of them would have to ride in the backseat of a burgundy Monte Carlo. Sabi thought the car smelled like cherry Coke. Ramona climbed into the cab behind her, followed by Ibrahim.

“When is your husband arriving?” Ibrahim asked Ramona.

“Soon,” she said. “You know what my traitor daughter said to me? She wants me to tell him that I never meant to leave him. That for the last ten years, I’ve been pining for him.”

“I don’t want any problems,” Ibrahim mumbled after a long pause. “I told you that before.”

He pulled out a pack of gum from his shirt pocket, leaned over Ramona, and offered Sabi a stick. Sabi took two, threw the wrappers on the floor, and shoved both sticks of gum into her mouth.

“You can’t tell your Abuelo about me, okay?” Ibrahim said.

Sabi popped a couple of little bubbles in succession.

“We don’t want to hurt his feelings,” Ramona explained.

“Abuelita,” Sabi said sweetly. She wrapped her arm around Ramona’s. “Is Abuelo going to kill Ibrahim?”

Ramona pulled her arm free and reached over Sabi to roll down the car window. The cold air made Sabi shiver. “Don’t be stupid.” She pulled on the tight bun on top of her head and shook her wavy hair loose.

 “Shoot, I almost forgot. We’ve got a gift for you.” Ibrahim said, extending a thin paperback novel to Sabi. On the front cover was a drawing of a teenage girl carrying a flashlight, with a gray castle looming behind her. It was the kind of horror book Sabi’s mother forbade her to read.

Sabi flipped through the pages, too excited to make out any of the words.

“You’re welcome,” Ramona said, puckering her lips and pretending she was mad.

“Sorry,” Sabi said. She kissed Ramona’s cheek but ignored Ibrahim. She knew he probably paid for the book, but she didn’t care.




Back home, Sabi asked Ramona if she needed help with dinner. It was close to five, and her parents were due from work around six.

“No, sweetie,” she said. “Tonight, we’re going out. My treat.”

An hour later, Ramona greeted her mother at the door with a big kiss on the cheek. “Hija, wash up and get pretty,” she said. “I’m taking you out to dinner.”

“Really? Why?”

“To thank you, of course. I’ve been here for almost a year now, eating you out of house and home. Don’t you think it’s about time I showed your family a little gratitude.”

“You know that’s not necessary.”

Ramona raised a finger and pressed it to her mother’s lips. “Get dressed and stop ruining this moment for me.”

Thirty minutes later, when her father arrived home from work and Ramona made her announcement again, he had the opposite reaction. “It’s about time,” he said.

Ramona smacked his behind and pushed him into the bathroom. “Take a shower,” she said, laughing. “You smell like you’ve been shoveling shit all day.”




At the Cuban Chinese restaurant on Dyckman Street, while they waited for roast pork fried rice, maduros, ropa vieja, and chicharron de pollo, Sabi’s mother asked about the movie they supposedly watched after school.

“You want a Coke?” Ramona interrupted. “They’ve got Hawaiian Punch too.”

“Those drinks are too sweet for her,” her mother said. “She’s got eight cavities as it is.”

Ramona squeezed Sabi’s cheek. “She’s probably thirsty, hija. You don’t want her to dehydrate, right?” She patted Sabi’s head and smiled. “We watched that India Maria movie,” she said, “you know the one where she gets mistaken for a luchadora.” Ramona laughed and said Sabi was getting too American. “She could barely keep up with the Spanish,” she said.

Her parents laughed. They hobbled home after dinner. Her father walked ahead of them, waving hello to the gypsy cab drivers parked up and down Dyckman. In front of the gated five and dime store was a guy selling garbage. A dirty stuffed elephant with a missing eye, a half-burnt teddy bear, three Matchbox cars with missing wheels, all for sale. Hidden underneath an armless Raggedy Ann doll was a stack of comic books. Sabi was pulled away before she could read the titles.

As they walked up the six flights of stairs to their apartment, Sabi heard Ramona tell her mother, “I’m not mad anymore, hija.”

“Really? So, you’re okay with Papi coming to stay with us?”

“I didn’t say that. But, if you want your Papi back, I can’t stop you.”




Later that night, in the pink bedroom they shared, Sabi asked Ramona why she didn’t tell her parents about her new apartment.

Ramona put down the adult comic book she was reading. These comics had photographs of people. There was a pretty girl on the cover laughing and another picture of the same girl crying. Sabi keeps one of Ramona's comic books under her mattress. In the one she stole, a pretty girl fights another girl, she sleeps with a guy, then gets shot by the other girl at the end.

Ramona sat up and looked at Sabi for a while without saying anything. Then she looked at the closed door. “I need to tell you something about your Abuelo,” she said, “but you have to promise me you’ll never repeat what I tell you.”

“I promise.”

“He worked when he wanted to, but most of the time, he sat on the couch. He stayed out all night drinking with the band that played at his favorite bar. He wasted the little money we had on whatever puta fell on his lap.”

When Sabi made a face, Ramona softened her tone. “I’m sorry to be crass, but the truth is never pretty. Your mamí thinks she knows everything. But she doesn’t know how big of a loser her father is, thanks to me. I never let her see him that way.”

Sabi hugged Ramona, but Ramona pushed her away. “I would get so mad at him that I would hit him.”

Sabi sat back down on her bed and placed her hands under her folded legs. She watched Ramona's face for signs on how she should react, but Ramona gave nothing away. She looked at Sabi, but it was as if she was seeing someone else in her place.

"I would hit him as hard as I could, and he let me. I smacked him, kicked him in the ribs, once I punched him in the mouth, and broke his front tooth. The neighbors never complained. They assumed I was the one getting hit, I guess." Ramona stared at Sabi’s knees and then giggled quietly, careful not to make too much noise and wake up Sabi’s parents.

“I don’t understand,” Sabi said.

“He thinks he can come back here and humiliate me in front of my family – no way, I’ll never let him do that to me.”

Sabi wanted to cry but kept quiet. She crawled back under her sheet, hoping Ramona would stop talking and go to sleep too.




The sound of laughter woke her up. It was Saturday morning, and she could hear Ramona and her father in the kitchen. Sabi’s father cursed out the toaster for his burnt toast. Ramona laughed at him.

The invisible cord around her neck tightened. Sabi placed her forehead against the bathroom door. She listened to her mother gurgling. She stood there waiting. Wanting very badly to hug her.

When her mother saw her standing in front of the bathroom door, she pulled Sabi by the arm and back to her pink room. Sabi watched her mother walk over to her bed and feel underneath her mattress. She closed her eyes, afraid to open them and see what her mother would find.

“Who gave you this book?”

Sabi dragged her feet on the shellacked floor and sat on Ramona’s cot.

“Are you going to answer me?”

Maybe she should have lied. She should have said she borrowed the book that Ibrahim gave her from a friend, but when she tried to speak nothing came out.

“Did you steal it?”

Sabi shook her head.

Her mother pulled her onto her lap. Sabi buried her face in her mother's neck.

“Whatever it is, you can tell me.”

“I can’t,” Sabi stammered, “I promised not to.” A series of teary hiccups and gulps escaped her. Her mother rubbed her forearm. Her velvet fingertip melted into Sabi’s skin.

“I know you hate me,” she said. Her voice sounded broken, lost. No, no, no.

That’s when it all came out. The trip to the rental office. Ibrahim’s sweaty forehead. Ramona’s new apartment. The book. And when she was done and crying on her mother’s shoulder, Ramona walked in on them.

“What’s wrong?” she said. She was holding a soft-boiled egg in her hand. Her breakfast every morning.

“Is it true?” Sabi’s mother said.

Ramona stared at her granddaughter. “Sweetie,” she shook her head and reached for Sabi, but Sabi’s mother slapped her hand away.

“Is it true?”

Sabi stared at her two mothers. She was between them but forgotten.

“Answer me!”

“I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

“How dare you make my only child lie for you?”

 Sabi wanted to die.

The front door slammed. Sabi's father had managed to escape.

“If you get back together with Ibrahim, I never want to see you again.”

Ramona stared at the floor. Sabi waited for that one look from Ramona that told her she still loved her, that she forgave her. Instead, she felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder.

“I’ll move my things tomorrow,” Ramona said.

“We can give you anything you need,” her mother said.

“Hija, you just don’t get it.”




The standoff between Sabi’s mother and Ramona lasted six years. Abuelo never came to live with them. He told her mother New York was too cold. During those six years, as Sabi got older and better at lying, she visited Ramona’s apartment. It was their secret. Sabi never saw Ibrahim in Ramona’s apartment, but every time she visited, Ramona would hand her a new book. Sabi read all the Beverly Clearys and all the Judy Blumes. While Sabi read, Ramona would nap on the couch. Sabi liked to watch Ramona sleep. She liked to place a soft kiss on her grandmother’s forehead. She didn’t think she would ever understand her. But she knew she would always love her.


© The Acentos Review 2022