The Acentos Review - Youth


She meets him while selling empanadas during packing season that summer. He says something like gracias mi linda, and she smiles and throws her hair over her shoulder, pretending that many boys call her beautiful, and that they also wink at her while they eat her empanadas. She likes how he peels oranges. A few times while selling food around the packing house she watches him pick an orange out of the crates, tearing into its skin with his strong, white teeth. Sometimes, her ears heat up when he runs his thumb across the pulp. Other times, she’s embarrassed how much the act of his picking out quarters and tossing them into his mouth whole lights something in her. His name is Umberto, but everybody calls him Berto, except his mother, who calls him Umbertito.

He’s peeling an orange the first time he talks to her. It’s a weekday afternoon and the trees in Orange Cove are sweating citrus, so that when the southern gusts break northwards the whole town smells like fruit. The packing house is windowless, stacks of empty crates towering like skyscrapers in the open lot outside. Leaned against the white panels of the building, a man sits hunched over sucking on a cigarette with his hood pulled up over his head. She waves to him from the other side of the chain link fence and he walks over to open up the gate.

Berto’s working on the orange when he catches her walking into the lot. “Linda, empanada girl—what’s your name?”

“Eloisa.” She adjusts the tin foil over the warm plate of food resting against her hip.

“I like it,” he says, and she notices how his hair curls around his ears. “You want to know my name?”

“I know your name.”

“Oh?” He smiles. She blushes. She doesn’t think he’s surprised. He’s not the most beautiful boy packing oranges, but he’s the boy that most believes he’s beautiful.

“Another empanada?” she asks, moving the plate of food in front of her like a shield.

“Yeah, okay,” he says. “You make them?”

“I do.”

“Keep your family full, huh?”

“I guess so.”

He takes an empanada from her plate, handing her a couple dollar bills. As he walks away—almost as if in afterthought—he tosses her an orange from his pocket and winks. She misses it and it drops down at her feet, rolling down the slope. He only smiles, saying, “See you around, Eloisa.”

She sees him four more times that week, though they never speak directly. She spends most of her time with the women, selling food and trading chismes. She meets Marianna, a girl her age. They trade hair tips, lamenting together over the last episode of their favorite telenovela. They talk about boys. They mention their families, at first speaking in generalities, and then with time, in that precarious shared understanding that when it’s hard, it’s hard. They cross themselves together, muttering que sea lo que Dios quiera in shared prayer. Eloisa learns how Marianna packs faster than anyone else, and how she does it with long, acrylic nails, curling at her fingertips. They look perfectly kept.

“I do them myself,” she says. “The viejas think I’m crazy packing with these things, you know?” Perfectly timed, Marianna lifts her hand to sweep back her hair as a pack of someone’s abuelas walk by. She whispers, “Que se jodan. You need to feel pretty here somehow.” Her breasts swell against her shirt, and Eloisa can’t help but feel ugly in her shadow.

Sometimes, she watches Berto as he works, carrying in crates and sorting, the thrum of the machinery around them muting out the sound of his voice. She scrutinizes him like one might scrutinize a painting, learning the lines of his face when he shares a joke with his friends, or when he says some rude word, spitting on the ground beside him.

“You like him?” Marianna asks her one day, leaning against the fold-up lunch table in the back room. “When you look at him it’s like you want to eat him.”

Loca,” she says, turning pink. “I don’t look at him.”

“Liar. If you like him, take him.”

Eloisa laughs. Taking is such a joke to her, a kind of dream.  


She wants him. She does not learn to recognize this craving all at once, but little by little. In time she joins in on the history of girls that fell in want with boys that did not want them back. She wants him until the desire grows so large that she can no longer trace the origin of her longing.

She reads her magazines twice over, seeing her face where she’d never even dared to look before. The woman on page four with the drooping eyes is the way hers droop in the morning when she rolls out of bed—this is how she wakes up from a dream in which Berto tells her, “Linda, I was just waiting until it was the right time for us.” The girl on page twenty-six with the red, purposefully jutted lips—this is how she pretends to look before they kiss. When she’s not flipping through magazines, she cleans. She cooks. She folds laundry, keeping her hands in constant motion. Abuela wonders where the streak of domesticity comes from, meanwhile, Eloisa wants.

She’s ironing her brother Carlos’ favorite shirt one day when she smells the scent of burning. Her sister Rosa is sitting on the couch next to her reading. Somewhere in the house she hears little Hector in his room, listening to loud music nobody else understands. She’s standing near the fire alarm, which goes off, beeping loudly as his shirt sizzles under the iron. Carlos sprints into the room, clambering to find a chair to stand on to shut it off.

Fuck. What gives, Eloisa?” Carlos says, holding up his nicest shirt, which now has a triangle-shaped hole in the sleeve.

“Oh,” she responds, as if only just noticing. “I’m sorry Carlos, I didn’t even notice.”

“Jesus. Look at this thing. I was going to go out with it, you know.”

Then she gets annoyed, like do your own ironing then, pendejo. “Please, when do you go anywhere?”

“I go places,” he says. He rolls the shirt up into a little ball and throws it into the nearest bin. “Going someplace this weekend.”

“Hot date?” she says, not seriously.

Carlos evades. “Party. Big one, out in Orange Cove.”

The name evokes something like sense memory, and the tang of those orange peels hitting wood comes back to her. This time she almost burns herself shutting off the iron. “Can I come?” she asks. Her voice is small, as if she’s asking herself and not him.

He says, “No.”

They start to fight. She says things like, Take me to the party! and why not? Carlos says things like, You don’t take your sister to a party. and It’s just weird. She makes an offer: I know a girl I could bring along, while he says, I don’t want to hang out with any of your fat friends. They fight some more.

After a string of sentences punctuated every so often with pendejo! and shut up, Carlos finally says, “Christ, fine—you can come.”


The house is jammed in between two orchards. As they pull in, bumping over dips and curves in the dirt, the music coming from inside the house leaks out the open front door. She feels it somewhere in her chest. The house is full. Young men and women are standing out on the porch dancing, while others sit on plastic patio chairs in the yard, looking alarmingly like their abuelos, gossiping and smoking sweet-smelling cigars. Inside, they are draped on the stairs, leaning in hallways. Some are sitting on counters in the kitchen. She recognizes Marianna sticking something in the oven. She waves Eloisa over.

“Your hair looks amazing,” she says, and Eloisa feels a mixture of embarrassment and pleasure. Beside her Carlos is shifting from one foot to the other, staring at Marianna’s chest.

“I didn’t know you’d be here,” Eloisa says.

Claro, we’re all here.” Marianna winks at her, and Carlos starts leaning on the counter and flexing or something, Eloisa’s too embarrassed to look long enough to know for sure. She’s still angry with him so she doesn’t introduce him, and after a long minute of silence he gives up, giving them a curt nod and retreating into the crowd.

“Your brother?” Marianna asks.

“Sometimes,” she responds, feeling like a bit of a liar. “Rude most of the time.”

“He’s cute.”


“You’re no fun. Go dance with my cousin for awhile, he’s nice.” Marianna waves him over before she can protest; a tall, lanky boy with long hair. The music swells and Eloisa relents, letting him lead her toward the speakers where the crowd is gathered dancing.

There is nothing like dancing for Eloisa. When things were good, she remembers her family going to neighborhood parties. Hector was just a baby then, clapping his hands to the beat. It was always messy: Carlos’ face refusing scrubbing, Ana ordering Rosa to leave her room even when she please, please didn’t want to go, Eloisa standing on her tip-toes in the bathroom putting on Ana’s lipstick when she wasn’t looking. But when they got there and started dancing, when they were even in the presence of it, it was as if their feet and everyone else’s were stomping on all the cracks in the Earth. For Eloisa, the world tilted on its axis, for just a moment hanging in orbit by a thread. She doesn’t know a feeling so wonderful, and so she dances a few songs with Marianna’s cousin—they share a salsa, bachata, and sway together to some old-time bolero. At the end of the set, they part. She’s flushed and hot, hair sticking to her forehead. After dancing, she feels all parts of her body as if they are in alignment, her fingers perfectly angled to her hands, the curve of her ankle seamless and magnificent. She makes her way outside, craving the cool air, part of her wondering if the stars will still be in the same pattern.

And then there is Berto again, standing in the yard under a tree. He looks almost pale in the night’s light and she likes it, how it smoothes him out somehow. For a moment she thinks about approaching him but starts to withdraw instead, and the sound of her coming and going catches his attention. He looks up.

“No empanadas tonight?”

“No,” she says. And then, without really thinking, “Don’t be so mean.”

He laughs. This is the first time she’s heard him laugh, and she likes the sound, how it sits somewhere deep in her palm.

Bueno,” he says. “I’ll stop.”

He has some ugliness about him, small things: his head too round, a bit large for his neck, his eyes set far apart just so, his mouth just a little wide. Ugliness in a man doesn’t matter all that much. Abuela had taught her that. Like a bedtime story, it was a truth she had always known. No, ugliness in a man doesn’t really matter, but in a woman, it is her whole life.

She had been made to learn what she feared as her ugliness, discovering the curves of her belly, softly folding over the waistband of a tight pair of jeans. She had examined her breasts like a scientist, noting how her left was larger than her right. She had run her fingertips along herself, felt out the angle of her pelvic bone, how it suffered somehow under the weight of her. She doesn’t feel like a woman, but she has a woman’s body.

There’s this moment that she keeps coming back to from many years ago. She’s sitting with Rosa on the sidewalk of a beach boardwalk, she can’t remember which, it’s one of the few times her family is on vacation and she feels disoriented, woozy and a little stupid. Abuela is off somewhere, buying them all helados. She doesn’t know where the rest of her siblings are, maybe bent over some arcade game or buying cotton candy at the pier going on and on forever just as they are. Here, a man approaches them. She doesn’t know now what his face looks like, but she remembers his hand, the coarseness of it on her knee as he says, Can I keep you? Rosa starts to cry, she attracts attention, and the two of them extract themselves, hands held. Eloisa feels a great loss that day, though she can’t name that hole in her that she did not recognize before. She spends the rest of their day on the beach burying her knees in the sand.

Berto kisses her that night under the tree. She expects him to taste like oranges, but he doesn’t.


She wants to be one of those girls that do not need a boy like Berto. It is awful to want anyone like this. She sits with her forehead pressed up against the window in the backseat of the car while Abuela carts her to and from places, picking up food at the grocery store, bendiciones at church, and gossip at the center. Abuela drives too fast and brakes hard. Her glasses slip down to the crook at the end of her nose at red lights. Meanwhile, Eloisa imagines standing on top of the hills that roll by in the distance, setting up camp on some quiet ledge, the wide space muting out her need for him. Her dreams are bite-sized, small, like whimpers.

But sometimes it feels as if he’s really listening to them. They go on dates. They share their hopes and desires. They walk up and down the canals together, their feet marking a tear in the ground. On Saturday nights they dance together at the plaza where they play music outdoors. But when she sells her empanadas at the packing house, he says, “Let’s pretend like there’s nothing.” He says, “When I’m with someone—romantically—I need… distance.” Distance. She measures the weight of the word. It totals to 1.25 lbs heavy on her chest. But still, she likes how his eyes feel on her as she works. She likes catching them at a distance.

He tells about her how he only sleeps naked. When she asks him why, he says, “Well, it’s natural.” And he says it in that way, with emphasis, as if it makes him more of a man—natural. “It’s how we’re supposed to be,” he says, “It’s how we’re born.” Okay, she thinks, rolling her eyes, loving his kind of stupidity which sometimes is not too stupid.

Later, while sharing empanadas at the lot, they’re leaning against a stack of empty crates teetering from side to side when he tells her, “I want more for you than this kind of thing, you know?” She doesn’t know what to say, so instead she squeezes his two longest fingers, enjoying for the first time someone else’s hope for her.

She crawls out of the window of her room to meet him the night they first make love. She hops into his truck, where the seats effuse the smell of cigarettes and orange peels. A rosary twines the rearview mirror like a beaded snake, swinging back and forth as they pull out of her driveway. When the tires hit the gravel, it sounds as if they’re sneaking out alongside her, and a bit shamefully too. At first they drive for some time, the fields passing by them dark and empty. Berto has one hand on the steering wheel, the other he puts on her knee. It’s warm. She thinks he can feel her tremble.

Her legs are still shaking when they pull off to a small side road in a grove of pistachio trees a few miles from her house. They move into the bed of the truck, where he wraps her in a wool blanket. She itches. She’s embarrassed when he pulls her shirt up over her shoulders, when he unhooks her bra. She feels exposed, as if her ugliness will become his ugliness too. He spreads his hand against her belly, and she resists the gesture, feeling as if he’s mocking her. He persists. She relents. He kisses her breasts, muttering something that sounds like mi gorda, mi linda. The words raise something long dead. Mi gorda, she hears, and she remembers her father muttering the words to her mother somewhere, perhaps in the kitchen near the stove or another time, when she catches them dancing slow together in the middle of the night, the tune on the radio so low she can’t make out the song. Later she imagines it to be Carrilo’s Dos Gardenias, a song that makes her cry no matter who sings it. Mi gorda, he mutters to her, and the words are a memory that feels like a half-remembered dream. Te quiero, te adoro, mi vida.

Hector is in the kitchen when she gets out of bed that morning. He’s staring at his hands when she walks in, which means that he knows she snuck out the night before but he’s going to pretend he doesn’t.

Basta,” she says, enough. “You’re looking at your hands like there’s something dirty in them.”

“Where’d you go?”


“You shouldn’t have.”

“Oh? Y que, you playing Abuela now? Or Ana?”

“If Papi was here—”

“Papi’s not here. No one’s here, just us.”

Hector opens and closes his mouth like a fish and Eloisa wants to say something like cut that shit out Hector, but he only says, “Okay.”

Okay. She shuffles with some pots and pans to keep her hands busy. “Do you want me to make you something?”

“Okay,” he says. “Anything fried.”


The rain drums against the window. They watch this from the inside of the car.

“Are you keeping it?”

“Maybe.” She stares at her fingers, lone, lost pillars. “Do you want me to?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know.” 

They sit like that for awhile, him curling his fingers around the steering wheel, her staring out the window. In front of them, blossoms from the pistachio trees fall to pieces under the rain, and the asphalt gleams wet. It’s not the right time to remember, but Eloisa keeps thinking about how he’d told her once how he thought it was cute when she tried lighting cigarettes against the wind. And she thinks about the way that he says it; how it sounds like he says you are mine. Now she sees how his eyes never leave his hands, how he is gripping the steering wheel as if he is already driving away from her.

It’s much later that she comes back to him, wanting to face him. This is the only time she’s ever been to his home, and she’s afraid of what’s on the other side of the door. It’s late on a weeknight when she knocks. When he cracks open the door she’s startled by how a face she had memorized now seems so alien to her. It is so strange how the most familiar things become bizarre, how they become somehow lost and unimportant. She doesn’t know if it will always feel like this, but she knows that the doorway will somehow always be there. But still, Eloisa wants.

“Berto,” she says, “we need to talk. I’m serious.”

He says, “I don’t know.”

Her anger rises, and she’s about to use the only rude word she’s ever thought of saying to him when from behind him she hears a voice calling softly, “Umbertito.” In four syllables the man she’s made evaporates, and she sees how the shirt on his shoulders hangs loosely, his pants dragging on the ground.

In time, he’ll bring around some tall, skinny girl that he started going with after her and she’ll think about what an insult it is to her. She’ll wonder if he still needs distance.  She’ll remember how when lying together one night he says, “This is what people need to live, you know, touching like this. Holding like this.” (What a line, she thinks.) But still, she will smile when she has to smile, and she will not say one word about his nakedness, not one word, and then, later, after she stops having to be so strong, she’ll cry ugly in the shower, with her shampoo bubbling in her hair, there in her own nakedness, in that place where people hide their shame. This is how you say goodbye to someone: the words come first, and then the feeling.

But that first night he leaves her it’s in Abuela’s lap that she cries, and Abuela holds her like a baby, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. She sweeps her hair back behind her ears, cooing, “Ya, mijita. Todo va estar bien.” Later, when Eloisa is tired from crying, sniffling every now and then into Abuela’s shoulder, Abuela imparts a second truth, “People are sometimes like this,” she says, and Eloisa accepts the words as law. “Sometimes it feels like the worst ones look for you.” Abuela makes crosses on her back with her thumb. “But it’s not true, mi linda. You’ll see.”

The words form a promise, and she keeps it somewhere inside of her growing belly. You’ll see.

Mi Gorda


Jean Burnet holds an MFA from the University of Washington, and currently writes for television. She has work forthcoming in Brevity.