Alicia had graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Digital Communication and Media, which as of late she had taken to call a complete BS (bullshit) degree. Despite the evident lack of accessible job listings available to her as graduation neared and her friends applying to part-time positions at downtown tourist trap art galleries and museums, Alicia had chosen to believe in herself.
She would find a job.
Not just any job, but a job related back to her degree, a job that had benefits she didn’t even understand included in her contract, a job that would make her all-nighters finishing senior multimedia projects while her mother berated her to sleep worth it.
It’s why when she looks over an automated job postings newsletter a month into unemployment limbo post-graduation, she scans the listings legitimately, regardless of the fact the majority were not legitimate.
But one catches her eye.
She spreads her fingers on her phone screen to zoom in, reading over each word carefully, searching for a trap.
The position is a result of a new initiative pushed forward by a national children’s book fair association Alicia fondly remembered visiting with the loose change she collected from her father’s car’s cup holders shoved into her pockets.
Where before the position to curate weekly book fairs in school libraries was held by volunteer parents, teachers, and librarians, now the association was hiring entry-level assistant directors to shepherd a new generation of children.
Alicia applies swiftly, making space in her standard cover letter for a few, personalized lines reflecting on her honest, earnest, sincerest excitement.
The job was nice.
There weren’t many benefits, but it didn’t matter to Alicia. With each flier she created, with each newsletter she drafted and forwarded to her supervisor, with each nameless child that held up their pudgy hands to offer her money in exchange for a book with an over-the-top cover about sharks or whales, Alicia felt vindicated.
This, this was how Alicia would begin to feel the weight of her degree.
It wasn’t necessarily directly related to it, but it was malleable. She could suggest a social media campaign to her supervisor, pitch it at a meeting, defend it with research and climb up the corporate ladder, up and up and up—
Ramon, her supervisor, is awkwardly touching the nape of his neck, playing with the ends of his dark, curly hair. He says the words softly, softly enough that Alicia isn’t sure she heard him right with the elated sounds of the next fourth-grade class approaching the book fair. “What?” she says, brows dipping despite the nervous laughter that slips out.
Ramon sighs, and when he goes to lean an elbow against the top of a child-sized bookcase, he nearly knocks over a shoebox diorama of the sea.
“I’m sorry,” he says, as he readjusts the diorama. A misshapen sea turtle made of clay that looks more like a discolored tumor falls out. “We’re having some budget cuts, they’re getting rid of a lot of positions.”
“Who’s they?” Alicia asks, and Ramon grimaces as he goes to scoop up the sea turtle to deposit it back.
“Higher up. It’s not even people I talk to.”
“Are you fired?”
Ramon touches his neck again and Alicia fights off the impulse to whack his hand.
“No,” he says. “I actually got a bonus.”
When Alicia was a child, her parents had a bathtub in their bathroom.
It wasn’t like the ones she saw in movies and television that looked like swollen porcelain. She always had to rinse out her father’s stubborn left-over soap crust and was careful to not let her toes touch one corner of the tub where the grout above had a moldy greenish hue.
But it was a bath, and when her abuelita had become ill enough to have to remain in the hospital, she took a bath almost nightly.
Her parents were not negligent, but more so distracted; her mother stayed with her mother in the hospital overnight, and her father worked late into the night, so she was left alone to marinate in the foamy water that smelled of her failed heads & shoulders shampoo and conditioner and Dove shampoo bubble bath concoction.
As water flows in and out of her ears, the world muffled in waves as she rests her head back, she thinks of her abuelita. But recollections of her abuelita’s wrinkled, light brown skin dotted with darker umber spots are slowly crystalized to appear as the scaly, webbed finger creature from a horror movie she recently had seen. Alicia tries to not remember it, but as the warm water cools around her, more images from horror movies her mother had repeatedly told her not to watch haunt her.
She imagines the gaping, deadly jaws of an enormous great white suddenly breaking through the tub to swallow her, imagines pale ghosts with long, broken fingers and oil spill hair reaching out to drown her.
When the bathroom door slides open suddenly, Alicia shoots up and shrieks, spilling water over the edge of the tub. In the doorway, her father yells as well but shuts the door briskly.
“Dios, Alicia,” he says, muffled, and Alicia reaches for a towel as her heartbeat drums in her ear.
The bathtub is gone when Alicia moves back in with her parents. Her mother excitedly gives her a tour of the house as if Alicia wasn’t subjected to routine photos and calls revolving around the renovation her mother insisted on.
“Se ve bonito,” her mother says, as she turns on the starch white light of the bathroom that replaced the warm amber that swathed Alicia as a child.
“Yeah, it’s pretty, mami.”
The bathroom isn’t the only memory that has changed. The tiles that line the floor are new, the pseudo marble effect reminding Alicia of veins, and the curled torn pages of her abuelita’s address book that were taped to the backside of the kitchen cabinet doors were missing on the new, white doors that felt like plastic covering wood.
Alicia had been aware of the changes, she had visited her parents during the year and a half she lived on her own with a roommate she barely saw. She had seen the changes taking place, had met the talkative construction workers that her father knew from his job and brought them and her parents lunch various times, but living with the changes was disorienting.
It was hard.
It was hard living with her parents again, hard to embody the child they continued to see though she was years older.
“Por qué no sales con amigas?”
“You need to find a job, a lo mejor Blanca sabe de algo.”
It might not be the most responsible way to cope given her lack of funds and privacy, but Alicia turns to dating. Similar to her professional career, Alicia’s love life was abysmal. The girls she dated were sweet, but eventually, something always happened. Beverly got weird and started tokenizing Alicia once she met her family, and Xiomara was smart and pretty, but when she landed a three-year adjunct gig as a figure drawing professor across the country in Boston, they both knew it was over.
The men she dated were worse.
Alvaro would not stop calling her bro—regardless of the situation, intimate or not.
Dave, to her horror at a family barbecue his brother hosted once, kissed his whole family on the lips.
And Robert, Robert, started to openly cry at a brewery because they had no vegan options.
But maybe with how awful her job searching was going, the powers that be in the universe would grant her some mercy regarding dating.
On the one dating app she downloads onto her phone one night where she holes up in her room after a barrage of comments on her stained sleep shirt from her mother, she decides to try an experimental approach with her profile. Rather than uploading selfies that incorporated her face head-on or erased her blemishes with some sort of glowy, sparkle filter, Alicia first uploads a zoomed-in picture of their eye. Then as she sits up on her bed, she uploads a picture of her shoulder that includes the corner of her headboard and then flips the camera to take a picture of the corner of her room, where some clothes are clumped on the ground, and a bra is hanging over the back of her childhood desk chair.
She dumps the phone somewhere on the mattress beside her after and begins her nightly routine of rewatching either The X-Files or Bob’s Burgers until she managed to pass out—
Her phone vibrates, and she scoops it up embarrassingly quickly to look.
hey, a message from user carrrrri reads. i see you.
La Negra Tiene Tumbao blasts from the Bluetooth speaker Alicia’s tía Zoraida gifted her mother last Mother’s Day, just as her cousin Beatriz and her husband Luis giddily follow the lead of their four-year-old daughter dragging them to the empty patch of cement behind the lit-up patio, beyond the smoking barbecue. Alicia doesn’t quite remember whose birthday it is, she just knows her mother had dragged her to the party because she refused to take the highway to get to places, and la casa de los primos was far into West Kendall, where the new fancy condos were being built.
Now Alicia was awkwardly sitting close to the cooler, overhearing her mother talk to Zoraida and some other tías and cousins about none other than Alicia herself. They were sitting in a half-circle, paper plates smeared and dented with the leftovers of beans, rice, and roast pork.
“Está pensado ir a la escuela otra vez.”
Alicia frowns. She hadn’t mentioned anything about going back to school to her mother.
“Oh, how good!” one of her aunts nearly shouts, before looking over at her.
Alicia feels her face flush.
“What would you be studying?” she asks.
Her mother turns to look at her, expectant, and Alicia uncrosses her legs.
“No se,” Alicia says, stumbling. “Maybe something with writing?”
There is a very specific way her family’s faces change when they don’t understand something, and Alicia recognizes the gleam in their eyes then as they nod remorsefully. Alicia smiles and tucks her hair behind her ear, and her family looks away mercifully, distracted by a flame erupting from the barbecue grill and her father shouting Dale!
Her phone vibrates then, and her lips twitch at the message.
Wyd, carrrrri asks.
Alicia stands and starts to type a reply as she heads to the bathroom, walking past the television blasting a baseball game one of her cousin’s boyfriends is watching.
about to excuse myself from my family for like, 15 min
She gets a reply as she shuts the bathroom door behind her. She wrinkles her nose at the vanilla scent that wafts from a spray plugged into the wall facing the toilet.
ooo tonight’s the party right? hows it goin
why are you fucking up your life vibes
well i think ur doing good
you have no proof
idk mr.”you’re always applying to jobs take a break”
that’s just the truth
the truth is i need a job
jeez they did a number on you tonight
but fr, you’re doing good
you’ll land something
i can’t believe i got the fucking second
interview for the library gig
like what the fuck???
you deserve it
i’m so excited
thx for supporting me these past three months
you don’t have to thank me
thank you for trusting me
don’t do that
don’t get sappy, ill get emotional
is that a bad thing???
it is if i don’t get the job
you’re gonna do great
In all honesty, Alicia thinks she’ll pass the second interview for the full-time library assistant position at the university about four hours away. She had hit it off with the recruiter naturally during their first phone interview, the two discovering they both binged a recent documentary five minutes into the interview. What she’s nervous about is the new city.
She’s never even visited, she’s only heard about some of the people being a little racist, and knows that there’s some fishing museum that’s sort of popular. If she moves, she’ll have to figure out new local spots to hit up for good, cheap food. She’ll have to learn the layout of new supermarkets and department stores, will have to learn where the small things like poster tape and her favorite gentle body wash are tucked away. She starts to feel overwhelmed just thinking about it, but there is at least one good thing about the possible move.
Caridad apparently lives nearby, about a twenty-minute drive from the university, so at least she’ll have a friend, halfway to a girlfriend there.
“Are you sure this is what you want in life?”
Alicia sighs, leaning her hip against the edge of the kitchen counter as the microwave whirrs. Her mother has her chin in her hands as she watches Alicia from the dining table, a series of opened letters and stacked bills splayed out in front of her.
“It’s just a job, I can quit if I don’t like it,” Alicia says, her Hot Pockets starting to erupt grotesquely in the microwave.
Her mother frowns the way that creases her chin.
“No puedes ser así,” she argues. “You need a career, you need dedication.”
The microwave beeps and Alicia hisses when she touches the hot plate.
“I’m 24, mami. I have time.”
“No,” she corrects, sternly. Alicia sits across from her, shoving aside the folded bills with PAGO written on top. “One day you’ll be 25, then 28, then 30. You have to grow up.”
Alicia taps one of the Hot Pockets, molten cheese oozing out.
“I might get a job, mami. What else do you want? What else can I do?”
Her mother rests her weight back against the chair, its legs squeaking against the tile.
“Your cousins are all in medicine, Rafael works for the hospital pero en una oficina—”
Alicia shouts, “Mami, seriously? This again?”
Her mother wags a finger at her, “Si, this again. There are jobs that pay better and aren’t so far from home.”
“Ok, but what if I don’t want those jobs?”
Her mother purses her lips and then shakes her head. She picks a rubber band up from the loose bunch she has and starts to gather together opened letters.
“I don’t understand why you make things harder for yourself,” she says, just as the rubber snaps against the plastic film of the top envelope.
Alicia shoves her chair back and stands, hot pocket plate in hand.
“You know what, mami? I don’t either.”
i got the job
im still in shock
like im moving
have u told ur parents?
hope ur mom is nice
im excited to see u in person
the movie has good reviews
people were saying it was like hereditary
can i say something serious?
I haven’t told anyone about you
it’s not like im embarrassed, and I’m out. I
just don’t want to deal with what they might
have to say, y’know?
i get that
i’ve told my friends about you
now i feel bad
u can tell them after we meet :)
i will :))
i’m really excited
The outdoor mall is hot, and Alicia feels the back of her dress starting to stick to her lower back. She had bothered to iron her hair, but now as she waits underneath the overhead spotlights that line the rafters of the mall’s smallish theater where a local cover band plays to a low energy crowd, she feels the baby hairs by the nape of her neck curling with sweat.
Caridad was supposed to have met her twenty minutes earlier by the Chinese restaurant towards the entrance of the mall where the drop-off roundabout is, but she hadn’t shown up, and much to Alicia’s anxiety, hadn’t replied to any of her messages or calls. Alicia hadn’t told anyone about her outing tonight, and honestly now she was glad because it saved her future embarrassment.
As a group of teenagers bursts out in loud, shrill laughter as they round a corner past the stage to head to a less populated area of the mall, Alicia tries to send another message.
are you ok?
She waits five minutes, then ten, and then fifteen for a reply. When none come, she feels her eyes grow watery. This was pitiful. Nearly five months of text messages and phone calls and pictures and nothing. Alicia had even bought the tickets for the stupid movie they were supposed to watch. Sure, she could go on her own instead of going home to her still mostly empty apartment, but then the cashier who she’d ask to refund one ticket out of her two would know someone had stood her up. Maybe she could lie. Maybe she could say that someone had gotten sick, that her friend meant to come but got the stomach flu.
“Fuck this,” she mumbles, before searching through her bag to see if she remembered to bring cigarettes. When her fingers graze the carton, she sighs with relief and looks around for a smoking area. One would think being a mostly outdoor mall it was fine anywhere, but Alicia had seen a security guard earlier ask a middle-aged man standing by one of the vending machines if he could move elsewhere.
She spots a sign with a drawing of a cigarette and an arrow underneath hanging by one of the bathrooms, and much to her displeasure realizes it's pointing in the same direction the teenagers from earlier wandered off in. She hopes that rather than settle there the kids had gone off to terrorize elsewhere with their hormones and puberty. As she rounds the corner herself and finds the smoking area to be a barely illuminated bench close to a backside asphalt lot Alicia assumes is where some stores receive shipping, the teenagers are nowhere to be seen. There are only two cars in the lot, a white van parked close to the bench that’s running without a driver, and a red car parked closer to the building, towards one of the docks for trucks.
She whips her head around, a mix of excitement and resentment stirring at the sound of Caridad’s voice, but the woman standing in front of her looks nothing like the photos Alicia has saved onto her phone.
She feels something smack against the back of her head once, the world swirling to black.
Nadine Rodriguez is a trans, queer Cuban-American writer and photographer born and raised in Miami, Florida. They have work published or forthcoming in Powders Press, Superstition Review, Alebrijes Review, Queerlings, 34 Orchard, and The New Gothic Review. Twitter: @nrodri_. Instagram: @achyknees.