Angela straightens my hair next to the window so she can smoke and breathe it outside. Every second or so her eyes do a one-two flick: around the room, outside, back around. It’s a Sunday night, so it’s only the two of us home, plus her friend Heloise, who sits on the bed painting her nails, watching us watch the house next door.
Heloise is what my Cousin Matteo calls a Perfect Yes. She’s got a body like you can’t look away from and never has to buy her own cigarettes. The man at the Mercado Loco gives her mangos, not all the time, but often enough that we can count on it. Like tonight, when she shows us to use a cup to scoop the pulp out from the inside. So you don’t even have to use a knife, she says, and sucks the edge of one hand.
The light comes on in the second-story window of the house behind us. There are curtains but the glow bleeds through. It takes a minute for her to step into the picture window. There’s the sharp line of the skirt and blouse and although it’s too far to tell, it’s for sure she’s wearing the dark pantyhose that everyone wears on Sunday, but as I watch, she starts to come apart in all the places that the women at church keep tucked in.
Angela, I say, Angela, look quick, I don’t believe this. She almost drops the cigarette on my hair and I say, Hey what do you think you are doing, and nearly call her some names but I don’t want Heloise to think I’m a kid so I don’t. Angela says, Shit, shit, and unplugs the straightener to turn off our lights. Heloise puts her nail polish down. What the hell are you guys doing, she says, I can’t see anything.
We hold our breath in the darkness which smells like nail polish and burning hair. That’s Emma’s mama, I whisper, but I say it quiet so Angela maybe doesn’t hear me.
It’s just the hips at first, a twitch, another swivel like she’s shaking something off and then the shoulders, then the arms. You can hear the music just looking at her.
First goes the blouse. Then the skirt, then the tights, balled up and thrown somewheres, and it’s not like anything you’d do to impress a guy, not even like anything you see on TV.
Wowie, Angela says, Wowie. Would you call that a tango?
No, I say, no, she isn’t dancing with nobody.
What’s she wearing, Angela says, a question for the whole room.
Black lingerie, red lace, garters, says Heloise. Angela nods in approval.
The woman in the window turns and dips and it’s like watching a burning thing, something we’re not supposed to see, too bright to look away from.
What do you think she’s wearing, Heloise asks me, and Angela says, She doesn’t know anything like that, but I do. I know the details they’re waiting to hear: lace frills, bows, a thong and garters. Snaps that close five-ways.
She’s probably wearing a regular close-in-the-back bra like anyone else, is what I say, and Angela sighs through her nose. You really think that woman wears regular underwear? You think she’s like mama, two pairs beige, two pairs black?
Angela clicks her Bic lighter to hold the flame under her thumb. No, that’s a woman who knows herself, she says, that’s a woman with a secret.
Where’s her man, though, Heloise says and pulls herself back onto the bed, reaches to turn the light back on.
True, Angela says, True.
I watch the window. The bedroom light is off but the downstairs is lit up and I can see the woman with her laundry basket, the same kind Mama and Aunt Nina and Grandma use, big and made of wicker. She balances it against her hip. She starts the wash. She goes upstairs.
Heloise is on the bed again and Angela is looking in the closet for a magazine she threw out last week.
It’s Emma’s mother, I want to say. It’s Emma’s mother.
Heloise uncaps the nail polish and Angela emerges from the hangers holding a different magazine and the can of hairspray.
She’s a Perfect Yes, is what I say, and even Heloise agrees, only she doesn’t know what I mean.