Valentina Goldman’s Immaculate Confusion Excerpt By Marisol Murano
Shopping as Eco-tourism
The secret to happiness, Emily mi amor, is to keep moving. So convinced am I of this that whenever I get to a place—say a bookstore or a restaurant—the first thing I do is to locate the nearest exit sign. I’ve always been wary of emotional landslides. It isn’t your standard phobia, I realize, to be mortally afraid of bumping into someone you intensely dislike in the Romance corner of your local bookstore. And you just never know when a child with the face of a cherub will throw a tantrum at your favorite sushi restaurant. So I’ve found that the best way to survive these debacles is to know in advance where the exits are. “Cut your losses,” is one of my favorite refrains.
I can’t remember how many times I’ve moved since emigrating to this country, though I do remember moving after each divorce. I know you thought your dad was the first, mi amor. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. But given what he has done, what else do I have to lose? Now I get to do the back and forth. I get to wonder if when we were having coffee that morning Max was telling me good-bye in his mind. He was sitting right where you are.
Azucena has always accused me of not taking marriage seriously. And, from her point of view, I suppose she’s right. My little sister believes it’s preferable to live under a state of siege in one’s own home than to get a divorce.
Does any sane woman you know set out to move to another country, marry a series of losers, get a stepdaughter and a set of twins in the process, and go on to spend the rest of her days feeling like she’s part reptile, part fish? These things just happen. And who has a crystal ball to see them coming? Sometimes when I wake up, even after all these years, I don’t remember where I am until after I have my coffee. And there are days when I can hardly believe that my own life has turned out the way it has.
Do you remember the time when you won that prize for playing the violin? When the woman running the show asked you to introduce your parents and you said, “That’s my mother in the front and that’s my stepmother in the back,” I couldn’t believe my ears. Step-what? I thought we were friends! “This is your chance, Valentina,” I thought. “Run for the door.” The reason I was sitting all the way in the back in the first place was that I’d planned my exit strategy, just as I told you I do. Why deny it anymore? Your mother has always been one of these potential emotional landslides. So I knew I had to be prepared for anything. Anything except “That’s my stepmother in the back.”
What possessed you to insult me this way? And on that day, of all days? Step-ladders, step-children—everyone knows that step-anything is bad news. Give me a good friend over a stepmother any day of the week. Who wants to go through life being a constant reminder of being forced to peel potatoes? You know that scene in Cinderella when the sisters are getting ready to go to the ball and the stepmother makes Cinderella stay behind to do kitchen work? Well, I can’t say that that woman was ever someone I’d want to resemble. But the minute you unleashed the word stepmother in that tone full of affection, not only was I myself deeply confused—because I’d never imagined anyone loving me as a “stepmother”—but on top of that I thought your mother was going to get up and slug me!
I had been warned from the start that she was bipolar, given to sudden mood swings, possibly schizophrenic, more than likely borderline. I should have listened to my own mother, who is, after all, an expert in schizophrenia. Still, it doesn’t take a Harvard degree to know that bipolar is one of those “terms of endearment” that people are still hurling at each other even after the divorce lawyers have made out like bandits and moved to Hawaii. Apparently, though, I was supposed to take some of the warnings about your mother seriously.
I still remember the day when I asked you for her phone number so that I could invite her out for a cup of coffee. “A cup of coffee with Mom? Ha-ha-ha. Naive Latina,” you said. But if one can’t even have a cup of coffee with the new wife to discuss the daughter, what is to be done about the real enemies? If the “enemy” is on the other side of the city, what to do, for instance, about all those people walking from Mecca to Medina? Bomb them, I guess.
When he was alive, your dad used to tell me that you were the only person in the world who could get me to do something I didn’t want to do. I guess I was susceptible to smart little girls who use the word naive in conversation. That’s how I ended up at that violin recital in the first place—because you asked me to go. I didn’t know you were planning to drop the stepmother bomb in front of a hundred strangers and a probable borderline.
When I picked up your dad at the airport later that night and he asked me how your recital had gone, I barely let him finish the sentence. “She called me a stepmother in front of everyone, Max!”
“You heard me.”
It took me a while to get past the insult. Afterward, all I could think about was this: the day you called me a stepmother, you gave me a job. From that day forward my job was to try to sleep eight hours in a row without waking up in the middle of the night with the startling thought that I had an IRS dependent who liked maraschino cherries. All those years when we were just “friends,” I slept through the night just fine. After you called me a stepmother, though, there simply wasn’t enough Paxil to ease my step-maternal anxiety.
“What if her boyfriend breaks up with her, Max?”
“Valentina, Emily doesn’t have a boyfriend.”
“Fine, Max. But in the future! And what if she eats too many maraschino cherries? Did you know they’ve recently been linked to cancer?”
And do you remember the time you texted me to ask, “V-dog, what does it mean when u cant donate blood cuz u r a carrier?”
It made me yell out, “Max!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Emily might be a carrier!”
I can’t remember exactly when or why you started calling me V-dog. Your dad insisted it was a teen’s way of expressing love.
“Really, Max? Calling someone a dog? In my country, darling, the only perros are men who cheat on their wives.”
That’s when I started having nightmares. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. The day I really started having nightmares in earnest was the day after I set foot in this country. It’s not the country’s fault. Some repotted plants experience similar dislocation. Better soil. Bigger pot. Plenty of sunshine. But despite all that, they still suffer from the transfer.
How to forget, for instance, my first experience of eating a meal in a moving vehicle? Or what it was like to first set foot inside a place called Banana Republic? Everything was on sale! If you ask me, shopping as eco-tourism has not gotten its fair shake. It’s only through this kind of exchange that one can have one’s views of the world expanded. How else is a non-cognoscenti supposed to find out that government-sponsored death squads in Central America have their own flagship store in the Northern hemisphere?
I know what you’re thinking: that I’m incapable of silence. I can’t say I disagree. But that’s why I’ve always suspected I might be adopted. My parents are practically deaf-mutes, and Azucena speaks only when the elegant insults she rehearses in her mind become too tempting to keep to herself.
My tía Zulay, my mother’s sister, once told me I once jumped from my crib when I was a baby. Apparently, my parents had been trying to teach me restraint, so they locked the door to my room and let me cry myself purple. They claimed I was crying for attention. I was too young to argue. So I jumped out. Tía Zulay, a devout Catholic, says it’s a miracle I’m still alive. But miracle or no miracle, the point is that I survived the jump from the crib. And in the same way, I survived the move across the Atlantic, the Darling Spuds, the Happy Meals, the “snack attacks,” the strange notion of living without compromise, and the directive to never be without great coffee. The trick to surviving this country, mi amor, is to look at your own face in the mirror every morning and resist the temptation to hate yourself for turning into the person you swore you’d never become.
That’s what happened to Azucena.
Last week Azucena finally left her office at a reasonable time, because she had to go to a fashion show. With the traffic, the street barricades, the demonstrations, and the planning one has to do around the kidnappers in Caracas, she knew she had to leave around mid-afternoon for a show that was scheduled to start at six in the evening.
By now you know how hectic Azucena’s life is. It isn’t very often that the editor of Caracas Spectator can actually experience what she peddles on the pages of the best-selling magazine in the country. And here’s where I think Anna Wintour should perk up her ears. Because, after listening to Azucena’s relato about the fashion show, I think the BULLET-PROOF designer collection might be a unique feature in the September issue of the North American edition of Vogue.
As I’ve told you, Azucena is calm personified. Had she not been born under the riotous Caracas skies, I think my sister might have been very much at home in the peace of Kathmandu—after their own riots subsided, that is. Unlike me, who finds everything shocking, devastating, disturbing and downright horrifying, my sister is able to look at everything that should not be in this world and say, “Tell me something I don’t know,” as she takes a sip of Dom Perignon. As it turned out, despite her being the editor of the most prestigious lifestyle magazine in the country, Azucena did not know that the models at the fashion show were going to be shot. The models themselves didn’t even know. Apparently the owner and president of the company that makes bullet-proof designer clothing in Brazil—a man by the name of Orlando Seneca—had the brilliant idea of keeping certain parts of the show a surprise. I told Azucena that this kind of fashion show could never have happened here. At the mere mingling of the words gun, fashion, and show, there’d be a line of lawyers at the door singing that catchy song, “Class Action Lawsuit.”
But after what happened at the show, Orlando Seneca’s is not a name I will soon forget. I might even buy a Seneca suit to wear during future visits to Venezuela. It was understandable, I suppose. Orlando Seneca was giddy with the knowledge that he had come up with the inspired notion of bullet-proof designer clothing in a country where everyone, although they are fairly well assured that they will meet their murderers at the grocery store, still wish to die fashionably nonetheless. So, to demonstrate the quality of his designs, he brought in a couple of hired guns to shoot the final set of models on the runway. But lest you misunderstand me, I don’t mean “shoot” as in “photo shoot.” Some of the models, Azucena tells me, were wearing gowns so gorgeous that it was hard to believe they were actually bullet-proof.
Only Azucena would notice such details. My sister has a discerning eye. She also has her composure. Up until the moment of the shooting, as a matter of fact, there was this lilac gown that had caught Azucena’s eye. She had even considered buying it for Spectator’s Christmas party. That’s what she calls the place where she herself calls the shots: Spectator. Azucena is put off by the word Caracas, so she chopped off the word from her employer’s masthead.
I’m telling you, mi amor, we are so different. I’ve never understood any woman who thinks she can make a statement by wearing something in lilac, least of all at a Christmas party. Unfortunately, the model wearing the lilac dress was shot first. That spoiled everything for Azucena. Most people remained seated in a state of “let’s wait and see.” And that is perhaps the most telling detail of all; that a real shooting at a fashion show at the Ritz-Carlton in Caracas would garner such a response. At any rate, so fine was the craftsmanship of the dress that the only casualty was the organza. The stuff underneath the gauzy organza—whatever that material is—well, that fabric did its job. As for the model, once she got over the initial shock of being shot in the line of duty, she continued to the end of the runway, composed, as models ought to be. She was a professional.
It was at that point that Seneca himself jumped onto the runway a la Rudolf Valentino and asked one of the gunmen he had hired to shoot him in front of the audience. It seemed Seneca knew a thing or two about the brevity of life in Caracas. After being shot, he smoothed out his tuxedo and walked to the microphone. And with one of those winning smiles that Latin men learn in the crib, he said, “Damas y caballeros, for quality-control reasons I had to agree to being shot. Thank you for your indulgence.” And he proceeded to take orders for the collection.
Azucena thinks it will be a hit. But the reason I think Anna Wintour should stay tuned is because this could be the first time in the history of Venezuela that a fashion trend travels up north instead of the other way around.
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