"You do that better than your sisters, Gabe," Mom says to me as I spread the corn masa on the soaked husk and spoon the right amount of shredded spiced beef onto it. The aroma of meat braised in a sauce of chiles, garlic, bay, pepper, and cloves makes every breath feel like Christmas. My stomach growls softly in a tiny fit of impatient hunger. It's the first time I've been actually allowed to help with the tamales since . . . well, since a long time. My sisters are good cooks, too, so Mom's praise isn't cheap. "They always overstuff them."
I wrap up the tamal and try not to smile too much, but Mom ignores my pride anyway. She doesn't want me getting too cocky. This is women's work she's letting me do, and she thinks it wouldn't be good for me to be too proud about it. I think she forgets sometimes, but I am a boy after all.
Because of that, I probably shouldn't be standing there in her daisy-yellow kitchen learning how to make tamales properly, but Dad isn't home right now and my brothers aren't going to notice so long as the food's good.
It will be. Mom's cooking is still the best.
"Stack them closer together in the pot. They need to be snug," Mom says as she fixes the tamales I'd placed in the big steamer pot. She glances at me to make sure I'm listening. Her brown eyes are serious under her black eyebrows; if she's going to teach me to do this, I had better be listening.
"Sí, amá," I say.
When the pot is full, I lift it off the table and move it over to the stove. I'm fourteen and I'm already taller than Mom—almost as tall as Dad—and pretty strong, even if I am too skinny. Mom is always telling me to eat another tortilla. "Don't drop the hoya," she says as I shuffle over to the stove with the huge pot. Not like I would. She'd do it herself if she could—she's like that—but with her pregnant belly in the way it's hard for her to lift the big steamer. I used to help more in the kitchen when I was young, but Mom's had a tough time with me growing up, so now mostly I don't. I miss it.
"Your nina Teresa is coming tomorrow," Mom says, too casually. "She said she wants to check up on you."
I just nod. We don't really talk much about my godmother. Visits from my nina Tere are rare, and usually dramatic. At least now I know why we're making so many tamales.
The tamales hiss softly in the pot, the corn dough cooking into dumplings. We start cleaning up the kitchen, Mom singing under her breath as she moves across the cool blue tile floor. Mom's good at cleaning as she cooks, putting things away once she's done with them, so there isn't much mess.
I start washing the mixing bowls and the spoons, but amá says, "Deja los trastes. I hate seeing a man wash dishes when there's a woman around to do it."
I blush and rinse my hands, and leave the sink full. I don't know what to say. I don't like to argue with her, even when she says stuff like that.
But not being stuck at the sink makes it easier to slip out of the kitchen when Dad's truck pulls into the driveway with the sound of the tires crunching on the gravel. Mom gives me a quick glance that's half worry and half conspiracy, and I just head on up to my room.
Dad will be tired from work, and I don't want to bother him. He'll be on edge enough if my godmother Tere is coming.
"Viejita," Dad says to Mom over dinner, "these are good." He forks another bite of tamal into his mouth and makes a contented "Mmm." She smiles at him and gives me a knowing look that my dad misses. My brothers Miguel and Johnboy are oblivious and concentrate on stuffing their own faces. The girls are at tía Marta's house helping out with the new baby. Not that they'd tell on me if they were here. For all that Lucy and Panchita like to tease me, they never do it when our apá can hear.
"It's all the cariño," Mom replies. "All that love for my family." She pauses and adds slyly, "And the lard."
Dad laughs and grabs another tamal. "How about you, Gabe?" he asks. "Good tamales?"
"Yes, apá." He asks me more questions now than he used to, but I still try not to say much so he doesn't have to hear my too-high voice. I take a quick bite so I won't have to go on. Things have been weird between us for a couple of years now. Mom says it's 'cause he doesn't know what to do with me.
I'm his son, I told Mom once. All he has to do is be my dad.
Sí, mijo, she replied. But you used to be his daughter, and that's hard.
The thing is, I never liked being a girl. It didn't fit. My parents used to laugh when I was four and said, "I'm a boy! When I grow up, I'll have a big mustache just like Daddy and then I'll marry amá!" But when I was six and went crying to my mom that Miguel said I was dumb and would never be a boy and teased me for having to sit down to pee, they stopped laughing. They just ignored it as much as they could, and Dad just called me his princesa.
Ignoring it didn't change anything.
When I was nine, I gave Johnboy all my candy from Easter so he'd accidentally-on-purpose drop a glass of jamaica on the frilly dress Mom made me wear for church and the family barbecue after. I got to go upstairs and change into jeans and a T-shirt. The dress was a hand-me-down from Lucy, so I didn't feel too bad about it getting all stained purple from the punch.
Mom sighed and Dad laughed a little too hard. Amá had made that dress herself but I only felt bad when I saw her face later that night, as she stood by the washing machine in the garage, trying to scrub the stain out. She didn't know I was watching. I know, because she never cried when she thought we could see her.
It was Dad, though, who really got angry when I cut off my hair on the day after I turned ten. I tried to pretend that I let Panchita get carried away at playing beauty salon, but he knew better. The belt whupping was worth it. All that summer, I ran around the neighborhood and people thought I was Miguel or Johnboy.
The old folks on the porches would correct themselves sometimes when they realized their mistake, and would say, "Sorry, Gabriela." But the other kids would say, "Hey Gabi, you look like a boy!"
I liked that.
I liked being recognized.
When I was twelve, my hada madrina came to visit. My fairy godmother hadn't come to see us since my baptism, so I didn't even know her except from the stories, like the one about cousin Tomasita and the goat who could play fútbol.
Since it was a special occasion, Mom insisted that I wear a dress, so I borrowed the simplest one I could get, a green gunnysack dress, from my cousin Norma, who was a bit older and flat as board. Norma used to stuff handkerchiefs into her bra to give herself a bit of a lift. When I was little, I used to hope that if I had to get boobs, I got small ones like hers and tía Marta's, and not big ones like Mom.
My nina Tere came to visit from Mexico. That's when everything got more complicated.
Well, for everyone else. For me and nina Tere, things got simpler.
My fairy godmother bustled into the living room through the front door, all dressed in long blue skirts the color of the inside of a morning glory, a white cotton blusa with blue and yellow flowers embroidered along the collar and short sleeves, and a long, fringed gauzy rebozo draped around her shoulders and arms that matched her skirts. She wore her long greying black hair in old-fashioned braided loops, with blue ribbons threaded in them.
Tere kissed my mom and dad hello, and the other kids rushed to greet her. Lucy and Miguel remembered her from when she came for my baptism, and Johnboy and Panchita were always excited to meet new people. They're good like that. I hung back in the doorway to the kitchen, behind the stairs.
She looked at Miguel and Johnboy straight in the eyes and said, "No, you're not him," and ignored Panchita and Lucy beyond a hug for courtesy. Then she turned to my mom and said, "Okay, Verónica, where's my godson? He should be here to greet me properly. Don't tell me you're raising him badly."
Mom just looked confused and horrified at the suggestion that any of her children were badly brought up. "Tere," Mom said, "you have a goddaughter. Don't you remember? Gabriela!" Mom turned around and spotted me half-hiding. "There you are. Ven a saludar a tu nina."
Dad pressed his lips together in thought like an old idea was coming back to him, one he didn't like much. Nina Tere had been an hada madrina in our family for generations, picking out her chosen godchildren, and some of the stories about her weren't always the nicest, like the one about Dad's cousin Rigoberto who hadn't spoken a word since he was was eleven and Tere had had a little talk with him.
But I didn't have a choice, and really, Mom hadn't raised me to be rude, and Dad would have hit me with the belt if I embarrassed them further, so I walked across the living room and stuck out my hand and said, "Hola, nina Tere."
Tere just looked at me, cocking her head to one side and then the other. Then she grimaced, her teeth flashing very white in her dark copper brown face, and shook her head. She didn't take my hand.
"Verónica, ¿qué has hecho con este niño? Y tú, Héctor, what have you done with my godson? Why is he wearing that silly dress?"
Mom and Dad just looked at each other. I think they wanted to have no idea what nina Tere was talking about. I did, though. I knew. Before Mom and Dad could ask what she was going on about, I figured it would be smart to just say it.
"I'm sorry, nina Tere, they don't know. Amá, apá, nina Tere is right. I'm not really a girl. I'm a boy."
My mother blessed herself, eliciting a pained scowl from Tere. My dad . . . he got very big, filling his lungs like he was about to yell. He raised his right arm, index finger extended like he was going to use it to stab some sense into someone. But then he looked at me and he sort of deflated.
Dad nodded, and then shrugged. He stepped back from the group. My brothers and sisters had gone all quiet, not knowing what was going on, and then Dad sat down on the sofa and didn't say anything.
Nina Tere took my hand and squeezed. "Go get changed. It's a ridiculous dress. We'll talk about it later."
With that, I ran.
Despite everything, I really hate being a bother.
That's why I tried not to fuss more than I had to when I was a kid, and tried to wear the dresses amá picked out for me for as many hours as I could stand to. That's why I didn't let apá see me wince when he called me his princesa.
All the pretend I had to do for amá and apá, that all stopped after nina Tere's visit. She mostly convinced my parents that I wasn't crazy or willful or even a freak. I was just their son, Gabriel.
They missed Gabriela for a long time.
Mom cried for at least six months. The tortillas were salty from her tears.
Dad still messes up sometimes. I overheard him once last year, talking about me and the girls. He forgot and said ellas and las nenas about us all. I pretended I didn't notice, and I looked away when Panchita squeezed my shoulder in sympathy.
But Dad taught me how to polish my shoes right, though, when I turned thirteen. He bought me shiny black oxfords like the ones he wears to work, and a tin of polish, and a brush. He taught Miguel when he was thirteen, too; I remember.
Nina Tere gave me a gift before she left back to Mexico. She promised that I could keep growing up, but I wouldn't have to worry about getting boobs like Mom; I got the small ones, like tía Marta. I keep my hair short, and I look like my brothers.
When the doorbell rings in the morning, I don't hang back. I race Johnboy to the door and beat him. It's been two years since the visit when she helped my parents start to recognize who I am; but my fairy godmother looks just the same. Nina Tere is dressed in blue, and she's carrying a garment bag in one hand, and has got a paper bag full of wrapped presents in the other.
"Come in, nina!" I say, and this time, I give her a kiss on the cheek and a real hug. Tere gives the paper bag to Johnboy to carry, with a command to make himself useful. I smile at that.
Mom comes out of the kitchen to greet nina Tere. The smell of the mole she's making today in addition to yesterday's tamales drifts after her like the ghost of a successful chef. "Bienvenida, Teresa," Mom greets my godmother, and waves Tere to the sofa.
"You're looking good, Vero," Tere replies. She sits, and eyes my mom's belly. "Sabes qué, I think I'll be that one's madrina, too. With her face, she's going to need the help."
Mom is already pale, but she goes white like horchata and then she smiles uncomfortably. Her side of the family doesn't have their own hada madrina, and I don't think she's ever liked Tere too much.
"Where's Héctor?" asks nina Tere, with a smile like she knows she's scared amá a bit.
"Oh, he's running some errands. He should be home soon."
"Good. I brought presents for the kids, and a new suit for Gabriel."
"Tere! You shouldn't have."
"Don't be silly, Verónica."
Dad once told us that no one in the family has refused a present from nina Tere in a very long time. The last time was when my grandma's sister refused a hairbrush that would make her prettier. My tía-abuela Paula had been a vain woman and plenty beautiful, so she just laughed at Tere. She went bald and warty two weeks later.
Like I said, some of the stories about my fairy godmother aren't very nice.
"I have to get back to the kitchen," Mom says. "Gabi—Gabriel, entertain your nina."
That's easy enough.
We talk about Mexico and the other hadas madrinas nina Tere knows there. There are several, it turns out, each with her own family to watch over, but most families don't have one.
Dad comes home soon. After greeting nina Tere properly in that overly-polite way that really means the opposite of what's said, he joins us. He sends Johnboy to go pick up some more ice from the store. The girls are still at tía Marta's, and Miguel is at work, but they'll all be back soon.
"It's nice of you to come see us again, Teresa," Dad says. Nina Tere smiles, with too many teeth.
"I brought a suit for Gabriel. He should try it on."
I perk up at that. Mom and Dad haven't bought me a real suit yet.
Dad looks at nina Tere. "What kind of suit is it, Tere?"
My fairy godmother frowns and says, "It's a magical one."
Dad nods, like he expected that answer. "What does it do?"
"It will turn Gabriel into a real boy for as long as he wears it."
My father's face freezes for a long moment, his brown eyes gazing right through things, and his mouth set under his mustache. If you don't know him, you could have thought that he was calm. But if you know him, you know that's was a mark of fury.
"How dare you? ¿Cómo se atreve a decir semejante estupidez de mi hijo?" he bites off each word, anger making him scary to look at. I'm too frightened to look away.
Nina Tere's eyes grow wide at the disrespect my father shows in speaking to her in such a tone. My eyes grow even wider. Dad just asked how she dared say such a stupid thing about me—about his son.
"Gabriel is my son, and he's just as real as any of the rest, Teresa. Suit or no suit. And if you ever forget it again, you can forget this family, too, God me ayude."
Tere's mouth hangs open in shock. I don't think that the mention of God even registers for her. In the generations that she has been watching over my Dad's family, I don't think anyone has ever spoken to her like that.
My mouth is open, too, and I look at Dad, and he's looking at me. He sees me, not his princesa.
Then, with timing that has to come from listening at the door, Mom walks in and says, just a bit smugly, "The food's ready. Come and eat."
A few months after the baby's baptism, nina Tere comes back up to visit again. She's been coming up more often now. "Would you like some more enchiladas, nina Tere?" I ask. "Or more beans?"
We're all gathered around the table: apá, amá, Miguel, Lucy, Panchita, Johnboy, baby Rosa in my mom's arms, me, and nina Tere. One big happy family.
I love the baby, but nina Tere was right about her looks. There's a saying in Mexico about ugly women being lucky. Rosa's going to grow up to be very lucky.
Dad said I could keep the suit. I like it, because I feel like I'm handsome and strong when I wear it. I feel like my dad.
Still, I don't wear it very often. I like feeling like myself better. But it's nice to have. It was a present, after all, and Mom raised me to appreciate gifts.
"No, gracias, Gabriel. But if you can pass the arroz—"
"Sure. I helped Mom make the rice, you know. I think I want to be a chef when I grow up."
Dad coughs a bit, and then says, "It's good rice."
I grin. It's my fifteenth birthday. If I were girl, I'd be having my quinceañera, my debut party.
This is better.