As Us

A Space for Writers of the World

Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela — Poetry and Fiction

What Reader Wants It Easy?


It was a Wednesday in Miami, and for the first time in months I trusted myself. Approved, I made it past the doorman in charge, and ended up in bed with the other. Because in a gilded white room of millionaires, I will only talk to the help. Hours after dancing on a wall by myself, after kindness and laughter, I held his head with the pillow of my chest and the quiet of my arm. My fingertips slow on his cheek, on his determinedly cut body, on his growing tension as he used his broken English to talk about killing without admitting that he killed. Around and around. The memories that left his body hovered, but he was still so warm. I let him talk, and I let him rest. And I wanted to give him what I couldn’t because absolution doesn’t exist, so there wasn’t any for my kill-free self either. As a teenager in France, arrested, he’d been given a choice: five years in prison or in the military, and he still thought he’d made the right one. It was American soldiers who’d helped him with his English. As a baby, he’d only been given his last name before the man who’d fucked his mother returned to some country in the Middle East. So we were both half-brown and bitter, and it was hot, and in Miami everyone is beautiful or they buy a new face. In the rented room, our bodies were ours. Unadorned. Aging. Unable to sleep.


On vacation, my father sent postcards to himself. “Self,” he would begin. Even he knew that new would wear off, recede and retreat, and in the morning the shore would be littered with dead seaweed, limp jellyfish, horseshoe crab shells, all rotting guts and cells that overwhelm rather than excite. Even though, simultaneous, a red ball is bouncing independent and alone. Because I can not give what I can’t get back (it’s part of the knowing). Because tides can not be controlled. Alternately, in small ponds you always know what you might catch. In lieu of a pond, my father opted for a horse trough. “Self,” he must have said, “it’s right big enough.” Neither palfrey nor bangtail, just two scrawny kids. If we pulled our feet up, we would float. No, it was not for want of trying. Still, I would wonder if I swim to say I swam, or to test the temperature of the water or the stretch.


I wanted you to help me change the rules. Carnivalesque conquer them. I want the wounded to say something other than they’re wounded. No crouching. No withdraw. Remember when this was thrill, and words couldn’t keep up with body; when even my blood was faster than my tongue. When we were surprised. I’m collecting. moment. moment. ribs. ribs. I’m compiling. Evidence. About living and knowing you’ve lived. No matter the matter of wasted seed. No matter the matter of matter.

We Are Named by Others and We Are Named by Ourselves

Los Angeles, 1985

——As he snapped her headshots, he sensed a made-for-Hollywood name.
———Ricki Deval? What kind of name is that?
——Her reply was curt,
———Well then, Ricki Deval, bring your chin down a little.
——Black hair cut short. Make-up that didn’t match her skin tone—was at least three shades too light—with severe pink blush forcing angles into her round face.
——A few seconds later, he moved his head back from the camera, stepped to the side of it and sized her up outside of the lens. Wondered briefly about her chances. He’d been right about a few lucky ones. Used to make him wonder if he should play the lottery.
——Ricki twitched in his gaze. Evil stepmother roles, she’s that kind of scary, that kind of bitter. But there was something else about her, something wrong. Bet she thinks the world owes her something. People came in all the time trying to be something they weren’t—that was the business, but what struck him was what she was, whatever the hell she was.
——She stayed quiet and he didn’t take many photos—just enough to fill up a contact sheet. She probably wouldn’t order many anyway. Maybe she’d give up the act before the proofs were ready. Go back to wherever it was that she’d gotten on the bus.
———About a week. Call if you want, but your proofs will be ready in about a week.
——He wasn’t a man of promises. More responsible than most in his line of work, he didn’t promise to make you a star—not even to make you look good—only to take some pictures for a $15 cash upfront sitting fee. Prints extra. Packages available.

——He was a little surprised when, exactly one week later, Ricki walked back in.
——Behind the cluttered countertop at which he stood, there was a wall covered in tacked up photos. Headshots of hundreds of people, often looking at the camera in an obvious attempt to convey depth, some signed, all individuals no one except family and friends had ever heard of. As he often did when waiting, he looked back at these photos while Ricki bent close to the counter and scanned the contact sheets. But he didn’t have to wait long. She was quick in her decision. He raised his eyebrows in surprise when he wrote down how many glossies she wanted. As he pocketed the money he thought, this lady, she’s optimistic.

——It’s important though, optimism. And on the surface Los Angeles is full of it. Sidewalks given gold stars, thin white bikini tops abound. Hard to measure but perhaps LA’s single greatest industry—the thing that brings people from all over the country, from all over the world, the thing that causes waitresses to daydream about who might sit at one of their tables and what that special person might think they’ve found when they’ve looked up from their menu—is want. A sacrifice worthy desire for more than they have. A risk. Foolhardy or ambitious, the line shifting day to day. People who rush to be new because of the daunting nature of the old.

——George sat in his woven plastic and metal lawn chair, as he did most days. The sun shined, as it did most days. The sky a brilliant blue and as unremarkable as the beautiful weather had become to George and other transplants who’d been here long enough for the gold plating to wear off. Who’d figured out this used to be the desert. Who then spent days contemplating the way the sun can wear a person out with its entirety.
——George looked around, watched the world go by from his second floor vantage point. He noticed Ricki coming up the block and checked himself, looked down at his blue and white Hawaiian shirt buttoned halfway up. He nodded to himself slightly, confirmed, and thought about how any woman, especially one like Ricki, would be glad for his attention.
——As George watched Ricki approach the converted-motel-now-apartment-complex he realized this was not her routine. Her closest neighbor for over five years now, George’s own lack of a schedule had allowed him to get to know hers. As she reached the concrete steps he started there,
———Ricki. Baby. I never see you out in the sun. Where’ve you been? Were you with the man you’ve been hiding? Who is he—I want to know. What’s he got that George don’t?
——He teased her, a well-worn tactic that kept him on his favorite topic: sex. He wasn’t very attracted to Ricki, thought her short hair too short and believed women should look more womanly with curves he could rest his head into, but he’d noticed she’d been losing weight and the fact that he’d never seen a single visitor at the apartment, neither man nor woman, was sort of a challenge to him. He half-believed himself when he teased her about hiding someone because he couldn’t imagine going without.
——George’s occupation was a continual acquiring of women who would open the door to him and let him lay them down. In particular, he felt fortunate in his choice of home, the complex had been lucrative, always some lonely, aspiring actress, moving in, not getting acting work, accepting his attentions; his comfort, going crazy and then, conveniently, moving out.
——Wilting, once mildy attractive, now undeniably combing over, George was a somewhat delusional man whose teasing was so absurd that even Ricki, the least amused tenant in the complex, couldn’t help but smile a little,
———No, it’s not that.
——As she turned her key, George noticed her extra layers of make-up,
———Did you have an audition?
——She didn’t reply. Undaunted, he continued,
———What was it for? Tell George how the movies are treating you. Have they learned what they’ve been missing all of this time? When you’re famous and you need a driver you’ll hire me, won’t you?
——He could see this role for himself. Waxing the Cadillac. Early every morning lounging in a lawn chair by the four-car garage, sipping expensive scotch and waiting to drive Ricki to Rodeo Drive or her latest movie set. Waiting for the Mexican maid with the nice tits to arrive so he could watch them—up and down with each step. Waiting and watching the road in front of the garage, like a river, with blond beauties in red and yellow convertibles flowing by. Waving. Smiling. Looking him in the eye. Appreciative.
——Ricki interrupted George’s fantasy with a reply to his first question,
———No. No audition.
——She entered her apartment and closed the door behind her. Leaned against it, then walked over to her bureau, laid down her patchwork leather bag, and took off her small gold and white watch and placed it in her jewelry box next to a few sets of clip-on earrings and some imitation gold bangles.
——The edge of the perfectly made bed bent beneath her weight. It was six hours before she had to be at work. She laid back, her short legs dangling off the end and stared up at the textured white ceiling. The bumps created mini shadows. Restless, she turned over and studied the details of the fabric, thought about how thread makes blanket. She sat up again just long enough to pull her sweater over her head and set the alarm—she’d needed it lately, and then laid back down, this time curling up and letting herself sleep.

——Three hours later, she didn’t feel rested, but she couldn’t sleep anymore. For the last half hour she’d stared at that textured stipple ceiling—still saw nothing in it. She smoothed the navy blue bedspread. Then looked around her tidy room in a daze, taking in the familiar again. She paused at the kitchen-sized TV with the BETA player sitting on top. She saved for those. There were two tapes that she’d studied, more than any others, “Coming Home” and “Kramer vs. Kramer,” two movies that starred women who don’t look like her—Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep. She contemplated watching them again. She knew every line, every inflection and expression, but didn’t know how ridiculous she looked imitating them. No matter how accurate her imitation, Ricki didn’t admit the value of looking the part.
——Instead of practicing, she started cleaning. As she straightened the straightened countertops she paused to look at a calendar on the fridge and reminded herself, though she was quite aware, that she had another doctor’s appointment tomorrow. Early enough that she won’t get to sleep when her shift as a night auditor at the Starview Hotel was over at 6am and late enough that she’d have to go straight to her other job at the diner.
——There was nothing to clean, but she continued searching for something to occupy. She paused at the bureau, at the letter from her old friend Lisa she’d propped up, displayed since it came a month ago. In it was Lisa’s never failing imagination. How, when things really work out for Ricki, she’ll finally leave Steve, leave the trailer and her inability to have children too. She’ll get on a bus and meet Ricki in LA and be her personal assistant. She bought a new belt that will be perfect. She’s been working on her typing skills so she can respond to Ricki’s fan mail. Lisa will spray them with perfume. Expensive kinds like the ones Elizabeth Taylor really wears.
——In the letters Ricki wrote Lisa she encouraged such dreams by sharing her own. Wrote about promising auditions that had never happened, detailed directors’ interest and potential cast members. According to Ricki, Ricki had friends all over Hollywood working to find her that perfect breakthrough role that will expose her as a natural talent, a serious god-sent actress, a fresh face in a sea of minor differences. She maintained, as so many do, an insistence that what is so saturated exists. She will be the exception to overarching rules. In every letter she’d sent Lisa there were lines about how it was just a matter of time, about how great the weather was, about how Lisa won’t believe it until she sees it. Ricki was far from exempt from the uncanny ability of people to lie to themselves.
——About once a month though, Ricki would doubt. She would remember, be haunted by, the promise she’d screamed—to her parents directly but essentially to the whole goddamn town,
———I don’t care what you say—I am going to be a star!
——It was that earnest. Some things simply are.
——She would pace her efficiency-ex-motel-room. Remember her given name—the one that she believed would’ve held her back—Victoria Valenzuela. Victoria: Spanish for victory.
——She would realize she wasn’t making it. That she’d only ever received the role of the extra. She’d acknowledge she already sent or gave out five hundred and fifty-six headshots in eight years (she knows, she counts them). She would recall the looks, the rolled eyes, that casting assistants gave each other before she even started and the looks, the scratching of pencils on paper, after she said her lines. And all of the times she was cut off before she was even finished. So many times hearing,
———Thank you, that’s enough.

——Maybe it’s something in the chemical make-up of humans. About once a month most people catch a glimpse of themselves in the mirror and see what is there and even if they don’t recognize themselves, which is amazingly common, they can’t hide from some sort of periodic truth check-in, a more rapid heart beating, a questioning of progress and possibility, of time and mortality. This is how mirrors get broken.

——There was a knock on the door. Ricki went first to the curtain to peek. She saw a girl waiting, eyes focused on the peephole, hands on unsubstantial hips. Ricki considered not answering, contemplated, and stared back through the door. Then she opened it slightly.
———What do you want?
———Mom sent me to borrow some sugar. You got any?
———I am not a store. Tell her to go around the corner.
———We don’t got any money and the check don’t come ‘til Monday. Mom says she’ll get you some then—if she has to.
——Ricki did not understand where this child had come from.
———Who is your mother?
———Ms. Jane Witherhall, apartment 18.
——Her answer carried a distinct air of importance.
———Ms. Jane Witherhall huh? Well, I don’t know her and I am not a store.
——Quickly, she closed the door.
——Quickly, the kid kicked it. Causing Ricki’s mouth to fall open, incredulous, on the other side.
——Again, the kid kicked the door. Harder.
——Ricki opened the door back up—ready to scold. The kid was still there, fists clenched, feet planted. She repeated,
———I need some sugar.
——Their eyes locked. A staring contest until Ricki lost. She left the door open and went to her kitchen. The kid followed her in.
———Why you got so many paintings of flowers? They all look the same.
——And they did, mostly roses, a few daffodils, one solitary magnolia, all on white unpainted canvas backgrounds. Besides the front window the paintings were the only respite from the walls.
——Ricki looked at the paintings she painted so long ago and had a flash of realization that she didn’t really see them anymore. They were just there, where they had been since she moved in.
——Ricki handed the girl two measured cups of sugar in a plastic sandwich bag. The kid looked down at the bag weighed it with her hands, huffed, collected herself, paused demurely, then overdramatically said,
———Thank you. My mother would be very appreciative if she wasn’t auditioning for Spielberg right now.
——Ricki’s throat tightened. She nodded and gestured the kid out. Closed the door on her heels.

——There are arcades in Hollywood. There are Korean pool halls. Mexicans have long trimmed hedges. Somewhere nearby there is a slight hill with a modest, beneficiary art museum on top, isolated by its well-endowed yard. Many rarely, if ever, see the ocean. All watch various screens—television, projector. In a society of voyeurs individual injuries and even a few seeming successes become collective. The difference between TV and viewer is typically anywhere between three and five feet.

——The next day, when Ricki stepped out, George called to her,
———Ricki—you seen this girl?
——George whistled the kind of whistle he hadn’t blown in years—the kind that conveyed a different appreciation than a woman walking by warranted, more of a “whew” than a “woo woo.” He pointed to the parking lot where sugar girl led the boys in a game of ball. She wore long cut off jean shorts and an oversized t-shirt, her hair a mess of a ponytail. She seemed to be the only kid who knew the rules. George continued,
———Name’s Tara. Something else I tell you. Must be about nine, but all those boys are older. A tomboy, but she isn’t just one of the boys, she leads them.
——The girl chided one of the boys for not catching the ball. George shook his head slowly, continued,
———You see it too, right? They don’t know what to make of her. Nothing like a woman in control.
——They both watched. The girl was definitely the boss. George went on,
———I tell you what, I think it’s all the sugar she eats. Girl eats sugar by the spoonful—all I’ve seen her eat and you know I’ve been watching. That little guy, the one with the Angels hat, regularly brings her some. Seen the tall one do it too. But I’ve never met anyone who can stay high forever. She’s bound to run out of energy.
——They watched a little longer. The scrawny boy got hit in the head and shed a few tears. Sugar girl defended him to the others and they stopped laughing.
——She was amped up now. It was hard to tell if she realized that everyone was watching her—all the boys waiting for her next move. She paced. It was hard to tell if she knew her worth. Disgusted that the game had been derailed, she turned away from the boys, punted the ball and narrowly missed the old motel sign, signaling she was likely the one who’d knocked out the “H” and left “ollywood Heart Motel.”
——Ricki shrugged and moved toward the concrete stairs. George waved,
———Break a leg, baby.

——As Ricki waited at the bus stop at the corner, two young men approached and, attempting to include her in their complaint about how late the bus was, spoke to her in Spanish. Though she heard them, she didn’t respond. Out of the corner of her eye she looked down at their baggy pants, their gleaming white athletic shoes. They kept talking but she did not look up. The shorter one took a step towards her, eyed her to make sure she saw him. For a moment their dark brown eyes met.
——In a sort of Spanglish, because he was trying, said,
———Lady. Una vez mas. Buenos Dias, Senorita. Me llamo Juan Barrera and el es Frankie—Francisco Marquez, we cool, no problema. Entendes?
——She stepped back, shook her head, pretended she didn’t understand what they were saying, what they were assuming. They became confrontational, insistent,
———Come on, lady, who you kidding?
——They’d seen it before, the ones who leave the neighborhood, act like they never lived there. Like they didn’t grow up eating tortillas and frijoles. The bigger one tried to trick her into responding. It didn’t work. The bus came. They let her get on first. She scurried to sit near an older white man. They called after her, laughed, taunted. They questioned her—why does she ignore them? She shook her head and they laughed harder. She looked out the bus window, at palm trees passing by, at the sign on the bus that read, “We are not responsible for any belonging,” at her hands, at the old man next to her, at the sheen on his gold lame tracksuit; everywhere but at them. All these years and it still wasn’t easy. She tried to keep her eyes closed, to let time pass, but the bus jolted at every stop and everyone swayed and this too was hard. Then, the old man started talking to himself, babbled on about wings and bats and warnings and spitting profusely on himself as he did so. The young men noticed this but pointed at her, at the fear on her face that could not be hidden. They called out again—does she think she is too good for them? Admit who you are. Why not? They questioned. They were frustrated. She gathered her bag closer, counted, the bus was only a few blocks from her stop now.
——When she got up to leave they called out to her for a third time, that she was fooling no one. Hurtling her body in the direction of the doctor’s office, she again denied them.

——In the doctor’s office Ricki was still shaken. She collapsed into a chair in the waiting room and sat there, failing to check in. For hours she was that random, disturbed woman in the corner. Disheveled. Encouraging anyone who noticed her to be happy with who they were.
——Not until the desklady, Lucy Mae Hill on the nametag, got back from her late lunch hour did anyone address Ricki. Lucy inquired,
———Do you have an appointment, dear? Because if you don’t we need to find you another place to sit.
——By blinking her eyes and pushing her hands into the armrest, Ricki seemed to snap out of it. She looked at her watch. She’d missed the appointment she’d set up in order to practice her cancer symptoms because she was positive she’d mastered her performance of heart palpitations. She had to be at the diner in forty-five minutes and from here she would be late. In some minor but new way she realized it didn’t matter if she could pretend sick in every doctor’s office in Los Angeles. There was no award.
——Ricki followed Lucy’s lead. She stumbled down the steps and headed back towards the bus stop.

——Ricki managed to get through her diner shift. Order in. Order up. Repeated. Coffee, cream, sugar. Eggs, bacon, toast. White or wheat? Periodically she deposited her tables’ dishes in the dishwasher’s pile, avoiding, despite her haze, the persistent puddle around the station. She ignored him as he did her ever since his first day when he tried to speak to her in Spanish to no avail. A beige scar cuts across both of his brown hands and even in her stupor the raised flesh caught her eye like it always did.

——When Ricki arrived home sugar girl was playing with a soccer ball alone because it was late and all of the boys were probably expected in by this hour. Tara noticed Ricki walking across the parking lot and bounded over to her. She almost stepped on Ricki’s heels, said,
———Hey, lady. I have a joke for you—what do you call Mexican basketball?
——Ricki stopped and stared at the girl. Her eyes widened.
——Tara, bouncing a bit as she talked, was insistent and ignored the nonparticipation.
———Juan on Juan! Isn’t that funny?
——Ricki pulled her purse to her body. Her mouth tightened and she breathed heavy. Tara tried again,
———Okay I have another.
——Ricki started towards her apartment. Tara grabbed her arm with a sure but gentle grip, plaintive,
———No really, this one’s good. Why don’t Mexicans play hide and seek?
——She waited a couple of seconds, still bouncing.
———Because no one will look for them.
——Ricki shook her arm loose. Shook her head at the girl and headed off towards her apartment. Tara yelled from behind,
———Don’t be mad. It’s just jokes, lady!
——Ricki gritted her teeth, stopped again and turned to face the girl. Silently, she glared at her, and Tara finally stopped bouncing. Both of their bodies were alert now. Aware of possibility. Tara understood that she’d done something wrong. Ricki, hands clenched, told herself it was a child.
——Tara had another realization. Slowly she squinted her eyes as if that would change anything, questioned,
———Hey, you aren’t Mexican are you?
——Ricki smiled slowly. Tara quickly matched the smile, but bigger. Ricki still didn’t say anything but, like a scared animal whose fur lies back down when the danger has passed, relaxed.

——Two days later, Ricki, worn, resigned, but still somehow justified, abandoned her plan to attend an open casting call. It was early and George wouldn’t be out for at least another hour. The city was waking up and many were on their way to work, security guards, doormen, janitors, secretaries, clerks. Ricki went over to George’s chair, sat down and looked. Second-rate strip mall across the street. 24-hour donut place next door. A pawn shop painted yellow.
———Hey, lady.
——Sugar girl named Tara.
———Got any sugar?
——Ricki looked at her, at her dirty grey shirt and overalls, her bags under her eyes. —Where is your mother?
——The girl was taken aback. She thought they were friends.
———Your mother,
——repeated Ricki with an intensity built up over the last few days,
———where is she?
——Tara looked around as if her mother might be right there ready to put out her hand, smile and introduce herself. But she was not, so Tara simply shoved her balled fists into her pockets and gave her best, most honest, answer,
———I dunno.
——They stared at each other again. The volume of the city turning up in the background, cars, buses. It was Tara who looked away first. The strength of the sun increasing as the day continues and it is undeniable—exposing, rinsing, cleaning shadows from alleys and parking lots. Three blocks away, in the street, a domestic scene, cameras film a movie about a romance gone awry. Four people are employed to hold reflecting panels to get the light just right.

MarisMarissa Johnson-Valenzuela headshotsa Johnson-Valenzuela’s writing has been recognized by The Leeway Foundation, Hedgebrook and others. Her work has been published in Make/shift, The Rust Belt Rising, Apiary, Aster(ix) and is forthcoming in All About Skin: An Anthology of Short Fiction by Award-Winning Women Writers of Color. She is the founder of Thread Makes Blanket press,, which most recently published Dismantle, an anthology of work from VONA, an annual workshop for writers of color. As part of her teaching at Community College of Philadelphia, Marissa teaches in Philadelphia jails, develops Latino courses, and tries hard to get her students to love reading and writing. She is working on her first novel.

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