It’s 10:30 in the morning, and Roosevelt Pool is packed with people. Big kids. Skinny kids. Babies shrieking because of the cold water while mommies try soothing them with sweet baby talk. Rough kids dunking each other. Girls in long T-shirts, hiding their panzas. Abuelitas sitting on the pool steps, cooling off their wrinkly legs.
Then there’s me.
I’m at the far end of the pool. The deep end. That’s where the real action is. I’m about to take Beto down. He doesn’t know this, of course. Just look at his clueless face, staring out at nothing. Beto is all cheeks, like a chipmunk storing food or like Kiko from that old El Chavo
cartoon. I’m about to deflate those cachetes with pure muscle. What does El Chavo always say? Beto didn’t count on my astucias.
“Hey, Beto, I bet you ten bucks you can’t beat me in a race across the length of the pool.” My voice is loud enough so that everyone can hear. Beto turns to his group of friends and shakes his head.
“Dude, your sister,” he says to Ramón. He laughs off my challenge.
“Nat’s not playing,” Ramón says. “She means business.”
There are three boys in my family: Ramón is the youngest. Julio, the oldest, is married with a kid on the way. And Raymundo is attending college in Santa Barbara. Ramón is in high school, and so is his ugly friend Beto. Beto is on the water polo team. I’m not on any team. I’m just here to make money.
“Ten bucks says you can’t beat me.”
I lean back against the pool deck. Those around me chuckle or shake their heads.
“Why can’t you just chill for once?” Sheila says.
Sheila is my cousin. Technically, Sheila and Ramón are supposed to be taking care of me. “Taking care,” however, is forever in air quotes. It’s hard to contain a person like me—especially when that person grew up in a house full of stinky, loud boys. Sheila doesn’t get it. She’s an only child who loves clothes and Fenty lipstick.
“Me and you, swimming across the pool,” I repeat. “You know how to swim, right?”
Last week, I made an even twenty bucks outswimming twins. The twins were running their mouths about how there was no way a gorda could swim the full length of a pool. There’s always someone underestimating me. They see my stomach rolls and think, She can’t possibly be physically fit.
When I emerged victorious, the twins had no choice but to pay.
Beto looks nervous. If he doesn’t take the bet, he’s a punk. If Beto agrees to race me and I end up beating him, which I will, what does that make him? So much is weighing on those balloony cheeks.
“From here to the other end of the pool,” I say. “C’mon. What are you afraid of?”
The crowd around us grows. I look over at my best friend, Joanne, who sits in our shaded spot reading Summer Hero,
volume two of the manga series Kurahashi. I haven’t had a chance to read that one yet. I always get the manga after Joanne finishes, and then we dissect every little detail in the story. Joanne shields her eyes now and gives me a timid wave.
“Fine, but I’m only doing this to teach you a lesson,” Beto finally says.
Teach me a lesson? Even Ramón laughs at this statement. Beto hasn’t been around my house much, nor around me. He doesn’t understand that I’m like a shark: relentless. When I was seven, I sold chicles to the kids in my class until another mom told my mom. At ten years old, I found a way to teach kids curse words in different languages. A dollar a curse word. That lasted for a couple of weeks. Now that I’m twelve, I understand the importance of using my skills. I’m fast. I can beat anyone in this pool if I set my mind to it.
Sheila tries to be the timer. No way. I don’t trust her. Besides, it’s not a good look for family to be involved in business. Instead, I hand the honors to a boy with shaggy curly curls covering most of his face. He parts his hair away from his big eyes. Good. He’ll do.
“On your mark,” Shaggy Boy says.
Kids slap my shoulders. Girls giggle. Some of them think I’m cool to do this. Others think I’m too much. I’m not doing this to please anyone. I’m doing it because I can beat Beto.
I pull down my goggles.
One more glance at Beto. He’s laughing. He thinks this is a joke. I’m going to win.
I propel my legs against the wall and shoot out like a rocket. The start is the most important part of any race. I glide underwater for as long as I can until I have to break the surface for air. Professional swimmers always do that. One quick gulp of air and I turn to Beto. He’s ahead, but not by much.
Okay, time to catch up.
My arms are like octopus tentacles, stretching as far as they can. I scoop water and direct it behind me. I kick my legs hard. Every stroke is important.
In this pool, I’m a swordfish. I’m a mermaid. I’m an underwater speed demon.
And this demon is about to take Beto down. Too bad, so sad.
A quick look. Beto is slowing down. He’s about to get beat by this twelve-year-old. Where has his training from water polo gone? He finally notices me. We are neck to neck. I bet anything there’s fear in Beto’s eyes. I dig deep and find the last burst of energy to seal this deal.
I tap the end of the pool. Beto pulls in seconds later. The crowd around me cheers. I never get tired of this, the part when I’m victorious, when I’m able to prove the haters wrong. “Never underestimate the power of a Latina”—that’s what Mom always says. Dudes are always trying.
Poor Beto. He’s breathless, practically hyperventilating.
“I won!” I jump out of the water and point to my empty palm. “Pay me!”
“No way,” Beto says, pushing my hand away. He’s barely able to form words. “I’m not paying you.”
“Pay me! I beat you.” I don’t like where this is going. If you lose, you have to be a good sport. Besides, this is business. “Everyone here is my witness. I beat you fair and square.”
Beto tries to brush me off. The crowd eggs him on. They call him weak. How could you let a kid beat you? You let a girl win.
I don’t care if he’s in his feelings right now. I won without any tricks. It was just me in the water.
“You owe me ten bucks,” I say. “Give me my money.”
Beto and my brother walk over to where Sheila and her friends hang out. They try to ignore me. I will not let up. Beto can’t renege on this deal.
“I’m not leaving until I get my payment.” I stand in the middle of their group, right on some girl’s towel. I’m a Taurus, and we’re known for our willingness to get into people’s faces. I will not move from this spot until Beto places some crisp bills on my hand. The girls complain about me standing on their towel. Beto pleads to my brother.
“That’s enough, Nat,” Ramón says. Not even my own blood is willing to back me up. Honestly, what’s the point of having brothers when they won’t stand up for what’s right?
“Go play with your friends,” he says.
“No,” I say.
If Ramón won’t help me, then I’ll have to get ugly. I jump on Beto. “You owe me.”
Beto doesn’t know what to do. He knows well enough not to hit me, but he also doesn’t want his eyes scratched out. So there is a whole lot of awkward wrestling going on.
“Give me my money!” I yell. Beto is obviously stronger, but like I said, I’m a shark. I will not stop.
“You have an interesting sister,” I overhear a girl say to Ramón.
I peel myself off Beto and turn to face the girl. “Well, you
have an interesting face
,” I yell. If she wants in on this, I will gladly include her. Before I can jump her, my brother pushes me away from the group.
“Go away, Nat.” Ramón has Mom’s face. The serious, not-in-the-mood-for-this face. I head to Joanne, who places an arm around my shoulder.
“I can’t believe it!” I say. I’m so angry.
“You can’t win them all,” Joanne says. She tries her best to protect her manga from getting wet.
“Of course I can,” I say. “Mom says if I work hard enough, I can do and be whatever I want. Beating Beto was just a tiny part of today’s goal. Besides, if I don’t get paid, then everyone else will think they can do the same. Know what I mean?”
Joanne gives a slight nod.
“Sure, but there will be other chances to make money,” she says.
I love Joanne, but honestly, I wish she could see things from my point of view. Joanne doesn’t like confrontation, which is funny because confrontation is basically how we met. It was in first grade at Sagrado Corazón Elementary School. A sweaty boy in our class kept pulling Joanne’s hair. The teacher did nothing. Instead, Ms. Castro said this weird thing to Joanne, “He probably likes you.” I couldn’t stop thinking how Mom says, “Your body, your permission.” So when the boy decided to touch Joanne’s hair, I grabbed his
hair and wouldn’t let go. Mom was called in. The incident brought a quick end to my Catholic school days. It was worth it.
Joanne eventually ended up in the same middle school as me, and we’ve been best friends ever since. I’m always ready to defend us no matter what, while Joanne would rather hide behind a book and wait things out. Somehow, the relationship works.
“We don’t need Beto,” Joanne says. “We have more than enough money.”
It’s true. I’m saving money so we can go to the big anime con on October 30. For the past two years, Joanne and I have attended and cosplayed our favorite characters. Because Joanne’s parents don’t believe in spending money on “dumb” stuff, I save enough for both of our badges.
“I want to make sure we can buy cool manga at the con,” I say. “Beto’s going to pay. I just have to figure out how.”
“Oh, here you go.” Joanne digs through her tote and pulls out a brown paper bag. She hands the bag to me.
“Yes! You remembered!” I give Joanne a side hug and quickly pull out the latest issue of Vogue
. Although my fingers are dry, I still wipe them off on the towel, just in case. Manga is really Joanne’s scene. I just like the cosplay because I get to wear awesome costumes and makeup, which Mom only allows for the con. Mom thinks girls don’t need to wear makeup to feel empowered. It’s the reason why I hide the Vogue
magazines I ask Joanne to buy for me. Mom hates those things. She thinks they add to self-esteem issues and a “distorted view of the body.”
I get what she means. I do. I wish Mom could be more understanding. Every time I try to state why I love makeup and fashion, she shuts me down with big words and statistics. She’s really good at winning arguments. It’s hard living in a house where you have to outsmart the smartest woman on earth. I really just like the pictures.
I can’t wait to go through this issue. I’m starting to feel a little bit better. Joanne returns to her reading, and I try my best to concentrate on the fashion candy before me. I hear Beto’s cackle. He needs to pay. It’s not over until I say it is.
Christian, the pool manager, interrupts my scheming. “Everyone, we have a special treat today. The city’s only Black-owned synchronized swimming team is here to give a short demonstration.”
“Synchronized swimming,” I say loudly. “What’s that?”
“Just you wait,” Christian says.
The pool-goers are reluctant to get out of the deep end, but they eventually do. A group of six swimmers wearing matching electric-blue swimsuits march across the deck like soldiers. The swimmers are all different shapes and sizes. They look older, like high schoolers, but there’s one who looks about my age.
Christian gives a thumbs-up, and music starts to play. It’s Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul.” Then the swimmers do the wildest thing: They jump into the water and start to dance. Actually dance. Hands up in the air. Wrists snapping. One swimmer lifts another by the waist. The swimmer who is lifted waves to the crowd like no big deal. There are more twirls and leg lifts and all kinds of cool movements timed to the song. I can’t believe it!
The crowd claps and sings along. The swimmers all go underwater and kick their legs straight up at the same time. Heads turn to the left, then to the right. The music reaches its climax and the swimmers dive deep into the water. There’s no sign of them. It seems like we are all holding our breath in anticipation. I know I am. Then she pops up. A sole swimmer, standing on the shoulders of another. She’s the one who looks my age, and here she is being lifted up high. As if that’s not amazing enough, she smiles before doing a flip in the air. A FLIP!
In all my twelve years of life, I’ve never seen anything like this. Ever.
“Wow,” I say.
“Wow,” Joanne says.
The swimmers pull themselves out of the pool and then stick their hands up at the same time and wave. One of them addresses the crowd.
“Hi, my name is Yvette, and I am part of the L.A. Mermaids, an artistic swimming team, but you might know the sport as synchronized swimming. If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to dance in the water, we will be holding our first general meeting next week. You don’t need experience. You just need to have basic swimming skills. There will be flyers up on the bulletin board with a number to call if you have any questions. I hope to see you there.”
Synchronized swimming team. How cool is that?
“That was amazing,” I say.
“Yeah,” Joanne says. “It probably costs lots of money.”
Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. I’m here to be the center of attention. To be strong and beautiful and graceful. To be lifted up to the sky. You probably have to be so fit to do the things they did. Imagine dancing in the water.
Before I head home, I make sure to grab a flyer.
Copyright © 2023 by Lilliam Rivera. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.