Your granddaughters are lost, Candelaria. Bianca, the brainy archaeologist, had to forfeit her life's work in Guatemala after her advisor seduced and deserted her. Paola, missing for over a decade, resurfaces in Boston as a brainwashed wellness cultist named Zoe. And Candy, the youngest, is a recovering addict who finds herself pregnant by a man she's not even sure ever existed. None of this concerns you of course, until a cataclysmic earthquake hits Boston. Now you must traverse the crumbling city to reach the Watertown Mall Old Country Buffet—for a reason you still cannot disclose—battling strange entities and your own strange past to save your granddaughters and possibly the world.
Author of Dreaming of You Melissa Lozada-Oliva delivers an unsettling, raucous debut novel written with tongue-in-cheek humor and sharp cultural criticism that unearths one troubled family's legacy, feasting on diasporic identity politics and examining the limits of bodily autonomy and the dangers of wanting to belong at any cost.
A sweeping, mystical novel following three generations of women as they grapple with muddled pasts and predetermined futures, Candelaria is a story of love that eats us alive.
Release date: September 19, 2023
Publisher: Astra House
Print pages: 320
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You are eighty-six years old and living in sin. Is it silly, living at the dusk of your life, with a boyfriend? Today you are making tortillas, clapping the masa back and forth, a motor skill as finely tuned as operating a steering wheel, which you don’t know how to do, while Mauricio goes out to get more dish soap from the corner store. He would do anything for you, that man. ¡Y nunca te faltó el respeto! Ten years and he never even kissed you on the mouth. Now, that’s a man! You were too precious to desecrate like that, Candelaria. Even when he made love to you, he’d cover his face with his hands, felt he did not deserve it, the sight of you. ¡Imagínate! He certainly could. You clap your tortillas and place them, perfect white disks, on the pan. All you could ask for as you run out of days before el Señor te lleva is company, somebody to feed, a familiar presence in the dark. Maybe it was destiny, maybe you were meant for each other. Maybe none of that has ever been true and you have just found yourself here, at a low-income, for-the-elderly apartment building in Boston’s South End, on a day in December.
Your phone is ringing. You wipe your hands on your apron, searching throughout the apartment for the exact location of the buzzing, even though it’s where you always have it, plugged in by the windowsill. “¿Aló?” you ask three times, even though Lucia, your youngest daughter, responded after the first.
“Mamá, qué haces?” You have Univision on in the background. A talking head is interviewing a man with a headlamp standing in the middle of a field of dirt. The man is holding up his hands and saying something that seems important, but you have the volume turned all the way down.
“Nada mija, saliendo a Revere con Mauricio.”
“Did you forget what today is?”
“It’s Tuesday,” you say, narrowing your eyes at the screen. Some kind of alert is being broadcast, but these days there is always an alert being broadcast: some new disease, some weather warning. Still, the days remain for you more or less the same.
“I can’t believe you. You’re losing your mind.”
You put your hand on your waist. Are you losing your mind? You’ve been feeling odd the last year or so, seeing things out of the corner of your eye, sensing a giant cloud approaching. But maybe it’s just your corneas. You turn to your calendar of puppies in baskets, the one you bought at the dollar store.
“Noche buena,” you say, gripping the plastic chair in the living room. How is it already Christmas Eve?
“Listen,” she says to you, “Candy is in trouble.”
“¿Qué pasó?” you say, trying to sound surprised. It was always something with those girls. Candy, the youngest, was always being bailed out of jail by her poor mother. The oldest one, Paola, ran away with some man, though your daughter insisted her disappearance meant death and even held a funeral for her (and for the love of El Padre Celestial, you still cannot figure out why), and the middle one, Bianca, who could’ve been a doctor, decided to dig up dinosaurs and never come home. But never mind about those girls. For now, this is about you.
“She didn’t come to tamales. She hasn’t answered my calls in a week.”
You didn’t come to tamales either, you’re realizing. Did Lucia not make any at all?
“Well,” you say, “where is she?”
“I don’t know. Also, Bianca is back.”
“¿Bianca? ¿No estaba in Guatemala? ¿Qué pasó? ¿Está mal?” Perhaps she got salmonella, you think. She always did have the weakest disposition.
“I’ll stop by later.”
“But I was on my way to the beach.”
“Why were you gonna spend Christmas Eve at the beach?”
“Because the beach is nice.” You hear Lucia sigh. You look out the window at the birds chirping on the building’s roof. They are extra loud. Something in the air is stiller than it should be.
“Were you going to invite me?” It seems that your daughter feels left out. But it’s because she keeps shutting people out of her life. That’s probably why Candy didn’t come to make tamales. Because she was sick of your daughter’s shit. Pardon my language.
“Of course! You are welcome to come. You are always welcome with me and Mauricio. You are like a daughter to him. You can bring Candy and Bianca, too.”
“I can’t believe this. Didn’t you hear me? Candy is in trouble. After all I’ve done for you, you still can only think of yourself. And on Christmas Eve. Sin vergüenza.”
“Lucia, mija, that’s not true …”
“You’ve always been like this. If I were Gabo—”
“You don’t need to bring him up.”
“If I were him you would drop everything and come to see me.”
“Well, he’s not here.”
Your daughter hangs up the phone and you sigh. You know she’ll stop being so mean once she has a little bit to cool off. Christmas can do that to people. All the pressure of those gifts. Your daughter gets so caught up in the spending. In the newness. In proving that she belongs here. She says that your old clothes bring bad luck. You watch her throw new things away every year. And you know they’re not bad luck, they’re just memories of the past. Of being hungry, and not having enough.
You place a dish rag over a basket and pile the tortillas into a soft tower. Como el tiempo pasa y pasa. How could she bring up Gabito in a fight? What if you don’t want to think about him today? You never had favorites. But you think about him every day. Your handsome son is in each one of your prayers, in each count of a rosary bead, in each newly blooming flower. But him, and everything that happened, all of that feels like it was playing on the TV screen or sung about on the radio while you were in the room. Familiar lines, familiar faces, but they feel as though they happened to someone else.
We are in the season of your life that is Mauricio. You met him collecting dishes at the Old Country Buffet at the Watertown Mall; the job you picked up while the girls were at school, to have independence from Lucia, and to send some money back to Guatemala. It was the only job where you needed to know just a few lines of English: My name is Candelaria. You all set? Very beautiful. Thank you so much. And you would take the dishes: the disgusting pasta Americans love to drown in milk and cheese, the half-eaten chicken fingers, the chocolate cake—that one you actually like, the way the dark frosting and the moistness meet each other in one delicious bite. You’d have spoonfuls in the break room. ¡Traviesa! You made friends with a few coworkers, talking about your passion for Diosito Lindo to those who spoke Spanish, giggling with the ones who spoke Creole, always furrowing your brow at the Russians. The first time you saw him, he was a man alone, sitting in a corner booth, big hands folded, wearing a mechanic’s uniform. He smiled at you all big and goofy. You said your My name is Candelaria … and he interrupted you in Spanish. Una nombre divina, he said to you. You took his plate, happy you’d painted your nails a vicious green, and left.
The second time you saw him, you were picking up your granddaughter from school, Candy, as they call her, the one who is in trouble. She was holding on to your hand and talking to you in Spanish, her curly hair bouncing the way it never does anymore because she spends her morning burning it con esa maquina. Poor thing. Something has been strange with her lately, but it’s probably because she doesn’t take care of herself. Or who knows, maybe she’s on drugs again. Whatever she’s doing, you still pray for her every day.
Mauricio was standing outside the auto shop in his bright red mechanic’s uniform, chatting with the other mechanics. He saw you in your leopard-print jacket, put up that meaty hand of his, and walked over. He bent down to talk to your granddaughter and handed her a lollipop, then handed you a slip with his name on it. ¡Tan galán! You said you were a woman with a lot on your plate, and then you and your granddaughter walked away. You used Lucia’s house phone to call him and did so in secret—she always yelled at you for making so many calls to Guatemala. She’s always had such a temper. Sometimes you wonder—does she hate you? You sat in her bathroom, like some teenager in love, and used a veiny finger to dial each number.
It was quick from there. After a year you couldn’t handle living with Lucia, the way she yelled at you for every little thing, treated you like her own daughter and not the woman who brought her into this world. All the cooking and all the cleaning! The way you maintained the house! If only she knew what you went through. You’d moved in with Mauricio but still took the 81 bus to Fenway and then the 57 to Lucia’s, because of course you did—that’s what a mother does.
And Mauricio, throughout these years, thought you were younger. You never corrected him. You really fooled him with all that hair dye and energy. Maybe all love is about fooling, about keeping your audience’s eyes on one hand while you do the real magic, the kind that is all wit, no prayers or spirits or demons, with the other. Maybe he is a little stupid. But he is kind, gentle, isn’t he? Do you think men can only be good if they are a little dumb? If they lack whatever it takes to want more out of life? That wanting more makes them forget their morals and the people they are tied to on this earth?
The door opens to your apartment and you are yanked down by the sound, away from your memories, back to this earth, wriggling your limbs in the present. There he is. Your man. He hangs his hat on the hook and nods at you, and something is wrong, Candelaria. The day, the news, the birds, and now, you cannot smell Mauricio. The thing is, he certainly looks like Mauricio. The beer-belly paunch stretching out a floral button down, tucked into beige pants, the wide glasses, the cropped hair and the mustache that you love. You shake it away. It’s the food you are cooking. It’s just a cold. And you are old now, admit it! The brain does funny things to you sometimes. You don’t have to pay attention to every sleight of hand. Or perhaps you really do know better.
He comes closer to you and you ask him if he wants something to eat. He is standing with his hands by his sides. You breathe him in deeply, as if you’re just giving another one of your sighs, the exasperated isn’t-this-just-life-isn’t-this-just-it sighs, but you’re doing it just to take in his blue Old Spice bar and sweat.
There is no smell at all.
“¿Tienes hambre?” you ask him, breaking away and acting natural, another level of performance. You have been performing for eighty-six years, putting one foot in front of the other, moving the muscles in your jaw, exercising the flesh puppet assigned to your soul by los angelitos long ago. All to get to this moment. All your life, chugging your body through the air, a woman in motion.
“We’re still going to the beach?”
“Claro,” he says.
The two of you, this is what you do: collect his social security, watch the horóscopo on Univision, make instant coffee, and drive his beat-up Volvo to Revere Beach. You keep a healthy distance from the water with your scarf tied under your chin while Mauricio hands you slices of Wonder Bread, which you then break up into pieces to feed those disgusting seagulls. You and your birds. But will you make it today?
“I want to leave soon,” you say. “Get ready.” He shuffles into your room, where you each sleep in separate twin beds, and you hear him rummaging around, gathering his things. You grab your sharpest knife and hack away at a purple onion while it sits in your hand. From far enough away it might look like you’re hacking into your own skin. You place your pan on the stove and light the burner with a match. Your hand hovers over the pan as you wait for it to get hot, and when it does, you unscrew your bottle of Crisco oil and gently pour the yellow liquid onto the pan.
You decide to test him.
“That man in 3C has been so rude to me,” you say.
“Really, mi amor?” he says.
“Yes, he didn’t open the door for me and he made a comment about my outfit.”
“I’ll talk to him, then.”
“Vaya, pues,” you say. The oil spits now and you sprinkle the onions in, watch them sizzle and steam. Cooking is second nature to you, the only other language you ever really learned. There is an unmatched literacy to the way you understand fats and heat and the precariousness of spices. How could you ever explain it to anybody, everything you learned because you had to? Everything you were never allowed to learn? How long did you get to be young? When was it, exactly, that you found out that the world was not big and endless, but small and suffocating? Outside, Mr. Chen’s son takes out the trash, the clear plastic bag bloated with cans of ginger ale.
Mauricio sits at the edge of the table with its place mats in the shape of snowflakes. You crank open a can of beans, drain them into the sink.
“Candelaria,” he says, “why don’t we go to the beach now?”
“I’m not done cooking.”
“I’m not very hungry.”
You still haven’t turned around. The beans join the onions in the pan, red fishes swimming through ice, and you wipe your veiny hands on your IHOP apron, courtesy of one of your daughter’s old boyfriends.
“Well, I’ve already started, mijo.” You called him mijo almost as a joke. A tender joke. The way some people say Papi to their husbands. But you almost meant it, saying mijo. You took care of him, after all. “Ten paciencia.” Slow drumming on the table, Mauricio’s sausage fingers padding the tablecloth. Mijo.
What else to do, to distract you from what comes next? Dishes in the sink. Hints of yellow grime on the counter. You spray Windex into an old shirt and wipe down the table. Mauricio’s seat slowly scratches back and his body rises. From the window, you see Mr. Chen’s son curse as the plastic bag rips open, and the cans of ginger ale break free. Mauricio gets closer to you. He is inches away from you and you cannot smell him. You must do this. You must.
Because it’s not just Candy who is in trouble.
You all are.
Grabbing the steak knife, you tell him, “Nobody lives in apartment 3C.”
He says, “My mistake, mi vida.” He is getting closer to you now, and a tear escapes your eye, sinks into your lips, a bible lost at sea. His hand goes for your waist, and that’s when you take your knife, turn around, and sink it into his belly. The small look of shock on his face. He was not expecting this from you. He stumbles and you take the pan full of lunch and whack it across his face. Blood leaks from his gut. He clutches his cheek, fumbles backward. You cry, Canda, you do, because he is leaving, and because it will all happen soon. Unless it’s already happening. Quick! You are running out of time.
You hobble through your apartment, searching for your cell phone. You dial 6 and your daughter picks up.
The TV has just shut off. You hear sirens outside. Is it quaking beneath your feet?
“Hija,” you say, “there’s something you need to know.” Your breathing is heavy. Stay calm, Candelaria, stay calm!
“Meet me at the Old Country Buffet.”
“What are you talking about? There is no buffet. It’s a Chinese restaurant now. I told you that!” A beep comes from the other line, but you’ve never figured out how to make that work. Your phone dies, but how? You realize you unplugged it while you were cooking. There’s a ringing going through the air, a song you’ve heard before. You take your purse off its hook on the wall. Lucia is always telling you to throw this purse out because it has faded into an ugly brown color. She says you look like a montañera when you wear it, and so what? That’s who you are. That’s who you’ve always been.
You fill it with what you can: a jug of water in the fridge—gracias a Dios, you’ve never trusted the sink; you empty the cabinets of the stray napkins you’ve been saving for years, the first aid kit from the bathroom, the ziplock bag of plastic forks, hydrogen peroxide, another ziplock bag to hold your dentures, the salchichas you made last night, cans of beans, tortillas and plátanos wrapped in tinfoil paper.
You snatch the pocketknife from the drawer in Mauricio’s bedside table. You make to leave and then remember you forgot your insulin. Where is it? You toss things around, precious things, vases, toasters, coffee grinders, all fall to the floor. You find the insulin inside a packet of corn flour. Where has your mind been, Canda? You make to leave again, then remember the birds. The birds! How could you forget them? You open a cabinet and fill a chipped green ceramic bowl with water from the still-running sink. You carry it to the ledge, where you open the window with effort and leave the bowl sitting on the sill.
“¡Ya regreso!” you tell the sparrows, a lie, and their chubby bodies shake at you. Their chirping continues, loud and knowing. They know, as well as you, what is about to happen. You open your tinfoil and leave a tortilla on the ledge for them to share. Que pecado. The birds are ravenous, tearing the tortilla apart with their beaks. How will they eat without you? You grab the candle of la Virgen from your shrine and toss it into your bag. You will need her later. You take the last of the flowers and throw them at Mauricio’s feet. A few good years together. Perhaps that is all we get. A few moments stitched together that you can throw over yourself to keep you warm. That is all we want, in the end: the nearness of somebody else to prove that you yourself are there.
There is no time.
You have to move.
Lastly, you grab your quad cane and walk with it, you are a mortal with three legs now, moving out the door.
You open the door to the stairwell with your hands, speckled brown with age. You have one orthopedic-sneakered foot on the stairwell and one hand on the banister, making your way down into the rest of your story, the remainder of your one precious life, when the walls shake, the stairs beneath your feet vibrate, the windows into the street crack, the screaming starts, and the groans of the earth begin.
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