Image courtesy HarperCollins.
An Innocent Fashion, the debut novel by R.J. Hernández, is a story about dreams, and how the one that saves you today can just as easily crush you tomorrow. It follows a boy named Elián from his hometown in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he feels like he might die of boredom and the lack of beauty, to the East Coast, where he changes his name to Ethan and lands a job at a very Vogue-like magazine called Régine. Elián/Ethan is sensitive, serious, and sarcastic. He tries really hard but still messes up, and in ways that we can relate to. If we met him, we’d want to be his friend. Get to know him, and some of his story, in this excerpt of An Innocent Fashion.
Our house in Corpus Christi, Texas, was a gray one-story rectangle with a flat, faintly caving roof. The front lawn resembled a piece of bread: brown, with patches of pale green mold, bordered by strips of crumbling concrete like a gray crust. The chain-link fence sagged in the middle, from when Tío Domingo crashed his Jeep on the Cuatro de Julio. Every day after school, when the bus dropped me off at home, my mother would greet me and then press her shoulder against the metal to make it stand again. For a few seconds, the fence obeyed; then my mother turned around and it slumped right back, like a child awaiting a moment of parental distraction to stick his tongue out.
My mother, Alicia, was never ashamed of what we had. On the contrary, she was proud of our unremarkable home and, as a cleaning lady by trade, determined to lavish it with the best of her domestic expertise. Three times a week she scattered fertilizer over the dead lawn with the hopefulness of someone pushing vitamins down the throat of a corpse. Inside, she dusted and scrubbed and polished. Yet the dignity of my childhood home was precluded by its very makeup: shag carpets, faux-silk curtains, vinyl tiles, and a racket of rightfully marked-down beige-toned wallpaper. We had stripes in the hall and fish in the bathroom, then in the living room, woefully misprinted flowers—a hundred daisies with their middles missing, each empty ring of petals gazing at the grainy television like a floating, unblinking pupil.
Around dinnertime every day, a pair of white lights would beam through the curtains in my bedroom.
“Elián!” my mother would call to me. Her collection of trinkets and figurines, shored up from dollar stores, garage sales, and the Salvation Army, rattled on shelves throughout the house—miniature cuckoo clocks paired with angel-shaped candles, ceramic kittens with polyresin replicas of the Crucifixion.
The truck door would slam and, with a manly declaration of his appetite, in barreled my father Reynaldo, who owned a flailing family construction company and an ever-proliferate number of sweat glands. He would always kiss my mother, who giggled as his mustache tickled her, then peel off his shirt and drape it around his neck like a sweat-drenched horseshoe.
“¡Cerveza, corazón!” He collapsed mightily at the head of the kitchen counter, and at the sight of me, bellowed “¡Oye, cabrón!” The next moment I would be swept up in his rancid embrace, helplessly tumbled into a thicket of curly black chest hairs.
My mother would swing open the refrigerator door for a Corona, flypaper ribbons whooshing overhead. Suspended, crisscrossed, across the ceiling like party streamers, they ensured an untimely end for any festivity-seeking trespassers, who got stuck like raisins on a sticky bun and suffered slowly among my mother’s rooster-themed placemats, dishtowels, and refrigerator magnets.
“Dame un beso, cabrón,” my father would say, patting his damp, stubbly cheek for a kiss. For many years I thought “cabrón” meant “son,” or some other term of endearment, until I found out it meant “motherfucker”—alternatively, “male goat”—the knowledge of which I could hardly bear. To be fair, I knew my father meant it with affection—although I could never fathom why, in relation to me, his affection should be best encapsulated by the invocation of a farm animal.
When my mother plodded out with dinner—a normal day meant chicken or pork with rice, chili, and tortillas—my father would put me down and slap my behind. Then, if my mother was near enough, he’d slap hers too. I always shuddered at this. The gesture wasn’t cruel, or even unloving—it was just like cabrón, my father’s rudimentary way of showing affection—and my mother seemed to enjoy it. Usually, she pretended to be offended: “¡Ay, Reynaldo!” she would scold, before teasing him with a wink.
My father loved my mother—he never cheated or raised a fist. By anybody’s standards in Corpus Christi, that should have been enough, as even in my youngest years I knew about divorce, and that in other families love was scarce. Yet I was always struck—as I was by the jagged outward contour of my entire life—by the inelegance of my parents’ love, by its crudeness, its vulgarity.
I had no reason to think it should be any different. After all, nothing in Corpus Christi was very beautiful or interesting. The local high school resembled a fortress, with the brown, corrugated walls of a high-security penitentiary; the mall, situated over a cavernous concrete parking lot, was anchored by a beef jerky outlet. The most popular hangout was a bottomless BBQ pit, complete with a drive-through, its windows filled with neon signs and sun-faded photographs of coleslaw and sloppy joe.
It wasn’t all bad, necessarily. Good and bad was a different spectrum altogether, at least as far as God was concerned, and everything I learned at church. But if it wasn’t bad, it was boring, and it was ugly—and those were the two things in life that made my blood run cold.
Nobody else seemed to mind, or even notice, that Corpus Christi was a famine of beauty, and that nothing ever seemed to happen there. From this I gathered early on that other people were born with ashtrays for eyes. They could shore up all the rot and ash just fine, and tap out the muck every once in a while, but for some inexplicable reason, my eyes were more sensitive than that. I was more sensitive than that, and ultimately I think that’s why I was ill-suited to work in the fashion industry: Fashion is an ornate mirror held up to the world, and the world is all rot and ash.
Cornered by the creeping suffocation of a life without beauty or stimulation, my only defense when I was younger was to read picture books. Every day I stuffed my backpack at the elementary school library with six, the maximum number, enough to keep me occupied all evening as I read to my dog Lola. Lola was a mutt, like me—a cross between a Labrador and some unknown breed—but beautiful and lithe, with a luminescent black coat. During dinner, Lola would lie under my father’s barstool, knowing that some pork or shredded chicken might fall in her vicinity during the ferocious transference of food between the plate and his mouth; then, when I was finished with my plate, she would sniff a moon-shaped crescent around my father’s stool and follow me to my bedroom, where she was familiar with my nightly routine. I flipped pages for hours, mumbling the words out loud, with increasing proficiency, to her upraised ears. Books of fairy tales were my first favorites, because in them the kind-hearted beggar children always ended up ruling some huge kingdom or, in a worst-case scenario, were transformed into birds or squirrels. They also had the best illustrations, and when I wanted to pretend I was inside of them, I stared at the wall, which was blank except for a laminated poster of Jesus Christ with a thoughtful palm upraised and his thorn-wreathed heart bursting through his chest. It was like this every night, Lola by my side as I willed myself through sheer force into another place, another life.
Outside my window I could always hear the neighborhood boys as they bounced around lumpy balls, or yelled over to who got to control a battery-operated car. There were six or seven of them around my age, all led by Cesar Montana, who was one grade older and resembled a boulder in a T-shirt, with a pebble balanced on top for a head.
“Oh, come on, amorsito—you and Lola must be tired of all these books,” my mother said the first time she dragged me by the hand onto the sidewalk. She was only trying to help me. The other boys played outside, therefore so should I—but what she didn’t know was that the other boys wanted nothing to do with me. I was too quiet, too gawky, and clearly I was afraid of them, so why should they accept me? Not an hour after this initiation of our playdate, I was crumpled on the asphalt, sobbing, with a bruise swelling on my knee while Cesar Montana laughed and the other boys said nothing, because they knew that if he wanted to, Cesar Montana could probably just sit on them and they would never live to operate a remote-controlled car again.
I hid the injury from my mother, and thereafter she appeared regularly at my bedroom door, imploring me to join my “friends.” She always had such a hopeful look—all she wanted was for me to be normal—so I would put down my book and leave the house, with Lola by my side. We wandered around the neighborhood as the shouts of the neighborhood boys faded away and the sky steeped, like tea, into a melancholic lavender twilight. As the dust of another day settled all around us, I pulled up flowers from the neighbors’ yards—smelled them, stroked their velvety petals, peered inside of them, and twisted their stems together to make bouquets. If I heard a noise, I would ring my arms around Lola’s neck, pressing our faces together. “Do you hear that?” I would whisper, imagining someone had finally arrived to take me away, to the kingdom that was my birthright. Surely it would be my fairy godmother, or at least the angel Gabriel who, according to Padre José at Sunday Mass, had chosen an ordinary day to tell the Virgin Mary that she was pregnant with Jesus—which meant any day could be the day an angel popped out of nowhere to change your whole life. Of course, the sound always turned out to be just a cat slithering past a rattling chain-link fence, or a ball bouncing in a powdery yard.
I must have made a thousand bouquets, and read as many books, when the day came that Lola didn’t follow me after dinner—didn’t even look up, or budge.
“Lola is old now, she’s going blind,” my mother said, and it was true. I had noticed for some time that Lola’s luxurious black coat had begun to shed, but I had no concept of aging, no understanding that she was getting older, as was I, along with my parents and teachers and the neighborhood kids, all of us moving helplessly toward a bleak, common end. I cried over her as her hair faded and the pus pooled up in the corners of her milky eyes. When I touched her, she tucked her nose under a paw as the tears dribbled down her face, and I realized she was ashamed. My only friend, once so beautiful, had betrayed me—she’d become another sad, ugly thing in the sad, ugly world I lived in.
Months later, Lola was dead. The veterinarian’s name was Dr. Ramos, and his certificate was from a university in Guadalajara, a Mexican city near the town where my father had grown up. Dr. Ramos laid out Lola on a cold aluminum table—whimpering kennels all around us—and waited for my mother and me to say goodbye. Then he held up a large black trash bag and unceremoniously pushed her inside. She was stiff, legs out, like a pig on a spit.
Having only just entered middle school, I had never seen death before, but I didn’t cry. My mother, on the other hand, was choking on her own fluids, a wad of crumpled tissue pressed to her face as tears escaped her chipped red fingernails. Later I learned that she’d suffered a miscarriage before my birth, and in the months afterward my father had given Lola to her as a small comfort while they tried again.
She peered into the black bag and buckled, the fat flapping beneath her arm as she groped blindly for my shoulder. Her watery eyes must have mistaken wetness on my own face, because she pulled me close against her and shakily assumed responsibility for my consolation. “It’s OK, hijo,” she choked. “Lola was safe and happy for many years. She had food and a place to sleep—” she swallowed a placental wad of phlegm “—una buena vida.” A good life.
And after that I did cry—not for Lola, it was too late for her—but for myself, because somehow from the depths of my mother I had emerged wailing and alive, and now in that black trash bag I saw my own future foretold: I would be trapped in Corpus Christi my whole life, where I would have food and a place to sleep, and eventually die. Una buena vida.
That night I left the library books in my bag and crawled into bed alone while elsewhere in the house the usual sounds were muffled. No Coronas snapping open, the television turned down, then just the mournful howl of the vacuum cleaner eliminating the last of the dog hairs. Alone for the first time without Lola, I twisted into a fetal position under my paper-thin sheets. Eyes squeezed shut, I clasped my hands together and begged with all my might for Jesus to come out of the picture on the wall, lay his body over mine, and hold me.
“Lord, please save me from this place.” I dug my palms against my eyes. “Dios mío, ayúdame.”