Jennine Capo Crucet: “How to Leave Hialeah”

08/25/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Epoch, 2009. Part of the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, 2011.

Written in the second-person perspective of a Cuban-American from Hialeah, FL, Crucet’s story immediately brings Junot Diaz to mind, this half-serious tone, which uses “you” to dispense a very limited form of advice on the title’s topic: how to leave home. “It is impossible to leave without an excuse–something must push you out, at least at first,” is the first line, and it’s followed shortly after by this: “The most reliable (and admittedly the least empowering) way to excuse yourself from Hialeah is to date Michael Cardenas Junior.” One of the neat things about the second-person is that you can learn a lot about “your” character by what’s taken as is: here, the knowledge is not that Michael is nineteen and that you are fifteen, but that your family is fine with that. In this light, the reader also quickly discovers that this character has no real friends, just the people alphabetically closest to her, because they’re always assigned seats next to her in school: friends of convenience, albeit smart ones. (Smart, of course, being in comparison to the jock-y Michael, who gets upset that these alphabet friends sometimes use “polysyllabic words.”)

This roundabout opening is the best part of the story, in which the failing relationship with Michael (“Still, you’re stubborn about the sex thing, and still, you can’t think of your butt as anything other than an out-hole”) encourages her to leave home: “It is during those broken-up weeks that you do things like research out-of-state colleges and sign up for community college classes at night to distract you from how pissed you are.” It’s a funny and specific section, in which after getting the “mother’s vague sex talk, which your father has forced her to give you,” there’s an attempt “not to picture your father as a teenager, on top of some girl doing what you and Carla call a Temporary Penis Occupation.” Just enough information to get you going, but with plenty left to the imagination — as befits the second person, which begs to be lived-in.

But though the rest of the story is well-written, and just as (“spictacularly“) funny, it’s an exercise in diminishing returns. The structure is solid, charting both a coming-of-age that leads to greater independence and its ironic twin, in which this “escape” from Hialeah is accomplished by recreating a personal Hialeah out in the Mid-West, where you wind up raising a bunny and teaching other graduate students. And yet in these later sections, the advice-giving voice no longer makes as much sense (she’s already left and grown up), and doesn’t adequately deal with the grief experienced by the short story’s climactic experience: an attempt to cope with the loss of an older cousin, Barbarita, who “taught you how to spit and how to roller-skate.” The realization is either that there is no real escape, or that she did not truly want to escape, hence the last line: “Despite the traffic you find worse than you remember, you’ll get to Hialeah in time for the burial–finally back, ready to mourn everything.”

Solid, yes, but connected, no: what are we mourning? The lack of escape? When she first returns home for winter break and Nochebuena, she is eager to “go to the beach even though it’s sixty degrees and the water is freezing and full of Canadians,” but also aware that the sheer opportunity of college has cut her off from her friends and, in some ways, family. In response to losing her “closest alphabetical friend,” Myra, who is still working as a truck dispatcher for El Dorado Furniture, she begins to study Spanish and Latino cultures — to make a difference — from a safe and studious distance. So how does Barbarita’s death tie back to this? Is it nothing more than the echo of an younger, more glib reference to her “young and indestructible [family]. They have floated across oceans and sucker punched sharks with their bare hands.” The realization that you cannot escape into books when the physical comes calling? And if this is the point, what then of all the subtle racism experienced out in the mid-west, from her peers, professors, and even herself?

Good story; disappointing ending (on account of the second person’s limitations).

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