Release Date: 03.23.2017
Luz Vargas is a promising young Latina writer from Washington Heights, a predominantly Dominican neighborhood in New York City. Who upon receiving top honors for her short story, “Here and There” from the prestigious Quisqueya Writers of Tomorrow Association, Luz’s boyfriend, Luke, suggests a couple’s getaway to the Dominican Republic where he plans to propose. But when the trip to the Island brings her face to face with a past love, Luz is torn between honoring her commitment to Luke and revisiting an island romance.
The story is told through a series of vignettes that chronicle Luz’s struggle to reconcile her American identity with her Dominican side.
I didn't know what I was getting into when I started this book but I have liked it nonetheless.
I was expecting a romantic tale under the sun of the Caribbean but I've found so much more.
Luz is a brilliant Dominican American writer,through the ups and downs of her life the author leads us into this emotional journey of self-discovery,acceptance of whoever you are and letting your family help you to face life's hardships when you are down.
I loved how Leslie D.J. depicted the real Dominican Republic and not only the touristy version of it.I was so invested into this story that I wasn't ready to say goodbye to Luz in the end...maybe we can get some new chapters of her life in the future.
Luz awoke to the sound of roosters crowing. Her eyes fluttered as they adjusted to the sunlight that crept through the tangerine-colored curtains. As she sat up and reached across the bed, familiarizing herself with her surroundings, the man beside her stirred. She placed a hand over her mouth and looked down to the tiled floor while she recalled the events of the previous night. For a moment, she had forgotten where she was. Luz had been vacationing in her mother’s homeland, the Dominican Republic, for the first time in over a year, the longest she had gone without paying the island a visit. She traveled there so frequently that she knew the immigration officers by name and the female officers often came from behind the glass partition to give her a hug. She steered clear of the male immigration officers because they were known to get a little too friendly, especially with foreign-born Dominicanas traveling on their own.
Usually she went to the DR alone, but this time Luke, her boyfriend of seven months, was accompanying her. Luke was the complete opposite of Luz. He was short, stout and fair-skinned with light-colored eyes that changed depending on his mood or the color of his shirt. Luz was tall with sizeable hips but a slender figure. She spent most of her mornings on a treadmill or punching and kicking Tae Bo-style to old VHS tapes. She had long, jet-black hair and a tan complexion. They rooted for opposite teams—he for his home team, the Red Sox, while Luz was a seasonal Yankees fan — which meant they were bound to break up during the post-season depending on whose team made it further into the playoffs and how much gloating the other could withstand. Luke enjoyed his scotch neat while Luz preferred a cold cerveza now and then and only resorted to hard drinks when in desperate need of a pick-me-up. They were such opposites, in fact, that many of their friends often joked that the only thing they had in common was the first two letters of their names.
Even so, Luke was kind and understanding and ‘got’ Luz. He especially understood and respected her need for writing, encouraging her and even submitting discarded manuscripts to local contests behind her back. He was handsome, well-mannered and the first real American boy to pursue Luz. She appeared to be living the American Dream.
Their trip to the island materialized quickly. After being awarded a four-hundred-dollar check from the Quisqueya Writers of Tomorrow Association for her newly published short story “Here and There,” Luz decided to drop by Luke’s Morningside apartment to share the good news.
“We should celebrate!” he said.
“Um, okay—you wanna make me dinner or something?”
“What? No. This is huge, we need to do it up nice — besides,” he continued, “I always make dinner.”
“Hey, I offer to cook. You’re the one who’s like ‘Hun, I don’t wanna spend the whole night hugging the tai-let’,” she said in a poor Boston accent.
“We should go away somewhere—how about the DR? Then I’ll finally get to meet all of your aunts and cousins you’re always talking about.”
Luz was silent for a moment. “Um, why not Cancun?”
“Do you have relatives in Cancun?”
“No, but they have great beaches.”
“Why don’t you want me to meet your family? Are you ashamed of me?”
“You’ve met my mom,” said Luz.
“Seeing her from across the street and then saying twenty minutes later, ‘Oh, by the way, that woman I waved to was my mom’ doesn’t count.”
Luke was right; Luz hadn’t introduced him to Yanira. Her mother was very opinionated and she was terrified of what she would think of their relationship. Her mother had taught her everything she needed to know about men. Luz couldn’t remember the exact moment she had given up on love, she had believed for years that she was unlucky with men, that it was already written in her blood.
“My family’s crazy,” Luz finally said.
“They can’t be worse than other families — my father sleeps with a Glock G19 under his pillow.”
“Unloaded, but still, that’s pretty crazy, right?”
“What does your mom say?”
“Nothing, she sleeps with a Glock G30.”
Luz was hesitant to reach out to her family about a visit. She didn’t want to impose; it was fine when she went there alone, but showing up with a male guest would cause all sorts of trouble. For one thing, it would get the rumor mill up and running, something Luz was all too familiar with. Her affinity for Dominican men had not gone unnoticed by the gossipy neighbors.
“So we’re going, right?” asked Luke.
“Seriously? You’re asking me to take you to the DR? I show up there with you and they’ll start tossing rice and humming ‘Here Comes the Bride’,” said Luz.
“So, I’ll take a can of beans and we’ll make a meal out of it.”
“Atta girl,” he said, patting Luz’s back. “You have to learn to loosen up a bit.”
In the end, she decided she’d introduce him to her father’s side of the family-the ones residing in the capital – and steer clear of the Northern Province. They knew little of her travel liaisons and she intended to shield Luke from her past.
The first time Luz had vacationed in the Dominican Republic on n her own she had been sixteen. One minute she had been set to spend her summer at home with her friends, and the next, upon passing eleventh grade with “flying colors,” she had been rewarded with a trip to the place her mother once called home.
“Beware of pick-pockets and tigeres,” her mother had warned hours prior to her flight, which at the time didn’t sound so threatening, considering that Yanira believed anyone who hung out in front of a bodega was a street thug, or tigere as she called them. She held Luz tightly, as if unsure of whether to let her go, but once she did, Yanira resumed her cold persona. “Que Dios te acompañe,” she said. Then threw in “God bless you, mija,” in English for good measure, to the back of her daughter’s head as Luz made her way through airport security.
The lights flickered. “Under construction” or “coming soon” signs graced many of the bare walls. A fast-paced musical arrangement greeted the tourists. Luz recognized the merengue beats and rolled her eyes. As if I didn’t get enough of that at home, she thought.
The three-piece band consisted of forty-something-year-old men with chestnut complexions, wearing straw hats and tropical shirts. They played the accordion, tamobora and güira as the accordionist wailed, “Ayyy hombe.”
Her hips swayed from side to side. Mother said walk like you mean it, she thought, a woman who appears as if she knows her way around town won’t be made a fool.
“¡Corazón!” hissed an immigration officer, “tienes que comprar una tarjeta de tourismo.”
“¿Qué?” asked Luz.
He pointed to the sign above his head that read: Tourist Pass US $10.00.
She sighed, and then complied.
I’m halfway there, she told herself as she walked towards the checkout point.
“¿Cédula?” asked the consul as Luz handed over her passport.
“¿Y tú cédula?” he asked once more.
“I don’t understand.”
“Resident card. Oh, tú eres una gringa. Ju born in United States?”
“Oh, okay,” he said stamping her passport and tourist pass.
“Why ju here?” he asked in his broken English.
“Visitando. I’m visiting my family,” she replied.
“Okay, pero que te guste. Hope ju like it. Have fun.”
The minute Luz and Luke stepped off the plane, the damp Dominican heat engulfed them; it all changed in an instant. The cool air which had indulged them in the cabin dissolved without warning into a smothering type of heat that welled up in your throat like a slimy ball of phlegm you just couldn’t hack up. It always took visitors by surprise, even those who were familiar with its severity.
The pocket-sized English to Spanish dictionary Luke had brought with him curled instantly in the moist climate. The musky air was a tropical blend of mango and underarm sweat. They arrived on a peaceful Wednesday afternoon, a week after the award ceremony for her literary achievement. Luz knew better than to book a last-minute weekend flight when leaving midweek was at least two hundred dollars cheaper. She was decked out in her finest ensemble—a black and white halter-style dress with a wooden beaded neckline, shiny ballerina flats — and carried an oversized tote bag. Her hair was wild with bouncy curls and the longest it’d been in years, hitting just above the waist. It was the envy of all of her Dominican cousins, even at its shortest (the bob of ’05, not to mention the Halle Berry-inspired crop of ’03). Luke wore a faded Red Sox cap, khakis and a tropical shirt that featured a Toucan Sam look-alike, the kind of shirt only gringos wear when they vacation. She was both excited and scared to be there.
“Sucia!” cried her cousin Carmen from the other side of the partition as Luz dragged her carry-on past airport security. Luke dutifully pushed a trolley containing the remaining pieces of luggage behind her.
“Loca!” replied Luz and wrapped her arms tightly around her. Carmen was Luz’s first cousin on her father’s side. When Luz first visited the Dominican Republic, she was four and Carmen was six; the two had run around in the patio in their underwear with their hair a mess. They had joined forces against Tía Milagros and plotted ways to escape the metal comb which Milagros often used to hit the girls over the head with whenever they squirmed too much as she did their hair. On one occasion the girls made it as far as 2 miles north of the barrio before getting what Carmen remembered as being “the spanking to end all spankings.” The last time the “gruesome twosome,” as Milagros then called them, saw each other was at Tía Flor’s second wedding in the States two years prior. Flor had vowed that day that this wedding would be her last; she was currently on husband number three.
“It’s been too long,” sang Carmen.
“I know, I know,” Luz replied.
“You abandoned the sweet capital for the rainy sights of Puerto Plata.”
Luz gave her a look that involved widening her eyes to an alarming size; Carmen got the hint and dropped the subject.
“And who’s this?” said Carmen.
“This is Luke,” said Luz.
“Ho-La,” said Luke.
“Nice to meet you, Luke,” said Carmen. She turned to Luz and said, “Un blanquito, very nice.”
They made their way along the corridors and into Carmen’s Jeep; Luz took the front seat next to her cousin, leaving Luke in the back seat, semi-buried underneath the luggage.
They drove past the coconut trees, beggars and phone card sellers. Luz lowered her window and let her hair flap in the wind. She stretched her arms out and declared, “I love it here.”
To which Carmen responded in a sing-song fashion, “Yeah, yeah. Easy for you to say, you don’t live here.”
Carmen pulled up in front of the mango-tinted gates. Once out of the car Luz stared at the neighboring houses and found herself smiling. She loved how the houses were painted in bright colors. Tía Milagros’s house was two stories high and a mixture of odd pastel colors Luz did not recognize. It seemed to change shades depending on the direction of the sun. In some instances, it appeared smoker’s-teeth-yellow; in others, taffy-light-orange. It was located on one of the quieter streets in Santo Domingo, far from the common man’s reach but minutes away from the busy streets with honking cars and danceable music.
Luz reached for her luggage but Luke intervened.
“I got it,” he said. He heaved the suitcase out of the back seat, closed the car door and wheeled both of their suitcases up to the front door.
The entranceway was cramped as usual. Family portraits adorned each wall as well as photos of their patron saint, la virgin de la Altagracia. She noticed a new addition to the wall. In one of the diamond-shaped clusters of photographs lay a small picture of Luz from one of her childhood visits.
“Just leave them by the staircase, I’ll have one of the maids take them up to your room later,” said Carmen. “Wanna have a look around?” Carmen asked Luke.
“Uh, sure,” he said.
“Do you like mangos? We have a tree out back,” said Carmen.
She led him down the long hallway to the back of the house.
Luz overheard Tía Milagros arguing with a maid and followed her disapproving tone into the dining room.
Tía Milagros was thinner than Luz remembered. Something about the way she carried herself struck her as odd. The first time she met her she was introduced to a livelier version; she had busted through the front door, arms stretched out ready to embrace her, and wore a satin floral halter dress two sizes too small with chanclas instead of shoes and a set of hair rollers on her head. This time Tía Milagros was wearing muted colors. She wore an oversized cream colored lace-print tunic and a pair of black cropped leggings.
“Okay?” she said to the scolded maid.
“Si, señora,” the maid replied with her head hung low. She excused herself when she noticed Luz had entered the room then walked away.
“¿Y tu?” asked Tía Milagros. “Estas flaca. Don’t tell me that gringo of yours is making you lose weight, tell him you come with hips,” she teased.
“News travels fast, I see,” said Luz. She leaned in for a hug.
“We talk because we care. Where is he?” she asked.
“With Carmen — she’s giving him the grand tour.”
“Are you hungry?” Tía Milagros asked.
“Yeah,” Luz replied.
“Carmen! Call the Pica-Pollos, get this girl some fries. Still off meat?” she asked.
“How about your gringito, he as picky as you?”
“His name is Luke, and no, he eats just about anything.”
“Interesting,” said Tía Milagros with her signature arched brow.
The take-out arrived just as Carmen’s tour ended. “And this is the dining room,” announced Carmen.
“There you are,” said Luz as her boyfriend made his way to the seat next to her.
“I saw the cutest picture of you,” whispered Luke.
“Where?” asked Luz.
“By the staircase—you had the cutest dimply cheeks and crazy curly hair.”
“Hardly even recognized you.”
“Yeah well, that was clearly before hot combs and hair straighteners took over my life. I guess you can say that was my native look,” said Luz, visibly bothered.
“Did I do something wrong?”
“No, don’t be silly, I’m just tired. The heat is getting to me.”
“Luz!” said Martín upon his arrival.
“Hey!” said Luz, rising to her feet. She hugged her cousin, then got a closer look at him.
“Wow, you’ve gotten big.” His splotchy face and athletic build suggested he hadn’t given up hopes of becoming a professional baseball player.
“Check it,” said Martín, flexing his biceps. “All fiber, baby.”
“Impressive,” said Luz. “Luke, this is my cousin Martín— believe it or not, he’s the baby of the family.”
“Nice to meet you,” said Luke, firmly shaking his hand.
What initially appeared to be a pleasant evening quickly turned into a night full of uncomfortable pauses and miscommunication. at times Tía Milagros forgot a non-Spanish speaker was present and reverted to her native tongue. Carmen would immediately gesture towards Luke by tilting her head in his direction and widening her eyes. Tía Milagros smiled and said things like, “Sorry, force of habit,” but never bothered to translate what was said.
“Well, it’s official,” said Carmen after one too many awkward silences.
“What is?” asked Tía Milagros.
“This is the quietest it’s ever been in the Duarte-Mateo household. Even wakes are livelier than this,” said Carmen.
“Oh, remember Doña Carmensita’s wake? That was fun,”said Martín.
“Excuse me?” said Luke.
Luz placed a gentle hand on his right arm.
“No, no, not… how would you guys call it, not in the ‘let’s boogie’ sense of the word fun—”
“What Martín is trying to say,” interjected Carmen, “is that like in typical Dominican gatherings, once the rum is poured, ‘off-color remarks’,” she said, using air quotes, “are no longer offlimits.
For instance, one of Doña Carmensita’s next of kin got so intoxicated that he lifted the poor dead woman up from her casket and attempted to do the merengue with her — this of course after accusingly stating that even in death she was disapproving of him.”
“Mija, you’re not really painting a pretty picture of us,” said Tía Milagros.
“Ay, Mama, you know Dominicans are crazy.”
Luke coughed into his closed fist.
“Look at him, dying to laugh,” said Tía Milagros.
“No, I just had some po-lo stuck in my throat.”
“Po-llo,” enunciated Luz.
“Poe-yo,” repeated Luke.
“Aw, he’s so cute with his gringito accent,” said Carmen.
“Luke,” said Martín, “you wouldn’t happen to have a brother that’d be willing to take her off our hands, would you?”
“Only child, I’m afraid.” Luke shifted in his seat.
Luz smiled at Luke apologetically. He squeezed her hand and winked.