When Elena’s cousin Perla is sent to spend the summer in San Nicolás de Ibarra with their tias, Elena tags along to keep Perla company. In this coming-of-age story, excerpted from Simonsen’s novel-in-progress, Elena discovers the differences for girls between life here and life back home, and learns along the way some of the history of her family. “The Virgins of San Nicolás” is sharply written, and you won’t want to stop reading.
One muggy afternoon, Consuelo asked if we’d heard about the girls of Juarez. She was sitting cross-legged on the bed, her elbows on her knees, and as she leaned forward, a look passed over her face, a look that I realized later was excitement. She knew something we didn’t.
In San Nicolás de Ibarra, in the old house where Abuelita’s spinstered sisters lived their entire lives, my cousin Perla and I shared a small room with a single, large bed. The pillows were thin, the mattress hard, the sheets musty, and it was hotter and more humid than we’d ever experienced, so we didn’t sleep well. Until that summer, neither of us had ever shared a room, certainly not a bed, and Perla was often irritated by my presence. Even if I was just reading or drawing in my sketchbook, she would huff at me—“Can’t you do that somewhere else? Like on the edge of a volcano?”
I had many other annoying habits, according to Perla. From smacking my gum to asking irrelevant questions to talking in my sleep. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I would sit up suddenly, shaking the rickety bed and waking Perla. Or, I might walk to the window and stare out through half-closed lids. Perla would hiss from the bed, “Elena, what are you doing?” And then, with the moonlight casting a spotlight around my body, I would turn around, slowly, looking right at her, right through her, and glide wordlessly back into bed. It was the creepiest thing she ever saw, one of the creepiest things.
I never remembered getting out of bed and going to the window, but Perla insisted that I had. She had a heart condition, she kept reminding me. Did I want to give her a heart attack?