The news reporter announced another shooting before cutting to commercials. Another unarmed black teenager shot by another white cop. Then the Channel Eleven jingle cut to the little curly-haired girl that reminded Mrs. Mendez of her own Eloisa before she’d become a surly teenager. Alternate Eloisa hawked paper towels. She spilled cereal milk on a pristine counter, and her commercial mom instantly wiped the mess with a smile that said, Aren’t you adorable every time you trash this house.
“Here we go again,” Mrs. Mendez said to her husband. She didn’t understand why he insisted on watching the news channels all the time—all those terrible burglaries and stabbings and accidents. And the politics. The politics even worse. Mrs. Mendez placed a steaming plate of rice and beans on a tray table and grabbed the two empty beer cans that littered the floor.
“Only a matter of time now before the neighbors start up again with their protesting and complaining,” she said.
Mr. Mendez grunted and dug a fork into the small mountain on his plate.
“Hope Eloisa has come to her senses and isn’t planning to go off banging pots and pans again. Do you want another beer?”
“I think it’s her friends, you know. I think she has friends she doesn’t tell us about.”
Mrs. Mendez settled into the brown pleather couch beside her husband and squeaked and skidded her way into a comfortable position. She watched a couple on the TV blissfully riding a double-seated bicycle and walking hand-in-hand on a pebbly beach. The Herpes commercials. The Herpes commercials always got to her. She threw her head back and felt exhaustion weigh her down like an anchor. The living room—all its porcelain knickknacks and collage photo frames, its ten-piece furniture set from Luxury City Discount Home—all of it an ocean trying to gobble her up.
“I think we need to replace the coffee table, Arsenio.”
He’d fallen asleep.
Mrs. Mendez turned off the television and ate her husband’s leftovers at the kitchen table, waiting for Eloisa. Lately the girl arrived in the evenings on Mondays and Wednesdays claiming she was at an after-school activity. But that wasn’t all. She also insisted her mother call her Lucy, said everyone at school knew her by Lucy, said Eloisa was old-fashioned, as if she hadn’t loved the name as a child.
Mrs. Mendez watched her neighbor pull up to her driveway, get out of her car, and inspect the brand-new hedge that had appeared between their homes. Mrs. Mendez had spent all day directing the contract workers, telling them exactly where to plant and how to spruce and where to trim. Now the tall woman with her dreadlocks in a bun like a woven basket atop her head leaned over to inspect the bushes. She shrugged. Then Mrs. Mendez watched the woman—with her own eyes, right before her—open her trash can to throw in a piece of paper and then leave the lid on the driveway.
“Arsenio!” she shouted, not taking her eyes off the woman.
“Hrrrf,” came a grunt from the living room.
“Arsenio, she’s doing it again!”
“She leaves the trash lid on the floor so that all the raccoons and stray cats can have a ball—a ball—all night in her driveway and guess where they are coming next? Just guess? Here! That’s where they are coming.”
Even the hedge wouldn’t be enough.
Mrs. Mendez fumed. She watched the lights go on at the neighbor’s house. The Mendez’s had installed the trendiest windows they could find—frosted glass, cut into identical squares. They could see out, but anyone looking in would see just blobs and shapes. They’d see silhouettes moving in and out of shadows like creatures stretching and curling into their caves. This is why Mrs. Mendez had busted her back for twenty-five years. This is why she had arrived with her one suitcase and cleaned homes for so many years while taking classes at the community college where all her teachers assumed by her accent she understood nothing. Why she’d studied accounting with an English-to-Spanish dictionary at her side and spent years working her way up a ladder full of splinters and snapped legs at every turn. So she could have goddamn frosted glass spy windows she could see out of but nobody could see into.
And now this neighbor woman with her lidless trash and her husband, who seemed content keeping house while seemingly unemployed, were trying to ruin a neighborhood full of hard workers like her. These neighbors weren’t like the Horowitzes, who swept their driveway every morning. They weren’t like the Hernandez-Smiths, who displayed not one but two pristine American flags. And yet none of the other neighbors seemed angry; she’d even spied Mrs. Horowitz bringing the newcomers fresh-baked challah. Mrs. Mendez couldn’t understand why no one cared about the quality of people moving into the neighborhood anymore. No one except her.
She watched as the neighbor woman’s husband placed food before her. “Arsenio!” she huffed. “You wouldn’t believe how this woman’s husband lets her walk all over him.”
Well, Mrs. Mendez wasn’t letting this woman walk all over her. She stood and yanked open the front door. Mrs. Mendez squeezed her bathrobe tight around her and ran barefoot down her lawn and around the newly planted hedge. She grabbed the neighbor woman’s garbage lid and slammed it on the can. She looked toward the neighbor’s house, but the couple wasn’t looking out. Too bad, she thought. She would have welcomed their shame if they saw a respectable woman like her having to teach them how to act like proper human beings.
“What are you even doing?”
Eloisa stood in the middle of the street. Her face was scrunched into a scowl. She stood in the judgmental pose she always paraded before Mrs. Mendez, staring at her with a hand on the strap of her bookbag.
“And where are your shoes?”
Mrs. Mendez crossed her arms and walked to the door. “I’m teaching people some manners. That’s what I’m doing,” she said, passing her daughter without a glance. “Well, are you coming inside, or are you going to stand in the middle of the street all night like a streetwalker?”
Eloisa rolled her eyes as she paraded before her mother, adjusting a choker that, with her disheveled hair, made her look something like a stray poodle.
That unruly hair, Mrs. Mendez thought. That hair she had paid so much good money to heat and press and wrestle into submission each week, driving to the closest Dominican hairdresser, a full forty-five minutes from their house. Now Eloisa was refusing to keep her appointments, claimed she wanted to wear her hair natural, in all its curly anarchy, taking a cue from some-or-other black pop star.
“But you’re not black, Eloisa,” Mrs. Mendez had said in confusion the first time this happened.
“Really? Tell that to my hair,” Eloisa had responded, a hand to her bony hip.
“You’re Dominican, Eloisa.”
“It’s Lucy. I already told you I’m going by Lucy.”
“Dominican is not the same thing as black. Haitians are black. And no Dominican has ever named their child Lucy.”
They had similar fights each week now. Eloisa acted like she knew more than her mother, even though she’d been handed everything in life. Even though she’d never had to scrounge and save and claw her way through these Broken English streets to finally arrive in Miami’s suburbs. Eloisa didn’t have to force her mouth into unnatural shapes to curve around impossible words like turtle, like cinnamon. English spilled out of Eloisa’s mouth like a newborn baby, slippery and loud and unafraid to announce its existence. The worst wasn’t when Eloisa got mad and yelled back at her. The worst was when Eloisa said nothing and looked at Mrs. Mendez like she couldn’t comprehend the genetics that bound them together. When the corners of her lips edged up into a smug half-smile, and she stared back at her, blank, like she did now.
“Malagradecida,” Mrs. Mendez said under her breath. Ungrateful.
“What?” Eloisa slung her backpack off her shoulder and dumped it at her feet.
“Why are you so late again? Did you eat? Don’t leave your things on the floor.”
Eloisa leaned against the kitchen partition and considered the chipped black polish on her nails. Mrs. Mendez didn’t understand why she wanted to look unkempt. It was some kind of statement, and Mrs. Mendez wasn’t going to give Eloisa the satisfaction of noticing.
“Oh my god how many times do I have to tell you I am in a club and we have meetings where we talk about important things happening in the world that you don’t care about and yes I ate.”
“So much happening in the world. Exactly why I don’t want you out there with all those criminals.”
“Uh-huh.” Eloisa slumped to the couch, where she sat beside her father.
“They shot another unarmed black teenager,” Mrs. Mendez heard Arsenio say to her.
“Makes me so fucking mad,” Eloisa responded.
“The prison-industrial complex . . . ”
“Language!” Mrs. Mendez interrupted Arsenio with a shout. “Arsenio, tell her to watch her language!”
She got no response.
Arsenio had told Mrs. Mendez, many years ago when they first courted, when she was a junior accountant on the rise and he the new owner of a handyman business, that it was precisely her ambition and conviction that attracted him. But lately he seemed to shrink and shrivel in the shadow of her success and strength. She couldn’t understand how the same man who had once commanded all the attention in a room with his easy, garrulous manner, who had danced bachata as if the rhythm coursed through his blood, who had insisted on the name Mendez Family Dream Repair Service LLC, now stayed silent as their daughter turned her back on everything they’d built. Yet she was not going to push him into an alliance with Eloisa. She wasn’t going to allow the two of them to gang up on her. If she had to maintain the family order on her own, well goddamnit she would.
Mrs. Mendez looked out the window toward the hedge as the television droned on. She watched as shadows crept beneath the branches and stretched over the lawn like languorous cats, how the leaves shimmied with each breeze. She wondered if the neighbor woman had noticed. If she’d thought, as she leaned over to examine the brand-new addition like a fault line between their homes, If only I could afford such a gorgeous hedge.
She purchased a fence. It was expensive and made of metal, and the contractors followed her home the same day she made the purchase to install it. The workers hauled the chain-linked metal strapped to the bed of a pickup. The Home Depot was far from Mrs. Mendez’s home. She drove, and the truck trailed behind her, and Mrs. Mendez watched Miami’s gaudy downtown cityscape come alive: purple and pink lights creeping on as the sun set, highways crisscrossing like embroidery threads, a single party cruise with a circling spotlight off in the distance of the inky bay.
Arsenio waited by the door as Mrs. Mendez drove up the driveway, and the truck bounced to a stop at the curb, two workers in dirt-smeared khakis and baseball caps hopping out.
“What the hell is this?” he yelled above the sound of metal crashing onto concrete and instructions shouted between the two workers.
“Arsenio, I told you we can’t live like this,” Mrs. Mendez said, calmly wiping her shoes on the welcome mat. “We have to protect our investment.”
“I don’t understand.” Mr. Mendez shook his head and looked from one worker to the next. “How much was all this?”
Mrs. Mendez opened the door and pulled Arsenio in beside her. Eloisa sat at the kitchen table looking amused.
“Give me one second, muchachos!” she yelled at the two workers who were each holding one end of a metal panel and shuffling it behind the hedge as she closed the door.
“Look!” she said, nudging Arsenio beside Eloisa at the window that looked out on the neighbors’ house. “Look at their lawn filled with political propaganda. And they have a bunch of chairs on their driveway, Arsenio. As if they’re still back in whatever island they come from sitting on their porch to wait for the fruit-and-vegetable truck.”
“But you have a chair by the door.”
“I have a porch chair by the door, Arsenio. Christ. It’s shiny and glazed and matches the bedroom window shades. What they have is made of straw, Arsenio. That chair looks like something my grandmother would sell back in the Dominican Republic.”
“And the woman has like twenty family members over to her house each weekend—this is not an exaggeration. All this commotion. All these babies. Thirty babies, and you don’t see thirty fathers if you know what I mean.”
Mrs. Mendez raised an eyebrow toward Arsenio.
“I don’t trust them. I’m installing the fence, and it’s going to lock. I’m not staying home without knowing I’m protected.”
“They’re really nice people.” Eloisa stood and opened the refrigerator, jumbling through stacks of Tupperware until she found juice.
“How would you know? Eloisa, please stop drinking straight out of the carton.”
“Can you hand me a beer?” Mr. Mendez turned to Eloisa. “I’m going to go watch the news.”
“Because the woman, Mrs. Portman, teaches at my school,” said Eloisa, handing over a bottle.
“What? Arsenio are you hearing this?”
“Did we run out of the Presidente?”
“Why is that so shocking?” Eloisa said. “She is a social studies teacher for the tenth graders. And she sponsors the Social Justice Club.”
“All I see is Bud Light,” Mr. Mendez said, taking the refrigerator door from Eloisa.
“God. How many times do I have to tell you? The Social Justice Club. That I joined at school.” Eloisa stepped out of her father’s way and thumbed the rubber bracelets at her wrist.
“What kind of club is this?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“I guess Bud Light will do.”
“What kind of club is this, Eloisa? Answer me right now.”
“Jesus, mom. Why are you freaking out?”
“Is this the black thing again? Is it that neighbor woman who is making you believe you are black?”
Eloisa bored into her mother. Her face twisted. Mrs. Mendez could hear the drilling start outside.
“Do you really think that all the white people out there—the cops—that they care whether I’m Dominican or Haitian or from another freakin’ planet? All they see is this skin that’s the same color as yours, the same as Mrs. Portman’s. Can’t you see that you’ve spent all your life trying to prove you’re not something you are?”
Eloisa left her there. She left Mrs. Mendez by the window with a hand on the cool frosted pane. Mrs. Mendez felt ill. She looked out, past the hedges, past the workers pounding the fence into the ground, toward the neighbor’s house. Mrs. Mendez noticed a trash lid on the ground.
The fence was not enough. The neighbor woman was flaunting it in Mrs. Mendez’s face now. She was flaunting the fact that she was trying to ruin the neighborhood, to ruin her daughter, to ruin everything Mrs. Mendez had worked so hard to protect. Three times a week now Eloisa came home later than usual. She had started watching the news with her father every night now and ignoring Mrs. Mendez when she complained that the world was going to shit. Eloisa acted like it was a problem Mrs. Mendez had worked so hard, saved all her money, gave Eloisa this life Mrs. Mendez pined for when she was a girl living in a two-room shack who had to wake up at five in the morning each day to feed chickens and scrub laundry on a zinc board while sweat plastered mosquitos to her face. And this woman with her primitive-looking hairdo, with her foreign-looking jewelry, with her handmade-looking furniture. This woman wasn’t just displaying election signs on the lawn anymore. She had erected a giant flag from some other country Mrs. Mendez didn’t even recognize and stuck a sticker that read Black Lives Matter on her nice-looking car. Mrs. Mendez was mortified.
But the worst, the worst grievance had occurred as Mrs. Mendez prepared dinner the previous night. She’d looked out the kitchen window, wondering when Eloisa would show up, and had seen her daughter and Mrs. Portman engaged in lively conversation outside. The neighbor woman smiled and laughed and Eloisa smiled and laughed back. Mrs. Mendez couldn’t remember the last time her daughter had smiled or laughed with her. She’d demanded that Eloisa explain what she and the neighbor woman had talked about. And Eloisa had given her a smirk and said simply, “She wants to make Lucy Mendez president of the club. Moi!” Mrs. Mendez couldn’t take it anymore.
“Can’t you get one of your men to graft a hedge onto the hedge?” Mrs. Mendez said as she shaded her eyes with her hand. The contractor walked the perimeter of the fence outside Mrs. Mendez’s home.
“Ma’am,” said the contractor in an accent that matched Mrs. Mendez’s. “With all due respect, ma’am.”
“Yes?” Mrs. Mendez was growing impatient with the man’s bumbling. Why was it that so many like him had no idea how to act before a successful person like herself?
When Mrs. Mendez had arrived, white American ladies at grocery counters had smiled with prim politeness as she tried to mime her desire for frying cheese. Older immigrants, the Miami elite—Cuban-Spanish descendants and Venezuelan businessmen, Colombian socialites and Argentine doctors—kept to themselves, offered only charitable greetings, seemed simultaneously surprised and disappointed that a woman with a smooth hazelnut complexion spoke their tongue.
Men like the contractor liked to assume they were the same, Mrs. Mendez and him. She’d worked hard to prove they weren’t. She’d worked hard for respect. Mrs. Mendez was never going back.
“Señora, grafting is not at all practical, or . . . possible,” the contractor said, no longer smiling. “And I’m afraid that a hedge that tall would not be stable. If what you’re worried about is safety—”
“Who said anything about safety? Did I call you here to pry into my life? I’m the one paying you.”
The contractor removed his ballcap. He wiped at his forehead with a handkerchief. Then the contractor’s lips curled into a smile. It was so sudden a change of facial expression that Mrs. Mendez frowned. Was he mocking her? She didn’t care. “I don’t care,” she said.
“Okay, señora.” The contractor made a serious face again. “How about this? We can build another fence on the other side of the hedge you already have.”
“A hedge nestled between two fences?”
Mrs. Mendez looked toward the neatly pruned ficus, its leaves packed tight like sugar cubes. She liked her hedge. She hated to cover it up with another fence. But she wondered what, in the end, mattered more, what, in the end, ensured her survival—beauty shining from the outside in or the ugly, the reminders of the world as it was at its ugliest, kept out?
“I suppose that could work. But it would have to be a thick one. I don’t want to hear the neighbors either.”
More contractors arrived. They dug and shoveled, powered tools. Mrs. Mendez grew tired of watching the process from her kitchen window and took a nap on the couch. Mr. Mendez and Eloisa were to arrive in a few hours and Mrs. Mendez was going to tell Eloisa she was forbidden from attending her after-school meetings with the black club. Mrs. Mendez was putting her foot down. She was not going to stand idly by while Eloisa tried to drag her family back to the societal cesspool from which Mrs. Mendez had escaped.
She woke to her phone ringing and heard what sounded like shouting and protesting outside. Eloisa’s name flashed on her cell screen.
“Mom what the hell. What in the actual hell.”
“Don’t speak to me like that. Where are you? Why aren’t you here?”
“I’m literally outside. Outside this . . . prison wall . . . that you’ve installed. Dad is trying to figure out if he can knock down a section or find a ladder. We’ve been calling you. Why haven’t you answered?”
“What are you talking about ladder?”
“Why would you install another fence? And all the way around the house with no opening or entrance? This doesn’t even make sense—”
Mrs. Mendez rushed to the kitchen. She turned on the light, but even so, a darkness permeated through the frosted panels of the window and cast a hazy gray shadow. She saw it then: the thick, corrugated metal—the corrugated metal of her miserable childhood home—protruding over the top of the hedge and casting a shadow down the lawn. She put her cell phone down and could hear Eloisa’s muffled voice: “Mom? Mom?” She could hear Arsenio’s voice in the background: “I’ve stayed quiet for so long just to placate her! Just to avoid trouble!” And what was unmistakably the neighbor’s voice: “I’ll get my sledgehammer.”
Mrs. Mendez rushed out the door and up to the edge of the monstrous construction. She fumed, thinking, This is why that fucking contractor is getting nowhere. How could he be so stupid? She could hear voices on the other side.
“Eloisa? Arsenio?” she called out.
“Mom?” she heard Eloisa cry out. “Mom, is that you?”
“Eloisa!” Mrs. Mendez shouted. She unlatched the door of the original fence, which now felt flimsy, almost gentle. Mrs. Mendez pushed and nudged her way into the ficus bushes until she was surrounded by their dark cloak. Branches splintered and scratched Mrs. Mendez’s bare legs and face. Leaves nested into her hair. She finally reached a tiny clearing in which the new wall towered and topped a foot above her. Each panel seemed soldered onto the next, the grey tin chalky and uneven, rusted in places. She placed a hand on a cold metal ridge and shivered.
“Eloisa!” Mrs. Mendez shouted, hearing a strange echo. “Arsenio!”
She could make out only the neighbor woman’s voice now.
“I’m coming,” the voice said. “I’m going to save you, Mrs. Mendez. I’m going to knock down this wall and get you out of there.”
“No!” Mrs. Mendez screamed back. She tumbled and fell back on her butt in the fresh-packed dirt, a nest of twigs and leaves crunching on the ground beneath her. She’d created an indent in the hedge and could feel her weight pushing back on the original chain-link fence. A tangle of branches and crushed bushes now blocked the exit toward her house.
There was no response. Mrs. Mendez crept and placed her face on the wall’s surface as if a cool hand pressed to her cheek checking for fever. Mrs. Mendez heard a faint hum, her ear to the galvanized metal, like a wave lapping before her, like all the earth sighing beneath her. She could hear nothing now. She could see nothing.
“Mrs. Portman!” she finally called out. “Mrs. Portman!”
But she couldn’t even hear the neighbor’s voice anymore.