Fiction

Hold On, Sour Grape

There was no such thing as failure—only starting over a million times and then some.

When we moved to Bushwick, we all slept on the same mattress again because there wasn’t room for my smaller mattress and because the hoods on our block stole it before we even had a chance to drag it up the stairs to our new apartment. They also stole my dad’s car radio every few weeks and then sold it back to him on the street corner by the Jewish deli.

“It’s $100.”

“What? A hundred? I got it for 10 last week.”

“Times have changed, brother.”

One time, the three of us came out of the subway and saw that the kids who jacked our possessions all the time were having a garage sale with stuff they had taken from our apartment.

“We can’t buy everything back,” my mom said, looking at our pillows and our sheets and our bowls and her winter coat and our TV that we had found outside on the street on garbage day that was broken but my dad, whose survival skills were so amazing that he could learn anything just by closing his eyes and visualizing the steps, had fixed it in a week’s time, and our VCR that had been given to us by my dad’s restaurant boss who liked to give him things every now and then to remind my dad exactly who was in the position of giving and who was in the position of taking.

“I’ll cut a deal with them,” my dad said. He closed his eyes briefly to visualize his strategy, then walked over to talk to the main thug, who had the whitest sneakers out of all three of them and the longest T-shirt—it went down past his shorts when he stooped.

“A hundred for everything.”

“Fuck you. Five hundred or get out of my face.”

“Look, you’ve run us dry. You think we have the money?”

“You’re richer than us,” I yelled out and then hid behind my mom.

“So she talks,” said the main thug. “Look here, 500 or get out of my face and that’s the last time I’ll say it. The next time, I won’t be saying it, if you know what I mean.”

“Look, I’ll give you $100. That’s more than you can get for this stuff.”

“I don’t care if I get 20 bucks for this stuff and I buy myself a shitty steak dinner, I’m only selling this shit to you for $500 and I told you not to ask me to say it again.”

“Please,” my father said.

The white-sneakers hood turned to his friends and shouted, “We in for a steak dinner. Drinks on you shit-talkers.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” they all shouted.

***

“There are a couple of ways that people will always know you are my daughter,” my mom used to say to me.

“What’s one way?”

“One way is that we both love eating sour things.”

“OK, what’s another?”

“No, wait now. Don’t just brush that off. You and I love eating sour things. Sour grapes, sour plums, sour peaches, sour apples, sour cherries, sour strawberries, sour blueberries, sour nectarines, sour candies, sour soups, sour sauces, sour sour sour sour everything. Most people like sweet grapes and sweet peaches and sweet apples and sweet berries.”

“I guess that’s true.”

“It’s remarkable, don’t you see? And we also like really hard fruits.”

“Yeah. True. We hate soft peaches. We hate soft sweet peaches and we love hard sour plums.”

“That’s right. We’re two of a kind. Remember yesterday? The man outside of the subway was selling grapes. Remember that?”

“Yeah, he kept saying, ‘Sweetest grapes you’ll ever find in Brooklyn. He was like, Don’tcha wanta try a sweet grape, you two sweet things?’”

“And I pulled you close to me and we went to look at his grapes and I said, ‘So you say it’s sweet?’”

“And he said, ‘Yes, so sweet.’”

“And I said, ‘You’re sure it’s sweet? Very very sweet? You aren’t lying to me?’”

“And he said, ‘Put it this way, there isn’t a single sour grape in the lot.’”

“And then I shook my head at him and said, ‘Well, you just lost our business, then, because my daughter and I only like sour fruits.’”

“And the man started yelling after us, going like, ‘Hey hey hey EY you, EY, EY you two. Check this out, these grapes are sweet and tarty. Oh look, I’m sucking in my cheeks, it’s so tart.’”

We laughed at our own cleverness, the little signs that proved we were running our own lives, that, in fact, what had made that day profound was that we had outsmarted the “hey EY guy,” and not because it was also the very night when my father didn’t come home for dinner because he was with his girlfriend, Lisa, which meant my mom and I had nothing to eat because my dad had all the cash we had left and he was supposed to come back with groceries for us.

The two of us went hungry that evening, our stomachs aching at first from hunger, then from laughing, then again from hunger, and then later when we went to sleep, we heard each other sniffling, but it was the sort of night when neither of us could be moved to console the other, and that was when the great depressed hollow opened up between us and remained for the duration of the night and only closed up a tiny bit when we woke up to my father standing over us and asking if he could be the top bun and if my mom would be the bottom bun and if I could be the cheese and the pickles and the burger and the ketchup and the mustard and the onions and all the things that make a cheeseburger the most astounding food in the entire world.

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14 Comments

  • doikoon February 28th, 2014 3:13 PM

    When I saw that Jenny wrote this I gripped my school laptop my eyes went wide, and I swear I didn’t breathe for I like twenty seconds.

  • Hallie I February 28th, 2014 3:52 PM

    i mostly like this story, but i don’t really feel great about the cheap objectification of the latina women in Christina’s neighborhood- she came to admire them because of the deep-v of their asses??? i expected more from rookie and i’m not sure what purpose that was supposed to serve other than to compare “Those Women” with her milky white skinny mother (who i realize is also a woc).

    • Maryse89 February 28th, 2014 7:55 PM

      I think you have to consider that the perspective of the story is that of a little girl who has probably absorbed a lot of the ugly stereotypes surrounding her as she’s grown up (as most of us do to an extent when we’re kids…)

      I think the views of the author and the character are clearly separate in this case

  • ahowl February 28th, 2014 4:24 PM

    I’ve never posted anything on Rookie before but this resonated with me so much that I can’t passively consume it like everything else. This reminds me so much of my childhood, but you write about it in a way that’s never pitiful. Feeling alienated, sour, deviant in a my parents are trying to make rent every month while you’re preoccupied with going snowboarding over the break, not nice but not evil, full of misplaced pride and anger. As an immigrant child growing up in North America, you’ve validated all of these things that I thought I alone had to bear the weight. Jenny, you’re my hero.

    Just, thank you.

  • Jesss February 28th, 2014 5:07 PM

    Jenny I really love your writing! This was amazing, like, really amazing.

  • izzywayout February 28th, 2014 5:55 PM

    whenever i see a piece of fiction written by jenny, i know it’s going to become one of my favorites, and this was no exception. you are brilliant.

  • dumbpling February 28th, 2014 9:32 PM

    i havent even read past the first page but i was just so excited when i saw the name jenny at the top of the page. this sounds a bit strange, but i have seen so many connections to my own life in previous pieces that i almost feel like i know you, and everything you write just really resonates with me and its all so beautiful and relatable.

  • DianeK February 28th, 2014 11:07 PM

    You’ve managed to make a superficially depressing narrative into a very human, life-affirming story. Although this piece made me cry, I felt uplifted. It was cathartic.

    The ending was absolutely brilliant. Xie xie ni for transferring these undescribable, nuanced feelings into a story that feels so familiar.

  • eza_236 February 28th, 2014 11:08 PM

    This is unbelievably beautiful, it paints a picture of a place and time I’ve never known, but at the same time feel like it was my life she was describing.

  • marysilverbells March 1st, 2014 8:00 AM

    so beautiful

  • mangointhesky March 1st, 2014 12:46 PM

    This was such a good story!

    http://theconfettireport.blogspot.com

  • teafandoms March 1st, 2014 8:37 PM

    This really was superb, good job Jenny!

  • llamalina March 2nd, 2014 3:30 AM

    Jenny, you are, without a doubt, one of my favorite writers- not just on Rookie but in general. Your pieces resonate so soundly with me as an Asian-American teenage girl. This story was no exception and I found myself seeing parts of the hardships in my own childhood. It’s amazing how much I can relate to your writing, and how beautifully you can word the simplicity of a child’s perspective and the complexities of Christina’s situation. You’re an incredible writer and I will always look forward to reading anything from you.

    http://llamalina.blogspot.com

  • fluorescentyesterday March 2nd, 2014 9:39 PM

    I will never tire of Jenny’s work, and this piece was just too good.