When Carmen is born, her whole family crowds around her, the tiny pink thing squirming in her mother's arms. She loves it, the newborn, trying to reach out to those already adoring her.
She smiles, her mother, says, "Her name is Carmen," and it is whispered back and forth between cousins and aunts over phones and frantically through collect calls. It's the first time Carmen has ever had her name shouted for.
Carmen doesn't cry as a baby, not like some do. She doesn't keep her mother up all night - she gets her attention in during the day, and then sleeps so soundly they worry for her. When it is quiet, her mother watches Carmen's chest move up and down, to remind herself that Carmen is still breathing. Carmen, you are an angel, her mother tells her. You have always been good at garnering attention.
The first time Carmen Diaz sees a television, she knows that she wants to be on it. She is the person in her house, in her family, who sings every song on the radio. She is the person who knows all the words. She is the person who turns it to the English station and keeps singing. As soon as she is old enough to convince her mother she should be let out, she takes to the streets in a flurry of her red jacket and seems to watch everyone she goes by. When she finds the one she likes, she turns to the person next to her and mimics the person she saw. She's not trying to make them laugh, because she already has them staring.
Her mother says, "Hasta las estrellas tienen que ser educadas." Carmen hears her, but she's already waiting for her encore act.
She plays games with whoever will let her, because she's good enough at acting that she can fit any role they ask of her. They cheer her name if she's playing soccer or marbles or who-can-get-their-parents-to-give-us-another-quarter. She flips her hair over her shoulder and keeps going, because she knows stardom doesn't wait.
Carmen Diaz is witty in school but only when the teacher's back is turned. She never gets in trouble but the teachers never quite let their guard down around her. It doesn't take long for her to go from begging to play to being begged. Her friends are exactly how she wants them - dripping off her words and replaceable.
Her mother says, "Hasta las estrellas necesitan amigos." Carmen hears her, but she's too busy grooming the next member of her entourage.
In middle school, she surprises no one and everyone. For the first time, she has been introduced to the concept of a school play. It wakes up a thing inside of Carmen a sixth grader can't possibly be expected to name, but her mother can. Her mother names it lobo, her mother names it hambre, her mother names it miedo, and Carmen is still blinded by the stage lights.
Carmen gets the lead, even though she's young, even though she's never been in anything before, even though it makes people mad, even though she is nothing but shocking. It seems shocking to her that she'd get anything else, because Carmen has been acting for her entire life. It doesn't stop the whispers that she can't possibly be good enough.
Her family hates how much she sings, but they don't mind too much, because it's good to hear their girl's voice. They smile when she runs her lines long before they go off-book, and her mother sews her costume together, because none of the pieces the school had prepared fits a tiny sixth grader. It's not enough for Carmen who always trips up when she has to make eye contact.
Carmen gets a standing ovation her first night.
No one is surprised when she gets into PA. She wants it and Carmen always, always gets what she wants. Carmen gets what she wants, and there can never be exceptions, because that would be contradictory to the nature of the universe.
She fits in, in the way someone who knows they can fit anywhere always seems to find a place to fit. She makes friends, but they're only barely more friends than her others. Most of them seem to be in awe of her, a little. That's the only way she's ever known her friends to be.
Carmen pretends her first day of school is like any other, but her mother can see the difference, can see the gentle trembling. Carmen leaves for school with her backpack maybe a little more full than usual, and maybe there's a little more bounce in her step.
In class, she speaks her mind and clicks her pen when she's not called on. Her essays are never well planned but always engaging to read - though her thesis seems to take on the opposing position by the end, her teachers can't help but agree with whatever she thinks.
Carmen has always gotten what she’s wanted, but she can’t help but find it so much more satisfying to take.
Carmen's a bitch, really and truly, but she's the kind of bitch who offers diet pills to Mabel not because she thinks Mabel's fat but because Mabel thinks Mabel's fat, and it's a kind of kindness most girls they go to school with don't get.
People notice girls who are bitches, no matter the kind, and people notice freshman, and so people notice Carmen. She does not limit herself to her friends, her words are caustic no matter who she speaks to - but they're always true, and there's always some misguided good intention behind it.
She might struggle in her classes but she pulls off okay. Her teachers aren't worried about her - everyone struggles, they say, the first time they aren't special anymore.
Carmen Diaz knows she is still special. She knows this, and the thing snapping in her, the thing that her mother calls lobo, the thing her mother sighs at every time it rears its head, is still running after what she wants. It is impossible not to notice a wolf when it wants something. It is impossible not to notice Carmen.
Her freshman year is people taking notice, and Carmen herself cued the spotlight.
No one comes in after them. Carmen stares at the doors and realizes that if she wants people above her to find her, she has to make herself worthy of that. There’s no one below them to distract from her newness.
She tries her best.
Her parents come to conferences, they hear that she’s doing well - a little too social, but who can blame her? Everyone here is social. A little too confident, but who can blame her? Everyone here is confident. A little too haughty, but who can blame her? Carmen knows her worth.
Her classes are fun and she at least tries to do her homework - everyone is looking at her, and it’s only cool not to do it when they’re not vying for a future.
In the past, Carmen was not afraid of her future. Now, she doesn’t know where she’s going. She keeps singing.
There’s little victory in achieving the status of upperclassmen. There is no one for them to lord their new-found power over. Those above them feel little different from their own, as class sizes wither and they are frequently combined.
Their showcase is fast approaching, and their hard work finally starts to take them somewhere. The wolves in Carmen pace in circles. They want to go somewhere. They don't want to be taken.
Carmen has been waiting to go somewhere for as long as she can remember.
No one chooses her. No one says, "That Carmen, she's good." Or maybe they do, but they still pick someone else over her. Whatever the reason, she's not chosen.
Her mother says, "Hasta las estrellas tienen que ver el día." Carmen doesn't respond, because Carmen shines bright, and shiny things, glowing things, belong in the night sky.
Her teachers caution that her apathy is the cause of this, that her waiting for someone to see what's in her is misguided. She should make them see why she's good, they say.
That's never been necessary before. Carmen is supposed to be stared at. She doesn't know how she behaves when she's not being observed.
They don't really have a junior prom. Their showcase is supposed to be their something-like-a-prom, they're supposed to find the time to make stupid decisions and kiss each other some time in between the chaos of backstage.
They don't really have a junior prom. Nick Piazza holds something back at his house, but Carmen doesn't want to spend the whole night watching him and Serena flirt. She doesn't want to spend the whole night listening to Mabel complain about how hungry she is. She doesn't want to spend the whole night around those people.
A different Carmen, a little less defeated and a little less tired, would have crashed the senior prom. But she's tired and defeated - tired of no longer being cool enough to get away with that, and defeated by this showcase, this lack of time to stand in the spotlight.
She gets home. Her family doesn’t know there was a party. They congratulate her on what she did, fawn over her precious moments. She smiles and accepts them, doesn’t let her brain skim below the surface level high of being on stage. If it does, she knows she will find something hungry and clawing for what it saw but could not taste.
Her mother says, "Hasta las estrellas tienen noches." Carmen doesn’t know what that’s supposed to mean.
She falls asleep with makeup on and when she wakes up in the morning she decides it’s not the worst look in the world, to be at home like this.
Carmen goes into her next year with dreams like wolves inside her, clawing and crawling to be the first out of her throat. She can barely breathe without thinking about how badly she wants something. She can't even close her eyes without seeing a million futures she craves. She has wolves inside her, hungry and starved. It is impossible for Carmen to ignore herself.
And to her mother, who calls it el lobo, who calls it el hambre, and to her mother, she has seen the end of breathing without sighing. And to her mother, all that is left to say is, "Hasta las estrellas necesitan sus madres," no matter the fact that Carmen won't hear.
Carmen is never sure what part of her decides to leave. Does she decide that this is her best opportunity? Do the wolves snap at her arteries and decide to reach for the stars she knows she can't touch without a ladder?
Is this her ladder?
Leaving doesn’t hurt. Leaving is a deep breath and a waving goodbye. Leaving doesn’t hurt. It couldn’t. She’s never set down roots, she’s hung in a basket so she could be moveable, go where she is needed and thrive no matter what.
She doesn’t tell her family she’s leaving, but they know not to look for her. If she wrote a letter, it would say, "Hasta las estrellas se trasladan."
She has been a star her entire life. Some stars make constellations, but she has been waiting for someone to make her a frame of reference. She can’t let it go that she finally can be.
Carmen comes back, because she can’t help it. She can't come home, though. She cannot go somewhere when she cannot put it on a map.
Her home should be in her mother’s arms. Her home should be with her family. Her home should be the bedroom she grew up dancing in. Her home should be a lot of things.
She ends up back in PA. She ends up outside the school, watching during the daytime. When people come by, she keeps walking. No one recognizes her.
Her hands shake when she passes her last five dollars over for a sandwich that doesn’t even taste good.
Her hands always shake.
In the evening, she sees the last face she dreamed of seeing.
He says, “If you need anything, anything at all…”
Carmen says, “Some cash,” and her fingers twitch the bill he hands to her.
Then she leaves, because all she’s really learned is how to keep moving, and she’s not ready for him to see her crying.
Carmen dies on the fire escape of her apartment. She dies staring where the stars are supposed to be. She has never lived where the stars were visible, but she knows where they belong. Carmen dies with her skin illuminated by the moon, her hair tied back into a high ponytail and her sweater just a little too big.
When her mother knocks on her door, making sure her daughter is okay, she finds an open window with a breeze coming in. "Carmen?" she calls, not expecting an answer. The problem with having a star for a daughter is you get used to them never being close to you.
"Carmen?" she calls again. "¿Estás aquí?" She walks into the room, looking at the way the moon casts a pale not quite shadow on the floor. Carmen has put a bench next to the window, and her mother remembers the days when she would walk in to find Carmen sitting, looking out at the city, listening to a CD, humming the words.
Carmen dies, and it's not beautiful, it's ugly and sad and the cars don't go quiet for the snuffing of a star. Carmen dies, and her mother rues the moon, and calls hatred at the stars, and there is no way to fix it but wait for them to move.
Carmen dies with her skin illuminated by moonlight, her hair tied back in a high ponytail with strands falling out because at the end, her hands couldn't stop shaking, She dies on the fire escape of her apartment, looking at where the stars are supposed to be, wishing she could join them.