Tony was released a few days after Christmas. Mamá insisted we keep all the decorations up so his arrival would be festive, though it was all for show, since we never took them down until after the new year anyway. But she went above and beyond, whipping up another batch of tamales, wrapping more presents and placing them under the tree, the whole nine yards. When I protested that Christmas was already over, she said:
“Not for Antonio, querida. He’s família. We want him to feel welcome.”
As soon as I walked Tony through the door, it was Mamá’s time to shine, giving him the grand tour of our modest home, showing him José’s old room, which was now all his, pointing out where she kept the snacks and sodas, just in case he ever got un poquito hungry before dinner. She kept looking at him with these big doe eyes. I could read her mind: A telenovela star in the flesh! Tony was that hunky. Soon Mamá gave him a big plate of tamales with arroz y frijoles and sat with him at the kitchen table while he ate. I didn’t know if he was hungry or not, but I watched him clean his plate and take seconds, probably only to please Mamá. He knew just what to say and do, as if he’d been moving in with distant relatives in foreign countries all his life.
Afterwards, we sat around the living room opening presents. Of course, we’d already been through this whole routine a few days earlier, but that didn’t matter. They were all for Tony anyway.
“Scarlet,” he said, unwrapping the scarf Mamá had knit for him. He’d already opened the matching hat and gloves. “My favorite color.”
Mamá clucked her tongue, wagging her head. “Cardenal, como el pájaro de invierno.” Maybe she was showboating, or maybe she really hadn’t noticed that Tony spoke flawless English. “Hace muy frío aquí,” said Mamá.
“I will have to bundle up,” Tony said, trying on his new winter apparel.
“Perfect fit,” I said.
“Que guapo,” said Mamá.
I rolled my eyes, he smirked, and we shared a complicit grin.
We were all having a good time, listening to Frank Sinatra croon Christmas carols, drinking horchata, enjoying the holiday cheer. Then José showed up. That put a damper on everything. He marched into the room, taking in the scene, glaring mainly at me.
“What the hell’s going on?” he demanded.
“We missed you, José,” said Mamá. “Say hello to your cousin Antonio.”
He ignored her, grabbing my arm and pulling me out of Papá’s comfy old recliner. “Come on, little sister. We need to talk.”
“Is there a problem?” asked Tony.
José turned and stared him down. “That’s right,” he said. “Stay away from my sister!”
Then my hermano drug me out to the front porch. I wrenched my arm free and massaged the indentations from his grip. I was sure it would bruise.
He stood there fuming, face sallow in the yellow porch light. “Why wasn’t I consulted about this, María?”
“Sorry, Chief Gonzalez, but since when do you micromanage every detainee?”
“Don’t pretend this is a normal situation.”
A truck chugged by, its left taillight busted.
“You’re right,” I said. “He’s family.”
“Kissing cousins, ¿no?” José stared off into the darkness. “I saw that, you know.”
“Lighten up, big bro, it was harmless.” I punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Seriously, José. There’s nothing to worry about.”
He spat into the crepe myrtles. “We’ll see about that.”