By Amaris Castillo
“My name is Cara Romero, and I came to this country because my husband wanted to kill me. Don’t look so shocked. You’re the one who asked me to say something about myself.”
It’s 2009. Cara’s job at the factory of little lamps was outsourced two years prior because of the Great Recession. She’s been unemployed ever since. Cara – who fled her Dominican town of Hato Mayor decades ago – lives alone in the heavily-Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York. Her son, Fernando, abandoned her, but she’s managed to keep her mind occupied by looking after others in her gentrifying building. She babysits her sister Angela’s children and cares for La Vieja Caridad, an elderly Cuban woman. And then there’s her best friend and downstairs neighbor, Lulu.
But Cara’s checks from El Obama are drying up, which is why the 56-year-old now finds herself before a job counselor as part of NYC’s Senior Workforce Program. Over the next 12 sessions, Cara and the counselor – a younger Dominican American woman – are to work together to find a job that matches Cara’s skills and interests. A final report will assess whether or not Cara is job-ready. And for her participation, Cara will continue to receive unemployment benefits.
In their first session, Cara is asked how she heard about the government-backed program that provides pre-vocational training to her and other seniors. She calls it La Escuelita. The simple question launches Cara into miniscule detail about not wanting to go there initially because it’s too far away – in Harlem. On the first day of La Escuelita, Lulu appeared in Cara’s apartment with warm banana bread and told her she had 15 minutes to get ready. But Cara assures the counselor – who is jotting down notes – that she doesn’t need her best friend to take her to work.
“I’m ready to confront life,” Cara says. “Look, already I’m losing some weight so I can fit into my blazers. Don’t you think I look good with this one? You like it? Of course you do. I never wear brown. My color is black. With my black eyes and hair, black makes me look elegant. This brown blazer is Lulu’s. She looks good in this color because she dyes her hair blonde – well, it’s more like anaranjado because she does it from the box. But the color still looks good on her because her skin is like a penny. Not like a brilliant penny, more like an old penny. And she’s only 54. I tell her to drink more water so she gets more glow. But she doesn’t listen.”
The forthright Cara clearly has a lot to say, and there are still 11 more sessions to get through.
How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water is a truly indelible story about a woman who has lost so much but still finds room in her heart to give. As in Dominicana and in her earlier novels, Soledad and Let It Rain Coffee, Cruz masterfully breathes life into her portrayal of the Dominican diaspora. As a main character Cara is far from perfect, but it was impossible for me not to fall in love and delight with her. Even at her lowest, I couldn’t help but cheer her on and wish her a more promising future.
Of note is the novel’s unique structure. Each chapter is a counseling session and reads like a one-sided conversation as Cara unloads details of her life to the counselor. She reveals her complex relationships with her loved ones and struggles with debt and gentrification, and even what transpired between her and her estranged son. We learn about what drove her to flee Hato Mayor for New York. Interspersed in the novel are paperwork and documents that tell its own story of bureaucracy and its sheer power to complicate one’s life. As a reader, I grew increasingly anxious with the invoices detailing how much Cara owed in monthly rent.
The novel’s crown jewel are the sessions teeming with Cara’s tender and hilarious voice, lovingly crafted by Cruz. Cara, for example, insists her nose can detect the smell of cancer. She also gushes about the email horoscopes from Alicia the Psychic, an internet service that she believes is a real woman (Lulu insists it’s a scam). And when a leak above Lulu’s ceiling (which the building’s management ignored) caused a chunk to fall on Lulu’s head, Cara came rushing over with a camera to document it all. “I told her to lay down on the ground so I could take a good photo to show that the ceiling could have assassinated her,” Cara recounts the incident to her counselor. “I took many photos. I told Lulu, stay on the floor and wait for me to come back with the super, so he can see with his own eyes. It worked. The super fixed the problem the same day.”
And don’t get me started on a love affair Cara had with a certain someone. You won't get spoilers from me, though.
Cara is undoubtedly the star of How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, but a good amount of attention is also poured into the novel's colorful cast of characters. And their building, already touched by gentrification, is a character on its own. In focusing on this cluster of tenants and the building they call home, Cruz paints a very vivid and resonant portrait of community – both blood and found family.
For those who come from immigrant families, Cara may remind you of an older relative: filled with opinions, keen observations of how time changes everything and sometimes nothing, and even some painfully honest self-assessments. There’s so much Cara ends up sharing that the sessions, at times, feel like real therapy. If given a similar opportunity to Cara's, how much would someone you know personally share of their life story?
This novel is so full of life. I can still hear Cara talking.
About the Author:
Angie Cruz is a novelist and editor. Her fourth novel, How Not To Drown in A Glass of Water is forthcoming Fall 2022. Her novel, Dominicana, was the inaugural book pick for GMA book club and chosen as the 2019/2020 Word Up Uptown Reads. It was shortlisted for The Women’s Prize, longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction, The Aspen Words Literary Prize, a RUSA Notable book and the winner of the ALA/YALSA Alex Award in fiction. It was named most anticipated/ best book in 2019 by Time, Newsweek, People, Oprah Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Esquire. Cruz is the author of two other novels, Soledad and Let It Rain Coffee, and the recipient of numerous fellowships and residencies including the Lighthouse Fellowship, Siena Art Institute, and the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute Fellowship. She's published shorter works in The Paris Review, VQR, Callaloo, Gulf Coast and other journals. She's the founder and Editor-in-chief of the award-winning literary journal, Aster(ix), and is currently an Associate Professor at University of Pittsburgh. She divides her time between Pittsburgh, New York and Turin.
Pre-order How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water (release date September 13th).
Amaris Castillo is a journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Lowell Sun, the Bradenton Herald, Remezcla, Latina Magazine, Parents Latina Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, Dominican Moms be Like..., and is forthcoming in Quislaona: A Dominican Fantasy Anthology. One of her short stories, “The Moon and the Sun,” was longlisted for the 2021 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival.