I don’t think I’ve ever told you about Tita. This wasn’t her real name, it was short for something, but I can’t remember for what right now. Tita was a girl from my grandmother’s working-class neighborhood; when I was 7, she was about 20 years old.
She was the most beautiful girl on a ten-block radius, at least that’s what everybody was saying, and that’s what I thought as well. Come to think of it, she was indeed beautiful: tall, slender, with milky skin and long black hair, full red lips, dimples and perfect white teeth. The hair in particular fascinated me. It was straight, but pouffy and woolen at the same time. This was early 90′s Romania, and the sleek-and-shiny look hadn’t caught on yet; women were still hung up on those bad 80′s perms that gave their hair the look and texture of pillow filling. The height of style, if you had asked me.
Tita was very vulgar, a true-blue bimbo, essence of bimbo, if you wish, but the overall package was still strangely appealing. Fran Drescher meets Jersey Shore. She wore a lot of make-up, long red nails, knock-off brands and what was probably her entire jewelry box at a time. She loved crass, chunky gold pieces and she would tell you the weight of every item as soon as she saw your eyes linger on it.
Her family had started off poor, like the rest of us, but then became quite wealthy, by our small-town standards. Instead of moving to an affluent area, they preferred to build a McMansion in my grandma’s poor neighborhood and stay there as its unchallenged nobility. Cheap and uneducated, they knew better than anyone that it’s not so much who you are, but who you are with. Their lifestyle shone brighter among all those run-down houses and broken streets.
My grandmother was a seamstress, and a damn good one too. Women from around the block would come to her with foreign fashion catalogs, brought from Germany or France, and they would ask her to copy their favorite designs. Then she would sit down and she would perform small miracles with her ancient Singer sewing machine and the cheap fabrics the clients provided.
Tita and her sister were among the regulars. Too unsophisticated to aim for authentic designer pieces, they were happy to simply own more fashion catalogs than everybody else and they, too, ended up wearing my grandmother’s knock-offs. But, unlike her stubby, pot-bellied sister, Tita had the body to make any clothing look pretty. Her sister would eat herself into a blob and then go to the surgeon every year to “slice the belly off”. Whenever she said that, I would get shivers down my spine, as I pictured the doctor slicing her like a ham.
When the sisters would come by to order stuff, I was all over Tita, examining her jewelry, scavenging through her purse for make-up, inhaling her sickly sweet perfume – she always smelled like candy- and asking her to marry my uncle, an unattractive and slow-witted young man, so that we could be related. She was my perfect vision of femininity, a human doll, and there was no girl, real or on TV, who matched up to her. By examining her so closely, I was trying to learn how to be a woman.
All the boys on the block were drooling over her, and there was a constant competition for her attention. They all had two big dreams: a Mercedes Cobra and Tita. She was the local Eula Varner, only they had no idea who Eula Varner was, none of us did. That ten-block radius was their whole universe, and that universe had only one dream car and only one dream girl. Even their mothers, lured by her relative wealth, competed in predicting whose son would marry her.
The other girls on the block wanted to be her. They were mostly poor, overworked beasts of burden, attractive only because they were still young and fresh, destined to settle for the man that might beat them less than this other man. On week-ends, they would try to spruce up with their modest beauty arsenal, shaking acetone in their bottles of dried-up nail polish and sharpening an expired eye pencil until it was just a tiny stump. But they were no match for Tita, who had Turkish cosmetics and designer (replica) perfumes and who was the first on the block to buy Avon. When she appeared in a group, looking like a well-groomed feline, their humble charms of good and honest girls would fade into nothing.
Then I grew up, and my tastes changed. I put the dolls on the shelf and started to turn away from the flashy beauty that Tita embodied, I started to despise it, to be ashamed of it. The eyebrows too arched, the lipstick too glossy, the nails too long, the hair too teased – all these things were now a subject of cruel mockery for my clique. They were enough to disqualify any girl from being worthy of respect; if you were tacky, you were a target. My first role-model was now a sad joke. I was not like Tita, I could never be. My parents were educated, my girl friends were from “good families” (money didn’t necessarily make a “good family” back in those days), I read classics while Tita was still reading Harlequin romances, I had goals well beyond grandma’s shitty neighborhood. I was simply better.
The boys from the hood were not good enough for me either. I would grow up to be loved by great artists, scientists or ambassadors. Men would write books about me, or mention me in their Nobel speeches (I was picturing the Nobels a lot like the Oscars). By the way, “ambassador” was the superlative that my grandma used when referring to a man’s eligibility, as in “what is that girl hoping to trap, an ambassador?”. I have no idea where she got that, but the only rank above ambassador was “prince”, a dream for which I was way too humble.
I am now a few months away from turning 30. I have never been mentioned in a Nobel acceptance speech (that I know of). I have been mentioned in two volumes of poetry written by local talents, volumes that ended up being sent back to the publisher. The ambassadors are still waiting (please email for my phone number, if you are reading this between two official visits). My life is nothing like I thought it would be when I was 16. There’s no mansion, no acclaimed novels, no globetrotting stories, no great romances. Just a dead-end job, three failed engagements, a dusty blog and a modest studio that I rent, not own.
Woe is me and me is woe – no, that is not my point. I grew up idolizing Tita and then despising her, even fearing her. Fearing the mediocrity of the ten-block radius, the grey slum with flooded roads and smelly mom-and-pop stores. But her life, or, at least, her youth, was anything but mediocre. In that little universe, she was a living legend. She probably never saw it as such, but she lived it, which is all that matters.
People from the block still talk about her past glory. You know how the E! Channel does those Elizabeth Taylor specials, and the guests talk about her iconic dresses, famous lovers and fantabulous diamonds? You should hear the old ladies that visit my grandma when Tita comes into the conversation! “She had a braided gold bracelet THIS big, and I remember her wedding dress was backless, and we were thinking, did she really set foot into the church without a bra?!”
When I got older and, supposedly, wiser, I finally made peace with Tita, the one buried inside me. What became of the real Tita is irrelevant. I’m not like her, and I can never be, because I am simply different. Not better. I didn’t turn out better. When we add things up and draw the line, she wins. Because here I am, writing her story, while she probably forgot I ever existed.
Now that I think about it, I do remember her real name. It was Rita. Probably after Rita Moreno, or maybe Rita Hayworth. The slum changed it into the comical Tita, but, apart from that, she was still its biggest star.