"Miss Lora" by Junot Díaz Originally published in the April 23, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
It’s been just over two years since Junot Díaz’s “The Pura Principle” was published in The New Yorker. In that story we spent time with Yunior and his brother Rafa, who was dying of cancer. When “Miss Lora” begins, it is 1986. Rafa has died, and Yunior, still suffering a “fulgurating” sadness, is about to realize he has more of his brother in him than he thought.
Years later, you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother would you have done it? You’d remember how all the other guys had hated on her — how skinny she was, no culo, no titties, como un palito, but your brother didn’t care.
Rafa, like his father, was content to sleep with any woman. The skinny woman above was a middle-aged school teacher whose toned muscles eliminated any fat from her body. Yunior doesn’t particularly find her attractive; he would rather sleep with his Puerto Rican girlfriend, Paloma, but she doesn’t want to make any mistakes (and realizes that sleeping with him would certainly be one).
Suffering from grief, hormones, and a daily dread of a nuclear holocaust . . . well, we know where this is going, in part because of the first lines of the story: one day Miss Lora touches him, and he can tell it’s different:
Miss Lora touched you, and you suddenly looked up and noticed how large her eyes were in her thin face, how long her lashes were, how one iris had more bronze in it than the other.
They sleep together, this school teacher and this sixteen-year-old boy. He’s insatiable for some time, and it’s only later, when he’s in college, that he feel comfortable enough to tell someone and that someone realizes the criminal nature of the events.
One thing I like about Díaz (and I admit I’m not a fan) is how even using ugly language — both in content and grammar — he’s able to have characters earn the reader’s sympathy, even if the character himself doesn’t realize anything is out of hand. Here’s a Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey in the shadow of Manhattan, part of a culture where such things are relatively common, even looked on with pride. And Díaz can present this without making judgments, leaving it for his readers to determine how they feel.
That said, I’m still not much of a Díaz fan, as much as I admire what he’s capable of doing. I can’t quite get into the language which can, in a couple of lines, use a phrase like “hating on her” with a word like “fulgurating.” I just haven’t wrapped my mind around that, and I had a similar hang-up with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (my review here), and I realize that it is my hang-up. I liked this story quite a bit more than “The Pura Principle” (which I thought meandering), and I sense that in time it will grow in my estimation, but I’m still hoping for something a bit different in the weeks to come.