Julia Reyes and her family are attending the funeral of Julia’s older sister, Olga. As Julia peers into her sister’s casket, she is surprised by the “lingering smirk” on Olga’s face, a smirk which stands in contrast to the “meek and fragile” disposition Olga displayed in life. Olga is dressed in an “unstylish” floral frock representative of her typical matronly look—though Olga died at just twenty-two, she was always dressed like she was “either four or eighty years old.” Julia feels that the pretty Olga wasted her beauty—and her body—and, pretty much, her whole life. Olga lived at home, worked part-time in a medical office, and took just one class each semester at a local community college, making few friends and dedicating her days to spending time with her and Julia’s parents instead.
The opening passage of the book shows Julia, the protagonist, in a state of mourning—but Julia’s grief doesn’t look or feel the way one might expect it to. Julia both laments her sister’s wasted potential in life and demonstrates the jealousy she feels, seeing Olga’s “smirk” as a direct commentary on the ways in which Julia doesn’t measure up to her sister, and perhaps never will.
Julia, who dreams of being a famous writer, was both jealous of and confused by the saint-like Olga while she lived—Olga was “the perfect Mexican daughter,” while Julia is far from this ideal. Julia is snapped from her mean thoughts about her sister by her Amá pushing past her and wailing, screaming “my daughter” over and over in Spanish as she “practically climbs inside the casket.” Julia, exhausted, sighs and waits for her mother to “tire herself out.” She wishes she could comfort her mother, but their strained relationship doesn’t really allow for that sort of thing. Olga has always been the favorite daughter, while Julia has always been the odd one out.
Julia isn’t alone in being unable to express emotion about Olga’s death—her father, Apá, also hasn’t cried yet. Julia insists that she feels a deep grief, but her body won’t let her shed tears for some reason. Julia knows her grief is just going to “build until [she] explode[s] like a piñata.” As aunts and uncles rush forward to comfort Amá, Julia can’t help but feel skeptical and bored—“Once you’re dead,” she thinks, “you’re dead.”
Julia admits here that she misses Olga and has strong feelings about her death—but her stoic personality and her desire not to make a spectacle of herself overwhelm whatever’s stirring beneath the surface.
Julia thinks back on the day Olga died, wishing she had been able to keep her sister from leaving the house. The day was boring and uneventful like any other: Julia went through the motions at school, cheekily faking a lie about her period to get out of swimming in the disgusting pool during gym class and getting sent to the principal for replying to her skeptical teacher by offering to let the teacher “check” her for proof. Julia’s frequent trips to the principal’s office always result in scoldings—and groundings—from Amá, who doesn’t understand why her once-obedient daughter has become a troublemaker who enjoys living “la mala vida”—the bad life.
Julia is opinionated and a hothead with a fiery tongue. She’s often in trouble, even though her transgressions are relatively minor. Julia feels she should be able to express herself in the ways she wants to, and feels intellectually superior to those around her. These aren’t bad or dangerous traits and behaviors, per se, but the more Julia resists the molds people try to put her in, the more difficult her life gets.
Because Julia got in trouble at school and had to be picked up by Amá on the day of Olga’s death, Olga had to take the bus home from school rather than get picked up—then, while transferring buses, Olga walked across the street looking at her phone and was hit by a huge semi truck. Olga was killed almost instantly, and two witnesses said she was smiling down at her phone when she was run down.
Julia understands that in a roundabout way, her most recent transgression impacted her sister’s life in terrible, irrevocable ways. This fact pains her, but she doesn’t seem to let the full emotional weight of the coincidence hit her.
Julia can hear her aunts whispering about her, and is relieved when her best friend, Lorena, shows up. Though Amá thinks Lorena is wild and slutty—which Julia admits she is—Lorena has been Julia’s best friend since grade school. The two are vastly different now, but still inseparable, and as she embraces Julia she whispers words of support and solidarity before “shooting eye-daggers” at Julia’s nosy aunts. As Julia looks at the back of the room, she sees a man she doesn’t recognize sitting there and crying. Julia assumes the man is a distant uncle or cousin. Julia briefly wonders who the man could be, but is distracted when Olga’s best friend Angie enters the room, wailing and “howling” in grief. Julia wishes she could comfort Angie, but “never” knows what the right thing to say is.
This passage shows how out of place and alone Julia feels within her own family—she thinks everyone is antagonizing her all the time for her differences. She finds comfort in Lorena, whom her mother dislikes—though Lorena and Julia have been best friends for years, there’s something about Lorena’s wild ways that allows Julia to embrace her own rebellious side. Even though Julia feels better than everyone around her, this passage also shows that she does feel a twinge of regret over the fact that she also feels distant and is never able to comfort anyone, to fit in, or to use the right words.