Julie Vargas, not to be confused with Julietta Vargas, the pretty girl turned model who went to high school with her, experienced The Great Limpia of 2016 on January 21st, two months and three days before her 29th birthday. She would later say that after that, the world opened up to her, the sky cleared in the most beautiful grey, and dogs were no longer afraid of her (which was pretty cool considering she worked at a pet store.) She would never again need another limpia, except for right after the election of Trump, when a group of friends gathered in her living room and got drunk, an event she would later refer to as The Necessary Limpia of 2016. A million smaller limpias followed that. And a daily limpia was required in 2020. But she would never need another big one besides that, a fact she proudly told everyone including her gynecologist.
Things started off normally enough, she woke up on a weekend, tired, but she was always tired so that was cool. Went to feed the cat that actually belonged to the neighbor. Made coffee, stared at the cup. Brought the mug up to her face to stare at the steam flying from the brim. Sat in her batá applying to jobs she knew she wouldn’t get interviews for.
Shit was bleak.
Had been bleak for the past year. But at some point, bleak became her routine so Julie just went with her shitty life and rolled with it. Day after day, night after night, shift after shift.
At least her shitty ex was gone. After months of asking him to pick up his stuff and take it to his new place, he finally did it a few weekends before. He was out.
Now there was a bunch of blank space in her apartment. There was a bed. And a table. And a heap of clothes on the floor. All of them hers at this point, none of them his. Mayra, her little cousin, neighbor, friend, and supervisor at the pet shop, told her a million times to get rid of what was left. Buy new things. A bed they hadn’t slept on. A table she hadn’t caught him not quite sleeping on with someone else. New things. New furniture. Paint the walls. Get rid of that negative energy. Start fresh.
Julie agreed. And Mayra got Julie so worked up, Julie actually went to Home Depot to buy paint. Even took a trip to look at furniture. But Julie couldn’t really decide on the furniture and the paint had been sitting beneath her bathroom sink for weeks, lost amongst the bath bombs and pads and extra bottles of shampoo she liked hoarding. She wasn’t even sure she liked the color anymore.
So her coworkers kept going on dates and insisting that Julie should date too and Julie usually spent Saturdays frowning at Tinder and refusing to message anyone while the wilted plants on her windowsill insisted she start afresh and she herself insisted she start afresh and Mayra would call from wherever she’d be on a day off and say, “Come on girl, you need new shit.”
Well that much was obvious, the guilt of not having new shit was eating Julie’s insides. But she didn’t really have the energy to do anything about it. Not now anyway.
Julie was pet-sitting the weekend of the Great Limpia.
Mayra was in Big Bear with some guy she’d been into when they were younger and she seemed pretty excited so she asked Julie to pet-sit and Julie said yes for once, partly because she didn't really have an excuse to say no and partly because she liked the idea of living vicariously through Mayra and was looking forward to the chisme when she’d get back. So that’s how it happened. How it ended up being just Julie and Rosie that weekend. And.
Rosie was a rat, I'm not even kidding. Except she wasn’t a rat, she was a chihuahua. She was a nervous little shit who’d bark at her own shadow. She had big eyes and veiny ears and she’d get irritated around anyone who wasn’t Mayra. She’d spent the previous night sleeping in her carrier only to wake up barking at 3am and then falling back asleep once Julie woke up to try to figure out what she was barking about. Mayra had said Rosie was more punctual than she was. And she was right because right as Julie was finishing her last sip of coffee, at 8:15 am on the dot, Rosie was at the door barking to be let out.
“She’ll need to use the bathroom so take her for a walk. Here’s her baggies. Just don’t let her go in front of the botanica. She did that once and I got mal de ojo or something.”
So Julie slipped on her shoes while Rosie barked. Threw on a cardigan long enough to hide her pajamas. Headed out. Past the corner store and laundromat. Past the carniceria. Past the panaderia where the owner never really liked her.
Rosie was being good, quietly trotting along the sidewalk while Julie looked around. She hadn’t been outside work or her apartment in a few weeks. She’d been living off takeout and coffee and she now felt disoriented.
But it was the same neighborhood. The one she had lived in since she was eleven. Where she got her first kiss and got into her first fight. Where her mom remarried and aunt died. Where she went to school and occasionally got into relationships and never really fit anywhere. Not in the family house down the block. Not in the apartment building she lived in now. She’d always felt invisible, or worse, she felt like the elephant in the room but she wasn’t sure why she was an elephant.
She’d join a crowd and they’d disperse. She’d say something and no one would respond. The lady at the panaderia was always curt with her and she never knew why. Her only close friend ever was Mayra. Mayra said the key was confidence but Mayra was a strong 8 who could pass for a 10 and Julie was convinced she herself looked like a wad of gum. It was the same neighborhood, and it was the same Julie. But it was cold today, colder than usual and she shivered in her cardigan. She wished she’d stayed inside.
“Go ahead and piss, Rosie!” She whispered and Rosie stopped at a patch of grass. “Come on.”
Rosie stared at her, eyes bulging, tongue panting. She used that same tongue to lick her tail a moment later. Sighing in frustration, Julie lessened her hold on the leash and took out her phone. It was 75 degrees, it said. Then why did she feel so chilly?
Rosie finally lifted a leg to pee. Stared at her dutifully. Julie wasn't sure whether to cringe or laugh.
“Hey Julie, that’s Mayra’s dog right?” It was Yoli, the lady who ran the botanica. She was in sweats, a ring of day old mascara lined her eyes. She opened the door and turned on the lights before coming outside to stare at her.
“Is that Mayra’s dog?” Yoli repeated.
“Yeah.” Rosie had stopped peeing but you could see a puddle at the edge of the sidewalk. Yoli lifted an eyebrow. Julie remembered the mal de ojo Mayra mentioned and wondered if by mal de ojo, she actually meant guilt and embarrassment.
Julie tugged at the sleeves of her cardigan. “I actually brought her because I’m going to buy something. From you. I mean I’m going to buy something from the botanica,” Julie hoped it wasn’t obvious that she was lying. If she lied, she could avoid the mal de ojo.
“Oh yeah, what are you buying?”
“Stuff. For a limpia, I mean, not that I need it or —”
“You need it, I’ve been telling your cousin that for a while. I'll help you. Bring the dog, yeah?”
Julie walked around the botanica while Yoli prepared the materials. Rosie trotted ahead of her, sniffing at the multicolored candles and racks of amulets that lined the shelves. There were little bottles labeled dragon blood, books on getting rid of demons. Julie’s secret belief that it was all bullshit intensified when she saw a little red candle labelled, “Suerte en el amor.” Mayra had bought one once when they were still teenagers. She’d been in high school and Mayra had been in middle school. They lit the candle in the living room once everyone was asleep and chanted the words on glass carefully. They had dates the next day. They were both stood up.
“Grab a candle and agua florida!” Yoli yelled.
“What?” Julie yelled back.
The smell of incense was worse than the cold. It was somehow colder here than it was outside. But there was no AC, Mayra had mentioned that before, that it was always too warm inside. Maybe they’d gotten an AC since Mayra’s last visit. But Julie’s nearly empty stomach was getting full off the smell of incense and she wanted nothing more than to go home and lie down. Cry. Hide underneath the covers. Turn on the heater.
With a shiver, she found her way back to shelves with the candles and agua florida.
"What kind?" She called
"You see the bottom shelf? Grab something on each end!” Yoli responded. “Ready, Julie?”
Yoli smacked her with a bundle of herbs. Passed a burning something across her body. Chanted something, said a few prayers. Carried an egg across her body. When it was done, Yoli instructed her to wait while she cracked the egg over a glass of water. Had her wait for another half hour for the egg to settle in the water. Rosie sat dutifully, staring at the cup.
“What does that mean?”
“There’s something wrong.”
“That’s really helpful.”
“I know, right?”
It was on the way home that Julie knew things were shifting. The colors in the shops she walked by had changed. What was once blue was now purple. Old gates were newly painted. She felt dizzy and wondered if others noticed she was half staggering while she attempted to cross the street. Rosie walked next to her protectively. Barking at the cars that drove by. Barking at the sun a moment after Julie decided it was too bright.
Yoli had given her instructions to burn a candle she'd prepared once Julie got home and so she did. Letting Rosie loose and then reaching for the lighter, Julie sat at her kitchen table and half-heartedly waved the candle in the air. The flame flickered and popped before burning high.
This was stupid. This was stupid as fuck. She was waving a little jar full of soy wax in the air hoping it would change her life. She was shivering and nauseous, obviously coming down with something and she was trying to do some spell like some kind of warlock, like she was in Harry Potter. Like all the love spells her mom had tried to get her dad to stay had worked. Like her aunt hadn’t wasted her life hoping the lady que le leia las cartas would finally have some good news in her cards. Like some magic candle and an egg could somehow bring purpose to a life she knew she was wasting.
Rosie barked and Julie began to sob. She held the candle with one hand and used the other hand to wipe away the tears that were burning her vision. This was stupid. This was so stupid. She couldn’t believe herself.
The leaves and petals sitting atop the candle floated in the melted wax. Smoke started flowing from the wick in waves and the smoke began mixing with her tears. Her eyes burned. Yoli would probably say this all meant something. But Julie was done with this. If this even had a chance of working, why was she feeling so shitty? She decided she'd put out the flame.
But when she reached her free hand towards it, her fingers dissolved into a puff of smoke. Her feet were no longer planted on the tile beneath her. She was grey and almost not solid and the only thing real was the candle burning in its jar in one dark, cloudy hand and Rosie barking somewhere beneath her. She felt herself floating from room to room and corner to corner, Rosie following her, the little pitter-patter of her feet leaving ash footprints on the floor. Julie was no longer solid, no longer in control of herself. “Stay safe, little dog,” she yelled, but her voice sounded sweet and soft and powerful. The candle burned and burned.
“I want to get rid of the negative energy!” She wept. “I want to get rid of it. I want to get rid of all the bad shit in my life!”
Julie Vargas disappeared in a cloud of smoke on January 21st, 2016. Two months and three days before her 29th birthday. Rosie barked at the bit of air where she once floated before laying down on the floor to whimper. The phone rang and no one picked up. Strangers stopped by to talk about religious conversion and no one answered the door. (Arguably, Julie would never answer the door for anyone but that’s not the point here.)
The candle burned for hours, slowly, peacefully, in its jar. When the sun began to set and the kitchen was flooded with a golden glow, when the neighbor’s cat began scratching at the window, and Rosie needed to be let out, Julie reappeared at the kitchen table, jar in hand. A serene smile took hold of her lips and her eyes glowed with a celestial hint that wasn’t there before. She sighed dreamily, fed the neighbor’s cat, and took Rosie out for a walk in the fresh afternoon air. She stopped at the panaderia where the owner was very nice to her. She called Mayra to inform her she’d thrown out the kitchen table.
Meet Julie Vargas, she didn’t have many friends growing up. Dogs used to be scared of her. But she has a new kitchen table and she walks a little different. She had a shitty life but she rolled with it until it wasn’t shitty. She needed a limpia, pero quien no?
Vanessa Bernice De La Cruz is an emerging writer and artist from Los Angeles, CA. Her work can be found in Storgy, MEAT FOR TEA, and in Puro Chicanx, Contemporary Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century
Fotografía de Robert Zunikoff