Natalia Sylvester’s Breathe and Count Back From Ten is a searingly honest story about living with chronic pain and taking control of your own identity even when everyone has spent most of your life trying to tell you who you’re allowed to be. Sylvester—who shares her heroine’s chronic illness—tells a deft, nuanced coming-of-age tale that also helps push disability representation in the world of young adult fiction forward in important and necessary ways.
Peruvian-American teen Verónica lives with the dual pressures of her painful hip dysplasia and the expectations of her overprotective immigrant parents, who forbid both her and her sister, Dani, from any activities that might call unwelcome attention to the family. (And thereby put their residency status at risk.)
But Vero loves swimming—in fact, it’s one of the few activities that allow her to feel like a normal girl. And when a local tourist attraction known as Mermaid Cove announces it’s holding auditions for the new mermaids who perform there, she wonders: Is this the opportunity she’s been waiting for to write her own story?
Here’s how the publisher describes the story.
In this gorgeously written and authentic novel, Verónica, a Peruvian-American teen with hip dysplasia, auditions to become a mermaid at a Central Florida theme park in the summer before her senior year, all while figuring out her first real boyfriend and how to feel safe in her own body.
Verónica has had many surgeries to manage her disability. The best form of rehabilitation is swimming, so she spends hours in the pool, but not just to strengthen her body Her Florida town is home to Mermaid Cove, a kitschy underwater attraction where professional mermaids perform in giant tanks . . . and Verónica wants to audition. But her conservative Peruvian parents would never go for it. And they definitely would never let her be with Alex, her cute new neighbor.
She decides it’s time to seize control of her life, but her plans come crashing down when she learns her parents have been hiding the truth from her—the truth about her own body.
Clarion Books will release Breathe and Count Back From Ten on May 10, 2022, and we’re excited to share an exclusive excerpt from the story below.
Dysplasia: dys·pla·sia 1. (n.) abnormal growth or development 2. (n. VR) the state of being displaced, inside and outside of your body
My whole life they’ve explained it to me like I’m a child.
Make a fist with one hand and cover it with the other.
Pretend paper just beat rock.
This is a normal, healthy hip in its socket, doctors say.
Now move the fist out slowly, toward the edge of the hand that covers it, until it’s barely hanging on by what looks like some miracle of gravity.
This is my hip.
Except not at all like a rock in a game of rock-paper-scissors, because that rock is supposed to be strong and my bone is more like limestone, fragile and freckled with holes.
The way they talk about it, sometimes I don’t know how I’m still standing.
How I’m literally standing is off. Chueca. Crooked. I’ve never liked the word in either language. In Spanish, it’s a tsk on your tongue, something to hide in shame. How dare my body not grow in a straight line? And why should it matter, anyway, when so many things in nature — rivers and trees and shorelines and mountains — are free to be imperfect?
No one calls a flower chueca as it bends its way toward the sky.
Then there’s the English. Crooked cops, crooked bones, crooked politicians, crooked systems. My body gets lumped in with all of them like it’s morally wrong.
Sometimes they’ve called it dislocated, except fixing it isn’t as simple as snapping it back into place. The more technical term sounds like something you’d name a continent: Dysplasia, like a floating mass of land with no home.
And yes, it’s the thing that dogs get. Leslie’s mini pinscher has dysplasia on both hips. He’s had almost as many surgeries as I’ve had — four to my maybe five or six. It’s hard to tell, because a few of them happened when I was a baby, and my parents are never specific about how many. When I ask they just say “a series,” like it’s a nameless TV show they never want to rewatch.
“How many seasons?” I asked once. They didn’t laugh, and I resorted to calling them the Lost Peru Surgery Series. The ones that happened before we moved to Central Florida when I was three. The ones that, like everything else about my birthplace, I can never remember.
But back to Leslie’s dog. His name is Jester, and he always smells like toe and swamp water and when Leslie first learned that I have the same hip condition as him, she just shrugged and said, “Oh. Okay.” She didn’t do that crinkly thing with her nose that people do when they find out. She didn’t say I thought it was only in dogs. She didn’t stare at my legs, or try so hard not to stare that it’s essentially the same thing. She didn’t call my scars ugly like the first boy I ever liked did.
Leslie’s my only friend who’s stuck around through the thick of it. She’s seen me just come out of surgery, with the anesthesia smell still in my hair and lungs. Every time I’ve been in casts and wheelchairs and crutches, she hasn’t disappeared for several weeks until I can hang out at places convenient to her again. She’s the only person who’s ever treated my surgeries as the least interesting thing about me.
We pull up to the parking spot in front of my apartment. It’s usually empty because we used to have two cars, but shortly after my last surgery, my parents sold one. Papi insisted it had nothing to do with the hospital bills, just that it made no sense to have the added car payment when Mami’s job at the smoothie shop is within walking distance. I don’t buy it, though. It’s been three and a half years, and nearly every time I stop by our mailbox, there’s a bill from the hospital or the anesthesiologist or my orthopedist, and it makes me feel like my surgery splintered off into a bunch of mini procedures, each of them costing us an arm and a leg.
Which is a terrible expression, now that I think of it.
“Promise you’ll think about the tryouts. I bet Tanya can help you train,” Leslie says. “Okay. All right,” I say, my voice teetering on the edge of annoyed. I get out and hop over the yellow parking block in front of our spot. It’s marked RESERVED in black stenciled letters, except someone messed it up and spelled it resvered. Those three misplaced letters are the bane of Mami’s existence; when we first moved in, she said of course it’d be us, one of the few Latinx families in this entire apartment complex, with a parking spot that makes us look like we don’t speak proper English.
Mami’s really big on us speaking proper English. And Spanish. She’s always saying we need to show people we belong here, but not so much that we become gringas. To her, that means we shouldn’t call attention to ourselves. We should blend in but also remain connected to our roots. It doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes I feel like being bicultural means having to be perfect for two groups of people instead of simply being accepted as part of both.
Inside our apartment, Mami’s making dinner while my sister sets the table. It smells like cilantro, onions, and chicken, which can only mean she’s made my favorite, arroz con pollo. It sounds basic, but the whole dish is simmered in herbs until every grain of rice turns green. I feel bad for people who think cilantro tastes like soap, especially if they’re Peruvian. We put that shit in everything.
“Here,” Mami says, handing me a wooden bowl. “La ensalada.”
“Good evening to you, too,” I say.
“Very funny. You’re late. And you know it’s the one who arrives who says hello.”
“Yeah, Vero,” Dani says. “Who do you think you are, coming in here como si fueras un caballo?” She raises her arm dramatically and accentuates each vowel in her best imitation of our mom as a telenovela star. Mami’s always calling our friends “rude as horses,” barging in without so much as a hello. Dani’s impression is on point, but instead of cracking a smile, I just focus on chopping the tomatoes.
“What did you and Leslie do today?” Mami asks. Since Papi’s not around, I tell her we stopped by Tanya’s rehearsal. Her face lights up, eyes full of curiosity, as she says “¿Viste a su hermana nadar?”
I nod apprehensively, wondering if this is a trick question. It’s been a while since Mami’s smiled at me like we share something in common. Most of the time when I catch her glancing at me, it’s like she’s looking at a dead plant, a mixture of sadness and hopelessness wrestling across her face.
“¿Y?” she says, egging me on with a gentle tap of a wooden spoon against my shoulder. “How was it?”
“It was amazing. We caught part of their routine, and Tanya was in full costume: mermaid tail, makeup, everything.”
“Full nothing. Those girls go around media-calatas.” My father walks into our conversation with the same ease he walks into the room — like it belongs to him. Just like that, Mami clears her throat and the aura of disapproval is back.
“They’re in bikini tops and a tail, Papi. If anything, they’re half covered, not half naked,” Dani says. I stay quiet because it’s pointless; he’s always finding new ways to criticize the mermaids, though this particular line feels different.
He sits on the couch and turns on the TV. In our apartment, the living room and dining room are one large room, and the kitchen has a hole in the wall, like a wide-open mouth that connects one space to the other. The fragmented sounds of commercials, novelas, and news reports come in and out as he starts flipping through the channels.
“Doesn’t matter. You know what they say about sirenas, don’t you? They lure men into the ocean. Seduce them in the water. It’s no way for a young girl to behave.” His eyes land pointedly on me, and there it is. He’s not just talking about the mermaids after all. Like everything else he says lately, it’s another veiled attempt to remind me of my misadventures in the hot tub with Jeremy. Like I could ever truly forget.
If Dani catches it, though, she doesn’t let on. Her face goes blank and her voice floods with sarcasm as she says, “You know they’re not actually real, right?”
“Realmente ridículas.” He chuckles lightly at his own little joke, but I don’t join him. He may think he’s making fun of the mermaids, but it feels like he’s laughing at me.
Dani starts folding napkins into triangles. “They’re artists, Papi. I heard they choreograph all their own routines, right, Vero?”
I let the silverware clang loudly as I set the table. I no longer like where she’s going with this. “What’s your point?”
She gives me a mischievous grin and whispers, “Leslie texted me.”
I give her my most threatening death stare. I’m not ready to broach the subject of the auditions with my parents, but apparently she and Leslie have decided I have no say in the matter at all. Dani just continues blabbering as we sit down to eat. “Not just anyone can become a mermaid. They’re super skilled and disciplined.”
Now Papi’s getting annoyed; I can tell because he starts stabbing his food and chewing with his mouth open. I wish Dani would just drop this and leave me out of it.
“What kind of skills and discipline does it take to hold your breath and splash around all day?”
“Edgar, no seas vulgar,” Mami says, though she means his table manners, not how condescending he’s being toward female athletes. There are lines we don’t cross in my family, but most of them involve appearances instead of actual respect.
“I splash around every day,” I say. “Isn’t that why we moved here?”
So much for dropping the subject.
“That’s different. Those are medical purposes.” He groans as he adjusts in his chair, super exaggerated, like his bones are cracking one by one.
“I think I’d make a good mermaid,” I say under my breath.
“¿Qué dijiste?” Papi asks.
“She says she’d make a good mermaid,” Dani says.
“Ay, Vero, no empieces,” Mami says.
I turn my head to give Dani an angry stare. I’m not the one who started anything.
“Enough of this. You need to be focused on getting a real job. One that’ll stand out to colleges.” I’m about to retort that mermaiding would definitely stand out when Papi flicks his wrist and says, “Plus, no self-respecting daughter of mine is going to splash around in a pool, half naked” — he looks down his nose right at me, as if it’s a name he’s calling me — “for money. Punto.”
So that’s that. The real truth comes out. Papi thinks me being a mermaid would be equivalent to me selling my body. But I know he’s implying a different word, a word so ugly it makes me see red. So much for respect. So much for men who treat women and girls right because they have wives and daughters. It all goes out the window the second we try doing something with our bodies that doesn’t have their stamp of approval.
“It’s not a pool. It’s a freshwater spring,” I say. Papi glares at me. Mami drops her fork on her plate.
“Vero. Really?” Dani whispers.
Because, I know, it was a pointless excuse to get the last word in. But I couldn’t help it.
Breathe and Count Back From Ten is available on May 10. You can pre-order it now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.