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'What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez' by Claire Jiménez: An Excerpt

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
Claire Jiménez •
Apr 26th, 2024

Congratulations to debut novelist Claire Jiménez, who will be honored on Thursday night for her novel, What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez, with one of the most prestigious prizes in the literary world: the PEN/Faulkner Award. Tertulia is a proud sponsor of the award ceremony, which will convene the finalist authors along with a star-studded list of notable guests, including this year’s PEN/Faulkner Literary Champion David Baldacci.

Curious about the winner?

Without giving too much away, we’ll just say that this short novel is an unputdownable read that will especially resonate for anyone with sisters. The book follows the Puerto Rican Ramirez family, who discovers that their long‑missing sister is potentially alive and cast on a reality TV show. They hatch a plan to go in search of her, and we follow along on a family road trip unlike any other. The story creates a vivid family portrait with an irresistible laugh track and a gut punch ending.

Read on for an excerpt from the book.

WARNING: This excerpt contains explicit language, which is common throughout the book.

If you drew a map of our family history, you might start it off with my dad, young, fat, and handsome, eighteen-year-old Eddie Ramirez, plotting to get with my moms, who was dark-skinned, small and freckled, long black curly hair. Freshly turned seventeen. Her name is Dolores. And you can probably start it off in Brooklyn. Canarsie. Draw a bump underneath my mother’s wedding dress—that’s Jessica. Then shortly after, in 1981, you can make Jessica a separate person, angry and red, pale-skinned like my dad, screaming in my mother’s arms. Two years later draw Ruthy in pencil, lightly, because you’re going to need to erase her in a couple of minutes. Now, draw the Verrazano, the water, the Island, the dump. Draw my proud family, Puerto Rican and loud, driving over the bridge and a little pink town house in West Brighton. I’m the one born in 1986, in Staten Island. They named me Nina. Make me look cute. The five of us seem normal for a while, up until Ruthy turns thirteen and disappears. Now you can rub her body away from the page. Draw my mother sixty-two pounds later. Give her diabetes. Kill my dad. Cut a hole in the middle of the timeline. Eliminate the canvas. Destroy any type of logic. There is no such thing now as a map.

Call that black hole, its negative space, the incredible disappearance of Ruthy Ramirez.

# # # #

First of all, if you really want to know what happened to Ruthy Ramirez, then you got to understand what happened that day at school. But maybe people don’t really want to know what happened that day. Maybe people don’t really care. Most adults already have their own ideas about the type of girl Ruthy is, that is because everybody’s always running their mouths about her. And people like that, they’re more interested in the type of little girl who one day rides her bike down her suburban block and disappears, only to show up later portrayed by some B actress on Unsolved Mysteries. Or they greedily watch the news, obsessed, as they guess who killed JonBenet Ramsey.

So what? Most people are followers anyway. They don’t know how to form their own opinions but somehow still think that they’re like special. That they are better than me. Inside their head, they think they got it all figured out, about who I am and what happened.

Whatever! Who cares?

Not me, I promise you.

I’ll tell you that much.

Let them continue to play themselves.

I can tell my own damn story.

Maybe let’s start the story this way: There is a girl. Her name is Ruthy Ramirez.

You are that girl.

You have two sisters.

You live on the north edge of Staten Island with your crazy-ass moms, your sisters, and your dad in a little pink town house. And after you turn thirteen, nobody can control you.

The whole day since homeroom, Yesenia (your fake-ass former best friend) is walking around school like she’s never borrowed your lip gloss after track practice, like she ain’t the only girl in eighth grade who hasn’t gotten her period yet, and like you hadn’t helped her lie to everyone to pretend that she did. You say to yourself, That’s all right, though. See what happens. See if I care. Keep it up, while she acts like the two of you didn’t used to sit together every day during lunch in sixth grade, reading the Say Anything section in YM, contemplating the various philosophical questions of sixth-grade girldom: Would you rather shit yourself in front of a boy you liked or unexpectedly bleed through your white skirt during Social Studies?

Which is worse: accidentally farting while laughing at a joke OR blowing snot out through your nose?

Then at lunch in the cafeteria, Yesenia, for no good reason at all, says some slick shit like “Oh, look at Ruthy’s shirt,” to this girl Angela Cruz (who by the way isn’t even in the eighth grade). Still, Yesenia is stupid and trying to impress her. For what?

What is so special about Angela Cruz anyway? She can barely jump in during double Dutch without getting hit in her big-ass forehead by the rope. Food clings to the rubber bands in her braces when she talks shit. And she’s not even that pretty. I mean, maybe a little bit in the eyes. But not really, though.

In fact, you should know that there is nothing special about Angela, at all. That is, if you really want to know my opinion about it.

But this is the problem with Yesenia: she’s always copying her homework or her hairstyle or her opinions from other girls, the type of person Ms. Ellen in Life Skills calls a follower. Someone too scared to make their decisions by themselves.

“You gotta be a leader,” Ms. Ellen always says very proper while passing the cookies around the circle during Girl Talk and making references to the different outcast characters turned heroes in The Mighty Ducks, while the boys in the corner break out singing “We Are the Champions” like the real losers they are.

Now, in the cafeteria, you turn around and look straight back at Yesenia, the way her long hair makes her look a little bit like the Little Mermaid.

Your sister Jessica told you once, “If you’re fighting, don’t ever let no bitch make you look away. You understand me?”

So, you shout at the table in Yesenia’s direction, “Well, that’s cool, then. Nobody wants to be your friend anyway. Stupid.” But that sounds real little-girlish coming out of your mouth, so you imitate your moms and add “Pendeja,” for good measure.

Unfortunately, though, class 802 steps into the cafeteria prematurely for lunch and the combination of their voices and bodies slamming against each other—their LA Lights slipping on the floor slick with the residue of spilled milk, their collective clowning on the dude with the messed-up fade—eclipses your voice, which leads to the following question: If a thirteen-year-old girl screams in the middle of a cafeteria but nobody hears her, does it really even fucking matter?

The shirt in question, the one Yesenia rolled her eyes at, is a cropped halter top, almost identical to the one T-Boz wore when she was dancing on top of the ocean in the video for “Waterfalls,” which is by far your favorite CrazySexyCool track (I mean, obviously). You bought the shirt yourself, off the three-dollar rack at G+G, while your mother was looking for size 8 wide flats for work at Payless. Not that you would ever actually admit aloud that you and your family shop at Payless, but, anyways, that’s beside the point. Back to the story, you see: your moms with her rosaries and turtlenecks and unlimited statues of santos and orishas would probably kill you if she ever saw you wearing that crop top now, even underneath your overalls, whose straps you let dangle to reveal your perfect thirteen-year-old stomach.

Ugh, your mom loves you, but she’s like . . .God. . .TOO MUCH.

For no reason at all.

Doesn’t she even realize that there are girls literally giving head and smoking in the stairwells? Just because some stupid older girl dared them, and they were too afraid to say no.

Followers. All of them, just like Ms. Ellen says.

And all you do is go to track after school and get into fights sometimes, which really means you were just defending yourself. That’s the real unfortunate tragedy of it all. In reality, you are the good girl, and nobody knows it.

But that’s also besides the point.

Excerpted from WHAT HAPPENED TO RUTHY RAMIREZ by Claire Jiménez. Copyright © 2023 by Claire Jimenez. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

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