Carla says, “Gringolandia eats a marriage alive,” as we take the sheets off another mattress. She folds them and I walk across the room to pull aside the blackout curtains, bathing us in a grey light. It is so cold outside, you can feel it in your kneecaps. I know because my breath fogs the door that leads to the balcony, exposing fingerprints smeared across the glass. If I look past the surface, I can see white roofs, the neighboring buildings and cartops covered in snow, all the way out to the frozen lake. Tomorrow more is supposed to fall, and I have no idea where it will go or how Chicago’s streets will find the space for it.
“I’ve seen it happen,” she adds. “Young love doesn't last. People think what works over there, is what works over here. ”
Sometimes we clean the room wordlessly. Carla puts on laundered sheets, I steer the vacuum. The two of us have a perfect rhythm; no other pair on staff can turnover a suite faster. The first time we cleaned together, it just made sense, and our boss Roger said I must be Carla’s cousin, because Mexicans have the quickest hands. Until Carla and I were partners, all I had been doing was praying and paying attention. When I was still new and my feet hurt, I saw how the slower ones didn’t make it. At first I thought it was lack of maturity—all those timid girls with accents so strong they’d say housekeepee at the door and nothing else—but no, even some of the older women, with years of experience etched into their faces, couldn’t find the right pace.
“You need papers to get married,” I say, sponging the glass.
Behind me, Carla fluffs pillow after pillow. “That’s what I’m saying.”
Most people don’t realize it’s just a matter of figuring out who isn’t willing to do what. Blood is not my thing; Carla won’t touch body hair. Neither of us had used a vacuum before, but her old partners always handled it, so to keep the peace, I do, too. And if Roger isn’t hanging around at the end of the shift, it’s really not bad. Alone we get to talk about our childhoods, the horrible wind, what dreams brought us to the States. I don’t discuss my parents. Carla avoids questions about her sons, her relationships.
But every now and then I pry: “Aren’t you married?”
Her finger is ringless.
“I was,” Carla says.“To a beautiful boy from Monterrey.”
“Where is he?”
“Still in Monterrey. He thought you could get on the bus through the back doors like in Mexico, so they grabbed him.”
I laugh and Carla joins in, even though we shouldn’t. She leans her arm on my shoulder, wiping away at tears, and for a moment, I forget about the before or the after. It’s like there’s only a now and an us.
“How long ago was that?”
“Right before I got to this place.”
“So you were still on your way.”
“Had I known, I would have told the coyote to take me back.”
I pinch at black hairs sprinkled in the bathtub while Carla does the dusting. All work is painless if one learns how not to mind it.
“I bet you miss him.”
“I used to, Mina,” she calls back, after some time. “I really did.”
There is only one suite left between us and a smoke break. We gather supplies in the pushcart, adjust our ill-fitting uniforms, and inspect the room briefly. Roger always looks for any excuse to deduct cash at the end of the shift, will even get on his hands and knees, saying we should be grateful to have jobs. A misplaced hand towel, light streaks on the mirror. Any little thing can set him off, can get him going on about how illegals make it harder for people like him, even though he pays taxes. It’s bad enough, he says, to be dark-skinned like us. That’s why we have to put in twice the effort and expect half the thanks.
It seems in order so I step out, but she takes her time.
Carla says I forgot to put out new shampoo bottles. Again.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “My head is in the clouds.”
She shuts the door behind her. “Don’t worry—I got them.”
The fifth floor is among the easiest to clean because there are fewer rooms and wealthier clients. Every other suite has silver trays of food outside, half-finished bottles of stale champagne. Twice the space means twice the mess—there’s no telling what damage rich Gringos will do—but it has its benefits. These people tip. These people wait for you to leave the room before they speak.
I wheel us down the carpeting and stop outside 5F. There is a paper tag around the knob and although neither of us read the language, we look at it and then each other. Even I can tell what it means. Together we’ve walked in on enough pale lovemaking for this lifetime.
“What about you?” Carla asks, lighting my cigarette. “Single? Divorced.”
“I came here with someone. We married in our hometown.”
She exhales towards the ceiling. “Still together?”
“Barely,” I say, flicking ash. “We argue a lot.”
“We have a daughter. It’s not easy because it’s just us here.”
Roger saunters into the break room and stops when he sees us sitting. He looks at his watch, adjusts his crooked tie. Sometimes he tries to impress me or Carla by speaking English into the radio on his hip, and he does so now, while hiking his pants. He constantly reminds us of his work ethic, how he went from a poor line cook at a restaurant to hotel manager. One word: Customer Service. Yesterday Carla told me his real name is Ricardo, but he tells Gringos to call him Roger, because that’s easier. And I have to give it to him. Even when the guests don’t believe he’s a manager, when they speak slowly to him, Roger doesn’t fail to perform.
He looks ready to leave, but instead turns the radio off.
“Finished already?” he asks.
I brush at ash on my apron.
Carla says, “Two Gringos were fucking.”
I try not to laugh.
“You should have joined them,” he says, pulling a seat away from the table. “You know, I don’t pay you to sit.”
I start saying, “It was my idea—,” but Carla puts a hand up.
“Just five minutes,” she says. “A short break.”
Roger isn’t convinced, gives us a small snort. He reaches for Carla’s cigarette, the lipstick-stained end hanging from the ashtray, and swallows smoke.
“You have extra time. Why not get me some coffee?”
Knowing better than to fight, Carla reluctantly walks to the coffee pot and brings him back a steaming styrofoam cup. Roger watches the entire time, his gaze fixed on everything from the neck down. And when he receives the cup, Roger’s hands remain enveloped around Carla’s for just a moment too long.
“Thank you,” he says.
Carla smiles. “You’re welcome.”
Then Roger’s pager vibrates and he frowns down at it.
“Two minutes,” he says, standing. “When I’m back I expect you working.”
After Carla lights herself another, she breaks the silence: “What a prick.”
I nod. “At least he’s gone.”
“Yeah, at least.”
What I like about Carla is that she understands boundaries. There are some things, deep down, that some people just aren’t up to doing. My poor mother, she lived a tough life, and still, she wouldn’t abandon the land she came from, even when I asked her to come with me. My father grew up fatherless as well, but when presented with the opportunity, he really couldn’t bring himself to do the deed and raise me. So Carla and I won’t talk about how Roger lingers, how he tries to touch the women with his sweaty hands, whispering things in the filthiest Spanish I’ve ever heard. One time I left the room to throw dirty towels in the machines downstairs, and when I came back everything was just where it had been—Carla at the bathroom sink, Roger over by the balcony—but something had changed. I sensed a rage, suddenly alive inside me. I considered pushing him through the glass door, all the way down to the concrete below. But I never asked Carla about it. I waited for her to bring it up instead, which set the tone early. And that is why we are good friends and stick together now: because I knew not to ask.
Carla stubbs the butt in the ashtray. “You know, you should do what my ex-husband did.”
“Get another marriage.”
* * *
Moses says, “That plan has no sense,” while spooning lentils into his mouth. No matter how many times I repeat myself, my husband is not convinced, and I’m not sure what piece of information he’s missing. During the bus ride, I had rehearsed the things Carla told me while we worked the overnight shift, simplifying them for our talk. She knew a young woman who was open to a green card marriage for some extra money. We would make a down payment and then, once Moses had his citizenship, pay the price in full. But when I got home today, only to find him snoring on the couch and in his stained overalls, I didn’t even bother taking off my uniform. We wouldn’t see each other until the next day and he had gotten up early to make coffee. So I just started cooking.
Eventually, the pots reached a steady boil and I set out to fry the plantains, which we have once every week. The golden slices I placed in oil popped so loudly I didn’t hear him enter the kitchen, not until he wrapped his arms across me and said Smells good into my neck. He was in a mood. And I thought, perfect, now’s the time, before he goes in for work. So at some point in between stirring and serving and asking about his schedule, I bring it up. Casually. At first he nods along, taking a break in between bites to smile or to stroke my wrist. But I can see that I’m losing him. It’s all in his speckled eyebrows, the way the paint flecks stuck in them come closer together.
We sit at the table in silence.
“How do you know,” Moses says, fiddling at his mustache, “that she’s good for it?”
I use a finger to scrape lentils onto my fork. “We work together.”
“I paint with a lot of nice people. That doesn’t mean I trust them.”
Moses pushes his plate towards me so I can pick at whatever’s left. This was one of the first things about me that caught his eye back in Cali, I liked to eat.
“We wouldn’t have to hide anymore,” I say.
He clicks his tongue. “You’ve known Carla—what—a couple months?”
I get up to do the dishes. I can feel him still sitting there, staring. My husband doesn’t like when I have a good idea. Our decision to come to the States, for example. I was the one who wanted it, who really pushed for leaving, despite my own mother’s disapproval. But that’s not how he tells it. As long as the money shows up, and food is on the table, and the kid stays happy, coming to this country was his idea. After all, he came first. Or did I forget? For a year my husband lived in this city by himself, making ends meet, saving to bring me here. The day he picked me up from the airport, I couldn’t believe how much Gringolese spilled from his mouth. When I got to La Guardia after the bus ride from Tijuana, I used the only English phrase I knew, the one I had spent months practicing: window, smoking please.
“I don’t want to fight today,” he says.
“You act like I’m asking to be unfaithful.”
“No, I’m telling you to marry someone for our survival.”
Moses sheds the overall straps and inhales the steam coming from his coffee. Even when I’m finding solutions, he blames me. Crossing was not something I set in motion—unless things went poorly, then yes, it was I who dragged him here. And things had been going poorly. Both of us working impossible hours for almost no money, rotating responsibility of our restless daughter, now old enough to be in school. In this damn cold, so much worse than last year—according to him—to top it all off.
“It doesn’t seem right,” he says. “You expect me to live with her? To share a bed?”
I realize it’s not about what he says, but how he says it.
“Think about the girl,” I say.
He slams his fist on the table and I jump, tumbling my coffee.
“She would be confused.”
Just then, the Little One walks in from a deep sleep, her thick curls swirling around her face, and says nothing until she’s at my knees. We touch noses.
“Good morning, Mommy.”
I dry my hands and take her in my arms. She is small for her age—at least I think so. Moses says she’s fine, but when I hold her like this it’s hard to believe, knowing how underfed I am. Yet I can carry her with ease.
“Hello, my life.”
“I’m hungry,” says the Little One.
“Sit down, I have your favorites.”
Moses gets up to give the Little One his seat, taking her from my arms and lowering her onto a booster. He grabs a coat, pats at the overalls for wallet, keys, his pager. He heads for the door out and looks back at me, before walking over to plant a kiss on my lips.
“Everything we have done is for her.”
The Little One makes circles in her lentils with a spoon.
“What happens the day they take one of us,” I say.
He studies my face.
“What if it’s me,” I say. “What if it’s you?”
Moses lets me go and then walks over to the Little One, burying a kiss in her curls. She giggles and the ache in my chest is a raw one. This is why, even with his faults, my husband is a difficult man to know. Because whatever love this foreign place doesn’t take from him, he saves for our daughter.
“Be well,” he says, going out the door.
“I will,” the Little One says.
“We will,” I say.
* * *
Judy says nothing, tapping her fake nails on the plastic tray instead. Carla does the talking, but in between listening to her and keeping the Little One from rubbing ketchup all over, I struggle to follow. Even though Moses hadn’t agreed to the plan, I arranged for this meeting with Carla’s friend, afraid that Carla wouldn’t make the offer twice. It had been so long since I’d gone anywhere other than the hotel that I asked if we could meet somewhere public. Carla suggested McDonald’s, not far from where she lives. And even though getting the Little One suited up with all her snow layers was a pain, I still managed to get us here. My daughter only protested a little before we left, then relaxed herself when I said she’d get a Happy Meal out of it. But she’s tired of being locked up inside. She should be in kindergarten, learning how to develop the two sides of her brain, to navigate what goes on beyond the walls of our home.
“There’s interviews involved,” Carla says. “Documents, photo albums, tests.”
The Little One has sauce on her cheek and I wipe at it. “Tests?”
“To make sure the marriage isn’t for papers. The process takes years.”
I have never seen Carla out of her uniform before. Sitting side by side, she and Judy seem to be twins. They wear the same hooped earrings, but I think the look works better for Carla. Or maybe it’s just the long nails, the way Judy can’t hide how she’s bored. There is a lot of activity in the dining area—the schools are out—and other things, noises, grab at her attention.
“So what happens?”
“A Gringo in a tie asks you questions to prove it’s not fraudulent. Personal questions.”
“Like what,” I say, eating some of the Little One’s fries.
“What’s your husbands middle name?”
I take a moment. “Arturo.”
“Where is his mother from?”
“Has he ever broken a bone before?”
Moses has never told me. I say, “I don’t know.”
Carla points a finger to her temple.
“That’s the trick—you have to know enough.”
Judy says something like, we should go to the playpen. It’s the first time she’s spoken. Her accent is Puerto Rican. Carla told me she was born here and good people, albeit unlucky, because she had dropped from school for getting pregnant at eighteen.
The playpen is crowded. Parents negotiate with children over how much longer. I try to find room in the shoe rack as kids crawl around the overhead tubes or come giggling down the colorful slide. The Little One says she wants to play tic tac toe at the top of the tree house.
“Can you watch her?” I ask Judy.
Judy says, “Sure.”
Carla and I sit on the side, smoking while Judy and the Little One play. I find it impossible not to compare myself with her. She is younger than me, maybe as young as twenty-two, but there’s something to her skin, the kind of sheen it has. Was mine like that at her age? Even when Judy looks uninterested, she’s radiant. Earlier, on our way to McDonald’s, I had told the Little One we were meeting up with her Aunt Judy for lunch. The Little One, she’s so pure, all she said was, Who is Aunt Judy while trying not to trip in the snow. And of course—I didn’t think—once we got there and Carla started introducing us, my daughter blurted out, Hi Aunt Judy you’re pretty.
“Look, she’s a natural.”
I exhale away from the toddlers. “I see that.”
They do get along together. Judy chases the Little One around, dodging other children going up and down the platforms or pushing their own infants in toy strollers. I try to imagine what she would look like next to my husband, whether they’d look right for each other the way we do. Her soft face, unblemished, replacing mine in photos we have yet to take.
“How much?” I finally say.
“Five thousand. Twenty-five hundred now, the rest after the divorce. You’ll have to help keep her afloat over the years, too.”
The Little One comes stumbling into my lap. “Aunt Judy is tired.”
Judy staggers over, breathless. “Aunt Judy needs a break.”
And we all laugh.
* * *
I say, “Yes, right there,” as my husband cocoons me, breathing into my ear beneath the sheets. Sex is the one good idea I have, and Moses doesn’t mind letting me have it, never complains when I initiate. This morning was still dark as I reached in between his legs and slowly got him hard. Now he’s close, sucking at his teeth, and daylight pours into the room. The sweat on my chest feels good and I start to think I might get something out of this too, but then it’s happening, he’s finishing inside even though he knows we can’t. And worse he does that thing where he says he loves me—too much—more than any other time, while kissing my collar bone and cheeks.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I say, sitting up to pee, feeling it slide down my thigh as I do so.
He collapses onto the bed. “Relax.”
“Come on,” he says, snuggling from behind. “It’s better for us both.”
I say, “It wouldn’t be fair to the kid,” instead of it wouldn’t be fair to me.
“Turn around, Yasmin.”
Only my husband calls me Yasmin. All my life, I’ve been Mina. That’s what I went by in Colombia, and that’s what I go by here. Growing up, I liked that no one got to decide for you, that if you really wanted, you could call yourself anything. But my husband, he’s a bit old-fashioned. When he took me out for the first time, he asked if my mother would be joining. She did because of that. And halfway through our patio beers, while watching street performers in a nearby plaza, she asked him, who is this Yasmin you keep bringing up?
I turn towards him begrudgingly, his stubble scratching at my forehead. “I can’t believe you.”
“You know how I get, why do you ask for it?”
This is the least helpful thing to say.
I don’t know what this is or where it’s coming from. Some days Moses looks through me, looks like he’s still waiting for the day I arrive. Was it better before I left Cali, before he had a wife and child in Gringolandia? My husband barely has enough love for me and the Little One—now he acts like there’s plenty to go around, like we can afford to bring another life into this situation. I am so afraid of waking up one day and being taken away from my daughter, not knowing where she is, if someone will be there to guide her until she can guide herself. It’s true, she was born here, and that gift will spare her. But I’ve seen what this country can do to people: the way they get trapped, how they’ll break any rule just for a chance to play the game. And even I had my mother, didn’t I? Who will the Little One call upon, if they stop our car some morning when Moses gives me a lift to the bus stop?
I tell all of this to him, tracing figure eights into the hair on his chest.
“I get it.”
“It would be irresponsible—I can barely eat enough for one.”
He squeezes me closer. “I know. You’re right.”
“Let’s just try not to mess up the first baby.”
“Okay,” he says.
I invite him to shower with me, but he chooses to get more sleep. I’d actually rather be alone, but it’s not often that we come to an agreement these days, and I wanted to reward that. I turn on the shower head and use some kleenex to clean his mess before sitting on the toilet. The tiles are like ice, and as I bounce my feet, goosebumps slowly form on my skin.
When I step in, the water is freezing, and it takes a moment to register. Briefly, I’m reminded of showering in Cali, how amazing it felt to soak water into your skin on a forty degree day. I wasn’t raised with hot water, didn’t know what it meant to take a long shower until living in Gringolandia. But part of me misses it, those tense minutes of frigid water, shocking you into existence. Like being born again.
This is the second time this month that it’s gone out. We always pay our bills on time and still the building management can’t be trusted. At this rate we won’t make it through Spring. What happens in the summer, if we lose power and the humidity creeps into our home. What do we do if anything goes wrong, who can we turn to for help, if not each other? That’s how I get Moses to agree to marry Judy. I stand in front of him shaking, naked, and dripping onto the floor. I can’t live like this anymore, I say. I just can’t.
* * *
Judy says, “You didn’t have to go through all this trouble,” when I’m setting the table for dinner. That’s sweet of her, but also not true. Normally around this time of year, I would take some of the money and buy ingredients to sell tamales at the lakefront. My mother’s recipe. But instead we’re inventing new memories of a family that doesn’t exist. When I had called Judy to ask what she wanted for dinner, she said, Alfredo reminds me of the holidays, and so that was that. Before she got here I made sure we all looked nice: Moses with a clean shave and buttoned shirt; the Little One in what she called a big-girl dress, with her long black hair straight as a line. I wore an apron—not the work one—and my softest sweater, with hoop earrings. I wanted to get the atmosphere right, so I put on Jose Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad, on repeat. When Judy walked in she said, This is one of my favorites, and then the Little One said, Mine too.
Each one of us has a plate of Alfredo, with some garlic bread to accompany it. Before we eat, my husband says he wants to pray.
“For the first test.”
“We have to keep studying,” Judy adds.
“Of course,” I say, lowering the music.
We join hands and take turns saying what we are grateful for.
When the Little One speaks, she says, “For Aunt Judy.”
My husband stares. We say amen and eat.
Judy is the most talkative I’ve ever seen her. It’s like now, with half the money, she’s the friendliest person in the room.
“Did you know,” she laughs, “that Moses can’t swim?”
“Is that true?”
My husband’s nose is in his food. He mumbles, mhmm.
“I can’t swim either,” says the Little One. And we all agree, she can’t.
After dinner, I get up and grab the disposable camera, the real reason we are here. It helps to document things, makes the case more real to the Gringos deciding your future. All summer we have arrangements scheduled: Thanksgiving Dinner happens in two weeks, Easter Sunday next month. Their wedding is in late September, so the Little One’s June birthday lines up.
I tell the three of them to group together and Moses looks uncomfortable with his arm wrapped around Judy.
“Moses, you have to smile.”
“Smile, Daddy,” says the Little One.
And I have to give it to him, my husband endures it. You’d think the photos were candid. Like it was Christmas Eve and not the middle of July.
“Let’s do a couple more, at the table,” I say.
This is the photograph I don’t give to Moses when I develop the reel, the one I keep. There are many shots from that night, taken all over our apartment. Moses and Judy on the sofa watching Rudolph, the Little One between them. The Little One hugging Judy’s leg and laughing, surrounded by fake gifts. Judy washing the dishes while Moses dries (a first). A tableau of marriage, of motherhood. Scene after scene from another life, one where I have been erased. That’s what I see in the picture, not the three of them sharing the remnants of a Christmas meal, not the Little One with fettuccini on her chin. But rather my absence. All of them, consuming the ghost of me that never came to this land.
* * *
Roger says, “You don’t work here anymore, understand?” and I wish I didn’t, but I do. To be honest, I knew this conversation would come. I had imagined it differently: Roger would pull me from the floor, take me to his office, hiking up his pants the whole way. And before he even asked, I would confess that I knew about Carla stealing. Because I couldn’t lose the job. And that I had told Carla to stop, back when I caught her weeks ago. Did she think I was stupid, I’d said. That I wouldn’t notice, how she stayed behind, how Gringos’ things grew legs? But none of that drama here. Instead he was waiting for me to in the break room and said to follow him, now. We sit across his desk and he tells me the shift won’t be paid.
“Understand?” he repeats, for the third time.
I have never been fired in my life. The office is cramped, far from other staff, and dirty. But the desk has space. And if we’re quick, no one will hear us.
“Please,” I say.
Roger takes my hand off his leg. “I have a family,” he says, not looking at me.
I gather my things and get up to go.
He says, “I don’t understand your people.”
“I don’t trust any of you. But you should be more like Carla. At least Carla is willing to do honest work.”
I turn around to face him. “I’ve never stolen before.”
Roger puts his hands up. Enough—he doesn’t want to have to call security. That uniform isn’t mine either.
“Downstairs,” he says, pointing towards the basement. “The machines.”
Carla is loading stained sheets into the wash, with a cigarette hanging off her lip. It’s hot and humid, and everyone is sweating. Other women follow suit, some folding, others sorting. Someone gasps as I come into the room with haste.
I walk up to Carla and knock the cigarette from her mouth.
“What the fuck?” she says.
“He fired me.”
Carla looks over her shoulder and pulls me away from the machines. “He wanted to call the police and I stopped him.”
“Is that why you let him have it?” I say, disgusted. “So you can steal?”
“That’s unjust,” Carla says. She steps back, her hands shaking. “After everything I’ve done.”
“The only thing you’ve done is lose my job.”
Carla laughs and looks younger, even as makeup runs by her wrinkles. “And what, it was coincidence we cleaned together?”
I try to remember why I was put on her shift. It was sudden, but better, so I didn’t question it.
“Listen, I only wanted to help. You reminded me of when I first got here and was lost without my husband, without anyone. I was trying to make it better. It’s not my fault Gringos started complaining to Roger.”
“How is this better?” I say, my heart palpitating.
“You’ve already paid Judy some, right? You’ll find new work—don’t shake your head—I have two sons; everything I earn goes to them.”
“Carla, I feel dizzy.”
“Let’s go outside,” she says as the other women only watch and whisper.
It’s Carla who buys me the tests, who makes nervous jokes through the closed door as I pee. It’s Carla who walks me out back and holds my cigarette while I yell into a dirty uniform.
I engulf my face in the apron, screaming, and then come up again gasping for air. The smoke hurts my throat, and I can see my heavy breath float up towards the bare branches.
“I should have stayed.”
“You don’t mean that.”
I breathe in. “I do.”
“I have two boys, soon to be men, who I’ll never see again. With a dog for a father that doesn’t help, who can see them whenever he wants,” Carla says, pulling in smoke. “But life isn’t fair. We do what we have to, Mina. My mother did, and her mother did before her. It surprises me that I have to tell you that. ”
* * *
The Little One says, “Mommy, Daddy, stop it,” and this gives Moses enough pause that we can go to her room while he cools off outside. I sit her on the bed and say it’s okay, Daddy’s just mad. I knew he would be upset about losing my job, even when I told him it wasn’t my fault and I would find another one. But Moses has a temper. Although, it could have been worse, he wasn’t drunk. It was more of the usual back and forth, with him getting angrier and angrier, until he ran out of patience. Then he buried his fist into the wall. The Little One, she can’t be blamed, she started screaming, and the way he looked down at us as I held her, you could see he was ashamed. Now she finally stops crying, so I go back to the kitchen to examine it. Gringo buildings are cheap. Caleñans grow up in buildings with walls made of more solid things than plaster—brick, stone, concrete.
Moses apologizes from the table, his right hand in a bowl of ice. It’s the money, the stress, that does this to him.
I stay standing with my arms folded. “That’s no excuse.”
“It isn’t. I’m sorry. Please, come sit with me.”
If I move, he wins. “No.”
“Don’t be difficult. I worked myself to death bringing you here.”
“You can’t explode like that—”
“Yasmin,” he begs. “Please.”
I sit down while maintaining as much distance as possible between us. He extends his other hand, and after I don’t reach, pulls it back.
“I never wanted to do this, you know,” Moses says. “But you pushed me.”
I can’t believe him. “Pushed you?”
“I told you I didn’t trust Carla.”
“We decided together. For our daughter.”
Moses stands up and swipes the bowl across the room, shattering glass and ice cubes across the floor. I was the one who set this in motion; I was the one who went behind his back and spent our savings on Judy’s down payment. And now what? Now I’m out of a job. My husband grips the table, but doesn’t touch me. He says he should, but his hand is already hurt. And one of us has to keep providing. One of us has to fix this mess.
“You’ve always been an ungrateful bitch,” he says. “Cali wasn’t enough. Getting you to the States in less than two years wasn’t enough. Today, our lives here aren’t enough.”
It’s not safe to say the wrong thing, so I don’t say anything. Instead I get down on my knees to pick up the pieces while he watches. The Little One comes out and tries to help, but I tell her to remain in the living room. If she walks in barefoot, my daughter will cut her feet. And isn’t it strange—how children can sense more than they understand? How the Little One knows not to cross the threshold of the doorway, but still says, Mommy it was an accident, even though she can see, even though she will remember the trembling of my hands?
Judy says, “I have to do what’s best for my kids,” while balancing a little shirtless boy on her hip. Earlier this week I found out that Moses worked a double, and I knew it was the only chance I would have to speak with her, woman-to-woman about abandoning the green card marriage. My husband has revoked my privileges, as he calls them. I don’t work anymore; not until he decides I’m ready. For now its cook, clean, don’t talk back. Watch Sesame Street with the kid and ask her to teach you words, be useful. This has given me nothing but time, time to plan. That’s why Carla agreed to take care of the Little One while I ran this errand. I told her about everything, about how I don’t know what he’s capable of. You need to think of yourself and your daughter both, she said. Then she gave me Judy’s address and I borrowed her car. I’ve never driven in the snow, but the streets were empty and I managed. When I presented myself, dinner was about to start and the aroma of a Sancocho sazón—bay leaves, cumin, and thyme—drifted into the hallway. I can still hear voices coming out of the apartment behind her.
She’s like a child herself, I had forgotten that she had her own. I change tactics, appealing to Judy’s common sense: “I’m not sure we can pay you.”
“He won’t let me work.”
The shirtless boy fidgets and Judy releases him, saying, back inside with grandma.
“So there’s really nothing in it for you,” I add.
“You know that I can only do this once, right?”
“But we don’t have the money.”
Judy leans into the doorframe. “Moses and I talked about that. You can pay me over time.”
My soul falls to my feet. “What did he say?”
Judy had almost backed out, but Moses persuaded her not to. He told her everything. That first year alone, how he used to stand in line for free cheese in church basements. How I spent three nights in a Tijuana motel room with eighteen people, thirsty and watching the news. How when the Little One was born and we held her, we had so much fear, because the reason we had done it was real.
“And I realized, this helps you, this helps me,” she adds.
“No, it has to stop.”
“Yasmin, don’t be ridiculous. We’re like family.”
“We’re not,” I say, exposing the bruises on my arms.
Judy shuts the door and steps out into the hall, examining them silently. Then she says, “How long?”
“Since the job.”
“So you know what sets him off.”
I laugh because it could be anything. “Judy, what if he hurts me in front of her?”
Judy’s still holding my arm and slowly I pull it back.
She shakes her head. “He wouldn’t do that.”
“I don’t know what he’ll do—”
Judy places her palms on my face, telling me to breathe, but my pulse vibrates in my ears.
“Listen, Yasmin. He’s a not a bad man. No, look at me: it could be worse. You could be alone here like me. A lesser man would have left you, would have started a new life. But that’s not what’s going on here. He provides and that’s how you build. Focus on the positive. You’re a team. Whatever you’ve imagined for yourself? Forget it. There’s your daughter, that’s all.”
And I follow her advice. As time passes, I still follow it. When they go before the Gringo in his tie, when the Little One is joined by the Littlest One, when Moses gets his citizenship and after the divorce when we apply for mine, I stay fixed, unchanging, ageless in my anguish. I tolerate it all: the insults, the hitting, the weight of sorrow taking root and growing thick with years, only to be felled by my daughters’ daughters, their loving families, their ease of life, their inability to wonder, could it have been worse?
But I still contemplate it sometimes. Me, seated in the waiting room, as the Gringo arrives, exchanging pleasantries with Judy and Moses while walking to an interview room. I can imagine little details: Moses’s slicked back hair; the Gringo’s straight teeth; how Judy speaks perfect English. He leads them down the hallway, where they will take his test. The Little One is there, and she doesn’t understand a word, so they claim her as daughter without scrutiny. I hear her being a pain, asking things—who’s this, what’s that—and it adds the perfect touch to the performance, the way together as new parents, they don’t quite have it right. But the longer I listen, the more I realize she’s being dismissed. They’re so focused on the test they tell her to hush, sit still, be good. I want to talk to her, to explain that it’s only the beginning, that in this country, in this world, in this life, her place is to endure.
And the fantasy always ends the same. Unable to bear the Little One being neglected, I step into the interview room, and the Gringo stops speaking.
“Mommy,” says the Little One, getting off of Moses’s lap.
And even though I don’t speak the language, I can still tell what he’s saying.
“Who’s this?” asks the Gringo.
And I wait. I wait and wonder how my husband would answer.