Renata and I walked home from school. The clouds had parted like a pair of lips and the sun was steady in baking our bare skin. I knew the tops of our head would burn to the touch.
Our blue plaid skirts rested against our thighs right above our knees. We wore white collared shirts and white socks. It was the same ensemble we had worn since starting first grade ten years ago. Renata wore her hair down, her loose curls cascading like a black waterfall. She liked to leave a few buttons undone on her shirt. Her neckline was bare and her cleavage spilled from the top of her blouse. If Papa had been there, he would have called her a puta.
“We’re lucky that we’re prietas,” Renata said to me as we walked down the vecindad after school.
“Look at Patty,” Renata continued. “She’s guera and the sun turns her pink like a shrimp.”
I nodded. “But she’s Abuela’s favorite,” I countered. It was Abuela, the one with deep grease valleys on her face, who pestered Mama to bleach our skin. When Mama refused, Abuela said she would pray and insisted that that was why our older sister, Patty, was so fair. Prayer.
“And we’re never going to kiss Colunga,” I continued. Fernando Colunga was our favorite telenovela star. His lovers on the TV screen were the blonde or the blue-eyed or the gueras. The prietas? We were the chachas. The maids. The nannies.
Renata rolled her eyes. That was one of her favorite things to do and Mama would slap her for it.
Mama said we were disrespectful because we watched too many American shows. So on Saturday nights, Renata would watch Sabado Gigante with her. Patty and I would eventually join in. The four of us crowded in our living room as we laughed at la Cuatro’s skit.
As we walked, we passed walls painted with campaign ads. The PRI was the reigning political party but we couldn’t call it a dictatorship because unlike Cuba’s Castro, the names and the faces changed every six years. Like an afterthought, on a corner of the wall was a flyer for a missing girl. Today it was Imelda. The week before Martha. Colloquially the hundreds who vanished were known as the women of Juarez.
“Did they ever find Sandra?” I asked my sister. Sandra was a girl from the vecindad. At first we thought she had been sent away to a convent, but she had disappeared like all the rest.
Renata shrugged. “They’ll be lucky to find un huezo.”
The smell of chocolate and peanuts hung in the air. It was Friday and Mama was making mole for dinner.
“Ingrid? Ven ayudame,” Mama called for me from the kitchen. She hated how Renata crinkled her nose whenever Mama asked her to help her in the kitchen. Mama said that Renata would never be ready to have a husband con esa actitud.
We put our bookbags on the sofa. I entered the kitchen through a singular brown door. Mama kissed me on the cheek and asked me to start cooking the rice. In a pan, chicken legs and breasts simmered in the sweet and spicy sauce. The chicken looked like hills during a mudslide.
“La radio?” I pointed at the small silver radio sitting on the kitchen table. Mama nodded. I turned the knob until the static stopped and was replaced with sugary songs by OV7 that Papa would have called cloying.
“Don’t forget to call your Papa a la noche,” Mama reminded me. I would wait to call him until Patty came home from working at la maquiladora. She had been working at the factory since she graduated high school. I carefully measured the bouillon, tomato sauce, and water. Too much of either and we would have mush for dinner.
Patty arrived home. Her ponytail was coming undone. Strands of hair swept across her forehead like a tide to shore and her hands were grimy like she had been playing in soot all day. Mama instructed her to wash her hands and yelled for Renata to set the table.
We never ate on paper plates as Mama insisted they couldn’t hold the weight of Mexican food. Once, Renata and I had stopped at the taqueria after school, the grease of our tacos soaked through the flimsy plate and stained our fingers and our clothes. Mama made us stand over the washbasin with a bottle of dish detergent that we carefully dotted on the aberrations.
Patty ate slowly and chewed each bite of chicken fifteen times; always told us it was good for digestion. On her plate, she kept the red rice and the mole separate, a sharp divide between them. On her last bite, mole stained the corner of her mouth. The mole a brown smudge against the eggshell of her skin.
“Que?” Patty asked.
“La muñeca se mancho,” Renata said.
“I am not a Barbie,” Patty responded. She then wiped her face with a white napkin. I looked up at the clock that hung above our stove.
“Let’s call Papa,” I said.
Patty and Renata nodded. Mama said she’d wash the dishes tonight even though it was Patty’s turn.
The three of us went to the living room. We didn’t have a cordless phone. The phone had once been white but as it became smudged with sticky fingerprints, dust, and crayon, the phone was mottled gray. I dialed the number. I couldn’t remember what time it was in Kentucky, but hoped we would catch Papa awake.
“Si,” I nodded even though he couldn’t see me. “The three of us are here,” I continued.
“Hola,” both Patty and Renata said in unison.
I asked if he had been busy.
“Yes, mija. All the gringos want Mexican food, even if it’s a place run by an Amy,” he chuckled. “There’s never not a dish to wash.”
“We had mole,” Renata said.
“Aqui there is no mole. We have burritos, quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos.”
“When you come back we’ll have molotes.” I smiled when I spoke because it made my voice sound cheerful and friendly over the phone.
“Mija, when your hermana, Patty, gets married—that’s when I’ll come back. We’ll kill a pig. Have some carnitas.”
“I don’t even have a novio, dad,” Patty said.
“Tell your mama I’ll send some money next week.”
Juarez was always in the need of extra pesos. Down the block, some of the neighbors opened tiny shops fixing bicycle tires or selling snacks to passersby. Others wasted their money on card games and colorful slot machines at the casino near the mercado. Papa had gone once, using money he’d earned from selling a couple of sheep. He lost half of it. Mama had learned that our Tia, who lived next-door, had a son-in-law who had migrated al Norte. He was paid per bushel of onions he picked. Mama had ushered Papa to find work and the coyote took the last of his earnings.
We said goodnight to Papa and made promise to call again next week. Patty asked if either of us were going to use the shower. She had another shift at the factory that evening. Renata and I shook our head. She took out the elastic band from her hair. Patty and I both had straight hair that didn’t require anything beyond a comb. But I had thin hair while we teased Patty and said she had a horse’s mane.
Renata and I shared a room. Our twin beds were on opposite sides of the room and a large dresser housed our clothes. The dresser was mostly filled with our school uniforms but there were jeans and t-shirts for the weekend. Our cleaning clothes, a pair of old sweats and a t-shirt whose image had faded, were in the bottom drawer.
“We’re lucky Mama and Papa don’t pressure us to get married,” Renata said. This was after we were both under our blanket and the light was shut off. The only light the room welcomed was the moon bathing our laminate floors through the window.
“That’s because we’re still in school,” I said.
“Well, we’re still lucky we’re not working at la maquila.”
“We’ll have to work.”
“But for ourselves, Ingrid. Not a husband. Not Mama or Papa.”
“I don’t mind helping,” I said.
Mama usually played rancheras when we woke up. But instead I awoke when the sun’s rays finally burst through our window. Renata’s bed was empty but her bedsheets still had a map of how she tossed and turned. I got out of bed and made it. I changed into denim jeans and a faded t-shirt that Papa had mailed to me. When I stepped out of our room, the air was flush with floral fragrance.
Mama had been mopping, but now she was slumped over like a potato sack at the dining room table.
“Buenos dias, Mama,” I said.
Mama looked up, her face crumbling like an egg cracked too hard. Her eyes had lost their glimmer and had been rubbed raw. I offered her a tissue from the bookshelf to mop up the drying mucus on her nostrils. Fleetingly, I worried that Papa had been deported. We didn’t have the money for him to make the treacherous journey a third time and work was scarce.
“Patty never made it to the maquila,” Mama finally said. “Or even the bus stop.”
“Did you call Papa?” It was a foolish question considering the distance. I furrowed my brows, creating a crease in my forehead that Abuela always said would turn into a wrinkle. I tried to visualize an innocuous reason for Patty’s disappearance. But my pragmatism—or pessimism if you asked my mother—prevailed.
“What good will that do.”
“And the police?”
She scoffed. The Juarez police were easily bribed with a crumpled bill and they never had any leads on the dozens of girls and women who disappeared from high schools, bars, or bus stops. Mothers started advocacy groups and protested in the town square. Occasionally this beckoned the police to make arrests but there were whispers that they were based on forced confessions.
Renata came out of the kitchen holding a bowl in her right hand. She was chewing cereal.
“Renata, go to the mercado,” Mama said. “Ve con ella,” she instructed me.
Renata and I exchanged looks, our brows furrowed.
“I’m going to call la Sra. Sanchez. Maybe Patty is with Luz,” Mama said.
“Puedo desayunar?” I asked.
“Si claro. Of course,” Mama said. “But not all that azucar like your sister. Eat a yogurt.”
Mama was always warning us about sugar and diabetes. Tio Lencho, or maybe it was abuelo, had it. Maybe both. Abuela worried our cellulite would repel future suitors. I didn’t argue and took out a single-serving of peach yogurt from the fridge.
After Renata and I had our breakfast, we started to head out when Mama stopped us and clasped a gold cross around my neck. The necklace was cool against the flesh of my chest. It was the only jewelry I owned, and it had been a gift from my mother for completing the Holy Communion. She tucked it into my t-shirt and reminded me that there were men in the streets of Juarez who would cut off fingers for gold bands and sapphires.
“That’s only the gringos,” Renata countered.
Mama guided us out the front door and told us not to forget the beans and the tortillas. Renata and I started to walk to the mercado where we would haggle for our groceries. On every other slab of cement, stray dogs lay curled up. Their fur was matted and their ribs protruded like gravestones. I thought the dogs would be better off following us to the mercado where they could lap up pieces of spit-grilled meat from the floor.
The soles of my white shoes were wearing thin but our annual shopping trip was still a couple of months away. With the toe of my left shoe, I kicked a stray pebble off the pavement. A bicyclist with a handbasket rode down the main road selling pan dulce and tamales. Farther down, an older woman, with a thinning crown of hair, opened her zaguan and shook the dust from her rugs.
“Do you think something happened to Patty?” I asked. I did not turn to look at Renata as I waited for an answer.
“Maybe. But I don’t think we’ll ever have the answer.”
I didn’t want Patty to become a photograph printed on cheap paper from the Internet café.
“We could stage a protest if the police won’t take us seriously,” I suggested. “We wouldn’t have to stop here. We could march in front of the governor’s house.”
Renata stopped walking. I halted. “We’ll get national attention. Maybe they’ll be entertained by us for a few months. But I remember what happened at Plaza Hidalgo, Ingrid,” Renata said.
For the first time, Renata’s eyes were weathered like a river embankment. Tears swelled at the cusp of her eyes, but she blinked and they receded. I was too young to have a memory of Plaza Hidalgo but I’d read old clippings about a desperate mother who thrust herself into social activism. She sought justice for her daughter’s murder and met death with a single shot to the head.
We continued our walk to the mercado. I played with the hem of my shirt and tugged on a loose thread. Renata’s arms swung at her sides and periodically she sighed deeply. I didn’t know how we could manage to finish school now. I wondered if it was worse for Renata, having been closer to the finish line.
I reached over and gave her hand a comforting squeeze.
“We’re sisters, Ingrid. We’ll work to get out of Juarez. For Patty.”
At the mercado, there was a stand offering pirated movies for ten pesos. Those movies had just hit theaters but I knew that if we bought them now we’d have to settle for Spanish subtitles and I’d miss all the action. At another stand, an older woman with a hand-knitted shawl haggled the price of tomatillos. Our abuela loved to haggle even if it was only a difference of two pesos. She then would use her savings to buy Patty a Kinder egg.
We arrived at our destination. The stand had metal roofing that resembled a steel carport. The white paint was peeling and exposed gray metal. They sold guajillo chilli, tomatoes, zucchini, and beans. In a plastic bag, I measured out a couple of pounds of dried pinto beans. At home, in a large pot, I would soak them in water then rinse them until the beans shined like river pebbles. Across from where I stood, Renata bought a warm packet of handmade corn tortillas.
“Do we have anything left over?” I asked my sister after we made our purchases.
She fumbled through her coin purse. “Seventy pesos,” she shrugged.
“Well Mama will be happy.”
“Or we could press our luck. Win her mas dinero,” she said.
I hesitated but the more Renata tapped her dingy shoe against the sidewalk, the more I yielded. If Patty didn’t come home, we’d lose her earnings from the maquila. We walked several blocks and made a few right turns until we reached a block that had a couple of bars and a casino. The casino flickered like wet eyes about to cry. Inside the lights were dim with several men in dull suits crowded around a blackjack table. A girl with peroxided hair and caked eyeshadow offered us a drink. The swirling orange liquid was the color of her eyeshadow and she referred to the drink as a Screwdriver. Her pronunciation was heavily-accented in the same way as when we said es-prite.
We shook our heads. I tugged on Renata’s sleeve as I pulled us towards a pair of vacant seats in front of a bright slot machine.
“Here,” Renata said giving me the first coin. The gray and yellow coin was warm and slick with sweat.
The machine hungrily accepted the coin I fed it.
“Juntas?” I motioned to the lever. She grabbed the top of the lever and I placed my hand right beneath hers then we pulled. The machine whirred like a grito and shone brighter. Our girlish grins were mirrored on the face of the machine. We matched three cherries, music beamed from the machine, and dozens of coins shot out into a bucket.
“Should we go again?” Renata asked.
“Mama will worry,” I said.
She sighed and rolled her eyes. “You go on ahead then.”
“Patty could still come home.”
“Our vecindad, the police, everyone but Mama has already stopped looking, Ingrid.”
I shook my head because they had never started looking at all. The maquiladora would find another warm body. Abuela would blame Papa for being in Kentucky but she’d call it New York because it was the only state she knew. Renata and I would be lucky if we escaped the maquila.
I fed the slot machine another peso and it revved back to life.