Sadness fills her body. Her movements are slow. Her arms hurt.
Later she clears more leaves with the blower, a daily task in autumn. She is in the back of the parking lot under the shadow of tall trees.
She thinks about her son, Joseph. He is small for his age, thin, delicate-boned, with silky black hair. His sixth grade teacher says that he is very quiet in class. But when he and Catalina are alone he’s more talkative, and he likes to gently tease her, to pull at strands of her tinted hair, and to caress her shoulders.
Then there are her girls who still live in the mountain village of Michoacan where they grew up. They’re women by now. Sexy. Full of life from what she can see in their photos. The older one is married and has a four-year-old boy. But Catalina has never met her nieto, her only grandson.
She longs to return. To be with her family, with the friends she has known all her life; to cook and eat familiar food and speak Spanish, and not feel flustered in English-speaking stores and frightened, as she sometimes feels, in the pit of her stomach. But to go home without being able to come back …
Catalina talks with her daughters on the phone every Sunday, and in this way she keeps up with their lives. Cristina, the younger, is her favorite. Mayra, the older, is a trifle haughty, distant, but her husband adores her. What suerte Mayra has.
Catalina’s own luck has not been so good. In fact, it was rotten with regard to her ex – Hector – who drank and slept with other women and gambled his wages away, while she worked and worked and worked, taking in laundry, picking up what odd jobs she could. Finally she gave up – went with the flow as Californians said – and she took Joseph, the youngest, to her brother’s house in the city, hired an attorney and served Hector with divorce papers.
Hector threatened to follow them, kidnap the boy, and kill her. So she and Joseph crossed the border before the papers were even final.
On the trip across the border when Joseph was only eight, they had suerte – a coyote they could trust – her aunt’s son. They were packed in trucks, at least twenty of them, mothers and children and old men and little children, squeezed together like fish, a baby’s foot nearly in her mouth, and above them, with only a tiny air space, a metal platform, and they could scarcely breathe the smelly air. Finally they got off, staggering, light-headed, in the coastal town of Santa Maria where Catalina’s Aunt Matilda lived.
Armando, her lover, was waiting for her in California where he managed an apartment complex outside of San Francisco. (She was not that stupid, to go to a strange country with no one to provide for her.) She had first met him when he came back to visit his native village. He was a friend of one of her brothers-in-law. He had fallen hard for Catalina, promised her a better life in El Norte, and paid a thousand dollars for the coyote. He seemed to have pockets bulging with money. But when she and Joseph arrived in Walnut Creek, after a long bus ride up the coast from Santa Maria, she discovered that his earnings barely covered their living expenses.
Catalina finishes sweeping the courtyard. Then, using the noisy blower, which she hates, she cleans off more leaves from the parking lot under the shadow of tall trees. Finally she turns it off and takes relief in the silence that follows, broken only by the low hum of cars from the nearby freeway. She sits down on the steps of the courtyard and gazes up at the sky, clear today with little smog.
How did anyone survive here, she wondered, without the comfort of a large family? How she longs for her world back in Mexico. In this land where she does not speak the language, there is only Aunt Mathilda. She will not let herself become a burden to her aunt. She will make her own way. Carry her own weight. She is a large woman, large in body and spirit, with soft brown eyes that lose focus as she contemplates the sky, the surroundings, and her life.
If only Armando would marry her. Then she would have legal papers and she could return to visit her people. At the beginning, he had intimated that he would.
The odor of tamales, of birria, of chiles, of chicken mole – good Mexican food – comes from her neighbor Mercedes’ apartment. Mercedes is cooking for a dinner party. Sometimes Catalina helps Mercedes and other tenants with cleaning, for which they pay her. This money, along with small amounts of cash that Armando gives her, is all that she has.
He can be generous if he’s in the mood. But at other times she has to beg and plead with him for just a few dollars with which to buy their food, along with his beer.
Tough to depend on him. He knows that. Damn him!
“Amor!” she cries out across the courtyard. Armando is painting the door of Apartment 109 with a fresh coat of glossy brown paint. “Amor! I am going for a walk.”
“Okay,” he says.
She treads along the path that leads out of the parking lot onto the suburban street with its shady trees and stucco houses. The sidewalk is narrow, and there is little traffic at this time of day. How empty of life the streets are here! No one else is on the street. There are no corner tiendas, nor people who walk everywhere as they do at home. No taco stands. No music. No trucks that blare their wares through loudspeakers. No chickens or stray dogs. Everything tidy and neat and lifeless! Except for the tawdry “gentlemen’s club” that Armando occasionally visits. Except for a small Spanish-speaking bar downtown where she once drove in Armando’s car after a fierce argument with him. She had downed a couple of beers and had a long conversation at the bar with a woman from San Cristobal. Several men approached, but she turned them down. Why jump from the frying pan into the fire?
The sun is beginning to sink lower in the sky, and a chill comes over her. Lost in her thoughts, she turns back. She has to clean a vacant apartment, then prepare dinner. He has imported her as a servant. That’s the truth. Someone to fuck and cook and clean. Promise her a warm fire, then offer her ashes.
That night after she has washed the dishes and he has settled down in front of the TV with a Dos Equis to watch the news on Channel Four, she marches up to him, and says in a strangulated voice, “I am your slave. Tu esclavo.”
“What?” He puts down his beer on the coffee table. It will leave a mark that she will try to eradicate with lemon oil. “Slave? That’s bullshit. You take my car and drive wherever you want. You go to bars and meet strange men. Puta.”
“Only once did I go! I never messed with anyone! You’re no one to talk, with those strippers you like to watch and God knows what else!”
He draws back his hand as if to hit her. He is a small, wiry man, and he is strong.
“Stop!” She backs away from him. “I cook and clean all of the building for you. I made the posole tonight. I help you paint the empty apartments, and I scrub the toilets and mop the floors, and I use the heavy carpet steamer even though it hurts my back.”
Joseph, she realizes, is listening. He always stays very quiet, hidden in his room during their fights. Poor kid. What is all this doing to him? And after the doings of his own father, Hector? Men. Mierda. Bastards!
“What is it you want?” Armando asks, his voice changing into a gentler tone.
“Marry me… Then I’ll have papers, and I can get a real job and go back to visit my children. Then I won’t be afraid any longer of la migra.”
She bursts into tears and collapses on the couch.
She hears Joseph’s soft footsteps. He has gone into the kitchen for something, and then he creeps back to his room to study or perhaps to play the video game that Armando bought him for Christmas.
“Amor,” he says, folding her in his arms. “I love you. I love your son. Isn’t that enough?”
“No,” she sobs. “It isn’t.” She wrenches away from him, and she begins drying the rest of their dinner dishes. Joseph can hear every word. She is embarrassed for him, hurting to realize that her hurt affects him.
Later that night she and Armando watch a TV wedding conducted at a chapel in Las Vegas.
“We could get married in Las Vegas,” she says.
“Catalina, don’t keep bugging me! You know I love you. But you go to bars. You pick up men.”
“I never picked up anyone!! You go to that strip club.”
“Have you been with anyone else? Tell me the truth?”
“No,” she says. “You are more than enough! I want to go to school and learn English. I need real papers to do that. I want to get a job.”
He walks out, slamming the door of the apartment behind him.
“Wait,” her mother would have advised. “Paciencia. Men are afraid of marriage. Look what he went through getting a divorce. Paciencia, m’hija.”
“That was years ago, Mama.”
A profound depression comes over her. She drags her body through the motions of housework, cleaning, cooking, and submits passively to his advances in bed. Sometimes she pretends to be sound asleep, but she can’t sleep easily, and long after he is snoring she lies awake, turning thoughts over in her mind.
Joseph is happy here. He likes his school. He is making friends. Learning English. Armando has treated him decently. She cannot not take her son away from all this, take him back to their mountain village. But then again, he will have friends there. Maybe it will be safer. Drug cartels have bypassed their village so far. Joseph could marry a local girl, lead a peaceful and happy life among his own people. There were so many dangers here, even in the suburbs. Drugs and sex and crime and gangs. Yes, there are local gangs. El Norte and El Sur, the Crips and the Bloods, with their emblematic blue and red colors, have penetrated the area, coming all the way up from Central America.
Maybe in the end, he will be happier back home.
She tries to persuade herself with thoughts like these.
But if they leave, they cannot return. Unless by some miracle the laws change. She has nightmares of black abysses, of drowning, of dead children. No, she cannot go back. She owes it to Joseph to stay here a few more years at least.
As if picking up her thoughts, a change comes over Joseph. He had always been a good child, but he becomes irritable and rude. One morning he yells at Armando, who slaps him hard across the face.
“Your son is learning bad habits,” he shouts. “Becoming scum!”
Too furious to speak, she grabs Joseph’s hand. “Go!” she says. “Go now and wait for the school bus!” She thrusts his lunch in its paper bag into his hands. “Go!”
“Fuck!” he shouts with his new-found English. “Fuck you, Armando!”
“That child,” says Armando. “After all I give him. Turning out bad Mierda. Maybe it is better you go back home.”
She turns her back to him and finishes washing the breakfast dishes through a haze of tears. When she hears Armando leave, she breathes a sigh of relief. Yes, she will go back. She will take Joseph back with her. She will not stay here and let Armando abuse him. Maybe the kids in school are teaching him bad ways. American children have bad manners, bad upbringing.
“You can stay with me,” offers the woman from San Cristobal, that night when Catalina goes back to the little bar where they speak Spanish.
“No, I don’t want to do that,” murmurs Catalina. “I want to be home.” She bursts into a flood of weeping. Ignoring the crowd of men, the woman from San Cristobal embraces Catalina, holds her close against her bosom, smooths her hair, and tries to comfort her.
“You’re right,” she announces to Armando the next morning when they’re alone, after Joseph has left on the school bus. “It’s better we go back. It’s been three years now. You have had time to marry me! It’s power you want. You don’t want to lose it. You want to keep me under your thumb.”
He shakes his head. “No. No, mi amor.”
He takes a bottle of Dos Equis out of the refrigerator, although it is only eight o’clock in the morning. Lately he has been drinking more and more.
For three days she goes around in an agony of indecision, performing her tasks mechanically, her mind elsewhere. “How would you feel if we left?” she asks Joseph.
He looks sad for a moment, and then he shrugs. “I don’t care,” he says. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Will you miss school?”
“I don’t know.”
“If we go back to Mexico, we’ll be with the family.”
“Mama, he doesn’t treat you right,” he says in a low voice. She hugs him close, and she weeps.
On the third morning, after Armando has gone to see about a tenant’s plumbing problem, she packs a suitcase with essential items. All the rest she will leave behind – the dresses and tops and pants she has bought at TJ Maxx, the china figurines, the cologne. Just as she is fastening the clasps of the suitcase, she hears his footsteps, and he enters their bedroom before she can push it out of sight.
“Amor,” he says. “I don’t want to lose you.” His voice is gentle.
When she looks into his dark eyes, she sees so much sadness, along with fear.
She almost melts. She lets him hold her in his arms, and she feels his tears against her face. He kisses her hungrily, and she lets him make love to her on the bed, amidst the pile of clothing she is going to leave behind.
But after lunch, while he is driving out to Concord to get a plumbing part, she swiftly packs Joseph’s things, calls a taxi, picks up Joseph at his school, and has the driver take them to the Greyhound terminal in gritty downtown Oakland.
While they wait for the bus that will take them to Los Angeles, and from there another bus to San Ysidro and the border, she fingers her cell phone. The waiting room has hard plastic seats, a floor strewn with cigarette butts, an overflowing garbage can, the smell of chewing gum and smoke and stale food from the hamburger stand. A few men are waiting. One smells of alcohol. Another is muttering to himself. A very large woman with a tiny little blonde girl plops down next to them.
“My, it’s hot,” she says to Catalina, waving a folded magazine that she is using as a fan.
“No entiendo,” says Catalina, although she does understand. Oh, to be back in her country!
“I’m hungry, Mom.”
Mom. Already he is Americanized. She buys him a hot dog and Cokes for both of them. She is too tense to swallow anything solid.
The bus arrives at six that evening, and they board. As they roll south through San Jose and towards Fresno, Joseph falls asleep, his head nestled in her lap. She is sweating, and he feels too heavy, but she doesn’t want to wake him.
Armando barely registers the images moving across the TV screen. He gets up, takes another Dos Equis out of the refrigerator, and soon drains its contents, adding it to the five empty bottles on the table in front of him. He rubs his eyes.
At midnight he calls her cell phone. No answer. After a few minutes, he tries again. Where would the bus be by now? Were they already at the border? Had she really planned go back to Mexico? Maybe they would stay with her aunt. Or perhaps she had another man already on the side. One from the Spanish-speaking bar. She drove Armando’s car freely to shop for groceries and God knows what else. Armando had rarely questioned her.
Then there was Joseph. Until recently the boy had been sweet-tempered, tractable, obedient. Armando already misses him! The boy and Catalina have both grown on him, embedded in his heart.
He picks up the phone and tries to call her again. And again. No answer. Finally he falls asleep at the kitchen table, the phone cradled in his hand. At dawn he wakes up with a start. Pale light is seeping through the lacy white curtains.
They are still in San Ysidro, and the Customs Station looms ahead. She looks at her cell phone, realizes for the first time that it has been off all night, and turns it back on.
Seconds later it rings. A wild hope rises within her.
“Catalina,” he says, “Mi amor … Las Vegas…”
As he waits to hear her voice, he hears the pounding of his heart.