The flies arrived during Cuca’s midmorning nap. Their loud buzzing roused her from a dream of Julián at the kitchen table, hunched over a letter. She closed her eyes and waited for the dream to resume. But the damn flies! Three buzzed mercilessly around her ears, four circled her outstretched feet, and another landed on her toast, its black tongue flicking in and out, spreading diseases in her butter.
The cleaner’s young son, with his constant opening of the back door, had let them in. She had told him and his mother a thousand times in Spanish and English—Do not leave the back door open! But did these people listen?
The boy sped past her, once again on his way to the backyard, where he was probably going to trample her succulents if he hadn’t already.
“¡Oye! Ven aquí,” she called out. She’d been leaning back in her recliner, but now she pushed the control panel until she was sitting upright.
The boy stopped in the hallway and turned to stare at her.
“I said, ‘Come here.’” She wagged her finger at him. “I know you heard me.”
Taking a few reluctant steps, he crossed the threshold of the sala, and then looked over his shoulder for his mother, who was cleaning the bathroom.
“Now listen,” she said. “You cannot keep coming in and out of the house. Every time you open the door, you let in flies.”
The boy watched her with dark, silent eyes. He had his father’s eyes and somewhere in his body, dormant and waiting, his father’s disease. At least that’s what his mother had frequently told Cuca as she wiped down the coffee table where Cuca ate all her meals. It was Ximena’s worst fear and favorite topic, that her son would end up an invalid like his father. The boy was her only child, conceived late in life, and she constantly fretted over him. Cuca did not blame Ximena for worrying, nor did she tell her what she knew: Ximena could do everything right, but one day, something—a stray bullet, a wayward car, or even a bad girlfriend—might come along and claim him and there would be nothing she could do. Prepare yourself, she sometimes wanted to tell Ximena.
The boy blinked, his chin dipping down so that his brown eyes appeared even larger and more sorrowful than usual. In that stance, with his hands in his pockets, slightly knock-kneed and skinny, he reminded Cuca of her Julián at that age. She imagined scooping the boy into her lap, smoothing his cowlick, and tickling him behind the ears, but then another fly landed on the fatty fold on the back of her neck, a place she could not easily reach, and the impulse vanished.
“See that fly swatter?” She pointed to one on the coffee table. His eyes flicked to the swatter then back to her, as if he did not dare look away. “Pick it up. Go on.” Reluctantly he reached over and hooked a finger through the wire handle. “Now, you are going to walk around and kill all the flies you let in. I have a headache and they’re bothering me. Then kill the ones in the kitchen.”
She closed her eyes and leaned back into the recliner, hoping the dream would return. She wanted to read Julián’s letter even though she suspected it wasn’t for her. But the boy’s slow, tentative thwacks distracted her. He would never kill any that way. She lifted an eyelid just as he nailed one against the white wall, leaving a smudge. “You’ll have to clean that.” She held a box of tissues out to him.
Grimacing, the boy came closer, grabbed a tissue, and hopped away.
Though she could not easily get up, Cuca understood why he was afraid of her. She was the octopus sea witch in the mermaid movie her granddaughters used to watch: huge, misshapen, wet with perspiration, and moldering away on the sofa. Her skin had even taken on a grey hue, and in some places dark purple blotches leeched out from beneath, like an algae bloom or the scum of an oil slick. It pained even her to look at them. No wonder the boy ran out of the room as soon as he could. No wonder the only people who came to her door were strangers, people paid to do a job and leave.
It wasn’t until the afternoon that hunger pangs assailed Cuca. She wished she hadn’t told Ximena not to bother with lunch. At the time she’d just wanted the two of them out of her house so she could watch her shows in peace, but Ximena could have made her one of her tasteless sandwiches and left it on the coffee table. Now Cuca would have to get up. These days that took a pep talk, a wish, a prayer to the ancestors, and when that didn’t work, a curse against God, Mary, Jesus, the Pope, the newspaper boy, and anyone who could command their bodies without thinking or working so hard. She sucked in her breath, rocked back and forth, and pushed up. Ah! She was on her own two feet, panting, heart racing, but upright.
She took a few steps. “Oh, my knees, my knees!” she called out. Fibromyalgia, high blood pressure, and arthritis—a triple whammy, she’d complain to anyone who would listen, usually her daughter. “Maybe it’s time for a wheelchair,” was Lola’s suggestion. A wheelchair! Once you sat in one, you never got up.
Huffing, wincing, and leaning from side to side in a wide waddle, Cuca rounded the corner into the dining room. Ximena had not cleaned the baseboards as instructed; Cuca could still see a thick layer of dust. But she would not think about firing Ximena on an empty stomach. Many bad decisions had been made that way, including firing the woman before Ximena who would have at least made a pretense of cleaning the baseboards, and did not have a young son letting in an armada of insects.
Oh, her heart—it was racing! She paused at the kitchen table, gripped the edge of the chair, and thought of the effortless way Ximena’s boy ran in and out of the house. Nothing stopped him. He only sat still when he played with the Star Wars figurines he kept in a shoebox. Julián used to play with Star Wars figurines too, the old ones from the eighties. He and Lola would line them up and take turns picking who would be on their team. Julián always picked Princess Leia first, which annoyed Lola, who thought she should have the only girl. How sweet that he preferred Princess Leia to Luke Skywalker. Julián had been a sensitive soul, and had Cuca known what was to come, had she looked into a crystal ball, she would have made sure he had more friends, more people to talk to. She’d told Ximena many times to be careful—the boy needed friends. She knew how bored he must be following his mother from house to house as she scrubbed other people’s dirty kitchens and bathrooms, having to be quiet and polite, playing alone instead of with other children. She resolved to give him the Lego set Lola’s girls used to play with when they were younger and still liked to visit, but not the figurines—those she could never give away.
Gritting her teeth, she took a few wobbly steps over the white tiles. One foot per tile, she told herself, one foot per tile was a decent stride, not a shuffling old lady’s walk at all. At the counter, she stopped short. Something was there. She squinted. Flies! Eight dead flies, flat on their backs, stick legs up, wings intact.
That little shit! To think that she had been planning to give him her granddaughters’ Legos! His mother was going to hear about this. She rifled through the junk drawer where she kept the envelopes, pulling out receipts, old bills, and the brochures from the assisted living facility that Lola wanted her to consider. Four octogenarians—white-haired, wrinkled, and starched—smiled dementedly at her. They made her think of Q-tips, or of matches in a box, with their sad, flammable tufts of hair, their brittle bones. If Julián were here, he would never have suggested that she move into a place where death lurked around every corner. But Julián was not here. Julián was long dead himself, and one day she would join him. She had no intention of spending her remaining days with those living corpses. She was going to die right here, in this house, in her sleep, the way people were supposed to die.
Cuca shoved the brochure back into the pile and located a stray envelope to put the flies in. She would hand it to Ximena with her final paycheck. “This is what your son left on my counter,” she planned to say. If Ximena protested, she would hold up her hand, “No, no, just go. This has been too much.”
Gingerly she picked the flies up and dropped them, one at a time, into the envelope. She brought the last fly, dangling by a wing, up to her eye, turning it this way and that as the light reflected off the green iridescence of its back. With its large eyes and delicate wings, it was almost pretty. A pretty kind of ugly, she thought. Suddenly the wing detached and the fly fell, landing next to her big toe.
A black fly on a white tile. She let out a string of curses in Spanish and English. Now she would have to bend down and pick it up. Otherwise the knowledge of its presence would bother her all day. She might not sleep, and if she did, flies would pursue her in her dreams.
But bending over was painful, and she didn’t trust her knees; they’d given out on her before. She could picture herself crashing, rolling onto her back, helpless as an overturned turtle. What disturbed her even more was what would certainly come after—the old folks’ home. Lola would insist. ¡Mama! she would say. If you cannot even bend down to pick something up, then you are not capable of taking care of yourself. To which Cuca would respond: Well, too bad my own daughter won’t take care of me. Cuca knew what Lola would say next because she’d said it before: I have my own life. I’m allowed to live, aren’t I? And Cuca, playing her part with the flair of her favorite telenovela star, would give a curt, passive aggressive nod. Far be it from me, mija, to keep you from living.
Cuca bristled at this imaginary conversation. She did not need Lola to help her with something as simple as picking up a fly. She was not that far gone. Steeling herself, she gripped the counter with one hand, bent at the waist, and swung her other arm down.
“Aye! Aye! Aye!” The words, bubbling out of her, surprised her with their intensity. If she’d been smart, she would have taken an extra pink pill. Or maybe the white ones? No, it was definitely the pink ones that her cousin Romero brought from Tijuana. Lately he’d been reluctant to hand them over, imploring her to check with her doctor. “Sure, yes, of course,” Cuca would assure him, but she didn’t trust American doctors and hadn’t been to one in years, not since the last one mentioned heart disease. Heart disease! Yes, her heart was diseased, no doubt about that, but not for any reason the doctor could discern. The problem with her heart would never show up on any monitor or screen, and if it did reveal itself, the doctor would have no clue how to interpret the image of train tracks on a windy, rainy November night, one lone light from the train bearing down on the young man who refused to get out of the way.
Oh, Julián! Her heart ached as it always did when she thought of that night. Why did you do it? Why? Never would she understand.
Stop it, she admonished herself. Don’t think of that! Taking a deep breath, she focused on the fly. Here was a problem she could solve. She reached for it again, but her fingers were still inches from the ground. She saw now that she would have to bend her knees. She pulled her culottes up and looked at them doubtfully. Encased in fat, marbled with purple veins, they looked as if they might pop under the pressure. She bent them anyway, just an inch or two, to test them. The pain was not the worst she’d ever felt. She tried again, this time bending deeper. “A few more inches, a few more inches,” she chanted, taking short quick breaths like a woman in labor. She was pleased—she was doing it. Look at her! She bent further, tipping at the hips. But then her thighs shook and seized. Her arms flew out, her hands swiped the air, and she was tipping, lurching, falling—falling! Her left knee smashed into the tiles. Gasping, she fell onto her side, her vision going in and out, in and out, everything flickering and blackening at the edges like a flame—a green flame so bright she had to shut her eyes.
Cuca woke to a disturbing sound: a low, guttural moan. Cállate, she thought, ¡cállate! But the moaning continued. Her eyelids fluttered open, and she discovered that she was on her back. How long had she been on the floor like this? She lifted her head, and, involuntarily, another ugly moan fissured out of her. She clamped her mouth shut.
Something was wrong. A nerve along her neck crackled. Sparks rumbled down her spine and coalesced around her left knee. Her knee! It was pulsing with pain. Now she remembered. She’d fallen, smashed her knee, and it was probable, she despaired as she failed to bend it, that she’d broken her kneecap.
For a while Cuca lay there, all of her attention on her knee. She knew how to manage pain, how to time her pills, how to breathe through the worst spasms, how to distract herself with frivolous TV shows, but this pain was a whirlpool, sucking her down. She attempted to roll onto her side, hoping to relieve the pressure, but every nerve sent up bright orange flares. She fell back, panting.
What was she going to do? There was no one to help her. Today was Monday. The gardener would be here on Tuesday, but he never came to the door. Ximena would not come again until Wednesday morning. But what if Ximena didn’t come? Sometimes she didn’t even bother to call, showing up a day or two later, full of excuses: her husband or the boy was sick, or her back ached from all that scrubbing. And Lola’s visit was not for another week. Cuca clapped a hand over her eyes as if she could hide from the realization—she was in serious trouble. She could die here. For the first time she regretted not getting the alert system that Lola had suggested.
Cuca’s hand fell away from her face, and she stared up at the ceiling. She hated the popcorn ceiling and had always intended to scrape it off, and now this ugly image might be what she took to eternity. And who would find her body? Lola? Ximena? No. It would be the boy, racing in ahead of his mother as usual.
No, this could not be. She would have to get to the phone, which she’d left on the sofa in the sala, get to the phone and call Lola. She would have to inch backward, drag herself past the kitchen table, around the corner into the hallway, and finally into the sala. It would be hard, painful, but she could do it—she had to do it. She lifted her head and propped herself up onto her elbows. Pushing back on them, she managed to move a few inches. She repeated the movements, her knee throbbing as if it were attempting to detach itself. Her elbows, burdened with the task of moving her enormous weight, began to burn. Tears leaked from her eyes. She gritted her teeth.
“Keep going. You are not going to die here,” she grunted. Even now, trapped in an old body, her best days gone, she did not want to die.
But why had Julián wanted to die? The counselor Lola had taken her to, and that she’d seen only two times, had said that depression wasn’t logical. It was brain chemicals, synapses misfiring or not connecting at all. She shouldn’t blame herself.
Cuca gave another hard push. She didn’t believe in brain chemicals, in scientific mumbo jumbo; it was something else.
There was also the matter of genetics, the counselor had said.
“Genetics!” Cuca had wanted to slap the woman. She wouldn’t allow her son to be reduced in that way. Genetics! These doctors, these counselors, with a few initials after their names, they thought they had the human heart mapped out. Well, life would humble them too one day; Cuca took comfort in that.
The memory of her rage energized her. She gave another heave, moved another inch. Then she paused to catch her breath and to slow her heart, so unused to the exertion. Her stomach rumbled. It comforted her that her body still found a way to be hungry, was still going about its business, despite her dire circumstances, the throbbing in her knee, the ache in her elbows. She smacked her lips—her tongue was dry and mealy as an old carpet. If only she’d made a sandwich and poured a Fanta as she’d intended; instead she’d gotten sidetracked by revenge, by her need to teach Ximena’s boy a lesson. No, it wasn’t about revenge, but consequences. Children needed consequences. She’d been too soft with Julián, letting him have his way, giving in to his moods, so that he was unfit to face the world and its demands. She worried that if Ximena’s boy didn’t learn his lessons, he would struggle in life too, and maybe one day, in his darkest hour, desperate and alone, he might do something that he could never undo.
The afternoon light waned. Hours of effort, and only halfway to the sala, Cuca tensed. She could feel pain gathering like an army at the base of her spine. Another assault was coming. Breathe, breathe, hang on. Her fingertips gripped the tiles. She would not let it drag her away. And then it was rising, up over her side—only shallow breaths now—until it finally crested and ebbed, leaving her dizzy.
That one had been the worst. It had tried to take her somewhere. “Oh no, you won’t.” She raised her chin and snorted through flared nostrils. She would have waved her fist in its face, except waving hurt too much.
Stubborn, that’s what people called her. Obstinate, Lola had said at her last visit when Cuca tore up one of the old people brochures. After Lola stormed off, cutting the visit short by two hours, Cuca looked up obstinate in an old thesaurus: stubborn, obdurate, hard, pig-headed. Yes, she was all those things, and now, for once, that quality would work for her, not against her. She pushed on, beads of sweat rolling down her forehead, her neck, pooling under her armpits.
After some time, Cuca rounded the corner. When she tipped her head back, she could see the entrance to the sala and the recliner where the phone lay. But she would not call Lola; she would call 911 instead. All she needed was a strong man to lift her onto the couch and bring her a glass of water and her pills. A few days on the couch and she would be better. If she was lucky, Lola would never find out.
When she got to the sala, she allowed herself a minute’s rest before pushing herself to the recliner. Determined not to stop now, she gripped the cushion and pulled herself into a sitting position. She felt dizzy. This must be how mountain climbers felt, pulling themselves over the lip of an overhanging rock, the abyss one sweaty, weak fingertip away. Gingerly she rubbed her elbows and the pocket of fat on the back of her arms that hung over them. They were going to be bruised and sore for days, but they’d heal eventually. Her knee was the real problem. Sitting up now, she had a better view of it, swollen grotesquely and already purple. There was no way to hide it, she realized. She would need a cast, rehabilitation, physical therapy, maybe even surgery. Lola would never drop everything to care for her—these were not the old days when a daughter put her mother first, as Cuca had done when her own mother had gotten sick. Even if Lola could be persuaded to take her in—temporarily, of course, just until Cuca could walk again—there was no way Lola could lift Cuca or do the other things a caregiver would be expected to do, and Cuca wouldn’t be able to do anything for herself, not fix a snack, or take a shower, or put on her shoes. No more watering the pots in her backyard, no more trips to the mailbox, no more picking lemons and leaving them for Ximena. Someone, a stranger, would see every fold of fat as she bathed her because Cuca would not be able to do even that. She would need a bed pan, and the same person who washed her body would have to take her waste away.
“Aye, no, no, no.” The reality of her helplessness made her light-headed. She began to pant—there was not enough air in the room. Swaying, she gripped the carpet and held on as a wave of fear crashed over her. She was being dragged out to sea. She was going to drown in her living room.
But then someone had her by the shoulders. Someone was shaking her. It was Julián.
“Mama! Mama! Take it easy. Breathe.” He squeezed her shoulders. She stopped thrashing and obeyed, her breath falling in line with his. Her son had breath again!
“You’re here,” she said.
“Where else would I be?”
A long lock of hair fell over his left eye. She wanted to see his full face—it had been so long—and she reached up and pushed his hair aside. Such a beautiful face with her high cheekbones and his father’s long eyelashes. Even the acne scars from his teenage years didn’t mar his beauty.
“¡Mijo! How are you here?”
“I can’t stay long, mama. Get the phone,” he said.
She felt the pressure of his hands lessening.
“The phone.” His voice was urgent, but already fading.
“Wait, don’t go.”
His eyes implored her—get the phone!
The phone! The phone would save her. Wincing, she twisted around, blindly patting the cushions. For a few terrible seconds she felt nothing, but then, half buried between the cushions, she felt the tip of the antenna. She pulled it to her chest, muttering, “Gracias, gracias, gracias.” She turned back to show Julián, but he was gone.
“Julián!” she called out. “¿Mijo?” Had she imagined him? No, he had been here, in the flesh. She could still feel his hands on her shoulders.
Oh, Julián! More than anything, she wanted to tell Lola that in her hour of need, Julián had come. Her son, her corazón! With a shaky finger, she dialed Lola’s number. She wished she could see Lola’s face as she told her about the miracle; after all, Lola had loved Julián too. The phone rang and rang. Had she dialed the right number? And then she heard Lola’s chipper voicemail greeting. How typical, she thought, her bitterness returning.
“It’s your mother,” Cuca said after the beep. She searched for the words to explain what had happened, but didn’t know where to start—with the flies, the fall, or with Julián’s appearance, and because Lola wouldn’t listen to the message anyway, she said, simply, “Call me back.”
She would try Ximena next. If Ximena brought her brothers, they could carry her to the car, and she could at least avoid the expense of an ambulance. She dialed Ximena’s number. The boy answered just as she was about to hang up.
“Thank God. Let me talk to your mother.” Cuca could hear the TV, a noisy cartoon shoot-out. “Hello? Are you there?”
“Yes,” came a small voice.
“Listen, is your mother there?”
“No, I mean yes . . .”
“Oye,” she said, “I need . . . to talk . . . to your mother.” She hadn’t realized how hard it would be to speak.
“She’s not here,” the boy said finally.
“You’re alone?” This surprised Cuca. “Listen. I hurt myself . . . I need help.”
“I’m not supposed to answer the phone. She’ll get mad at me.”
“Well, then why did you answer it?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“When . . . will she be back?
“Don’t you know anything?” Cuca huffed.
“I know lots of things.”
Cuca groaned. “Tell her . . . to call me . . . as soon as possible.” She was about to tell the boy that she would give him a whole box of Legos if he did this one thing for her and maybe even the old puzzles—why not?—but her phone beeped three times and died.
Through the night, Cuca fell again and again in her dreams. In one dream she was a girl, playing in the orchard where her father worked when, with no warning, she felt herself falling. It was a long, slow fall, her hair streaming out, the ground coming at her and opening like the universe itself. She waited for the impact, but it never came. She was going to fall forever.
She jolted awake. The years rushed back, her old age and infirmity, her shattered knee. And now she needed to pee, but she didn’t have the strength—or the heart—to drag herself to the bathroom, and even if she did, she couldn’t pull herself onto the toilet. She made two tight fists at her side and beat the carpet until the ache in her elbows made her stop.
Her only hope rested with the boy, Ximena’s strange little boy, a boy who saw fit to torment her with flies. But could she blame him for not liking her? She had spoken to him sharply, and on other occasions she had used her impatient, irritated tone, telling herself afterward that she couldn’t help it—chronic pain made her cranky. But still, it wasn’t his fault was it, that she was in such bad shape? Maybe she should say a prayer that he would forgive her, and tell his mother about her call. She clasped her hands together and shut her eyes. “Dear Mary, I’m sorry I was mean to the boy. I need his help. Please make space in the boy’s heart to forgive me. Amen.”
Years ago she had sworn never to pray again—what had it ever done for her?—but now here she was, helpless as a fly baking in a windowsill, asking the Virgin to intercede on her behalf because she could not address God directly, not after the way she had denounced him in her heart. Now she’d put her pride aside and asked for help. She repeated the prayer a few times until the truth hit her—it was a selfish prayer, that the boy would forgive her,so that she would have the benefit of grace and not him.She should have prayed for the boy alone and asked for nothing in return.
“Forget that last prayer, Mary. Take this one instead.” She crossed herself. “Look over Ximena’s boy. Give him a long, healthy life so that he may take care of his mother in her old age. Give him a wife and children. Surround him with people to love. Amen.” She really did want that for him, a daughter, a son, people to love. She crossed herself again, pleased. Here she was, an old woman, supine and heartsick on the sala floor, and she’d finally uttered the first selfless prayer of her life.
In the darkness, Cuca waited hours for Julián to return, for sleep to come, but she could not ignore the fires flaring up in such random places—her fingertips, her wrists, even her heels. Was there any part of her that didn’t hurt? The ache in her bladder was growing stronger. “Don’t you dare,” she said. The thought of peeing all over herself, of soiling the carpet, of someone finding her in her own puddle, shamed her.
The silence, too, had begun to scare her. “Julián?” she called a few times, hoping the longing in her voice would summon him back. In all the decades she had lived in this house, it had never been this quiet. She clung to every outside sound: the neighbor’s dog barking, the occasional shout from a neighborhood child, a car backfiring. Far off in the distance, a whistle from a cargo train sounded. It came again, closer now. For many years after Julián’s death, the sound of a train whistle sent her into spasms of grief. Worse was crossing the railroad tracks to get to the cemetery. For a few years after Julián’s death, she’d had to close her eyes and grip the door handle, breathing slowly and trying not to feel the bumps when Lola steered the car across the tracks. She had considered moving to a house behind the cemetery so she wouldn’t have to drive over those damn tracks, but that would have meant giving up Julián’s childhood home. It would also have meant being closer to the train, and that she could not bear.
Sometime in the morning—or was it the afternoon?—an engine revved outside the window, rousing her. A motorcycle, no, a lawn mower! She cried out—“Paco! Mr. Lopez! Help me.”
The lawn mower edged away.
She opened her mouth to yell, but Julián appeared. Kneeling, he took her hand. “Esperate, mamá. He can’t hear you over that noise.”
It took only five minutes to cut the small lawn, and in that time Cuca gazed at her son. He’d been so young when he died, and she wished she had told him that the struggles of his youth would not last forever because youth did not last—look at her. There was so much she’d neglected to tell him, and Lola too. Instead she’d lost patience and criticized them. She was worse with Lola. A mother had to be tougher with girls because the world would not spare them—men would not spare them. It was a mother’s job to prepare her daughter for that reality. But sometimes Cuca suspected that she’d driven them both away.
“Aye, Julián,” she said. “I made so many mistakes.”
“Shhhh,” he said.
“But we can start over, now that you’re back. And your sister will come back too.”
Then the engine died and Julián squeezed her hand. Cuca took a deep breath. “Mr. Lopez!” she called. “¡Ayúdeme!” She waited. She thought she heard his boots on the walkway. Yes, he was there, on the other side of the window. “¡Por favor, Paco!” A spray of water hit the glass; he was watering the hydrangeas, giving them an extra good soaking as she’d instructed.
“Paco! Paco!” she yelled, but her voice was weak, her throat dry.
She listened in vain for Paco’s voice—Señora, que pasó? She continued to call out, her voice getting fainter, even after the water died away and she heard the truck back out of the driveway, on to the next widow’s house.
The shouting exhausted her. She barely had the energy to lift her head. Worse, her bladder, swollen to its seams, was threatening to burst. She couldn’t hold it in much longer. She’d missed her evening and morning pills and had eaten nothing since yesterday’s toast, though she didn’t want food, just a sip of water. Water! There’d been a hose in the old orchard, and on hot summer days, not wanting to go back to the truck, she’d drink directly from it or else stand underneath the stream of water, soaking herself. Now she was so parched that a spray of water wouldn’t quench her thirst. She needed a huge body of water. She needed the ocean.
“Julián?” she asked. “Julián?” Where did that boy go? He’d left again.
Toward the end he’d done that a lot, just came and went like a half-feral cat. She would say, “Mijo, I worry about you,” that small admonishment earning only a half-hearted apology.
On his last night, he hadn’t left a letter. In the days after, she’d torn his room apart, looking for a few words, a clue, but there was nothing, no hastily scribbled note, no scrap of paper.
Sometimes that was what hurt her the most.
Once, shortly after their father left, she’d driven three hours to the beach, where Julián and Lola spent hours splashing and floating in the waves. Finally, after watching from the edge, she ventured in, first just up to her ankles, then her knees, and then they ganged up on her, Julián pulling one hand, Lola the other, until she was submersed and floating. How good it would feel now to numb her whole body in the ocean, to be weightless again and unafraid.
“But, mama, why didn’t we ever go back?” Cuca turned her head. Julián stood by the fireplace. He was twelve now, and still playing with the Star Wars figurines.
She always had some reason they couldn’t go—they had to clean, or she had to work, or she wasn’t up for the drive. Maybe things would have turned out differently if she’d been the kind of mother who packed her kids in the car, responsibilities be damned, and just drove away.
“We should have gone back,” he said.
“You’re right. It was foolish, mijo.”
And then she became the type of mother who didn’t drive at all, like her own mother. It happened gradually, around the time Lola got her license. “You drive, mija,” she’d say. “You need the practice.” Then Julián got his license. From the beginning, he was reckless in the car, scaring her as he took turns too fast, running through red lights, his music on too loud. Sometimes he took the car without asking, and when she yelled at him, his eyes dulled and he’d look past her. It reminded her of a window shade being pulled shut, the person inside hiding.
Now she held her hand out, but Julián did not come closer. “When you got older, you didn’t want to go anywhere with me. Remember that?”
He shook his head, his shaggy bangs whipping back and forth.
“It’s true.” She’d attributed it to the weight she’d gained over the years. Her size had embarrassed him. But she didn’t tell him this now. Nor did she tell him that after his funeral, she did not step out of the house for half a year. She got larger and larger until she no longer fit comfortably behind the wheel. What did she need to drive for anyway? Where could she possibly go? When her license expired, she didn’t renew it, and later, when Lola found out Cuca had sold the car, she was incredulous and then angry. “Are you just going to sit there and rot?” she’d demanded.
“We can still go,” Cuca said. “We’ll pack a lunch.” She remembered his favorite foods: fried chicken, only the drumsticks, potato chips, sugar cookies. She’d even let him have a soda. “We’ll have a picnic. Get your bathing suit.”
Julián made no move.
“What are you waiting for?”
“For you to sit up.”
Cuca lifted her head. Immediately it fell back as if magnetized. She gave an embarrassed little laugh. “Give me a minute,” she pleaded. “I can do it. I won’t let you down, mijo.” Again she lifted her head. The effort put just enough pressure on her bladder. Urine poured out of her, soaking her pants, the carpet. “Aye, no!” she called out in surprise. “¡Lo siento! ¡Lo siento!”
Julián watched her struggle, and then he reached out his hand and pulled her up.
They were driving, Cuca behind the wheel, Julián next to her, his window down. He was wearing the soccer jersey he’d worn almost every day of his ninth year.
“I’m going to swim far out,” he said, “and look for whales.”
She glanced over. On his lap was a notebook, and he was drawing a picture of a whale. She had no doubt he would see one. There were so many things he was going to do in his life.
The road was narrow, full of sharp turns and hills. She drove slowly to extend the time with her son. After all these years, a simple car ride—how amazing.
A fly flew in through the open window. “Get that fly!” she said, as it zipped back and forth, around her head, up over the dashboard.
Half-heartedly, Julián waved at it. He didn’t like to kill things. Daddy long legs, he carried outside. Bees, he rescued from swimming pools.
The buzzing, incessant and loud, irritated her the most. She swatted at the fly. “Go away! Get out of here!” The car swerved.
“Mama!” Julián said.
She laughed, slowing down as they approached another sharp curve. “Do you remember the big rocks? The way they jutted out of the water?” As soon as she said the words, they could see the beach, stretched out for miles below them. Light glinted off the white sand and the water, so bright it blinded her.
Light streamed through the window. Cuca became aware of the sharp edges of the ceiling and the three walls of the sala. How strange that she could not picture what lay beyond those walls. Nor could she remember the day or even the year. And why was she on the floor? There was no self-pity in the question, only curiosity. Maybe Julián would come home soon and help her to the couch, though she might have to wait awhile. Lately he’d been staying out longer than usual, and he refused to tell her who he’d been with or where he’d gone. He’d become sullen. Her comadres said not to worry, it was a phase, but they didn’t know that he’d stopped going to school. He was in danger of not graduating. The counselor had sent a letter. She took it to his room and banged on the door. “Julián!” When he did not come out, she opened the door and found him curled on the floor in dingy underwear, staring at the wall. She dropped to her knees, surprised that they didn’t hurt, and shook him. “¡Julián! ¿Estas enfermo?” She brushed the hair out of his eyes, revealing a bruise on his forehead, as swollen and purple as a leech. Her hand sprang back. “¡Aye, mijo! ¿Qué pasó?” She shook him. “Who did this?”
He closed his eyes. “Go away. Just go away.”
It hurt her that he wouldn’t confide in her, that there were things in her son’s life that she knew nothing about. “Fine,” she said, “have it your way.” She covered him with a blanket.
A blanket. That’s what she needed. Why was she so cold? She’d never been this cold in her life.
She knew the water would be cold, but this? Only ankle deep, the cold bit through her skin right to her bones. That didn’t stop Julián; already he stood in water up to his waist. The Pacific stretched out before them, infinite and deep. And they had the whole beach to themselves. Wasn’t that nice?
Julián turned to her. “¡Ven conmigo!” he shouted, waving her over.
She went in to her knees—oh, that felt good. It amazed her how quickly you could get used to something.
Whooping, Julián dove in. That was the way to do it—all at once. Cuca sloshed out, and then her knees buckled. She was falling again, but this time water enveloped her, carrying her up and over the incoming wave toward Julián. They were both on their backs now, floating.
“I wish your sister were here,” Cuca said.
“She’s not ready,” Julián said. He took a big gulp of water and pushed it out of his mouth like a blowhole.
She laughed. “Silly boy!”
He disappeared under the waves and was gone for a long time. She was about to call out when he surfaced, yards ahead of her. “Hurry!” She kicked too, but she was not strong like Julián, and she worried that he would get away from her. Just when she caught up to him, he dipped under again.
She was beginning to tire. The sun was bright overhead. She closed her eyes. For a while she listened to the waves lap up against her, until she noticed another sound, far off but getting louder—the drone of an airplane. She tipped her head to look for it. It was one of those jumbo jets with hundreds of people inside, some leaving home, some going home.
She’d flown in a plane only once in her life, to visit family. Julián got the window seat. Lola was bitter about it, even though Cuca told her she could have it on the way back. Julián looked out the window the whole time, commenting on the mountain ranges, the water, the cities. “I can see the curve of the earth,” he shouted. Someone shushed him. “We’re not on earth anymore, mami.” She hadn’t thought of it that way, but it was true. The knowledge made her woozy; she gripped the armrests. Not on earth, she thought, not on earth. If they were not on earth, then where were they? Not space either, but somewhere in between.
The airplane circled overhead now, getting closer and closer. Was that normal? The droning sound changed, became a buzzing. How strange.
Cuca’s eyes fluttered open. Buzzz! That persistent fly! It landed on her nose. She felt each tiny foot, as if it were tapping out a message. Then she saw that it had only one wing. It couldn’t fly away even if it wanted to, poor thing.
Dust motes floated around her, thousands of them falling and dissolving into the water. Each one was precious and unique, like a star. And weren’t they made of star dust? Wasn’t everything made of star dust, even her? Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. When the priest had said these words at Julián’s funeral, she had thought about reaching down, picking up a handful of dirt and throwing it in his eyes. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes—the words matched the waves, rhythmic and strangely comforting.
New sounds intruded: a door creaking, footsteps, a shout. A woman hovered over her. Lola? No, this woman had fleshy cheeks and eyebrows furrowed in concern. The woman’s lips were moving, asking her something. Then Cuca understood. I don’t hurt anywhere, she thought. Mercifully, she couldn’t feel her body at all. She was part of the ocean now, one with the waves.
The woman disappeared. Cuca felt herself sinking, spreading out in all directions. Pinpricks of light popped all around her. But where was Julián? A twinge of unease. ¿Mijo? Had she lost him again? She pushed to the surface once more, called out, and waited. The pinpricks turned into dust motes. Julián?
He must have heard her because he knelt at her side, even younger than before, barely five. Those skinny knees, that precious little body!
There you are.
He peered down at her and held up a figurine, a woman in a long, white dress. An angel. But his eyes seemed pensive. He’d been such an anxious child, full of questions and worries.
Don’t worry, she thought. We’ll be together for a long time. We have years and years.
She closed her eyes briefly, and when she opened them, Julián was still there, her son, her beautiful boy. For a while, they floated together. The shoreline disappeared. Dust motes caught the light and fell around them like snow. This time she would do everything right. Because here he was, back again, her innocent Julián, happy, haloed with light, and at the age when he was the sweetest child in all the world and liked nothing better than to be in her company.