Photo Credit: naraekim0801
Tina repeated her mother's mistake, only at a younger age. She was fifteen when she got pregnant with John's baby. He gave her money for an abortion, money he must have borrowed or stolen. When Tina came back to school two days later, she told Robin, Melissa, and Yolanda—her best, her only friends—that she'd had an ovarian cyst removed. She couldn't tell them the truth. Unlike Tina, they were real Catholics, obedient, believing.
After the abortion she broke up with John. She told him they were too different; probably he thought it was because he was white. He put his hands over his face. She was thinking how beautiful his hands were, admiring his long, pale fingers, when she realized he was crying. A terrible chill passed over her. She wanted to take everything back, to beg him to forgive her. But that was the whole problem with John, the thing she could not accept: he made her needy. Days when he didn't call her she became panicked, hopeless, short-tempered—the way her mother was when a man was getting ready to leave her. A long time ago, when she was a little girl, maybe seven years old, she overheard her parents having sex in the one-room apartment, her mother saying, "Te quiero, te quiero," her voice frantic. Shortly afterwards her father left. He had not been seen from again.
Two years later, Tina was pregnant again, the fault of a torn condom. The father, Balzac, was Mexican but dyed his shoulder-length hair blond and talked like a surfer. He played bass in a punk band that held gigs in people's garages. Tina had sat on countless washing machines listening to him play. She was proud of how Robin, Melissa, and Yolanda cheered after his solos. And she loved Balzac's family. They made a competition of insulting each other in colorful ways, and they were always laughing. They did not condemn her for being pregnant, as her mother had. In fact, Balzac's grandmother offered to pay their rent on an apartment. She crocheted blankets and a pair of tiny yellow socks for the baby.
A month after Tina dropped out of school and moved in with Balzac, she finally called her friends and asked them to come see her. She thought she would surprise them with the news that she was pregnant. She wanted to show them how her belly button had popped out. It turned out to be bad idea. Robin began to cry, and Melissa berated her for ruining her life. Yolanda was quiet, searching Tina's face with her soulful, mascaraed brown eyes.
Tina didn't care anymore what they thought. She hated high school with its rallies and tests. She was sick of heating up a can of spinach for her dinner while her mother was out on dates. She wanted to show her mother how a family ought to be run. In their new apartment, she and Balzac hosted dinner parties for his family, frying tempura-battered vegetables in a stockpot or stewing black beans in beer. Balzac was a vegetarian. After the baby was born, they went to the Hare Krishna temple on Sunday mornings and ate as much of the free buffet as they could stand. It got so that the smell of turmeric instantly killed Tina's appetite.
Balzac would carry the baby on his shoulders or tied to his belly with a swath of fabric. He prepared the baby's food in an ancient blender from overripe produce in the sale bin. At night he kissed Tina and then the baby, gently, on the tops of their heads. Often Tina would think that she loved Balzac, but then an image of John would pass through her mind, refuting the notion. In the neighborhood where Balzac's grandmother had found them the apartment, there was no chance of running into John, but still she looked for him. It was a loud, angry place to live. At all hours of the night ambulance sirens sent the baby into fits. It was Balzac's idea to name her Afrika, and sometimes Tina wondered if she were screaming to protest the name.
Tina and Balzac argued about the baby. Balzac was suspicious of electronics, including baby monitors, which meant that one of them, usually Tina, had to sleep in a chair next to the baby's crib. He was philosophically opposed to plastic, including packaged diapers and pacifiers and televisions—all of the things that would've made Tina's life bearable. When Balzac found out that Tina had fed the baby corporate baby food from a jar, he launched into one of his tirades, shouting that the manufacturers of baby food also made weapons. Was she just ignorant, or apathetic? Tina put her hands over her ears and said nothing.
One afternoon, when she was so tired she thought she was losing her mind, Tina put Afrika into her stroller and walked the seven blocks to the dollar store, where she spent $16 buying all the plastic crap she could find: bottles and pacifiers, a rainbow of plastic keys on a plastic chain, a squishy foam football, and a miniature doll with a bright smear of mauve paint across her plastic lips. Back at the apartment, she spread everything out on a blanket and sat in the middle of it, holding Afrika to her chest, waiting for Balzac to come home. Either he would laugh, or he wouldn't. Staring at the doll's obscene purple mouth, Tina predicted which way it would go, and she was right.
But it did not end as she thought it would, with a grandiose fight. Instead, she and Balzac continued to live together, interacting only when they had to. After a while Tina realized that Balzac was detaching from the baby. He no longer kissed her on the head goodnight or carried her in a sling around his neck. Tina could accept that Balzac slept on the very edge of the bed, so as not to accidentally touch her while he slept, but to watch him ignore Afrika—this was unbearable. She asked him to go, and he did, leaving her the apartment and enough money for two months' rent. She telephoned Balzac's grandmother with the intention of telling her everything, but Nana didn't want to listen. She was angry about something, Tina couldn't figure out what. A few weeks later, she sent Tina a threatening letter written in flowing cursive in which she said she'd hired a lawyer to fight for custody of Afrika. This was the same woman who'd called Tina her "sweet potato." Tina read and reread the letter, clutching the sides with sweaty fingers.
When Tina thought about someone trying to take Afrika away, her jaw clenched with rage. She would not let anyone take her baby, even if it meant going on WIC and food stamps, as her own mother had done. She found a job as a hotel cocktail waitress, where she wore a bikini top made of coconuts and endured the indifferent lust of businessmen.
The custody battle cost thousands of dollars, which Tina paid with credit cards. Every few months she found a new card offering a no-interest balance transfer. She couldn't understand why these companies were offering her more and more false money to spend, but it was there, and she spent it. She had heard about people declaring bankruptcy and cleaning the slate on all their old debts. When Melissa found out about the credit cards, she yelled at Tina, calling her naïve, while Robin calmly mentioned that she could've convinced her uncle to do the legal work for free. Yolanda started to cry and told everyone to stop talking.
Tina broke off contact with her friends after that. They were going to the local college and had boyfriends and uncomplicated lives. They would never let her be better than she had been. They would never accept that Tina and Afrika were fine. Tina now had a job as a receptionist at a company that installed home heating systems. Afrika was in first grade. She had beautiful tanned legs that looked too long for her body. The grandmother had developed emphysema and wasn't angry anymore. But Balzac had become eccentric in new ways. He cut his hair, started wearing sweat-stained suits with bow ties, and carried a diminutive Bible in his breast pocket. When she dropped Afrika off at his apartment for visits, he gazed at Tina through the screen door as though he were meeting eyes with the devil. Once, long ago, he'd made a prank call to get Tina out of school, picked her up on a bicycle, and pedaled out to the bay, where they stole someone's canoe for the afternoon. Trying to get inside they rolled the canoe several times, laughing so hard that they could barely get their balance to try again. Tina thought about that day a lot. It made her feel happy until she snapped back into the present.
Alejandro came along just as the bill collectors were beginning to harass her. He loaned her money before she could work up the nerve to ask for it. He was one of the heating system salesmen, a handsome, compact man whose dark skin looked striking against his clean white shirts. He was a traditional Catholic who went to church twice a week and was against premarital sex for women. On their third date he told Tina he forgave her for having gotten pregnant with Afrika. He was so earnest that Tina was amused rather than offended. He was different from Balzac in every way. His apartment, a small condo overlooking an office park, was tidy to the point of being barren. Weekends when Afrika stayed with Balzac, Tina lay all morning in Alejandro's bed, inhaling the lemony fragrance of his sheets, feeling relaxed and giddy. Alejandro looked directly into her eyes and said that he wanted to save the sex for after they were married. Tina's heart fluttered with nervous hope. She prayed, for the first time since she could remember, that she would manage not to screw things up.
It was important for Alejandro to marry in the Catholic church, so Tina had to finish the confirmation classes that she'd abandoned and make confessions to a priest. Kneeling in the confessional, which smelled of mold and furniture polish, her mind went blank. What were her sins? Was it a sin, the sex she'd had with John? Probably so, although it felt like a lie to say so. The sex with Balzac had been too unsatisfying to be a sin. The abortion—that was a monstrous sin, too unforgivable to confess. What ended up coming out of her mouth was strange. She said to the priest that she had abandoned her mother, and her eyes filled with tears. The priest mumbled some things she didn't understand and assigned her seven Ave Marias. Out in the fresh air, Tina felt an acute sensation of relief, as it she'd unburdened herself, even though what she said wasn't true—she hadn't really abandoned her mother. Her mother had screamed at her, called her a puta, and Tina had moved out. After that, neither had contacted the other. Her mother had not even seen Afrika, but that was her own choice.
Alejandro had two wedding gifts for her: a pair of two-carat diamond earrings, to match her engagement ring, and a new house in the suburbs of Rancho Bernardo. The ceilings were so high that she was startled by the echo of her own voice. Sunlight blazed through the French doors, making her eyes water. Tina had always lived in dark places, the windows covered to protect against thieves or dreary views. Now she felt like she was coming out of cave onto a bright plain without shade.
On nights when she couldn't sleep, Tina would wander through the house. She'd drink a little tequila with lime, peer into Afrika's bedroom and watch her sleep, and then go back to her own bedroom and watch Alejandro sleep, his face scrunched up like a little boy's—in sleep looking more like a child than Afrika, who was now eight. Finally she went into the kitchen and peered inside the refrigerator, impressed each time by the clean, cold, orderly containers of food. Even now, Tina came into her own kitchen half-expecting to see her mother at the stove, making tortilla de papa, as she sometimes did late at night after coming home from dancing. She and Tina ate it straight out of the cast-iron skillet, sharing a fork, her mother still wearing a slinky skirt and traces of red lipstick. One night Tina started to make a tortilla herself, at midnight, but she changed her mind after cracking two eggs, worried that she might wake Alejandro and Afrika if she tried to clean up afterwards.
Life in the suburbs was almost too perfect. There were block parties and potlucks and parades, and when Tina became pregnant, women in the neighborhood walked around the manmade lake with her in the evenings and offered to go with her to Lamaze class if Alejandro didn't want to. Of course he did want to. His parenting books were flagged with colored tabs and had notes penciled in the margins. He would never make baby food in a blender or carry a baby in a sling, but he was concerned with buying the right toys that would encourage proper intellectual development. He confessed to Tina that his own father had been distant, something he was determined not to replicate.
When she was six months pregnant, Tina got a phone call from Robin. She had heard Tina was married and had tracked her down online. Her friends gave her a baby shower. They bought her gifts wrapped in pretty paper that she couldn't bear to throw away. Yolanda had brought a roll of toilet paper and they all had to guess how much it would take to wrap around Tina's big belly. They were all married now, all happy with their adult lives, and none of them could remember why they had lost touch.
The baby was a girl, and Tina named her Henrietta. She was a serious little Buddha baby. Tina thought that this was how Alejandro must have been as a baby. Every day Tina noticed something new about Henrietta, some gesture or sound, and she was eager for Alejandro to come home so she could tell him about it. On the weekends, they would rent kid movies and sprawl out on the enormous orange sectional in front of the gas fireplace. Alejandro would make real popcorn, in a pot with oil, and a margarita for Tina. Afrika would dote over Henrietta, massaging her feet and carefully combing her wisps of hair with a pink plastic brush. During these moments Tina often thought about her mother. She wished her mother could see her in this new, luxurious life. It took some of the pleasure out of it—that her mother wasn't around to regret not being the one to offer all this to Tina.
It was around Henrietta's second birthday that Tina started feeling restless. Henrietta would be playing outside in the sandbox Alejandro had built for her, and Tina would wander through the house, trying to think of what to do. The other mothers on the block liked to push their strollers through Target, browsing the clearance racks, but Henrietta hated to be in a stroller—she hated to be anywhere except outside. Tina tried sitting outside with her, reading a magazine, but she couldn't concentrate. She did her Pilates video every day, and prepared meals, and tidied up the house. With the completion of each of these chores she felt worse. When she felt really bad, she would leave Henrietta with the next-door neighbor and pick up Afrika early from school. She took Afrika for an ice cream, even though the girl was already too chubby. She had lost the gorgeous long legs that Tina had loved so much. Afrika didn't care that she was overweight, or that she was falling behind from missing so many classes. She was always up for new adventures, she was always loud and cheerful, and she made Tina feel better.
One afternoon Tina showed up at Afrika's school, but the secretary refused to call her out of class. She was taking an important test, the woman said, peering at Tina over the top of her gold-rimmed spectacles.
"It's a family emergency. I need to see her," Tina said.
The woman lowered her voice. "Every week it's an emergency, Mrs. Hernandez. Just let the child alone."
Tina's face burned with rage and humiliation. She started yell, as her mother would've done, but the words caught in her throat. The woman gave her one last glare and turned back to her computer.
In the street she had a wave of vertigo. It was a hot day, the perfect day to take Afrika for an Icee in the park. But instead she was alone, her day was ruined, and she was so dizzy that she worried she might not make it to her car. She was passing a bus stop when the bus pulled up. The doors opened, emitting a blast of air-conditioned air, such delicious cool air that Tina found herself mounting the steps, rummaging in her purse for some change. She collapsed into a seat, tilting her head back to get the full effect of the cool air. She didn't know where the bus was even going. She did not take buses anymore, but she remembered them. She remembered being on a bus as a small child with her mother—the heat, the stench of fish coming from the pink plastic bags carried by Chinese ladies, the unpleasant vibration beneath her feet. Tina used to close her eyes against all of it, hoping that when she opened them next, they would've reached their stop. Probably her mother still took buses everywhere—she could never keep a car running for long.
Tina almost expected to see her mother on the bus. She scanned the women's faces. It had been almost nine years since she had seen her mother, and maybe she wouldn't even recognize her face.
"Tina," said a voice.
She looked up, startled, her heart racing. It was not her mother. It was some man she didn't recognize, but who seemed to know her.
"It's John," the man said.
All the times she had imagined encountering John, it had never been on a bus. It had never been when she was hot and sweaty and feeling ill. She brushed her hair back from her face, worrying about whether her lipstick had rubbed off, whether her lips were chapped. He was looking right at her face, and it was making her blush.
"Stop looking at me," she said.
"OK," he said. He sat down beside her and stared at the ridged, rubber floor of the bus.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean—"
"I must have scared you," he said.
He was thinner than before, his fingers longer and paler than she had remembered. His hairline was receding. He was wearing jeans and a red track jacket and boots. The top of his right boot was peeling away from the sole. He was such a pitiful sight that Tina wanted to hug him, to tell him everything would be fine.
"It's so strange that I would see you," he said. "Just this morning I was just thinking about that night with the kittens. Do you remember those kittens we found in the tire?"
She nodded, then covered her mouth with her hand and began to sob.
"Baby, what's the matter?" he said.
"I must look terrible," she said.
"You look just like yourself," he answered, and held her small brown hand between his two long, pale ones.
Five months later Tina got a divorce from Alejandro, gave up Henrietta, and moved into the house where John used to live with his parents before they died. Tina snuck onto the school grounds and found Afrika at recess, and told her they were leaving. Afrika did not need to be convinced. It was a great adventure for a girl of ten—a meeting conducted in whispers, a suitcase stuffed with messy piles of clothes, a new house, ice cream whenever she wanted. She was getting very fat, but Tina could not deny her anything.
She expected Alejandro to fight her for Afrika, simply out of spite, but he didn't. He was not anything like she'd expected. When she told him she was sleeping with John, he was silent for a few moments and then began brainstorming solutions. His voice shaking, he told her he understood, he forgave her, he was sorry for not realizing how much she was suffering. Obviously she was bored being a stay-at-home mom—maybe she would be happier with a job.
"Teeny, we'll get past this," he said.
"But there's nothing to get past. This isn't the past," Tina said. She'd been so afraid to tell him—afraid of what wrath might be buried beneath his calmness—but now she felt embarrassed for him. She could not bear to look at his eyes, which were so full of pleading. Eventually he accepted the divorce, but he refused to say a word against her.
Her friends, on the other hand, were livid. Robin and Melissa defriended her on Facebook and would not return her calls. Robin went to the trouble of writing out a letter by hand, three pages of insults and accusations. Tina kept thinking she would write back and try to explain herself, but she couldn't counter any of what Robin had said. She was a cheater, a slut, a selfish bitch, a demon, a pathetic excuse for a mother. She had abandoned her baby girl and her husband, who had rescued her when she was broke and alone. She was an embarrassment to her gender, to Mexicans all over the world, to humanity.
But she had John. She loved him desperately. His eyes, a foggy gray-blue, could see into her. When they made love she clutched at his shoulders and kissed him all over his neck and face.
"I love you, I love you, I love you," she said.
"Don't worry," he said, but of course, she worried.
Her mother heard about the scandal through Yolanda, and she could not resist the temptation to come by and see what a mess Tina had made of her life.
She stood in the doorway of John's parents' house. Tina could see her critical eye taking in the plastic flower arrangements, the faded floral-print draperies, the sagging sofa.
"Don't just stand there. Come inside," Tina said.
"I can hardly see you, it's so dark in here. You look like a shadow."
Without greeting Tina, she strode over to the draperies and pulled them open. When Tina smelled her mother's perfume, her body prickled with goosebumps and tears stung the corners of her eyes. It wasn't fair, her mother wearing that same perfume, which smelled of Tina's childhood.
"That's better. You just needed more light." Her mother stood in the middle of the room facing Tina, sunlight illuminating the sleeves of her red blouse. She was thinner now, and her clothes were nicer. Her hair was pulled back from her face in a way Tina had never seen before. She was not at all the same mother that Tina had been conjuring in her head all of these years—she was a lovely, fascinating stranger. It made Tina ache, how little she knew her own mother. And then a chilling thought occurred to her: that Henrietta would look at Tina someday and feel the same thing.
She could not permit herself to think of Henrietta. "Do you want to meet Afrika?" Tina asked her mother.
"Later. Let's sit."
They sat down on the sofa, sinking deep into the cushions, the same cushions on which Tina and John had created an almost-baby a million years ago.
"Tell me about you," her mother said.
Tina couldn't think of what to say. All the events of the past ten years were like a giant tangled knot in her head. To find even one end of the thread felt impossible. She said, "Too much has happened. I wouldn't even know where to begin."
"Mija, just start talking," her mother said.
Jennifer Hurley's fiction has previously appeared in Tidal Basin Review, Front Porch, The Mississippi Review, The Arroyo Literary Review, Stone's Throw Magazine, Natural Bridge, Brain Harvest, Slow Trains, and of course, Toasted Cheese. Website: Jen-Hurley.com Email: jenhurley[at]alum.bu.edu