Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez
In a Wal-Mart parking lot, Graciela shoved me into the front seat of her beat up, green Honda Accord and handed me the keys. In the far distance, I could see the blinking light of the Sears Tower. Graciela promised that learning to drive would give me the freedom I thought I’d find when I came to this country.
“Go straight, Querida!” Graciela said as she ran in front of the car to get into the passenger seat.
I put the key in the ignition and the car sputtered.
“It does that sometimes, try again.” Graciela buckled herself in and gripped the handle above her head.
I turned the key again and the engine screeched until it finally started. I felt the vibrations of the car run through my arms, rattling my insides. My heart banged against my chest when the muffler backfired.
“Give it some gas, mama,” Graciela pushed herself forward as if that would make the car go faster.
My eyes filled with tears, both from wanting to get out of the car and from wanting to speed off and never come back.
“Calm down, nena. The trick to driving is confidence.” Graciela tucked her bobbed curly hair behind her ear, still holding on to the handle above the passenger door.
I met Graciela at church. One Sunday, she and her daughter squeezed into the back row, thirty minutes into the service. In line for the after-service cookies and punch Graciela came up to me while I was in line for the after-service cookies and punch.
“Your nenas are so cute!” she said, twirling a piece of Priscilla’s loose hair between her fingers while Sarita sucked her thumb. “If they need clothes, I have so much of it from when Claudia was little.” Graciela’s daughter looked about three years older than mine.
“Gracias,” I responded, while eyeing her up and down. She wore too-tight jeans and a powder-blue button up top that showed her midriff whenever she moved her arms. Her daughter wore a frilly dress with a matching bow on her braided ponytail. I nodded and hurried my girls away, with extra cookies wrapped up in a thin napkin.
On our walk home a car honked and honked. My stomach dropped and I pulled my girls near; Priscilla fought me, refused to be close to me.
“Heeey,” the driver shouted out the window and I saw Graciela waving madly from her old car. “You need a ride?” The blisters on my feet answered before I could get the words out, unsure we’d make it over the Laramie Bridge.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to drop you off at your house? I don’t mind driving further.” Graciela pulled into the gas station on Cermak Avenue, next to the public library.
“No, no. Here’s good,” I chewed on the corner of my lip.
“Bueno pues, see you next Sunday. I’ll bring the clothes for your girls.” She waved out the window; an oncoming car honked at her as she tried to merge onto the main road.
One Sunday, she handed me a green Cover-Girl pressed powder compact, still in its plastic packaging. “Whatever you’ve been using, isn’t doing anything,” she said and pointed to her own eye to signal the bruises under mine. The compact was cool to the touch. My under eye throbbed for the coolness on my fingertips. In the compact mirror I saw what Graciela must’ve seen under the church’s fluorescent lights—a thin, ghostly veil over the purple around my eye.
Graciela looked around the Wal-Mart parking lot for oncoming cars as I inched her green Honda Accord forward.
“Mujer! I can walk faster than this. Don’t be afraid to step on it!”
In the rearview mirror, our girls slept in the backseat: Sarita rested her head on Priscilla, who leaned her head against the window, and Claudia pressed against the seat, her mouth agape.
“You’re gonna have to turn the steering wheel at some point, Querida.” I turned the wheel and held it to make a u-turn. I headed toward Harlem Avenue, the main street we drove on earlier to get to the Wal-Mart parking lot—cars zoomed by, the morning losing its calm.
I debated going directly into traffic. Fuzzy static moved through my body giving me energy I hadn’t felt in so long—it was thrilling. In my head, I was like Graciela. I can do this, I said to myself. I can take this road and never turn back. I can do this. In the rearview mirror, I saw Sarita wake. Her tiny arms stretched, reached for the roof of the car. Confidence leaked out of me, like the oil dripping out of Graciela’s Honda. I didn’t know if I should slam on the breaks or make a sharp turn. Graciela grabbed the wheel and turned it for me, pointed us back in the direction of the parking lot.
“Maybe next time we can try driving around other cars,” she said. I couldn’t tell if her sad, droopy eyes were for me or for her own worries.
“Pull up here. Let’s get breakfast at Old Country Buffet. My treat!” I nodded, knowing my girls and I couldn’t go home yet. At Old Country Buffet, I piled pancakes onto a hot, white ceramic plate—the only thing the girls wanted to eat, aside from ice cream, whenever Graciela brought us here. The waiters pulled food trays out from the back and placed the bins under the bright orange light bulbs meant to keep the food hot.
Graciela brought two plates with scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage patties. She placed one in front of Claudia and handed one to me.
“When do you want to try driving again?” Graciela asked, chewing a mouthful of scrambled egg. She took a sip of coffee.
I shook my head, “I don’t think I’ll ever get the hang of it.”
“Sure you will. It’ll just take time and practice.”
“If Mario finds out I’m learning to drive, he’ll lose his shit. And I can’t get a license. What’s the point? ”
“Well, I wouldn’t call going 3 miles an hour in a parking lot driving.” She cackled loudly and the waitress by the window and the old man by the register looked at us.
“Ay, como eres.” I smiled.
“Pigeons were flying faster than us!” She flapped her arms like wings and leaned into her daughter. Soon all our girls flapped their arms like wings as they flew to the ice cream machine.
“Is everything okay?” Graciela asked as she looked into her coffee cup. She hadn’t said anything in the car, and I was relieved she hadn’t brought it up. No matter how much makeup I used, I couldn’t cover the shadows on my face.
“He bought me and the girls new winter coats from one of those fancy stores downtown.” It was my turn to bury my gaze in my cup. “He said the winters here are monstrous.” I looked past her to keep track of the girls. When I shifted by eyes back to our table, Graciela locked in. I felt myself shaking—a subtle tremble as if I was back in the driver’s seat of Graciela’s car.
“I was definitely not prepared for Chicago winters when I first got here,” Graciela said. “That wind will slice you into pieces if you don’t have a good coat.”
I wiped my tears with the corner of the napkin I had used earlier to wipe Sarita’s boogery nose.
“Sí, that’s what Mario said. He said his first winter here he almost lost his fingertips from the cold.”
I’m sure Graciela saw my eyes begging her to not ask me about it, to not say it, to not name it. My eyes watered and I swallowed the lump forming in my throat—like trying to swallow a pancake whole.
The first time I met Mario, I was in line for an open call for singers and actors in Mexico City. My best friend, Leticia, and I leaned against the cool, brick wall waiting for the line to move. My short skirt—Leticia’s idea—danced with the hot breeze. My legs, freshly rubbed with Vaseline so they’d shine—also Leticia’s idea—glistened with the bright sunlight hitting us. Mario came up to Leticia, asked her if she could hold his guitar while he re-tied his shoes. He had a head full of jet-black hair, soft brown skin, and his fitted shirt highlighted his toned arms and torso. He called Leticia “bella” and talked about becoming a singer in the States. The line moved steadily, and Mario got comfortable in front of us, as if he’d been in the line for hours, like we had.
“Óyeme,” I said, “the line ends back there.” I pointed to the end of the block.
“Calm down, querida,” he said, eyeing me up and down. Leticia giggled and I smacked her arm.
“That’s her name,” Leticia snorted. I hit her again.
Mario locked eyes with me and his piercing gaze did something to me—like this was the first time anyone saw me. My face got as hot as the asphalt beneath us and I looked away. I heard Mario chuckle. He strummed his guitar and belted JuanGa’s “Queridaaaa!” as he walked to the end of the line.
I don’t know how he found me later outside my school but there he was with a single white rose in hand—I thought it was fate.
The first time it happened, we had been in Juarez for about a year and I was eight months pregnant. I was in such shock that I didn’t react and that only pissed off Mario more.
“What are you staring at? What are you stupid, too?” he stormed off and I didn’t see him for two days. When he returned, the bruises on my face were many shades of purple—like the dahlias he brought me. I saw him through the window singing into a beer bottle: “Querida, ven a mí que estoy sufriendo. Querida. Querida.”
The first month in the States together, Mario would sing “Queridaaaa!” at the top of his lungs. He’d shimmy to the beat of the song. He’d pull me close, hooking his arm around my waist. The warm, acrid stench of beer on his breath choked me. The girls danced with one another singing along: “Querida! Dime cuando tu vas a volver.” On days when it felt like we were okay, he’d sing every time I stepped out to the store to buy groceries or to pick up the girls from school. Mario got the girls in a row and they all shimmied along together like they were a singing group. The upstairs neighbor often banged on their floor and the thump thump on our ceiling made the frames on the walls shake. That thump thump flipped a switch in Mario and he was no longer the same man. He’d turn off the music, grab another beer, and sulk on the couch in front of the TV until he fell asleep or until it was time for his night shift at the factory.
After the Old Country Buffet, Graciela dropped me and my girls at the library so she could run errands. Before Graciela, the girls and I would spend most of the day in the library. In the mornings, after Mario got home from work and fell asleep, I’d pack bologna sandwiches and we’d be there until they closed. By then, it would be time to wake up Mario for dinner before his shift started.
Priscilla rushed to the media section to pick out another book accompanied with a cassette. The sets came in plastic bags with a red handle and she looked like a little businesswoman holding a briefcase. She pulled Sarita to the listening station where they shared a pair of headphones, listening to the story as Priscilla pointed to the pictures on the page. I never bothered them when they sat together like that— despite my curiosity to know what they actually understood from those stories on tape because their English was just as choppy as mine. I smiled at the librarian, a nice young woman with rimmed glasses, and pointed to the girls asking her to keep an eye on them while I went to find a book for myself. The librarian nodded. I made my way to the back of the fiction section and found my copy of Sandra Cisneros’s El arroyo de la llorona y otros cuentos. When we arrived in Chicago, after the first week of us sitting in the library all day, the nice librarian explained that if I got a library card, I could take the books home.
“Sí, gracias,” I smiled profusely to let her know I understood but was not interested. I needed an ID or proof of residency. Mario warned me to not tell anyone about not having papers. We kept coming and staying all day and eventually the nice librarian got the hint. I sat next to the girls in the listening corner, the three of us engrossed in stories about worlds away from ours. Cisneros’s words reminded me of a me before Mario, before my girls, before coming to America.
“Mami,” Sarita’s whining pulled me out of a world where women drive pick-up trucks and leave their husbands behind.
I followed her tiny hand pointing to the entrance. I dropped my book at the sight of Mario walking toward us as Sarita waved him over. All my muscles clenched—trapping me in my own body.
“Why aren’t you at home?” Mario demanded in his regular voice, breaking the serene silence of the library. Someone shushed him and I saw his switch flip.
“We’re reading,” I whispered. More annoyed than frightened, I showed him the books in case he had forgotten what reading was.
“Vámonos,” Mario loud whispered as he eyed the security guard by the library’s entrance. Even he wasn’t stupid enough to make a scene that might lead to the police getting involved. Mario grabbed my arm and pulled me up. His short nails dug into my skin. Priscilla sighed and packed the book cassette set. In the rush to get us out the door, I forgot to put my book back and worried I wouldn’t be able to find it tomorrow.
In the car, he hit the steering wheel and I jumped: “I work my ass off to put a roof over our heads. You better be under that roof!”
“We can’t stay locked in all day,” I said. “The girls get restless and when they get restless they get loud. And when they get loud, it wakes you up.” My voice was calm when I really wanted to scream.
“What if something happens to you or the girls?” he gripped the steering wheel. “What then? What do you do? What do I do?” He sped up, swerving around other cars. Staticky energy buzzed through my body. I wanted to tear my chest open and drown him in my sorrows. In the rearview mirror I caught a glimpse of Priscilla’s frightened face, red at the nose and around the eyes from forcing herself to hold in tears.
“You’re right,” I said and put my hand on Mario’s forearm. “It was stupid, it won’t happen again.” Mario slowed down.
“I work,” he started but didn’t finish. When he parked the car, near our apartment, he said, “I’ll take you guys downtown this weekend. They’ve already started putting Christmas lights up. We’ll drive around. How does that sound?” He looked around at us and I forced a smile.
I prepared lunch and Mario sat on the couch with a beer, unable to go back to sleep before work. He sat like that for hours, getting up every once in a while for a fresh beer until he started yelling my name to get him one. I served him black coffee instead.
“The milk,” he said looking into the cup and then back to me like I was stupid.
“There isn’t any,” I said into the sink of dirty dishes. I scrubbed harder and harder. My fingers reddened from squeezing the steel wool.
“Que chingados do you do all day that you can’t go get milk?”
I felt myself shrinking as he got louder.
“I asked you for money and you said next week. So, no, I didn’t get milk.” The words flew out of my mouth before I could inhale them.
Mario whipped the coffee cup against the wall. The shattering echoed. Priscilla rushed Sarita into their room.
“I’ll go get it tomorrow,” I tried to calm him.
He slammed a plate on the table, threw his chair behind him, and got in my face.
“I fucking work all fucking night for this pinche life and you can’t go get milk?” He yelled, his hand gripping my neck.
One Sunday at church, after a sermon on love and forgiveness, the pastor came up to me and my daughters.
“Querida,” he said and held my hand. His wife walked up to hook her arm onto his. Graciela caught my eye from the table with the cookies and juice and she must’ve seen the panic in my face because she came over too.
“My wife tells me you might need more of God’s guidance,” he looked at his wife, who tight-lipped smiled at me as she touched her own under-eye. My face burned.
“No, no, no. There’s no need to be embarrassed,” the pastor jumped in before I could respond. “We see all sorts of things. And we’re here to support all of God’s children.”
“I…” My throat closed. I swallowed the bile rising.
“For a small fee, we could offer you and your husband counseling.” The pastor looked at his wife, pleased with himself.
The thought of Mario coming to church, going to counseling, to pay to talk to another man about our problems made me burst out laughing in the pastor’s oily face.
“Think about it,” the wife said and she brushed Priscilla’s hair away from her face. “It doesn’t have to be cash,” she said, fingering Priscilla’s tiny gold hoops. Graciela pulled me away before they could say more.
“Vámonos,” Graciela said with a cookie in her mouth and pulled me out the door. “They tried to get money out of me too so now I show up to take all their cookies.” She smiled and opened her purse to show me the bag of cookies.
After Mario went to work, I called Graciela while holding a bag of frozen peas to my face.
“Right now?” Graciela’s voice higher than I’ve ever heard.
“Si, if you can.” I licked warm blood from my split lip. My eye throbbed: Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.
Graciela didn’t respond for what felt like an eternity and right as I was ready to let the floodgates crash open, Graciela said she was on her way.
“Mami, where are we going?” Sarita squealed as I dragged her out of bed. Priscilla rolled her eyes at me and went to get their shoes.
“Apúrence,” I pleaded with them. The thought of how he’d react if he didn’t find us at home in the middle of the night made me want to puke.
We piled into Graciela’s beat-up, green Honda Accord.
“I know the perfect place for a late-night drive,” Graciela said. The streetlights gave the blocks a romantic, orange glow. There weren’t as many cars on Cermak Road. We made our way toward the Target on Cicero Avenue, and I thought we’d drive around the parking lot. Graciela turned on her emergency blinkers and pulled to the side of the road. The road was empty. The passing freight trains nearby were our only witnesses.
“This road, Route 66, goes directly to California,” Graciela pointed west. “Every now and then, on days like these,” she stroked my swollen face with the back of her hand, “I drive along this road and see how far I get. Haven’t made it out of Illinois. Maybe one day.”
My face hurt too much to hold the tears back. Graciela and I switched places and I drove along Route 66.
“Querida, we’re never going to make it to California if you stay at five miles an hour,” she leaned in and tapped the odometer. “Step on it, nena,” she chuckled.
I speed up. The vibrations of the green Honda Accord reminded me of a song. I sang “Querida” to myself: “Dime cuando tu vas a volver.” In the rearview mirror I spotted Priscilla and Sarita shimmying and singing in the back seat. Behind them, the moon gleamed, following closely as I drove away.
Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez (she/they) is a writer and educator living in Queens, New York. They are a Mexican immigrant,, raised in Cicero, Illinois. Their stories have been published in Strange Horizons, Acentos Review, Longreads, Okay Donkey, Reckon Review, Mixed Mag, HAD, and elsewhere. Sonia’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fiction, and Best Microfiction. Twitter @RodriguezSoniaA
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