Natasha heaved her bike up the stairs to the second story apartment. In the afternoon, the sky had been clear without a hint of rain. Now her uniform was drenched and her hair dripped in her face. She locked her bike to the handrail, staggered into the apartment and made a puddle on the floor.
Sofi came to her rescue with a towel and a hug. “Why didn’t you call me, you silly girl?” She asked. “I’d have come and gotten you.”
“It’s not far,” Natasha mumbled from beneath the towel as she dried her hair and wiped away the evidence of her tears. She was grateful when Sofi went to run her bath. “Where’s Jazzy?”
“She’s sleeping already,” Sofi said without looking up. She tested the water temperature and added, “Yolanda isn’t home yet.”
Jazzy, was Sofi’s four-year-old daughter, Jasmine, and Yolanda was their roommate. Natasha was glad Yolanda wasn’t home. She didn’t always like the girl. She undressed and wrapped the towel around her. Then, gathering her wet clothes, followed Sofi to the bathroom.
“I’ll make us something to eat when you get out,” Sofi said, “but take your time.” She lifted a glass cylinder so she could light a candle, and then carefully slipped the cylinder back in place. She closed the door behind her.
The bath did almost as much to restore Natasha as crying had. The mirror fogged, and she watched the candle flicker behind the image of the Madonna. Water condensed and trickled down the glass, distorting the image and playing tricks with the light. Steam swirled until the room became thick with fog.
Natasha’s tried to relax as the warm water flowed around her. The big plans she had weren’t working out as well as she’d hoped. She had already been in Texas for three months, but had hardly learned any English, except fork and straw. She would never confuse those two again. She’d felt like a fool this evening when a customer asked for a straw and Natasha brought her a fork. The whole day had been a disaster. The whole stupid idea of coming to Texas was a disaster.
When she left Mexico, she hadn’t known anyone in America. Her sister Lupe had given her the name and number of a girl in Arvid, Texas. All she knew was that Arvid was south of Houston. That didn’t help much, because she didn’t know where Houston was. Now she wished she had never found it. Her Visa was good for ten years and her visitor’s permit still had nine months on it. Nine months? That seemed like ten years.
“O Dios mio.” The tears threatened again. She wanted to pray like she had as a child, when God was as easy to talk to as her Papa. Now the distance was daunting. It seemed she had left God in Mexico with everything else. It wasn’t just the day, the job or the rain. She was trapped here, and it was her pride that held her. “O Dios mio.” Oh, my God, my God.
Natasha sank as low as she could in the water. The bathroom was choked with steam and grew darker. She began to feel the tension eased out of her shoulders. She was suddenly very tired. The small glow in the corner seemed far away. In the churning mist, images took shape and flowed over her. The current carried her, and she surrendered to it.
She could see her father in the back yard. His wrinkled old hands were busy, but she couldn’t see what he was doing. Her sisters were talking, but she wasn’t listening. Then she and her father were walking toward the plaza, crossing the bridge near the park. It must have been Wednesday, because they were going to the movies, and they never went any other night. On Wednesdays they could watch two movies for the price of one.
“Did you close the store, Papa?” she asked and looked back. They were in the big plaza now, but she couldn’t find him. “Papa?” He was always wandering off. She was suddenly frightened for the old man, frightened for herself. “Papa!” she cried.
Natasha woke with a start and splashed water on the floor. The bath was cold so she turned on the faucet. The candle had burned low and the flame guttered, sending a writhing wisp of smoke into the darkness. Lying still, she tried to recapture the dream, forcing her thoughts along the avenues it had taken naturally. She followed the streets to the plaza and tried to imagine her father, but the dream was gone, and she couldn’t get it back. A tremor went through her, and she suppressed the urge to cry. Hanging her clothes above the bath, she wrapped her hair in another towel and put on some clean sweats. She blew out the candle.
Sofi was perched on the couch with a plate of gorditas on the coffee table. Natasha suspected her friend had sensed her mood and guessed the reason for it, but Sofi was discreet enough to avoid the subject. Instead, she smiled and patted the sofa beside her.
“Come sit down and help me eat this,” Sofi said. Then she chattered away about her daughter and how they’d spent the day. She’d done the laundry, washed the truck, bought groceries and rented a movie. “We’ve already watched it, but if you want to see it, I’ll watch it again.” Natasha wanted company, but didn’t want to talk. She let Sofi carry the conversation. “I was folding the clothes while it was on so I missed a lot, but I think it was pretty good.”
Natasha looked at the box the movie came in. The picture was interesting, but the words were in English. She liked American movies, but in Mexico they were subtitled.
“No,” she said, “maybe tomorrow.”
Sofi reached out and touched her arm. “You remember Daniel’s friend, the one who came to Michoacán Café last week, the tall one with the new truck?”
Natasha remembered him. He was cute, and tall. Tall was good. Cute was good, too, but she wasn’t interested. She knew where Sofi was going with this. Not a week went by that somebody didn’t want to meet her. Yolanda and Sofi were always trying to set her up with someone. Even if she had been interested, she couldn’t respect a man who didn’t act like a man. If he wanted to go out with her, he should be confident enough to ask her himself, not ask a friend or pass notes like schoolchildren.
Before Sofi could continue, Yolanda burst in the door, dripping and swearing. She continued her tirade in the general direction of her roommates, but otherwise ignored them. Throwing her wet coat on the floor, she headed for the bathroom.
The apartment was small, and they could hear her clearly as she moved from the bathroom to her bedroom and back to the shower. The neighbors undoubtedly heard her as well. Sofi smiled that familiar smile that said, “Well, that’s Yolanda.” Natasha was not amused. They ate in silence until they heard the water running in the shower.
Sofi picked up the wet coat and hung it in the kitchen. When she came back she continued as though they had not been interrupted, “Daniel’s friend really wants to meet you. He’s nice, Tacha,” she said, using her nickname. At the age of four, Sofi’s daughter couldn’t pronounce Natasha, so everyone in the house called her Tacha now. “He has a good job and a nice truck. It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one,” she teased, repeating one of Yolanda’s favorite sayings. Her little joke elicited a coy smile from Natasha.
“I’ve told you before,” Natasha said patiently, “I don’t want to meet a man; not a rich one or a poor one, not Mexican or American. I don’t need a man, and I’m not going to be here that long.” Natasha knew her friend only wanted the best for her. It was amazing how close they had become in the short time she’d known her.
Sofi relented and changed the subject. “I’ll have enough money to move out by August, maybe September,” she said softly. They hadn’t told Yolanda that they wanted to move. “If you still want to live with me, Daniel has a friend who wants to sell his mobile home. It’s nice and has a washer and dryer. Daniel says it’s a good deal.”
Daniel was their manager at the restaurant. He was also Sofi’s boyfriend. “Is this the same friend that has the red truck?” Natasha asked.
“No,” Sofi laughed. “Daniel has a lot of friends. So what do you think about moving in September?”
Natasha didn’t answer. She was entertaining the notion of returning to Mexico before then, and she didn’t want to get Sofi’s hopes up. She knew she could get her old job back on the border. No, she decided, that wasn’t an option. She couldn’t bear the thought of facing her family so soon. They had all tried to persuade her to forget this foolishness.
“You want to run before you can walk,” Her sisters had told her. They had said the same when she graduated college and moved to the border, but she had proven them wrong then, and she’d do it again.
“September’s not so far away,” Sofi said.
July, August, September, Natasha counted, two or three months. She liked the idea, but feared Sofi would be depending on her to make the payments. She started to answer, but the bathroom door swung open, and Yolanda came bounding into the room with the same energy she had left it. She was smiling like nothing had happened. Sofi and Natasha felt like prisoners planning a break in front of the warden.
“Anyway,” Sofi blurted out, “think about it. He’s cute, and he likes you.”
“Okay, I’ll think about it.” Natasha played along.
“You liar,” Yolanda interjected casually. “You’re not going to think about it. Let me guess, some other idiot is in love with you, but you’re not interested. We’ve heard all the excuses, but the truth is you’re still waiting for that phone to ring. It’s not going to happen. You left him. You left the country, and now he probably has another girlfriend. It’s your own fault.”
Sometimes Natasha hated Yolanda.
“Forget him, and forget this loser Sofi found. Come with me to the club, and I’ll find you a rich good looking guy who will make you forget you ever knew him.” Yolanda rattled on, oblivious of the effect of her words.
Natasha stood up and told Sofi, “September sounds good. I’m going to bed.”
Yolanda looked at Sofi. “September?”
Sofi smiled innocently and said, “I guess she’ll go out with him in September.” She followed Natasha to the bedroom.
There were only two bedrooms in the apartment, and Natasha had slept on the sofa until Sofi insisted she share the bed with her and Jasmine. Sofi nestled into bed on the other side of her daughter. “I’m sorry about Luis, Tacha. Maybe he’ll call.”
Natasha was angry again. It kept the tears at bay. “It’s not just Luis,” she whispered, feeling very defensive. “It’s not even mostly Luis.” She wondered if she was lying. “I just miss my family. I miss my Papa, my friends, Mexico.” This much she knew was true. She missed so much, and Luis was just part of everything she had left behind. But it was the truth in Yolanda’s words that hurt the most. She had left him, and he probably did have a new girlfriend. It was all her fault.
She knew Sofi understood the pain of leaving family and the helplessness of being alone in an alien world. Then Sofi reached over her daughter and tenderly stroked Natasha’s hair. The touch was reassuring and sweet and broke her stubborn defenses. She felt the tears run hot down her cheeks and couldn’t believe she was crying over a man. How many times had she consoled her friends while they cried over some boyfriend or other? Actually, she knew she hadn’t been much consolation. She had always thought it was ridiculous and a little pathetic the way they carried on. It was just a man, and anyone who allowed herself to become so emotionally dependent on another person got what they deserved. This must be God punishing her for all those times.
Her best friend in Mexico was recently engaged and planned to get married in the spring. She was happy for her and grateful she would be home by then. Maribel had always wanted to get married. Natasha never had. She was a chica moderna, a modern girl; strong, independent and self-sufficient. That reminder encouraged her that it wasn’t just Luis, but it didn’t stop the tears. Tonight she wasn’t strong. She was lonely and far from home, and she thanked God she had one real friend in America.