/ Fiction /
It’s never easy for a daughter to remember what kind of man her father once was. More specifically, a tall, striking man who met women in East L.A’s projects during the 1970s. Even more specifically, Robert who met Salma, and months later asked her to meet in front of their high school’s concrete wall, the one covered in Bulldogs, after receiving permission from Salma’s father for her hand in marriage. This, Zulema learned, is where both man and woman promised to each other their future lives without translating what each unique version of those lives looked like: for him, a clean home filled with children who adore him and a wife who will suck him dry until he is ready for another, and for her, a big home maybe filled with children, maybe not, and a husband who will look into her eyes while he fingers the Miraculous Medal pendant on her chest before slipping his income into her pockets.
What both Salma and Robert weren’t expecting was a baby girl, Zulemita, so soon. The honeymoon was too good, Salma had joked with Zulema, so el diosito gave us a backhanded blessing right before things could fall apart. Zulema took over their worlds. She hogged Salma’s tetas, wouldn’t sleep during her parents’ lovemaking, cried whenever Robert tried to relieve Salma so she could sleep. Baby Zulema pouted whenever Robert held and stared at her too long, already like a grown woman privy to the possessive stare of a man 6 drinks deep at the bar. She was a never-ending storm, creating chaos within their 1-bedroom apartment at a magnitude that Robert could not, would not deal with — which is why he found solace right after work. At Friday’s end, he threw his lunchbox full of Salma’s leftovers into his van and followed his coworkers into El Pedregal to taste the world he had left behind.
El Pedregal was a shapeshifter, a defiance to the surrounding East L.A. neighborhood that was becoming more and more dilapidated as Downtown L.A. stole investors’ interest. The bar housed the tired, the thirsty, the aroused, ending its days as a simple workers’ bar and transforming into a loud, glowing furnace filled with mirrors and poles. It was filled with women who didn’t care to know how a girl and her mother were frying buñuelos that weekend because that was the girl’s father’s, the mother’s husband’s, favorite dessert.
A dream came to Salma, where the soft whisper of an angel (her coworker who couldn’t sign up for food stamps yet and worked at El Pedregal on weeknights) warned of Robert’s little adventures. So, Salma went to El Pedregal alone. One Friday, after Zulema had just turned four, Salma asked the 88-year-old next door, who confided in Salma that she was actually Amelia Earhart and had returned from Honolulu to live in squalor as a disguise, to watch Zulema for a few hours before taking the bus to find her husband.
She wasn’t surprised the first time. Her own father played the same trick on her mother, and her grandfather on her grandmother before. What surprised her were the dozens of times after, the boarding and unboarding of the city bus with sore fingers that stitched individual rhinestones onto wedding dresses at JCPenney, the clinging of her coat while she walked past the beginnings and endings of bodies, the growing annoyance instead of shame when she saw Robert beneath two ass cheeks separated by single, white thread.
One day, she had had enough. Zulema was seven and about to enroll into a Catholic school that Salma could not afford. On a Saturday afternoon, while her husband napped on the couch, she was in the middle of cleaning the kitchen. Their argument about how she, not he, would pay for an education that should be free did not last long, as Robert argued there was absolutely no money for it. But he was not good at hiding a paper trail. She found a pile of new receipts from El Pedregal in his lunch box next to his wallet — many with numbers in the triple digits. Shoving them into her apron pockets, Salma grabbed his wallet, cutting cards in halves, quarters, eighths, until plastic lay scattered all over the table. Whatever cash was inside, she grabbed. She second-guessed placing the bills into her bra, but she figured it would feel like home for them anyways. She flipped over the lace tablecloth (a gift from her mother-in-law as a blessing on her marriage to her eldest son), tossing a napkin holder, old magazines, and cuernos onto the floor. Robert snored peacefully. She slid her arm across the counter, knocking over glasses, plates of frijoles from that morning, The Alchemist, and a ceramic change bowl onto the floor.
“Ay, chingado! Qué paso?!” Robert jumped from the couch. He finally heard her anger.
“Estúpido! Inútil! Vete a la chingada!”
Salma flattened her hand against her chest to secure the cash and ran to Zulema’s room. Zulema heard the crash and yelling, but she continued to lie in bed, playing “teacher” with her only stuffed animal.
“Whatever you do,” Salma said to her daughter, “do NOT open this door. Okay?”
“Si, ma. But what’s going on?”
“Put your chair up against the door knob!” Salma ran and bolted out the front door.
Roberto rubbed his eyes, heart racing. He had been dreaming of a myth his Indian (or was it Muslim?) friend told him about, the one where 99 virgins wait in heaven for you with 99 cows to slaughter — both for feasts and sex for a thousand lifetimes. The beer he had been drinking dribbled down his wife beater, a mix of sweat and alcohol pooling above his stomach. When he saw the kitchen, he figured it was his wife’s time of the month, but then he saw the lunchbox.
He stumbled to the door for the car keys, but she was already gone.
This was where Robert needed to make a choice. Outside, he heard a door slam among the traffic of the afternoon. Before Zulema could peek underneath the door to see if her mother had really left, Robert, for a split-second, decided he would lay back down and wake to Salma. Maybe there’d be a slap in the face, a busted lip, a Zulemita who would put her bikeless helmet on her head pretending she couldn’t hear anything. Or, he realized, he could end this pushback once and for all — a drunk man’s rationale for maintaining order in the home. Forgetting his shoes, he stumbled over to the kitchen and called la viejita next door.
* * *
Salma had no plan. She made it to the car and sat inside. She wasn’t really trying to go anywhere. Just offer the possibility she could. She turned the car on, blasting the newly repaired AC to fight the August heat. She thought of the movie “Como agua para chocolate,” (bad) and then how her divorced coworker made her read the book (better), and then how when the main character Tita’s mother died, she compared her feelings to a head of lettuce being separated from another head it had grown up with: there were none, because it would have been illogical for something to feel pain for another thing it never developed a relationship with. Salma determined she could go back inside, maybe make some hot chocolate for Zulemita and apologize for what she had done, but before she could remember Tita’s recipe, she saw Robert running out of the apartment building.
There are only so many words to describe an intoxicated man’s rage at a wife who felt she had emasculated him, but Salma would say later she was ready to jump out of the car and into the street because at least that pain would make sense. She jutted the car out of her street parking spot and veered onto the road. Her car almost collided into a truck, and the woman inside didn’t have time to flip her off before Salma saw Robert jumping into another car: the tired Chevy de la vieja next door. She cursed to herself, wondering how someone who believed herself to be Amelia Earhart owned a car in the first place, before she tried to place cars between herself and Robert.
Robert and Zulema did not know this, but Salma, along with her sisters, learned to drive before they hit any acceptable driving age in either the United States or Mexico. Whenever trips to visit family in San Antonio went long, their father would have them wait until the moon came up to drive the 20 minutes back to their home in Juarez so he could sleep off the alcohol from the day. Salma would take the wheel first. She was calm, a ship’s captain keeping the boat from steering off course.
Today, however, was not the day for such tranquility. She pressed her foot on the gas and weaved the ‘85 Buick past the carniceria, the public park that was really an extension of the adult school’s backside, the flower shop where it was said her madrina frequented to cheat on her husband with a married man. She turned into an alley that served as the city’s worst taco shop’s parking lot, and a man who saw her would tell the cops later no one was following her, that she was a madwoman causing chaos in the city for no reason.
Salma was being followed. Robert could see three of her, but in his experience, it was the center object that was the truth. The car swayed, a child’s attempt at drawing a straight line, and he too passed the carniceria, the flower shop, one of the city’s best taco shops after a night at El Pedregal. His face was hot, and with the windows down, he could feel his black curls struggling to stick to his skin. Cars honked at the both of them, some recognizing the couple’s dispute and hoping for the best, others considering calling the cops but realizing they wouldn’t, couldn’t do anything about it anyways. A couple leaving the flower shop caught whiff of the drunken anger-self righteous fear combination and considered breaking up on the spot. Salma recognized a street that led to a local church, but she could not turn the alley corner fast enough, and she felt the car stumble over the curb before feeling the cut of the seatbelt against her chest as Robert’s car crashed from behind.
There were no words, just gasps for air. Salma put the car in park and instinctively checked for Zulema behind. Because they couldn’t afford a booster seat, Robert had used bungee cables, blankets, and cardboard boxes to keep her from falling out; at the time, they laughed, but now, Salma wished she hadn’t paid for the AC repair. She could see Robert’s drooping eyelids through the rear windshield and knew this was what was waiting for her for the rest of her life. Instead of walking out to check on him, she put the car back in drive and drove home.
* * *
“You’re saying HE ran into YOU?”
The officer was looking at Salma before he pointed at Robert, who was back on the couch. The officer that had been dispatched arrived at Salma’s and Robert’s apartment a few hours after they both made it back home. Earlier, there had been a dispute between a raspado cart and ice cream truck that could not be de-escalated, and the officer left the scene with waffle cones and bloody knives in the street. The raspado man was triumphant.
“Yes, HE ran into ME. The back, the lower part — ”
“Yes, el bumper. It is squished in completely.”
“Hm, okay, yes, I saw a car with a dented bumper, but I also saw one with a busted fender. Which one were you driving?”
“Ah,” the officer said. “You know, my brother owns a Buick. Said it was a crap car, but he’s the one working at the bank, so who am I to say he’s a dummy. Anywho, in your case, it doesn’t look like a total loss, so your husband should be fine taking it in for repair. Is there anything else you need help with?”
“I want him taken in!” Salma pointed at her husband on the couch, his back turned to them. Almost 8 p.m., and he was asleep as if the world had slowed down, the dreams of virgins and beef illuminating his path to the afterlife.
“Well, I could take him in,” the officer said. “But he’s just gonna sleep off whatever he had and get an awful headache. Wouldn’t that be punishment enough?”
No, Salma thought, it wouldn’t be.
* * *
When she had first returned to the apartment from the collision, she knocked on Zulema’s door. Zulema asked, what’s the code word, and Salma said, andale chica, not today, and Zulema said, I’m sorry, I can’t let you in without the code word, and Salma took a step back, sighing, and cocked like a rooster before saying, qui qui ri qui, no queremos gallos aquí! Salma could not understand why her daughter laughed at a phrase that called for the removal of roosters, but Zelma, an honest child to her word, opened the door. She had been sitting in the closet with her helmet on, coloring the inside of a cereal box with a crayon, and went back to her work.
Salma bit her lip. She sat down next to her daughter, explaining what didn’t happen and what was about to happen, with her father, the police, the car. She also told the story of two dogs she grew up with, a pitbull and a chihuahua, who the family used as security. Salma didn’t really care for them, and when she saw Zulema’s eyes get big, she said but once the pitbull died, she had to learn to love the chihuahua because it would get so lonely and stop eating and needed to learn to be a watchdog on its own. Zulema understood and didn’t understand, especially because chihuahuas are too small and annoying to care for anyone, but she and her mother sat there, watching the sun fall deeper below the windowsill and waited for Robert to come home.