The day she decided to leave her lover, Romina was sitting in a plastic folding chair brought from home and waiting for her mother to be released from emergency services. Romina’s son, Ricardo, stood beside her. The gray backpack that contained their belongings was slung across his shoulder.
Romina had lost count of how many of her mother’s appointments she had come to this year. She still couldn’t find her way around the general hospital. The Social Security Institute was large: hallways interlocked and fanned out in stretches of maze that were built as additions to additions to the original structure, and no signs to point the way. It was Ricardo’s first time here since his father was brought in for a shotgun wound. He had left before they even arrived, and was never heard from again. Some days, Romina wished he had just died. Some days, Romina didn’t remember he had existed at all. It had been fifteen years since her husband disappeared—nearly as long as Ricardo had been alive, yet somehow the interminable waiting of this hospital felt longer.
“I don’t like it here,” Ricardo said. He was looking around at the groups of people sitting on the floors. The waiting area was small, with only a couple of chairs in it, so visitors had spilled out into the hallways with all their sad business; they sat on top of plastic bags or blankets or on the tiles themselves, which were covered in a thin layer of red sand trekked in from outside. Those who were more experienced brought their own foldable chairs.-
Looking up at her son, Romina was embarrassed all over again that their life had come to this, this interminable waiting. Ricardo was still dressed in his soldier’s uniform, a beige-green button-down shirt and pants that were held in place by a thick, black belt and high, sturdy boots. His face was stoic—always stoic. Romina couldn’t remember when he had last smiled sincerely, but she could tell he was trying when he looked down at her and pressed his lips into a thin grimace.
“Ejumina, che memby,” Romina said in Guaraní, trying to get up from her chair.
“I’m used to standing up,” Ricardo said.
Romina sucked her teeth and looked away. She couldn’t find a place to rest her eyes. The dishevelment of her fellow drifters had sprawled over every corner of the ground floor. Ever since she began working as a maid for Doctora Copari, who was nice and plump and who liked her white-tiled floors to shine as bright as lights, and who raised her voice when they didn’t, Romina took too much notice of unkempt surroundings. Romina never quite understood why her patrona was referred to as a “doctor.” Mariann Copari was an important lawyer, to be sure, but the country was lousy with lawyers, and somehow they were afforded this sense of grandiosity despite being the most common profession, which meant that most weren’t that great or even employed. But it was what it was, and Romina understood quite clearly that la doctora and her husband liked the house clean and orderly, without a single plate out of place or a single fallen leaf left in the pool or in the yard. After twelve years working for Doctora Copari, Romina had come to detest unkempt spaces. And there was nothing more unkempt than Paraguayan public hospitals.
When the attendant called for a Juliana Cabrera, Romina’s attention snapped. She looked around to see who had called her, if her mother had exited the office, but then another Juliana walked over from down the hallway and up to the desk. Romina stretched out her legs and shrugged at her son, who was looking down at her for instructions. She didn’t know what to do apart from wait in the squall, full of noise and suffocating motion.
On this particular visit, it had taken Romina twenty minutes to find the area for Orthopedics. An attendant in the lobby had sent her to the second floor of the left wing, where a receptionist had told her to turn back and head to the right wing’s basement floor. When Romina arrived there, with Ricardo half-carrying his hunched-over grandmother, the receptionist told them they were in the wrong place. Romina began to cry in frustration; she had gotten her mother the last available appointment that month, and if they were late, they would lose it. The receptionist offered to walk them to Orthopedics, back on the ground floor, close to where they had started. She signed them in for their appointment. Now, waiting for her mother to come out from the appointment, Romina rubbed at the residue tears from her face, licked her lip, and could taste the salt they’d left there.
“How long does this take again?” Ricardo asked.
“Abuela should be out soon,” Romina said, and beckoned him with a hand. Ricardo leaned down and Romina licked her thumb and slicked back a few strands of hair to get them in place.
“Mom, stop.” Ricardo pulled away and stood straight again.
“If you’re going back to your barracks after this, you have to look presentable,” Romina told him.
Romina turned to see her mother emerging from the exam room, hunched over her wooden cane like an old carancho bird. It terrified her for a second to think about what had become of her mother. A young man who looked her son’s age was walking her out. Romina noticed his white espolverino first, which hung loose and bulky despite how straight the man stood. When had they let children become doctors? Her mother had her arm hooked on the doctor’s and he passed her over to Ricardo.
“Any instructions?” Romina asked the doctor, standing up. She avoided saying his name because she had forgotten it, because he was the third doctor they’d seen in a month, because his duster wasn’t a proper lab coat and didn’t even have a name tag, so why bother asking.
“Like I told her, no salt in her foods. Pills only when her bones hurt too much and it’s stopping her from moving. When the weather passes, the seasonal aches will probably go away.”
“Why would we be here if it was just aches?” Ricardo asked.
The doctor stared at him.
“It’s just wind that blew at her wrong,” Romina said to Ricardo, by way of excusing her son’s lack of understanding. She noted the doctor’s irritation and so she hustled her family back to their standing area. “Thank you for the time,” she said.
They had to wait another hour for Romina’s mother to be officially released. The hospital staff couldn’t get the paperwork right—Romina’s insurance number took a long time to be verified, and the lady who finalized the bills was on break. Romina thought no one would really notice if they simply left, but she didn’t dare say this out loud. Instead, she gave her folding chair to her mother and stood with Ricardo to the side, pressed for space as people passed by, though she made sure to keep enough distance from the humid wall so as to not touch it with her back.
Romina reached over to take her son’s hand. He smiled at her but pulled his hand away after a few seconds and tucked it into his pocket. Romina thought back to when Ricardo was growing up. After his father left them, Ricardo stayed with Romina’s mother and younger sister. With her patrona living all the way in Asunción, Romina could only see him on weekends. She thought back to those mornings at the beginning of the week as she prepared to leave for work. She would get dressed, pack her bag, lean down to the bed she shared with her son to kiss him goodbye, and Ricardo would grab her hand and not let go.
“The sooner I leave, the sooner I’ll come back,” Romina would tell him, each time. It usually took another few minutes to pry herself away. One time, Ricardo held on with such strength that she ended up dragging him off the bed. When Ricardo was older, he realized the truth.
“That’s a lie,” he’d say, “you can only come back on Saturdays.” The last time Ricardo held on to Romina like that, he was nine. Now she got occasional hugs, a kiss on the cheek before he left the house, and she missed the ferocity with which he hung on to her.
To try to close the distance between them, she turned to look at him and asked, “How is training?”
Ricardo shrugged. “I guess it’s going okay,” he said. “When I turn twenty, I’ll take the exam for the military veterinary school. They’re still making us cook for the higher-ups, but at least I learned how to make mbejú. And good tortillas.”
“Did they steal anything else from you?”
“No, mamá,” Ricardo answered. “Just that first week. And they only took my coat.”
“I’ll ask for an advance and get you another one,” Romina said. “Winter is around the bend and the sergeants will hit you if you don’t have the complete uniform.”
“You don’t have to,” Ricardo said, “but thank you.”
When had her boy become this polite, aloof man?
“How’s that girl of yours?” Romina’s mother asked from the chair.
“I’m a bit tired,” Ricardo answered. “But she’s alright, I think.” He scratched his smooth chin.
Romina smiled at her son’s prepubescent complexion. “You know,” she said, “it’s better to be alone than cluttered with someone who just fills up space.”
Ricardo nodded at his shoes. He might have pretended to be an adult, and was as tall as one, but he still couldn’t grow a full beard. Romina felt that until he could, she’d have a place as his mother.
When the paperwork was ready, Ricardo helped his grandmother up, then picked up the chair in a swift motion. He was always so strong; even heavy things seemed insignificant around him, never mind something as light as this. He carried the chair under one arm and his grandmother held on to his other arm. Romina walked ahead of them, weaving through the other patients until she got to the exit, then led them as they dodged the street vendors and passersby on the streets of Cañada del Ybyray. The air smelled of empanadas, of hot oil and herbs, of mangos. As they elbowed their way around the sidewalk to the bus stop, Romina noticed a pile of discarded orange peels and stepped on it so that the smell would waft up and follow her all the way home.
Two hours and three bus rides later, they were standing at the side of the highway in the town of Nueva Colombia, far from the noise and paved streets of Asunción. Ricardo called a cousin to come pick them up so they wouldn’t have to walk the last thirty minutes through dirt to get to the house.
Mabel, Romina’s youngest sister, was waiting for them with supper prepared. She herded them out to the corredor porch, where she’d arranged a rich spread with wine and candles: rice and boiled chicken for their mother, and rice with thick, maroon tomato sauce for Romina and Ricardo. To keep the mosquitos away, Romina lit a vaka rekaka and placed the dried-out cow manure on a tin plate at their feet. The tangy, soft smell of burnt charcoal and the sound of the cicadas made the evening soothing, familiar. After the meal, Romina and Mabel helped their mother change into a nightgown in her room, and Ricardo then lifted his grandmother onto the bed she shared with Mabel. Ricardo said goodbye and began the walk to the stop to wait for a bus that would take him back to the barracks.
“Do you miss him?” Mabel asked Romina, later on the porch.
They were passing a tereré guampa back and forth in the dark, the sun long gone. Romina flicked her tongue so that the water swirled once along the roof of her mouth and back down, tasting the flavor of the yerba mate in the ice-cold water, feeling the coolness travel down her chest. Across the field, past the enormous mango tree, Romina and Mabel could see the lit-up houses of their other sisters, who lived on the plot of land that had once belonged to their father, and which had passed to all of them after his death.
“Ricardo?” Romina answered. “Sometimes.” She adjusted the metal straw inside the guampa and handed over the cup.
“I meant Manuel,” Mabel said.
Romina looked at her sister, then at the night sky. She didn’t know how to answer; it had been too long since Manuel had been around, too long since he’d helped her calculate the bills, asked her about her day, brought her a flower on his way home from the ironmongery store where he worked. The day Manuel was shot, he’d picked up a handful of Agosto Poty from the side of the road on his way to work. The police arrived to find him laid out in an aisle of paint cans and step ladders. In his bag, three winding yellow flowers were tucked inside rolled newspaper. That was all Ramona found of him when she got to the hospital—the day’s newspaper and the wilting flowers. He’d left without even calling her.
“I don’t know if I remember him anymore,” Romina said.
After a few more minutes, Mabel got up and turned off the gas lamp, a signal it was time for bed. The house had only two rooms. With Ricardo gone and their mother sick and already asleep, Romina and Mabel climbed into bed together.
“When do you think this will be over?” Mabel asked Romina.
“Soon, I hope,” Romina answered.
In the dark, drifting, Mabel draped an arm around Romina’s frame and held her. The bellowing of toads piled up around them.
Romina woke up before 3 a.m. to boil water for her mother’s mate. When it was ready, she poured it into a thermos, grabbed yesterday’s yerba from where she’d left it to dry, and packed it into the guampa, making sure that the green leaf pellets had been smashed tight inside of the emptied-out cow horn that made the cup. She set the guampa and the thermos on the table, then padded quietly around the house as she got ready for the day. She grabbed the purse that Doctora Copari had gifted her a few weeks ago, assembled her belongings, sprayed on the last of her perfume, slipped out of her house flip flops and into a newer pair, then headed out to catch the bus for Asunción.
It was still dark out, so she used her cell-phone flashlight to illuminate the path. She had lived there her entire life, all forty-nine years, knew the way with eyes shut. But just last week her sister’s husband was nearly bitten by a yellow mburure, coiled near the mango tree. Romina used the phone’s light to find where the grass was already trampled down.
Luis and Ramona’s house was dark still, but out on the small quincho, Romina’s nephew, David, was already up smoking a cigarette. She waved to David but didn’t say a word, then lifted the latch of the metal gate and slipped out onto the dirt road.
Twenty minutes later, she reached the paved road, then dug out her black ballerina shoes from her purse and slipped them on. Her flip flops were ideal for walking the dirt roads, especially as she navigated potholes and puddles, but her patrones preferred that she dress a little more professionally. And she liked how the other ladies glanced down at the ballerinas, a present bought for her in some land she had never even set foot in.
In the hazy orange glow of dawn, Romina took her place next to the stump of the metal post that had once marked the omnibus stop. One of the neighborhood kids had crashed his motorcycle into the sign many years ago, and no one had bothered to replace it. The omnibus had no official schedule, and it wasn’t until four that the first bus of the day came chugging down the road toward the stop. She lifted her arm to catch the driver’s attention. Once she found her seat, she promptly fell asleep, and didn’t stir until they reached Asunción two hours later, when passengers began filing out for Santisimo Sacramento Street. She hurried her belongings together and climbed down onto the black-and-white-checkered sidewalk. Romina walked with her head down, as was her habit. Four blocks up, then right, and to the wood-and-brass gate and brick wall of her patrones’ house. She set her purse on top of her feet and rang the doorbell, standing in front of the camera. It took a few minutes for la doctora’s voice to come through the intercom.
“Romi,” la doctora said, “I’ll be right there.”
Not long after the gate opened, la doctora’s toy poodle, Camila, was yapping at Romina’s feet. Romina pushed past her, patting her white spongy head, and went to hug Doctora Copari.
“How was your vacation?” la doctora asked, her voice still thick with sleep.
“Okay. Nothing much happened, and they made me work too much back home,” Romina answered with a dry laugh. They walked through the front yard, to the garage entrance, down the service hallway and to the kitchen, where Romina set her bag down on the island.
“Come sit down with me while I finish this cigarette,” la doctora said. Romina followed her to the quincho and pulled a chair away from the table, so that she could sit without brushing up against the tablecloth with her legs. This Monday-morning ritual, of sitting with her patrona before she left for work, allowed Romina a moment of serenity after such a long commute, before the workday began for both women. Doctora would smoke in her pajamas, and they would talk while taking turns throwing the tennis ball into the yard for Camila to fetch.
“How’s your mom?” la doctora asked.
“Ay, Doctora.” Romina rested her arms on her legs and looked out at the green yard. “Her bones are all crooked and they hurt and she still finds a way to sneak salt into the food Mabel makes her. And when Mabel isn’t home, she eats everything she’s not supposed to.”
“It’s really hard to take care of someone who doesn’t want to be taken care of.”
“I give you your reason,” Romina said.
“I think you mean you agree with me.”
“Has Ricardo taken the exam yet?”
“He’s set to take it in November. He’ll be twenty then and past his training.”
“I hope they’re not giving him too hard of a time.”
When Doctora finished her cigarette, they left the table and headed upstairs. Romina headed back into the kitchen, grabbed her belongings, and carried them up the winding metal staircase in the laundry room to her quarters and set them on her bed. She changed into the capris and shirts she wore for work, left her flats in her wardrobe, and switched back to her nice flip flops. She climbed down to the laundry room, then slipped back into the kitchen. She prepared coffee for la doctora and an egg-white omelet for her husband. While they ate, she rushed upstairs to make their bed and clean their bathroom. Breakfast done, with her patrones ready to head out for work, Romina heaved open the garage door, a giant slab of wood and metal that slid upward on a rail. Once they were gone, she went back to the kitchen to clear the table and wash the dishes, and was done with the morning’s work by ten.
The house was so still and quiet that she could hear the fluttering of the two yellow pitogüés in the garden. She picked up Camila and sat on the kitchen stool, next to the island, from where she could see the TV in the living room. La doctora and her husband had said, several times, that she could watch TV, but she explicitly refused to sit on the sofa. So she would sit on her stool, hunched over and resting her arm on the marble countertop of the kitchen island, her head on her hand. She’d take her flip flops off and rest her feet on the cold tile floor while Camila lay on top of her shoes and slept. News shows, reruns of the news shows, a court case show where people aired their grievances with neighbors and scorned lovers, and competition reality shows filled the silence.
Around noon, Romina heard steps on the staircase and knew that Sofia, la doctora’s nineteen-year-old daughter, had woken up. Romina was used to being alone with Camila, but she loved it when summer came around and Sofia was back home from her university abroad.
“Camila, you’re a traitor,” the young woman announced as she walked into the kitchen. The dog sprang up from where she’d been sleeping and hobbled over to Sofia. The girl hugged Romina and then sat down on the floor with Camila on her lap, gently scratching the puppy.
“She just didn’t want me to be alone for so long,” Romina offered.
“Mmm,” Sofia said. “How’s your day been so far?”
“The same as always,” Romina answered.
“It might get a bit busier. My mom’s getting here soon,” Sofia said. “She asked me to help you prepare the quincho because my aunt is coming over.”
“Your aunt Linda?” Romina got up from her stool hurriedly.
“She’s visiting for a chat, I guess.”
Mrs. Linda was Doctora’s cousin and most trusted friend, and whenever she visited, always at the spur of the moment, most times unannounced, the two women drank whiskey and red wine while they smoked in the garden. Romina knew she didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, so she spun a couple of times in place to mentally locate a thread serviette, which she draped over a silver tray. Then she placed glasses, cold water bottles, and an ice bucket with freshly crushed ice on the tray.
“I think you lost some weight,” Romina said. Sofia was tall but always slightly rounded, with a white moon face and full lips that were quick to smile. Sofia scoffed and didn’t answer.
“Do you like my hair like this?” Sofia asked, showing Romina the locks she’d had dyed a few weeks before. The roots were growing back in, deep mahogany, but Romina thought the contrast looked better against Sofia’s fair skin.
“Yes, I like it,” Romina answered. “When my gray roots come in, it looks like I have a steel wool sponge on my head.”
“I like your curls,” Sofia said. “You should wear them down more often.”
Romina leaned against the counter and watched as Sofia stood up to rummage through the pantry for cereal. She thought it was nice to have movement around the house, to have soft noises.
“It’s nice to have someone to talk to,” Romina said.
“Camila hasn’t learned to answer back yet?” Sofia asked.
“Your aunt Linda is funny,” Romina said.
“She’s a bit insane, I think. Did you know one time she made my mom dig up grave dirt for a love ritual that a seer gave her?” Sofia poured cereal into a mug and Romina handed the girl a spoon.
“She always stops to say hello to me,” Romina said. “And goodbye, too.”
“Well, okay, the nice kind of insane,” Sofia said.
“What will be of me when you go back to school?” Romina asked Sofia.
Sofia smiled and leaned against Romina’s body in a side hug while she poured milk into the cereal mug but didn’t answer. They both knew the silence was bound to swallow them whole. Instead of letting it, Sofia said, “Let me help you fold the napkins.”
Romina covered the outside dining table with a clean tablecloth while Sofia folded napkins. Just as they were finishing, the sound of la doctora’s car horn blared at the front of the house. Camila ran to greet her—down the corridor, past the laundry room, to the door that led to the garage. Romina followed, and no matter how she tried she could never outpace the little dog in all its excitement. She pushed open the garage door and her patrona pulled in and shut the engine off. When they walked into the laundry room, la doctora was already taking off her shirt.
“Ay, Romina,” she said. “Help me get out of these clothes. I can’t stand them.”
Romina smiled and bent down to help her patrona take her heels off. Then she grabbed a fresh house dress from the laundry basket and handed it to her. “I have everything already prepared for you,” she said.
“Thank you, my Romi,” la doctora said. Romina looked down at the floor to not look at la doctora as she undressed, catching la doctora’s clothes as they flew off, and folded them into a neat pile. “Sofia, please do me a favor and give Camila a shower. We could use saving some money and not taking her to the veterinary. And she stinks.”
“The Engineer has been complaining that she hasn’t showered this week yet,” Romina added.
“It’s only Monday,” Sofia said. “He’ll take any excuse to rag on the dog.”
“Don’t call her a dog,” la doctora answered. “She has a name. And go wash her.”
When Sofia’s mother left, Sofia turned to Romina with big, pleading eyes. Romina sighed and grabbed an old towel from the cupboard in the laundry room and pointed to Sofia to grab the small dog.
“I’ll help you,” Romina said, and they headed upstairs to Sofia’s bathroom.
“Do you think we’ll be done by the time my aunt gets here?” Sofia asked.
“Don’t be scared. We’ll be done in less than twenty minutes,” Romina said.
“You can’t be that fast.”
“Hmm,” Romina huffed, “I had nine sisters. I can shower babies with eyes closed.”
Sofia raised her hands up in surrender. She sat on the toilet and passed Romina the shampoo, waited until Romina rinsed Camila with a plastic pitcher, then passed Romina the conditioner. The room began to smell of menthol and mint.
Romina lifted Camila onto the bathroom’s white marble countertop and toweled the puppy until she was damp, then used a blow dryer to get the last of the moistness out of its hair. When she was done, she set Camila back down on the floor. Camila dashed away, down the hall and through the house, paddling against the wooden floors like a tiny mad horse, her hair glossy and sleek.
Soon after, la doctora’s friend arrived, and the two of them sat outside near the yard to smoke and talk. Camila barked and snapped at fireflies as the light fell, and by 7, Doctora’s husband walked through the door. Romina fixed dinner for him and for Sofia, served them both dessert, then tea. As soon as they retired upstairs, she began to wash the dishes. By 8:30 she was back at the kitchen island, on her stool, eating her dinner.
In the quincho, la doctora and Linda kept smoking and cackling. They asked Romina for fresh ashtrays and a bowl of popcorn to go with their whiskeys, and Romina knew that it would be a while before they asked her for anything else, and longer still until Linda left. The night was hot and sticky, so Romina turned on the kitchen fan and laid down on the off-white azulejo floor to rest. Azul-lejo, far away blue. She could see a small slice of night sky in the corner of the kitchen window. She rested there while she waited to be called.
Later that week, Romina had begun cooking dinner when one of her sisters called—she could hear Mabel’s ringtone from outside, but if she left the pan alone the milanesas might burn and then she’d get a scolding that she didn’t want to deal with. She carefully pried the slab of battered meat from the popping oil and set it on the tray, on top of the squares of kitchen paper. She then carried her tray of milanesas from the quincho, where the electric burner and used oil sat cooling on a wooden table against the kitchen window, into the house, served Doctora, her husband, and Sofia their lunch. She took a milanesa back to the kitchen for herself. Instead of sitting down to eat, she grabbed her phone and walked down the corridor to the laundry room to call Mabel.
“What happened?” Romina asked.
“Che jukama,” Mabel sighed. “Why is it that you can never answer when I first call you?”
“I was working,” Romina said. “Is Mom okay?”
“No. We’re going to have to take her to the emergency room in Luque. Antonio drove over with his truck and we’re heading there soon.”
“What is it this time?” Romina asked. Romina could faintly hear her mother fighting with Antonio, asking him to go back.
“Same thing as every time,” Mabel said. “I think she made tortillas this time. The flour was opened.”
“You know fried foods and bread are off-limits. I told you to keep the flour on top of the fridge so she can’t reach. Ha’sy to follow instructions.”
“No, it’s not hard. I just forgot.”
Romina didn’t have anything else to say. She sighed and sat down on the last rung of the spiraling staircase. She could hear Mabel speaking to Antonio now, asking him to take her mother’s purse to the back seat of his truck.
“I’ll call you after we consult with the doctor,” Mabel said. “Jajuecháta.”
“Yes. See you Saturday,” Romina said. She hung up the phone and stayed quiet in case she’d missed her patrones calling for her from the dining room.
After a few minutes, all quiet, she slowly climbed the spiral steps to her room. At the top of the stairs, she looked down at how the gray metal fanned downward to the floor. From this angle, it reminded her of the shells of snails that emerged from the soil after big rains hit the countryside.
Mabel was born when Romina was already sixteen. She was the last child of the family, ten in all. When Romina’s first three sisters—Adela, Beatriz, and Ramona—were born, Romina was too young to really know what a sister meant. She thought they were as pretty as the noisy dolls she sometimes saw in the supermarkets of the capital, back when her mother would bring her along as she cleaned houses in Asunción. Then came Noemi and Liz, and after that her mother stayed in the house all day. Father drank, and drank, and gambled, and then imploded, lit up inside from cirrhosis and gout and a ruptured heart in the span of two years. Before that he bet away an oven, their pet parrot, his butcher shop. Romina never liked Arami or Margarita. But when Mabel got there, she was excited. Mabel was different from her other sisters: She smiled wide and often, and once she could speak, she’d talk with Romina for hours.
Now Mabel was thirty-three and finishing her university degree, their father long gone. Adela had married Antonio, the only family member who owned a vehicle that wasn’t a motorcycle.
As the only one with a steady job, Romina would be the one who had to pay for yet another hospital visit. She sat on the edge of her bed and grabbed her savings envelope from the locked drawer of the nightstand, where it was safe from the prying hands of her family. She pulled out her last one hundred thousand guaraníes, enough to pay for Antonio’s gas and her mother’s checkup and to buy a few groceries on the way back home, and placed them in the shoes she would wear on the bus home the next day.
“Jajotopata,” Romina said to the bills in her shoes. “Maybe in another life I’ll see you again.” She grabbed the wad of remaining bills, less than fifty thousand guaraníes, folded them up, and stored them back in her nightstand.
Not long after dinner, Sofia left to go dancing. La doctora and her husband said goodnight, and with Camila at their heels they went upstairs. Romina stayed in the kitchen to watch TV and wait up for Sofia. She watched her favorite game show for a while but could barely keep her eyes open. After about three pirakutus, her head snapping back and forth like a fish pulled out of water, she gave up fighting the thick wave of sleep and lay down on the black couch in the living room. She left her phone on the table next to her and quickly drifted away.
When the ringtone woke her, it felt like only minutes had passed. She rubbed the sleep away and sat up to answer. Sofia’s voice, telling Romina that she was outside. It took Romina less than a minute to walk down the corridor to the laundry room, through the backdoor to the garage, and across the front yard, to open the front door and let Sofia in.
Sofia’s friend honked her horn once and screamed a greeting when she saw Romina. Romina waved back and stepped to the side to let Sofia in.
“Thank you, Romi,” Sofia said, hugging her, with a waft of cigarette and perfume and the slight tang of some liquor. They went back to the kitchen, where Sofia grabbed two glasses and poured cold soda. She opened the pantry and began rummaging for a snack.
“Do you want anything, Romi?” Sofia asked.
“No, no. I’m okay.”
Sofia smiled and shook her head. She took a bag of round chipas from the bread cabinet and handed some to Romina with the glass of soda before pulling a stool from underneath the island. Romina sucked on her teeth and shook her head at Sofia, but she accepted the snack anyway.
“I’m glad you went out,” Romina said. “You haven’t done much since you got back home.”
“Ay, Romi,” Sofia sighed. “Me, too. It was sort of okay. I just don’t know if I know my friends from here anymore.”
“That’s okay. I’m sure they like you still.” Romina dusted the veil of flour and a few anise seeds from the chipa off her fingers to avoid eye contact for a while, in case she was wrong. When Sofia didn’t say anything, Romina said, “What about that boy you used to talk to last year?”
Sofia scoffed and rolled her eyes. “You know how they are here.”
“Why do you think I haven’t gotten another?” Romina said, breaking a small portion of the chipa off and watching the crumbs drizzle on the black marble. She thought of wiping it up, but she’d have to clean it again in a few hours before serving breakfast anyway and didn’t want to do it twice. She thought of Eulogio and his big hands, how they traversed the entire expanse of her back. How they could span the width of her neck. She had never felt light as feathers until she was with him, and then had never felt so leaden. She let the crumbs gather in a small pile.
“Why haven’t you?” Sofia asked.
“Dios mío, I just cannot stand the look of an old woman with a younger man,” Romina said. Sofia laughed, bringing her brows together in question. “I see those kinds of couples in the bus when I go back home. The men look like the women’s children. María has one, did you know?”
“My grandma’s María? You’re kidding.”
“Yes, that María,” Romina said. “She thinks it’s fun but I know what they want. We don’t have a pretty face, but we have a job and a bit of money and that’s what they want.”
Sofia shook her head in disbelief. She had already finished her snack and soda and got up from the stool to wash them. When she was done washing, Sofia moved over to the island and scooped up Romina’s crumbs with a wet rag. “What about an older guy, then?”
“They’re also no good,” Romina said. She wrapped her remaining chipas into a napkin to save for her coffee the following morning.
Sofia nodded. “Go on,” she said.
“I’ll have to wash more clothes when I go back and cook bigger meals and then he’ll want another thing done for him.” Romina got up from her stool to store her little napkin package in the corner of the bread cabinet and her glass of soda in the fridge. “I haven’t had to serve others in a long time. And I don’t want to do that for someone else anymore.”
Eulogio was always asking for more. It’s fair, he’d say, for me to want one more kiss, one more scratch across his back, one more go. Because he was young, and tall, and because the way he looked at her with those brown, downturned eyes made her kneecaps turn to water, she’d give in, lean in for another kiss, run her nails along his skin, lie down on the gray sheets, just once more before leaving the motel. In all her fifty years, Romina never thought she’d ever see the inside of one. Motels were infamous in the city: drive into a garage that closes behind you, get to the room, do what you would inside, and leave. Sometimes a guard closed the door, sometimes an attendant in an office saw you through a camera and pressed a button. She had seen round beds, squared traditional, couches, rooms where everything was painted red, rooms with cockroaches drifting by. Once, someone before them had left a heart-shaped cage the size of a soda can on the nightstand. They paid through a slot in the back of the room after they were done, sat waiting in the garage until the gate opened so they could drive out. The punctuality of these transactions surprised her. The first time they went, she insisted on paying for half the room herself.
Before that first afternoon together, they had chatted for weeks online. When they finally decided to meet up, he coasted to a stop at the corner of the patrona’s house on his motorcycle, his helmet slung on his elbow. The engine was off so as not to attract attention, like Romina had asked, but his phone was blasting a cachaca song—he didn’t have any earphones on. Romina liked the song, had even turned the radio up that morning while sweeping when it came on, but the brassy tin of the güiro was as loud as a sea of cicadas in the summer. Eulogio was still wearing his security guard uniform, and he gave her his helmet. Romina felt the heat rise up to the crown of her head and hurried to get on. She had immediately liked his eyes and then his hands and then how much room he took up when he leaned back on his forearms in that rented bed.
Romina’s mother had been in good health then and hadn’t needed much attention. Ricardo was away at military training, Mabel was busy with university. Her sisters were busy with their own lives. Things were good. Romina got upset with Eulogio only once, when he insisted on seeing her on a Sunday. Those were the only days she could visit her son at the base, and the imposition and arrogance with which Eulogio dismissed this rankled her. She’d called him while watering the patrona’s plants, right before heading to the base. Ferns dotted the quincho, balanced on golden pedestals.
“When can I see you again,” he’d insisted. She sighed and let him make plans for dinner and talk about some gift and repeated the day, Sunday. He didn’t want to reschedule, kept begging to see her—peach heart, angel eyes, heart of my soul. Romina’s hands and feet went numb, all her anger rushing out of her through her extremities. She hung up on him and looked at the phone, had tipped the watering can on a fern and didn’t remember she was holding it tipped until water sloshed down the pedestal, forming a puddle on the floor. Romina hated cleaning up after overfills. It was the kind of mopping she loathed. She needed a rag to soak up the water, then the broom with the hard bristles to catch the wet dirt that had splattered. She got on her knees and scraped the tiles until they shone, then finished watering the other plants.
And then, Eulogio gave her flowers. A whole bouquet, twenty or so, bright white lilies. He pulled them out of his backpack after they were done, where they had been crumpled and stuffed for a clearly long time. She stared at them: the drooping leaves, the silly crinkled yellow cellophane paper they were wrapped in, the dumb red bent bow at the base. She had never gotten flowers before. She hated that these were the first.
“Because they reminded me of you,” he interrupted.
What she was going to ask was—why did he get her flowers for a corpse? The scent of lilies was what you smelled at a mortuary. Formaldehyde, fake air from an air-conditioning unit, lilies in every vase on every surface in every crevice in the flower crown arrangements at every funeral she had ever attended. Her father’s wake was in a shabby funeral home back in Nueva Colombia, when she was twelve. They didn’t have the money for any flowers, and no one sent any, so the mortician brought in lilies from his office and set them next to the casket. That was the first time she had seen flowers plucked from the ground and placed somewhere as silly as a table.
Romina laughed, like an escaped cough, when she saw them in her hands. The white petals against her rough skin looked as ridiculous as on the table.
“Oh, so you like them?” Eulogio smiled.
He was pleased with himself, with these dead-people flowers he’d gotten, pulled from the upturned soil of what may as well have been a grave. The more he spoke, the less she could hold her smile in place for his benefit. He was talking about a house somewhere in the countryside. She watched his big hands with those thick knuckles and remembered them on her legs, on her elbow, her cheek. He scooted closer, pressed her to his shoulder, tried to show her the video for a song on his phone, bent down to sing it to her. She looked away from his pathetic effort. Her gaze bounced around the room. Purple sheets on the floor, the glass shower with the moss starting up in the tiled floor, the door to the garage outside. She wished motel rooms would have windows if only for having somewhere to look. Finally, when he had swallowed up all the air in the room, she got up and asked to leave.
She threw the flowers behind a thick bougainvillea bush before arriving back at her patrona’s house. Romina made a point of showing her patrones a supermarket bag when she walked in and complained about how slow the cashier had been. After serving dinner, she headed up to her room without bothering to check if her patrones needed anything else, if she could be of service, or even to say goodnight. She didn’t want to hear her name on anyone’s lips.
She lay on her twin bed and disappeared into her phone, scrolling through social media, trying to ignore the incessant ding of incoming messages: saccharine quotes. Gifs of puppies. More flowers with dedications in cursive. Eulogio filled her space even now. It was just a sound, a small chime on her phone, and if she had known how to turn the feature off she would have, and if she had known how to block that boy she would have. But the phone buzzed and dinged and whistled at her. And when she put it on silent it flashed with craving. This was her time to rest, her time to finally be alone, when she set her feet against the headrest and crossed her ankles and called her son. The phone would not shut up. Romina wanted to hurl it at the wall, watch it explode into a thousand pieces. But it kept on and on, quaking with impatience, one message after another, one more call. The flowers weren’t the end of it, but that’s how she remembered him now, spilled about in all his sad business, waiting for her. His humid hands around the stems.
Late on Friday night, just as Romina was washing the last of the dishes, the electricity went out. She sighed in the dark and waited for her eyes to adjust to the moonlight, her hands still holding the sponge and a fork underneath the cold water of the tap. When she could see the outlines of the drying rack, she finished washing the last items and set them to dry. The ceiling fan had only just turned off, but already Romina felt weighed down by the stuffy air in the kitchen.
She opened a window, then grabbed the emergency lamp from the pantry and turned it on. She gazed around the kitchen: There was nothing else to do, but if she went up to her room now, she wouldn’t be able to sleep from the heat. So she pulled her stool from underneath the kitchen island and sat down to wait it out.
A gentle breeze blew in through the window. Romina leaned on her elbows on the island, her face in her hands, staring past the open doorframe of the kitchen into the dark living room. After some time, she heard two sets of footsteps trickling down the stairs, one with loud flip-flop smacks and the other a soft, quick pattering.
“Hey,” Sofia said from the living room.
Romina smiled at the girl and got up from the kitchen stool. “I was waiting for you,” she said. “I knew you’d come down when the light went away.”
Sofia pulled on the fabric of her blue nightgown, lifting it up from where it stuck against her body and fanned her face with one hand. A moment later, Camila appeared in the doorway and lifted her front paws against Romina’s capris to greet her. Romina scratched the poodle’s head and went through the living room and out into the quincho.
“My mom was listening to the radio. They say it’s city-wide,” Sofia said. “I guess it’s because of the lightning storm.”
Romina sucked her teeth. “They do it on purpose,” she said, “so that the grid doesn’t get overheated.”
“You think?” Sofia said.
“It’s too hot inside,” Romina said. “But you can see the trees swaying in the yard. It’ll be nice if we go out.”
They stepped out into the quincho. Romina brought the emergency flashlight and left it next to the flowers on the table. The light bounced off the white ceiling and illuminated the wooden dining table, the speakers, and the couches at the far end of the quincho. Sofia sprawled herself on the big, white tiles of the floor next to the dining table and Camila lay down beside her. Romina dragged the old wooden rocking chair from its place in the corner of the quincho and placed it near the edge, where the tiles gave way to grass and the wind blew a little stronger. Her bones felt heavy. If she lay down on the floor with the girl and the dog, she would need help getting up. So she sat down on the chair and tipped her head back. A full moon brightened the night sky, without a single cloud to hide the stars. But Romina’s arm hairs still tingled in anticipation of the storm.
“Romi,” Sofia said from the floor, “tell me a story.”
“Eh,” Romina answered. “What do you mean a story?”
“Anything. Just something. Maybe about when you were younger?”
Romina rocked a few times and then sat still. She looked down at Sofia, who had her eyes closed, and at Camila, who was resting her small head on Sofia’s leg. “I don’t have much to tell,” Romina said. “It’s really nice out here.”
When the wind blew past the quincho, the colored glass of the hanging angel callers chimed against each other. The only other noise was the frog that lived at the end of the yard, underneath the big palm tree, that sang every night during the summer.
“I realized today that I don’t really know anything about how people stay together,” Sofia said. “Diego isn’t who I thought he would be.”
Romina smiled but didn’t answer. She looked around at the wide quincho, at the newly planted grass in the garden, at the pool that broke through the dark green of the grass. She let the silence hang for some time before she said, “Those people bitter you up from the inside. In the long run.”
“Yeah?” Sofia said. “He had a soccer match and insisted I go along to watch it. And even after that I couldn’t go home. I had to go and watch him drink with his friends.”
“Next thing you know, you’re alone while he’s drinking with friends.” Romina laughed and shrugged in her chair.
“He even got upset that I wasn’t interested in joining the girls team.” Sofia huffed while she ate.
“That’s not who you are.”
“Can you imagine me kicking?”
“Men like that consume you. And then they complain about the feeling turning off.”
By the time the electricity switched back on, they had both fallen asleep where they were. Romina dreamt of the strong summer winds, of warm currents that reached the rocking chair she sat on, that brushed the bare skin of her arms. She dreamt they blew away the clouds so that the lightning passed quietly overhead, the storm distracted enough to stumble away to some other land.