I. Maria Elena
Now that they’d finished negotiating the streets of suburban Tucson, the busy, distracting noise they’d made had fallen away. Silence rose up in its place, a third sister, ready to ride with them all the way to California.
Maria Elena adjusted the mounted GPS, and accelerated to pass a groaning pickup truck. Cecilia had been useful in relaying the GPS’s direction when they were making their way from their mother’s former home to the freeway, but now that they were on the road that would take them all the way to San Diego, she’d gone quiet, her eyes unfocused and her fingers plucking absently at the waist of her jeans. At least she was driving, Maria Elena though. Cecilia hadn’t protested when they’d retrieved the keys from their mother’s old neighbor, and she was double glad of that now. It was the natural order, that she should drive and Cecilia should ride, but it also have her hands something to do. Maria Elena checked her rearview mirror again, then her left and her right.
“Have you talked to mom yet?”
Cecilia rolled her head towards Maria Elena. “I texted her when we got to the car.”
“She told me to call when we got close.”
Maria Elena nodded, shifted lanes. It had been five years since she and Cecilia had last seen each other. Christmas, with their mother, at the rented house in Tucson. An unremarkable holiday. Maria Elena brought cookies from the grocery store she managed, and Cecilia’s daughter Jamie, seventeen and weeks away from the inseminating incident that would make Cecilia a grandmother, spent the long weekend flipping through beauty magazines. The four woman got pedicures, exchanged gifts, watched a movie, and after three days, left. Cecilia to Fort Worth, and Maria Elena to Colorado Springs.
They’d spoken with more recently—they were sisters, of course—but their conversations were never more than perfunctory. Maria Elena providing Cecilia with a bulleted version of her separated life, and Cecilia doing the same.
They were only together now out of duty to their mother, because keeping her car was the condition upon which their mother had agreed to move into an assisted living facility with her own sister. If she moved, someone would drive the car from Tucson to San Diego. After the deal had been made, Maria Elena and Cecilia decided to make the drive together. Turn it into a long weekend, and help their mother settle into her new home.
Fighting back a beat of irritation, Maria Elena now wished she’d insisted upon making the trip alone: It didn’t need to be a two man job. Her palms tingled in the silence. As children, Cecilia had been the talker, the storyteller, the show. Maria Elena had always ceded attention to her sister, letting Cecilia take up all the air in the room. Why wasn’t she filling their silence now?
“Does mom like her new place?” Maria Elena asked.
“Seems to. She likes living with Tía Irma.”
“Yeah, I’m glad.”
Cecilia let the conversation drop, and Maria Elena went back to focusing on the road. Traffic was dissipating the further they drove from the city. Maria Elena knew, from a childhood spent bouncing around the desert southwest, that they were driving into the mountains. By the time darkness fell, they’d been among them, their car one of the only ones crossing the cracked and buckled roads.
“How’s the grocery store?” Cecilia asked, rousing herself for the first time since they’d hit the freeway.
“Fine. It’s a grocery store. Last week, we ran a coupon for avocados, and ran out four hours after opening.”
“It was.” Maria Elena flashed her brights at a semi angling into their lane. “How’s Jamie?”
“Good. Pregnant again.”
Maria Elena sucked in her breath, making a sharp noise that she regretted as soon as Cecilia whipped her head around. “Wow! Her second?”
“Third?” Maria Elena colored. She’d been in the delivery room when Cecilia had birthed Jamie. She’d shared a bedroom with her bassinet. She’d poured baptismal water over the baby’s downy head. “How far along?”
“Still in the first trimester. She’s sick as a dog, though. Something about her boyfriend. My pregnancy was a breeze, but all three of hers have been bad.”
“They’re still not married?”
“No.” Cecilia’s fingers twisted her waistband. “But you know. It’s different now.”
The sun shifted, and the sky split open, a violent, dusty orange. The sun hung, for a suspended second between the clouds and the mountain. Beneath its nakedness, everything glowed. Orange, red, gold, shot through in the dirt. Each sister exhaled.
Cecilia leaned her elbows into the dash, drinking in the light. They were driving into a bowl that would life back up into those mountains.
“Texas does not look like this”
“No?” Maria Elena laughed. Cecilia watched as her sister edged the speedometer a few miles higher. They were going ten over the speed limit now. As the cruise control beeped, Cecilia wondered if Maria Elena was trying to shorten the time they had to spend together, and alone. The engine growled softly underneath her. Cecilia cast around for something else to say.
“Somebody once told me,” she said, leaning back in her seat,” that the sun doesn’t set on the other side of the mountains. Only really good girls get to live on the other side, and they don’t have to go to sleep.”
“Why didn’t they have to sleep?”
“Because the sun doesn’t set.”
“But why doesn’t the sun set?”
Cecilia watched her sister’s eyes cycle from the road to the rearview mirror then back to the road. Maria Elena asked her question like Cecilia was posing a riddle, not telling a story. She kept an irritated sigh deep in her diaphragm.
“Because the girls on the other side of the mountain are good. They get more playtime, because they’re good.”
Maria Elena’s lips split open slowly, a smile finally pulling itself over her teeth. She moved slower than Cecilia remembered. Like she wasn’t used to having someone in front of her to respond to.
“Who told you that?”
“Mom’s friend Patricia?”
“She did not.”
“She did too. Several times. That summer she lived with us in Jerome.”
“When did she tell you that?”
“Oh you know,” Cecilia waved her hand, remembering the season they’d spent with their mother’s friend in Jerome. Loneliest place in the world, and at eight years old, Cecilia had thought that even the wind in that town sounded sad. “Anytime I misbehaved. She didn’t like me very much.”
“You’re kidding me.” A produce truck passed the on the left. “She never told me that.”
“Yeah well, she liked you.”
Maria Elena didn’t say anything else. Cecilia looked over at her, and rolled her eyes. Her sister still had as much grace as a rock. Even as a little girl, Maria Elena had held herself in close. When they were teenaged, Maria Elena told Cecilia that she needed to say no more often, and Cecilia, loose from empties she’d been swiping from the bar that Maria Elena worked at, had laughed and told Maria Elena that she needed to say yes. Cecilia could see that her sister still kept herself rigid, so tight within herself that nothing could get out.
“Why did mom let her live with us? She was so awful to me.”
“We lived with her,” Maria Elena said.
“No, she lived with us.”
“At the house in Jerome?”
“We lived with Patricia. It was her house, not mom’s.”
Cecilia took her feet off the dashboard. “Why did mom always tell me that was her house?”
“She wanted you to think she owned it.”
“Because she didn’t want you to think we were poor.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Maria Elena was being glib, Cecilia though, her own irritation growing.
Maria Elena laughed, and shook out what was left of her short hair. “You never asked me.”
“Mom’s told me recently that she owned that house.”
Maria Elena laughed again. “She lied to you.”
“I don’t believe it,” Cecilia muttered, “I swear mom owned that house.”
It was a small thing, Cecilia knew that, but she didn’t like not knowing. That had been the first years of her adulthood, after her mother had kicked her out and she and Maria Elena had move away from each other. It had come for her like cold water, everything from which her mother and sister had protected her. Struggle and pain, violence, want. She’d been a young mother by the time she’d had to confront the world, had to learn about it. Even in the darkening car, Cecilia could feel her own foolishness and ignorance. Twenty years old now, but still hot.
“Cecilia,” Maria Elena, said, gentler, “we didn’t have shoes that summer. How could mom have afforded a house?”
Night was coming down like a blanket across the desert, stars beginning to push themselves through the velvet. Cecilia made herself busy watching them out the passenger window. She knew, vaguely, that her irritation towards her sister was not about Maria Elena herself, but the idea of Maria Elena that Cecilia projected, but she didn’t know how to separate the two. It had been too long since she’d truly known her sister. What she assumed Maria Elena thought of her was all that Cecilia knew of Maria Elena. And, Cecilia realized with a sinking in her throat, all that Maria Elena likely knew about her. She watched as Maria Elena adjusted the GPS again, and the embarrassed anxiety of the movement made Cecilia twitch.
“What I remember about Patricia is her giving me Mexican candies,” Maria Elena said, returning to the subject like fingers to a smoothed stone.
“Sticky things, right? With chili powder on them?”
“Yes! You remember them?”
She made a gagging noise. “I remember them making me sick.”
Maria Elena laughed. “They didn’t make you sick; you already were sick. I gave them to you because you wouldn’t stop crying. I pretended they were medicine.”
“Then I threw them back up onto you.”
“Yeah, and I didn’t get a new nightgown until after we moved out of Patricia’s two months later.”
Cecilia smiled. Maria Elena wouldn’t know this, but Cecilia had told her daughter this story when Jamie was sick. When I was a little girl, Cecilia would say, smoothing back Jamie’s hair or rubbing her back, I didn’t have a Mami who took care of me like I take care of you, but do you know who did take care of me, mija, your Tía Maria Elena did…” Cecilia thought about asking Maria Elena if she remember the other stories she’d told Jamie—about the fever that Maria Elena had tried to break by making Cecilia swallow ice cubes, or about the chicken pox that Maria Elena treated by rolling her up in a bedsheet to keep her from scratching the sores—but Maria Elena starting speaking again.
“Mom didn’t actually buy me a new nightgown. One of dad’s sister made me a new one after we moved in with her.”
“We moved from Jerome to Escondido?”
“Yeah, into that little blue house.”
“With all those little kids. That’s right. I’d forgotten about that house. I didn’t think we moved to Escondido until after Abuelita died.”
“No, we moved into her house after she died, but we lived in Escondido for at least two years before that.”
“Yes. With all of the tías.”
“The house of whispers.”
“Who called it that?”
“Because dad’s sisters were always whispering about us.”
Cecilia leaned her head against the window, looking back through her own memories with as much visibility as she had looking out onto the darkened highway. She had forgotten about the house they’d shared with so many members of their father’s family. She marveled, not for the first time, at the flytrap way Maria Elena had retained the details of life.
“There’s a lot I don’t remember.” Cecilia said quietly.
“I’m serious. There’s so much I’ve forgotten. Like that house. Poof. It just not there.”
“Come on. It’s not like you forgot a trip to Disneyworld.”
Cecilia laughed. “That’s true.”
“You were young, Cecilia.”
“So were you.” Her sister spoke in the way she did when she tried to make something better.
Maria Elena nodded reluctantly. “Yeah. Well.”
“What I do remember about Escondido is lighting our curtains on fire when I was sneaking one of Mami’s cigarettes.”
“I remember having to wait outside for the fire department to come and turn off the fire alarm.”
“Mami was so mad.”
They began to climb, a slow ascent that brought the mountains close to them on either side. The sky opened up, a whole galaxy expanding above them. Cecilia felt her sister’s tension ease, and she too let herself mellow.
“Do you remember the car that Mami had with the front doors that wouldn’t open?”
“The one that she got pulled over in because the police thought she stole it?”
“That piece of shit. We always looked like fools climbing in through the backend.”
“What about Tío Ruddy’s funeral? Do you remember how that priest that ran up and down the aisles touching everyone?”
“When you feel the wind,” Cecilia mimed, “Or walk through a pocket of warmth on a cold day, that’s your friend, your brother, your son…”
“He touched me,” Maria Elena said, “Do you remember that? He skimmed my shoulder with his hand, and Mami yanked me away, and then burst in to tears.”
Nobody had given the priest the same warning that all the young girls received about Tío Ruddy.
“I think that night is the only night I ever remember seeing Mami really, really drunk.”
“That was the night she chipped her tooth, right?”
“Yeah. Falling down the steps outside the bar.”
That fall had changed their mother’s face, taught her how to talk and smile with her lips held tight.
Cecilia and Maria Elena ping-ponged their way through their shared childhood and adolescence, playing their memories like cards laid down in the quiet gulf between them. By the time the GPS chirped that they were halfway to their destination, the darkness had grown so thick that it seemed to expand around them each mile they drove.
“What was the name of that hotel you worked at? After we moved out?”
“Hotel Lotus or Crocus? Hotel Flower Something. Why?”
“Just curious.” Cecilia stifled a yawn as the clock rolled over into the new day. “I was thinking about it the other day. How young we were when we moved out.”
“We were young, but we kind of had to.”
She’d been pregnant. That had been the reason why they had. Jamie was still a secret she’d told only to Maria Elena when they’d packed up their shared bedroom and left.
“Still. I can’t believe that Mami didn’t fight us on it at least a little bit. If Jamie had tried to pull that shit when she was pregnant with the first one.”
“Mami didn’t have it in her to fight us anymore.”
“Fight me. I don’t think you ever gave her any problems.” The heads flashed on an exit sigh, and Cecilia pointed, “Gas station. I need to stop.”
“But at that point, it was both us. She couldn’t have kept me without keeping you. Mami knew that,” Maria Elena said, turning on her blinker.
Cecilia exhaled, almost laughed. She needed a cigarette if she were going to stay awake. As she pulled off the freeway, the lights of the gas station marquee reflected on Maria Elena’s face. Cecilia watched it shift, purple, then red, then hollow white. For a brief moment, the lights erased her wrinkles, and Maria Elena looked like a girl again.
But then she turned off the car, and the dome lights came on. Cecilia looked away quickly, but not before seeing her sister, middle aged and gaunt, in the thin, blinking light.
III. Maria Elena, again
After the gas station pit stop, quiet grew back up between them, sleepy and soft. Cecilia had tried to keep up the thread of reminiscence, but her voice had grown heavy, syllables slowed down. She’d finally nodded off, and Maria Elena had pushed on, reminding herself of all the childhood nights she’d lain awake, worried or hungry or simply sleepless, next to Cecilia.
To her left, a flotilla of lights rose up out of the darkness, then sailed away. Her headlights caught on the glare of a sign: “State Penitentiary,” and underneath it, “Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.” Maria Elena shivered, and the mountains pushed in closer, immense, and razored, and indifferent. If she veered off the road right now, they wouldn’t crash, but would be subsumed into the chasm of limitless black opening up in front of her.
Maria Elena turned on her brights, and rolled her shoulders up towards her ears, trying to bring energy back to her sleep soaked body. Next to her, Cecilia stirred.
“You still okay driving?” She’d asked the same thing when they’d stopped at the gas station, but Maria Elena had shot down her sister’s offer then too.
“Yep. Still good.”
“Are you?” Cecilia’s voice was barely louder than the hum of the car engine.
“Good to drive?”
“Or in general.” She uncoiled herself from her seat, blinking heavily. Maria Elena stayed silent, forcing her sister into an extended pause. “It has been five years.”
Maria Elena took her eyes off the road, and sought the mountains. She found them in the pitch, a deep, jagged sheath of black cut away from the charcoal sky. Orion the Hunter hung above them, his bow reaching towards the horizon line. She repeated Cecilia’s question to herself, and focused on what she could barely see. There were no lights out here. Just what came from the car, and what came from the stars. So black that the whole earth could have emptied of all its contents except for she and Cecilia. Maria Elena exhaled.
“I’m lonely, Cecilia. Most days, I feel very, very alone.”
The quiet expanded around them. Maria Elena felt the sadness she kept inside start to seep from her, the way that cold seeps from bones. Cecilia’s hand brushed against her leg, the quiet pronounced.
Maria Elena blinked back the hint of tears. “It’s okay. It’s life.”
She waited Cecilia’s breath to fall back into its metered pattern. Her sister had barely roused herself from sleep—she’d be asleep again soon. It was like when they were children, and Cecilia woke with a bad dream. Maria Elena would like awake and pray that Cecilia would sink back into sleep quickly, that when she woke, she’d have forgotten the night.
“After Jamie told me she was pregnant again, I stayed in bed for a week.” Cecilia said. “I couldn’t fucking believe it. I felt like I’d rewound the tape twenty years, except that Jamie was me, and I was mom.”
Maria Elena sucked air slowly through her teeth before speaking. “Did you tell Jamie?”
“That the news of my third grandbaby made me so depressed I couldn’t bring myself to eat for two days?” Cecilia shifted towards the stars, her voice its own quiet fire. “No. What could I have said? ‘In twenty years, you’ll be a grandmother, and your own daughter will be pregnant, and unmarried, and surviving on scraps. You’ll regret every decision you’ve ever made, and you won’t be able to change a single goddamn thing?’ No. You can’t say that stuff. Not out loud.”
Cecilia’s words burned in the small car. The darkness made a wall around them, and the car became like a cloister, a confessional. Like, to Maria Elena, their bedroom back home.
“Do you regret Jamie?”
“Yes. Every day. I regret who I had her with, when I had her. How I raised, what I gave her, what I didn’t. I love her, but yeah. I regret her too.”
A black grief filled the car, crushed the sisters on each side. They both felt its squeeze.
“Don’t you think that everyone feels that way though?”
Cecilia laughed, a hollow, guttural sound.
“God I hope not. That’s miserable.” She paused. “Do you think mom felt this way about us?”
Maria Elena watched the road bend away from the face of a mountain, and followed its curve.
“I’m sure she did.”
Cecilia sunk into her chair like a popped balloon, and Maria Elena trained her eyes on the highway’s dividing strips, counting them as they rushed beneath her. This was it. Each sister retreated into her own castle of quiet. This was what they had to say to each other. Outside their car, the darkness was shifting, monstrous nighttime creatures pulling their matter up from the unformed black. Maria Elena looked out on them. The mountains, unending. They reminded her of Mission, Texas. Another great, unending landscape.
That’s where she and Cecilia had come undone. Nineteen years earlier. Maria Elena had driven through the night for Cecilia them too.
Jamie father, a boyfriend who’d disappeared before Cecilia’s stomach began to swell, had resurfaced, the baby, by this time, was nearly walking. He wanted them both—Cecilia and Jamie. He had a job on the oil line, a trailer in Mission, Texas, he was ready for them now. That’s what he’d told Cecilia over the phone. That’s what Maria Elena had mocked. That’s what they’d split apart over
The night Cecilia told Maria Elena her decision, they had raged. They did battle, first in whispers, so as not to wake the baby, then in shrieks that Jamie had added her own voice to. They’d split the night open with their fury. Maria Elena refusing her sister her decision, accusing Cecilia of helplessness, spinelessness, foolishness, forbidding her to leave, and Cecilia defending her independence, her competence, enraged at Maria Elena’s dominance.
You tell me no like you think it means something, Cecilia had yelled, Like that word is fucking magic. You’ve been making my decisions for me and my baby. No, no, no. No to everything, but this isn’t about you, Maria Elena. It’s about me and Jamie, and my family.
I’m your family, Maria Elena had screamed back. I’m the reason life hasn’t been hard for you. I’m taking care of you and Jamie. I’m the husband and the father and the provider. I’m your family.
Cecilia, smoldering, hadn’t responded, and after a minute that scraped each of them like a bed of razors, Maria Elena had screamed, then collapsed into great, weeping gasps. The next morning, she helped Cecilia pack, and then she took the driver’s seat, and drove Cecilia and Jamie 1300 miles to Mission, Texas.
Before hugging goodbye in front of the dusty trailer Jamie’s father had presented as Cecilia’s new home, Maria Elena had whispered, He’ll never be your family. Cecilia shoved Maria Elena away, and took Jamie into the dark home. When Maria Elena drove away, she felt a great fissure split wide the earth, and separate her, for the first time, from her sister.
In the pressing blackness of night, Maria Elena remembered how her sister had felt to her in the days and weeks after their separation. Like Cecilia had been sucked away into some unreachable land. The world had never felt so big, nor she so small. Cecilia had become an absence only, a crater removed from her own body.
Maria Elena looked across the car at her sister, asleep again, and instead of the warm swell of intimacy, a gutted emptiness slashed through her belly.
The GPS lit up the car, spitting out a new set of directions. Maria Elena realized that the darkness, so unrelenting only a few minutes before, had broken in front of her. A sheet of gridded lights, dense as fog, shimmied and danced in interlocking ribbons. They’d reached San Diego. They were twenty minutes from their mother’s home.
Cecilia stirred, unfurling her body into stiff angles. “We there?”
“Almost.” Maria Elena said. She heard a sharpness in her voice. “Call Mami. Tell her we’re close.”
Cecilia nodded, and pulled herself back to wakefulness, and the stiff quiet of the previous evening stole back into the car. Their midnight intimacy had vanished.
Cecilia fumbled with her cell phone. Maria Elena listened to the faint ring on the other end of the line, then the sleepy sound of their mother’s voice. Her sister spoke for less than a minute, then hung up. “Mom says that the night staff knows we’re coming. They’ll bring us to her apartment when we get there.”
Cecilia yawned, and plucked at her waistband one more time. Maria Elena asked her to watch for their exit, and together they murmured street names out loud as they passed them.
Tomorrow, Maria Elena though, her brain suddenly seized with exhaustion, they’ll take their mother to lunch, and then to the supermarket, and the next day, to lunch again, and to the zoo, or maybe the wharf. She and Cecilia would operate in tandem in order to serve their mother, their sisterhood a muscle flexed only for her benefit. That would be all they’d muster. Despite the flare up of their childhood intimacy somewhere in the mountains behind them, too much time had passed for anything else. Too much time and too much sorrow. Too much separation. When she and Cecilia split their shared life, twenty years earlier, they’d broken it.
Her sister pointed out their exit, and Maria Elena turned on her blinker. She thought about crying, but then—decided not to. It had been twenty years since she’d felt the earth crack. If she didn’t focus on it, she didn’t feel what was on the other side anymore.