By Danielle Ryan
What kind of mother leaves her children to improve their lives? Had it been a mistake? Because it sure as hell felt like one. The ambiguity of the answers to these questions made Sarita’s stomach roil with unease so often that she’d switched from daily cups of coffee to daily pots of chamomile tea, hoping, in vain, to soothe her tired nerves. Sarita pondered these questions as she returned from the corner bodega where she’d gone to purchase that morning’s tea, and had been shocked by the bitter winds howling down the concrete streets. She’d been unprepared for the bluster of the day, dressed only in a fleece jacket she saved for quick errands, and had paid for her lack of preparation with frozen ears, which now stabbed with tiny pinpricks of pain as they defrosted and returned to room temperature.
There had been so many unpleasant discoveries during the adjustment to life here in the United States – though Sarita would argue that there had really been, in fact, no adjustment at all, as though adjusting to being here would be a betrayal to her girls, Leta, who’d just turned 7, and June, who was 9, but one of the hardest things to get used to, other than the hollow, echoing void rattling around inside her when she yearned to hug her children or to see their faces with her actual eyes, rather than through a computer screen, was the cold weather. Sure, there had been chilly days at home, and some of the storms they’d experienced in the Dominican Republic were hide-under-the-bed frightening, but the deep, bone-chilling, toe-numbing cold of New York City in the middle of February was actually physically painful; probably the millionth detail Sarita had been unable to predict about life here in the States. The whole reason she had moved here in the first place, though, was to provide her family back home with basic needs and maybe even some humble luxuries that had not been a possibility had she stayed there. So here she was, on a Sunday morning, freshly woken from a bad dream and contemplating the bad dream of the day that lay ahead. Every day without her family was another bad dream day.
Before Sarita’s move, Sebastian, her husband, had spent all of his time lying prone, unable to move without keening in an agony that terrified their daughters, Leta and June. His pain was the result of a terrible accident from his days as a loyal employee of a tree-trimming service that did work for several of the major resorts around the Dominican Republic. A freshly cut tree limb had swung the wrong way and slammed into Sebastian’s back, mercifully not breaking his spine but doing enough damage to irrevocably ruin his chance at making a living through physical labor, or living a normal life, really. Sarita often wished she could go back in time, find a way to prevent her husband from going to work that day; if only he hadn’t been hurt, they’d still all be together. But it had happened — and after many months of fruitless job searching in an economy drastically affected by the worldwide economic downturn, Sarita finally denied her denial and accepted the fact that her family’s situation would not improve unless she took drastic steps. The torture of starvation, already etched into the faces of her young daughters, was too much for Sarita to bear. She knew she’d do anything to stop their suffering, even if meant she’d never be with them again.
It hadn’t taken much planning to get Sarita into the United States, where she spent her days working at a nail salon, along with the eight other women with whom she shared that cramped apartment in Flushing, Queens. Sarita sent nearly all of her paycheck home each month to her family, and they were thriving as a result of the money. She was able to see how well they were doing thanks to a weekly Sunday night Skype session, made possible by Sebastian’s former boss from the tree-trimming company. He must have felt guilty about the accident, and his supposed inability to offer any monetary compensation for it. Each Sunday night he would stop by Sarita’s family’s home in the Dominican Republic with his laptop and set it up so the family could “visit” with one another. Maybe if he had had any insurance money, Sarita might not have had to move away in the first place and wouldn’t have to visit with her family via Skype. Nonetheless, Sarita lived for those Sunday night Skype sessions. She felt quite certain that if she was not able to see her family – her two daughters, especially — during that weekly session, she would go insane.
These weekly meetings did provide Sarita with a measurable level of serenity. She could see how her girls’ cheeks had gone from concave and pale to full and rosy in just a few short weeks after Sarita started sending money home. Leta and June would twirl in front of the webcam, giggling and falling into one another, showing off the uniforms they wore to the private school they were now attending. Sebastian was able to afford some medicine that tamped down enough of the pain so, on his rare good days, he could help Sarita’s mother, Anna, with the most basic household chores. She’d let him water the plants or roll out a tortilla to help him feel like a contributing member of the remaining household. When his smiling face would fill the screen, Sarita could confirm that he was, indeed, improving – the hurt lines were gone from his eyes and there was a relaxation in his smile she hadn’t seen since the accident. Watching her family through the computer screen gave Sarita the strange sensation that she was watching a television episode featuring her family, so detached did she feel from the goings-on there. And yet, seeing how well they were doing thanks to her hard work and diligent efforts gave her a quiet sense of satisfaction along with the usual yearning to be with them.
Each time she wanted to complain about living in an overcrowded apartment with women she didn’t know well nor particularly like, each time she wanted to cry from the pain in her back after a day of bending over strangers’ feet, every time she walked down a blustery avenue, face freezing in the wind, feeling invisible to the world, she would mutter the same sentence to herself: “I’m not happy, but they’re not hungry. I’m not happy, but they’re not hungry.” She loved them all enough to be unhappy. It wouldn’t be forever, they’d all agreed. And yet, she wondered how they’d ever manage to be reunited. The possibility of that ever happening seemed to move further from her grasp each day; like a helium balloon, she could see it rising into the sky and out of her reach, and when she thought of it, she wanted to cry like a little child, but there was no one around to offer meaningful comfort. Of course, what only made the situation worse was that she was an undocumented immigrant, and because she didn’t have the proper paperwork, there was no way to just go home for a visit. Even if she could afford to do so, there was no guarantee she’d be able to return. She pictured all of the events in her daughters’ lives she wouldn’t be there to see – the school plays, the sick days when surely they cried out for their mother, the lonely nights, the broken hearts – it was as though she were dead already.
The nightmares had started within days of her arrival in the States, and had intensified the past few weeks. In the dream, she’d fallen inside an icy chasm, and there was no way to get out. She clawed at the walls, scraping at them with her fingertips, until they were bloody and numb. Her children and Sebastian were at the top of the chasm calling her name. Sarita begged for them to go get help. After much pleading, they agreed. As though it were happening in real life, Sarita could hear their feet crunch on the icy snow as they trudged away from the chasm. Then she’d sit on the frozen floor, surrounded by the cool blue glow of ice walls, and bunch herself up into a tiny little bundle. She waited, and waited, until, inevitably, at some point, a realization would dawn upon her – that somehow, they’d all died when they went to get her help and in her dream she would weep, knowing she’d never see her family again.
She’d wake confused, heart a-flutter, until she realized that it had all been a dream. With that realization came a moment of relief, quickly replaced, though, by the dread of another day of walking around with an icy chasm in her chest, brought on by the grief of missing her family, and compounded by the dread of knowing there were so many nails – toenails and fingernails, yellowed and thickened and chipped and misshapen and dirty and sometimes even smelly – of haughty strangers waiting to have their cuticles cut and their asses kissed. She had to stay in the moment and breathe, or the mere thought of all of those nails and the faceless strangers behind them would send her into a claustrophobic panic attack.
“I’m not happy but they’re not hungry.” Her mantra was starting to lose its effectiveness.
Still shaken by the previous night’s nightmare, and unable to wait until that evening for their Skype session, Sarita called Sebastian Sunday morning, eschewing her typical Sunday duties like washing her underwear and replacing her meager groceries to instead get some much-needed reconnection with her family. She really just needed to hear their voices. Her call to the cheap pay-as-you-go phone she’d sent them went unanswered and was sent through to a voicemail box they didn’t know how to set up. She didn’t leave a message.
Distracted, she got into the shower, trying to make the time pass a little faster until she could try to call home again. Despite her aching heart, it was turning out to be a pretty good Sunday. For possibly the first time since she’d moved to New York, she had the entire apartment to herself. All of the women were out doing laundry or food shopping. Two of the women – Tiffany and Winnie – had taken the subway over to Jackson Heights to visit Little India. Typically Sarita would have loved to go with them – after all, she was in New York, and there was so much to see and do, and they only had one day off each week — but she had been angling to have some time to herself, and it could be months before the opportunity to be alone would present itself again.
Sarita took a long, hot shower, and for the first time since living in that apartment, she didn’t need to rush, as there was no one waiting to go in the bathroom after her. She washed her hair, put in some conditioner and let it just sit while she shaved. She would never have anticipated that moving slowly could feel like such a luxury. To not be scrambling through the day, to not feel constantly pushed forward by an invisible crowd on their way to important appointments felt like a much needed respite from her hectic days. In her home country, there were so many hardships, but her days there had unspooled without the frantic furor that her days here seemed to embody. Did everyone in New York feel this way? It certainly seemed that everyone else was always rushing to and fro. Only here, it felt like everyone else was on their way to opportunity and promise – to good jobs, good meals, good shopping, good homes, good families – while her days were tedious and back-breaking, and only filled with the promise of more tedious, more back-breaking work, magnified by loneliness and isolation.
“I need to stop feeling sorry for myself,” she said to no one as she rinsed the shaving cream off her legs. “Today, I want to have a little fun.”
She got out of the shower, and forced herself to dry off slowly, to get dressed slowly, to listen to her body’s need to move at a snail’s pace. Before heading out the door, unsure of where the day would bring her, she called home one more time. Still no answer. This time when the call went to voicemail, she did leave a message, though she was certain they wouldn’t be able to figure out how to retrieve it. “Hello,” she said, “It’s me, mommy. I have to run some errands but I wanted to call and say I miss you all so much. I’ll try you again later. I love you!”
She tried to button down the anxiety that was rising in her. Where were they? It was Sunday — Anna might have taken the girls to church, Sebastian was probably sleeping or unable to get up to get the phone. She knew they were having trouble keeping it charged, so that was another possibility. She felt the icy chasm open up in her heart, as wide as the ocean that separated her from her family. She was powerless to know where her family was or what they were doing at that moment. Hadn’t she surrendered her motherly right to track her kids’ every move the moment she’d gotten on that plane? How had she not foreseen the dismay this would cause her?
She went back into her bedroom, put on a pair of jeans, and a black top – but this outfit felt too much like her work uniform, so she kept the jeans on but instead switched out the black top for a flowy, lightweight turquoise sweater she’d purchased before arriving, in anticipation of the cold New York winters. Turns out, it wasn’t nearly warm enough for a New York winter, but Sarita put a long sleeved shirt on underneath it – she simply had to wear that sweater today. On one of her last days before leaving for New York, they’d done a bit of shopping with some tips Sarita had earned from a cleaning job. She had very little money to spend, but there were some necessities that had to be procured, and it was a way to get the whole family feeling like they were helping Sarita prepare for her journey. June had picked the sweater out. “This will look pretty on you, mom,” she’d said, so excited to show Sarita her finding. Anna had seen Sarita’s face fall when she’d looked at the price tag. “I’ll buy this for your mommy,” Anna had said. “So she can think of all of us, and this beautiful, happy day when she wears it.”
Sarita hadn’t had a chance to wear it since arriving, though. All she’d worn were the black shirts that the ladies in the salon were told to wear by Paul, the dictatorial manager of the establishment. During her off hours she wore old t-shirts and sweatshirts she’d brought from home; those, too, reminded her of her family. But the real reason she hadn’t worn the turquoise sweater yet was because she didn’t want the dread of her days to taint the sweater – it was too precious. Today, though, she was determined to break free – if only for a few hours — of the sadness that shadowed her every move. Today wouldn’t taint the sweater.
She combed out her long, glossy black hair as she dried it, curled her lashes and even put on some mauve lipstick. She looked at herself in the mirror and felt that she looked more like herself today – relaxed, groomed, in a colorful top – than she had in the past 8 months. She wished she could Skype with her family so they could see her like this.
Instead she pulled on her puffy black jacket, put fuzzy white earmuffs over her head, eased a pair of cheap black gloves onto her hands, and walked out in the frigid sunshine of a Queens afternoon, feeling her spirits rise as the sun lit upon her face.
Danielle Ryan spent time working as a small town news reporter and writing for a number of well-known websites before turning her attention to creative writing. Danielle lives with her family in New York, and is currently at work on a novel. This story, which earned an honorable mention from Glimmer Train Magazine, is her first published short story.