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December 31: Morning
A monotonous hum wakes me, but I'm afraid to open my eyes to verify my surroundings. I lie still. Am I on the train? Did I simply dream I came home? I am stationary, not rocking with the ceaseless motion of the railway car. I smell coffee and the down-home aroma of freshly made tortillas de harina. If Mama is here, she is being ...
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December 31: Morning
A monotonous hum wakes me, but I'm afraid to open my eyes to verify my surroundings. I lie still. Am I on the train? Did I simply dream I came home? I am stationary, not rocking with the ceaseless motion of the railway car. I smell coffee and the down-home aroma of freshly made tortillas de harina. If Mama is here, she is being unnaturally quiet.
I wonder if the continuous mechanical sound is the echo of the Santa Monica Freeway a few blocks south. As if to test my speculation, the hum intensifies, falters, wheezes, grows monotonous again. It is much too close to be the freeway. Eyes closed, I reach one hand behind me to feel the rough plaster of the bedroom wall. It's warm to the touch, and it vibrates. The hum must be coming from Mama's ancient refrigerator on the other side of the wall. Her duplex is noisy, creaky, unlike the unyielding silence of Amanda's cabin.
I snuggle within the fragrant scent of pink flannel sheets. Mama has made the extra bedroom cozy, tempting me to stay. When I turned in last night, I found a bouquet of daisies beside the bed, before the framed picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Little sachet packets lay in the dresser drawers, and cedar blocks in the narrow closet. Mama has welcomed me into her home.
She has been lonely since my father's death. Realizing that, I try to understand why my sister Sylvia and her brute of a husband are living next door. No matter how much I rationalize Mama's circumstances, I still resent my sister's proximity. She must have manipulated Mama's emotions with a familiar tactic: a hard-luck story. At least I have heard nothing from Sylviayet.
Rollingmy head on the pillow, I notice my hair is still damp. Last night, following Gabi's suggestion, I took a relaxing soak and shampooed and conditioned my hair, mostly to avoid arguing with Mama about Sylvia. Before I escaped to the bathroom, Gabi seemed eager to leave. She knew I was tired from the trip and promised to see me over the weekend. I half-hoped she would offer me an alternate place to stay, but I didn't want to impose on her and her father. Jeff doesn't need to be reminded of Sylvia anyway.
I reluctantly get up. The tedious
December 30: Morning
The black merlin flies bullet-fast through the twilight forest, undulating silently beyond outstretched fir branches. Its rapid flight frightens an unsuspecting flock of chestnut-backed chickadees in a scrawny cedar. The chickadees scatter in all directions. A young one lags. Crazed with fear it heads erratically toward the cabin's kitchen window, where I stand washing dishes. Mesmerized, I stare at the pell-mell approach of the merlin and the chickadee. The falcon's sharp talons grasp the chickadee at the same moment the two crash into the window.
I jerk awake, my heart beating as wildly as the captured chickadee's wings. Disoriented, I sit up, realizing I am on the train, not alone in Amanda's cabin. I push the plaid curtain aside. The damp window offers not a forest view but a dim glimpse of farmland broken by neat irrigation rows. The glowing hands of my watch read a few minutes past 6 in the morning. I rub my eyes, pull the coat over me, and recline again. I have a clear memory of the merlin's dark plumage, its deadly talons and lethal beak, the unfortunate chickadee strewn amid crushed fir needles.
Two months ago, alone in the autumn twilight, I had witnessed the merlin's actual attack. Only the cabin's window pane separated us. I screamed when the birds smashed into the glass. I remained motionless for several minutes, wondering if they were both stunned—or dead. At first I was too wary to check. When I heard no sounds, not even a rustle, I gathered mycourage, threw on a jacket and sturdy work gloves, and crept through the back door.
Around the corner of the cabin, I found the birds silent and still, the chickadee surely dead, a flurry of tiny feathers surrounding it. The merlin lay on its side, talons curved, beak slightly open, its unblinking eyes gazing into nothingness. With the tip of my boot I lightly outlined its sleek body. I had never seen a falcon up close and could not wrench my eyes from its beauty. I shivered in the dampness. Backing away, I went to the shed to look for a shovel to bury the birds.
I was gone only a few moments. When I returned, little evidence of the birds or even their collision existed. A haphazard collection of chickadee feathers lay scattered, but not a trace of the merlin remained. Baffled, I leaned on the shovel and scanned the branches above. I neither saw nor heard anything. A chill ran through me. Could there be someone else in the woods, watching my every move, unnerving me by snatching away the birds' bodies? Leaving the shovel against a fir trunk, I ran to the cabin and locked the door.
"Excuse me." Toiletry bag in hand, I brush past passengers chatting by the narrow steps leading to the downstairs rest rooms. Other sleepy-eyed travelers wait in line next to the luggage area. Everyone looks as if they've gotten no sleep.
Yawning, I lean against a wall and adjust the collar of my wrinkled flannel shirt. I sway with the train's movements and try to read the posted Amtrak schedule. The Coast Starlight crossed the California border during the night. We are somewhere between Sacramento and Davis. Tonight I will be in my mother's house.
Shaking that thought aside I ponder my dream. This morning is not the first time that bird of prey has zoomed into my mind. According to Amanda the falcon is a totem. In dreams it instructs me to be agile and swift in capturing my needs and desires. I have a hard time believing in a bird that crashes into windows while pursuing prey. Amanda calls that attitude my "urban cynicism."
She constantly searches for hidden meanings and New Age interpretations for everyday events. To me, this smacks of some feminists' penchant for borrowing mystical concepts from Native American beliefs. While that can provoke fascinating discussions, I have grown up with Mama's "si Dios quiere" philosophy. Raised as a Chicana Catholic, I tend to adhere to my mother's advice: "If it's God's will, mija, it will happen." Even so, my own philosophy is a combination of "si Dios quiere" and logic. If two birds seem dead one minute and suddenly they are gone, I am more likely to believe someone took them away. Amanda, on the other hand, has no trouble accepting that the falcon was momentarily stunned; when it recovered it snatched the chickadee and flew away. While I was unfolding that afternoon's mystery, she studied me. "Did you find any footprints by the cabin?"
"Amanda, don't you get it? I freaked." Serving a hefty bowl of salad, I sat in the opposite pine chair. "Being alone in these woods can be very scary."
"I lived by myself before you came here, Toni." She squeezed my hand to calm me. "If you feel better locking yourself in, that's fine. A better idea might be to walk into Fir View before dark. You could meet me at the library, and we could come home together."
"Finding a job would be the best answer," I muttered, dousing my salad with poppy-seed dressing. "I have too much time on my hands. There's nothing for me here, unless I want to clean cabins, waitress, or baby-sit." I met her gaze. "I'm bored."
"Oh, Toni. At the end of the month you can help with the library's used book sale." She popped a plump tomato into her smiling mouth. "What else is for dinner?"
Settled in my seat, I watch the rolling farmland. Red-winged blackbirds flutter through tall reeds at the edge of irrigation ditches. The dazzling scarlet patches on their wings brighten the gray skies—an otherwise dreary landscape.
At the Davis rail station, a stout woman with a ruddy face and pale braids forming a crown takes the empty seat next to me. She is the quintessential farm wife. With a grim expression she glances at the Marcos Loya cassette on my lap—the one where his bearded face and closed eyes evoke a Chicano Jesus—and doesn't utter a word to me.
I'm not on this train to make friends, although I had an amusing conversation in the dining car with an apparent dyke the night before. She was a butch ROTC instructor with a fervent interest in mystery novels, particularly those penned by women. When I told her I was an erstwhile librarian, she grew even more enthused about her favorite subject. She went on and on about her "partner" Norm's huge mystery collection. For good measure she threw in the names Forrest, Wilson, and Wings. The heterosexual couple at our table seemed oblivious to the innuendo in our conversation. We talked around them, never mentioning "the L word." Neither of them had a glimmer that Norm was the code word for Norma.
Martinez, Richmond, Emeryville, Oakland, San Jose: The California scenery changes from farmland to industrial to urban. The boarding passengers are different from those in Washington and Oregon. More Latinos and African-Americans, bound for Southern California, join us at each stop. I wonder if anyone will come with Gabi to Union Station.
"Why won't you come with me tonight?"
My boyfriend Phil picks up a fat inari roll and crams half of it into his mouth. He swallows most of it. Meanwhile he scopes the selection of sushi on his plate. He has habit of eating them in some weird ritualistic order: sashimi, California roll, inari, shrimp.
"You didn't answer me, Phil."
He gulps down the last bit of inari. "Maybe your grandma should go with you. If I show up, Toni might think I'm bein' a spy."
"Get real." I tap my chopsticks on the edge of the styrofoam rice bowl.
We're grabbing a bite at Eatz in the shopping mall. Screaming kids and loads of hungry after-Christmas shoppers squeeze around us. In a few minutes we're due back at the Warner Bros. store where we're having a Looney Tunes sale, but I want to settle this first.
"Look, I'd feel safer with you there, man. My grandma wouldn't be any help if some cholo tries to jump us in the parking lot."
Phil laughs and pushes back his longish strands. His black hair is shaved on the sides and combed straight back on top. I cut it for him on Christmas Eve. We both like the way it looks. He's fine, my Phil, and just about as stubborn as me.
"What's so funny?" I act superannoyed. "That some cholo would take a grab at me?"
"Girl, you'd flip him over." Phil makes his fingers fly like little people across the table.
"You'd stomp on that sucker dude with your Timberlands and flatten his cojones."
We both giggle at that graphic image. I nudge him hard. "In other words you're not coming with me."
"Hey, Gabi." He props one long leg on the polished chair next to him. "It's your family business."
I narrow my eyes. "You have something else lined up?"
"I promised Veronica I'd help her wash her windows. She's having a spur-of-the-moment New Year's Eve party." He reaches into the front pocket of his jeans. "Before I forget, here's the invite for Toni."
I take the small envelope and move my chair closer. "Okay. You're off the hook this time. Is Pat invited?"
He leans over to curl a muscled brown arm around me. He eats sushi with his other hand.
"Why wouldn't she be? She's good friends with René. But like Veronica says, some of the people they've invited might already have plans."
I snatch the last of his shrimp. "Maybe you'll have to be my spy and find out for sure."
The Media OutReach for Equality is closed for the holidays, but I'm in the office anyhow. Might as well clean out my desk drawers and tidy the office to start off the new year. I have a friend who volunteers at the local lesbian archives. Now's as good a time as any to fill up a box or two of dyke-related press releases and old brochures for her.
I don't want to be home in case Gabi phones again. Trying to keep a Toni-free mind ain't easy. I couldn't sleep last night, thinking about her. Her fawn eyes weren't soft the last time I saw her. She wanted to be gone and didn't hide it. Wish I could forget all that, but the best thing to do is keep busy.
Around noon I'm making good progress when I hear a knock on the office door. I shrug it off. Holiday hours are posted outside. Today I'm not about to do any real work.
"Ramos, are you in there?" René Talamantes yells between knocks.
"Shit," I mutter. Can't shine her on. She's seen my Mazda out front. "Keep your damn chones on."
As soon as I unlock the door, Talamantes slides in, black eyes darting. "How come you're workin'?"
I eye her rangy body. She stands with one hand on her hip, endless legs apart in faded jeans and cinnamon-colored boots. Her shiny black hair falls over her royal-blue turtleneck.
"End-of-the-year clean-up." I lift one of the boxes to an empty chair. "Why'd you track me down?"
Her wide lips shift into an easy grin, the kind that captures everyone who sees it. "Ay, Pat. Don't be so defensive. Thought we could shoot the breeze about the Chicana activism documentary."
I'm skeptical. "You ought to be helping Veronica get ready for the party."
"Pues, I am," she insists. "On my way to Trader Joe's for blue corn chips, jugo y cervezas. Thought you might want to tag along."
I open another drawer and start removing file folders. "You just want to be sure I'm going to your party."
"Are you, mujer?" René squats beside me. "Mira, I'll run interference if Toni shows up. I promise, eh?"
On the carpet I spread the file folders and open the one on top. It's full of correspondence that might overlap into next year. I put it aside and go to the next one.
"You deaf, Ramos?"
I meet her steady gaze. "I'm not scared of Toni."
"Hell, I know that. She's the one who ought to be scared." René grabs a Hershey's kiss from the candy dish on my desk and unwraps it elaborately. "I've already told Veronica not to be surprised if Toni doesn't show. Pero, if she does—"
"René, I don't want to see her yet. Too soon."
"I disagree, mujer. Listen, you'll be among amigas, verdad? Say `hi' to her and move on. You don't have to get into a pinche dialog."
I smile at that. "You make it sound so easy."
Chewing the candy she plops next to me on the floor. "Just tryin' to break it down: She threw you over, she's coming back. Sooner or later you have to deal with that."
I flip through the correspondence and put it in date order. "To be honest, I don't even know how I'll react—whether I'll cuss her out, throw my arms around her, or what."
"Ya lo se." René nods and reaches for another Hershey's. "The medium was the message."
"Huh?" I frown at her. Is she switching subjects on me?
"You know what type she went for. Toni got a bum deal from the library and went into a tailspin. She really needed consolation, mujer." She wraps her arms around herself to illustrate. "She went for warm and cuddly, one of those pillowy country dykes, not for your homegrown fiery activism. Toni couldn't have been happy in that hick town. Probably couldn't even buy tortillas in that there Mom `n' Pop general store."
I glance up from shuffling papers. "How do you know?"
"Just guessin'." She unfolds herself in one motion and rises. "You comin' with me, Pat?"
"On one condition: Put these boxes in your van and take them to the archives next time you go. It'll save me a trip."
"No problem, esa." She hoists one box to her hip. "I'm showing a video there in January anyhow."
"I know." I stick several files in the drawer and shut it. Right now I need an amiga. Grabbing my jacket and keys, I follow René out.
"Mama, I'm not going to the train station. You're the one who should," I whisper. I don't want Zalo to hear me. He's on the other side of the screen door. Mama caught me right when I came home from work.
"It'd be nice if we went as a family, mija," Mama says. She turns the hose on the hibiscus bush. She's disappointed by my answer. That's too damn bad.
"Mama, when are you going to realize Toni and I don't get along? She doesn't want to see me. She'll really be pissed when she finds out me and Zalo live next door. Did you tell her Doña Filomena died?"
"Pues, no." Mama squirts a trickle of water on the geraniums bordering my steps. "I never got around to it. Toni knows poor Filomena was very old. The duplex would have been for rent sooner or later."
I stick my hands in my sweater pockets. "The only good thing is that when Toni finds out we're neighbors, she'll move to her own place in no time."
"Don't be so mean, hija," Mama scolds. "Your sister's going through a bad time. Try to be nice to her, eh?"
"Tell her that," I mumble over my shoulder.
"What the fuck's going on out there?" Zalo comes out of the bathroom in striped boxers and a beat-up T-shirt that says SHIT HAPPENS. His thick arms and legs remind me of chorizos—hairy ones. He acts like it's summer all the time. I'm still shivering from standing outside with Mama. Maybe Zalo's hairiness keeps him warm.
"I was talking to my mother."
"About what?" He grabs the remote, zaps to ESPN, and raises the volume.
"If you turn that down, maybe you can hear me." I step closer. "My sister's due in tonight, remember?"
"Fuck her." He glares at me and slumps in front of the TV. "That sicko better stay outta my face. You hear me, Sylvia?"
"The feeling's mutual. Toni won't go out of her way to see you."
He makes a fast move and yanks me into his lap. Zalo hasn't taken a shower yet, and he has that sleepy, sexy smell to him. He rubs a big hand across my belly. He touches me like he owns me. After hearing squalling brats and cleaning baby shit in the nursery all day, I don't even mind if he's kind of rough. It feels damn good to have mi hombre show his want for me.
"When the kid's born I don't want her near it. Understand?"
"She doesn't even know I'm pregnant."
His groping hand forces apart the buttons of my white uniform. The screen door is open. I feel cold when Zalo's fingers spread into my panty hose. I hope Mama has gone inside.
"Does your dyke sister do it like this?" He breathes into my ear.
I shake my head away. I hate it when he talks like this. I've lost interest but don't say that. "Let's do this in bed, Zalo."
He grunts and pins me down. The screen door stays open.
Ay, Dios, whatever got into my head? Why did I rent the duplex to them? Sylvia hasn't been the same muchacha since she took up with ese Zalo malcriado. Gracias a Dios that Gabi went to live with her father. There's no telling what could have happened to her if she had lived with Sylvia and that pig Zalo.
I roll up the garden hose and leave it lying like a shiny snake, a coiled vibora, by the side of the house. I wish it was a snake. I would throw it at Zalo. Maybe it would bite him, kill him. Ay, Jesús, what am I saying? I have to remember to keep these awful thoughts to myself when Toni comes home. She can't stand Zalo either. Together we could dream up horrible fates for that useless one.
Inside, I kick off my chanclas. They're full of mud. No sense in tracking all that through la casa. On my way to the bedroom I hear the phone ring.
"Dónde estás, Gabi? Still at work?"
"I'll be leaving pretty soon. Do you want me to pick up anything for you?"
Ay, esa muchacha es una angelita. "Maybe some ice cream, eh? I made a pumpkin pie. You know how Toni loves that. She might be hungry when she gets home. Quien sabe if she'll have dinner on the train? I'll save some tamales for her. We can't eat too many ourselves, Gabi."
She laughs. "That's fine, Grandma."
"Your mother won't be coming with us."
Gabi sighs. "Didn't think she would. Wish you hadn't asked her."
"She's my daughter too, chula." I turn on the lamp beside the sofa and sit. "I don't like this feuding."
"Neither do I." Her voice sounds tired. "We should leave for Union Station around 7, OK? See you in a little while, Grandma."
I hang up the phone. For a few minutes I sit in the quiet living room. Except for traffic outside, the chirping of Nopalito, my little parakeet, is the only sound. Soon my daughter will be home. I smile at that thought. After tonight I will hear her voice too en la casa, not just mine and Nopalito's. It will be good to have her to talk with. My older daughter, my first baby, will be here with me once more.
Ay, Dios mio, I have to start dinner. No time to cry. Gabriela is already on her way.