Voices in the Sky
Dead tired, Cristina Marquez edged her car slowly onto her street, Avenida Grande, in South Gate. Despite the street’s name, it wasn’t much. Small houses in need of paint, too many cars. But at least the dead end street was quiet, isolated from the noise and violence of the neighborhood.
Cristina’s supervisor at Long Beach Memorial Hospital had asked her to work overtime.
“No, not tonight,” she answered.
“Why not? You always work overtime when I ask you.”
“Well, yes, I do.” Cristina said, making one word out of “I” and “do.” Cristina had immigrated from Mexico when she was eleven and spoke very good English. But every once in a while she would combine words or put the accent in absolutely the wrong place. It was jarring, like an unexpected burp or a nun cursing. Cristina never noticed it.
“Yes, I do,” she repeated, this time separating all the words. “But not on Fridays.”
Cristina pulled into her driveway. She put the car in park and set the brake. Glancing up, she saw that the curtains were drawn and the house was dark. Cristina’s husband Mando had left years ago. The marriage had been nothing. Nothing except for that wonderful residue of the battle of the sexes, the children. Cristina’s son Hector was in the Marines and her nine-year-old daughter Gloria was with Cristina’s mom for the night.
“What about my Blanca?” Cristina thought. She gripped the wheel and sighed. Cristina knew that Blanca would be gone when she got home. She tried to tell herself that she just didn’t care anymore. But that was such a lie that it made her feel worse. She tried to swallow the pain, as if her stomach juices could eat it up and get rid of it. Instead, the pain went up, settling in a band around her forehead.
Cristina gathered her purse, her work shoes, and her dinner from El Pollo Loco. She got out of the car and absentmindedly slammed the door, forgetting to lock it. She summoned up one last burst of energy and walked quickly to the front door, put her key in the lock and stepped inside.
Cristina Marquez was determined to do something she had wanted to do for a long time, something she had never done before.
Cristina took the few steps required to cross the living room and eased into the kitchen, setting her purse and her dinner on the counter. There was no place to sit and eat in the kitchen but she was so hungry that she tore into the food immediately. She eagerly devoured the rice, the beans, and especially the chicken.
Even when eating like a truck driver, Cristina cut an elegant figure. A little bit taller than short and pushing forty, she was still slim and pretty, with only a few small crows feet around the eyes to indicate her age. She had high cheekbones and fine long fingers with manicured nails. Her hair, curled and hanging below her shoulders, was frosted many shades of blonde. Every time Cristina got her hair done, she added or subtracted some colors, to the point where even her children couldn’t remember what the original color was.
Cristina wiped her hands on a paper towel, looked up at the clock and then turned on the radio on the kitchen counter. She changed it from the FM dance station her daughters listened to over to 780 AM. Then she took her cell phone out of her purse and sat down on the living room couch, less than ten feet from the radio.
It was almost time for her favorite show, Mi Vida, Tu Vida, on the powerhouse radio station XMLV out of Tijuana.
“Monday through Friday! Mi Vida, Tu Vida is the place where you can share your innermost thoughts, your most personal problems, your hidden desires. Share them with me, share them with the world. Our voices cross the sky, from California to Texas and across all of Mexico.”
The voice belonged to the show’s hostess, known simply as Lila. Cristina and her friends were all big fans of the show and they spent many hours arguing about Lila.
Is that her real name?
“Yes, it must be—otherwise she couldn’t use it on the radio.”
“You’re crazy—Lila’s not a real name. It’s like a Hollywood name. It’s something you give yourself to be in show business. Besides, if it was her real name, she would use her last name. She’s hiding something.”
How old is Lila?
“I say thirty, maybe thirty-one. She’s got so much energy, so much fire. You can hear in her voice that she’s climbing, climbing up toward something.”
“No way. That lady knows so much. She’s been through a lot, you can tell. She’s fifty at least.”
Lila wasn’t telling. She never said anything about herself. There was no mi vida coming from her. But she was a master at making callers, especially women, feel comfortable. Lila didn’t have much patience for the typical talk show tales of men versus women, of cliché versus cliché. She wanted to know what was hidden deep in your soul, what you had never told anybody, maybe never even told yourself.
Cristina listened to the show whenever she could during the week. But from the first time she’d heard it three years ago, she made a point to always listen on Fridays. It had become a comfortable place for her. A refuge. A haven. Hearing first-hand how many other people had problems eating them up inside sometimes gave her sympathy pains, but the way Lila embraced her callers, never putting them down, gave her a feeling she couldn’t put into words. It was more than just comfort. It was the feeling her father had given her that her husband hadn’t. A feeling of having a pillar to lean on. A sense of going somewhere, somewhere right. It was like the feeling her daughter Blanca used to give her—need and love without loose ends or messy contradictions.
Cristina picked up her phone and punched in the numbers for Mi Vida’s hot line. She had done this two or three times in the past but had yet to hit the green button to place the call. She wasn’t sure why. She felt close to Lila. She trusted her.
Although Cristina was quick to blame her husband for the failure of their marriage, deep inside she was racked by guilt for not being able to make it work. She tortured herself with the thought that she was a bad mother. She had an intense longing for a destination in life she couldn’t quite describe. All of these things made other women call in. Cristina realized this and it frustrated her that she hadn’t yet been able to reach out to this mysterious woman, her unknown friend.
Cristina put her thumb on the green call button and pointed the phone at the radio. Her face was reflected in her long thumbnail’s polished rose lacquer. The ringlets of her hair blurred out of sight where nail met skin.
A deep breath. A squeeze. She put the phone to her ear as it began to ring.
“This is Honorio. You are the fourth caller in line. Please turn your radio down. When you hear Lila say hello to you, that’s it. Converse.”
Cristina had expected that Lila would answer the phone, like any other friend she might call. Honorio, the call screener, sounded cold and distant. She couldn’t even be sure that he wasn’t a recording. This made Cristina nervous, so nervous that she thought about hanging up. But that would be disrespectful—she was sure that somehow Lila would find out about it.
Cristina fidgeted with her free hand while she waited, then cradled the phone between her neck and shoulder and began to fold and unfold the small towel that was on the arm of the couch.
“This is Lila and you’re listening to Mi Vida, Tu Vida. Now we’ve got Cristina from South Gate in California on the line. Cristina, how are you tonight?”
“Oh, Lila, I’m doing OK,” she answered. Cristina felt a wave of relief come over her. This was just the way she’d pictured it--two old friends talking. Her words came out in a rush: “Lila, you know I started listening to you when my husband left. Three years ago. It’s been so hard, trying to pay the bills and raise the kids by myself. You don’t know what…”
“Cristina!” Lila’s voice was like a mother scolding a child. “Cristina!”
Cristina kept going for another full minute before she noticed that Lila was trying to get her attention. “Yes?”
“Cristina dear, turn your radio down so everyone can understand what you’re saying.”
“Oh my God, I’m sorry. I forgot.” As Cristina walked into the kitchen to turn the radio down, she heard her own voice blasting back at her. This isn’t pretend, she realized. People everywhere can hear me. She was embarrassed that she’d forgotten Honorio’s instructions, but a sense of power flowed through her too. It felt good to be Cristina from South Gate.
Talking with Lila felt even better. For one thing, Cristina could just let loose in Spanish. At work, there were people who spoke only Spanish, people who spoke only English, and people who were somewhere in between. Cristina was always shifting gears. And there were people at work, especially supervisors, who looked at you funny if you were having a conversation in Spanish. Cristina’s kids spoke Spanish well enough but they preferred not to. Sometimes Cristina felt like a foreigner in her own home, especially since Mando left. He spoke Spanish no matter what.
“Lila, it’s my fifteen-year old. She was always my closest one. She was my baby but also, you know, sometimes she was like my sister too. It was like…like we were two hearts, two hearts with one beat. When my husband left, I was a basket case. She took care of me, you know, almost like she was the mom. But now….”
Cristina was breathing deeply, fighting back the tears. A choking sound came out of the radio.
“But now I’ve lost her. She goes where she wants, she does what she wants. She curses me. She’s got this gangster boyfriend, seventeen years old. He doesn’t work. Doesn’t go to school. She used to always help me around the house, but now she can’t be bothered. She’s always got to be with him.
“Lila, she used to love me so much. She used to kiss my stomach every day when she went to school. She’d say ‘Mom, I don’t want you to go to work on an empty stomach. I’m filling it up with love.’”
The sound of Cristina sobbing softly was coming out of radios from Bakersfield to Houston to Mexico City. “Lila, now she only loves this kid who’s never done anything for her. ‘Oh, mom, you don’t understand—we’re in love.’”
Then Cristina’s voice went from sarcasm to disgust. “And Lila, you know what they’re doing, they’re….”
Cristina went on uninterrupted for over fifteen minutes, telling Lila details she hadn’t told anyone, not even her own sisters. She kept repeating herself, but Cristina seemed to have the storyteller’s gift and a flair for the dramatic. Lila never let people go on this long--she always found a friendly way to cut them off. But with Cristina, Lila seemed totally immersed in her rhythm, offering sighs, grunts, and other sounds until it seemed like they were doing a performance together.
“Cristina, how far did you go in school?” Lila’s voice was businesslike but friendly.
“Did you finish?” Now Lila’s voice was stern, not friendly.
Cristina had said “high school” to dodge that very question. She thought Lila should have realized that and let her off the hook. Cristina was a little bit annoyed. “Well no, I didn’t quite finish.”
“How old were you when you quit?”
“Why did you quit?”
Cristina had some sense that thousands or, for all she knew, millions of people were listening. She didn’t want to answer the question but she couldn’t see a way out of it. So she answered in a one syllable rush, just to get it over with: “Pregnant!”
Cristina expected to hear some sign of disapproval from Lila but there was only silence. One beat. Two beats. Three beats. It dawned on Cristina that Lila wasn’t judging her, she was just seeking information. Cristina’s annoyance evaporated. Lila was once again her friend, so Cristina did what she would have done with anyone else.
“Lila, how far did you go in school?”
“High school,” Lila answered with a smile in her voice, savoring the way the tables had been turned.
“Did you finish?” Cristina asked, laughing.
“Not quite,” Lila replied, her laughter joining with Cristina’s.
“How old were you when you quit?”
“Hey, whose show is this, anyway?” Lila asked jokingly. “I never talk about mi vida because I want this show to be about the listeners. But if you must know, I was seventeen.”
“Why did you quit?” Cristina pressed on, undeterred.
“Preg-nant!” Lila said, making the word as long as Cristina had made it short.
“So, Cristina, maybe you, the girl who quit high school at sixteen, aren’t that different from your daughter.”
“Lila, you don’t understand,” Cristina protested. “My Blanca thinks she’s a woman. She thinks she’s grown. She thinks she’s ready to go off with this kid, this guy whose name I won’t even mention.”
“Just like you,” Lila said with a snort. “Just like me.” This was Lila’s signal that she was taking back control of the conversation.
“Cristina, one of the blessings I have in this job is the people I meet. You know, when I go on TV shows or go to conferences, there are people there who have gone to school far beyond me, maybe traveled around the world. I learn a lot from talking to them. Sometimes they give me books to read. They help me to understand my life, including my own three daughters. All of them have put me through just what you are going through.”
Lila paused, as if she were taking a book down from a shelf to read to Cristina.
“Cristina, my family came from El Salvador to Los Angeles. Poor farmers, from way back in the countryside. How was it back then? How was it in my grandmother’s time and before? As soon as a girl could have children—you know what I mean by that--she was a woman. Even if she was just twelve or thirteen, she got married and started having her own kids, so they could help work the land. There wasn’t the drama we have today, where our bodies can have kids but our minds tell us we’re supposed to wait.
“Don’t get me wrong--we should wait. The world is different now. But this drive we have to be women when we’re still girls, it is so powerful. I would have to ask one of my professor friends for the right terms and words for all this, but I know it’s true and you know it’s true. We know it’s true because we’ve lived through it. And we didn’t quite make it to the other side, did we?”
“Are you telling me,” Cristina interrupted, “that my Blanca, my little Blanca who’s flunking out of school, is going around with all this history stuff in her head? That she’s thinking and planning what she’s going to do?”
“No, Cristina. Just the opposite. She doesn’t know what the hell is going on but her body is talking to her louder than you ever could. And her friends and especially the boys are telling her that her body is right and that you are wrong. Your Blanca is living out a blueprint that was burned into her when she was born, a blueprint for a life that no longer exists. That’s pretty stressful, don’t you think? Don’t you think she deserves some sympathy?”
“Sympathy? No!” Cristina’s voice was much too loud. “I’m the one who deserves sympathy!”
Lila spoke softly: “Cristina, what part of Mexico is your family from?”
“Jalisco,” Cristina replied, her voice returning to normal volume.
“Yes, from the rhythm of your words, I thought so. You’re not from Guadalajara, are you?”
“No, from a little village up toward the mountains.”
“That means,” Lila said, “that your grandmother, and her grandmother before her, and her grandmother before that were just like your Blanca. They were girls who thought they were women. And they acted on it.”
“No, they were not like Blanca,” Cristina said with a sigh. “Things were different then.”
“Exactly!” Lila said, trying to keep a note of triumph out of her voice.
The two women were silent for what seemed like a long time, but it was actually only about ten seconds. Cristina was first to speak, with a rush of air that was part laugh, part moan.
“Lila, when I called you I just wanted you to agree with me. But instead you make me think. I like that. But ooh, it makes my head hurt!”
The sun had set while Cristina was on the radio. Now the house was dark and empty and it seemed very big to her. But she was bursting with so much energy that it seemed like she could personally fill every inch of it.
Cristina had so many things going on in her mind that she couldn’t settle on any one of them, such as listening to the rest of that night’s show. She turned the radio off. She ignored the phone, which was ringing with calls from her friends, her sisters, and even her daughter Gloria. They all wanted to talk to Cristina about being on Mi Vida, Tu Vida. Later for that, she thought.
Cristina washed a few dishes. She went out and locked the car. She looked through the mail. She put away some laundry. All at top speed, one thing right after another.
Just when she had started to clean the stove, it dawned on her what she really wanted to do. “I need a drink!” she said out loud. But Cristina never drank at home. There was no liquor cabinet at Casa de Marquez. Then Cristina remembered where she had seen some booze. She went out to the garage and looked in the tool box her husband had left behind. There it was—an unopened pint of tequila.
Cristina brought it into the kitchen and set it down while she rummaged through the refrigerator to find something to mix it with. Snapple? Diet Coke? Ugh! Ah yes, orange juice. Cristina put a few ice cubes in a paper cup and made herself a drink. But she wasn’t very experienced at it and put in way too much tequila.
Cristina sat down on the couch and took a sip. The juice was on top and masked the fire below. She finally began to relax, to slow down. She took another sip, savoring it, and then another. In the back of her mind, she realized that Lila hadn’t actually solved any of her problems. But it had felt so good to talk about them that she didn’t care.
Soon the cup was empty. Cristina turned on the TV with the remote and settled in to wait for Blanca.
It was a little past one in the morning when Blanca came home. She had been out with her boyfriend Ruben and some other kids from school. They had been drinking and, although the boys drank more than the girls, Blanca was pretty buzzed. She was surprised to see the light on in the living room. The last thing on earth she wanted to do at this moment was talk to her mother.
Blanca opened the front door as quietly as she could and stepped inside, expecting the worst. But Cristina was fast asleep, sitting on the couch with the TV on low. Blanca breathed a sigh of relief. She let her defenses down, like a balloon releasing air.
Blanca was taller and darker than her mother. Like many teenage girls, she was beautiful and ordinary-looking at the same time. No one knew what the final outcome would be, but Blanca was feeling confident because she had a steady boyfriend for the first time.
For just a second, Blanca thought about waking her mother up. Maybe they could make popcorn and watch a movie like they had done so many times before. But no. No, no, NO. The wounds from the fighting between them were too fresh, too raw. Blanca was sure that all her mom would do was yell at her about coming home late, about her grades, about Ruben.
Blanca realized that she was half-drunk so she walked in slow, exaggerated steps past Cristina, trying to be sure not to make any noise or trip over anything. Just as she was passing her mother’s resting body, she turned and looked directly into her face. That morning when she’d looked at that same face, she’d felt anger and hatred. But now it was different.
Maybe it was the warm sensation from the beer she’d been drinking. Maybe it was just how good she felt being in love with Ruben. In her mother’s perfectly made up face Blanca saw the woman who had once found her and picked her up when she had to walk home from school in the rain. She saw the woman who had been so loving the day she got her first period.
Could this be the same woman who now suffocated her with so much disapproval, with so many rules? I guess it is, Blanca thought, puzzled. She saw an expression on her mother’s face that had become unfamiliar. Was it a smile? Oh my God, is she awake? Blanca froze in place. Cristina didn’t move.
Blanca began to feel the way she had when her dad had left. She’d gotten older so quickly and her mom had gotten younger until somehow they’d passed each other on the calendar. That had never seemed right. It didn’t seem right now. But Blanca felt compelled to do something. So she took an awkward step toward the couch and leaned over to kiss Cristina. She was being so careful not to wake her up that her lips missed her mother’s cheek by an inch or so.
Blanca backed away and walked into the bedroom she shared with her sister Gloria. She took her CD player off the dresser and flopped down on her bed. She put the headphones on and punched play. The bed shook as she moved to the beat.
In the living room, Cristina grabbed a pillow without waking up and stretched out on the couch. There was a smile on her face.
Short story / 2005