Sylvia knew when Juan had a bad day at work because he came home wanting menudo for dinner. She never asked him what had gone wrong or why he was in such a bad mood. She just made him the soup and let him be. If it were earlier in their marriage, she would have tried to pry it out of him, guilt him into telling her what was wrong. “You’ll feel better if you tell me,” she’d say with a cautious smile. But after years of not getting anything out of him, she gave up. Now he banged in through the front door and stomped around the apartment, not saying anything, and she knew. She lifted her heavy frame off the couch and eased to the market on the corner.
“The usual,” she told the man behind the counter, and he handed over the half pound of tripe she needed for Juan’s menudo. Cursing him, she winced as her knees ached going back up the steps. Over the kitchen stove she mixed the stew together from memory and left it on the stove for him to retrieve as she went back to her chair in front of the television.
On most nights when Juan was in one of his moods, Sylvia went to bed long before him. But tonight when Juan came home and started throwing his boots around their bedroom and cursing under his breath, Sylvia walked out the front door. Juan assumed this meant she was buying the ingredients for his soup. When she hadn’t come back after an hour he got annoyed. After pacing around their tiny living room for five more minutes, he pounded down the stairs and stomped to the market.
“My wife was here?” he shouted at the man behind the counter.
“Not tonight” was his response.
“Well she has to come home sometime,” Juan thought to himself as he walked back up the dark steps. Juan went to bed hungry tonight, three hours after Sylvia walked out of their apartment without even her coat.
Growing up in Mazatlan, whenever she and her mother Adelina fought, Sylvia left with no explanation. Just once Adelina tried to follow her out, but Sylvia pushed her backwards, not hard, but hard enough to stop her from coming after her again. “How dare you touch me like that? I’m your mother!” Adelina shouted after her. “Don’t bother coming home!” But Sylvia always came home. She never told her mother where she had gone, but she would return in the morning to have breakfast. The two ate in silence, each too stubborn to speak first.
It hadn’t always been such a war zone between Sylvia and Adelina; Sylvia had nothing but good memories from her early childhood. Her father Hector died in a fishing accident while her mother was pregnant with her, so it was just the two of them at home. Adelina spent all day with Sylvia, teaching her to read, and later taking her to the neighborhood market. At the market, Sylvia was allowed to run ahead as far as Adelina could see her, through the stands selling ripe fruit or meat hung in long thick strips, and tables buckling under the weight of second-hand toys and clothes. The scents of cilantro, lime and grilled meat made Sylvia’s stomach growl as she zigzagged through the people holding bags heavy with onions and poblanos. Usually Sylvia found a couple of her friends among the crowd and they played together and raced from one stand to the next. She and her mother knew almost all of the venders, and on a good sales day, some gave Sylvia little gifts of mangoes or a tiny porcelain statue.
Her mother was a minor celebrity in Mazatlan in those days. The town beauty, married at seventeen to the dashing Hector, she was adored by all. When he died a year after their marriage, Adelina became the town tragedy. All of Mazatlan mourned the loss of Hector’s fishing boat- he died alongside four other young men. Hector never met his daughter. Privately, Adelina cursed her life and resolved not to let her unborn child suffer for this misfortune. She decided that Sylvia would be the smartest, kindest, and most successful of the neighborhood children. Adelina, being a natural singer and a regal beauty, found work at a nightclub to support herself and Sylvia. The older women felt sorry for her, the younger women admired her, and many of the men were even more charmed by her now, seeing her strength after Hector’s death.
It wasn’t long before she took Sylvia and moved in with her sister Maria, though once Adelina had saved enough money from working- she was an immediate success in the club - they moved into their own home. It was a small, two-room flat, but it was near the beach and the center of the neighborhood. Her mother’s singing supported them well; they even had a maid back then, someone who cleaned up after them once a week.
Now, though, back in New York, it is Sylvia who cleans. When she’s not cleaning up after Juan, she works as a maid at a hotel on the Upper West Side. She doesn’t hate her job so much as she tires of the daily routine. Riding the same dirty, heaving M5 bus every morning, she cleans what seems to be the same room every day, scrubbing tile floors coated with body fluids and dirt, pulling hairs out of the drain, and changing sweaty yellow sheets. Each night Sylvia returns home to find that she can’t remember one particular moment of her day. She is exhausted and sore, but often still feels restless. Sometimes when she can’t fall asleep at night, Sylvia thinks about meeting Juan for the first time, remembering every detail.
She was only seventeen then, he was twenty-two. The same resolve that had driven Adelina to raise Sylvia so strictly now felt to Sylvia like a wedge between them. It was a sunny day at the market, but the air was humid and sticky. Sylvia was out of the house, as usual, roaming the town looking for something to do. A friend of a friend of Sylvia’s, Juan had offered to buy her an ice cream and then to walk her home. Adelina was dozing off in her chair by the window when they came through the gate. Their footsteps woke her and she pursed her lips at the sight of Juan. “I’ve heard about that boy,” she said icily to Sylvia when she came onto the porch. “He’s not good enough for you.”
Sylvia walked straight through the house without acknowledging her mother’s words, and her only response was to slam the back door. She spent the afternoon in the garden, thinking of her new admirer, and hating, but reveling in, her mother’s rejection of him.
Over the next few days Adelina continued to warn her about Juan. “The neighbors told me he was running around with that married woman on the corner and her husband is looking for him now,” she said to justify her hatred of him. “Is that the kind of man you think you should be with?” To which Sylvia snapped, “That’s up to me isn’t it?”
Three weeks later, just outside that back door, in the darkness of night, Juan proposed. Adelina hadn’t let him through the door, claiming that until he got a haircut, a job, and a “new reputation,” he wasn’t allowed to talk to her daughter under her roof.
“Marry me,” he said that night, “I’ll take you with me to New York.” Sylvia didn’t think twice about getting out of her mother’s house and away from the increasingly frequent fights, and in another two short weeks she had a ring on her finger and was squeezed between Juan and his cousin in a pickup truck with the headlights out, crossing the border at three in the morning. As they drove, Sylvia imagined her mother waking up the next day to find the essentials from her daughter’s belongings missing. She would not cry.
Those first weeks seemed to Sylvia more like dreaming than actually living. She and Juan traveled farther into Texas with his cousin, stopping here and there to visit his other family members or get a few nights rest in a cheap motel. From the truck, she would read aloud as many street signs as she could, pronouncing the words with an accent. At every restaurant they went to, she ordered a cheeseburger and fries. This new country was fascinating to her- a fresh place to explore. Juan seemed relieved to be out of Mexico as well, talking all the time about how many jobs they have in the U.S., and how much more they pay. He also talked constantly about New York, and how in New York anyone could work and be happy. It was that simple. Sylvia didn’t doubt him for a second.
As they wound their way through the Lone Star State, she pictured a New York where everyone smiled as they strode down the sidewalks, grateful to live in a city so alive. She pictured her and Juan settling into an apartment with a garden and big windows. On the weekends, they would stroll through their neighborhood in the sun, buying groceries and furniture and appliances for their home. The thing Sylvia dreamed of most, though, was having her own space with no mother there to tell her what to do. Finally, she would be the director of her own life. One night as they were falling asleep in the hot stillness of a night in Lubbock, Sylvia felt Juan reach for her hand under the covers. Tears came to her eyes. “Thank you,” she said to him in English, unafraid of his cousin in the next bed overhearing, “for taking me with you...” To this Juan pulled her closer to him and they slept closely through the night.
When they finally arrived in New York City, on a Greyhound bus that smelled like a toilet, Sylvia was surprised by the grayness of everything. A gray sidewalk blended in with gray steps leading up to towering gray buildings. The sky outside Juan’s window seat was covered in a blanket of gray clouds. Back at home, the houses had more color, made from clay and with bright curtains, and the sky was blue. As their bus wound farther and farther north to the Bronx, Sylvia became very sleepy. She had been jittering with excitement since that morning when they pulled out of the station in Nashville, but suddenly, right around 102nd Street and Broadway, she was incredibly tired. Her eyelids started to droop and her breathing slowed. Her mind stopped processing the world around her. Her head found Juan’s shoulder and she fell asleep. After a few minutes, he nudged her head up and she woke for a moment before letting her heavy head fall forward again. Resting this way hurt her neck, but she was too tired to care. Juan woke her again when they reached the apartment his cousin had set up for them. “We’re here, get up,” he said as he shook her arm until she was fully awake.
The apartment, and the life they led in it for the next years, fell consistently short of Sylvia’s dreams. Instead of a bright place where everyone walked the streets smiling, working jobs they liked, Sylvia found people wandering the streets mumbling to themselves about jobs they couldn’t find. She tried to be happy in the first years, begging Juan to explore other parts of the city with her on the weekends and sometimes succeeding. Her favorite place to be was Central Park during spring; she enjoyed exploring the dirt trails that wind up and down the woods. She’d run ahead of Juan until he shouted to her to stop and wait for him to catch up. Every time they got on the subway to go back home, she’d say, “Today was the best day. Didn’t you have fun?” To this Juan would just barely smile and put his arm around her without answering.
Soon, though, Sylvia could no longer persuade Juan to get out of the house on the weekends, or at least not with her. He’d say how tired he was, and how hard he’d worked that week. He needed to relax for a while, couldn’t she understand how hard construction work was on a man’s body? Usually his relaxing involved at least four of the beers Sylvia bought him each week, usually more. All day he’d sit in front of the TV, watching sports. But then night would come around and his cousin would knock urgently at the door. “We’re just going to the bar for a drink,” Juan would half-heartedly console Sylvia when she ventured to ask him to stay or at least to invite her along. She’d go to bed alone and wake to his crashing through the front door hours later, reeking of Tequila and sweat.
Sylvia didn’t think much of her mother during those first years in New York, but one cold night as she sat by her bedroom window, a song came into her mind, an old Mexican ballad, sad and slow. It had been her mother’s favorite song to sing. Sylvia started singing it softly, and felt surprised that she remembered every word so clearly. She thought of Adelina and how she might be singing that same exact song right then, and thinking of her daughter. Sylvia missed her. That night as she sat up waiting for Juan, Sylvia resolved to confront him about leaving again and giving no explanation as to where he was going. But when he finally stumbled in the front door, Sylvia looked up to meet his eyes and felt in the pit of her stomach that it was useless. She started anyway, “I’ve been here alone,” she said coldly, fighting tears. He sat at the table and starting pulling at his boots. “I’ve been sitting here alone, staring out the-“
“Will you help me with this,” Juan slurred, stopping her sentence as he struggled to untie his laces. Sylvia stared at him, now letting her hot tears tumble down both cheeks. She rose slowly and crossed the room to stand next to him, first resting her hand on the top of his head. It was wet with melted snow. Then she knelt beside him and placed her hands over his, which were still fumbling with the knot. Firmly she undid his laces and pulled each boot off, then took him by the arms and half-carried him to their bedroom. Juan was fast asleep within minutes, but Sylvia lie awake that night not with the anger that had been simmering in her earlier, but with a sadness that she felt was endless. Sadness for herself and for him, and distantly for her mother, all alone back at home.
After that sleepless night, Sylvia thought about her mother more often and used a long-distance calling card to call her a few times a year. Their conversations were distant, but not cold. Neither of them mentioned Sylvia visiting, or talked about when she left. Instead, Adelina commented on the weather, “It’s another warm day here,” and Sylvia responded,
“And another cold one here.”
Or Adelina passed along gossip, “Monica Gomez finally got married,” to which Sylvia gave a response,
“Finally.” Then they hung up and Sylvia spent the rest of the day in a cloud she could not explain.
Too many years have passed leading up to tonight since Sylvia and Juan came to New York City. Nothing has changed except for the fact that Sylvia has slowly stopped trying. She no longer sits up waiting for him when he disappears at night. She never suggests weekend outings to other parts of the city, even though she is sure the trees in Central Park are perfect in the fall. Coffee breaks with her friends at the hotel and the TV keep her from feeling too lonely most of the time. But she feels each day her patience dwindling, and her frustration boiling over. Each day the urge to go anywhere but home after work grows stronger and every moment Juan demands her attention grows more infuriating. Tonight when Juan comes home and starts throwing his boots around their bedroom and cursing under his breath, Sylvia, feeling as if she will burst if she is in this apartment another moment, stands from her chair and walks out the front door.
Sylvia leaves the apartment building and Juan doesn’t realize yet that she isn’t going to the market to buy meat for his soup. She walks slowly down their street. Her senses feel more heightened than they ever have been before. A siren sounds blocks away and she hears every note it hits. The October air is crisp but Sylvia isn’t cold. For the first time in weeks, months, maybe years, she doesn’t think about Juan or what he is doing. She doesn’t worry about work or how early she needs to be up the next morning. All she thinks about is her mother. She pictures Adelina as she was when Sylvia was just a little girl. Putting on her makeup in front of the vanity lights in her bedroom. Kissing Sylvia before leaving for work each night. Strolling down the street in the sunlight on Saturdays, smiling but reserved. Sylvia longs for her mother, for the simplicity of their lives in those days.
She keeps walking past the grocery store and waves to the cashier inside. She isn’t sure at first of where she is going, so she just wanders the streets. When she reaches the subway, she takes the steps one at a time. It isn’t until the train doors have closed that Sylvia realizes where her body is taking her. Grand Central Terminal. Another bus, but this one will be different. This one will be the beginning of her long journey home. For the first time in years Sylvia feels free. She feels like the train under her feet is the train she has seen in dreams she can’t remember. She sits down and hums her mother’s song.