by Elliott Turner
First, Cristhian’s husband would get mad. He’d clench his fists, arms at his side, his cheeks puffed, his face bright red. He’d close his eyes and his rigid body would shake.
He would accuse her of betrayal. He’d remind her about all their talks. Their mutual decisions.
He would list everything that could go wrong.
Finally, he would interrogate her like she was a child.
How on Earth had she brought a child home just like that? Off the street?
Despite the coming storm, Cristhian would not fault herself.
What else could she have done?
Cristhian spent that Saturday morning like most others: her elderly parents lived in a modest, one-story framed house in Hidalgo, Texas. Located only five miles from the Mexican border, they used to do most of their grocery shopping and get car repairs done in Reynosa.
As a child, Cristhian brimmed with excitement each Sunday morning as her family drove into Mexico to attend Mass at the lovely Parroquia de Nuestra Señora. This was before the war broke out and then kidnappings and carjackings became facts of life.
Cristhian did as much of her elderly mother’s medical care as she could. That morning, she checked her mother’s blood pressure, helped her father with his insulin, and prepared a special lunch of Enchiladas Rojas. She even put a fried egg on top of her dad’s enchiladas, just as he liked it.
She left their home around one and had barely driven two minutes before she saw a stumbling, ragged figure in the street. She knew: migrante. The torn jacket. The stained pants. The staggered steps. In any other place, she would have assumed the person was a drug-abusing beggar.
But not in Hidalgo. She drove closer and saw the figure was feminine. She mulled over the options in her mind: Border Patrol would show up soon.
She took a deep breath, stopped the car, and rolled down a window.
–Hola, ¿cómo está? ¿Está bien usted?
-¿Necesita ayuda? Usted se ve fuera de la onda. Véngase.
The young woman carefully approached, tottering with each step like a newborn deer.
Her name was Nisani and she came from the Atlantic coast of Honduras. She spoke Spanish with a heavy accent. She ate the “s” at the end of words. She did not roll the double “r”. She explained that she spoke Garifuna at home and only used Spanish at school.
Nisani had lovely round cheeks with low dimples on either side of her mouth just above the jawline. Cristhian guessed she looked barely seventeen years old. Nisani’s hazel eyes seldom focused on any single thing, and she often stared at the ground with her head cocked downwards. Her eyelashes were so fine and delicate, they resembled the legs of a ladybug.
On such a pretty face, her poorly cropped hair stood out. Nisani explained to Cris that her mother had cut her hair short so that she could pass as a boy when traveling through Mexico. Normally, she either grew her hair long and an older cousin braided it, or she wore extensions.
Her candor in speaking left Cristhian smitten. She had been guarded at that age.
At the house, after Nisani took a bath and put on a pair of Cristhian’s old jeans and a t-shirt, they sat down at the living room table to eat. Nisani nibbled at the tortas, but devoured the Spanish rice. She picked at the refried beans, as if testing them for a hidden, foreign substance.
Cristhian expected her to devour the food. She looked famished. And Cristhian a young migrante had eaten that well during her travels.
She asked in Spanish: “Are you not a big fan of Mexican food?” Nisani’s eyes opened wide and then narrowed.
-It’s fine. Thank you so much. Sometimes, though…the spices hurt my stomach.
-What do you normally eat in Honduras?
“Casamiento.” Cris had never heard that word “marriage” used for cuisine. She searched on Google Images and saw that, in Honduras, Casamiento was a plate of black beans and white rice.
She skimmed a few online recipes and decided to take a stab at cooking it. The white rice from the rice cooker came out too sticky and the black beans from a can did not fry all the way through. The final product did not look like the Google Image search results. Cristhian herself did not care much for it.
Nisani, though, gulped down her plate and asked for seconds.
After eating, Nisani asked for a phone. She had an aunt in Texas whom she was supposed to call after crossing. Cris helped Nisani dial the number on the cell phone and recognized the area code: 214. Dallas.
The number was disconnected. Panic entered Nisani’s eyes. They tried again, and again, and then again. Cris tried numbers similar to the one Nisani had recognized. No luck. Nisani’s chest heaved with each breath.
Cris told her tranquila and got her laptop. They then spent a half hour searching for the aunt on Facebook without luck.
Cris had some minutes left on an international calling card, so she let Nisani try to contact her mother in Honduras. The number rang before going to voicemail, and she left a message in Garifuna.
Nisani’s breathing got heavier and sounded painful. At the corner of her eye, she saw a tear forming.
-Do you need a nap? Or do you want something to drink?
She gave her a glass of iced tap water. Nisani took one sip before her face twisted. She wrinkled her nose and then stared at the glass and its contents.
-Is everything okay?
-Do you have any sugar?
-May I have some, please.
Cris handed her the small glass jar with the sugar. Nisani carefully tilted it and poured about a teaspoon into the glass. Then she gulped down the water. She explained that her aunt had warned her that the tap water in America tasted awful.
Cristhian’s ears perked as the front door knob rattled. She stood up abruptly as the door creaked open. She fell upon José as he stepped over the threshold, grabbed his arm, marshaled him into the bedroom, and closed the door behind them.
Inside, she succinctly explained the situation.
His eyes widened. Then, his mouth formed a grin, one that struck her as stupid. She cringed as he opened his mouth to speak.
-Well, we could make some money on the side running people and drugs in these parts. It’s very lucrative I hear.
-I’m just saying. This could be a test run. I hear some polleros get a thousand bucks a head.
-Seriously, though, you do realize how dangerous this is, right?
-Like, forgetting about the police and border patrol and harboring an illegal, we don’t know a thing about her.
-Don’t use that term. Her name is Nisani.
-Whatever. What I’m saying is, maybe she fled from Belize because there’s an arrest warrant and she killed somebody or…
-Honduras. I told you. She is from Honduras.
-How did a young girl travel across Mexico? You really think she was by herself?
-She says she was with an uncle for most of the trip, but then he got caught by the Mexican migra.
-She has an aunt here in Texas. Dallas, I think. But her phone is not working.
-And how was she going to get past the checkpoint in Falfurrias?
-I don’t think she really thought that far ahead. Or even knew about it.
-Oh, jeez. So, like, what’s the game plan then? She going to a hotel? A migrant shelter? The Y?
-Ummm. Actually, I…I was thinking…
The grin left his face.
Cristhian seethed at José’s behavior that first evening. At dinner, he pretended to not understand Nisani’s Spanish. The whole meal, he did not make eye contact with her once.
He finished eating and did not take his plate to the sink as usual. Instead, he stood up, said he was skipping dessert, and then locked himself in their bedroom. From the kitchen, she could hear the television cranked to an obnoxiously high volume.
Cris saw sadness and uncertainty darting in the eyes of Nisani. So she reached across the table and grabbed her right hand. Nisani looked up. They spoke softly and in Spanish.
-I’m going to have to go, right?
-I…I don’t want to be a weight on anyone.
-Forget about him. He’s actually nice. He just…he does not like surprises much. I’ll handle him.
-Are you okay? You’re shivering.
-It’s just…it’s cold.
-Well, we normally set the A/C to 70 degrees.
-Fahrenheit. 21 degrees Celsius.
José and Nisani might as well have been cats that first week. Neither could linger in the same room as the other for more than a few minutes. In the evenings, José got home from work and immediately locked himself in his study.
After two nights, he stopped eating dinner at the table. He carried his plate to the study and ate alone.
Cristhian pretended not to notice and Nisani followed her lead. They munched and watched Spanish language television in the living room. Often, they would go outside to the backyard and sit at the patio table while sipping lemon water sin hielo.
That first Saturday, though, Cristhian and José’s old black Chihuahua, Sofia, wriggled through her dog fence that kept her in the laundry room and began to growl at Nisani. Cristhian had a partial view and yelled from the kitchen, but, before she could turn off the stove, José darted into the living room from the study.
He held a rolled up magazine in his right hand. He kneeled down and lightly bopped Sofia on the nose. “Bad dog!”
Sofia, who had never been struck before, thought he was playing. She barked and wagged her tail. He bopped her a second time, a little harder. “Be nice.”
She stopped wagging her tail. She then showed her teeth and hissed. He picked her up in one swoop and took her outside.
Cristhian stood at the entryway and watched. José came back inside and handed Nisani the rolled up magazine. He said in his slow, hiccuping Spanish: “If she bothers you again, bop her on the nose.”
He then walked back to the study, avoiding eye contact with Cristhian. He slammed the door shut and Cris could hear the click of the lock being set.
A few days later, Cris and Nisani were in the living room when José arrived home from work earlier than usual and in an odd mood. Cris was sitting on the couch and reading a magazine on her iPad. Nisani sat on the recliner and was holding a book in Spanish. José stepped into the living room, not the study, and stood near the recliner. Nisani looked up at him.
“Is that El Principito? You know, I loved that book as a child. My grandmother used to…”
That night, José and Cristhian spoke for over two hours in bed. It was probably the best conversation they had had in years.
A few nights later, they again stayed up late in conversation. This time, José would not shut up about Nisani. He professed he had “no clue a kid could be so quiet and well behaved.” He also showed disbelief that any “parent could let a child that age travel across Mexico!” He concluded that her life in Honduras must have been chingada, or her parents were “total deadbeats.”
Cristhian did not agree or disagree. She just listened. And smiled.
A week later, José revealed to Cristhian that he had told his parents about Nisani.
-You know, it’s actually….it’s actually kinda nice. In a weird way.
Cristhian could not believe her ears.
Cristhian and her husband first met over a decade ago when they both taught at South Texas College in McAllen. He had been an adjunct for five years, but seemed destined for an associate professor job. The department chair admired his publication history, even if student evaluations always came back frosty. Cristhian was a visiting lecturer.
She lacked benefits like health insurance and paid sick days. Still, when she and José clicked at a happy hour, she was the one who insisted he quit first before they could start dating.
And he did as told.
They moved in together within a few months. When she got offered a full-time position as a grant writer and development director for a small Christian school in Dallas, she accepted first and then told José they would be moving.
And he did as told.
Six months after the move, he proposed marriage. However, he confessed something: he didn’t want children. Ever. He had grown up in a double-wide trailer in San Benito that was packed to the rafters with siblings and cousins. He had had to help bathe younger siblings, make meals, get them dressed, clean up their messes. And hated every minute of it.
Now, he valued most quiet and peace. He wanted to marry Cristhian, but no children. Could she agree to that?
Safely in her mid-20’s, Cristhian agreed – she was madly in love with José – without giving children much thought.
Years passed and she focused on her career. Their friends started to have kids. Their Facebook timelines filled with baby pictures and, in her opinion, “overdone” gender reveal videos. They got invited to baptisms and were even godparents a few times. She began to want what her friends were having. They looked exhausted, but also elated.
She began to assume he would eventually want at least one child.
To her surprise, more years passed and he never voiced regret. He obsessed over planning their weekends, trips to New York City or San Francisco at the drop of a hat. He’d often lounge around the house all weekend in a bathrobe, reading a novel at times and flipping through Cable TV channels.
When Cristhian turned 36, her OBGYN acted strange during the annual checkup. Near the end, her doctor shooed away the nurses and insisted on a private chat. Cristhian was worried she had somehow contracted an STD without knowing it.
She was only slightly relieved when the doctor said: “I know it’s a very personal decision, but… you have probably five more good years of ovulation and fertility before reproducing will be very difficult, if not impossible.”
Cristhian felt all the blood rush to her cheeks. The doc stared at her in silence and awaited a response. A gesture. A nod. Anything. A receipt for the knowledge bestowed.
After a tense few minutes, she finally said: “Okay. Like, thank you for this info.”
A year later, Cristhian and José returned to the Rio Grande Valley for two reasons. First, both wanted to be near their parents as they aged. Her mother suffered from high blood pressure, and her dad had Type II diabetes. She felt the need to take care of them. José’s dad had a bad back, so he could also help out around his childhood house.
Second, they wanted to own a house. Every year, the rent went up in Dallas much more than their COLA pay raises. The only houses they could maybe afford were a hellish commute from their respective jobs.
They could have lived in an “up and coming” area with failing public schools because they were childless, but there was still the investment problem: could a house surrounded by bad schools keep value?
They had been back in the Valley for barely two months before they had closed on a nice, three bedroom house in South Edinburg with a red tile roof and swimming pool in the backyard.
After a modest five-figure downpayment, their mortgage – including the insurance and property tax escrow – was still several hundred dollars less than their rent in Dallas. If they pinched pennies, they could pay off the house in fifteen years.
José and Cristhian continued to travel most weekends. They flew to cities near and far. El Paso. San Antonio. Houston. They even flew back to Dallas for a three-day weekend to visit friends and attend a Jane Austen-themed ball at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Both missed the diversity and cultural trappings of a metropolis.
As the big “4” “0” loomed, Cristhian’s doubts bloomed fully. She had been ostracized by her friends not on purpose, but by convenience. They were always doing something for their kids or an activity targeted towards kids.
She had a few friends that had held out and posted images of ladies only rock-climbing trips on Instagram, but 90% of the social media posts she saw were of kids and smiling mothers and fathers. First trips to Disney. First day of school. First trip abroad. First trip to a museum.
She wanted one of her own. She needed one of her own.
Part of her admired how wonderfully José took care of his aging parents, and thought he would be a great dad. Another part also wondered and worried: who would take care of them when they were old?
Everytime she tried to bring up the topic, she got shot down summarily. He flippantly dodged the topic with “we already discussed this and decided ages ago.”
Cristhian realized that a part of her had assumed, going from their twenties to their thirties, that they would revisit the topic of kids. She had been wrong.
She started to have trouble sleeping and began to take Ambien. Her period started to come irregular and her cramps got worse. She needed a heating pad, and, at work, would close the door to her office and lay on the ground, straightening her back, trying not to leak tears. She worried she had Endometriosis.
Then she worried about needing surgery, and what would come after: possibly never being able to have a child. Never experiencing pregnancy. Never experiencing nursing.
One night, when José was eating dinner at her parents, she called an old friend from high school and aired her frustrations and doubts and worries. Just the fact she had something bottled up that she couldn’t share with José felt like a betrayal.
To her surprise, her friend took his side of the issue. And she struggled to argue back. She had changed her mind. She now wanted a child. They had discussed children and they had decided not to have them. But, she realized, that was over a decade ago.
Things had changed. She had changed. And she needed to either convince José or…
That night, José came home and detected something amiss. She was already in bed, on her side and facing the wall. He scooted close to her and hugged her. He kissed her on the neck.
-Hello? Something happen?
She wanted to scream, to yell, to kick, to punch. She wanted pull his arms off her, turn on the light, look him in the eye, and just vent.
Instead, she nodded no and kept her eyes closed. He eventually scooted back to his side of the bed and was soon lightly snoring.
And then Nisani was gone. Just like that.
José was at work. Cristhian left in the early morning to do some grocery shopping; Nisani said she wanted to stay in bed. When Cris got home, the front door was unlocked. Normally, Nisani would be seated on the couch, channel surfing. Instead, the bedroom door was open; the bed unmade.
Cris had left Nisani her own cell phone in case of emergency; she and José had disconnected the house’s landline years ago. Now, the cellphone sat on top of the small round table in the kitchen’s eating area. Cris picked it up; there was a flurry of messages exchanged with the (214) number. They were unintelligible to Cris; a mixture of misspelled Spanish, Garifuna, and pidgin English.
She took a deep breath and dialed the number. The line rang a few times, and then went to voicemail. A soft female voice, with a slight hint of a Caribbean English accent, said: “You have reached the phone of Dee. I am busy right now. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”
The phone beeped and Cris realized she had nothing to say.
She hung up.
Two days later, they consulted with an attorney who, for a hundred dollars, told them not to file a missing person report. He reasoned that they did not know enough information about her – full name, date of birth, place of birth – to help the police find her. Also, in the wrong light, they could be mistaken for human traffickers. A cop may get suspicious as to why they let a stranger stay in their house for free. And, of course, Cristhian just randomly picking up a minor child and taking her to the house would raise some eyebrows.
That night, they sat together at the dinner table, but neither felt like eating. Lasagna rested on their plates untouched. Instead, they shared a bottle of Merlot and one glass became two and then three.
They were facing one another, but then José moved his chair to be beside her. He draped his right arm over Cristhian’s shoulders. She rested her head on his shoulder.
Neither could look the other in the eye.
José cleared his throat. “You know…if Nisani got through Mexico, I’m pretty sure South Texas and the rest of the U.S. should be easy.”
Cristhian glanced up at him. He stroked her hair. She felt her lips form the edges of a smile. He kissed her forehead.
And then they were on the couch; his pants and boxers down to his ankles. His shirt unbuttoned. He sat there as she rhythmically moved her hips up and down, his hands by his side, his eyes closed. She clasped the back of the couch with her left hand and grabbed the back of his head with her right hand; she pulled his face into her bosom. Then, she arched down, closed her eyes, and kissed him.
She pulled her scrunchy off and tilted her head so her hair fell over her face and his. Then, she dug her fingernails into his chest so hard he yelped.
Elliott Turner is the author of The Night of the Virgin, one of “the top ten fiction books of 2017” according to TheLatinoAuthor.com. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, Atticus Reviews, VICE, Fusion, Transect Magazine, and SplitLip Mag.