(12 minute read)
by Christina Hoag
Rosa bit her lower lip and slid open the top drawer of the dresser. She didn’t know why she was trying to be quiet. Mrs. Ellen and her yapping Maltese were out, but the moment seemed to demand silence. Rosa reached into the pile of underwear and plucked a baby pink thong, stretching it between her hands. Did the skimpy bit go in the front or the back? She tossed it back in, unimpressed. A black lacy panty with a little red bow in the front caught her eye. How would that one look on her? Or this gauzy see-through number? It would show everything. What was the point of wearing it? She rubbed a shimmering satin pair against her cheek – so smooth.
She startled and shoved the satin panty into the pocket of her apron. She caught the guilty look on her face in the mirror above the dresser and paused. She had nothing to feel guilty about because she had nothing. They were the ones who should feel guilty. She pushed the drawer closed and hurried out of the bedroom to the landing.
“I am here, Mrs. Ellen,” she called.
Mrs. Ellen’s freshly blonde head appeared at the foot of the staircase. “There you are. I need help with …” She halted. “Oops, sorry. Bags – car.” Her mouth went into slow motion. She pointed to the garage.
Rosa nodded. Yeah, she got it the first time. “Okay, I come.”
Rosa trotted down the stairs and into the garage. The back of the Mercedes SUV was crammed with grocery bags. She started ferrying them into the kitchen, immaculate with her morning’s work. She had polished the stainless steel fridge doors and the rack of copper pots and pans to a high shine, the chrome faucets and granite counter top to a spotless gloss. At least it lasted a little longer with the kids gone at summer camp.
Mrs. Ellen entered the kitchen with a check in her hand as Rosa put away the groceries. Between the pantry and the fridge, there was enough food to feed her village back in Guatemala for a month. But there was only Mrs. Ellen, her husband and a dog little bigger than a guinea pig in the house, plus herself.
“I’m going out for lunch. The pool man’s coming this afternoon.” Mrs. Ellen pointed to the pool outside and flapped the check in her hand. “Give-to-pool-man, o-kay?”
“O-kay.” Rosa wondered if Mrs. Ellen detected the mimicking tone in her voice. Of course not. Who listened to a maid?
Mrs. Ellen put the check under the phone on the counter and patted the frozen package of tuna steaks Rosa had just taken out of a bag. “Leave these out – din-ner.” She pointed to a packet of steak. “Mi-mi.” She gathered her purse and keys. “Oh, don’t forget.” She made a round motion with the palm of her hand. Rosa nodded. Polish the silver. She hadn’t forgotten. “Okay, Mrs. Ellen.”
Mrs. Ellen was gone in a swish of linen and perfume. The garage door buzzed and a minute later clanked closed. Rosa took out a plastic container of black beans and rice and a bowl of tortilla dough from the back of the fridge. Mimi was sitting, tongue lolling, at her porcelain bowl decorated with dancing bones. The color of her tongue matched the pink bow tying her shaggy hair above her eyes. She cocked her head and the rhinestones on her collar glinted. Rosa pursed her lips. Mimi was a dog. She could wait for her steak.
Rosa scooped a handful of dough and started patting it into a tortilla between her palms. The cadence of slaps back and forth against her hands was comforting. She closed her eyes and she was back in the adobe hut where she was born, fingers of Huehuetenango’s mountain mist seeping through the walls.
Almost sweeping the floor of packed earth, her mother’s braid swung like a pendulum on her back as she sat on her knees stoking the fire and mixing the tortilla masa. Then Rosa and her sisters patted out the dough in bleary silence as the axe blows of her father chopping the day’s firewood thudded outside. They tossed the tortillas onto the skillet and the smell of cooking corn rose with the pine wood smoke to the hut’s rafters.
But here, the smell was ammonia and the sound was the fridge humming. Rosa warmed up the rice and beans and ate. She threw a piece of tortilla to Mimi, who got up and sniffed it. Then she lay down, her head on her paws.
“No te preocupes, perrita, I’ll get your blessed steak.” Rosa got up and chopped the meat to feed the dog. Wiping her hands on her apron, she brushed the bulge of the filched panties in the pocket. She’d already forgotten about them. She fingered the silky fabric. She’d slip them on, just to see how she would look.
She went into her room off the laundry and slid her white nylon briefs down her legs, smooth and well muscled from growing up three kilometers from the asphalt highway. Back home, no one wore underwear beneath their long skirts. She had brought a corte with her on the trip north. She had worn the long, wide bolt of colorful cotton once, wrapped around the waist with a sash, with the huipil blouse her mother had embroidered. She put it on for a Sunday afternoon outing with some other Guatemalans not long after she had arrived in Los Angeles six months ago, but none of the others had worn their traditional dress and she felt out of place. Luky, her cousin who had gotten her the job with Mrs. Ellen, told her no one wore their cortes here. Rosa folded it into a neat square and stowed it in the bottom drawer of her dresser.
She pulled on the satin panties and hiked up her uniform around her waist. Standing on tiptoes, she viewed her bottom half in a mirror above the dresser. Growing up, the family had shared just a small rectangle of mirror propped on a shelf in the kitchen, so she had never studied her physique before or even thought much about it. Her legs looked as tall as a horse’s, and her belly lay in a valley between her hip bones. She turned to look at herself from all sides, then swayed her hips in a little dance and giggled. She could hear her mother’s tuts of disapproval, like when she caught Rosa walking unchaperoned with a neighbor boy. “You’re always too much of a rebel,” her mother scolded. “You’ll never get a husband if you keep that up.” But mamá wasn’t here now. Rosa let her uniform drop back in place and went back into the kitchen, smiling inside to herself.
She went into the dining room and gathered the silver pieces designated for cleaning and started applying the polish by the sink. She looked at the small TV on the countertop. She was dying to watch the novelas, but Mrs. Ellen didn’t want her watching Spanish soaps because, she said, Rosa needed to hear only English. But Mrs. Ellen wasn’t here either. Rosa turned on the TV and switched it to the Spanish channel.
Engrossed in a love scene, she jumped when she heard Mimi barking at the back door. She looked out the window. The pool men were lugging in their vacuum equipment.
One of them was new, but he looked familiar. Big eyes and an angular nose. She knew him from somewhere. She leaned further into the window. Enrique, from her old English class. Her stomach fluttered. He had flirted with her after class several times, then Luky got her the job in Beverly Hills and she hadn’t gone back. That was three months ago. He wouldn’t remember her. She grabbed the check from under the phone and went outside to give it to Julio, the supervisor. He thanked her and called to the men.
“Venga, Julio. You’re doing the next house. Enrique, remember to wipe the tiles around the edge. I’ll be back in a while.”
Enrique started uncoiling the vacuum hose. Rosa watched, feeling the sun penetrate her hair to her scalp as the truck’s engine faded down the driveway.
Enrique squinted at her. “Weren’t you in the English class at the Latino Community Service Center?”
He remembered her. Rosa’s lungs felt like they were about to burst. “Yes, that was me.”
“Rosa, isn’t it? But you don’t go any more.”
She smoothed her apron. “It’s too far from here. I go to a class at a church here in Beverly Hills now.”
“Qué lástima. Well, I better get to work, or I’ll be in trouble if Julio gets back and I’m not done.” He flashed her a grin and stripped off his shirt.
“Me, too.” Rosa turned and went back into the kitchen.
Standing at the sink, she forgot about the novela and the silver polishing as she watched Enrique. He slid the vacuum pole in the pool, barely breaking the surface of the aqua water, the muscles in his arms like ropes, his bronze back alive in a sheen of sweat. He dunked his head in the shallow end and shook his hair, scattering drops of water.
She took out the pitcher of iced tea in the fridge and a glass and went outside. “Toma. You must be thirsty.”
He drained the glass in a single gulp. She refilled the glass, and he downed half. “One day I’ll have my own pool service,” he said. “That’s why I keep going to English class. Besides, I get to meet pretty girls like you.”
She liked his confidence. He raised his glass to his lips and stared at her as he drank. She met his gaze until her eyelids stung and she had to close them.
“I have to finish polishing the silver,” she said.
“I have to finish cleaning the pool.”
Something in the way he said the sentence made her laugh, which made him laugh. They laughed until her stomach ached. She hadn’t laughed like that for ages, since a Sunday evening paseo in the town plaza where clusters of boys strolled clockwise, and the girls walked counterclockwise. She had made a face at a boy she considered ugly and her friends had burst into a spasm of giggles.
She returned to the kitchen, her laughter subsiding into ragged breaths, and finished polishing the silver. The garage door buzzed open and the car pulled in. She waited for Mrs. Ellen to come in, but she didn’t.
Then she heard the rumble of voices outside. Then the high pitch of laughter. Rosa stepped quickly to the window and looked out. Mrs. Ellen was standing by the pool with Enrique. He was leaning with both hands on the vacuum pole in the deep end. She had her hand on her chest, like she was trying to contain herself. When they had finished the joke, Mrs. Ellen walked in the direction of the back door. Then she turned and said something to Enrique and waved her hand. The rings on her fingers sparkled in the sun. He looked up and smiled. She turned back to continue to the kitchen. Rosa expected him to continue sliding his pole, but he didn’t. He stood there, watching Mrs. Ellen walking, as if hypnotized by the sway of her hips. Rosa felt like a hole had been punched clean through her stomach. She stood transfixed, watching him watch her, until his head dropped, and she heard the back door open.
Rosa bent her head over the silver. Mrs. Ellen said something she didn’t understand and cooed at Mimi who had come running to greet her.
After Mrs. Ellen went upstairs, Rosa heated several tortillas and packaged them in foil. When she heard the truck pull into the driveway, she hurried outside. With parted lips, she pressed the packet into Enrique’s hand. He smiled and tugged the ragged end of her ponytail that had landed over the front of her shoulder. Rosa wondered later if he had brushed her breast accidentally or on purpose. It didn’t matter. The hole in her middle started to feel full again.
The following Tuesday Rosa cheered inwardly when Mrs. Ellen went out on her errands. Today the pool man would come, although Mrs. Ellen hadn’t mentioned it. Rosa ironed the clothes in the laundry, her ears tuned to the sound of a vehicle in the driveway. Finally, the expected door slam came, and Mimi barked. Rosa turned off the iron and hung the blouse she was pressing. A minute later the back doorbell chimed. The pool men didn’t usually announce their arrival. Maybe it was Enrique.
She opened the door. A bald man, with a smile plastered on his mouth like a Band-Aid, stood on the step. Her shoulders slumped. She had forgotten Mimi’s grooming session.
“Bow Wow Boutique, here for Mimi.” He spoke the same words in the same annoying singsong every time.
Rosa shuffled into the den and scooped up the dog from her miniature four-poster bed in the corner. She handed over Mimi and closed the door too hard. She trudged up the stairs to the master bedroom, coathangers hooked on a finger and the laundry basket stacked with sheets and towels wedged on the convenient shelf of her hip, just as she’d carried her brothers and sisters when they were small. She put the basket down on the bed and entered the closet.
It was as big as Rosa’s room off the laundry, the rails on three sides crammed with clothes, shelves full of shoes, handbags, belts. Rosa pushed apart clothes to stuff in the blouses and pants she’d ironed. A bulky garment bag that she hadn’t seen before was taking up a lot of room. She unzipped it. A dark, rich fur burst out. It felt softer than baby flesh. She pulled out a full-length coat. It was surprisingly heavy. She slipped her arms through the sleeves, allowing the coat to swallow her. She modelled herself in front of the mirror on the closet door, reveling in the closeness of such luxury.
She loosened the elastic holding her ponytail and shook out her hair, so it cloaked her shoulders. She grabbed a pair of gold lame high-heel sandals and stepped out of her flat, rubber-soled work shoes. The sandals were too big, but it didn’t matter. She liked the line of her calf with her heels raised. She rummaged in a jewellery box on a shelf and found long gold earrings and stuck them in her ears.
Rosa clomped around the bedroom, trying to keep her feet from sliding off the sandals. She sashayed her hips. She was the mistress of the house now. She sat in a chintz armchair by the window, hands on the arms, and crossed her legs, bouncing the upper one confidently. She imagined Enrique sitting across from her in a fancy restaurant, his hair slicked back, handsome as a telenovela star. Glasses clinked and perspiring waiters scurried like ants at the snap of her fingers. She and Enrique laughed at some unknown joke. She pretended to smoke a cigarette, waving her hand and pursing her lips to exhale. She clutched the collar of her fur and coyly smiled at his advances.
The doorbell startled her reverie. She had lost track of time. She threw off the coat and ran barefoot downstairs to retrieve Mimi, now turned into a cotton candy fluff ball. She deposited the dog in her bed and went back upstairs to put away the sheets and towels along with her daydreams.
When she returned to the kitchen, Mrs. Ellen’s purse and keys were on the counter. She heard noises outside and looked out the window. Mrs. Ellen was clapping her hands as Mimi scampered around the yard, then squatted. “Gooood girrrrl!” Mrs. Ellen said. Rosa knew what that meant – she’d have to go out with the plastic bag and pick up the shit.
The pool service didn’t come the rest of the week. Rosa was resigned. Someone else, it seemed, always pulled the strings of her life.
Saturday morning Mrs. Ellen entered the kitchen in her golf skirt. She took out her checkbook from her purse. “Pool man today,” she said as she scribbled out the check and stuck it under the phone. Rosa’s heart skipped like a rhythm on a marimba. Somewhere within her, a cord of hope uncoiled.
After Mrs. Ellen left, Rosa shut Mimi in the bathroom and went upstairs to the master bedroom. She selected a pair of red lace-trimmed panties from the top drawer and pulled out a matching bra. She’d have to stuff the cups with tennis balls to make it fit. She tossed it back and shoved the drawer closed so hard the perfume bottles on top rattled, nabbing her attention. She grabbed one and craned her neck to catch the squirts. She went into the bathroom and daubed rouge on her cheeks and mascara on her eyes. She decided she looked like a doll and washed it off. She tried a fuchsia lipstick. That would do. A gold bangle and dangling crystal earrings sat on the counter. She slid the bangle on her wrist – it shone against her dusky skin, and fastened the earrings in her lobes.
After she changed into the red panties and a clean pink uniform in her room, she looked at herself in the mirror. The earrings sparkled as she cocked her head like Mimi. She smiled.
The truck rumbled into the driveway shortly after noon. She grabbed the check and ran to the back door. Enrique stood on the truck bed unloading the cleaning equipment. He winked at her. She tried to straighten her lips out of their smile as she handed Julio the check.
“I’ll stay and do this one, Julio,” Enrique called.
“Está bien, but don’t be long. We’ve got a lot of houses today.”
He got into the truck. The ignition strained to start, but then it kicked in with a cough. The truck lurched off and the yard fell silent again.
Enrique assembled the vacuum by the pool. Rosa went inside and came back out with ice water. Enrique took the glass. “You’re the prettiest thing I’ve seen, well, since I was last here.”
Rosa knew he was just flirting, but the words made her swell inside all the same. She waved her hand dismissively. “Ay, vos! Anyway, you’re late this week.”
“The truck broke down so now we’re backed up with jobs. I lost two days’ pay and now Julio wants us to do more houses in one day for no extra money.”
“He should’ve paid you,” Rosa said. “It wasn’t your fault the truck broke down.”
Enrique shrugged. “Yeah, but that’s not how it works. He’s super cheap. When I have my own pool service, I’m going to treat the guys real good.” He handed her the empty glass. “I better get to work.”
Rosa glanced out the window every few minutes as she changed the sheets on the king-sized master bed. When it looked like he was close to finishing, she took a glass of iced tea outside. He was talking into a cell phone.
“Julio’s going to be late,” he said as he took the drink. “The truck broke down again. I might be here a while.”
Rosa smelled the tang of his sweat glistening on his skin. “Why don’t you come into the kitchen, pues? It’s cooler. No one’s home.”
“Are you sure?”
She nodded. He hesitated, then followed her in. After he set the glass in the sink, he grabbed her by the waist, pressed her against the counter and planted his lips on hers.
When they pulled apart, she stared into his pupils. His boldness propelled her. She tugged his hand. He looked at her with raised eyebrows and a half smile but said nothing. She led him out of the kitchen, up the stairs and along the landing, past the abstract oil paintings that resembled chicken scratches in dusty earth.
“Rosa, what are you doing?” She noted with satisfaction that Enrique’s voice had dropped to a whisper, a change from the cocksure tone from a few minutes before. Her power stiffened her resolve.
She pushed open the master bedroom door and entered. Enrique stopped in the threshold. “Rosa, we can’t be up here. What are you doing?”
“She’s playing golf all day. Don’t worry.” She pulled him into the room and onto the bed. She kissed him. His mouth resisted, but as she slid her hands under his shirt, he loosened. When she felt him fall into her, she broke away. “Esperáte,” she whispered into his ear. He looked up confused.
She got up and went into the closet. She returned with the fur coat and spread it on the bed. She lay back on it and he tumbled on to her. Sunrays made the room glow like butter.
Rosa heard the garage door clank open and the keys crash on the granite counter, but she didn’t move. She heard Mimi’s muffled yips and scratches and a high-pitch coo as the bathroom door was opened.
“What were you doing shut in the bathroom all by your lonesome? Poor baby, poor, poor baby….Rosaaaa!”
She heard the undertone of annoyance in the final syllable of her name, but she didn’t move. She heard the queries and the suspicion in the following silence, but she remained still, feeling the weight of Enrique’s head on her breast and the steady warmth of his breath on her skin.
Footsteps shuffled up the carpeted stairs. Her heart beat faster. Rosa tilted her head toward the doorway and waited.
Copyright © 2022 – Christina Hoag. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Christina Hoag is the author of novels Law of the Jungle (Better than Starbucks Press), Girl on the Brink and Skin of Tattoos (both from Onward Press). Her short stories and essays have appeared in literary reviews including Lunch Ticket, Toasted Cheese and Shooter, and have won several awards. For more information: https://christinahoag.com.
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