Imagining the restaurant she and Gabe would open in the Imperial Valley, Bianca stood in his mother’s kitchen chopping with quick, deliberate strokes: avocado, cucumbers, cilantro, and cubes of Monterey Jack cheese in place of expensive abalone. Esme waved her chopping knife as she shared the latest chisme—which Valley women were cheating on whom and where and why. But they never spoke of what had happened at the Clinicas Bianca’s freshman year in high school, because Gabe’s father didn’t know.

The two women threw the ingredients into a clear plastic bowl, then peeled the shrimp, deveined them, and tossed those in as well. Soon, Bianca thought, she and Gabe would ask his father to help them with a down payment on the restaurant—if they didn’t chicken out. Hector was a formidable man. But Esme she loved. Esme she trusted. It was to her house Bianca returned instead of her own mom’s after Dad died.

A ceramic rooster cookie jar glinted against the faux marble counter. Esme’s entire kitchen was decorated in red roosters that anywhere else would’ve been chintzy, but in her house were comforting. Outside, the lawn withered in patches from the roasting sun. Wilted yellow flowers spilt from cane cholla and barrel cactus. Aluminum-foiled windows shimmered from the ranch-style stuccos squatting beneath palo verdes and mulberries, barricades against the absurd one hundred and ten degree broil that only relented after midnight.

Esme was saying that if Gabe were her husband, she’d have left him, but Bianca knew better. In Esme’s kitchen, deveining shrimp, Bianca was in deep. It wasn’t only Esme’s son she loved. They were all her familia. Bianca told Esme so again in her broken Spanish. “Ay, hija. We’ve made a full-blooded Mexican of you? La Bee.” Esme winked. Bianca pressed her lips together, pouring a chilled bottle of Clamato over the mixture while Esme squeezed lemon halves, then shook Tapatío out in spurts. Once, delivering the tamales Nana, Esme and she had made, Esme had told her comadre that Bianca was her nuera, her daughter-in-law. She never said it in front of Gabe because it would’ve upset him. He became a tonto whenever Esme and she spent time together. Bianca chalked it up to his being a mama’s boy, which, in the Valley wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. A man who treated his mama with respect would treat his own wife with the same, that’s what Esme said.

In the backyard, Selena blasted from the stereo. Gabe’s rusted ’66 Mustang hulked on a frayed patch of grass against the fence, covered with a tarp. Hector had promised to help him restore it years before. On the patio, carne asada sizzled on the grill with whole green onions—bulbs and all—habanero chiles, and thick flour tortillas. Hector stood with a skewer in one hand, cerveza in the other. A John Deere of a man, he stood over six feet and weighed over three hundred pounds. When he’d found Gabe and Bianca together in bed, sheets pulled up to her neck when she was fifteen, he’d shouted in a deep growl (deeper than her own dad yelling, when he’d been drunk and raging) “Never let me see her in this fucking bed again!” then slammed the door and drove away. Gabe had told her not to worry, rubbing her thighs as she sobbed. “He’s just like that. He’ll warm to you, I promise. He’ll appreciate you when we have our first baby.” He said it like he didn’t regret what they’d done. Regret: a metal scraping her mouth, clinical and cloying. She imagined what their baby would’ve looked like. If they’d had one.

But when she was seventeen, poised beneath a trellis and star-pitted sky, pressing cellphone to her ear, Gabe had been crying. Across the street red and green chaser lights blinked Merry Christmas. “You don’t understand.” He’d sounded frustrated. She’d held her breath.

She’d been grounded for three months after another cheerleader had brought her home passed-out drunk. Mom had rushed her to the ER to have her stomach pumped, and by the time she could go out again Gabe was away at college.

“Katrina’s pregnant.”

The air around her had splintered, crackling like shards of ice. Bianca had sucked it in until her lungs hurt.

Esme took the bowl of shrimp cocktail and a tray of saltines out to the patio. Bianca followed with a bowl of homemade salsa, made the way Gabe’s Nana had taught her: use a blender, it’s faster and easier, throw in the serranos but take out the seeds unless you want it extra hot, white onion, garlic, salt, cilantro (remove the stems or your salsa will be stringy) and cans of whole peeled tomatoes (use the juice too). She’d also taught her to blacken fat green poblano chiles on the comal. “Pick them up fast or you’ll burn the tips of your fingers,” Nana had said, pinching her fingers together, then snatching back her clasped hand and wincing. “¡Ay! how that stings.”

“Bee,” Hector called playfully from the barbeque in a rumbled voice. Grinning, he nodded toward the bowl in her hands. “You didn’t make the salsa all soupy like the lasagna, did you? Remember, Esme? La sopa?” He meant the time she’d tried making lasagna for Gabe’s whole family, and Hector had barked, “¿Qué es estó? ¿Sopa?” They’d all laughed at her runny casserole, and she’d turned tomato-sauce red.

She forced a laugh. Hector was nicer to her than when she was in high school, now that he didn’t have to worry she’d be the one to ruin his son’s chance at a football scholarship. Gabe had managed that without her. “Nah, Hector. I think I made it right this time. You’d better taste and make sure.” She had to hide her feelings. She couldn’t be too sentis. Unless she was drunk. And no one liked her when she was drunk.

Gabe pulled his green truck onto the dead grass, home from picking up two-year-old Lana from her mom, Katrina. She was a hurricane alright.

Through the open gate Lana ran and flung herself into Bianca’s arms. “Bee!”

“Hey, pretty girl.” She picked Lana up, both smiling. But it also hurt, holding her. She wasn’t Bianca’s daughter. Though she could swear she saw a trace of herself in there.

“Wanna play?” Lana’s voice was squeaky, like a baby bird.

“Go tell Nana and Papa hello first.” She carried Lana toward the patio, where Esme scooped her from Bianca’s arms.

“My baby. Come to Nana.” Esme snatched her away so quickly, her voice and expression changed so suddenly, that Bianca went cold inside. Lana was Esme’s granddaughter. But she was also a broken record in Bianca’s memory. The Valley had a way of beckoning back its children. Children having children.

Arms clasped around her chest, Bianca dug her nails into her skin as Esme danced with her first and only granddaughter, the pair of them giggling. Maybe Bianca shouldn’t have gone back. She was stuck—the way she imagined Dad, purgatorial.

Selena crooned the mariachi “Tú Solo Tú” in her husky voice.

“Come here, son. Man this grill,” Hector called. Gabe took the skewer from his father, who, with cerveza in hand, marched over to Esme and grabbed her waist, pulling her to his gargantuan body and dancing her around the patio. Lana squirmed out of their arms and toddled toward Bianca on the grass.

“After twenty years with you vieja, you’re still the only one,” Hector said to Esme.

Gabe pulled a bottle of beer from the cooler and popped the cap off with his teeth, letting it fall to the ground. He swigged half the beer in one gulp.

Lana led Bianca to the swing set in the center of the yard where she pushed the little girl back and forth, reciting her dad’s rhyme, a Robert Louis Stevenson poem: “How do you like to go up in a swing, up in the air so blue? Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing ever a child could do.”

She glanced back at Gabe, who was watching his parents dance.

As the evening sun dipped behind the fence, the backyard barbeque turned full swing. Hector and Esme’s other familia and compadres arrived, parking their cars in the alley and funneling through the back gate carrying six-packs and paper bags of liquor.

Bianca and Gabe put Lana to bed. Though she preferred Esme, Lana allowed Bianca to watch Strawberry Shortcake with her. She fell asleep in Bianca’s lap.

“Sometimes I wish she were mine,” Bianca whispered to Gabe, who lay sprawled across his daughter’s queen-sized bed, his big feet hanging off the side, hands tucked behind his head.

He closed his eyes for a moment before answering. “I am sorry, Bee.”

“I love her you know.”

“I know.”

They’d spoken these words before.

When the video ended, they crept out of Lana’s bedroom. Gabe grabbed three more beers. He handed Bianca one, chugged one himself, then opened the next as he sat in a lawn chair near the picnic table. Everyone prattling and laughing, Bianca perched at the edge of a bench, sipping her beer and wondering how to broach the subject of opening a restaurant. Hector would be more generous in front of his friends. But how to break into the senseless banter?

Hector’s compadre Frank complained his marriage had gone to shit when his wife Belen went back to work. Hector laughed. “She stop making your tortillas, compadre?”

“You kidding? She never made tortillas. Even before that.”

“Not like our moms used to? Back in the good ole days.”

“Not with all this feminist independence mierda.”

“Bee’s a feminist. She’s a college girl. Es verdad, Bee?” Hector was drunk.

Bianca nodded. She’d left the university after the funeral and found a job taking classifieds at the Valley newspaper, thinking it was closer to writing than cashiering at Savers. She’d signed up to start community college in the fall. That counted as a college girl, right?

“My daughter Adriana works at the bank,” Frank said. “What about you?”

Bianca meant to say she worked at the Valley Press. Instead, she told him she was a writer.

Hector held his beer across his heart. Gabe rolled his eyes.

“A writer? So you don’t want babies?” Frank joked.

Of course she wanted babies. That was her problem. She’d always wanted babies. Even when she’d let Esme and Gabe talk her into letting one go… for their future.

She nodded.

“I thought writers live alone, drink all day long, travel Europe.”

“I could take my kids with me to Europe. Or México.” She used her Spanish accent, which she’d perfected though she could only speak a handful of Spanish words. Mom hadn’t spoken Spanish to her or her gringo father. Another reason Bianca resented her.

“She wants to write about our people?” Frank winked at Hector. “Una gringa por la causa.”

“My mom is Mexican,” she said. If anyone heard her, they didn’t respond.

“You’re mixed up, Bee. You’d better pick: writer or wife. Right, Frank?” Hector laughed.

She chugged her beer, wiped her mouth, spoke up loudly. “All you do is sit around objectifying women as if we’re set in stone. You relegate us to roles you’ve assigned and bark orders at us: Mujer! Grab me a beer. Make me a plate. Go get the ice. Why don’t you get off your ass and get it yourself?” Her heart pounded. She couldn’t believe she’d stood up to Hector. She didn’t dare look at Gabe. They were supposed to be getting on Hector’s good side, not accusing him of being a machismo pig.

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