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.

But Hector laughed, then turned toward the grass behind him and spit. “Qué cabrona. Listen to this girl talk. What else, La Bee? Tell us more.”

She knew he was making fun of her, but she didn’t care. She was burning inside and the only way to keep from imploding was to let it out. “You think we like serving men?”

“Then why do you do it?” Hector demanded. “Why bring La Sopa over here?”

She looked toward Gabe, who stared at the cement. “Love.”

For a second she thought Gabe would say something. Instead, he slumped further in his chair, cradling his beer, its glass spout nestled against his chin.

“Ay, amor,” Hector said, pulling Esme closer to him. “Mujer de mi corazón, mi vida,” he sang. “Go get me a beer.” He slapped her ass.

Everyone laughed. Bianca’s cheeks reddened again.

“La Bee, you want your man to love you?”

Gabe shifted in his lawn chair, cleared his throat, said nothing.

“Keep that pot of beans hot. Right, son? That what you want?” Hector chuckled.

“I want her to keep her mouth shut in public,” Gabe said.

“Muchacho, the woman’s always right.” Hector turned to his wife, “Es verdad, mujer?”

“Mmm,” Esme murmured, smiling as her husband kissed her. “Pero, leave pobre Bee alone, Hector.”

“Nah, she can handle it.” He turned to Bianca. “So which is it then, Bee? Writer or wife? Your husband doesn’t want you airing his dirty laundry. His caca.”

She told him she would split in two, break the binary.

“There she goes with her fancy college words. Su poesía. Qué bonita, qué loca.”

Bianca rose from the bench. She felt sick. Gabe followed her into the house. The patio door slammed behind him; he grabbed her shoulders and spun her around to face him. “Why do you always embarrass me in front of my family?” His face flushed from the beer.

“You don’t mind when I talk like that with you,” she said, mustering all the haughtiness she could. She was ready for a fight.

“That’s different.” He wiped his palms across the sides of his spiky hair and looked away. “They don’t understand.”

“They understand fine. You just never stick up for me. You used to love my poetry.”

“I used to do a lot of things, Bee.” His voice softened. She stared at him, the man she’d watched grow up. Tall and well-built with bronze skin that released a mixture of Cool Water cologne and sweat, he smelled like a beach in the desert. His broad shoulders were stretch-marked where his muscles had grown faster than his skin. His otherwise clear boyish face, slightly impish with his upturned ears, flashed a scar below his eye where he ran into the side mirror of his uncle’s truck when he was little. Esme and Nana said he was a real travieso, would storm the house in a fury, knocking plates of food off the table for no apparent reason. But then, he would smile his charming dimpled smile and be forgiven. Not much had changed since then.

She sighed, the fight leaving her chest, her stomach. She was tired.

“Come here,” he whispered. He pulled her to his body and wrapped his arms around her, pressing his lukewarm beer bottle to her shoulder. His kisses were rough, his sour breath hot against her face and mouth. This Gabe she knew well. She walked a fine line with him. He loved her or despised her when he was drunk. Tonight, he loved her.

She let him hoist her up, wrapped her legs around him. She was Coatlicue, fumbling through the dark. She’d break through. She’d find a crossing—or create one herself.

Gabe carried her to the laundry room, locked the door, hoisted her atop the dryer. He reached under her sundress and pulled her panties to the side, pushing his fingers deep inside her, kissing her neck and breasts.

She was a snake. Careful. She could bite. She could. But didn’t.

She combed her fingers through his short, black hair as she held the back of his head. They were drops of water on a hot comal. Their bodies scorched each other. They were not meant to make a meal, only to test the fire.

“You’re sexy as hell,” he groaned. “Mi poeta.”

His breath against her neck. His voice in her ear. A voice that called butterflies from inside her. Made her think in clichés. Colored her dreams in red. I’ve loved you too much too long too hard. Red as the desert. Where oceans were dry as salt flats. Where red meant lost and lost meant dead.

“I love you,” she said.

“Mmm… then let me fuck you.”

He pulled her off the dryer and bent her over, face to machine. She pressed her ear against the cool, smooth metal and listened as he slid on a condom then thrust into her.

The echo of a seashell.

He leaned down and kissed her cheek when he finished. She straightened her dress and pulled up her panties as he opened the door to the bathroom and took a piss.

“Hey, look. I’m sorry you felt uncomfortable out there. I don’t want you making any scenes. We’re trying to butter him up, right? So we might have a chance at a future, our restaurant.” He zipped; she nodded. “Hey, come here,” he said, his voice soft, playful. “You know I love you.”

“Oh, yeah? Or you love my ass?”

He squeezed her ass. “Both. Now let’s get your ass back outside. Don’t get all dramatic again. Save that for your poems.”

The first nights after he’d left for college, he’d promised to come home weekends but never did. She was imprisoned in her house. Mom wouldn’t lessen Bianca’s sentence though she was losing it, caged in her room listening to them fight. Mom wouldn’t risk Bianca getting drunk and ending up in the hospital again. Couldn’t trust her not to hurt herself at a party.

Bianca had made a plan. She would be a writer. She would get out of town. She’d move to a big city like the postcard of New York her English teacher had given her when she’d admitted she wanted to be a poet but didn’t know how since all poets were dead like Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath and her teacher hadn’t laughed because he’d understood why she would’ve thought so. Instead he’d said she was already a poet and there were others like her. There were such things as open mics and poetry slams and international competitions and she could join them, she could win.

But then a birth and a death. Both like drowning. Dad had been drunk and Bianca could never forgive Mom. She should have saved him. Compared to that, Gabe felt relatively easy to forgive again. What were 9th grade bloody thighs next to a father, drunk in a bathtub? The water must have felt so warm on his cheeks, his face, his eyes.

The stars. The beer. The mariachi music and night sky, blinking. She tried controlling herself in Gabe’s backyard. For his family. For Esme. But the alcohol brought it all back. Sourness, bitterness rooted inside her, knotted and spindling her gut. A sick swishing. A turnip or sickly red beet. Pulled from her uterine strings to her feet. Splitting open. A cactus skull. Nopal on the patio. Prickly pear. A bright pink cactus flower, sprouting then dying in sticky water.

The backyard swayed and dipped around her so she couldn’t remember they’d been arguing. Faces blurred. She was drunk and screaming. How long had she been screaming?

Bile rose in her throat.

“It’s not fair. I’m your girlfriend. Why do you parade Katrina and Lana around like you’re a family, taking them to birthday parties like I’m the other woman? While I wait for you like an idiot. Are you ashamed of me?”

“Bee, you’re drunk, shut up.” Gabe yanked on her arm, trying to sit her down.

“No, they should know. They should know what you put me through.”

“I never asked you to come back here. Sit your drunk ass down, have some respect for my family.”

“Ooh, Gabe, you’d better control your woman,” Frank teased. “Looks like someone can’t handle their alcohol.”

“Looks like someone can’t handle their business,” Hector said. He glared at Gabe.

“Shut up, you old vatos,” Esme countered. “Basta ya!” She turned to Bianca. “Mija, don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

“I have had enough, Esme,” she slurred. The backyard spun, and she steadied herself on a stucco pillar beneath the patio, then staggered onto the grass toward the swing where she’d been playing with Lana. Up in the air so blue.

“What the hell is she doing now?” Frank asked, chugging the last of his beer. “She really loca or something?”

Bianca jumped onto the swing, standing. “I have had enough.”

The neighbor’s dog barked.

“Get down, Bee. You’re gonna wake up the neighbors. You want them to call the cops?” Gabe pulled her down.

She kicked him. “You want to fuck me at night then go play daddy to Katrina’s baby.”

Gabe threw his bottle at the slide, glass smashing against aluminum, beer trickling down like tears. He’d almost hit her with the glass.

“Shut up, Bee. Shut the fuck up!”

“Hey, son, you’d better take her home,” Hector called. “This isn’t funny anymore.”

“Tell them, Gabe.” Bianca wouldn’t stop. “Tell them how we had a baby too. Tell them how I lost her. How you wanted me to get rid of her. How Esme took me to the Clinicas.”

“That’s enough,” Gabe yelled, covering her mouth and heaving her off the swing over his shoulder. “You’re going home.”

Gabe hoisted her across the lawn, clutching her tightly. She was going to be sick. She knew he’d throw her in the truck and drop her off at home. The porch lights would be off because she’d have forgotten to turn them on before she left. The house would be dark. And cold. And silent. She wanted to stay at Esme’s house. She wanted to wake up to a family. One that wasn’t broken by a father’s death.

She bit Gabe’s hand.

“Fucking bitch.” He dropped her onto the grass. “You bit me.”

“I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “I don’t want to go back there tonight.”

She wilted, a heap on the grass, her dress pulled up high, revealing her panties. She was too tired to care.

“Esme,” Hector muttered, “Take her to bed.”

She could stay. Hector said it. She could stay…

Esme helped her up, wiped the grass from her dress and smoothed it over her ass and legs. Bianca said she was sorry. She felt like a child.

“I know, mija. You had too much to drink. We understand.”

“I lost the baby, Esme. I lost her. She bled down my legs. You saw her. My little cactus flower. You saw her.”

“Shhh, Bee. Cállate. I know you’re upset, but Hector doesn’t know about that. You’ll break his heart. Please stop, mija. Please.”

“For Christ sake’s Esme, what’s she talking about? Get her inside,” Hector called.

“Ay mujeres,” Frank clucked. “What can you do with them? That one’s sure got spirit though, don’t she?”

As Esme took Bianca inside, Gabe sank into a patio chair and grabbed another beer.

Before the glass door shut on her, Bianca heard Hector ask, “Son, what the hell have you done?”

***

Bianca hated waiting as much as she hated the Valley. Gabe still hadn’t shown up. He’d promised to come over to the empty house-for-sale where she was crashing alone with her family ghosts. He would bring giant Jalisciense burritos from across the tracks on the Eastside and they could watch movies in bed. First though, he needed to stop at a happy-hour meeting with his co-workers, to get on his boss’s good side (since his boss was Katrina’s brother).

Bianca tried Gabe’s cellphone. It had been hours since he got out of work and surely he’d done his diligence at the bar, but he didn’t answer and she didn’t leave a message. She would wait exactly seven minutes longer before calling Lily.

Moonlight jutted through her parent’s old curtains. Mom hadn’t taken them down when she’d moved out. (She’d said, “I can’t stand it here, mija. If you want to waste away with that no-good boy, fine. But you’ll have to do it alone.”) Dressed-up in her rhinestone jeans and paisley halter top, Bianca sprawled on the full-sized mattress she’d bought at the Goodwill when she’d moved back. She flipped her journal to the gothic story she was working on. She’d never had any formal writing training, but she could tell it wasn’t any good. Still, writing it helped her feel less like a college-dropout. Bianca set down her pen and reached toward the flame of the Cristo candle she’d bought at the grocery store and set on a teacup saucer she’d taken from Lily’s house then placed on the floor beside the mattress. In a plastic holder, it was white with a picture of Christ holding a lamb around his neck, flowers around the frame. She picked it up from the carpet and poured the wax into her palm, creating a candle wax replica of her handprint, like Lana’s handprints. Gabe’s girl. Not mine. In Gabe’s hallway, Esme had hung a small round clay molding tied at the top with a pink polka-dot bow; in it, two tiny hands, and the words, “Baby’s First Handprints.” Not their baby’s, not the-baby-who-never-existed.

Like the protagonist in her story, all the lights in her house were on because she too was terrified. Of family ghosts. Of familiar spirits. Of blood. She missed her dad. But she willed herself not to think of him right then. Not while she was alone. Instead, she focused on balancing the candle as she lay on her back, stabilizing it on her navel. It flicked as she breathed in and out. If she were a curandera, a healing woman, she would pass an egg over her chest and stomach. She would crack it into a glass, and the yolk would reveal the cause of her trouble. Her susto. Gabe’s Nana taught her this. She didn’t know if she believed it any more than she believed in the Cristo candle, but she liked the idea. Anyway, she’d rather be a healing woman than a sick one. Rather a blazing woman than the kind who waited around. She was done waiting. Done putting up with Gabe’s bullshit. His seven minutes were up.

The red-hot flush spidering her cheeks and the fluttering in her stomach squelched her usual fear. She was ¡La Bee! looking for a fight.

Her cell buzzed. Lily—a mind reader.

“You feel like going boyfriend hunting?” Bianca asked.

“I already have a boyfriend. Did you kick Gabe to the curb?”

“Tonight might be the night.”

“He’s with Katrina?”

“I think so.”

“What an asshole. Do you have a plan?”

“Bar crashing.”

“I’ll be ready in ten minutes. Should I bring my brother’s baseball bat?” Bianca didn’t doubt Lily was serious. She answered she didn’t feel like getting arrested that night. “Fine,” Lily said. “But if that bitch tries anything, I can’t make any guarantees.” Bianca laughed then hung up, slid on her high-heeled sandal wedges (because she didn’t own a pair of cowboy boots, which she regretted since they’d befit such an occasion), and checked her reflection (crimson cheeks and tousled curly hair—Gabe could eat his heart out) before rushing to her white five-speed Cavalier and reversing fast down the driveway.

Halfway down the block, she swerved into Lily’s driveway and honked twice. Her yellow-haired best-friend-forever appeared at the door wearing her usual band-logo T-shirt (Bianca never knew the bands), jeans, and a pair of pea-green Vans. Lily stuck out her tongue.

“¡Vámonos, muchacha!” Bianca called. “Get your brave ass in the car. I’m on a mission.”

“What’s with you tonight, crazy lady?”

“I’m on fire!”

Lily pulled a cigarette out of her purse and rolled her window up long enough to light it. “Yes. I gathered as much,” she answered, puffing easily. “I meant why. All last week you were a moping, crybaby mess. Why the sudden change?” Lily offered Bianca a drag, and she pulled the sweet stinking thing to her lips. Gabe hated when she smoked, refused to kiss her when she had sour-singed smoker’s breath. But tonight, who the hell cared?

“I’m tired of being second-class, Lil. That’s what. So I don’t have Gabe’s kid. That doesn’t mean I’m not worth something. She was a fluke, no? A condom break.”

“Who? Lana?”

“No, not her. I meant Katrina. I do love her little girl. That’s the problem. It’s all twisted. It’s all so goddamn twisted.”

“Turn that frown around, chica. Or turn it into a sneer. Come on, show me some teeth. How about some rabid dog eyes?” Lily snarled like a deranged animal.

Bianca laughed so hard she choked on the smoke.

Outside town, they sped through the countryside, past fields of broccoli and onions and the overwhelming pungency of the beef plant, the smell of death. Bianca plugged her nose. She hated driving to Westmorland. Since Katrina, she associated it with gut-dropping loss. Forget the Honey Festival. It was a tiny town more stifling than Brawley. And populated by boyfriend-stealers.

In the parking lot of the first bar she tried, they spotted Gabe’s pine green truck and pulled in.

“Are you sure you want to go in?” Lily asked.

“Hell yeah,” Bianca said, but she wasn’t sure. The veins in her neck were itchy like a too-tight necklace. The blood in her ears pounded.

It was a dive bar called Hops & Rods, with corrugated aluminum siding walls plastered with neon beer signs, electric guitars, and posters for local bands. Like the inside of a warehouse it had iron rafters, along with a small stage and a long orange bar designed from two hot rod Chevy Bel Airs. No wonder Gabe liked this place. In high school, Bianca had pretended to care about the classic car magazines he’d shown her, teaching her to distinguish a Shelby from a Camaro. She’d cared as much about his car obsession as he’d cared about her poetry. Did Katrina like hot rods and muscle cars? Or only having sex in them with other girls’ boyfriends?

Bianca searched through the crowd and spotted them: Katrina, at a high shop-style table in the middle of the bar with Gabe. Undeniable evidence. Gabe ran his hands through his spiky hair the way he did when he was irritated. Katrina shook her head. Katrina, with her bobbed mousy brown hair, pug nose, and thick stumped eyebrows, as if she shaved them in the middle instead of plucking or having them waxed so the space was too big between her small brown eyes. Like a Muppet character. Short, petite, and plain. Her face had a pinched look, like she was squinting in the sun. She wore a pair of khaki shorts and a navy blue tank top, and though she was thinner than Bianca, she was nowhere near pretty. What had she been majoring in at Cal State Dominguez Hills before she’d dropped out, and what had Gabe seen in her?

“What do you want to do?” Lily asked.

“Order a drink,” Bianca said, shaking, her voice gone flat as old seltzer. Gabe’s aunt had told her she drank a beer after work to take the edge off. Of course, that was before the three or four beers that came later, so it was a big joke in his family that only one beer was necessary to take the edge off. But Bianca needed that—the edge off.

Her stomach churned but she chugged her beer anyway. They didn’t see her.

A random rock and roll song played on the jukebox. The place was packed. Her chest felt explosive, her palms slick. Beer roiled inside her stomach, curdling her throat. She felt like crossing herself and praying to Sandra Cisneros, whom she’d heard read earlier that year while still at the university. Come on, La Bee! Hold your head up high! Sandra might have told Bianca in her high-pitched voice, her hoop skirt flowing around her red-studded cowboy boots, turquoise looped around her neck.

Silently, Bianca mouthed Sandra’s words as she crossed the bar, a prayer: “I’m sharp-tongued, / sharp-thinking, / fast-speaking, / loose-tongued, / let-loose, / woman-on-the-loose /loose woman. / Beware, honey…” She’d admit it: “I’m Bitch. Beast. Macha. / Wachale! / Ping! Ping! Ping! / I break things.”

She looked back at Lily, planted at the bar, gesturing her onward and motioning in a way that meant Rabid dog eyes! Go! Bianca nodded, then inhaled, wallpapering her face with a broad, plastic smile, a pink flamingo across her mouth like I’m fine. You can’t hurt me. All those mornings I made you breakfast, blaring your favorite CD while I cooked—Hotel California and scrambled eggs, the warm smell of flour tortillas rising through the air—not real.

Instead, the mask on the outside said, “Hey guys. Why wasn’t I invited to this party?”

Gabe jerked his head up, his shoulders rigid. “Shit, Bee.” His voice was halting and shaky. “You scared me.” Bianca almost laughed at how pathetic it was, watching him stand and reach for her. He tried pulling her into a hug, but she swatted his arms away.

Katrina knotted her hands in front of her on the table, staring at her fingers and refusing to look up. Coward.

Gabe asked what Bianca was doing there. She asked him the same.

“Why, what time is it?” He grabbed his cellphone from his pocket. “Shit. I’m sorry. We got caught up talking about the baby.”

“Mmm.” She scrunched her face and pressed her lips together, mocking belief.

“Hey, can we go talk about this somewhere else?” he asked, reaching out for her again.

“No. We can’t.” She scooted from his arms and sat in his empty chair across from Katrina.

“What are you doing?” Gabe stammered. “Come on. Don’t get her involved in this. I screwed up. I should’ve called you.” He looked boyish in his work uniform, a short-sleeved button-down and brown shorts. His company logo’d baseball cap lay on the table. He was a pubescent boy caught in the closet. Almost laughable. But she could tell he wasn’t drunk.

She took a swig of his beer, slammed the bottle down on the table. “Don’t get her involved? You’re kidding, right?” A caustic laugh spurt out from within Bianca. Ping! “Katrina? We need to talk outside. Woman to woman.” She hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. She felt like a sham. Like a hole at the bottom of the ocean.

Katrina flashed her an icy glare, then rolled her eyes and said “Sure.”mac

As Bianca stood, she offered Gabe a cloying twisted smile. “Lily’s at the bar. Would you be a doll and go keep her company?” Bianca was ridiculous, but she couldn’t care.

He grabbed her arm, pulled her tightly to him. His beer breath sour in her face, hot against her neck. “What are you doing, Bee? Seriously. This isn’t funny. Please don’t screw anything up for me and the baby. I’ve been working this out with Katrina. Please, don’t fuck with her.”

“I’m the one you shouldn’t fuck with.” She unclenched herself from his grasp, pulled away and stared into his face. His deep brown eyes muddied with worry, his eyebrows furrowed. He was telling the truth. “I want to talk to her,” she said over her shoulder as she walked away.

Lily signed a knife-slice across her neck, then winked. What would she say to Gabe? Nothing pleasant.

Out in the muggy desert air, past a thatched-roofed palapa bar replete with surfboards and fishing nets strung from the wooden fence, Bianca followed Katrina onto the hard-packed dirt of the parking lot. Nearby, canal water whirred as it rushed over the embankment.

Bianca spoke first. “What’s going on with you two? I have a right to know. Are you sleeping with him?”

Katrina hesitated.

“What did I ever do to you, Katrina? I’ve helped take care of your little girl for months, and…”

Katrina cut her off. “Yeah, and I don’t appreciate her coming home talking about you, either. You think that feels good? To have your own daughter come home and talk about how much she likes her father’s whore.”

“The fuck? Whore? Are you kidding me? You’re unbelievable. I’ve loved that man since I was a little girl, you manipulative cunt.” There, she’d said it. She was trapped in a trashy daytime talk show but she couldn’t help herself. “He was my first everything. Before I even knew what everything was.” She was red-faced and short of breath.

“You knew enough, didn’t you?” Katrina said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Katrina pursed her lips and crossed her arms.

“Please?” Bianca urged. “Imagine you were me. How would you feel? Tell me. Please.”

“Please nothing,” Katrina snapped, rolling her eyes and thrusting her chest out. “You have no idea what I’ve been through with him. Having his baby. Raising her alone. Everything I’ve gone through because of him.”

Bianca’s gut pitted, her teeth clenched. A rush of heat surged up her neck and face. “No, I don’t know. My baby died before it was ever a baby. I never took vitamins or ate saltines by the boxful. Gabe never rubbed my belly.” Her head spun. Her baby floated, pendent above their heads or bramble swishing through a ditch. “No, you heartless bitch. I don’t know what you went through.” She was screaming. She wanted to kick Katrina. To yank her by her dull, brown hair. “But you know what I went through? I went through losing all that for nothing. For goddamn nothing! Because you swooped in and screwed everything up anyway. And I hate you for that. We were supposed to get out of here. My baby was supposed to have meant something.”

“You’re a murderer, that’s what you are.” Katrina spit the words at Bianca, and she keeled over, her legs giving out beneath her. Something cracked inside her. She felt it cracking. Wire casings like wings of dead moths. She couldn’t talk. The air had been knocked out of her like the time she was Superwoman on the swings and Dad had pushed her into the air but she’d flown too high and crashed hard on her chest and the words wouldn’t come and there was Dad, holding her. She couldn’t breathe.

She dropped to one knee and clutched her stomach. “Why would you say that?” Sobs rocked her body. She didn’t have a heart. It wasn’t beating. “Why the fuck would you say that?”

“Gabe told me what you did.”

“What we did. What we did. Together.”

Katrina looked down at her, eyes narrowed, forehead creased. “He wouldn’t let me do that to Lana. Said he couldn’t take losing another baby.”

Bianca choked a sob, heaving. “Ay, God. Please stop it. Katrina, please fucking stop talking.” She wanted to call for her dad, the bar crashing down on her.

Gabe came outside and saw Bianca on the ground. “What the hell? What’d you do to her, Katrina? Goddammit!” He pushed Katrina out of the way and knelt down beside Bianca. “What happened, Bee? Did she hit you?”

Bianca shook her head. She couldn’t look at him. She’d scraped her uterus for him. She’d given everything for him when she was still a girl and not old enough to take care of herself let alone anyone else. She’d come back to him empty. And Katrina, doing what she couldn’t. Standing on her own. Raising a kid on her own. A single mama. Small and strange-looking, but proud. And powerful. She had a baby, didn’t she? And that made her so goddamn powerful. She called the shots. She pulled the strings. Tears puddled onto Bianca’s halter-top, streaking her cheeks black with mascara. She wiped her snot away with her hand. She must’ve looked pathetic, crying in front of a woman who despised her.

She took a deep breath. “You told her about what happened at the Clinicas?”

“Oh fuck,” he said. “Stupid Katrina.” He stood back up and faced his baby’s mom. “I told you not to bring that shit up. I knew I couldn’t trust your big mouth. What the fuck did you say to her?”

“The truth, you asshole. That she is what she is. A baby killer.”

He raised his hand to slap her, then pulled back, clenching his fist. “Get the hell out of here, Katrina. You goddamn bitch. I don’t care if you threaten me again with Lana. Go ahead and try taking me to court. I’ll get a lawyer and take her away from you. But don’t you ever call my girlfriend that again. Do you understand? She was a fucking kid when I knocked her up. A fucking kid! And I told you that when you were threatening abortion, you two-faced bitch. When you were threatening to kill yourself. God, I can’t stand you, fucking mean-spirited woman.”

Bianca sucked in air. Her head throbbed. She didn’t know what to think.

“Whatever, Gabe. You’re the two-faced one here,” Katrina said.

“No, don’t play like that. You tell her the truth, Katrina. I’m not joking. You’ve hurt her enough tonight. Tell her why I was here with you.”

Katrina heaved a sigh. She stared at the ground. “Fine. Whatever. I don’t care anymore.” Her voice sounded hollow, like the tin of empty beer cans. “He was defending you tonight, Bianca. Telling me I need to stop fighting him when it comes to you taking care of the baby. That you’re his girlfriend and I need to accept that.” Her voice was neither kind nor spiteful. It was matter-of-fact, resigned. “And I’m not sleeping with him.” She tucked her hair behind her ear. Then she said, “Gabe, you can pick up the baby tomorrow if you want.”

Gabe nodded. “Fine. Now leave us alone.” He scooped Bianca from the ground, holding her to his chest. She was stiff and lifeless in his arms as he carried her to his truck, setting her on the hood. “You know I’m so sorry,” he whispered, burying his head in her chest. “Not about tonight. About everything.” His face against her cold skin felt warm and damp. “Don’t listen to her. She’s crazy. Jealous. You know that.”

Bianca wanted to believe him. Sandra Cisneros come give me strength. But she was too tired to fight.

***

She peeked through the slits in Gabe’s fingers as he covered her eyes and whispered, “Almost there.” A few nights later he was taking her out to dinner to make up for the burritos he still owed her. Gabe parallel parked and she looked around, speculating where he was taking her to eat. He’d said he wanted it to be a surprise, but she didn’t know any restaurants in this neighborhood were still open. So many things had closed since she was a girl.

The summer before her freshman year in high school, Lily and she had spent every night together, staying up until morning, prank calling boys, playing truth or dare, stirring up batches of rice crispy treats or muddy buddies, watching movies. They’d traipse off to the donut shop on Main Street at the westernmost side of town three blocks south of their houses, traveling one of two ways:

1. Shaking their hips down the busy Rio Vista if they wanted to check people out and pause on their trek to talk to whomever drove by or happened to be out on their front lawn, or late at night when they needed the protection of the streetlights and the neighborhood watch signs and the porch lights. Rio Vista kept them safe.

2. Sprinting through the potholed back alley if they wanted to get there fast, like if they needed a sugar rush from chocolate old fashioned doughnuts and sweet tea with crushed ice ASAP, or if they felt like getting spooked by the unlit empty lot that stretched to the end of the town limit where old shopping-cart pushing bums camped out and lit bonfires in barrels and, probably, there were ghosts hanging out as well. But that was still the summer before she’d heard of La Llorona roaming the New River, which flowed in the ridge below the cliff and, folks said, carried waste from across the Mexicali border, killing all the fish and smelling worse than the beef plant during the hottest part of summer.

Oh, they’d played Bloody Mary in bathroom mirrors, sprinkling water on the glass and chanting Bloody Mary Bloody Mary Bloody Mary—they’d played Light as a Feather Stiff as a Board. But never La Llorona. If Bianca had known about La Llorona then, poor sad woman who prowled that frothy stinking river where old men and boys fished but never ate what they caught, perhaps mistaking all the other dead and glowing things there for her babies, she would’ve been scared for sure and never would’ve gone through the alley by herself day or night. She never would’ve met Gabe washing his pea-soup green pickup truck in the driveway of his corner-house where the alley met that empty lot. He never would’ve seen her racing by, her chanclas slapping at the gravel, her dark pony-tail flapping at her back, her thick thighs and round hips already pouring from her cuffed jean shorts, her breasts already filling her paisley tank-top. He never would’ve called to her, asking where she was going so fast (she should have kept running.) Then she never would’ve left her yellow-haired best-friend behind and scrambled into Gabe’s raised pickup to jump the dirt hills behind his house like a dune-covered stunt-track, not scared that anyone could fly off the cliff and into the river. Not thinking that trucks or loving or the country could be dangerous. Before that summer, she never knew what lay behind the palm trees and branches and rolling mounds of dirt and scraps of junk and trash and, probably, homeless people’s huts.

But she did run through the alley. She did meet Gabe. And he’d taught her all the things Mom never had. Caldo de rez and sticky red rice, filling her belly like embryonic fluid. After Gabe, the world was all nanas and cerveza and brujas and chile con carne and Chupacabras. After Gabe, she’d turned into a La Llorona herself.

“Where are we going?” Impatient at being blind, she let Gabe lead her out of the car. He loved surprises. He’d thrown her a surprise party for her fifteenth birthday because Mom couldn’t afford a Quinceañera. He’d promised Rosanna there wouldn’t be any alcohol, so when she showed up in the backyard, everyone had hidden the beer and tequila, and Bianca had pushed her away, telling her they were hanging out with friends, that it wasn’t a party for grownups. She still felt bad they’d lied to her. Bianca would’ve loved a Quinceañera. She would’ve loved that father-daughter dance.

“Hang on, Bee. You’ll see in a second.” He was smiling. She could hear it in his voice though her eyes were covered. She also heard keys jangling, and he opened a glass door. A ding-ding sounded as they walked through. What she didn’t hear was any other sound, no voices, no plates and dishes clanging, no music or television playing in the background.

She pulled away from his hands. The restaurant was abandoned, empty. It seemed clean enough, booths and chairs stacked neatly at the edge of the room, no roaches scuttling across the floor, no dirty dishes stacked in piles at the bar. There were still water glasses at the bar, clear and sparkling crystal, waiting. But this wasn’t a restaurant anymore.

A For-Sale sign hung in the window.

“What are we doing here? Aren’t we going out to eat?”

He pulled her toward him. “We’re gonna buy this place,” he said, hugging her tightly. “We’re gonna fix it up. And start our restaurant.”

She jerked her head back, searching his face. Was he joking? It wasn’t like him to play tricks. His dark eyes danced and the corners of his mouth were upturned in a sly smile. He was being honest. She could tell the difference. “But how?”

“I talked to my dad. It wasn’t easy, but he said he’s willing to help us get started. We’ll have to pay him back, but for now, it’s something.”

“Oh wow…” She breathed out slowly. She’d thought Hector hated her after the barbeque, after she’d freaked out on them. Since he knew her secret, she was sure he would never look at her the same. She never would’ve expected he’d be willing to help them. She felt a pang of longing for her own dad. “It’s ours?”

“Well, not yet. It belonged to my dad’s compadre and comadre a while back, but the wife got sick and they had to shut down. He let me borrow the keys so we could check it out.”

She almost couldn’t believe this was Gabe saying these things. Gabe. The guy who wouldn’t move in with her. The guy who wouldn’t marry her. Who had to check everything with his baby’s mom so he didn’t make a wrong move and risk having his daughter taken away from him. Was this that guy? Or… was he, sorry for what’d happened at the bar in Westmorland, keeping true to his promise to change? To go back to the Gabe Bianca had known before Katrina and Lana? Before he’d turned into some alternate version of himself—that angrier, more critical version she’d grown to despise. She pressed her face into his chest, laughing. This was real. She and Gabe would start a life together. All the darkness of the past year was melting away.

Mom had bought her a wedding dress a few years back, the first time she and Gabe had gotten back together. He’d come to the house and told Mom, in person, he was sorry for how he’d messed up—for how he’d treated Bianca. He understood if Rosanna never forgave him, but he would make it up to her. He’d be responsible, take care of his daughter, take care of Bianca, treat her right. Mom had believed him (Bianca had believed him). Mom went onto eBay where she shopped, all the years she was too large to fit in clothes at the department stores (the same place she’d found Bianca the most elaborate ball gowns for high school dances inexpensive because they’d been gently used and looked brand new) and she found Bianca a size fourteen white, jeweled bodice, French-trained wedding dress. “Don’t tell Gabe we bought it yet,” she’d told her in an excited, conspiratorial voice. “But try it on. It’s gorgeous. Fits you perfectly. You’re a princess.” Bianca had twirled and twirled in it, the way she had when she was on stage. Growing up, Mom acted as if getting married were the most hopeful thing a girl could do, never mind what happened afterward. They all did, in the Valley. Esme had shown Bianca the ring she planned for Gabe to give her, when they were out of high school. Esme hadn’t finished high school. She’d gotten pregnant and dropped out. But she wanted them to get engaged, go to college, then come back and get married. She’d mapped it all out and shared that map with Bianca. Then Bianca had eaten that map. Then that map had grown sour in her stomach, its estuaries and mountains and ridges tattooing her skin.

Now, standing in the middle of the restaurant, their restaurant, he lifted her chin up and kissed her softly on the mouth. “I know I’ve screwed up, Bee. But we’ll fix it. Like this place.”

She nodded, beginning to imagine what they could turn it into. “We can paint the walls red and yellow and orange like shades of desert sunset. We can play mariachi music and have dances on Saturday nights. Cumbias. Fiestas. Jarabe Tapatío. Oh, and I’ll ask Nana to help us with the menu… fried fish tacos con pico de gallo, authentic Puerto Vallarta style made special for Fridays during Lent… menudo on the weekends. Like Nana says, the best hangover remedy after the hair of the dog.” There’d be color and cultura. Chips and salsa. And it would be theirs.

“I was thinking of a sports bar,” Gabe said, snapping her out of her reverie.

She frowned.

“Yeah, like a Laker’s theme or something. We could have big-screen TVs everywhere, showing ESPN and MTV. It’d be a restaurant too, but mostly, you know, beer and snacks, like quesadillas and hot wings.”

“But I hate sports. You know that. I hate going to sports bars. Why would I want to own one?” She watched the light fading from his eyes, as he knitted his eyebrows and sighed.

“What are you doing, Bee? Why are you ruining this? I’m trying to do something good for us here, and you’re picking a fight.”

“I was thinking of a more traditional place. More romantic.”

“But come on, Bee. Let’s be realistic. You think that would make good business sense? Think about it. Most of the bars stayed open even when the restaurants closed. We’ve got to think about demand and profits, or we’ll sink ourselves into a hole.”

“You’re sure proud of that one year as a Business major, aren’t you?” As his face crumpled, she regretted saying that. “We can have a bar, I guess. But I wanted mariachis and dancing, not TV.”

“It’s all about cost, Bee. All that costs money.”

“Dancing is free.”

“Fine. You dance.” His voice had gone cold.

She drew away from him and walked toward the bar. She imagined women in Folklorico skirts twirling like butterflies around the tables, tapping their black high-heels to the rhythm, their colorful ribbon-woven braids gleaming in tandem with their spinning. She imagined standing at the front of the room singing a ranchera while couples danced around her, cowboy boots and wide-brimmed hats touching. Ay ay ay ay, canta no llores. Her bisabuela used to sing to her in the bedroom she’d shared with Matty: Cielito Lindo, los corazones. “I don’t want a bunch of drunken borrachos watching football or soccer or whatever in my restaurant.”

“Katrina understands,” he mumbled.

Bianca’s insides turned to ice. “What did you say?”

“Nothing. Forget it.”

“Like hell I’ll forget it. Did you tell her about this place? Before you told me?” Doubt and suspicion surged through her anew. Maybe Katrina had been telling the truth. Maybe Gabe was a two-faced liar.

“Look, it’s nothing. Shit, Bee. She’s my friend.”

“Your friend? Your … friend?” She spit the words as if they were bitter chiles. “So for all your big talk, nothing’s changed.”

“Calm down. Jesus Christ. I just mentioned I was thinking of buying a restaurant.”

“Okay, Gabe. You buy a restaurant. You do whatever you want with it. You share it with whomever you choose. You always do what you want anyway.”

Gabe stomped toward her across the room, and for a second, she was afraid he would hit her. His face was dark and frustrated. His fists were clenched. But she didn’t recoil as he grabbed a clear glass sparkling from the counter and hurled it across the room. She stood still and silent as it crashed against the wall, shattering against the white plaster.

“Why do you make everything so damn hard?” he asked, his voice a hollow drum. Bianca didn’t know. She didn’t know why she made everything so hard. She stared at him, but he wouldn’t look into her eyes. He sighed deeply, his shoulders and chest heaving as he exhaled. “I’ll be in the car. Lock the door.” He dropped the keys on the bar where the glass had been and walked out, the door sounding a hopeful ding-ding after him.

Bianca reached for another glass from the bar and held it up to her left eye, gazing toward the base of the wall where the matching glass had shattered. As if through a crystal kaleidoscope, she searched the broken pieces for color. She saw none.

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