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© Eliza Dashwood, 2008
Socorro lifted the glass to her lips and as she took yet another drink, she began to feel dizzy. Although their frequent visits to the cantina made her more accustomed to drinking, the excess, the late nights and noise was hard on her. John laughed with the barman, ordered another round and slipped his arm around her waist.
“I’m a little tired, Amour. Can we go soon?” She asked.
He tilted his head and shook it at her in a way that made her feel she disappointed him. She felt small, like a child asking for a treat after she’d been naughty.
“It’s too early.” He said, with a lazy grin. He was clearly already drunk, but had no intention of releasing her before he was ready. “My girl can handle a few more.” The discussion was over. She would stay.
Carlo, the barman pulled two more pints of beer and placed them on the bar before them. He chuckled at John’s witticisms, placed fried tortilla chips on the bar to appease the tourists that asked for nibbles and wiped the counter. When John ordered more beers, his face betrayed a flicker of disapproval of which John seemed oblivious but did not go unnoticed by Socorro. She searched his face for an ally and sensing Carlo’s fear of intruding found none.
Placing a gentle hand on John’s shoulder, Socorro stepped down from her barstool.
“Where are you running off to?” he asked.
“I’ll be right back.” She nodded towards the toilet at the back of the bar and moved in that direction, steadying herself on the backs of chairs along the way. Her shoes were high and the uneven floor of the cantina made it even more difficult to walk.
When she reached the door to the toilet, she knocked and hearing no reply from within, entered. She faced the mirror with a crack down the side and stared at her reflection. The face that looked back seemed older than her thirty six years. There were deep lines around her eyes and in the edges of her full mouth. The remains of a beautiful woman were there, struggling beneath the marks of years with a selfish and ill-tempered husband, too sick to move from his bed and the demands of her children too young to be sent to work away from home.
She thought of John and his kindness to her and children he didn’t know existed. He was generous, but it came at the price of evenings in his company, propped up against the bar, a hand resting on her knee or caressing her arm while he lifted his pints of beer with the other.
Her mother in law, Juana would have put the girls to bed by now. It was getting late and she needed to last at least another hour before John would think he had enough. Juana had at first been enraged when she spotted Socorro speaking to a strange gringo on the street, afraid of what people would say, but when she considered the possibilities an American with money could offer, she encouraged Socorro to see him again.
Socorro had objected to that line of thinking. “Mama, he was just asking for directions. He wanted to know where he could get food. He lives on the other side of the border and comes here for business sometimes, that’s all.”
“Well, he was paying you a lot of attention, and why not? My son wouldn’t have married an ugly woman. He could take you out, maybe buy you lunch and in return you could be good company while he is in town. If he gives you some money for showing him around, what’s the harm?”
The colour rushed to Socorro’s cheeks. “Your son is sick in the next room and you say this to me?” Socorro quickly glanced around her to be sure none of her daughters where within earshot. The tone and words her mother in law had used implied so much more than being just a tour guide.
“Do you realise what that would make me?” Socorro asked.
“You have this family to think of. I look after the girls, clean my son’s bedding, prepare his meals. I keep this house in order. You’re the only one who can bring money into this house. Selling fruit on the street isn’t good enough. I’m the one who has to clean up the mess when Irma has one of her nose bleeds or Delia makes a mess in the kitchen. I expect you to do your part.”
By Juana’s response, Socorro was made to understand that she found the thought of her doing more than “showing the American around” an acceptable price for keeping food on the table. As she balanced herself on the sink in the cantina’s dingy bathroom, the memory of that conversation made her wince. She would bring some money home, but she would have to make sure John was happy, drunk and satisfied with his evening out. That would require more time.
Socorro thought of her daughters huddled together in their bed and braced herself for what she would have to do. Stepping to the toilet, she leaned forward, closed her eyes and forced her fingers down her throat. She vomited, holding her stomach with one hand and pulling her long black hair away from her face with the other. Emptying her stomach would allow her to carry on a little longer.
When she had finished the unpleasant task, she pulled some peppermint leaves from her small handbag and chewed them. Before leaving to meet John, she had gone to the rear of the house where they kept some space to grow vegetables and tore some leaves from the peppermint plant that grew just below the kitchen window.
As she emerge from the toilet and went back towards the bar, someone grabbed her arm at the elbow. When she tuned, Carlo stood beside her.
“Seniora, please forgive me for saying this, but I’ve known you and your family for such a long time. I’ve seen you in the market with your children and I’ve seen how you play with them in the square. I even knew your husband before his stroke. You don’t belong here. How long can you do this?” Carlo said.
Socorro looked across the room where John sat speaking with one of the locals. They smoked roll up cigarettes and chatted away like old women at the market. John crossed the border from Texas every week to conduct his business and at the end of each trip made his way to Socorro’s village to call on her and take her to the cantina. He was a decent man and only wanted to talk at first, but as time went on, he became bolder and handled her more frequently. She allowed him to kiss her on the rare occasions he attempted it. On the whole, it was not as terrible as she had feared, but as Carlo stood before her, she realised how she longed to be free of those nights. She wondered for how much longer John would be satisfied with how they spent their evenings.
Realising that Carlo still held her arm, she pulled away. “I have no choice. You don’t understand anything, you’re so young.”
“I know you don’t belong here. I know your daughters must wonder where you are.”
At this, Socorro flinched and took a step back. She had always been so careful to make excuses about where the money came from and what she did on her nights away from home. The girls were all so little, so trusting and gave their mother so much of their affection that the thought if disillusioning them made her queasy. If her husband, Francisco knew of her whereabouts, he didn’t care. Money was coming in, his food and cigarettes arrived via his mother each day. She begged Juana to keep the whole business to herself and the old woman had agreed.
Since Francisco had suffered a stroke when the youngest of their daughters was still an infant, he had not left his bed. The episode removed all movement and feeling from the right side of his body. Socorro often thought back to the days before he was immobilised and tried to remember if it was the affliction that had made him cruel. She searched her memory for a time when he was kind to her and found none. It was as though the event merely provided him with an excuse for his selfishness and an outlet for his mother to run the household with a firm hand.
“Why are you telling me this now? I’ve been here dozens of times and you’ve never said a thing.”
“I thought I had no right to speak. I know you don’t like coming here. I know you’d rather be at home with your family. But my conscience won’t let me stay quiet any longer. You’re a good woman and you deserve better.”
Socorro moved away from him and started towards the bar. She stopped and turned to face him for a moment. “You’re right, I’d rather be home or selling oranges on the street, but I have a family to think of. This man keeps food in the house and shoes on my girl’s feet. A little longer and I’ll have saved enough to send Irma to school. I’m not so rich that I can choose these things.”
When Socorro returned to her place at the bar, John offered her a lazy grin and pushed a full pint glass towards her. His eyes were half closed and he slurred his words when he spoke.
“So, when is my girl going to introduce me to her lovely daughters? I was just talking to this nice man here and he said you have some real beauties at home.” John glanced over his shoulder at an old man with a dusty jacket and long beard. The old man was slumped over his empty glass trying in vain to strike a match. When John indicated to him, the man looked up, hopeful for another free drink, but when John returned his attention to Socorro, he realised a free drink would not be forthcoming and went back to the unlit match.
“My girls are at home asleep.” Socorro said. “It’s quite late, after all.”
He nodded and sliding his hand on her knee leaned over and kissed her cheek.
“Well, if they’re as beautiful as their Mama, I’d love to meet them. You’ll have to bring them out with us next time I visit.”
Carlo stepped up to the bar to serve a customer, but Socorro saw him cast a dark look in her direction.
“We’ll see.” She said and took a sip from her drink. “They’re quite young. The youngest is barely five.”
“Well, a five year old can still enjoy an ice cream, right? How old is your oldest?”
Socorro took a drink of her beer and tried to think of a way to stall him. She didn’t like his line of questioning and she had no intention of involving her girls in this business.
“Would you like me to order you another drink?” He nodded lazily and signalled to Carlo.
“Let’s have something different. Carlo, Tequila por favor.” He said.
This was a mixed blessing. He seemed to forget the subject of her daughters as he lit a cigarette, but Tequila made her ill.
When they finally emerged from the cantina an hour later, Socorro was queasy. So much beer with little food made her dizzy and she had a desperate need for the toilet.
At her insistence, John never walked her home. He knew she had a husband and wanted no trouble, so they always met at the end of the road leading to the cantina and went in together. As they walked, she placed her hand at the crook of his arm, as was his preference and when they parted company; he leaned in and kissed her on the mouth. He was feeling merry and although this made him generous it also made him more forward. When he released her from his embrace, which was closer and lingered longer than usual, he pressed some money into her hand.
“This is just something to tide you over. Get something nice for your girls from me and be sure to bring them next time.”
He kissed her again and with a grin that reminded her of a child used to getting its way, he walked away.
As soon as she was sure he was gone, she stuffed the money into her shoe and ran back to the cantina. There were few people left inside. Most of the candles that peppered the room on the small wooden tables were out and Carlo was washing some glasses at the sink behind the bar.
“Carlo, what am I going to do?” Socorro said.
Without tuning, he said, “You can’t bring them here just because he said so.”
From that, Socorro was sure that Carlo’s eavesdropping had not been imagined. He had heard everything and had his answer for her ready.
She sat back down on the barstool and dropped her head to her hands. She felt his hand clasp the top of hers and she looked up.
He repeated his previous statement. “You can’t bring them here.”
“What choice do I have? He helps support my family.”
Carlo moved beside her. “Leave him. He doesn’t love you or know you. He looks on you as a pet. He talks to you as though you should do what he says just because he buys you things and shoves pints of beer in front of you. I see you here with him every week and I hear and see the way he treats you. It isn’t right.”
Socorro dropped her eyes. “I know. It’s because I let him. I do what he wants and make him laugh and smile and drink himself stupid because I need the money he gives me. I deserve what I get if I’m willing to sell myself like this.”
Carlo took her hands in his and she did not resist him. Returning to the cantina made her later than usual and she was exhausted.
“You think you deserve this, but you don’t. You think this is the only way, but it isn’t.”
“What do you suggest that I trade one man for another?” As soon as she said it, Socorro was sorry. Carlo had never been anything but kind to her. “I’m sorry. I’m confused and tried and I want to see my girls.”
“Go home, Seniora. Rest, then come back tomorrow and work for me. I won’t be able to match what he gives you, but it will be safer and you won’t need to be ashamed or lie to anyone.”
“Why are you doing this?” Socorro asked.
“Because you’re a good woman and because I like you. Vaya con Dios.”
Chapter 2 to follow next week…
Copyright © Eliza Dashwood 2008