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Toni Margarita Plummer

 

Toni Margarita Plummer was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant mother and white father. She is the author of the story collection The Bolero of Andi Rowe and winner of Somos En Escrito's 2021 Extra Fiction Contest. A Macondo Fellow, Plummer now lives in the Hudson Valley of New York. Find her on Twitter @tmargaritaplum.

Hot Cars

     When I can fall asleep, I dream of handcuffs closing over my wrists. They click, and I wake gasping, my heart pounding in my chest. Hao lies next to me in the bed, snoring, oblivious. I never wake him to tell him, and I don’t tell him the next morning in the sunniness of the kitchen while he gets ready for work. If I did, he would try to reassure me, call it just a nightmare. The part before the handcuffs, maybe. That’s when I relive the moments leading up to what happened. They are crystal clear, with the sound turned up. But the handcuffs, my punishment, are not a nightmare. They are a wish that won’t come true. They are what I want. And what no one will give me.

     Even Hao has not accused me, and he’s the only one who really could. We never spoke of it, the details. What the other had been thinking, or not thinking. When the police questioned us, we just lapsed into our old habits of covering for each other—a married couple of thirteen years, of course we would. It’s not even a point of tension, like after a fight when we are each holding a rope taut between us as we move about the house or even after he goes to the office. Now I am the one holding one end of the rope, while the other end drags on the floor, catching furniture, impeding me; he walks about freely. Before, if I forgot to put out the trash, or placed his tools in the wrong cabinet, he would tell me without hesitation. But on this, something important, he is silent. He lets it go.

     Perhaps Hao has truly forgotten the details, similar to how I can’t remember what happened right after finding her. Perhaps he is repressing so he can go on. I can’t really blame him. We’ve always had different ways of dealing with things.

     My way is to keep revisiting the comments in the online articles. These posts by strangers are dependable in their cruelty, if not all that helpful or relevant. Like the ones that say we must have been on drugs. I wish we had been. There’d be an explanation then, wouldn’t there? Neat and tidy. Most of the comments are rants about how irresponsible we are, how our remaining four children should be taken away. These slide off me; it’s not as though I haven’t had the same thoughts. The only comments I find upsetting and try to avoid reading are the few calling for compassion. I want to attack these people, the same way I wanted to attack the people at the funeral. “You are a good mother,” they had the nerve to tell me. “Heaven needed another angel.” “She is dancing with God now.” As if it was all right, what happened. A good thing. I wanted to gouge their eyes out, strangle them before one more idiotic word slipped out. But my own words lodged in my throat, choked me, and I was lucky if I could remember how to breathe.

     I avoid all those people now. I stay home mostly. And why shouldn’t I? I’m a stay-at- home mom. Hao says they ask about me, out of concern. It infuriates me all over again to think of them in the aisles, in the parking lot, discussing me with my husband. “She just needs some time. It will get better.” They just want me to show up at Mass so they can witness my shame firsthand. And the more time passes, the worse it gets. I am a pot of boiling water, with no steam escaping. I know I will soon explode.

     One of the few things I look forward to is reading these comments at night alone. If anyone knew I did this, they would forbid me. Not that they could stop me, of course. I would still creep out of bed, grab the container of baby carrots from the fridge, and take my phone to a dark corner. But I don’t want the questions, I don’t want more of the “why are you doing this to yourself” of the early days. They should have asked different questions. How could this happen? How could I let it happen?

            I will not return to bed until I have finished the carrots and found the one comment I am looking for.

     “Cooked in her own juices.”

     This is it. You see how it stands out from the other phrases. It is horrid, literary. A fairy tale, like Hansel and Gretel. Except Eva did not glut herself on a candy house. All she did was fall asleep. More like a Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, with no kiss to wake her. Not even mine.

     Cooked in her own juices. The first few times I saw the phrase, I ran to the bathroom and vomited. I’ve always hated vomiting; that must be why I never went that route. But I still had the urge to see the words again, and now I come back to them regularly, like a meditation. I sit with them, same as I did with Eva whenever she was sick. Whenever she could not sleep. She was a poor sleeper; it was so rough. Especially when I’d thought I was done with getting up in the night.

     When we were dating, Hao and I both said we wanted four children. A nice even number; it seemed perfect. We had our four perfect kids. When I got pregnant the fifth time, I broached ending it. We were full weren’t we, we had enough? But Hao just smiled and said, “I’m getting a raise this year. And you got this, honey.” And I was so relieved he didn’t get angry or upset with me for asking. And I didn’t want to be the one to say I didn’t have this. So, I did, have it. I had her. For three and a half years.

     Relatives and friends keep leaving messages on the answering machine, because I refuse to answer the phone. They say, “I hope you are not pushing yourself too hard, Sofia. You need to eat. You need to sleep.” This would be hysterical if I could laugh anymore. Of course, I don’t need to do either of those things. I haven’t for some time. Except on special occasions like Mother’s Day or my birthday, when I was expected to stuff store-bought cake into my mouth in front of everyone like a fool; no one even noticed if I didn’t eat. There was too much else to do, too much up and down. You need to eat. These are the same people who praised me when I slimmed after each pregnancy. The same dumpy mothers who jealously eyed my thin body toting a plump baby.

     I leave a few carrots in the container. I’ve not been running, so I need to be careful. Tomorrow night I will finish the carrots and steam the cabbage. I will scour the comments again. Each night I hope I find a fresh one. A new theory. A new insult. Something.

     But there are none. People have moved on.

     They can do that.

 

***

 

     We were all asleep is one thing I keep coming back to. In the middle of the day, every single one of us, like we were under a spell. Yes, we’d been out, on a hot day, on a long drive. But still. The house was in total quiet for four hours. Four. Hours. What if I had woken up sooner? What if Naomi had squeezed that doll that starts singing? What if I had put in the load I intended to, would I have heard the washer ding when it was done? What if one of those obnoxious teenagers had set off firecrackers like they’d been doing for weeks? What if we hadn’t stayed up late the night before? What if it hadn’t been so Goddamn hot? What if we hadn’t moved so far away? What if there hadn’t been so much traffic on the 60? What if what if?

     Would it have made any difference?

 ***   

 

 

     I already associated the Fourth of July with death.

    I was the one who had insisted we go to the cemetery. I hadn’t been in years. It felt like the right thing to do. To cross all the graves with little American flags and find hers, Abuelita’s. To arrange flowers in the clay vases and say a rosary.

   

   We called her Abuelita, but she wasn’t really our grandmother. She was our mother’s grandmother; our mother’s mother died when she was fairly young. In all that time growing up, I always pitied my mother for losing hers. I never much thought about Abuelita losing her daughter.

Eva never met Abuelita. Perhaps they will meet now. Perhaps they will bond over sharing a death day. No, Abuelita was mean. I don’t remember any warmth from her at all.

     Mom told me how she used to hit them with a belt, tell them stories about La Llorona that gave Mom nightmares. I never got a belt, and I never knew about the woman who drowned her own children until I heard girls at school gleefully shriek her name. I suppose I should be glad I was spared those frights. But Abuelita raised the five of them in a small apartment in the projects. She kept them all alive. So really how bad could she have been?

     I knew her as an old woman, stern and weak at the same time. If I threaded her needle on the first try, she’d nod slightly, and that would be it. Those nods came to mean more to me than the fawning of my aunts who praised any mediocre thing I did.

     Yes, Abuelita is exactly who I need right now. If she were alive, she’d tell me I fucked up. She’d tell me to my face.

 

***

     I can’t stand to look at my kids too much. If I do, I start noticing things. Like how Paul is now sitting in Eva’s spot on the sofa. How Milo clicks right past her favorite show. How Naomi has now reclaimed the doll I’d talked her into giving to her little sister. How cheerful Simon can be. This brings a different kind of pain, and one I don’t think I can handle. If they ask me a question, no matter how simple, I stumble to answer. I am shocked that they would depend on me for anything, that they would trust me. No, it’s best to be scarce around them, to be the invisible hand.

     I do everything I was doing before. I make them breakfast, pack their lunches for school, do their laundry, clean the house, make dinner. I order the groceries online now. I don’t want to run into anyone. But it’s still mostly my old routine. The counselor said this sort of thing happens when parents are out of their routine, so I plunge back into it, my safety net. I used to think God was my safety net, but now I know better. It was the routine.  

     I have more time now, to do everything. Eva was the only one home with me, all the other kids in school. Now I can clean without interruption. I can cook and bake in quiet. I can turn on the TV or radio to whatever I like. There are no trips to the park or the library. There is no searching for this or that desired toy. No messes where I just picked up. No one to follow me into the bathroom. No running through the sprinklers in the morning. No sticky kisses and fingers. No one to call me “Mommy” anymore.

***

     It is October, so it must be cooling down in other parts of the country. Here it is hotter than ever.

I park in the deserted lot of the mechanic shop. It’s an expanse of sun beating asphalt, and no one comes here. I turn off the engine and climb into the back and wait, sitting in the space Eva’s car seat used to occupy. Hao wanted to donate it to the church, claiming it was in perfect condition, that another family could use it. How could he not see that we would be passing our curse on to another family? I wrenched it from his hands and went at it with a bat in the driveway. I couldn’t make a single dent in the fucking thing. It was a good car seat. It secured her so well.

     Hao grew up in New York, in sauna summers, riding the subway and the bus. The heat here still feels strange to him. He calls it unforgiving, brutal. I grew up entering hot cars, the seats singeing the backs of my thighs, the metal buckles of the seatbelts flashing like death rays, ready to burn my hands if I was careless enough to touch them. The intensity didn’t last. Mom would blast the a/c, the car would cool, and that would be it. But that initial heat that swallowed me whole, I never complained about it. I savored it.

     Savor is not the word I would use anymore. I am starting to feel like I can’t take this. I remove my shirt and shorts and wait some more. Then I take off my bra and underwear. The vinyl seat scalds me, and I suck in air. But I can still stand it. I shift so that I can spread my legs out on either side, and I push myself into the seat. I cry out. Yes. I hold this position. I might well have been in a similar one to conceive Eva, back when Hao and I were still having sex. But I am not opening now. I am searing myself shut. I am closing the space she emerged from with a full head of hair.

     I fall onto the dirty floor of the van, covered in crumbs and dirt and hair, probably some of it’s Eva’s. The sobs shake my body, like when I am at home alone during the day. It’s a relief to let myself go, but I can’t keep it up for too long. It is too hot to even cry. How long have I been here? Twenty minutes? An hour? More? I have no idea. I am exhausted. My head aches. I throb between my legs. I lay my head on the seat. I will close my eyes for a moment. Just a moment.

***

 

     We pull into the driveway. Finally. Naomi has been wanting to pee for the last hour. I rush to unlock the front door for her, and she bolts to the bathroom. The boys go in after, dragging their feet. Hao is leaning toward the back seat, toward Eva, and I stop him. “Help me carry the bags in.” We stopped by my sister’s after the cemetery, to pick up lemons and limes from her trees. I don’t want them to spoil in this heat.

     “I’ll just take her in,” Hao says. “I’ll be right back.”

     “You’ll wake her up,” I snap. It’s true, he doesn’t know how to take her out of the seat and transfer her to her bed without waking her. And I really don’t want her to wake up. I want to rest. The visit to the cemetery did not go well. The kids complained. Hao checked messages from work. The only one who seemed to enjoy herself was Eva. She loved the cemetery, and she was chatty on the way back, until she eventually nodded off. I give myself a moment to glimpse her, my beautiful girl, sleeping soundly. Then I follow Hao to the trunk. He grabs a few bags and leaves without looking at me. I have hurt his feelings, but I don’t care. I grab the last one and close the trunk. In the kitchen, Paul asks, “Mom, can I have my phone?” I sigh. I confiscated it at the cemetery when he was playing a game instead of praying with us. I am too tired to keep withholding it or to give him another lecture. “I think it’s in the passenger door. Go look.”

     Hao has gone upstairs, straight to bed probably, even though I was the one who drove and packed the picnic basket and led the rosary. I should go set my purse down, take off my jewelry, but I don’t want to be near him. I go into the guest room. I will lie down for a moment. Just a moment before I need to start dinner.

     Outside, the car door slams.

***

 

     Abuelita stands over me, dangling a pair of handcuffs. The metal glints in the sun, and I extend my hands, to make it easier for her. But she drops the cuffs to the ground and grabs my hands, roughly. She puts her face close to mine, her expression angry, her eyes on fire. She pushes my head underwater.

     I wake.