Gilbert Gaeta’s shoulders were sore, tired from another week at the Blue Bell Dairy, from stacking crates onto pallets and wrapping them in plastic sheeting, from guiding them off the ground with the forklift and .lling the trailers on his docks with gallon after gallon of milk. He was a large man, had played halfback on his high school football team. In his senior year he’d been good enough to start the second half of the season. He didn’t mind the bare mattress awaiting him, much less the pillow without its pillowcase. Joyce always found this prospect appalling, the mattress with its faint yellow sweat rings and occasional black spots of dried blood. Ana, Gaeta’s daughter, shared this disgust, so that when he came home from work on Friday morning, he wasn’t surprised to .nd a sheet of paper neatly folded atop the Tupperware in the refrigerator. He popped last night’s guisado in the microwave and smiled at Ana’s note:
Dear Mr. Hobo, Don’t forget that in this house there are sheets and these sheets go on the bed where you like to sleep.
P.S. We need quarters.
The Tupperware came steaming out of the microwave, and while it cooled, Gaeta called Joyce at work. He found her extension busy, as he’d expected, for it seemed that today, like most days, everyone had thought to call the cable company .rst thing in the morning. He listened to the Muzak and ate straight from the bowl, waiting for her recording to come on the line. Over the last eleven months he’d come to enjoy this morning habit. After hearing Joyce, his little house didn’t seem so empty. Gaeta would dream nothing and would awake six hours later refreshed and ready for whatever awaited him. He poured a glass of water from the gallon in the refrigerator. He .nished half and stopped drinking so that he could hear Joyce’s prerecorded voice: “Crown Cable appreciates your business. The next available representative will soon be with you.”
Gaeta let the recording cycle around two more times. He unzipped his rubber boots and rinsed the dishes. He emptied his pockets into the candy dish on the kitchen table, then hung up the phone.
The laundry was already sorted in Ana’s room for their weekly Saturday trip to the Laundromat. There were two piles on her bed, one of her darks and one of her whites, and on the .oor was a pile of Gaeta’s work clothes and a pile of towels and sheets. He pulled off his shirt and pants and tossed them onto the other grubby ones.
Aside from the dirty clothes, Ana’s room was clean and orderly as usual. Her neatness always seemed like some instinctual reaction to life before the house, even if she wasn’t quite old enough to remember that time, a time that felt to Gaeta like little more than greasy pizza boxes and the same stack of unwashed dishes in the sink. Still, she was old enough to remember the divorce, to know that Linda hadn’t tried that hard to be a mother. After she left for San Antonio, Gaeta and Ana .gured out how to wash dishes and make each other dinner. He learned to wrap her birthday presents and she learned to wrap his, and in this way they had gotten by.
Sometimes Gaeta worried that he hadn’t given Ana much of a childhood, and these anxious moments weren’t eased when he looked at her dresser and saw the pictures of her friends from school, other thirteen-year-old girls wearing too much dark makeup too soon, girls Gaeta had mostly never met, but whom he received troubling updates about when Ana served dinner.
His spare gray sheets were in the hallway closet, although at this point the effort of readying the bed was beyond him. He’d shower when he woke up and then he’d make the bed and Ana wouldn’t know the difference. He fell onto the mattress and pulled the comforter over his shoulders, bunching it up so that his feet were exposed. The weekend would be on the other side of this nap. He wondered about dinner later and scooted to the left, the right side reserved for Joyce, who, after being with Gaeta for almost a year, had yet to sleep overnight in his bed.
Gaeta had been waiting for the tires on his truck to be rotated and balanced on the April morning when he met Joyce. She wore a lavender jacket over a gray blouse, a matching lavender skirt with silver . owers embroidered around the hem. She was pretty, curvy in ways that Gaeta thought attractive. She reminded him of the secretaries at the dairy, the ones upstairs in the managers’ offi ces, and he worried that the chair she was sitting on might leave her dirty. He looked at the cars in the service bays and couldn’t picture her driving anything parked between his truck and the old black Honda at the far end of the garage.
Gaeta fought off sleep and .ipped through the magazines on the small table between their seats. He and Joyce both went for the same ragged copy of the National Enquirer, and he let her take it. He felt stupid for appearing curious about celebrity gossip.
“Thank you,” she said, saying it so that he felt noted.
She .ipped through the Enquirer, stopping to mention Madonna and shake her head. Gaeta knew the singer from the magazines Ana got at Vons, from the bootleg cassettes she sometimes bought from the vendors who wandered the supermarket’s parking lot. “My daughter,” he said. “She likes her songs.”
“Sure,” Joyce said. “A few years ago it seems all the girls had the lace gloves, the arms covered in plastic bracelets.” She laughed a slight laugh and touched Gaeta’s arm as if they were old friends.
He would learn that Joyce was the oldest of three children, that during Vietnam, her brother, Daniel, had gone missing in action and was since presumed dead. Joyce regularly went to Rose Hills to visit the stone the Saucedos had purchased together. She always went on his birthday in October as well as the day after Christmas. Phyllis was the youngest. She had married a Bengali named Huq and eventually they’d gone to Reno, where they dealt blackjack.
Joyce herself had never married. She’d been close twice, once after high school and once because, at thirty, she’d found herself lonely. She spent the years caring for her father, a steady pattern of doctors’ appointments and visits with his physical therapist, of occasional dates that con.rmed a long-standing mistrust of men. And because she’d never married, at thirty-six she’d never lived away from home. Aside from trips to Reno to see her sister’s family and visits to see relatives in Sonora, she didn’t spend the night away from her father. He had never allowed her to stay with any of the men she’d dated, Gaeta included.
At .rst, Gaeta empathized. He had raised Ana in the same traditional fashion and was .rmly against her sleeping elsewhere, for in the homes of others she’d be out of his sight, and, out of his sight, shameful things could occur.
Ana had regularly complained about this. As she’d grown older, a simple yet threatening “no” became less and less eff ective. Two years ago she had fought to spend the night at her friend Deliz’s slumber party. Gaeta had tugged away her backpack and forced her to the couch.
“As long as you live with me, you’ll sleep here, at home.”
He unzipped the backpack and dumped its contents in Ana’s lap. She’d packed some pajamas and a change of clothes, along with her deodorant and a pack of red licorice and a tube of lip gloss.
She sat and pouted. She picked up her lip gloss and he knocked it from her hand.
“If you want to act like an adult, you got to be one . rst,” he’d said.
But, since meeting Joyce at the garage, Gaeta felt more and more like Ana with her sour face and her empty backpack. He felt most frustrated late at night, during the hours before work. He spent them tossing and turning, unable to sleep as his mind raced. Joyce occasionally took long lunches at Gaeta’s house, and the scent of baby shampoo would remain on the other pillow, a hint of her perfume in the sheets. At night he would hold the second pillow close, but it was never a proper substitute for having her next to him, his arm around her, their bodies pressed together with the delicious warmth shared by lovers. Alone, he would face the alarm clock, then the window, would turn on his stomach, then on his back. Those night hours always passed slowly, leaving him restless as a convict. That she lived three miles away only made it worse.
The Laundromat was packed on Saturday morning. Gaeta pointed Ana toward the one open machine, which was up front beside the Ms. Pac-Man. He then snagged a seat on a nearby bench, setting his two bags of laundry next to him so that she could sit after loading her clothes. Gaeta enjoyed his Saturday mornings here. Time with Ana seemed rare with her in junior high, even rarer now that he and Joyce had gotten serious. Every weekend was some variation on tonight: Ana had plans with her friends at Skateland; after dropping her off , Gaeta would be with Joyce until it was time to pick Ana up. But before tonight, with only one available washing machine, Gaeta and Ana would have at least three hours together.
He gave her a couple of dollars for snacks and Ana took her purse and left for the liquor store across the street. He sat back and watched her through the wide glass window. She waited for the signal to change and adjusted the small black leather bag on her shoulder. She still didn’t seem old enough to need it.
Joyce was with her father that morning, as she was most Saturday mornings. Rosendo had broken his ankle the prior year by knocking himself with a sledgehammer while splitting .rewood, an activity that he had done regularly for a neighbor no matter the season. Gaeta pictured Rosendo walking, Joyce guiding him on one side, the physical therapist on the other, each step painful when his body came to rest on his left ankle. Gaeta hoped that this morning’s session would end with another prescription for painkillers, pills large enough to knock Rosendo out. Gaeta wanted Joyce next to him tonight rather than spending the eve ning alone with the television, or at her place, eating dinner and being polite to Rosendo.
Nights with Rosendo were the worst. He would try to get them to play conquian or would talk about raising horses as a boy in Tesopaco, and Joyce would nod and ask the same questions she’d asked the last time. Gaeta had never ridden a horse. As a boy, he’d once ridden a mule at the drive-in. When he mentioned this to Rosendo, the old man had grunted and turned his attention to grinding a lime into his can of beer.
Ana returned with a quart bottle of Dr Pepper, a bag of chili cheese Fritos, and a plastic bag of licorice. “You look hungry,” she said. She passed Gaeta the chips and took a piece of the licorice for herself.
He thanked her for the Fritos, even if it was too early to be eating them, to be eating licorice too. But with the dryers going around them, Gaeta was glad for the cold soda. They passed the Dr Pepper back and forth. He set the Fritos aside and didn’t bother asking for his change. He never did. Instead he watched her laundry turn and asked about things at school.
Ana bit a second piece of licorice and put the rest back in the plastic bag. She began an answer as she chewed, but she looked toward the boys at the Ms. Pac-Man and seemed to forget what she was saying. She handed Gaeta the Dr Pepper. “I’ll be back,” she said.
She took the licorice and her purse and ducked behind a row of washing machines, out of sight, leaving Gaeta to consider the two boys playing the game. The boy at the control was tall and thin, wearing a white tank top and turquoise cargo pants. His friend was shorter, squatter, in a blue football jersey, the bottom half cut away. His black sweatpants were trimmed below the knee.
Gaeta wondered if Ana had mentioned these boys in passing, maybe at the dinner table, maybe in the truck. He imagined them as her enemies in some junior- high feud, although they didn’t seem remarkable or intimidating enough to be hiding from.
Twenty minutes later Ana’s wash was .nished, and Gaeta found her behind the washers at the back end of the Laundromat, on the .oor, sitting beside a stranger’s basket of whites. “Your stuff is ready,” he said.
Ana leaned over and checked the Ms. Pac-Man. “Can you put it in the dryer for me?” She .ddled with the zipper on her purse. “Please, Dad,” she added. “Please.”
“Come on. Get up.”
“Wait. I’ll get them in a second.”
They went back and forth like this a few times, though once seemed like too much.
“Ana, get up.”
“I will. I’m in the middle of this.”
She busied herself with the bag of licorice, with folding it into her purse, but Gaeta didn’t leave.
“Dad, let me .x this .rst.”
A woman gave Gaeta an annoyed look as she picked up the basket of whites. Rather than make a bigger scene in public, he went back to the washing machine. The other machines were still occupied, and so he began tossing Ana’s wash into her basket.
He’d been through other instances like this. At the bakery last summer, after declaring herself fat, Ana began refusing her customary chocolate concha. On her twelfth birthday, she’d forged his signature at the mall to pierce her ears a second time, the tiny silver skulls bought after returning his gift, a sweatshirt with Winnie the Pooh. After the bakery he’d left her alone. After the forged signature he’d demanded the earrings and was surprised that she actually handed them over without any excuses or protests. His surprise hadn’t prevented him from .ushing the earrings down the toilet in front of her. He’d kept Ana grounded from her friends for a month, and in that time the new holes in her ears healed.
But at the Laundromat Gaeta dumped Ana’s clothes in her basket, one wet bundle slid under the bench. Later he’d yell at her, threaten to ground her, although tonight he wouldn’t keep her home because he needed to see Joyce. It had been two weeks since they’d last been alone.
Gaeta loaded his work clothes and measured a cup of detergent and fed the washer three quarters. The two boys were still at the Ms. Pac-Man, the boy in the football jersey now at the control. Ana might like one of them, though if this was true, Gaeta couldn’t tell why. The one in the silly-colored pants was gangly, barely able to .ll out his tank top. His friend’s forehead was marked with acne, his cheeks and chin too, and these .aws made him look chubby rather than husky. The chubby one jostled the machine, and when his friend laughed, he did it some more. His game was soon over and the boys traded places. Perhaps Ana had kissed one of them. Perhaps one was an ex-boyfriend, even if she had yet to talk about anyone in that way.
On Saturday night, with Ana off at Skate Junction and Rosendo asleep in front of Sábado Gigante, Gaeta picked up Joyce. Tonight she wore her blue dress, paired with black heels and a black purse made of woven leather. In case her father woke up before midnight, she left a note claiming that she and Gaeta had gone dancing. Dancing!
They raced to Gaeta’s, where they were upon each other before he could close the front door, their kisses rushed and gasping and tasting faintly of salt. They groped one another in the dark house like a couple of sophomores, pulled at each other’s zippers, and shuffl ed to his bedroom, where that afternoon the bed had been made with fresh white sheets. Gaeta felt for a condom at the back of his sock drawer and Joyce slid out of her dress. She set it on a hanger and hung it from the curtain rod above Gaeta’s window. They then found each other in the darkness.
Afterward they warmed frozen raviolis and topped them with sauce from a jar. Gaeta washed the dishes, rushing through them as Joyce freshened up. Ana would be expecting them. He didn’t usually hurry on nights with Joyce, but the boys from the Laundromat had lingered in his mind. Tonight he wanted to be at Skate Junction early.
Gaeta replaced the dishes and walked to the bathroom. He leaned in the doorway and caught Joyce in her underwear, .xing her bra. She adjusted one strap, then the other. She noticed Gaeta in the mirror and smiled, then reached for her dress and wiggled it on.
“We should go,” he said.
“What’s your rush?” She stepped forward and hugged him with her dress still unzipped. “We don’t have to leave yet.”
“Maybe we should.” Gaeta mentioned how Ana had acted at the Laundromat. He told Joyce about the boys playing the Ms. Pac- Man.
She turned so that he could .x her zipper. “What’s the big deal?” she asked. “Ana probably likes one of them.”
“Maybe,” Gaeta said. “But I don’t see it. They weren’t exactly cute.”
“Well, maybe it’s not one of them. Maybe it’s one of their friends.” Joyce put her deodorant in the shoebox on the sink. She walked past him, back to his room, and replaced the shoebox under his bed, behind his rubber boots. “Has she been talking about anyone?”
“I’m not sure,” he said, though the question made him think that the answer had probably been in front of him at some point, that somehow he’d missed it.
He dropped Joyce off, giving her a light hug and a quick kiss at her doorstep, and then he raced to Skate Junction. Ana exited alone when he arrived. She had been sitting near the doors and when she climbed in the truck, she immediately changed the radio station, turning through the dial until she found something she liked, a robotic-sounding song about cars.
“Did you have a fun time?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said, though the way she said it didn’t sound fun at all.
Excerpted from This Time Tomorrow by Michael Jaime- Becerra.
Copyright © 2010 by Michael Jaime- Becerra.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.