For the third night in a row she wakes up with stomach pains, her lower abdomen cramping up as if something were twisting her insides. She throws an arm over the side of the bed, feeling around in the darkness for the plastic wastebasket she put there before she lay down. Her hand gropes at the air, occasionally bouncing off the side of the mattress, searching for the wastebasket. She finds it lying on the floor, the contents-tissue, crumpled paper, snack wrappers and soda cans-are scattered over the carpet around the bed. One of the cats must have upset it while she was sleeping.
By the time she brings it up to her mouth the pain has passed and she is fully awake. She hears the running water of the canal outside the open window, the occasional rattle of an old muffler in the distance. She looks toward the doorway and sees the dim light of the lamp coming from the other room. She knows he’s not there.
She drags her legs over the side of the bed and now that she’s sitting up she can feel how tired and sore and stiff her body is, partly from being woken up in the middle of the night, but also because she’s not treating herself the way that she should. He used to ask her to take better care of herself, and she thinks she would if he ever asked her to now, but she can’t seem to find the energy anymore, let alone a reason for why she should.
Her ankles make cracking noises as she stands up, first leaning against the teakwood dresser for support, then standing fully erect, her back arched, arms out. She takes the pack of cigarettes off the dresser on her way to the bathroom. She hasn’t had one in almost two weeks and she’s dying for a smoke. When she sits down on the toilet a wave of nausea passes over her and she doubles over, hugging herself, her legs crossed, locked at the knees. She holds the pack of cigarettes in one hand, pressing them against her chest, while the other hand rubs circles counterclockwise over her belly. She wishes he were there to brush the hair out of her face, to massage her body and sit with her.
By the time she’s finished urinating the pain has subsided and she pulls her sweat shorts back up, ignoring the loose drawstring. She opens the medicine cabinet and pushes aside the unopened cartridge of birth control pills to get to the aspirin. The cap isn’t on the bottle right and she’s forced to use more strength than she thinks she has to get it open. She swallows two of the small white tablets without water and leaves the bottle on the counter. The pills turn into powder on their way down and she winces at the bitterness, but is too tired to do anything about it.
The halogen lamp lights only a corner of the living room, but she’s able to find his watch, which is on the breakfast bar next to the basket of loose change. The metal band and glass face feel cool on her skin as she presses it against her cheek, wishing he had it with him so that he knew how late it is. He probably knows anyway, but doesn’t care, she thinks. She tilts the watch toward the light to read the numbers; it says a quarter to three. She wonders if he will be coming home at all tonight.
As she turns off the porch light and unlocks the deadbolt, an assembly of cats crowd around her, rubbing up against her legs, waiting to be let out. When she opens the door, two or three quickly squeeze through while a few more shove their way in, as if she might change her mind and shut the door at any moment. The cats are all strays, ones that she found prowling around the apartment complex. She likes looking after them. She feeds them and allows them to stay with her, and most of them have made the apartment their home while others come only for the wet food she leaves outside the door in the mornings.
She steps outside, closing the door behind her, careful not to shut it on any of the cats’ tails. As she sits down at the top of the stairs, she suddenly wishes that her neighbor’s porch light wasn’t on. It attracts more insects than she’s willing to share the early morning with and she isn’t able to see the stars the way she should. All she can see in the pre-dawn twilight is the nearly rusted through railing she is leaning up against, and beyond that the worn down crab grass where the children dig for earthworms to dissect in the summer evenings, and beyond that the weeds growing in the gutter of the aluminum covered carports, and beyond that the canal that she likes to pretend is really a river, winding its way west to someplace beautiful, someplace other than here.
She remembers the drowning that happened in the canal only a few months ago, when it was still plenty full and the rush of muddy water almost did sound like a river below her window. A boy who had lived in one of the apartments with his grandmother had been down by the canal fishing with his friends. Something caught on his line, which was nothing more than a piece of knotted twine tied to the end of a rusty handlebar, he lost his footing in the loose dirt and fell into the water, skinning his shins on the concrete lip of the canal on his way in. She never saw his body when they pulled him out of the water, but dreamt she had seen it, shriveled and blue, curled up into itself, floating on the surface of the brown water, the current moving steadily beneath his unmoving body. Then she had woken up to find Paulo lying next to her, breathing softly, sleeping, and for the first time she heard the whispering of the water, rolling over and over, along with the evening breeze.
She thinks about that boy now and wonders if he ever would have gotten away from the canal, if his grandmother would ever have had enough money to raise him someplace that wasn’t like this, someplace that had clear water and clear skies, that looked down on the valley instead of down at the ditches and dirt and cracked asphalt and weeds. She wonders if anyone ever leaves a place like this, then remembers the offer Paulo got from his cousin in Lompoc. She is sure he will leave. It isn’t even a question anymore.
The clamminess of her hand has moistened the pack of cigarettes and now the box is warped. She sets it down beside her and stands up-not all the way, just high enough to unscrew the bulb of her neighbor’s porch light-then she crouches back down, feeling the soreness in her thighs and buttocks, the sweat gathering around her neck, on her back, behind her knees. She takes a cigarette out of the pack and places it between her lips, but doesn’t light it. She knows she shouldn’t, but she’s not sure she won’t.
Although the air is warm and thick with humidity, she shivers a little at the choice she has to make. She scratches an itch on her arm and feels a small bump on her elbow. The mosquitoes will eat her alive if she stays out here, but she isn’t ready yet to go back inside. She has a decision to make that can no longer wait. She has never done the responsible thing before and it frightens her a bit, makes her skin goosepimply and taut. She clenches her lips on the cigarette still dangling from her mouth. She wishes Paulo would pull up under the carport, at least that might help sway her one way or another, but he doesn’t come and she knows that he probably won’t.
It was only two weeks ago when she came home from a late shift at the taco shack and told him the news. He hadn’t touched her, not a slap or a kiss. He knew she had done it intentionally, that she would do anything to keep him there with her. Although his dark chiseled features revealed nothing, she thought he seemed relieved. He simply nodded before he turned away and said, “Okay.” It had reminded her of the time that she had suggested they move in together, that he take refuge from his drunken stepfather at her apartment. She told him that he could leave anytime he wanted, that it was just a place to stay. He had never lived with anyone before-he had barely just dropped out of high school-and it had been comforting to have him around in the evenings when she needed someone to share things with. Her favorite thing to do was share secrets with him in the dark, when they were lying in bed together listening to the sounds of the canal. She never really had any secrets before-her life was exactly the way it looked-but she made some up just to have something to tell him, something to make him feel closer to her.
But all that was ruined now, flushed away like the cloudy sentiment of the canal water, all because she had quit taking the pill. If only he knew why she had done it, he wouldn’t let her wait outside like this in the dark with the mosquitoes, regretting what she had done, wondering what she should do about it now that she knew he would leave her.
She lights the cigarette that is between her lips, but she does not inhale. She watches, entranced, as the tendrils of blue smoke weave around one another, spiraling upward. Resting her chin on her knees, she stares at the orange glow of the cigarette, the ash flaking off and dirtying her bare feet, until it finally burns itself out. She could light it again, take a deep drag and try to forget all about it, hope for a miscarriage or go to the clinic, but instead she places it under the heel of her foot and smears the remaining ash across the top step. She will try to be more responsible now. Paulo will leave, but she will definitely be more responsible.
Holding the box of remaining cigarettes, she gets up and carefully makes her way down the stairs. She walks across the coarse grass, still wet from the sprinklers that come on in the evenings. She walks under the carport, stepping over the yellow weeds that are growing in the cracks of the asphalt, and over to the canal where, to her surprise, she can’t smell the mustiness of the algae and brown water she knows is idling below; she can only smell the dust clouding around her feet, sticking to her damp skin. She closes her eyes and holds out her arms, allowing the pack of cigarettes to slip from her fingers. The water is running, the way it always is and always will, and she wonders, as she often does, where all that water comes from. As she stands at the edge of the canal, her eyes still closed, listening to the water wash away the mud and silt and refuse of the valley, she feels it become a river again, whispering to her in soft ripples, onward, onward.