Isabel sat down in her favorite chair, its back leg all wobbly. A bit of coffee spilled. She sipped off the saucer and sat super still, engrossed in The Guiding Light. Today she’d find out who is the father of Kathy’s baby. When her daughters’ voices drifted out of their bedroom and down the hall, she leaned forward carefully to turn up the volume.
Julia stomped into the living room, still wearing pajamas, and blocked Isabel’s view.
Isabel leaned sideways to watch around her skinny daughter.
Julia flailed about, her frantic voice louder than the television. “Mamá, did you hear me? Caro’s leaving.”
The words merged with Kathy’s husband insisting that Kathy was innocent of murder. Why was Julia so dramatic all the time? Almost 18 and whined about everything. “Shhh!” Isabel waved her hand as if to swat Julia away.
Julia grabbed Isabel’s hand and pulled Isabel off balance in the already unstable chair.
Isabel dumped coffee all over herself, the chair, and the floor. “Damnit, Julia!”
“Mamá!” Julia said louder, more insistent. “Stop Caro before she leaves.”
Setting the empty cup down, Isabel looked at the kitchen clock. “No one is leaving.” The second-hand hung uselessly, so she squinted to distinguish it from the minute hand. “I’ll make dinner when this is over.”
Julia made a loud, half-exhale, half-growl noise as Kathy’s mother collapsed onto the imported rug.
Isabel looked at the linoleum floor, the coffee pooled by the table leg. People on television always had fancy living rooms with art on the walls instead of framed family photos and vases filled with fresh flowers on a large dining room table instead of a bowl of week-old fruit in the kitchen that gathered bugs. She should see if any of her roses were blooming and put them on the tables.
“Mamá, you have to stop Carolina now!”
“Ya Julia! You’re lucky it’s a commercial. Move so I can go clean myself.”
Before Isabel got up, Julia grabbed both of her hands and dragged Isabel down the hall.
“Damn you’re strong.” Isabel’s wrists burned as she tried to wriggle free.
Julia pulled Isabel into the bedroom. Drawers were opened. Beds were unmade. Clothes were strewn about. The mess was not normal.
It looked like the time Kathy’s apartment was ransacked and her husband thought she had been robbed, but really, she and her lover had made the mess while the husband was out of town. “You have to clean this up before dinner,” Isabel said in her most stern voice. The Guiding Light theme music coming from the other room meant the commercial was over. Isabel was anxious to return to the television drama.
But her third daughter, Gloria, muttered, “Don’t leave, don’t go, just stay,” over and over. Eleven-year-old Gloria held tightly to nine-year-old, Elena who wailed “No, Caro, no.” Her light brown curls crushed on one side because Gloria had not combed her sister’s hair yet.
Caro had combed her hair and made up her face. She wore tight cropped pants and a black cardigan that Isabel had never seen, clothes that could get her kicked out of school. She stuffed other clothes in a bag with a broken strap.
That bag had contained all Isabel’s, Julia’s, and Caro’s belongings when they first moved to Holtville. Isabel had tried to throw it away when the strap broke, but then twelve-year-old Carolina rescued it from the trash and used safety pins to reconnect the strap. Isabel hadn’t seen it in years.
Julia pointed and yelled, “See!”
Carolina took a swing at her oldest sister. “You ratted me out?” Caro hissed, “I hate you!” She stood, lifted the stuffed bag, and shouldered one of Julia’s small purses. She turned her back on her sisters and stood toe to toe with Isabel. “I could’ve walked right past you and you wouldn’t have noticed. Those damn people on TV are more important than we are.”
Isabel wiped Caro’s spit from her cheek. The music on the television filled the empty space around them.
Caro had accused Isabel of being a terrible mother when she was about fifteen. She had found a letter from her brother in Mexico and insisted Isabel to take her to see him. When Isabel refused, Caro had packed a bag then, too, stood on the corner with her thumb out to get a ride.
Isabel had watched Caro from the living room window, thought about the time Robin on The Guiding Light had tried to hitchhike to Los Angeles and the warning Karl had given her about guys who pick up girl hitchhikers. Isabel didn’t offer a warning. She grabbed Caro by the hair and dragged her inside.
Caro didn’t talk to Isabel for a week.
Caro’s hot breath made Isabel’s eyes water. Isabel shifted her weight and leaned on the doorjamb. Quietly, dragging each word out excessively, she asked, “Where are you going?”
Before Caro could lie, Julia stood next to her sister and answered for her. “She’s running away with some guy she met last week.”
Caro swung the bag at her sister’s head. “Bitch!”
Julia caught it and pushed Caro onto the bed. “I told her it was a stupid idea.”
Caro pushed back. “He loves me.”
Isabel had let them go to the church carnival without chaperones. She had trusted them to look out for each other. She asked, “What do you know about love?” At Caro’s age Isabel had been married, already abandoned her first-born son, and was pregnant with Julia. She could not have known love then.
Gloria said softly in her sing-song voice, “Love is patient, love is kind, love never fails.”
Caro glared at the biblical verse that hovered in the air.
Certain that nothing she could say right now would change her daughter’s mind, Isabel still tried. She leaned forward, offered the advice Bert Bauer on The Guiding Light gave Robin when she wanted to marry Mike. Isabel said forcefully, “If this guy loves you, he can wait until you graduate from high school.”
Caro relaxed her cheeks and loosened her hold on the bag. It rested on the bed.
Isabel stood tall and spread her feet to fill the doorway. “You need to get a job first, save some money, be able to take care of yourself.” Isabel had learned that from her own failures. But Caro didn’t remember those. She only knew this life, an easier life.
Caro matched Isabel’s volume. “He’s got a job. He’s gonna take care of me. And we won’t have to eat the same food every day.”
Elena shouted, “Tonight’s potatoes. We almost never have potatoes.” Her sweet smile beamed across the tiny room at Caro. Her folded hands begged Caro to stay.
Caro rolled her eyes at her youngest sister. “You don’t have to sleep with Julia who farts all night long.”
“I do not!” Julia threw a pillow at Caro and grabbed at the broken strap on the bag.
Isabel understood Caro’s desire to escape. She had the same need so many times. Why was she fighting? Because she knew how men could bring her daughter agony.
Caro’s nose twitched, she blinked hard. “Are you done pretending to care?”
But Isabel could be wrong. Maybe Caro’s guy would take her some place like Shelby Flats, and she’d have a house like Dr. Fletcher’s on The Guiding Light. Isabel stepped aside.
Julia cried out “No!”
Elena whimpered like a puppy and reached out for the edge of Caro’s coat.
Gloria muttered more prayers or a magic spell or nonsense.
Caro squeezed past Isabel with everything that was important to her and ran to the front door. Its slam echoed in the space between them.
Before Isabel could offer some kind of assurance or explain the madness that just occurred, Julia raged at her. “You’re the worst mother ever.”
Julia was probably right.
Isabel tried to recall how mothers on television reacted to angry children. In her calmest voice, she said. “If I’m so terrible, why didn’t you go with her?”
Elena started sobbing again.
Julia repeated her shriek-growl and pushed past Isabel to the bathroom.
From the living room, The Guiding Light music signaled the end of the episode. The blood drained from Isabel’s face, and she gripped the door jamb to steady herself. For a few long seconds, she stood there and stared at her two youngest daughters. They both stared back, expectantly, wanted some reassurance or advice from her, wanted her to be a better mother. But she wasn’t, never had been. She did what she had to so they could survive. And she was too exhausted to worry about the rest.
“I’m going to make dinner.” Isabel turned around and walked slowly to the kitchen. Her steps, the slammed door, the sobs, and the running water in the bathroom all merged into one song. It repeated in her head as she shuffled down the hallway and imagined Carolina’s new life.