Despite all that Mimi Jackson knew, the chicken fajitas still looked good. Smelled good, too. She watched the dark-haired waiter balance three plates on one arm as he hustled past her table and the five other women she’d invited to La Huerta. They were wives of Detmer Foods plant managers. They played bunco and were members of local Junior League chapters. And just recently, they’d all performed a miracle.
“Really appreciate everyone making the time,” Mimi said, reaching for her glass of water, wishing it was a margarita. It’d been almost a year. “Know you’re busy. I’m busy, busier now than ever, but it’s important for us to get together, to share things and express our—”
“Hold up,” Gina Brashears said, the only woman at the table with an alcoholic beverage. Gina was older than the others by at least ten years. “Sounds like we’re about to have some sorta AA meeting.”
Mimi was afraid of this, or something like it. There was a good chance she was alone in her fear. Maybe the other women didn’t feel like she felt. Maybe they didn’t want to be there at all. A ranchera tune played from a speaker hidden behind the fake fern in the corner. A group of Mexican men perched along the bar stared up at a television with solemn faces as other men kicked a ball around on the screen. Mimi watched them, thinking her husband should get a soccer league going at the plant. Then thinking, no, it’d just be another thing he’d have to keep up with.
“I went to AA with my sister’s husband once,” Gina said. “Read the Big Book. Recited the Serenity Prayer.” She paused to chug the rest of her margarita. “Ain’t nothing but a bunch of old drunks, slurping coffee and chain-smoking Pall Malls.”
The women flinched.
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“Well, I don’t see any Pall Malls,” Mimi said and forced a smile. “But yes, I was thinking we could all get together about once a month and run this kind of like an AA meeting.”
“Ain’t following you, hon,” Gina said, waving a waiter down and pointing to her empty glass. “Nobody here’s a alcoholic, at least not the obvious kind.”
“No,” Mimi said, cheeks aching from holding the fake smile. “I don’t see any alcoholics, but I do see a tableful of new moms.”
There it was. The common denominator. The responsibility, the burden, they all shared. The other young mothers—Trish, Whitney, Nina, and Lilly—seemed more restless now than ever, acrylic nails tapping at cell phone screens, checking on their babies, trying to come up with an excuse so they could leave.
The meeting wasn’t supposed to go like this. Mimi had been planning it for weeks, rehearsing her lines in the bathroom mirror, preparing the perfect message for the other new moms, a slightly veiled cry for help, or at least comfort. Misery loves company, right? Wasn’t that what motherhood was? Misery. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Of that much, Mimi was certain. Being a mom was the hardest job on the planet, but nobody had ever told her that. Had the other women been warned?
“I go to Walmart . . .” Mimi paused and picked at a cuticle, waiting until the women looked up from their phones. They were all so well-manicured, every last one of them, even Gina. Perfectly put together young mothers, that’s what Mimi saw. It’s what she saw every morning in the mirror after she put her face on, a touch of color here, a simple gloss there. Nothing crazy. The women had finally put their phones away. They were looking at her now. What did they see? “It’s about a fifteen-minute drive in from the farm. I like to go early Saturday mornings. There’s barely any traffic, but the whole time I’m driving, you know what I’m thinking about?”
Gina put a hand over her mouth and whispered to the waiter: “I ordered sugar on the rim, José, not salt . . .”
“What, Mimi?” Nina Ferguson said. “What are you thinking about?”
“Car wrecks?” Gina took the first sip of her second margarita. “Y’all live off 412 just west of Sonora? I’m out that way all the time. Never see any wrecks.”
“I never see any real wrecks, either, but I can’t stop thinking about them,” Mimi said.
Gina snorted and glanced back at the rest of the table. Nobody returned her gaze.
Whitney Blackburn said, “I see gas fires, everywhere.”
“Anytime we go to the pool,” Trish Jameson said, a beige bra strap peeking out from under the sleeve of her burgundy blouse, “I count beats in my head. You know, like for CPR? Thirty chest compressions then two breaths. The compressions time up with that song, ‘Stayin’ Alive.’”
“The Bee Gees? Chest compressions?” Gina stirred her drink and sucked from the straw at the same time. “The hell’s all this about?”
“Postpartum anxiety affects close to ninety percent of new mothers,” Mimi said, pulling statistics from the 3 a.m. Google searches she used to fill the time between Tuck’s feedings. “For me it’s worse at night, especially if Luke’s not home. Right before I fall asleep, my mind starts racing through a checklist of horrible stuff—carbon monoxide poisoning, SIDS, anaphylactic reactions. It’s like I have OCD.”
“I was diagnosed with OCD when I was twelve,” Lilly Taylor said, “and now I have a three-month-old daughter.”
Mimi said, “I’m so sorry,” and leaned back in her chair far enough that the waiter could place a basket of chips and six small bowls of salsa on the table. “Each one of you has your own story to tell, and that’s why I called you. That’s why I wanted us to get together. Something outside of bunco or Junior League, something where it was just us new moms. I thought if we talked about all the crazy crap in our heads, then maybe we’d feel a little better.”
A chip crunched loud enough for Mimi to hear it over the ranchera music and the soccer game. Gina took another bite, chewing as she said, “You know I got three boys, Mimi? Shit. Blaine just turned nine.”
Mimi said, “Yeah, but Dax is still in diapers, right? I thought—”
“Oh, now I get it. Thought you’d get ol’ Gin-Gin in your little club, let her tell the girls everything’ll get easier? It all works out eventually? That it?”
Mimi studied Gina, her inverted bob hairdo, shorter in the back than it was in the front, the forty-something mother of three going for the youthful, edgy look. Maybe Mimi had made a mistake. Maybe this whole idea was bullshit, just like her husband had said. The same thing Luke had said when she’d come home with the Xanax prescription. Luke. What was she thinking leaving Tucker—her six-month-old baby boy—home alone with Luke? All he ever thought about was that stinking chicken plant.
That’s how it always started. Mimi could be doing fine, making it through another day with Tuck, this whole new life she knew nothing about, and then, in the very next instant, she might notice a warning label on a jar of peanut butter, or read a childhood cancer post on Facebook. One thought led to another, then another, and before long, Mimi was gone. It felt like going over a big hill too fast, or driving through a storm and the tires slip, two tons of metal floating down the interstate and nothing can stop it.
Mimi pushed back and stood. “No,” she said, answering Gina’s question without looking at her. “That’s not it. This is something different. Something worse.” Mimi waited, hoping one of the other women would stop her. No such luck. They were all leaned forward on their elbows, eyes sleepover wide. “Just last month . . .” Mimi had come there to confess, to get the bad stuff out, and this was the worst of it. “I was driving through the Bobby Hopper Tunnel. Tuck was in the back, in his car seat, asleep.” He wasn’t asleep. He was screaming like he always did when his refluxes flared. The sound he made, it was like a goat bleating. It split Mimi in two, separated the woman she’d been from the woman she was. Only a mother could withstand such torture. She should’ve pulled over. She should’ve stopped. “I could hear him breathing, making this wet, sucking sound, when the wheel started to turn toward the wall and—”
Gina slapped the table. Chips rattled free of the basket. Drinks spilled. “It don’t get any easier.” Gina paused long enough for Mimi to realize the woman had saved her, stopped her before she went too far, said too much. “But a ice-cold marg every now and then don’t hurt none. Y’all ever heard of the pump and dump?”
Ferg said, “The pump and—”
“—dump. Yeah,” Gina barked. “When you’re breastfeeding and you wanna get your drink on? All you got to do is pump when you get home. Ain’t never easy pouring all that milk down the drain, but the last thing anybody wants is a drunk baby.”
Ferg was the first to laugh, letting out a high-pitched squeal that brought Mimi back from the tunnel, back from the concrete wall and just how close her 4Runner’s driver-side headlight had come to it. A moment later, the whole table was cackling, so hard, so loud the group of Mexican men turned from the game, watching as the table of white women ordered two pitchers of margaritas, three plates of chicken fajitas, and chimichangas with extra cheese.
Gabriela Menchaca was still wearing the diaper when Edwin came home. She barely heard the trailer door open, lost in the dream that carried her through her ten-hour shifts. The one where they lived in a three-bedroom house outside of town with a washing machine and Gabriela had time to prepare real meals instead of just microwaving noodles. Edwin was lost in his own dream, the one he kept returning to lately. Tequila breath and glassy eyes on a Thursday night, knowing his shift at the chicken plant started in less than six hours. Knowing he wouldn’t get a single break, not even to go to the bathroom.
Gabriela slid the diaper down around her ankles, stepped out, and said, “That was the last one.”
“The last what?”
She looked down at the wadded diaper on the floor.
Edwin said, “I’ll go get more,” and jingled the car keys in his pocket.
“Tomorrow is payday.”
“You’ll need one for in the morning, for your next shift.”
Edwin fell back into the sofa they’d bought secondhand from the Goodwill in Fayetteville. Their trailer was a dumping ground for forgotten things: a boxy television set Edwin had salvaged from a coworker, a microwave with a splintered glass door. Posterboard signs were folding in on themselves beneath the window, all that remained of Edwin’s failed attempt to stage a walkout at the plant. The Mexican flag tacked above the sofa also came from the Goodwill. There was an inscription on the back written in black Magic Marker: Hot Chicks and Big Dicks, Cancún ’06. The kitchen stunk of propane, always, a problem with the stove’s pilot light.
Edwin said, “We’ve worked so hard, Gabby,” and ran his index finger and thumb over his thin mustache, the one he’d been growing for months and couldn’t go five minutes without touching.
“Seven years ago, when I graduated and walked across that stage—Principal Buckley, remember him? He passed me my diploma and you know what he said?”
Gabby knew. Every time Edwin got drunk he told the same story. She let him play it out anyway.
“He said to me, ‘You’re going places, Saucy.’ Remember that? How they started calling me ‘Saucy’ when I scored those three goals in—”
“—the state championship our junior year.” Gabby loved him, but she didn’t want to hear the whole thing again. “Yes, Edwin Saucedo, I know your story. I know it because it’s my story, too.”
“Seven years,” Edwin said. “In some ways it seems like yesterday. When I think about where we are now, though, it feels like the life of another man.”
“You’ve been drinking.”
“No,” Edwin said. “I’ve been thinking.” He pulled his face out from his hands and tapped the side of his head. The look in his eyes, Gabby could almost see the boy they’d called “Saucy” all those years ago.
“At the bar tonight,” he said.
“Where you were drinking our money away.”
“It’s the bar in that restaurant. You know the one?”
“Yeah. We were trying to watch the game, Chivas versus Cruz Azul, but these women behind us, they were acting so crazy.”
“It was someone’s birthday?”
Edwin shook his head. “No, no. You’ll never guess what it was.”
Standing barefoot on the kitchen’s linoleum floor—a place Gabby Menchaca had stood for most of the seven years after high school, except for the hours she spent in line at the plant—she could feel something catch and bite in her stomach, off to the side a little. Like her body knew what was coming.
“Babies,” Edwin said and leaned back, putting his feet on the piece of plywood held up by four plastic crates, a makeshift coffee table. “I could barely watch the game.”
Gabby reached out, steadying herself on the kitchen cabinets. Her legs were bare. She’d forgotten she wasn’t wearing any pants. Right there on the floor by her feet was the diaper, the one she had to wear to work because there were no breaks, just broiler after broiler. She said to Edwin, “Would you like to eat?” and felt her shirttail rise as she took a pack of ramen noodles down from a shelf above the stove.
“These women . . .” Edwin said, ignoring the question. “At first, it was like they were scared.”
“Scared of babies?” Gabby dumped the noodles into a pink plastic bowl and turned on the faucet.
“Yeah, that was it. They were scared of their babies. They were young. Not much older than you or me. It was pretty dark inside the restaurant, but I could still see them.”
Edwin made circles with his fingers and pressed them to his eyes, an imaginary pair of goggles. Night-vision goggles, if Gabby had to guess. Some sort of joke. She set the microwave for three minutes.
“The one sitting at the head of the table, Gabriela, I saw her face and thought, I know you.”
“No, no,” Edwin said, still with his fingers wrapped around his eyes. “Mr. Jackson’s wife.”
Edwin stood and walked the five steps from the sofa to the kitchen. Gabby kept her back to him, still facing the microwave. His hands were rough at the palms from seven years spent cutting the left leg off broiler chickens. His calluses scraped across her bare thighs as he moved in behind her and rested his chin on her shoulder.
Edwin said, “Mr. Jackson. The man who ups the birds per minute from one-forty to one seventy-five and now we can’t even take a piss? That was his wife at the restaurant, complaining about her six-month-old child. Talking crazy. Like you wouldn’t believe.”
“What was she complaining about?”
“I don’t know. Her words, her worries, none of it made sense to me. Not after what we’ve been through.”
Gabby struggled under his weight. She lifted her finger to the microwave and pushed a button. The pink plastic bowl, spinning as it heated up, was distorted through the microwave’s cracked glass door.
“It wasn’t our time, Edwin. We weren’t ready. That’s all.”
“And these women at La Huerta? They were ready? They’re not even thankful.”
Gabby watched the green glowing numbers across the top of the microwave tick down, thinking of the long hours at the plant, the antibacterial sprays coating everything. Stuck in her hair, on her skin, so thick she would taste it on the noodles when it was finally time to eat. The worst part—the point Edwin would’ve made if he hadn’t gone to the restaurant and come home with his beer goggles on—was the lack of bathroom breaks. That’s why Gabby had stopped drinking water. She’d go a whole day and drink nothing, terrified of standing there in her soaked-through panties for hours like she had that one time, early on, but never again. This was back before Edwin talked to Luis and learned about the diapers. Before he knew she was pregnant, and then she wasn’t. Edwin in the living room saying to her one night, “You knew? You knew and still you would drink nothing? Gabriela?” In the weeks that followed, Edwin printed off articles from the internet, citing the importance of water consumption during pregnancy, something about the amniotic fluid.
Gabby felt Edwin’s hands fall away from her thighs, his chin heavy on her shoulder. She watched the green numbers change, trying not to think of Mr. Jackson’s wife in a Mexican restaurant complaining about her baby, and then the microwave dinged.
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