Between shifts, Ana makes cupcakes for Joaquin with a half-dozen tray borrowed from the neighbours. She needs five batches and unless she starts now she will miss the bus that takes her to the sparkling office building where she pushes a cart around desks and empties wastepaper baskets into a bag. Being late will draw attention. The priest and the gringas who secretly meet with Ana and her coworkers in the basement of her job warn them about drawing attention. Don’t walk in groups. Don’t argue in stores. Don’t get arrested. The gringas tell her she should know her rights if they get stopped. Ana and the other cleaners find this funny. If they get stopped, they are sent back. That is the only right they have.
Ana copies a recipe from a cookbook in the library. Her card expired three months ago, but she hasn’t renewed it. They might ask for ID. They might phone the number she gives on her application and learn she’s put down the bodega’s phone number that everyone in the neighbourhood uses on forms. So no more books from the library. No more programs. No more free movies on Thursday nights.
Ana misses the library.
At home, Ana translates, word for word, with the dictionary. Huevos, leche, sucre, harina. Same as flan. Ana can make flan in her sleep, she’s done it so much.
“Joaquin,” she calls out in English. “I make flan instead, okay?”
Joaquin is up and into the kitchen, the corner of the one-room apartment with the milk crates Ana stores food in, the unhappy yellow stove, the bar fridge she often keeps unplugged to save money. He throws the controller, which skitters across the linoleum until the moulded plastic hits Ana’s foot. The curtains at the far side, by the door, are drawn. The sun sets. Shadows stretch from the television to here. The room glows a dull orange.
“No fair,” Joaquin says. “You promised.”
“The cupcakes take so long. If they don’t work, think of the waste.”
“You’re always like this. I bet Jeanie would make them for me.”
If she weren’t inside on the carpet, Ana would spit. Jeanie. Puta. Hija de puta. Then, most insulting of all, gringa.
“No,” Ana resigns herself. “I’ll do it.”
Alone, Ana bakes while Joaquin’s video machine beeps and groans. She covers darkened patches with a paste made of milk and sugar. She waves old flyers at the smoke detector to shut off its whine. She stacks the cupcakes in a thin cardboard box, separating the layers with cuts of waxy paper. Joaquin spends his birthday eve asleep on the sofa, the box sitting next to him, ready to go in the morning.
But inside the box, surrounded by the elf-sized cakes, Ana puts a flan set into a red paper cup from the bathroom of the gas station three blocks north two blocks east. The flan sits silently in the centre. Not drawing attention.
I jiggled the box all the way to school so the cupcakes wouldn’t look too perfect. My plan worked because, in the yard, Marcus and Vincent laughed and called them Mexican dung beetles but then Miss McAllister heard them and they got detention on Wednesday which means they can’t play in the lacrosse finals so our team will probably lose. The whole school hates them right now. And Ma’s not even from Mexico so how ignorant can you get? But they’re so dumb they probably think the entire landmass from Juarez to Tierra del Fuego is Mexico. I’ve seen the marks they get on their geography quizzes. Marcus and Vincent are grade A geography idiots.
Miss McAllister opened the box and knew right away what I’d brought was homemade. She loves when we make things ourselves. She talks a lot about “rampant consumerism controlling our lives” and how we would all be “better if we rejected the system and learned how to survive on our own.” I told her I helped make the cupcakes, which I did, sort of. Without me, Ma would have backed out. Then Miss McAllister beamed at me and I couldn’t feel the floor under my sneakers and the room tilted sideways. I focused on blinking to stop from falling over.
Teachers aren’t supposed to have favourites, but I know I’m Miss McAllister’s favourite. I’m allowed to call her Jenny, but not during school hours. After the bell rings, I help her with the cleaning and prep work for the next class. If she gets behind in marking, she lets me enter the grades into the computer which is why I know Marcus and Vincent suck balls at geography.
“Joaquin has brought food to celebrate his birthday. His cumpleaños,” she says with her terrible accent. I won’t tell her though. Let her mangle all the Spanish she wants if it means we spend time together. “Homemade cupcakes, class. You see, you don’t need to go and spend money on cupcakes from an overpriced bakery downtown. You can make them yourself and they’re,” she took a bite, “as good.” Miss McAllister turned away as she swallowed. A few black crumbs dribbled down from the wrapper and I could hear a slight crunch as she chewed. “Interesting flavour.”
“I baked a traditional birthday flavour in my home country. The dryness means that there’ll be no tears in the upcoming year.” I smiled at Miss McAllister. She believed me.
“How interesting. Class, you should all be so lucky to have such an interesting cultural heritage as Joaquin. And what’s this?” She pulled up a Dixie cup.
I looked over as she held her hand down to me. “It’s the lucky flan,” I said quickly. “Whoever finds that has to give the birthday boy a hug for good luck in the upcoming year.”
Miss McAllister’s cheeks turned a slight pink. “Well Joaquin, I don’t think a hug works. How about a handshake?” She held out her hand and I took it. Her palm was moist, but smooth. I forgot to breathe, then started coughing.
“Please class,” Miss McAllister said over me, “everyone come get a cupcake.”
Stupid Ma. I always cover for her. All she had to do was buy a box of cake mix and follow the instructions and she couldn’t even do that right. Thank God I’m not a dolt like Vincent or Marcus otherwise I’d be up there with my mouth hanging open, staring at a stack of burnt cupcakes and that dumb flan Ma hid in the box.
When Frank and I met, I had no idea he was married. When I found out I said no sir, uh uh, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. But he kept at me, and with Frank, you have to forgive him. Now we’ve been living together almost three years. Yes, he’s still married, but if he gets divorced, there could be immigration issues for Ana, maybe Joaquin too. I’m not heartless. I love Frank and Joaquin and the ring on Frank’s finger keeping him tied to Ana in name only is what I’ve learned to live with in order to keep them in my life. I’m not asking for more.
“Make sure you come home early,” I reminded Frank. “I told Joaquin to come here after school. Today’s his birthday.”
Frank made that noise he does when he’s heard me but hasn’t really heard me. I went over and put my arms around his neck just a tiny bit too tight.
“You heard me Frankie?” I asked. “Come home early. I’m getting a dessert from the grocery. I’ll buy some presents. What do you think Joaquin would like?”
“He’s a boy. He doesn’t like nothing.”
“He must like something.”
“He’s a man now. Dirty magazine?”
“Frankie!” I play-slapped him. “He’s eleven.”
“By the time I was eleven, I had sex with fifty women. They came for miles around to taste what Francisco de Gaspar Alvarez had to offer.” He kissed me, tickling my lips with his moustache. “My best work was with the Sisters of my village. I was known as the great nun deflowerer. Then the priest came and begged me to stop. The sisters would no longer tolerate his small pinches on their bottoms, stolen kisses in the confession after they spend one evening with me. The poor priest was ready to burst.” Frank grabbed his crotch.
“Stop it,” I told him. Frankie makes up all these silly stories about village life but I know he grew up in a nice house in a city with servants and a driver. I mean, Frankie has class that comes from growing up rich.
“I’ll be home early, I promise,” he said.
I bought presents on my lunch hour. Games for the Wii Joaquin keeps at his mother’s house, a new hoodie, gift certificates for the fast food places around his school. I had twenty minutes before I had to be back at my desk, so instead of the Food City, I drove to one of those snazzy bakeries that look like they should be on the TV. All those cupcake flavours and me, being boring, chose chocolate because my boys love their chocolate. I wonder if food preferences are genetic, like me and Frank’s child, will he like chocolate as much as Frank and Joaquin do? Before Frank left this morning, I asked when we’re going to have a kid, a real, live, one hundred percent American kid.
“Joaquin not American enough for you?” he asked.
“You know what I mean. I want us to have our own baby.”
But he slammed the door hard on the way out. Joaquin should be here any minute and Frankie still hasn’t come home.
Frank waits on a bench for Ana to come home. Four buses pass in the opposite direction before one releases Ana, who walks firmly up the outside staircase to the second floor of her building. Frank springs to his feet before Ana gets to the top, waiting for a break in traffic. The neighbourhood is busier than when he lived here. Grimier too. Ana and Joaquin should move some place safer.
The tap comes as soon as Ana slips off her shoes and hangs her purse over the doorknob. She checks in the gloom: Joaquin has already fallen asleep on the couch. She latches the door shut, then opens it a fraction. She closes it, undoes the latch, and lets Frank in.
“Good evening to you,” he says formally.
“Good evening,” Ana replies.
“Our boy grows up,” Frank says. He looks over at Joaquin. “Did you buy him that sweatshirt?” The yellow fabric sallows Joaquin’s skin. He looks ill in the half-light. Joaquin should wear shirts that button with collars and pants with pressed seams. Frank doesn’t need Joaquin looking like a bum.
Ana shakes her head.
Frank follows her further into the room, then sits at the table as if he belonged there after a long day of working. Ana goes to the fridge and takes out two cups of flan. They sit and eat and watch their son Joaquin sleep. When Frank reaches over for Ana’s hand, this is the first time in a long time that she doesn’t pull away.
Then she does. After a count of eight beats, Ana takes her hand back and tells Frank to get out of her house and go back to his novia’s. The door locks with a click behind him as he shuffles quickly back down the stairs.