My eyes go straight to the money on the table. Right there, in the kitchen, a couple centimeters from the fruit bowl and the huge cookie jar. My sister’s kids are watching TV.
Caro looks me up and down. This is not my best day. Not by a long shot. I overslept, I didn’t have time to put on makeup, and it’s possible that my clothes smell.
For weeks I had insisted that it was uncalled for. (“Caro, these are your kids.”) But she wouldn’t budge. (“Okay, Marce, but that doesn’t mean you have to watch them.”) And look at me: the Disaster Aunt.
My protests were meaningless.
Now Caro shuts the front door harder than necessary. And I’m alone with her kids.
Supposedly, I started job-hunting months ago. But the market is supposed to be tough right now, which means people like me are supposed to be patient. Also—this is the biggest supposed—I supposedly left my old job because I wanted to.
That, at least, is the story I tell. My old boss hit on me (or rather, kept hitting on me), and so my unemployment is less a crisis than a choice to be proud of. Almost proud. Crisis is a funny word in Spanish: the same in singular and plural. So to Caro, her baby sister was going through a crisis, but to me, that little word hid hundreds of bad calls.
I was never good with money. I always struggled to make myself save or invest. When we were little, Caro tucked her allowance into a clay piggy bank, where it waited to go multiply in a savings account. My poor pesos, meanwhile, became pencils and ice cream (later, coffee and books). My dad used to say, A penny saved is a penny earned (and I would silently finish, And a penny spent is wasted). I was ashamed to admit how fast my paychecks vanished, and even more ashamed to ask for loans. I spent my life submerged in debt: paying the minimum on department-store credit cards, getting as little food as I could on each supermarket trip. On my friends’ birthdays, I came down with colds. I learned to cut my hair at home.
When I got the retail job, I thought I would finally balance myself out. The pay was good (well, ‘good’ compared to unreliable dissertation-editing jobs that paid late and badly) and the store was near home (which meant saving on bus and metro fares).
The kids were ignoring me, playing some game. I no longer expect them to notice me. It’s not like they misbehave. If one is coloring, I never have to worry about crayon on the walls; at bedtime, all three clean up their toys while my phone buzzes with more and more texts from He Who Must Not Be Named. (Must Not because no one in my life will let me keep talking about him. Must Not, also, because even saying his name makes my heart swell like a wasp stung it.)
I never learned how to pick men. I always choose ones who worship me for five minutes, or else bore me for three years. No middle ground.
Someday I should figure that out.
My niece, Sofía, is modeling princess dresses in front of the mirror. She asks whether she looks pretty, and I swear she’s the prettiest girl in the world.
Caro went to a friend’s wedding and won’t get back till late. She left pots of spaghetti and sauce on the stove, plus cash in case the kids want pizza. She’s got every kind of candy imaginable—candy my niece and nephew barely touch. Caro and her perfect fucking kids. Meanwhile, I already opened two boxes of cookies and ate half of each, and I’m drinking Coke from the bottle. No glass. Too lazy to wash one.
Slowly, I started to take things. Nothing big, just damaged clothes I thought no one would miss. I closed alone three times a week, so it was easy to slip some socks in my bag, or a skirt, or a few pairs of underwear. I’d learned where all the security cameras were, and figured out how to disguise my stealing as a quick reorganization of the stock room, or a last-minute straightening of the clearance racks. Also, I was thin, so the clothes all looked good on me, or at least fit me right. Not like Caro, who never managed to lose her baby weight. Today she asked me to zip her into her dress, which embarrassed her, though she wouldn’t admit it. The zipper wouldn’t budge till she held her breath.
Tomás reads quietly in a corner, tracking his progress with a finger. He never stops reading. He barely talks to me unless he wants food. Eduardo, the baby, wobbles around the room. He’s new to walking, which means his days are now big explorations. Occasionally I glance over to check if he’s falling down or putting some choking hazard in his mouth. He knows how to say Mommy, coo-coo (for birds), and no, no, no, which he half-sings, wagging his finger from side to side in a ridiculous little gesture.
I wonder if he’s going to say Daddy. If, someday, the finger he’s stabbing at the TV screen will point instead at a picture of José, smiling cluelessly at him from the past. I have no idea why my sister hasn’t taken the photos of him down. It’s been six months already. The whole family knows he’s not coming back. But no one’s brave enough to ask. In our family, questions are rude. Questions point to unknowns and problems—and Caro has decided to live as if she has neither. As far as her kids know, their dad is on an eternal business trip. He’s traveled for work before. To them, what’s the difference between a one-month absence and a six-month one?
José never gave an explanation. He went to the office and never came back. When Caro called, the secretary told her Mr. Toledo had quit a month before. Then, softly, she added, We miss him. And Caro’s world fell apart, to use the common phrase. The truth is that her world slipped to the floor and shattered like china, smashing into tiny shards no one could dream of reassembling. No matter how hard Caro tries to fix it, there will always be a hole here, a chip there. That’s her world now: full of cracks.
No one had heard from José. His brother, who he barely talked to and who had lived in Patagonia for years, told Caro he’d gone on a trip. When she asked where, he just said, “Far.”
When I got home that night, my sister was waiting at my building’s front door. She burst into tears in the elevator and told me, between sobs, what had happened. Once we got inside my apartment, I told her I’d quit my job, and, thanks to some fried circuit in her brain, she managed to mix the two stories, like some shared fate: We’re going to come out of this stronger, you’ll see.
The next day, I started babysitting her kids.
And she refused not to pay.
The first weeks were fine. She needed childcare—her hospital hours were long and irregular, and her nanny had gone back to Peru. I needed to fill both my wallet and my days. We really were all smiles at first. The kids didn’t ask questions and seemed delighted to have their aunt around (their fun aunt, the one who could draw Hello Kitty plus every single superhero, and who always let them stay up late). Sofía, who loved having me braid her hair and do her makeup, was happiest of all. One day Caro got home early. We all drifted to the table, and the kids—totally unplanned, and meaning no harm—started asking their mom to invite me to move in.
Sofia suppressed a sigh. “Till Dad’s back.”
Caro smiled, but I saw the look in her eyes. Until that moment, she had been concentrating on her pieced-together vase. Now her vision sharpened. She saw the cracks. And what she said then was brutal enough to startle us all: “That would be too expensive, guys. Your aunt charges by the hour.”
Yes, she said it with a laugh. Yes, the kids barely noticed, and kept playing as if nothing had changed. But now I was the one with the cracked vase. And after that, the cash she left each morning burned my hands.
Caro began giving instructions: cook this or that for dinner, remember to give Tomás his snack, go get my dress from the cleaner. She’d always end her notes, which she left on the kitchen counter, with a LOVE YOU! —always in caps, always with the one exclamation point—but I had stopped believing her.
I started to take things. From Caro’s house, this time. Nothing that seemed important, or like she’d miss it. A yogurt, some cookies. Later, a pencil lying on a desk; a pair of her socks. I even ventured into José’s closet. At first all I did was open the door and turn on the lights. Then I looked through his suits, his underwear drawer, his pajamas, his ties. I found the Father’s Day cards the kids drew him, which he’d relegated to the bottom drawer where he kept old T-shirts and clothes he no longer wore. It all smelled clean, in a confined way. I could hear the TV in the family room. Tomás and Sofía had it on while Eduardo napped in his bedroom. The world was quiet. I ran my hands over the shirts, lingering on the buttons. I searched his coat pockets for clues. Maybe I’d find a receipt, or a strange object, or some other sign. But no. I slid my small feet inside his enormous shoes. When Sofía began calling for me—she’d seen, or thought she’d seen, a hummingbird out the window—I quickly grabbed some of my brother-in-law’s cufflinks, which I started carrying at all times, spinning them in my pockets when I was nervous or bored. They became a familiar weight, an amulet. I promised myself I’d return them in a week. Then two weeks went by. A month. Four.
I rejoin the kids and sit next to Sofía. She has a notebook on her lap so she can color while watching a sponge flip hamburgers on TV. She asks if I can draw him. I take a blank sheet and black marker, then turn to the screen. The resulting sketch isn’t great, but she still claps, thrilled. Eduardo leans his little head on my arm, soaking me in drool. Tomás keeps reading, never even glancing at me.
“Are you tired?” I ask.
All three bug their eyes out.
“We have to go to bed?” Tomás asks, marking his spot in the book with his finger. “Now?”
I can tell he has only a few pages left, and that he’s loving the book. Preventing him from finishing it would be a terrible move. The clock says 11:00 PM. Caro would be furious if she saw her kids. But Caro’s not home yet. And I’m the Fun Aunt, beloved by her niece and nephews, the spring of eternal happiness.
“No,” I say. “We can stay here a while longer.”
Tomás smiles. Sofía starts coloring my SpongeBob in. Eduardo sets off to explore new corners of the family room.
Suddenly I hear my phone. One chirp, meaning a text (from You-Know-Who, asking, Can we talk? I know what that means. I imagine a casino, a few too many drinks, a whole week’s pay lost down the slot machines. Next will come I think I love you, and then Could you loan me some money? If I say, “Now? Right this second?” he’ll write back, You know fuck-ups like us have to stick together.)
“Who’s that?” Sofía asks (as my dumb heart does a flip, then tries to calculate how much I could scrape up to lend. Because who knows? Maybe this is the last time. Maybe, maybe, maybe).
“A monster,” I say.
Sofía’s mouth hangs open for a moment. “A monster who’s coming to get you? Here?”
Her interpretation makes me smile. “No, Sofi. This monster’s just on the phone.”
“Like Dad,” Tomás mutters through his teeth.
Now Sofi and I both sit with our mouths wide open.
“What was that?” I ask, doing my best to act normal, as if he’d mentioned some casual detail of his day, pointed out a piece of the vase that was firmly glued in place.
Tomás doesn’t look up from his book. Under his breath, he says, “Sometimes he calls.”
My next question should be, Where the hell is he calling from? But the kids think their dad is on a business trip. We all know where he is, so there’s nothing to ask about.
“So how is he?” I ask.
“Tired. So tired he never wants to talk to anyone. If Mom even answers the phone, he hangs up,” Tomás says. “And it’s a secret, anyway. I’m not supposed to tell.”
Sofía’s attention has returned to the cartoons. Eduardo yawns on the floor pillows. It’s almost midnight. Tomás looks at me. He keeps scratching one of his shoulders insistently. Quietly, he says, “I don’t think he’s going to come back.”
In my head, I say, Neither do I. In real life, all I do is stroke his head as I walk past him. I don’t want to ask more questions. Let Caro deal with him. Caro and her silences, her half-truths. I lie down in José’s closet, eye level with his beautifully shined shoes. I look up at his pants, his jackets, his white ceiling. My phone buzzes again (Please answer. I really need you) and again, the second time with a text from my sister (All good?, and a smiley face). I tell Caro yes, all good (with a smiley face of my own). She promises the wedding is ending, and she’s heading home soon. I take my shoes off and wriggle my toes on the soft carpet, which feels nice. The house’s sounds are muffled. It occurs to me that I know nothing about José. We never talked, really, except chatting about movies or praising a good meal (that he cooked). When he vanished, I wasn’t surprised. Possibly nothing could surprise me by then. And what should he have done, hang around and explain? Maybe if you want to leave, this is the way to do it: go, and let other people explain. Caro thinks she’s doing a good job, but I have doubts. The questions will come. She’s going to have to sit her kids down and tell them José is gone now. He’s not coming back. He was a good father. He loved them very much.
I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes. I know she’s hoping time will bring him back, which would save her from explanations. (“We got married so young, Marce. Maybe he needs time to think. Maybe he needed to get away from things for a bit,” she says sometimes, but she always looks at the floor while she tries to convince me, and she only does it after too many drinks.)
Sofía peers through the doorway at me, eyes heavy with sleep. She’s still got energy. She says she wants to cook. To make a magic potion. I haul myself upright and look at her. She doesn’t think it’s strange to find me lying on the floor. To me, nothing is strange. I accompany her to the kitchen, where Eduardo is waiting for us, leaning precariously on a chair.
“What do we need?” I ask.
“Eggs,” she tells me. “Flour. Milk. Chocolate.” I obey without question, opening drawers and cupboards as Sofía continues her list. “Salt. Sugar. Orange juice.”
I open the fridge, get out spoons and utensils as Eduardo watches, enthralled. Sofía sits on the kitchen floor, singing a made-up song while she stirs. The mixture starts turning impossible colors, viscous textures. Eduardo claps, then falls on his bottom. He doesn’t cry, just keeps watching.
“If my mom runs out of money,” Sofía asks without warning, “will you stop coming?”
“Oh, Sofi, it’s not like that. I’m always going to be here.”
My phone buzzes again (Are you there? It’s urgent). I turn it off and return it to my pocket, defanged. When I look up, Sofi is perched by the cookie jar, grinning, clutching something in her hand.
Money. My money.
“What are you doing?” I rush the words out, as if that could stop her. “Leave that alone.”
I keep my voice calm. I get myself to give her a reassuring smile, to remind her that this is her favorite aunt talking, the spring of happiness, and that all is still well. But it’s too late. The bills are already dancing in the air. As they fall to the counter, Sofía collects them, covering them with flour and egg white, then crumples them in her sticky little hands.
“Sofi! Those aren’t toys.” No more Fun Aunt now. I sound like a shrieking harpy. Eduardo bursts into tragic sobs, and I scoop him into my arms, letting his wet cheek rest on mine.
Tomás hurries into the room, and I close my eyes, begging my sister to leave the wedding and come home. I need her to walk through the front door and set the world spinning again.
To let me leave the house and turn my phone on.
But nothing happens. And when I open my eyes, Sofi is already shredding the bills into tiny pieces: the last ingredient to go in her magic brew.