shelter in place



“Abuelita!” Yanneth’s voice rang from inside the house, lifting Saraí’s spirits. She could feel her fear, which clung to her throughout the eerie bus ride, dissipate. “Yanneth!” She called back. “I’m here!”

Yanneth, tall and long-limbed, rushed to the door and to her grandmother’s arms. Saraí noticed that her once-gangly granddaughter moved more gracefully now, though she was still as spirited and buoyant as she had been in her younger years. “How was your ride, abuelita?” she asked.

“Pretty scary,” admitted Saraí. “The buses are completely empty and it feels like a ghost town.”

“Well, now you can stay with us,” reassured Yanneth. “Maris and I are pretty busy with school online, but we can hang out all the time. And will you teach us how to cook? Mom can’t cook to save her life.”

Rocío peeked into the hallway. “No, I can’t,” she said with just a faint smile. “I’m too busy intubating people to make sure there’s gourmet food on the table here. You’re welcome.” She seemed tired, wearing the sweatpants she favored at home after changing from her scrubs. “Come in, Mami. Maris is going to share her room with Yanneth, so you can have some space.”

“Are you sure this isn’t too much?” asked Saraí. “I know your work is very busy.” Rocío waved her hand, as if Saraí’s words were a pesky fly. “Will do us all good. I’m in and out at all hours, the girls are alone at home most of the day, and it’ll be better if you’re here.”

“Where’s Maris?” asked Saraí. “Has she had a chance to ride at all?” Maris had been an avid bicyclist, but maybe her teenage years dampened her enthusiasm. “Yeah, she goes at night,” said Yanneth. “She doesn’t like the traffic.”

“Riding at night with low visibility,” said Rocío. “As if I don’t have enough to worry about.”

Maris emerged from her room. “Are you guys talking about me?” she said. “Yeah, I ride at night just so that mom has to worry about me.” She opened the refrigerator and took out a large carton of orange juice. “Abuelita, do you want some?” she asked.

Saraí appreciated the gesture. She was not a regular guest at Rocío’s home. “Yes, thank you, mija,” she said. “So how’s school online?”

“It sucks,” Maris summarized pithily.

“Some teachers are better than others,” said Yanneth. “I really like Miss Ortega. She sends us awesome videos to watch and does all this small group work on Zoom.”

“Speaking of which…” said her mother, motioning with her head toward the girls’ rooms.

“Yeah, I should get back into it,” said Yanneth and skipped toward her room.

“God only knows what she does in there,” said Rocío. “Both of them. Online all day, and I don’t think it’s schoolwork. I’m so tired, Mami, I don’t have the energy to check on them.”

“Don’t you worry?” asked Saraí.

“Worry about what?” retorted Rocío.

“I don’t know,” said Saraí. “Bad people online. I hear things. You know, Maribel told me—”

“Maribel should keep her mouth shut,” said Rocío. “She’s always freaking you out over nothing.”

But it’s not over nothing, thought Saraí. She pursed her mouth, then took a breath. “How’s work?”

“Absolutely horrible,” said Rocío. “All the patients come in with the same diagnosis. And you know what, I don’t trust the masks. That’s what scares me, that I’ll get it and then I won’t be able to work, and what will happen to the girls.”

“That’s horrible,” Saraí agreed. She offered to make dinner before Rocío’s night shift. Rocío eyed her kitchen with apprehension, then nodded. Saraí opened the refrigerator. Rocío had gone shopping for basics, which was good; not a lot to use for a hot meal, but some sandwiches, perhaps.

“Look in the freezer,” said Rocío. “I got some things the girls can reheat when I’m not here. It’s not that bad.”

Saraí remained quiet. Rocío said, “I know what you’re thinking. But I can be a good mother without cooking here every night.”

“That’s not what I was thinking at all,” said Saraí. “I’m very proud of you.” Everything between them was so prickly. David’s mother once lent her a book called You’re Wearing That? by a linguist. Saraí usually preferred reading in Spanish, but for that book she made an exception. I could’ve written that book about Rocío and me, she thought.

Anyway, who was she to judge? She cooked for her kids every day and it wasn’t enough to keep Chris home, safe.

She must have allowed a pained expression to cross her face, because Rocío said, “I’m sorry, Mami. Let’s let it go.”

Saraí nodded.

Dinner was served and the girls emerged from their laptops. Yanneth ate voraciously and asked questions about recipes; Maris played with her food a bit, lost in thought. Rocío got up from the dinner table, heading to the closet to get clean scrubs and pack an overnight bag. Maris helped Saraí take her bag to Yanneth’s room.

Rocío departed with a few requests from the girls—“and don’t let your abuela do this for you”—and kisses on their foreheads. Saraí sat in Yanneth’s room, lost in thought.

She missed Chris. Even toward the end, when he was defiant, opting more and more for whatever life he was living, she felt a warm connection to him that was harder with Rocío; she loved them both, but Chris was more like her and easier for her to understand. Rocío was a bit more like Alejandro—taciturn, efficient, attentive to her own counsel. Chris couldn’t help but reveal his innermost concerns, even when he tried to cover his new, secretive life. Ah, what she would give—but this was sending her down the pattern that the grief counselor said so many time was treading water. Accept, accept, accept. Chris is gone, gone, gone. The familiar pain returned, like a heavy stone sinking into a deep vat of water. Gone, gone, gone.

“Abuelita,” said Yanneth, “what’s up? You’re so quiet.”

“Just thinking,” said Saraí.

“About Uncle Chris?” asked Yanneth. This surprised Saraí. She could not imagine Rocío talking about Chris with the girls.

“I sometimes get a little bit sad,” said Saraí. She could tell that her honesty touched the girl. “Now, what would you girls like to do?”

“Let’s watch something together,” Maris suggested. They ushered Saraí to the couch, each girl sitting on her side, and brought Maris’s laptop. They quickly settled on something—some new sacchariny tale of high school and boys—and clicked on the title. Save for passing commentary about outfits or the music, they were engrossed in the movie. Saraí allowed her thoughts to ramble through her mind, cloudlike. It was good to be around the girls; she felt better being with other people, with young people. She had lost their uncle when he was not much older than than his nieces were now. She allowed her sorrow to soften, breathing the scent of the girls’ shampoo and letting her memories come and go.

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