I keep sneezing. My throat, my eyes, my face itches. How am I going to look when I get there? The cold and the rain hasn’t washed all the dust and pollens out of the air yet. The blooming trees might kill me one day, I think.
I’m sure at this moment, Maria, my cleaning lady, is working in the bathroom, Jesus, her son, dusting the living-room. When I left she was crying of happiness, but she looked so miserable this morning.
Even if I was in a rush to get ready on time, still I caught her absent gaze at my Christmas poinsettias. The flowers were dying, but strangely she didn’t care. She didn’t water the plant. Not even complained about my lack of attention.
“Are you ok Maria?” I asked, knowing something was definitely wrong with her. Was it her Diabetes or her back pain? I wondered.
I approached her. Since she had colored her hair platinum, nobody would have believed that she was actually 5 years younger than me. But today, she looked as if she could be my mother, I thought.
“Are you sick?” I asked louder. She was still out of reach, in that world between dream and reality. “You don’t have to work if you feel sick,” I said. “The house is a real mess, but it can wait until Monday, if it’s ok for you.”
Maria finally looked at me, her eyes filled with tears. She usually doesn’t like to speak English, but this time, my little offer threw her into a long monologue. Incomprehensible sometimes, but still clear. “It’s my oldest daughter,” she said. “She took the twins away from me. Her boyfriend wants me to let them use my truck, but I don’t trust him. He drinks. Does drugs. He hits the girls. Even the boy. He no job. No money. My daughter no job. She’s lazy. Boyfriend hit her too. I don’t want him to touch the girls like my step father. I can’t let.” She broke in sobs.
I was speechless. “Why don’t you go to the police?” I asked.
She wept and wept.
I patted her back. My head ached. A chill ran up and down my spine. I had seen the twins with her. They had come with their grandmother to clean the house. What was going to be their future? I wondered.
Maria sniffled and wiped her eyes. “I can’t,” she says. “My papers. I can’t report her. I’ve got problems with police. I can’t pay the lawyer. $2000 just for him to go to court.”
I remembered my father telling me that the money doesn’t bring happiness. I hugged Maria. “What can I do for you?” I asked, thinking that maybe my father was wrong.
Maria had told me how she had escaped her home at 13 and since then, she hadn’t stopped working. Always illegal. Some days, she cleaned two houses and an office at night. She always looked tired, in pain here or there. “My own house is a mess,” she liked to say. “I close my eyes and walk over the mess to get to my room.” She would smile remembering this story she never stopped telling.
I wonder whether it has been the happiest times of Maria’s life, when she lived with her daughter and her grandkids, all of them in a two-bedroom messy apartment.
“Now she lives in a one-bedroom,” Maria said. “Even kids sleep there. Twins tell me how the boyfriend look at them.” She sobbed. “My grandkids want to live with me. They’re scared.”
“Stop saying more,” I said.
She wept more and held me tighter.
“I can give you the money,” I said. “You can pay me back later.” I knew she couldn’t pay me back anytime soon.
Maria, startled, stepped back and looked at me with eyes wide open. “Thank you,” she whispered. “How can I thank you?”
I shook my head and grabbed my purse. She didn’t need to thank me. I had to thank her to make me feel so great this morning. I turned my head, pretending to search for my checkbook. I wanted to cry too.
While I was writing the check, I could hear her whispering, “Thank god, thank god.”
I gave her the check. “I don’t believe in god, you know,” I said. “We don’t need god to tell us what’s good or bad.”
Maria glanced at Jesus, and I instantly regretted what I had just said. Couldn’t I just shut my mouth? I thought.
“We like to go to church,” Maria said, rubbing her hands. “But we don’t go anymore. Don’t have time.”
I hugged her again. “Now, I better hurry to get to my job interview,” I said and walked away.
“Good luck,” she whispered and blushed. “I feel bad. You lost your job for months now.”
“Don’t worry,” I said and left the house. I still could hear her thanking me.
This year the Valentine had gotten to me earlier, just a day earlier on Friday the 13th., I thought.
Walking toward my car, the wind froze my breath and I started sneezing. “God damn allergy,” I said, and wrapped myself in my warm shawl.
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