Carmela nervously clutched the burlap bag that held her other dress, some water, and the small package of food she had been able to save for the trip north, across the border. Orlando had told her that they wouldn’t be able to stop, for food or water or anything, until they reached Los Angeles. She was locked in the back of an old truck that bounced and swayed, throwing her from side to side if she didn’t manage to wedge herself into a corner and brace her back and legs in the small V, making sleep impossible because the moment she relaxed, she was sent tumbling across the rough wood bed of the truck.
Carmela was terrified, but determined. Enrique had gone across two years before, and he’d said he would send for her. Instead he had married an American, so he could never be deported, and she had been left with her dreams destroyed and her pride in shreds. There was nothing left for her in Mexico; if Enrique could marry an American, then so could she! And she would marry a rich one. She was very pretty; everyone said so. When she married her rich norteamericano, she would find Enrique and thumb her nose at him, and he would be sorry he had lied and betrayed her.
She had big dreams, but she felt very small, bouncing around in the back of the truck as it charged across uneven ground. She heard grinding metal as Orlando changed gears, and a soft exclamation of pain as one of the other girls banged into the side of the truck. There were three others, all young like her, all wanting something better than what they had left behind in Mexico. They hadn’t exchanged names, hadn’t talked much at all. They were too preoccupied with the danger of what they were doing, and both sad and excited: sad at what they were leaving behind, and excited at the prospect of a better life. Anything had to be better than nothing, and nothing was what Carmela had.
She thought about her mother, dead for seven months, worn out by a lifetime of hard work and having babies. “Never let Enrique touch you between your legs,” her mother had lectured, time and again. “Not until you are his wife. If you do, then he won’t marry you, and you’ll be left with a baby while he finds another pretty girl.” Well, she hadn’t let Enrique touch her between the legs, but he had found another girl anyway. At least she hadn’t been left with a baby.
She had understood what her mother meant, though: Don’t be like me. Her mother had wanted Carmela to have more than she’d had. She hadn’t wanted her to grow old before her time, forever laden with a baby in her arms and another in the womb, and dying before the age of forty.
Carmela was seventeen. By the time her mother had been seventeen, she’d already had two babies. Enrique had never understood Carmela’s insistence on remaining a virgin; he’d been, by turns, angry and sullen at her steadfast refusal to let him make love to her. Perhaps the woman he had married had let him do that to her. If that was all he wanted, then he had never truly loved her at all, Carmela thought. Good riddance! She wasn’t going to waste her life mourning a . . . a fool!
She tried to keep her spirits up by telling herself everything would be better in America; everyone said that in Los Angeles there were more jobs than there were people, that everyone had a car, and a television. She might even be in the movies, and become famous. Everyone said she was pretty, so perhaps it was possible. The fact, however, was that she was seventeen and alone, and she was frightened.
One of the other girls said something, her voice drowned out by the laboring engine, but the tension came through. In that moment, Carmela realized the other three were as frightened as she. So she wasn’t alone, after all; the other three were just like her. It was a small thing, but she immediately felt braver.
Bracing herself against the lurching as the vehicle bounced from one rut to the next, she scooted across the rough wood of the truck bed until she was close enough to hear what the girl had said. It was daylight now, and enough light seeped through the cracks that she could make out the faces of the others. “What is it?” she asked.
The girl twisted her hands in the worn fabric of her skirt. “I have to relieve myself,” she said, her voice thin with shame.
“We all do,” Carmela said in sympathy. Her own bladder was full to the point of pain. She had been ignoring it as best she could, unwilling to do what she knew they would eventually be forced to do.
Tears rolled down the girl’s face. “I must.”
Carmela looked around, but the other two seemed as helpless as the weeping girl. “Then we will do what we must do,” she said, because she seemed to be the only one capable of making a decision. “We will designate a corner . . . that one.” She pointed at the right rear corner. “There is a crack there, so it will drain. We will each relieve ourselves.”
The girl wiped her face. “What about the other?”
“I hope we stop before then.” Now that the sun was up, the heat inside the truck would climb steadily. It was summer; if Orlando didn’t stop and let them out, they might well die from the heat. He had said they wouldn’t stop until they reached their destination, so surely they would be in Los Angeles soon. She had paid Orlando only half of his usual fee; if she died, he wouldn’t be able to collect the other half. Normally everyone had to pay in full before the coyote would take them across the border, but because she was so pretty, Orlando said, he would make an exception.
The other girls were pretty, too, she realized. Perhaps he had made an exception for all of them.
Relieving themselves was a group effort, because of the bouncing of the truck, and Carmela organized that effort. In turn, with herself going last, each squatted in the corner while the others wedged themselves around her to hold her upright. At last, feeling exhausted but much better, they sank down on the truck bed to rest.