She heard the door slam and flinched. By now, she’d learned to deal with Raul’s outbursts, but they were never pleasant. She’d much rather be doing anything else than babying her younger brother, even washing his dirty laundry. She wrinkled her nose at the thought and braced for the impact of his attitude.
“Why does this always happen to me?”
“What happened?” Raina asked, tensing slightly in case he decided to direct his anger at her. Again.
“They turned down my scholarship request again.”
“They said I didn’t have my grades up high enough yet. I can only retake two more classes before they cut me off. After that, it will all be over.”
“Well, what can we do to make sure you don’t fail those two classes again? How can we make things better.” What she’d really meant to say was how can you make sure you don’t fail, but she knew that would just make him more volatile.
“I’ve already done everything the admissions counselor told me. I work hard, study harder, don’t go out with my friends and make sure I study for every test. And I still fail.” He did do all those things. She had a sudden thought.
“Maybe you need to go out with your friends.”
“Maybe you need a break from all the studying. Maybe it’s clogging your brain so much that you can’t get the test answers right.” She won a smile from her brother and sighed. “You should go out tonight. You’ll have a clearer head and you’ll be able to focus better.” He walked over to where she stood in the kitchen and hugged her. Sweet Raul was back. For now.
“Thanks, sis. I’ll go get changed and get the guys together. We’ll go to Clementine’s to shoot some darts, play some pool, and then I’ll be home.”
“All right, I’ll hold you to that. Don’t stay out too late. I’ll be here when you get back.” She waited until she heard him stomping up the stairs, and then she let out a sigh and allowed her shoulders to droop. “He needs to get a grip on himself and not ruin this. My life is affected by his choices, but he doesn’t seem to care.” She finished stirring the sauce for her enchiladas, poured it over the pan, and put everything in the oven. She’d at least feed him before she let him leave. If they ate fast, she’d have enough time to clean everything up before Mr. Smith’s children got here. She watched them Monday through Friday from 6 until 11 while their father worked a night shift at the convenience store down the road. He’d fallen on hard times, so she was happy to give him a discount on childcare. But she also needed the money, which is why Raul getting this scholarship was so important. He worked hard, just like she did, but she’d encouraged him to cut his hours at the chicken plant so that he could study more. Which meant less income. Which meant he had to get that scholarship so he could play college soccer and get most of his expenses paid for. Which would, in turn, take a huge weight off of Raina.
When Raul came back downstairs, his hair slick from the shower, he was angry again, Raina could tell. He stomped around and pushed things out of his way that, truthfully, weren’t even in his way at all. He slammed his calculus book on the kitchen table and started flipping through it, pulling out his calculator and notebook to start his homework. Their house was small: two bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room and a “laundry room” that was really just a washer and dryer tucked away in their already tight kitchen. Yes, their house was small, but surely Raul could study anywhere else.
“What’s wrong now?” Raina asked, letting her irritation show for once. She bit her tongue, knowing she’d regret it. He looked up at her, anger growing in his expression.
“Chico and Matt can’t hang tonight, so I’m stuck with Tom and Grouper.”
“What’s wrong with Tom and Grouper?” She’d known all of Raul’s friends since they were ten year old boys.
“They’re just…they just don’t get it. They’re not trying to get by on a scholarship like Chico and Matt. It’s different for them.” Her heart softened along with her expression. She knew exactly how he felt. When your friends didn’t understand your struggles, it became difficult to have conversations you would normally be able to have.
“I know it’s not the same, but they’re still your friends. They care about you and they want to see you. Whenever I see them at the convenience store they ask how you’re doing and when they can come by.”
“Whatever. It’s not the same.”
“I know that, Raul. We have the same struggles. My friends didn’t always understand what I was going through either, and that was really hard on me. Can you please just fix your attitude and think that maybe you should be nicer to your only sister?”
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry.” He did look sorry, but Raina wasn’t too convinced. Once her enchiladas were ready, she pulled them from the oven and served them over rice. She made Raul a plate and ate with him as he continued doing his Calculus homework between bites of food. Once he was finished eating, he cleared his plate and picked up his books and calculator. He stomped up the stairs to his room and came back as Raina was washing the dishes.
“All right, I’m out of here. I want to leave before those brats come over.” She dropped the dish she was washing back into the water, turned around and glared at him.
“They’re not brats, Raul. They’re good kids and their father helps to pay our bills. I need all the help I can get, so yes, please leave before the brats get here and annoy you with their passive expressions and heartbroken faces. They miss their mother and somehow, they seem better when they’re here with me. Me watching them helps us to live a decent life. I’m doing something nice for their father while you go out all night.”
“You told me to go!” He yelled, his face turning beet red.
“Yes, because I want you to have a life! But I also want you to recognize what I’m doing so you can have a life.”
“Don’t play the victim, Raina, you have a life too!” She felt the rage building up insider her at her brother’s constant hot and cold attitude and his audacity to overlook everything she’d sacrificed. She felt like yelling, so for once, she did just that.
“Yes, you’re right, I do! I get up and go to the convenience store to work from 6am to 12. Then I go over to the school from 1-4 and tutor the ESL kids who can’t speak Ingles. I come home, make dinner, clean it up and then watch Mr. Smith’s kids from 6 to 8:30, when they finally go to sleep. After that, I wash laundry and clean whatever I didn’t get to earlier. Then I finally get the kids into Mr. Smith’s car at 11 at night and then go to bed, exhausted from my day yet somehow determined to get up and do it again. And for what? For you, Raul! I do all these things for you! I exhaust myself for you!”
“Then don’t. Just quit, Raina. Just throw up your hands and quit.” He yelled as he threw up his hands. She knew he was mocking her, but she still couldn’t help trying to make him understand.
“I can’t Raul. I’ve raised you since you were 14. I can’t just turn off the need to provide for you and to make sure you have a better life.”
“Here we go again!” Just like that, her ire was kindled again. Maybe they were both hot and cold all the time, though she tried not to be. Her voice rose as she said,
“Yes! Yes! ¡Claro que sí, here we go again! I didn’t get to go to college because there was no money and I had no opportunity for a scholarship back then. And then Mamá y Papá…the accident happened and then there was just you and I…you were all I had left and I…” Her voice got softer as she trailed off and she was surprised he could still hear what she said. His expression softened at the mention of their parents.
“I know. I know that. Lo siento, Raina. I’m sorry.” He raised his hands, palms up in surrender. He grabbed his jacket and the keys to their shared car and walked out looking quite remorseful. She closed her eyes and let the tears fall. How could he not see? How could he not know how much she’d given up for him? Her dreams, her chance at a job she actually enjoyed that paid well. She enjoyed some aspects of the jobs she had now, but still. If she could have only gone to school, she could be nurse now. She’d be happier, now, more secure and less filled with worry over who would pay the bills.
A few moments later she heard a knock at the door. She swiped a hand over her eyes, wiping the tears away. She walked over to the door and opened it slowly, giving her time to compose herself. Or so she thought. She plastered on a smile.
“Hello, Mr. Smith. Hi Alicia, hi David. Hello Maisey. Come inside out of the cold.” They all came inside and greeted her and the children took their places at the kitchen table. They opened their lunch boxes and pulled out sandwiches and oranges as their dinner. Mr. Smith usually packed them dinner, but on nights he couldn’t or had forgotten, Raina always made something for them. Mr. Smith had tried to insist on paying her every time she made them a meal, but she always refused. It was one more thing she could do to help the poor guy after losing his wife last year. She always managed to send “leftovers” home so he would have something to eat as well.
“Are you all right, Raina? You seem upset.”
“Oh yes, I’m fine. I just had a little spat with Raul before he left.”
“You seem to have a lot of little spats with him. Has he still not secured his scholarship?” she shook her head, feeling a headache fast approaching.
“No, and he just…doesn’t seem to understand what I do for him. All that I do to help him succeed. He seemed sorry when he left, but…” He put a hand on her shoulder.
“He’ll realize soon enough. You’ve done an incredible job raising him and he sees all the hard work you do. If you need anything, please let me know.” She smiled at him, meaning it this time.
“Thank you, Mr. Smith. You’d better go now, or you’ll be late for your shift.” He glanced at his watch and panic flew into his eyes.
“You’re right, I’d best be going. Be on your best behavior, kids.” A round of “we will” from mouths full of food chased him out the door and Raina locked it behind him. He was a good man and he had good children.
After they finished eating, she helped David and Alicia with their homework while Maisey played with some toys she had brought from home. She made sure they took their baths and brushed their teeth, and then she let them watch some tv, as she always did, before they went to bed. She paid bills tonight while they watched cartoons, something that brought her a bout of panic. Her thoughts were filled with worry about how she would continue to pay the bills and keep everything afloat. How she would, if she could, tell her friends, her family, that she needed help. If she even had any friends left. They were there, she knew, they just didn’t come around and definitely didn’t ask how she was doing. Raina felt very alone in her house, in her mind, in her heart. And she didn’t know how to get the lonely feeling out of her chest.
“Are you okay, Miss Raina?” Startled by the small voice, she looked up from the water bill she had just finished paying.
“Y-Yes, I’m fine, Alicia.”
“Are you sure? You look all shaky.” Dissatisfied with Raina’s nod of assurance, Alicia got up from her spot on the couch and came over to her, wrapping her tiny arms around her waist. As the oldest sibling at just eight years old, she was mature for her age, always concerned with adult problems. When Raina felt two more sets of arms wrap around her, she let her tears fall silently. It had been a long time since she’d been hugged by someone, really truly hugged, and here were three small children giving her what she wished she could have from her own brother, or even her friends. Eventually, they let go of each other. She wiped her eyes, smiled and thanked them. Maisey and David smiled back at her and returned to their cartoons on the couch. Alicia glanced at Raina, then looked down at her shoes and whispered,
Thank you, Raina. Hugging you felt like hugging my mom.” Raina thought she saw a flash of tears in her eyes, but before she could say anything further, Alicia joined her siblings on the couch. A few minutes later they were all laughing at some animated dog eating a snow cone and Raina decided that they really were all right, despite the intense moment that had passed between them.
Right as she was leading them upstairs to bed as normal, she heard the door open and Raul came slinking into the house. He didn’t come with his usual pompous stance, shoulders and head lifted high and his feet heavy. Instead, his head was down, shoulders slumped and his feet barely made a sound as he crossed the threshold. She ignored him and continued her task of getting the children to bed. Later, she came back downstairs to find Raul on the couch, his head cradled in his hands. She stopped and stared at him for what felt like hours, then finally gathered some courage and sat beside him with a sigh. She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder, gritting her teeth at what his reaction might be. When she didn’t feel him tense up or jerk away from her, she relaxed.
“I thought you’d stay out later.” He shook his head, still cradled in his hands. “What happened?” He waited a moment, then looked up and said,
“Tom and Grouper never showed. Promised to meet me at Clementine’s but they didn’t. Waited around for an hour before I went to Jacob’s. Worst part is when I got to Jacob’s, Tom, Grouper, Matt and Chico were there.”
“Yeah. Matt and Chico didn’t do anything wrong, but Tom and Grouper blew me off to go to Jacob’s. Said I’m too moody and complicated. Didn’t want to hang out anymore.”
“Oh, hermanito, lo siento mucho. I’m so sorry. I never would have sent you out tonight if I knew that would happen.”
“It’s not like they’re wrong, though. I am muy complicado.” He hung his head again.
“Well, you have always been moody. You have a very hot and cold personality. But even still, they shouldn’t have treated you like that.” He raised his head and stared at her a minute before grinding out,
“It’s not like you don’t have the same personality, hermana.” She could see the anger welling up in his face.
“See, you just went from being sad to defensive and angry with me. You’re proving my point. Look, I’m sorry your friends stood you up and I’m sorry they said those things. But for once, could you act like you appreciate all that I do for you? Could you just sit here for a few minutes and make me feel like I matter? Like I’m not just someone who cooks and cleans and works to pay most of the bills? I have no one but you. No one calls, no one asks how I am. No one says anything encouraging, except for Mr. Smith and we’re not even friends, really. Can you just be here, please? I’m so tired. So, so tired all the time. I just…I want to stop…I don’t want to do this anymore.”
She buried her head in her hands and sobbed. Raul put an arm around her shoulder and whispered comforting words. Once Raina was calmer, he put the kettle on, made her a cup of tea and turned on her favorite soap opera, “Mi Amor y Mi Vida” that she never had time to watch. He took out the trash and started some laundry and when she tried to take a basket of clothes from him to fold, he gently moved her hand away, letting her know he would do it himself. Later when she fell asleep, he covered her with a blanket and stayed up studying until Mr. Smith got there. Raul helped him get the kids into his car, trying to ignore the shocked expression on the older man’s face.
He went back in the house, locked the door and turned off all the lights except for one lamp. He leaned over Raina and whispered, “Gracias, mi hermana. Eres el corazón de la familia, nuestra luz. You’re the heart of the family, our light.” He slipped upstairs and promised himself he would do better tomorrow and everyday after that. Raina deserved all the effort he could give, because she gave all the effort she had without him ever asking that of her.