The baby yawned and Nora smiled. For one, two, three hours, she stared at the face that peeked out of the white bundle, forgetting the nurses and the other patients and the exhaustion. Out the window, cars drove, friends complained, birds flew, lovers kissed, strangers avoided the rest of the city. But none of this existed to Nora; all she saw was the baby in her arms — the little nose, the little lips, the little everything.
In the evening the nurse came back with a tray of chicken, potatoes, and jell-o, and asked if she wanted to sleep. Nora, with her gray lips and her gray eyes and her white face, held the baby closer to her chest and said that she would sleep later. The nurse came back the next day with the doctor and the birth certificate; they needed a name. Nora was exhausted and irritated so she picked the only one that came to mind. At two, Lara picked her up from the hospital and took her home.
Once they had arrived at the beach they unloaded the car; Nora carried the towel-bag on her shoulder and held the cooler in her hand, leaving the other one to hold Ela’s hand as they walked on the sand, searching for a place to lay their things down. The sand, defeated beneath the hot sun, burned their bare feet and so they walked closer to the shore, where the waves cooled them down. The flag was purple and Ela refused to get in the water, but when she saw her mother immersed among the waves like a mermaid she couldn’t help but run in after her, forgetting all about the possibility of getting stung by a jellyfish. In the water, they swam until their skin had absorbed all of the salt in the ocean, and then they got out and Nora tanned on her towel and Ela copied her. Behind them, a couple of men passed a football around; when it landed on Ela’s towel she nudged her mother gently and pointed to the ball. Then Nora sat up and passed it to the nearest player, who smiled handsomely and went back to his game.
Only an hour after arriving at the beach Ela was already asking for food, so they ate ham and cheese sandwiches and strawberries. Afterwards Ela dug a small hole in the sand, close enough to the water that when a wave came in, the hole would just swallow it. The sand would absorb the water quickly so Ela was constantly filling up the bucket with more water and pouring it into the hole because she wanted it to be like a little pool. Impressed with her work, she demanded that her mother stop reading to see her construction.
“I’m going to dig a hole that’s going to be a tunnel to outerspace that’s going to be so deep that when I jump into it I’m going to go all the way through Earth and come out in outerspace,” said Ela as they contemplated the hole.
“How will you come back to me after that, baby?”
“Obviously, you’ll come too. I’ll just have to test it out first.” She sat on the sand and sucked her salty thumb, leaning on her mother.
“Then what will we do in outerspace?”
“We’ll just fly around, and we’ll sleep on the stars or even on the moon.” A couple of hours later, when the sand was starting to get in their eyes, when the sun was starting to get in their skin, they picked up their things and went to a café, where Nora had a coffee and Ela, a vanilla milk.
When the bell rang Nora was already waiting for her outside. Ela ran to hug her mother, holding an empty lunchbox in one hand and a project poster in the other. In the car, she told Nora about why Nicole got sent to the principal’s office during math class, about the zuzupet that everybody had except her, about how Laura didn’t want to share her potato chips with her even though she shared them with Luisa and Bella. Nora asked her if she had eaten her lunch, if Mrs. Owl was feeling better, and if she had turned in her Social Studies homework. They stopped at the supermarket, not the one across the street from the school because once they saw a gun behind the check-out counter, but the one in Miami Beach where they sold Materva soda and pastelitos de guayaba. As they were walking back to the car, Nora’s cellphone rang so Ela sat on a bench by a shoe store and ate her pastry and looked at beautiful women try on heels and sandals. Then Nora signaled to her so that she would start walking back to the car, because the meter was running and the last thing she needed was a ticket. They got in the car, Nora hung up the phone, and then they headed back to the house. “Richard’s coming over for dinner,” said Nora, and Ela shrugged and told her about her new friend Tessa.
On Saturday they found that the back door of the apartment could be opened with the black key, and that beside it was a ladder that went up to the roof. They took a packet of Negresco cookies and sat against the water tank to look at Havana. Behind them was the backyard of the building, but they never went there because Ela was afraid of the scorpions that took cover beneath the trees. The ocean, blue and long, peeked behind the buildings to their left. Everything else was city, city, city.
“Why did we move here?”
“Because we can.” Nora sighed. She did not say, Because we couldn’t afford to live in the United States anymore or Because I needed to start over after Richard.
The sun ran away somewhere and suddenly the sky felt so lonely. Ela said, “Where are we from?”
And her mother turned to her, looked at her daughter like she was looking in a mirror. “We have a lot of homes.”
“I don’t want a lot of homes. I want to know where I’m from.”
“We’re from nowhere and everywhere.”
“That’s impossible.” Ela smiled dreamily. “Am I from the United States because I was born there or from Cuba because I live here, and because you’re from here?”
The woman and the girl looked simultaneously at the sky, empty. They looked nothing alike; one was blonde, the other, brunette. Nobody knew anything, so they ate cookies.
When Nora returned from work, she went directly into the bedroom and turned on the air conditioning so that the room would be cool by the time she finished showering. Ela sat with her in the bathroom and asked if she could have a boyfriend.
“When you’re forty five.”
Ela protested because she needed to know what to say to Alejandro if he asked her on a date. She said that she hadn’t spoken to him about it but that last week Mauricio had implied that Alejandro had said that he thought she was pretty, and that that day she had caught him staring at her during Science. Even Carola had noticed, she said, and Carola didn’t like boys. Ela put some of her mother’s cream in her hair and made a side part with her mother’s comb. Then she painted her lips with her mother’s pink lipstick and sprayed her neck with her mother’s perfume.
“Stop using my things,” Nora said as she stepped out of the shower, wrapped in a towel. “They’re expensive.”
“But I want to be beautiful.”
“You are already beautiful. When you’re older I’ll get you those things.”
Nora squeezed her hair over the sink and brushed it quickly before wrapping it in a hair towel. “In three years.”
“In three years? Can’t it be in two?”
“You’re not going to need those things at fourteen.” She put the toilet lid down and sat on it. “Do you really want a boyfriend already?”
Nora kissed her daughter’s cheek and went to get dressed before preparing dinner.
Nobody spoke at the dinner table. Instead, they ate the pasta silently and stared at the unlit candle that sat in the center of the table. Nora asked Ela if she was going to start working the following day, since apparently Ela thought she was an adult that could go out and sleep over at other people’s houses, and then forget to call her mother to let her know she had arrived safely at her friend’s house, and so she just assumed that she would also be working the next day because that’s what adults do. Ela took the plates into the kitchen to do the dishes and slammed the door behind her. Nora told Ela that she was a spoiled brat for slamming the door because she didn’t pay for anything in the house, and she didn’t work, and she didn’t have any serious responsibilities, but she just went out to parties and forgot to call her mother without the slightest worry. Ela told her mother that she did work, just not in the same way, that she studied all the time and that it wasn’t her fault that she didn’t have a job because she was so busy studying all the time. Then she said that she almost never went out and that just because she had forgotten to call one time didn’t mean that she was a spoiled brat or a disrespectful daughter because that’s what teenagers do, go to parties and forget to call their mothers, and that she was the only one of her friends that ever remembered to call her mother but somehow she was still in trouble, so what was the point, she was her father’s daughter anyway. They yelled and then they went to bed.
“Do you like New York?”
The city, gray and fresh and lost, fell upon Ela like a great ocean. A taxi honked aggressively at the car in front of it, a man banged on a can and asked for money, a drag queen crossed the street. “Yes, but I think Times Square is overrated.”
“So how are your classes?”
“They’re great, but my favorite is the anthropology course. The professor is fascinating. And so handsome.”
Nora laughed over the phone. “Are you going to a lot of parties?”
“I guess so. But I’m also studying a lot. You don’t have to worry.” A pigeon wobbled in front of the bench where she was sitting.
“I’m not, that’s what you do in college. Study and go to parties.”
Central Park unloaded behind her as crowds of people swarmed out of the walkways and disappeared into the city. A breeze swept by her and she shivered, hiding deeper in her purple coat.
“I like the people a lot. I have a lot in common with them. I don’t mean with our interests; our interests are really different. I just mean in the way we are with each other.”
“I always told you that you’d find your people in college.”
Over the phone, Ela heard the faint sound of her mother breathing in and out; in the wind she found the subtle smell of her lip gloss, of the wine that lingered in her tongue after dinner.
“Baby, are you happy there?”
Ela nodded and a tear slipped out, defiant. “I miss you so much mama.”
“Oh my baby. I miss you too. But it’s only been a week. I’ll come visit you soon.”
“Are you all right mama? Are you doing all right? Are you happy?”
“You don’t have to feel like you need to be here to take care of me. I’m fine.”
“I just worry because I know that after what my dad did to you…I know how difficult it is to find…”
Nora cut her off. “You don’t need to worry about me. I’m happy.”
Ela nodded again, wiped the tear away. “Ok.”
And together, they watched the same sun drop beneath a distant horizon.