Middle Ground by Vilaska Nguyen


    Photo by Ian Romo.

      The elevator abruptly jerks to a stop.  The overheard lights go dim.  Isabella doesn’t react.  She just leans against the opposite wall with a bottomless canyon separating us.  I hit the lobby button.  I hit a button to another floor.  I hit the open-door button.  There’s little oxygen left in the stagnant air.  The walls begin to slowly constrict like a trash compactor.  I hold down the alarm button until Isabella tells me to stop.  Her stern yell turns to a tired whisper.  She’s exhausted.

     “Leo, this doesn’t feel right,” she says.

     “It never will,” I reply.  “But it’s for the best.”  I repeat the mantra to myself.  It’s for the best.  I push the lobby button.

     “Are we making a mistake?”

     “What do you think, Elle?”  I already dread what’s coming.

     “I’m not sure what to think.”

     “Why do you say that?”

     “Our daughter just turned eighteen.  She should be shipping off to college, not this hell hole.”  Isabella slumps to the floor.  She rubs her eyes and wipes fresh tears onto her jeans.  Her newly knitted scarf becomes a tissue for her nose.  The darkness hides the deep wrinkles at the temples, the heavy bags beneath her eyes.  Isabella’s thick curly hair seems more vibrant in the shadow of the elevator light.  She says, “I mean, look at this rickety elevator.  This place isn’t a home.  Felicia doesn’t belong here.”

     “She’s better off here.”

     Isabella corrects me, “She’s better off at home.”

     “We’re better off.”  I make my point.  Isabella is silent.  I regret being so insensitive and know I should let her vent.  This is a traumatic day.  I know I should share her guilt, but the truth is I am relieved.

     Isabella asks, “Remember the Datsun?”

     “How could I forget?”

     Isabella and I grew up in California’s Central Valley.  She was born in Bakersfield.  I was born in Delano.  Our fathers were best friends and grew up in Tijuana together.  They brought their families to California for a better life.  They found work farming and harvesting the fields.  Isabella and I spent countless hours in my father’s old orange four-door Datsun.  That was nearly five decades ago.  My earliest memory is sitting in the car’s back seat eating tortillas with Isabella under the shaded protection of a giant oak tree.  I remember hot days where we sat in silence taking turns fanning each other with rolled up department store catalogues.  We’d count in alternating turns until we both fell asleep.  We always had something to talk about.  There was always another game.  We always had each other.  I could spend the rest of my life replaying those memories in my head.

     Isabella goes on, “Remember I’d talk about kids?”

     This is going to hurt.  I reply, “Of course I do.”

     “What did I say?”

     “You wanted a daughter that would grow up and take care of you.”  This is an understatement.  Isabella would explain in complex imaginative detail all the different ways her future daughter would take care of her.  I’m crying now.

     “Why would I always talk about that?”

     “Not sure.”

     “How did we get here, Leo?”

     I take a seat on the elevator floor.  I wipe my tears and say, “Not sure.”

     “I want to take my baby home and take care of her.”

     “The deposit is non-refundable.  We cleared our savings account.”  I’m not making sense.

     “So I guess we lose it.”

     “That’s three month’s pay, honey.  That’s three months of being on the road driving the truck.”

     “It’s not too late to keep our family together.”

     “Don’t you want our life back?”

     Isabella’s silence is intentional.  She makes me think about my words.  She wants me to see the selfishness in my question.  The message is clear: we don’t have a life separate from our daughter.  I process the message then remember the daily conflict and the growing distance in our marriage.  I remember why we came to Sunnyside Center.

     I reiterate, “We need to try this.  It’s for the best.”  Again, I repeat it to myself.  It’s for the best.

     “What if it’s not?”

     “Then we’ll find out, Elle.”

     I take out my cell phone and track down the general number for the front desk.  The call goes through and I explain the situation.  Someone tells me help is on the way.  I’m at a loss for words.

     Isabella interrupts the silence and asks, “What do I do when we get home?”

     “Maybe you can get your teaching job back.”

     “No, I mean what do I do?”

     “I don’t know.”

     “Am I supposed to clean the house?”

     “You don’t have to clean anything.”

     “What about Felicia’s room?  What about all her stuff?”

     “Leave it alone.”

     “What about all her vanilla pudding in the refrigerator?  Should we bring it here?  Should we eat it?”

     “I don’t know, Elle.”

     “What am I supposed to do?”

     Loud shrieks invade the intimacy of our tiny box.  Not far from the elevator doors, a woman is repeatedly screaming no.  A metal tray falls to the floor and the screaming becomes violent.  There’s a struggle and a loud thud.  The screams cease and pick up again with even more intensity.  I’m scared.  I wonder who the resident might be and know Isabella is thinking the same thing.  I keep my mouth shut.

     The overhead lights turn on and the elevator succumbs to gravity as it shakes its way to the ground floor.  The shrill cries become faint then disappear.  The doors open to an empty lobby.  The front desk clerks are gone.  A soap opera is blaring on the television mounted above a fireplace.  We step outside and I pan the parking lot.  I forget where I had parked but I choose a direction and start walking.

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