A phone call at 2:30 in the morning never brought good news.
An unknown number. Jaime not yet back from hanging out with the guys. Marisa’s chest tightened as she answered.
The police. An accident. Jaime appeared to be intoxicated and would be taken to the station for booking. Her car needed to be towed. Did she want to speak to the tow-truck driver?
“Huh? Yes. Please”
The driver went on about how he would take her car to their tow yard, but Marisa insisted he bring it to her apartment complex. Jamie had mentioned once how tow-truck companies charged a fortune for storage fees. It was better to have the car here, to see the damage first-hand.
After a few minutes of back and forth, the driver mumbled, “Suit yourself.” He paused. “That’ll be two hundred fifty.”
“So much? You can’t be that far.”
“Hey, it’s the middle of the night on a Saturday. And it’s pretty banged up. I have to be careful when I hook it up and—”
“All right, just bring it here. Oh, and can I pay with credit card?”
“Yep.” He hung up.
Marisa got out of bed and changed into jeans and a t-shirt. She hoped the damage to the car wasn’t too bad. She still hadn’t finished paying it and now she’d have to pay for the towing plus whatever Jamie’s bail would be. So much for the sewing supplies she’d wanted to get this month.
Next problem: how to get to the station. Marisa stared at her phone, biting her nails, unsure of who to call. She knew none of her friends would hesitate to help, but they’d probably object to her bailing out Jaime. They’d say “I told you so” and plead with her to break up with him, as they’d done countless times. She could take a taxi, but how much would that cost? No, she had to stand her ground and close herself off from attack, as she always did. She couldn’t face this night alone; she needed someone there with her. Karina was the most leveled-headed under pressure, but also Jaime’s most vocal critic. Marisa took a deep breath as she clicked on her number.
“What the hell?” Karina mumbled.
“Jaime had an accident.”
“Is he okay?”
“Yeah.” She paused. “He was drunk.”
“Oh, Mari, how many times—”
“Please, not now. They’re bringing the car. It’s supposed to be really bad. Can you come over?”
“I’ll be there in ten.”
Marisa took her purse, went outside, and sat by the curb next to her parking spot. Karina arrived ten minutes later.
“Did they arrest him?”
Marisa nodded. “I need to go post bail.”
Karina put her hands on her hips and leaned over her. “The hell you are. Leave him there. He deserves it.”
“He was in an accident. He’s probably hurt and in pain.”
“Is he?” Karina sat beside her. “Looks to me like you’re the one who’s hurt.”
Marisa hugged her knees to her chest. “Don’t start.”
“I’m sorry, but I have to. If you don’t dump him now, you never will.”
“It was an accident, it could happen to anyone.”
“He was driving drunk. In your car. That he doesn’t pay a penny for.”
“I let him take it. I knew he was gonna drink, but nothing bad ever happened before. He always knew when to call it quits.”
“Bullshit. You know that’s not true. How about every party you take him to? You always have to carry him out.”
Marisa turned her head away. She couldn’t keep lying to herself. As soon as the phone rang, she’d known what happened. It had been her greatest fear, but she’d prayed that he wouldn’t get hurt. If only she’d remembered to pray for herself.
“It’s easy for you to tell me to dump him,” Marisa said. “You’ve never had a serious relationship. I have to stick with him through the good times and the bad. Jaime’s going through a rough patch since he lost his job.”
“That was a year ago and he hasn’t tried to get a job since. He’s too happy living off you.”
“He does try. He just can’t catch a break.”
“Ugh, Marisa, wake up.” She shook Marisa toward her. “You can’t seriously buy this. Why would he get a job, when he can hang out all day at home and let you worry about the money? Doesn’t his mom still pay the child support for his kid? He can’t even get off his ass to provide for his own son. He’s a loser, he’s always been a loser, and he’s taking advantage of you.”
“Enough.” Marisa shot to her feet. “I called you ‘cause I didn’t wanna be alone, but if you’re gonna be like this, maybe you should go.”
Karina frowned but remained silent.
Marisa crossed her arms and faced away from her. Karina didn’t know what it was like to love someone and be there for them. Marisa couldn’t abandon Jaime right now, not while he was suffering. Things would get better. The car was only a material possession, but her relationship was more important.
In the distance, a tow truck came into view. And atop it, an impossibly bent and twisted black car.
That couldn’t be her car. Her brand-new car. Only eight months old. It had to be someone else’s car. But the tow truck stopped right in front of her building. When the driver got out and called out her name, the bubble burst.
Her Hyundai was unrecognizable. The roof was caved in and the hood was gone. They told her Jaime had hit a lamppost and flipped it over, that they had to remove the door to get him out. How the hell did he survive?
After the driver left, Marisa examined the car from all angles. The back side was okay, but the rest … She peered inside and picked up her rosary, the one that had hung on the mirror. She closed her eyes, thanking God that Jamie was okay, then kissed the crucifix and placed the rosary around her neck.
“We should take some photos.” Karina sounded far away but she was right next to her. Without hesitation, Karina took out her phone and went to work.
Marisa remained where she was, holding her purse to her chest. She had been so excited when she bought this car. Her first big investment, a new step into adulthood. And Jaime had helped her pick it out; he knew so much about cars. And now, all her savings down the drain because of one drunken night.
Marisa began to sob, and Karina held on to her.
“I’m sorry,” Karina said. She was crying too.
“I shouldn’t have let him take it.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s his. Do you see now what he’s done to you?”
Marisa covered her eyes and nodded.
“And are you finally gonna break up with him?”
“I don’t know if I can. I love him.”
“But he doesn’t love you. Look at the car, really look at it.”
“Would someone who loves you do this to your car?” She paused. “He doesn’t respect you, Mari. Stop letting him hurt you like this. Do you like that he doesn’t have a job?”
“Of course not.”
“And do you like coming home to see him hanging out in your apartment after you had a hard day at work?”
“He keeps it clean and cooks for me, at least.”
“Then hire a maid. She won’t damage your property.”
“Oh, Karina, you make it sound so easy.”
“It is easy. You want me to go pack up his stuff right now?”
Marisa’s phone rang. Another unknown number.
“Bebi, it’s me. They told me you already know.”
“Oh, Jaime, how are you? I’m looking at the car—”
“Listen, I don’t have much time. I need you to come pay bail and get me outta here.”
Money. No apology or remorse. Just money. “How much?”
“Three hundred bucks. Do you have it?”
“I just paid almost three hundred for the towing. Why don’t you call one of your buddies?”
“You know they don’t have that kinda money.”
“But I do?”
“Bebi, please, can you do this for me? I’ll pay you back.”
“Like you always do?”
“I don’t have time for this now. I almost died tonight. Can you come or not?”
He sighed, “Good,” and hung up.
Marisa dropped the phone back into her purse. He didn’t even thank her. He expected her to solve his problems like she always did. She never complained, only complied. She gave and gave, and he just took and took. He’d already taken too much. Karina was right. She had to end it.
“Okay,” Marisa said.
“Let’s go. Now, before I lose my nerve.”
They went up to the apartment. Karina tackled the closet while Marisa gathered the rest of his stuff: video games, PlayStation, dumb action movies she didn’t like, posters of all the cars he’d like to own. She should actually keep everything and sell it since, technically, they were all hers. But why bother? Out of sight, out of mind. They emptied the refrigerator of all his beer and the junk food Marisa didn’t eat, and in less than thirty minutes, they were done.
They placed the bags by the door and Marisa gazed around. It didn’t look like her apartment anymore. Or it did. It looked more like a part of herself than it had since she moved in two years ago. The peach color of the walls came through, not obscured by his stupid posters. Her sewing machine and supplies by the corner, ready for her next project, whenever she could afford it. No Jaime lying on the couch playing video games. It was hers again.
“How does it feel?” Karina asked.
“Like I’m the one who got out of jail?”
Karina chuckled. “You’re not out yet.” She paused. “How do you wanna do it? You wanna take him directly to his mom’s?”
“She’ll be so worried.”
“That’s her problem, not yours. Let’s go.”
On the way to the station, Marisa bit off what was left of her nails and moved on to the cuticles. Jaime was gonna hate her for this, but shouldn’t she be the one hating him? She searched through her emotions but couldn’t find hate, only pity for him, sadness for her broken dreams, and fear of ending up alone.
“I thought Jaime would be it,” Marisa said.
“Oh, please, you can do so much better.”
“Can I? Look at me.” She grabbed her muffin top and flabby thighs. “I’m outta shape, almost thirty, with all this relationship baggage hangin’ round my neck. Who’s gonna want me?”
“Lots of guys.”
“You say that ‘cause you can get anyone. But I’m not like you. I’m not as confident or as strong.”
“Then be more like me. Just stay single for a while, don’t even think about a relationship. When we met you, you said you’d just ended a relationship with a controlling bastard, and not a few weeks later, you were hooking up with Jaime. Have you ever even been single?”
“I can’t be alone.”
“I didn’t say alone, I said single. I’m not alone. I’m with myself, that’s different.”
“What? It’s the truth. Being single is great. You can do whatever you want whenever you want.”
“What about sex?”
“You can get any guy to have sex with you. Sex has nothing to do with being single.”
“Don’t you feel lonely sometimes?”
“I have you, Cordelia, Natalie, work. There’s no time to feel lonely.”
Maybe Karina was onto something. When was the last time she did something without asking Jaime first? Even with her sewing projects, she always had to get his approval. Did he like the fabric, the style, did the dress look good on her? Every choice she made was for him, about him, because of him. Just like it had been with her ex. It was about time she put herself first. If only she could find the strength to do it.
They stopped by an ATM then arrived at the station. Before Marisa stepped out, Karina held her hand. “You can do this.” Marisa nodded and went inside.
Jamie only had a bandage on his forehead and a few scratches on his arms. A true miracle. She thanked God again for saving him. Even after everything she’d never wish him harm.
“Finally,” he said. No apology, no thanks, not even a hug. Just a curt, “Let’s get outta here. I need to sleep.” He didn’t even protest at seeing Karina, who he knew hated him. He just laid on the back seat and closed his eyes, oblivious to their plan. His snoring and the banging of her heart were the only sounds Marisa heard as they drove.
Marisa shook him awake when they arrived at his mom’s house, who also didn’t know what was in store for her, the little gift they were leaving at her doorstep. It served her well, for raising and enabling a moocher.
“Why are we here?” Jaime widened his eyes. “Did you tell her what happened? You know how worried she gets.”
“She doesn’t know.”
“Then why—” He noticed the trash bags Karina had unloaded onto the curb. He ran to them and peered inside. “Is this a joke?”
“Well, I’m laughing,” Karina mumbled.
His nostrils flared. “Did she put you up to this?”
“I didn’t put her up to anything.” Karina was in his face. “She finally got the balls to dump your ass.”
Jaime looked as if he was going to hit her.
“Karina, go wait in the car,” Marisa said. “I’ll take it from here.”
Marisa nodded and Karina retreated.
“What did she say?” Jaime asked. “You know she hates me.”
“She didn’t have to say anything. You said enough with what you did to my car.”
“Okay, yeah, I messed up, but you know I’ll make it up to you.”
“How? With what? You got your license suspended, you don’t have a job—”
“I’ll figure something out.”
“Like you’ve been figuring out for a year now?”
“What do you want me to do? You know I keep waiting on Marcelo to hook me up.”
“Marcelo, Marcelo. Always blaming your problems on someone else. Do you like living off your girlfriend? Off your mom?”
He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I can’t believe you’re bringing up all this tonight. After I almost died.”
“Nobody asked you to drink and drive, especially not with my car. I didn’t give you permission for that.” Tears fell. “You know how much that car meant to me.”
“I know, bebi, I’m sorry.” He knelt in front of her. “I promise I won’t drink anymore. That was my last beer.”
“Oh, Jaime, please. How many times have I heard that before?”
“No, this time, I’m serious.” He took hold of her hands. “I swear to God, Mari.” He kissed his thumb and forefinger. “Last night scared the living shit outta me. I’m ready to get my life together.”
Seeing him on the ground, his eyes pleading, almost broke her resolve, but she couldn’t back down. She pulled her hands away and stepped back. “I really hope so. For you, for your son. But I need to look after me now. I need to be free.”
He lowered his head and stood up. “I’m gonna make something of myself, you’ll see. Then I’ll pay you back.”
“Save it. You don’t owe me anything.”
“I’m sure you’ll never pay me back.”
“Yeah, I get it. You and your friends think I’m a big loser. You all make fun of me behind my back, don’t think I’ll ever have my own garage, but you’ll see. I’ll show you. I’ll show everyone.”
He was so delusional. Why hadn’t she seen it before? Or maybe she had seen it and confused it with passion. She’d thought he was a misunderstood guy with big dreams who couldn’t catch a break, but he was only a vagabond, waiting for someone else to give him his big shot.
“Take care of yourself.” Marisa wiped her face and got into the car.
Karina grinned and put the car in gear. From the rearview mirror, Marisa could see Jaime giving them the finger as they drove away.
“You were awesome,” Karina said. “I wish I’d taped it so you could see how strong you really are.”
Marisa laughed. She felt liberated, a caged bird out in the woods, no longer confined to sing for someone else, free to sing her own song, not caring if it was not the kind of music he liked. The rising sun up ahead felt like a sign. A new day, a fresh start.
But, could she really be by herself without a man to take care of?
“You’ll be there for me, right?” Marisa asked. “I’ll need my friends now.”
“Of course. Always. You won’t be alone.”