It is just after sunset when Cynthia Smith and her boys walk into the efficiency she rents in El Portal, a neighborhood just east of Miami Shores in northeast Miami-Dade County. She immediately switches the air conditioning unit on high to get rid of the damp smell in the living area. Her sons, three and four years old, throw their book bags onto the old wood floors and jump onto the black canvas futon that sits in front of a large TV set that came with the place.
“What are we eating for dinner?” her eldest son asks as she sets her large black purse on the kitchen counter. She turns on the slow cooker and lets him know that they will be eating red beans as rice, same as last night. The kids groan at the prospect of eating leftovers of a meal they didn’t like to begin with.
“Alright guys, sit quietly and finish your homework while I take a shower. And don’t tell me you don’t have any because I spoke to your teachers today,” she says as the AC unit begins to make a rattling noise. Her lie about speaking to their teachers seems to do the trick, giving her at least a few minutes to unwind.
Once they have their workbooks open, Cynthia walks into the bedroom she shares with them and sets her smartphone on her white formica nightstand to charge. Under the dim light of a small bedside lamp, she takes off her white blouse and tosses it on the bed. Out of habit, she hits the home button on her phone to see if there’s a response from her estranged husband.
She had texted him while sitting in traffic on the way home from her office job about their children’s expenses. The only unread message she sees is one from the mobile phone company threatening to discontinue her service for lack of payment. Her heart sinks as she remembers the bills she’s behind on.The last thing she wants to focus on during her brief moment of solitude is the humiliation of having people call her mobile phone only to hear that it has been disconnected.
Sitting on the side of the messy bed, Cynthia throws her black pumps into the closet, then falls back onto the bed and rubs her eyes. Her next payday isn’t for another week, which means she may have to go a few days without a mobile phone before she can afford to get it reconnected. Even though her boy’s learning center has her office number on file for emergencies, she breaks into a cold sweat worrying about how her financial situation may affect her children’s well being in the long run.
Her worry quickly turns to anger when she imagines her kids’ father shacking up with his girlfriend in her Downtown Miami loft. She would love nothing more than to grab her phone and send him an angry text pointing out how his behavior is affecting their boys, but she knows that it will only make it harder for her to get him to co-parent in the future.
Frustrated and exhausted, she hangs up her black slacks, throws her bra and underwear in the laundry basket and steps onto the cold, cracked pink tiles of her small bathroom. She lets the shower run so that it isn’t freezing cold when she steps into the pink tub. The water in the efficiency never really gets hot, but it’s worth waiting a couple minutes for a luke-warm shower.
As the water runs, Cynthia pins her shoulder-length hair up and places a blue shower cap over it. She pulls a baby wipe out of the basket under the sink and begins to wipe off her makeup, revealing dark black circles under her eyes. The site of her tired face makes her feel even worse than she already does. The only thing she’s happy about is that she can’t see the stretch marks on her tummy from the same angle in the bathroom mirror.
Just as she pulls open the mildew-stained shower curtain, she can hear the television switch on. She knows that the boys’ homework is not done yet, but she isn’t in the mood to discipline them. The guilt of leaving them in daycare while she’s at work all day takes over as the water washes over her face. All she wants to do is clock out for a few minutes. Finally feeling a moment’s peace, she looks down at the shower caddy to grab the soap and nearly screams as a cockroach crawls out of the drain into the tub toward her feet.
Cynthia immediately jumps out of the shower and shuts the water off. As much as she wants to scream, she knows that it will be in vain. With nobody to help her get rid of it, she makes herself a glove out of toilet paper and flushes the roach down the toilet with it. Once she sees it go down, she sits on the toilet and begins to weep.
Not one to feel sorry for herself, she usually finds a way to talk herself through the difficult times, but she can’t help but feel hopeless and lost at the moment. She wishes she knew what to do to get out of this mess, but she barely has the energy to get through a normal day. The weeks just seem to meld together and her lack of sleep makes it hard for her to recharge her batteries and push through like she did in college.
Thinking about her goals and ideas for the future when she was completing her business degree makes her feel even worse in her current situation. Her parents are in similar economic circumstances, so she has nobody to call on when she’s in a bind. Taking care of her children by herself puts a strain on her low-paying job that makes it almost impossible to get a salary increase because she is always missing work to deal with sick kids and their disciplinary issues.
After letting herself cry for a few minutes, an odd sense of relief comes over her. Even though she still feels helpless and alone, Cynthia decides to get up and keep going, not for herself, but for her boys. She uses a white hand towel to wipe her tears, then throws it over the drain in the shower and turns the water back on. She can taste the salt of her tears as the fresh water splashes on her face again. As she grabs the soap, she can hear her boys laughing at the TV and a smile finds its way to her face for the first time all day.