When the alarm bleats at five, she gathers herself, swings her legs over the side of her single bed, and slips her feet into waiting slippers. Her back hurts, and she’s still tired. But she shuffles across the room to the stove and spoons Bustelo into her silver coffeemaker. She turns on the small gas stove, and it clicks three times before a tremulous flame purls up. Her fresh uniform is hanging from the closet door, neatly pressed. She runs her finger over her own name, embroidered in navy blue on the crisp blue and white stripped dress: Dolores.
It only took twenty years of work to earn her first personalized uniform. Or rather, for the Mirador Hotel to finally volunteer to cover the extra ten-dollar personalization fee, which Dolores, on principle, wasn’t going to pay herself.
Dolores is of two minds when she looks at the uniform. To see her name emblazoned across the uniform both stings and swells her pride. But hadn’t she imagined a different life for herself? Hadn’t she, as a child, laid on her stomach on the carpet, rested her chin on her hands, watched telenovelas, and dreamed?
Dolores gets dressed slowly, changing out of her sateen nightgown and into a clean, worn slip, and relishing the feel of the crisp, starched fabric against her skin. Twelve buttons down the front, Dolores counts them. In the summer, Dolores foregoes pantyhose.
She ignores the ache in her knee and its rival ache in her lower back as she bends to slip on a pair of clean white socks and black orthopedic sneakers. She sits to drink her coffee from an old mug with a kitten on it, eats two pieces of hot, buttered toast. Then, she gathers her frayed wallet and keys and tucks them into a leather satchel. She brushes her hair into a neat chignon. She puts on a pair of gold earrings and a splash of eau de toilette. Dolores casts an eye around her room, taking in the small stove (now off), the closet door (closed) and the bed (neatly made), before setting off for work.
On the bus, she stops in front of the driver to scan her metro card but has to move aside for a man who practically pummels through her in his rush to board. The man is young— thirty, forty maybe (Dolores has never been good at guessing ages). He is dressed in an expensive-looking suit, his hair slicked back. Dolores catches a glimpse of bare ankle protruding from an expensive orange leather loafer. Ignoring her, the man scans his metro card, sits down at the front of the bus, in the elderly and handicapped section. She pulls out her senior metro card and reaches over again to scan it, but a gaggle of chattering children board in one swell tide, cards in hand, pushing her further into the bus.
“Excuse me,” she says, but they brush by on either side of her, jostling their backpacks and shoving each other.
Dolores tries to make eye contact with the bus driver through the rearview mirror, to signal to him that she’s no fare-jumper, but the driver doesn’t see her. He presses the button that closes the doors and pulls away from the bus stop, eyes focused on the road ahead.
Dolores shrugs. She sits across from the suited man and crosses her legs at the ankle. She watches as he fixes his attention on his phone and snaps on a pair of wireless headphones.
“Excuse me,” Dolores says, pointing to a narrow, useless-looking Burberry scarf that has floated down to his feet. “You drop—”
“Hold on, I can’t hear you,” the man says, frowning at his phone.
“You dropped your— ” Dolores ventures again and then lapses into silence when she realizes that the man is talking to someone on the phone and refusing to look at her. Instead, she folds her hands in her lap and watches the blur of green and gray behind the man’s head. She turns to look at the children, who have somehow individuated into six heads bowed over smartphones and iPads.
Dolores leaves her phone in her purse. Her eyesight isn’t great, and she hates puzzling over the features; when she tries to use the phone for anything other than phone calls, she ends up either taking accidental photos of herself, recording voice memos—or activating a woman’s voice that repeatedly asks her the sorts of questions that drive her crazy when she has to call a customer service line. What’s worse, the robot woman—her name is Cortana, Dolores believes—never understands her heavy Spanish accent, a fact that Dolores tries not to resent but that has, nonetheless, created some friction between them.
Other than her nightly telenovela time, the bus ride to work is Dolores’ favorite part of the day. The bus is air-conditioned, a short, pleasant ride on most days. Sometimes she looks around some public place and imagines that the people there are connected to her life in some irrefutable, inextricable way. That they are all of one full, fantastic life. Sometimes she challenges herself by picking the least likeable person and trying to imagine them into something wonderful.
So, she looks at the suited man and imagines that he is her son. When she was in high school in Santo Domingo, didn’t she have that brief flirtation with a blonde general’s son? That was before her mother took her out of school to take care of her siblings, back when Dolores planned to go to college and her heavy-lashed eyes still had a certain beguiling mirth.
Dolores isn’t one to romanticize the past, but she finds the memory of her 17-year-old self irresistible: her sense of self was there, her dream of being a lawyer, her desire to have two daughters and name them Patria and Minerva, after the hermanas Mirabal. Dolores has never been what anyone would call beautiful, but she had style that turned the occasional head, hair that she styled in a lustrous bouffant and a flair for the nipped waist of the late 60s. An evanescent Dolores that flickered briefly in the world.
After leaving school to care for her siblings, Dolores was shuttled from one thing to the next: cause and effect. Cause: her father died and the debts he left behind wiped out the family’s savings. Effect: they lost the family house, just as her sister was entering middle school.
So, Dolores boarded a flight to New York, and once there, found work as a cleaner in an office building. She scrubbed floors and squeegeed windows until her knuckles bled. When her sister died in a car accident at 23, Dolores got a better paying job at a hotel to fully support her mother. When her mother died, Dolores filed her paperwork and became a US citizen.
Dolores still sends money home to the extended family, a constellation of cousins, uncles, and aunts who depend on her, but who seem unfamiliar to Dolores when she visits the capital. The conversation is forced, and Dolores finds herself wondering if she would ever interact with these people, were they not her relatives.
But here, right in front of her, in the present: her imaginary son scowling at his iPhone like a giant towheaded baby. He’s not much taller than she is, she reckons, nor is he what most people would call handsome. She wonders if his ankles get cold and feels a rush of maternal sympathy for this man and his too-short pants. Even with her imagination working its hardest, Dolores can’t envision a scenario in which she would condone intentional high waters without socks—but what if she had taught him to brush his hair that way? If he were cast in a telenovela, Dolores thinks, he would be an evil office executive or a mutinous ranch hand.
Dolores wonders what the other bus riders see when they look in her direction: a brown-skinned woman in her mid-sixties, mid-height, graying hair. Neatly dressed, with erect posture, hands clasped in her lap, ankles clasped on the floor.
If she were cast in a telenovela, she would be a hotel maid. She wishes she’d worn a cardigan over her uniform; anyone who looks at her will know her name.
The bus pulls up to the hotel where Dolores works and then keeps going, even as Dolores presses the stop button with her thumb. She jumps to her feet; the next stop is a good half-mile away from the hotel, an uphill walk in the sun. She can almost feel the trickles of sweat running down the backs of legs, between her breasts.
“Hey,” she says loudly in the direction of the bus driver, “I want to get off.”
She looks around at the people on the bus. It’s only Dolores and her “son” in the front section; the schoolchildren got off a few stops ago. Towards the back of the bus, Dolores sees a teenage girl talking on the phone and a man about her age, also staring at his phone. The bus driver pulls away from the curbside lane and continues down the avenue toward the next stop.
Dolores gets up and runs to the driver’s side, waves a hand near his face. “Hello?”
The driver looks at her and laughs, and it takes Dolores a moment to realize that he is looking past her, or through her, somehow.
Dolores turns to see a man in a deflated-looking sandwich costume standing on the curb, leaning against a stop sign. An EAT AT JIMMY JOHNS sign dangles from his hand.
She waits for the light to turn red and then grabs onto the metal bar separating the driver from the rest of the bus for balance. She prods the driver in the shoulder. “Hey,” she says. “Hey!”
The bus driver reaches into his pocket and pulls out a stick of gum, which he unwraps with his eyes on the road. A woman in a tight dress crosses the street, and he whistles approvingly.
Something akin to panic sparks in Dolores chest. Dolores runs up to the man in the suit, her erstwhile son, who, still on the phone, doesn’t react to her approach. She bends to his eye-level and tries to grab him by the shoulders—but her hands move through him, as if through air, and she only ends up pressing her palms into the seat.
“HELLO, HELLO, HELLO?” No one looks at Dolores. Heart pounding in her ears, she runs towards the two people at the back of the bus, the man and the woman fixated on their phones. She tries to knock the phones out of their hands and only succeeds in falling across a couple of seats when the bus pulls up to the next stop. The doors close again before Dolores can run out into the street.
The world of the bus lurches forward: windows a blur of green and gray; the woman accidentally plays a video with the sound on and hastily turns it down, looking embarrassed; an empty Fritos bag flutters across the floor.
Dolores begins to wonder if she is dead or if this is all a dream. What if she wakes up in an asylum with padded walls? This is precisely what happened to the villainess on Amores Poderosos, the novela Dolores finished last night, and also to the protagonist of Corazón Latiente.
Can you be committed in America? Dolores isn’t sure but finds dubious solace in the fact that she couldn’t imagine anyone caring enough to track her down and lock her away. Dolores isn’t the sort of the person who goes missing. She’s the sort of person that people crane their necks to see around.
She takes out her cellphone and frantically dials her employer’s number. The phone rings and rings but no one answers. Dolores hangs up. She has no family in the US to call. She dials again. Ring, ring, ring, voicemail. Dolores leaves a message. “Hello, Julia,” Dolores says into the phone, suddenly self-conscious, even in her despair. “This is Dolores, you know? From work? Could you please call me back? You may not have my number, its—”
Dolores hangs up, remembering that caller ID exists and that the receptionist certainly has her phone number.
What can she do?
An invisible Dolores is shouting the Lord’s Prayer when the bus finally stops again. A lady around her age boards the bus. Even though it’s summer, the woman’s wearing a sweater, and she’s struggling with a clunky little utility cart. Does she cast a glance in her direction, or does Dolores imagine it? No matter, because Dolores heaves herself out of her seat and runs to get off the bus, fervid with hope that whatever this is will pass as soon as she is back on stable ground.
How quickly one acclimates to invisibility! Dolores runs headlong into the woman, fully expecting to pass through her, but knocks into her and topples her cart instead.
“Excuse me,” the woman snaps, in a thick Russian accent, her eyes bulging with alarm. “This is my car.” She fussily sets the cart aright and then looks again at Dolores, taking in her wild hair and uniform. The two women stare at each other for what feels like years.
Then the Russian woman slowly, cautiously, raises her fingertips to her own eyes. Moving as if Dolores were a frightened deer, as if she might startle easily and run away, the Russian woman brings her fingertips down to her cheeks, mimicking a small waterfall of tears.
The air hits Dolores’ cheeks, and she realizes that they are wet.
Then the Russian woman places her palms—one on top of the other— over her own heart. When she speaks, she speaks slowly, as if she were drawing the English words from a distant well. “Are you… OK, devochka?”
An unbearable ache blooms somewhere in the neighborhood of Dolores’s heart. The words, rough and undignified, scrape up through her throat and burst from her lips before she realizes what she is asking. “Can you see me?”
“Kaneshna,” the other woman says, nodding and then nodding again. “Of course.”
Dolores exhales, and the bus jostles the Russian lady into her as the driver pulls it over and the door opens to another empty stop.
“No standing near the front of the bus,” barks the driver. Through the rearview mirror, he eyes Dolores and the lady distrustfully as he pulls the doors closed and maneuvers away from the curb.
When the bus picks up speed again, the two women stumble into each other, again, laughing like schoolgirls, each with an arm resting on the other’s shoulder, struggling to stay upright.
Yohanca Delgado attended the 2019 Clarion workshop and holds an MFA from American University. She lives in Maryland, where she is working on a collection of short stories and a novel.