06/20/2012 04:41 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2012


When I left she was shuffling across the room, all slumped and weary, round in the face and shoulders. Scraps of bright foreign fabric were scattered all over the floor like dead feathers and she was looking out the window, where the stony Texas sun slung low, shadowing the mesas. I shut the door behind me with a firm snap, and was glad to be in the white halls of the station: clean, modern, uncluttered. There was a satisfaction in pulling on my slick leather driving gloves with a smart little tug. And there was reassurance in the line my feet followed across the parking lot to my rented Chevy. By now I'd gotten used to the "RESERVED" sign in my space, it was no longer embarrassing. I no longer felt like a glorified maid.

At first, though, when Jeffery, the once-T.A., had called about the job it had sounded too ideal, and I wondered why he would ever choose me: an average UC-Berkeley graduate, still unemployed, on the verge of building a Milwaukee's Best tower in her unheated apartment, with no examples of leadership to speak of. But I suspect Jeffery had always had a crush on me, and I never told him my interests lay in the curvier sex, so I got lucky. The job was impossibly rare, somehow combining both my Anthropology and Nursing majors, and I was ready for the telephone interview in September: yes I am willing to relocate, yes I have experience in homecare, a major concentrating on ancient Mexico, am culturally sensitive, I can start right away, thank you, you too, take care. And within a week I was in the central terminal of Houston Airport, an awkward tourist just 100 miles from home.

Another week after that, when I had settled into provided housing (a tiny apartment with buzzing light bulbs and skittering things in the walls), I met the Indian woman. Over the phone Jeffery had told me I'd be helping her cook and clean and taking care of her, yes, but I had not been told that didn't speak English. Our first meeting went like this:

"Hello, Ms. Atzopl. My name is Georgia."

"Eztli cuixtli mecatl. Nahuatl tenoch tototl. Sotl, sotl, sotl." And she turned to the tall bespectacled man beside her and tugged on his sleeve until he led her away, apologizing with a little smile.

Now, the first days of November, I don't even try to speak to her anymore. I come in, I vacuum, I replace the towels, I replace the sheets, I dust, I leave to make her food in the kitchen. And the whole time she watches me suspiciously with those eyes sunk in the soft folded up face, like wet seeds in wet clay.

At home I eat frozen dinners and watch movies from the 1950s. There is a Hollywood Video, a 25 minute drive from my place but I would rather go through the leftover video collection of my apartment's former tenant. I put on an old black-and-white and flip through National Geographic. The first night it was Casablanca, because I had to, because it is the most classic. Tonight it is The Fly.

I fall asleep halfway through and wake just in time to see Vincent Price's horrified face as he sees the tiny head of his brother get munched by a giant spider. I slump back down and try to develop a system for eating popcorn without using my hands. National Geographic is open to an article about the endangered Mexican Mole Lizard. I refreshed on Mexican culture before I came down, and I know about their fleshy crown-like gills, and that they were called axolotls and connected to the god of death and lightning. We had one in Honors Biology and its translucent flesh gave me the creeps.

Somehow, it is lonelier here, even though I didn't go out when I was in Denver, even though here I leave my room every day. I can feel country songs coming true. I feel like a chubby little cliché.

Tomorrow, I think, I will call somebody. I will call that girl I met just before I left Colorado, the one from the bar, the one who was all fizzy and golden. But I don't have her number. Tomorrow I will send an e-mail, okay, I swear. I fall asleep to Vincent Price's poor brother getting crushed by a rock.

The next day when I go in, the Indian woman is watching television. She looks sad. She always looks sad. It's exhausting.

For the first few weeks I'd tried to cheer her up, but she only talked over me in a dialect I didn't understand, and the more we interrupted one another in languages that didn't even begin to intersect, the more agitated she seemed, flapping around uselessly, until I gave up and stood in the shower pretending to scrub the tile. It wasn't until just a few days ago that I found out why I didn't recognize any of it, all those x's and cl's, squat and bloated words like toads run over on the highway.

I was in the kitchen cooking her lunch. It's my favorite part of the day. My sleeves were rolled up and I was sashaying around the island, surrounded by deep rich smells: chilies and cumin and coriander, the hot violent spices of old Mexico, steam in my face and a burning on my tongue. Crisp maguey leaves rolled on the counter, avocados ripened in my hand. In the kitchen I was powerful and ancient. I was singing when the tall man with the glasses stepped into the hot room.

This excerpt from "Salt," a leading short story from my thesis, was originally published in UNC-Chapel Hill's undergraduate literary journal Cellar Door, where it was awarded first place for fiction by Mark Strand. It was also a finalist in Narrative Magazine's 30 Below contest for authors under 30.