It is December, and the days are “long and cold.” The Riveras, struggling to adjust to the winter temperatures, run the heat in their apartment all the time—but when they receive a dangerously steep electric bill that they’ll never be able to pay, they keep the heat down and instead “huddle by the radiators for warmth.”
The bitter cold—and the expense of combating it—is another setback for the Riveras, and a reminder of how futile their pursuit of the American dream sometimes feels.
Trying to focus on the positive, Alma and Arturo rejoice over the fact that Maribel is laughing more often, now, and seems less confused about the day-to-day aspects of her life. Her school reports have improved, as well. Alma continues to worry about Maribel, though. Alma has become much more insecure about her daughter’s safety in the wake of the accident.
Alma notices that Maribel has “developed a sort of friendship” with Mayor, but she insists that the two only spend time together at one another’s apartments, and only when supervised. One day, cooking while Maribel spends time at Mayor’s, Alma loses track of time. When she looks at the clock it is past five, and she knows Maribel should have been home already—she runs out of the apartment and scans the parking lot for a sign of her daughter.
Alma’s unfamiliarity with her new home makes her suspicious of everyone, including Mayor who has actually been Maribel’s protector. It’s clear that Alma feels this way out of love for her daughter, which renders her coldness towards Mayor more understandable.
Alma heads over to the Toros’ apartment, but as she reaches the staircase, she hears a boy’s laughter. She finds Maribel’s sunglasses on the sidewalk and grows uneasy. She turns a corner and sees Maribel pushed up against the wall, her hands over her head—Garrett Miller is holding her wrists in place, and Maribel’s shirt is hiked up over her bra. Alma screams, and rushes to place herself between Garrett and Maribel. Garrett squeezes Alma’s arm and yells at her in English, while Alma screams at Maribel to return to the apartment. Maribel stays frozen in place. Alma tears herself away from Garrett and drags Maribel back upstairs and inside. Alma is grateful that she got to Maribel in time to stop anything worse from happening.
As Alma’s worst fears begin to come true, she contemplates her role in keeping her daughter safe. Alma, despite her best efforts and her sincere care for her daughter’s safety, cannot shield Maribel from all of life’s pain—to attempt to do so, Alma is learning, is futile. Nevertheless, she feels directly responsible for anything bad that happens to Maribel, and this guilt and unfair responsibility isolates Alma further and further.
That night at dinner, Arturo asks Alma what’s wrong—he can sense that something is off. Alma does not answer him—she is not planning on telling him what happened, as she does not want him to know that she has failed Maribel for a second time. She knows that Maribel is okay—she asked her all about the incident once they were safe inside, and Maribel reported that Garett had not touched her, kissed her, or hurt her—at least “this time.”
Alma continues to see herself as directly responsible for any pain Maribel faces. She cannot tell Arturo what she has witnessed, as she feels it is her fault, and she does not want to frighten or disappoint her husband, who has worked so hard to ensure that their life in America is possible. Alma is afraid to ruin everything, and she is grateful that at least “this time” nothing more serious has gone wrong.
Arturo urges Alma to snap out of her mood and to “believe [she is] entitled to happiness.” Alma sips her tea and thinks about the approaching Christmas holiday. She remembers a Christmas Eve two years previous, when Maribel made buñuelos—fried dough balls—for the entire family all by herself. Alma remembers that as Maribel served her creation at dinner that night, she herself had envisioned Maribel’s future—“the family she would have one day and the food she would make for them.” In that moment Alma could so clearly picture Maribel’s “entire life in front of her, waiting.”
As Alma considers the idea that perhaps she and her family will find happiness after all, she reminisces about her hopes and dreams for her daughter—hopes and dreams that once seemed within reach, and which now seem terrifying to continue to long for.