The amount of silence heard over the phone more than Laura’s tone of voice signaled the seriousness of her words: “Cuz — Come over — I need you.”
Minutes later, Raul pulled up to the Tanglewood Apartments off Zaragoza Road. Laura was on the steps leading to her place, drinking a soda and running her other hand up and down her thigh. Shorts. No shoes. Concert T-shirt: “Dokken Breaking the Chains Tour.”
After long periods of not seeing each other, the first words were never his. He didn’t know why. Maybe because he was younger.
Whenever his cousin had a crisis, he’d learned that she had her own way of letting him know what was wrong. He did know that it could come quick, like a burst of tears and running into his arms, or it could unravel slowly. And in the time that it took him to drive over and to park the car, he resigned himself to wait. Since they were kids, he felt that he’d always been waiting as well as watching.
And, if he ever doubted their special connection, she got up from the stairs and said, “Let’s get something to eat, Cuz.” She’d mumbled some other things—how her upstairs neighbors were loud, they sold cheap pot, she left her job—but he let those comments slip through his fingers, the familiar feel of desert sand always within reach.
After she went inside and put on some sandals and a long-sleeve shirt, she tossed him the keys to “BEBBA.” He wasn’t sure why she didn’t want to drive and didn’t ask. He unlocked the doors and dropped himself on the fake sheepskin seat covers. Other than tinted windows and a new swap-meet radio—several others had either been stolen, pawned, or broke—the old Chevy Blazer was just like the last time he drove it the night before high school graduation a few weeks ago. Some of the guys had wanted to go off-roadin’, and they convinced him to borrow BEBBA. “Sure, Cuz, sounds fun. Wish I could go,” she’d said.
For as long as he remembered, she either kept several jobs at one time, or she moved from one to the next, almost monthly. He never asked more than he wanted to know, which was never too much. But somehow, every job involved a uniform, a cash register, and a counter. He always seemed to be looking at her from the other side of something.
About to ask about the noise coming from under the Blazer’s rear end, he watched her push in a Mix Tape and raise the volume, which was already turned up pretty loud. To the noise of some Metal band, he drove south on Zaragoza Road and accelerated onto the Border Highway. She pointed the way west. At this hour, most of the traffic was coming in the opposite direction. People either commuting from downtown to the Lower Valley or heading for the Zaragoza Bridge, crossing back to Juárez from their jobs in El Paso.
Foot steady on the gas pedal, he tilted his head, struggling to keep the sun from blinding him. The visor was little help against the sun falling right in their path. The more he drove the more it felt like they were following a direct course into a fiery cave. He kept up this head-bobbing act for most of the trip without his silent passenger noticing.
Past the Midway Exit, she sat up and opened the glove compartment. He hoped that she was reaching for a different cassette. Coupled with the burning sun, the shrieking guitars were grating the insides of his head. Instead of changing the tape, she leaned over and got right in his face.
“Hey, what the hell?” he said jerking the steering wheel.
In a quick move, she put some sunglasses on his face and sat back in her seat. He gave her a hard stare and glanced in the rearview mirror. The sunglasses were neon green with blue lenses, probably another swap meet purchase. He was sure he looked silly but decided that it was better than going blind. And his neck was tired from keeping it arched.
He took another quick look at himself in the mirror, then at her, and said, “Thanks a lot.”
In between songs, he heard her familiar laugh.
“What are you laughing at?” He pushed the clownish glasses to the bridge of his nose and gave an exaggerated smile.
“You, Cuz. You always make me laugh,” she said.
This was his cue. He began making faces. She laughed harder. After more miles and more goofiness, Raul asked, “What’s with this music?”
Each song seemed to get louder and the lyrics, if there were any, less audible.
“Metal kicks ass! You don’t like it?” Laura responded
“Yeah, in buildings and braces, but not in my ears.” When he didn’t hear her laugh, he chuckled at his own attempt at a joke.
“Shut up. I got some Queen. How about that?”
“OK, but can we turn it down? I’m getting a headache.”
“That’s what you guys always say?”
He passed another highway exit before he got her joke, and his laugh came at the end of her baby rattle noise, “heh-heh” and “che-che.”
Feeling like they were kids again—baking cupcakes, watching home movies, sneaking into his older brother’s room—he wanted to keep talking and laughing, but she slouched back down in her seat and turned up the volume. He was glad that it was a song he liked, one with strings and cymbals—even a gong—to offset the guitars. The setting sun seemed to also recognize the shift in tempo and softened as the Juárez Mountains swallowed the radiant gold color.
He still didn’t know why he was driving across town in the middle of the week with his often-absent cousin. He hadn’t asked what they could possibly find in the west side and not in the Lower Valley.
Is there someone we’re going to see? he thought of asking her.
Laura had more acquaintances than boyfriends. And each one that he’d met was more screwed up than the last. He hoped that she wasn’t dragging him to some random guy’s house. Having to boost her up to a back window, empty drawers into trash bags, and clog up the toilet with men’s shirts wasn’t something he thought he’d ever do. And he was certain that he didn’t want a repeat performance.
On the thirty-minute drive on the Border Highway to downtown to Mesa Street, she didn’t share her reason for their trip to the west side. Over the years, while they harvested many secrets from the rest of their family, they rarely kept secrets from each other. He knew something out of the ordinary was up. He waited and watched for signs.
While the uncertainty of the drive unsettled him, he still ordered a chocolate shake at Whataburger’s Drive-Thru. She ordered a strawberry one. They shared some onion rings. Her half of the order ended up on the floor thanks to her impromptu game of ring toss with the gearshift. While they didn’t live under the same roof anymore, one thing they shared was their growing size. Their stomachs and butts were as misshapen as BEBBA’s worn-out seats.
The truth was that this aimless drive was a good diversion from his usual routine. No matter how he thought about it, he was bored. With everything. Cruising Chico’s with the guys. Partying in J-town. Especially living at home. He couldn’t imagine another day of sitting in front of a cableless TV set. “If you want it, you pay for it,” his mother had told him the day she had it disconnected. All she left him were the three major networks, PBS, and a handful of Mexican stations from across the border. While he didn’t get everything being said on the soap operas in Spanish, he did enjoy all the big-chested women who threw themselves in someone’s arms every five minutes. If he was really bored, he made up his own dialogue for the telenovelas.
Although his Spanish was as rusty as BEBBA’s fender wells, this was easy to do since he often inserted words and phrases from their own family dramas. Having eavesdropped on past arguments between Laura and her aunts on various occasions supplied him with plenty of dialogue. According to his cousin’s substitute mothers, being a single woman who dated more boys than the ones she called “novios” wasn’t right. He somehow understood that all this was because they were Mexican. He always wanted to defend Cuz by reminding anyone who would listen that they lived on this side of the river, even if only by a few miles. Without thinking about it too much, he recognized how the smallest of distance could make a big difference.
Thinking of his life after high school, he thought that if he was still keeping the journal he was assigned in English, there would be pages and pages of questions, most unanswered—ultimately, all pointing in one direction. It didn’t matter if it was east or west, north or south, as long the destination was far from Hell Paso. And its stupid location, stuck between two countries.
After following more of Laura’s directions, he pulled BEBBA into a look-out spot near the university campus. There weren’t any other cars around, so he wondered if they were even allowed to park here. They sat and said nothing as they slurped the rest of their shakes.
The idea of what “home” meant seemed to take on more meaning as he looked across the border in Juárez. Cardboard houses dotted the brown hills. Small fires popped up with each minute the sun descended. In the foreground, off to the right, the ever-present smokestack stood like a misplaced beacon for anyone driving on I-10.
“Have you ever seen the sun set?” Laura asked as she got out of BEBBA. He followed her to the back and dropped the Blazer’s tailgate.
Sitting side by side, they stared south. The Juárez Mountains appeared to be almost as close as the ones on this side. It was easy to get confused this near the borderline. Like pollution and poverty, the sister cities shared a desert landscape.
Before he turned his full attention to Laura’s simple question, she answered herself, “This is my first time… .” As always, she added a smart aleck remark, “I’m a virgin.”
He cracked a big smile as he scoped out the horizon punctuated by the smokestack and the Cristo Rey statue before responding, “I’ve seen it come up, you know, after long nights of partying. But never go down. Not like this, not this close.”
A few seconds after Cuz’s confession, warmth flushed over his body. And this was with the sun almost to rest and a cool breeze moving over this elevated spot. While they were higher up than the Lower Valley where they both grew up, cool nights were familiar to them. He felt an odd mix of hot and cool when he swallowed the last of his shake.
While earlier he’d worried about wearing down BEBBA’s battery, he was glad that Laura had told him to leave the radio on. It was turned to a Juárez radio station. Their older cousin had told her about the station that played pure Hard Rock and could best be heard on the far side of town. And if you were higher up, like here or at Scenic Drive, it seemed like the music originated on this side.
It was hard not to think of sides from this vantage point. His mind wandered and he got to remembering about the Science class when he must’ve studied radio waves. Seventh or eighth grade? Mrs. Smith or Mr. Breeland? He could almost picture the squiggly lines in the textbook: left and right for FM and up and down for AM. Or was it the other way around? He imagined the radio waves he heard as the mojados who crossed back and forth through El Paso/Juárez, considered “illegal” by many.
There’s no way for the Border Patrol to police what they can’t see, Raul thought. As if on cue, a helicopter hovered over the Rio, about where he estimated Texas meets New Mexico meets México. Its whirring propellers sounded like the feedback at the end of a guitar solo.
After a few songs he’d never heard before, a current favorite came on the radio. He dug the music video that got played all the time and tried to remember what border of the world the group came from. He and Laura sang along, messing up the words, taking turns yelling out the chorus, first in English then in SpanishEnglishSpanish.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Me debo ir o quedarme
Animated by the music, Laura jumped on the tailgate. She threw her arms in the air, swung her head, and kept singing after the song ended: Should I stay or should I go now? Should I stay or should I go now? The closest streetlight was about fifty yards away and did a poor job of keeping up with her dancing.
He got out of the way and stood to the side. If not for the big smile on her face, he might’ve thought she was having some kind of seizure. She was dancing. Yes, that’s what her arms and legs, her whole body, was doing, he assured himself.
With sunlight barely visible above the horizon, the landscape exploded into a psychedelic pattern. Purple passed into red. Yellow smeared red to become orange. A giant black light poster, like his brother had once bought at Spencer’s. His mother made his brother take it down when she found a roach clip in his nightstand. He remembered how that night his parents had a talk with him and his brother about drugs. When his dad mentioned hippies and mushrooms, Raul became even more curious. And now, years later, while he could count all the times he’d been drunk and taken only a few tokes of a joint, he imagined a ‘Trip’ (a word dad used) being this very moment. The sun’s last breath of fire. Laura Dancing. The radio playing the kiss the sky song.
Not caring. No one around to laugh at his dancing. He flailed his arms as if he were drowning. He marched stiffly like a soldier. He rocked his head.
Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes. More dancing. Much more.
He didn’t notice Hendrix put down his guitar, but he did feel his cousin staring. He stopped and stood perfectly still while his heart pumped to its own steps. His mouth hung wide open. Sweat sponged up cool air. His belly rose and fell, rose and fell.
From her perched position on the tailgate, she cast her eyes on him. In the final moments before complete nightfall, he saw a slick moon appear over her shoulders. In this strange light, he realized that she was crying. He took one big step and hopped up on the tailgate. BEBBA rocked on her poor shocks.
“Cuz, I found her,” Laura said.
Time passed while another song powered by guitars pierced the air.
“Huh?” was all he could push up his throat. His lungs were short on air.
“My mom.” She wiped her runny nose and continued, “She found me.” His cuz took an envelope from her shorts and held it out. “This came today. The address is on the other side.”
He didn’t know if he should take the envelope. The way she held it at the end of her fingertips made him think that it was too risky. Like if he touched it, it would burst into flames, a mini version of the sunset they’d witnessed only minutes ago.
She sat on the tailgate and wrapped herself in a tight hug. He reached in BEBBA’s backseat and found an Ysleta High sweatshirt. He held it out for her. When she didn’t lift her head, he placed it over her shoulders like a shawl and embraced her over her own embrace. She leaned into the space of his open arms. They curled up into a tight ball behind BEBBA’s rear seat. There was plenty of room since there had never been a spare tire where it should have been.
For the next few minutes, they said nothing. Hard Rock continued to fill the space around them. He was glad that the loud music shielded them from all sides.
In this intimacy, he forgot all about the letter. He didn’t need to read it to know that she was no longer an “orphan.” His only thought was how the sharing of this moment would hold them together.
Part of the same body. The same story.
While she kept her head buried, he was left looking at her bare legs curled up under her. There they were—shapeless ghosts. White patterns veiling light brown flesh. The past.
When he’d first seen the discolorations on her skin as a boy, they reminded him of stains leftover from spilled paint. As if no matter how much one scrubbed, one could tell that there had been an accident. And he guessed he wasn’t too wrong. When he found out later from his brother that the “birthmarks,” as Laura called them, were from her mother swallowing a bottle of pills while she was pregnant, he did think of Laura’s birth as an accident.
How else could anyone explain the kind of life she had? he’d often wondered.
His eyes continued to adjust to the nighttime. He felt the weight of his cousin’s legs on his and didn’t care that his fat limbs were getting numb. After a short time, when he looked down, he couldn’t feel his own legs and imagined hers as his own. From her mid-thigh to behind her knee on her right leg. From her calf to behind her thigh on her left leg.
He felt as if they were both submerged in just-hot-enough water. His arms on hers. Her feet crossed under his legs. Goosebumps all over. And when her head rolled onto his chest, he felt her sobs next to where he mapped his heart.
He doubted that he would ever feel this close to his cousin again.
© 2013 Richard Yañez