The most beautiful and the ugliest place I have ever been.
The curve of that city, cut in half by the sludge trail of the Rio Grande River, clings gracelessly to the crumbling spine of the mountains, splaying out into the desert, stretching for miles in any direction available. There is nothing beyond that urban sprawl except yucca and sagebrush, yerbasanta and vacancy.
We lived close to the earth, among the dirt and sand, heated by the sun’s near constant presence. They often say that the desert sun “bakes” all it touches, and this it did there — where there grew nothing tall enough to block its force, not even the looming circling of foothills and mountains. In fact, they only served to condense it, funneling that heat through the pass like a wave so that it spilled out into the desert that ran to all horizons. It was something like an oven on even the best days, when gravity’s yoke felt heavier than it ever had managed before.
The Rio Grande had been reduced to a trickling stream in places — as it created a border out nothingness, wallowing far from either of its wind-eroded original banks. A sad product of irrigation farther upstream by the New Mexican farms —pecans and almonds mostly — sluicing the water for irrigation, flooding the orchards and fields. A border between countries, that river served as no deterrent to crossing in its sorry state. So its status was fortified with other barriers and means of deterring those with eyes that desired more than they should — the razor wire lined bank of fences, the canal with swiftly flowing water that could suck a person under in seconds, the motion sensors and the dirt paths down which La Migra inched their vehicles, waiting, preying.
He didn’t hit me, though there were moments when it seemed that he wanted to. And I, him. We fought like howling dogs most nights, yelling and spitting words at one another across the faded tiles of the kitchen, circling the table — the only thing between us. Despite the darkness outside, we’d still be sweating those nights, heat left over from the day caught in the folds and creases of our skins, escaping only in the slurs and curses we threw at one another over the table. It was something to see, I’m sure. But there were no witnesses to our battles.
We had lived in El Paso proper the first year of our marriage — in a tiny ranch house in the foothills overlooking the river — and we had been somewhat happy there among the people he grew up with and whom I had come to know and enjoy. We had friends, most his, some mine. We went out at night sometimes. We would still even hold hands.
It had seemed like a good idea when he bought the big property out a ways from the city. He used the money he received when his estranged father passed, finally finding some use for the man, even though it was only upon his death that any value could be located. It had seemed like a nice idea to the both of us — the space and distance would do us good, we thought. I had always longed for space like that after living in urban settings since childhood. The romance of it, the grandeur — I had always dreamed of that. And in some ways, it was liberating and fulfilling, for a while, living in that adobe house in the stretch of land as close to the state of New Mexico one could be without leaving Texas.
He worked for the local prosecutor by that time, as a paralegal, driving along the border fence in his white SUV every day to the center of the city, to the great mirror-windowed courthouse. He never told me about his cases after the first year or so. It was always strange to me that he never said anything about those people, the ones who he worked so hard to convict and put away for unspeakable acts against others. But I could tell on which days they’d sent someone away — could read it from his stooped shoulders and the tight look in his eyes. There was so much that one man could do to another, and he saw it plainly.
I ferried people up and down the mountain, to and from the nature park at the top. I had a badge from the state and I carried pepper spray, but I didn’t need it. Most everyone who was taking the ferry was in a good mood — enjoying a day off, enjoying the view, talking to one another, and to me. I’d no sooner get an excited group of school children up to take in the vast expanse of space — land and sky both stretching out for hundreds of miles in all directions — then I’d be ferrying some family back down to the parking lot where the hot cars waited, stewing in the heat that shimmered on the valley floor. He’d proposed to me up there among the blue and green speckled hummingbirds that fluttered in the higher, cooler temperature. For a time, I remembered that each time the tram rose to its highest point and the doors slide open to the winds. But people forget, and I suppose I grew to do just that.
We arrived home at near the same time of evening, both walking into the same house, pulling off our shoes and laying them on the same mud room floor. But our minds were far away, the distance between us only cleaving larger, farther apart with each day.
After the first winter came and went in what seemed like only moments, the second desert summer of our marriage set in, frying the air and everything it touched, including the two of us. The days boiled into the nights, and it seemed to also boil our blood — scrambling our brains — causing us to be ripe for fighting.
It was the little things that stirred us up against one another — the dried crumbs on an already-washed dish, the askew lid on a jar of mayo, the crease in the entry rug that tripped one or the other of us, whatever. The littlest thing was enough to set off the verbal assaults. Then it would all come out, everything that had been building, all of it, since the day we had met. Nothing was off limits.
I would tear into his co-dependence on his mother, and he’d swear at how spoiled I had always been. Then he’d shout about my malingering nature, and I’d scream at his lack of motivation for anything other than his own comfort. This would go on for a time, maybe an hour or more. The topic changed rapidly, from the mundane to the esoteric, flipping on a dime’s edge. Then it’d eventually turn to sex — I would insult his stamina, and he’d savage my lack of creativity and willingness to experiment.
Then we’d fall onto one another there on the tiles. It’d be hard and quick, just as it always was. When it was over, we’d both be disappointed, just as we always were. So we’d separate, collapsing on opposite sides of the house, as far from one another as possible. This became ritual, routine for a long set of months, into the monsoon season — until the rains finally arrived.