Bordertown: Chapter Two

Chapter Two

     Children swim in that river — the one that slices through the two cities — or what little of it one can manage to swim in. It’s mostly just wading and splashing. The maquiladoras dump their waste nearby so that there’s a strange smell to the water, like rust and dry mold. The highway on the American side of the border runs along the length of the Rio for a time. And as the cars travel from one side of the city to the other there’s that view of the opposite side — the expanse of that sister city dwarfing that which lies to the North in population and sprawl. The children pay no mind to the buzz of traffic as they twist and leap through the spray and foam.

     And everyone panics in this desert country when water falls from the sky. Cars swerve to the shoulder of the highway at the first contact of raindrops on windshields. The streets flood quickly, not designed to withstand what amounts to a drizzle where I had grown up, in the inmost part of the Midwest. Droves of hysterical people rush home to close the windows they always leave open.

     There had been a time when his hands on my body had made me do things I could never have imagined prior — arching up or down into his form, fingers searching to draw him into and nearly through me. As loud as two people could be, so that neighbors left passive aggressive notes tucked into our mailbox among the bills and credit card applications.

     Then we moved, and it became a different animal altogether — once the fighting quickly began, the bruises and nail marks we left on each other after every verbal confrontation, when we had fallen on each other there on the floor of the kitchen out of pure carnal need, were no longer badges of honor, reminders of passion that we would touch and smile gently about later on. I would finger a days’ old pock on a knee or my lower back and wince at the memory, recall the disappointed wave that had overwhelmed my form as we had separated — each crawling away like wounded beasts to our far corners of the house.

     He wanted children by that point, felt that it was the next step, thought it’d settle us. Keep us grounded in the life we had chosen. I took my birth control pill every morning, standing at the kitchen sink while he sat at the nearby table, not looking up but still watching over the top of the newspaper he held open. Sure, I could do that in the bathroom, but I guess I wanted to make a show of it, wanted him to be certain of my intention every morning before we separated for work for the day. I could always see the dark twist of his brow and nearly hear the words he so wanted to say in that second before I swallowed. In that moment, I forgot anything other than resentment for his unspoken desire, and my inability to verbalize my own waxing desperation.

     We’d had that conversation, about children, a long time ago, when I had still wanted so badly to be in love that I would say anything to make someone love me back. He had been open about his aim to eventually have kids, clear about his desire to be the breadwinner of the family once they arrived. And I had been quiet about the gnawing feeling that I’d never be the person for that kind of life, had hoped it was something I’d  just grow out of at some point.

     But I still hadn’t. And his impatience with me was a simmering wall coming off him like heat off the desert floor. We lived in this mess, somehow. We lived for it. We fought nearly every night, but never about that. We fought around it, feinting at the topic but never opening it up fully. Somewhere inside of me was the stark realization that this was not anything I had ever wanted for myself.

          And soon it grew to be August — when clouds piled up on the horizon, surrounding the city, perched on the lip of the mountains, hemming in the oppressive heat. But these clouds did not descend into the valley right away, where we all watched with a mixture of anticipation, dread, and relief.

     “It’s gonna rain today.”

      He had said that every morning since the clouds had arrived. It’d been nearly a week. And he’d been wrong each time. It was Sunday again by then. I was still sweating from that last sprint at the end of my run and stood at the window eyeing the towering thunderheads.

     “You should take the jeep to your mother’s house, in case it does.”

     And when he came to me there at the sink and took the pill from between my fingers, I was frozen in a sudden state of confusion. He had time to toss it down the drain before I could manage action or words. So I didn’t manage either. Then he was touching me, the way he used to, the way I remembered but had forgotten for that spell since the fighting had begun, since we had moved to this place. 

     It was something to see, I’m sure. The way he guided me to the bedroom with a gentle hand in my own. The manner in which we laid ourselves on the bed and entwined our forms there among the sheets. The method with which we moved together, something we had not truly done in a long while.

     Thunder was wandering about in the sky as he drew off my sweat-soaked clothes and then his own. Rain began to hit the roof, quickening as did our breaths, building to a fevered rhythm.

     “What does this mean?” I asked, relenting so easily to his hands.

     “It means everything,” he whispered.

Bordertown: Chapter One

Chapter One

     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.

Local: Roommate (Part III)

The roommate was there too, on those Thursday nights at the bar. She and the other stoners from campus would light up in the gravel parking lot or, once they got drunk enough, in the tiny bathroom near the jukebox. Stella let it slide — they tipped well for a pitcher of admittedly-lousy beer, and as long as it wasn’t dealing or prostitution, she really didn’t care that much.

She’d be the first one dancing, always around 11pm, pretty plastered at that point and certainly high, turning slow meandering circles in her beat-up sneakers. It didn’t take long for the other women to join, and she and the girlfriend would laugh uproariously and hang on one another to the rhythm of the beat coming out of the old speaker, whose bass was definitely near-blown. After a time, the men finally got up out of their stools to spin the already spinning women, and she’d be grinning so hard her cheeks hurt.

There was a time she got the best friend to actually dance, and she and the girlfriend whooped in surprise and excitement so that the shyly swaying woman’s cheeks turned bright red. But she looked happy and that made the roommate nearly tear up. Even if it was only for a second, the roommate often sensed her joy all over her skin so that it felt like she was bathing in it.

When it got too raucous, when the dancing became too sloppy and the grinding too suggestive, the roommate and the stoners would slip away to walk back to campus. There were times they’d stop to light up in the dugout of the baseball field near the fence-lined barrier of the school. And times, campus security would roll by in the truck and they’d let themselves get chased off, running and laughing into the darkness of back campus where the trees hung low and old. Security would never follow, so they’d wait till the truck had finally driven off and then make their way out, tripping over roots and rocks hidden in the deep shadows.

Sometimes, when the sky was clear, they’d lay themselves in the cool grass of one of the sports fields and watch the stars for a long while, talking quietly and giggling in the night. An errant falling meteorite would send a thin plume of misty light across the sky and they’d all fall silent for a moment in quiet awe. And the roommate would cry a little, silently, so that no one knew and feel such happiness, but tinged with something like poignancy.

Then they’d all eventually rise and stumble to their respective homes. The roommate would find her way to the little house on the edge of campus and slip inside, turn all the lights on, grab a snack from the kitchen. Times she’d go straight to bed, and there were times when she’d settle down on the couch to smoke up one more time with the television on for company, volume low. And she’d often fall asleep there, but not before leaving that one last hit for the best friend she knew would, eventually, return home.

Local: Best Friend (Part II)

Her best friend was there too, with the couple, at the bar on those long and rowdy Thursday nights. She’d be close to the girlfriend — who was always at the center of attention — trying to join in the fun. The best friend knew the girlfriend’s routine with the crowd of regulars and assorted others, and she could, at times, enjoy the occasional attention being the best friend might bring. She smiled and laughed with them all, beer near her constantly drumming, ticking fingers. Sometimes she was acknowledged — they all knew who she was — but it was most often as an aside, and she was left to her own shy devices. The best friend was pretty, even more so than the girlfriend, but she lacked the charm, the social ease the other woman possessed.

Every now and then, when the festivities amped up and the jukebox came on, one of the men would ask the best friend to dance, and maybe that was out of pity, convenience, or good-natured regard — she was never sure — and her suspicious nature made the exchange more awkward that it needed to be, so that the men always got the wrong idea and sauntered away, annoyed and pride injured. So she’d end up on the fringe of the crowd, where, admittedly, she was more comfortable anyways.

At the end of the night, the boyfriend would rise from his place nearby and steer the girlfriend towards the door, and the best friend would follow. She’d take the sloppy hug from the girlfriend and let the boyfriend take her bike out of the trunk of the car where it’d been held in with a few bungee cords. It was an unspoken agreement between the best friend and the boyfriend that she’d take herself home, cycle the mile back to campus on her own, find her way along the gravel-cluttered streets and over the bridge spanning the gorge before riding swiftly down the shallow crest to the little house on the edge of town, the few lights left on at that hour blurring and streaking in her periphery.

The best friend would quickly store her bike in the garage and enter the house, into the living room, where her stoned roommate was in a passed-out state on the couch, feet hanging over the arm, and the cherried pipe still warm and glowing on the coffee table. The best friend would take the last hit, dragging long and slow, nodding to herself. There were times when she’d even talk softly to herself too, scrolling through her memories of the entire evening at the bar, chiding her own actions or inaction. Her gaze would be somewhere far off, eyes pointed towards the window as she exhaled thinning smoke into the room. She’d cash the bowl and turn off the low-volume television. Sometimes the roommate would wake up and slump off to her room with a muttered greeting and other times when she’d sleep through all the proceedings.

Then the best friend would walk through the little house and turn off all the lights, making sure the doors and windows were locked, before going to her bedroom, where she’d unclothe and lay herself heavily on the mattress in the corner. In the warmer months, the window was open and the curtain swayed languidly near her head, as she let sleep pull on her consciousness, and the process could be swift. But there were also nights when unconsciousness was distant and slow to come, and the best friend would lie among the sheets and just wait, eyes on the dimpled white ceiling above her for a long while that seemed to last til dawn was sure to arrive.

Local: Couple (Part I)

He didn’t drink much, but he was there when she did — one of her palms flat on the smooth, worn wood, the other propping up her swaying head as she laughed into the shoulders of the other men at the bar.  He sat quietly and watched her reddening cheeks and sloppy, flirtatious grin, he even watched her dance with them without changing his position, back against the wall, legs straight out before him, boots crossed at the ankle.  By the time she would have owned a couple pitchers by herself and a few shots of whisky, he had finished his first and only beer and knew when to rise to take her gently by the arm and begin to lead her away.  She‘d protest, stumbling and chortling, the crowd at the bar raising its collective voice to agree with her objections.  She was their clown, the one who drew laughter like air from their lungs.  Once she was gone they would have to make their own talk, their own laughter, and they protested at the idea.  She was flattered each time, but she always let him lead her away.

His eyes would meet Stella’s as she stood behind the bar, hands working to fill another pitcher of watery tap beer, and she’d smile knowingly and he’d nod before turning back to the body next to him and begin his way out the door.  He’d help her into the car, careful to make sure both her legs were inside before he shut the door and went to the driver’s side.  Her slurring words hummed in his ears as he drove the few miles back to the apartment above the laundromat on Theodore Avenue, a short block from the bridge spanning the gorge.  They’d drive by its yawning blackness, the lights from the other half of town spreading their tails of soft neon orange, yellow, and red behind.

Sometimes she’d still be talking, a chattering, excited four-year-old dancing up the stairs so that he would shake his head slowly as he followed her upwards.  Other times she had fallen asleep in the passenger’s seat by the time the car was parked in the gravel lot of the alley; he’d go to her door and reach over to release the seatbelt he made sure she always wore before lifting her to her feet.  One time he carried her, teetering awkwardly on the steep steps so that he almost fell backward when she shifted her weight in his arms.  Most of the time, he simply pushed her gently up, hand on her shoulder blade to steady her swaying step.  He’d unlock the door and they’d enter the darkened apartment.  She often nearly tripped over the cat as it rubbed its small body against her legs in greeting, tail curling about the calf and she’d put a hand against the wall as she made her way to the bedroom by way of the short hall.  He’d go into the kitchen to get some ice water and listen to her stop in the bathroom, sound of her bladder releasing loud as she groaned in relief.  There were a few times when she’d get on her knees before the toliet bowl and throw up, and he’d go in behind her, holding her hair back from her face as she wretched and trembled with drunkenness.  Then she’d place her head on the porcelain seat and smile apologetically with heavy, swollen lips. 

Eventually, she got into the unmade bed, after which he’d follow and draw her boots off her feet as she laid on her back, eyes closed, murmuring softly and he’d pull off her jeans before stripping himself down to his boxers and sit on the mattress beside her.  There were times when she rolled to him and pressed her chest to his, fingers feathering down his hip.  He relented to her desire and she’d open her mouth in long, low moaning, her sweat and his own moistening the sheet beneath them.  Or she’d be asleep, breath light, head turned to the side so that her face was away from him.  He’d watch her chest rise and fall, placing a warm hand on her shoulder.  Sometimes he’d prop himself up against the wall and smoke quietly, waiting for sleep to begin tugging at the corners of his consciousness.  The cat came in, jumping on the bed and curling against her side because it was her cat and liked her better, but he’d pet it, scratching beneath the chin so that it lifted its small head, eyes thin slits in its face, purring softly.  She talked in her sleep sometimes, and there were only snatches of phrases or lone words that he could make out.  If it was warm outside, the window would be open, breeze whispering through the screen, rocking the raised blinds up and down.  He’d exhale smoke in its direction and sit in silence, no matter what things slipped from between her lips that might make him curl his fingers back into his palms.