The story was very simple and it played over and over again like a film loop:
Grey had received a scholarship to study art in the border city of El Paso but she had barely arrived when she felt paralyzed. She didn't see people walking in the streets, nor fire trucks nor life in the buildings. She only felt the dust and a silence capable of letting loose her thoughts while she remained immobile on Stanton Avenue confused by the desolate view without future, without direction.
The desert made her feel uncertain, as did the vacant hallways of the university in which she would study, but above all the voice of the African-American security guard when she asked, “Whadayalookinfor?”
The question turned into an empty hanger in the closet of her mind. What was she looking for? “I don't know,” she thought. When she returned to the apartment where she had welcomed an Argentinian student who was in the same program, she counted the months. She had barely arrived and she felt the weight of the years that - she realized immediately - she wouldn't be able to endure. Alone, seated in the easy chair she saw a man through the window grates of her room.
"My name is Zambrano," he said and added, "I live in the basement."
Grey continued to feel uneasy about the flatness of the frontier, the way that anxiety had conquered her so rapidly, this pecking in her brain of thoughts that had become her enemies and sabotaged her plans. It was craziness.
"What are you doing here?"
"I came to study."
"To study here?"
She had the impression that the man was making fun of her.
"I'm a salesman... I spend some time here for business but I travel frequently and I rent another apartment in Austin. I don't like El Paso. It's like those motels. I prefer the road. Tonight I am definitely leaving for Houston, a city much larger and noisier than this... Would you like to come? After all, you're already on this side of the border," the man said with a knowing smile. He looked Mexican; perhaps he was an expert in greeting his countrymen at the border and introducing them to their new country.
"Why did you come here to study? This country is for other things. Think about it. I'll be downstairs if you need anything."
Grey, contrary to her own expectations, lifted her suitcase, stole a photo the Argentinian had hung on the wall, brushed her teeth, went down to the basement (over the entrance of which hung an enormous American flag) and said:
"I have to leave before the Argentinian gets back. I’ll wait for you downtown."
The southern afternoon sun gave the view a blurry glaze. She made herself comfortable at the bus stop. She imagined that sitting there with a suitcase that looked like a black cat at her feet could arouse suspicions. But no one saw her. No one was waiting for the bus. Not the veteran in his wheelchair, or the homeless person who approached her asking for money, and who only glanced at her for a few seconds.
If there had been time to think, doubts would have grown like splinters at the base of Grey's head. At that moment it was something bigger than the red brick buildings in front of her. Greater than the empty university standing like a sand castle. It was the certainty that she couldn't stay; in one way or the other she was born in a precise place, in a family capable of completely fucking up everything with its bad genes. Although she tried, there weren't many possibilities to escape from that when feeling and being mediocre was an inheritance and a destiny.
Zambrano arrived in a blue Cherokee and Grey got in, ready to know a city larger and more modern than El Paso, and of course, more than where she came from. After being on the road for six hours they entered a building full of rooms occupied by Latinos, the majority of them undocumented.
She stayed in Houston. She liked this: a sterile city which could be very quiet but still close to human noise, the modernity of the store windows full of merchandise, the sensation that she truly was living very far from home.
Within a short time, she was working in a typical Texas house, in charge of two unreasonably happy and precocious children. Then she managed a store selling Indian clothes. With this she had less desire to flee. She didn't believe that she, an unexceptional person, deserved the scholarship to study in another country, to have "better professional opportunities," as they said. But she was there. Just like her neighbors she was undocumented; for her family, who believed her capable of many things that they didn't dare to do, she was an art student.
Who knew why she persisted in the bad habit of not confronting her problems. She didn't go out much -she was afraid of being deported-, she worked mostly in the service industry and her student visa, that she carried with her, was her way of convincing herself that, in some way, however it was, yes, she was there in another country.
Grey bought long distance phone cards to talk with her parents. They never made an issue of asking for her phone number or her address, "where she lived with her Argentinian roommate, a student of history."
Thus, she maintained the lie. There were nights in which she awakened in panic for having lied, not to her parents but to the university that had gotten her shiny new visa for her; there were moments before dawn in which she almost heard the doorbell and then the voice of the Immigration Police.
She had arrived in the United States in January. It was at the end of September when she secured -after being a nanny and a manager of a clothing store- the distinguished job of hotel maid. She wasn't happy, nor could she say she was unhappy. She had very little money (enough to live on); she had improved her English (although not very much). Sometimes she had an impulse to get on a Greyhound bus with the longing to see other places. She never got very far. After all, what was it to arrive in New York without having any prospects? She continued to call Mexico every Sunday to speak with her parents. And that was her life until she met Abraham. She told her story to him and only to him.
"And what will you do?"
"Nothing. Stay. I won't leave here until an old divorced gringo wants to marry me... Have a child... Go to the university and apologize. Go to Los Angeles. Maybe there I would feel better and I could dedicate myself to polishing my "soul of a servant."
"You'll always have problems for having lied. We may be the most hypocritical country in the world but we don’t forgive people who lie and take advantage of the state's trust in them."
Grey knew that she was waiting for something, maybe some words, a breeze that would attach her to the country that, in truth, attracted her: the people and their conversations that never ended in anything important; the violence on the surface; the desolate places with the shine of modernity and the future; the wall of language. Nostalgia wrapped her in a bubble at the same time fragile and too hard to break.
They remained quiet. They felt a gust of wind, a swell of air that scattered the fallen leaves. A bad sign.
One of those afternoons, while she was waiting for Abraham to get out of work -he was a librarian-, Grey grabbed the receiver of the corner phone booth and dialed.
"I'm so glad you called!" her mother's tremulous voice was a warning.
"Why? Did something happen?"
"The usual. Your sister has decided to get married. How are you? How are your classes going?"
"Too many questions at once." From the sound of her mother's voice she realized that there was still something within her that allowed her to be surprised by ordinary events. "And why?" Grey added.
"What do you mean why? I don't know. For the same reasons that one day we want to break the tedium... And because we're idiots."
Grey had never expected that answer. She had the feeling that her mother had been a stranger for a long time.
On the other end of the phone there was a pause, an interval, the familiar sound of a radio looking for a station.
"You should come. Sometimes it's like nothing happens and then other times things begin to happen suddenly, all at once" her mother said again.
"I'll come as soon as I know the dates of my vacation."
"Could you bring a hair straightener? Also a coat, I suppose your sister wants something but it's better if she tells you by email, I don't know how to use it and I'll never learn."
"Whatever you'd like."
"Are you sad?"
"I already know."
"You know what?"
"All that I need to know."
"What are you talking about?"
They hung up. The telephone cord was like a metal plant drying up little by little. Grey felt herself tremble as if she'd suffered an assault. Contemplating her shaking hands, it distressed her that she was on the brink of breaking out crying in the middle of the street.
Then she knew that she ought to go back, that maybe they wanted to know what had happened to her, staying in a building that smelled of gas and the warm plastic of the heaters, plunged into a depression so great that she had not entered the classrooms of the university but rather a hotel called Paradise.
With indecision nibbling at her brain, she packed her bags. “Should I go or not? Will I be able to come back? And if I can't? I don't know what I want! Idiot!” she repeated to herself over and over until she saw her reflection in the window of the airport. To go back always seems like a quick and easy trip. And even more so from a country which had the advantage that all of its inhabitants felt out of place. She said good-bye to Abraham. Once at the gate she sat in front of three black women with thick dreadlocks.
"That’s all I'm going to tell you," said one while lightly shaking her head; the other turned away toward the window.
What was this "all" that she had said? "That’s all I'm going to tell you," Grey said quietly as she imagined herself talking to her small and circumstantial family to tell them of her failure, one so simple that she hadn't even managed to stay three days in the place and do something important: study, look beyond her own world.
As soon as she entered the plane she wanted to leave it. She knew that the minute they closed the door her opportunity to stay would end. In eleven months she had learned very real things. Cleaning the healthy butts of American children, selling Indian clothes to gringos fascinated by the exotic, and cleaning the nightly filth in the Paradise were ordinary acts full of life. No one had academic discussions, there were no citations at the bottom of the page, and there was no studying alone in cubicles while outside the dusk melted away like an ice cream.
"Are you sure?" was the last thing Abraham asked her. Abraham, with his biblical name, his thick eyebrows, his Jewish accent, his unambitious career as a librarian in the public English language school where they had met.
She was distressed by the way the airplane flew over the tall buildings, over a picture that was framed by her window, a picture of the lighted sign with purple letters that spelled out Paradise, the paradise that threatened, blinking, to burn out at any moment.
She vomited. It happened when they were descending, after four hours of flight and a stop in Mexico City. Upon landing she felt the first wave of hot wind and thought how quickly you get used to the cold. She was finally in her hometown, beyond the south of Mexico, even beyond the south of the south. As if she had been born in Alaska, she missed the fragile ice that covered the streets of Houston, the silence of the snow falling until it covered the ground. In contrast, here, in her city they were in the heat of the beach without the beach almost every day of the year. Immediately she remembered the sweating, the swelling of her face, the thirst.
Wearing dark glasses and bright new clothes, Grey walked to baggage claim. There was a certain self-confidence in her attitude: that of someone who had conquered new worlds. Then she saw them. She saw their faces pressed up against the waiting room window: three different gazes, distant, looking for her. Just like fish, golden although primitive. How far could a primitive goldfish go? She hugged her parents, no big difference in them, or perhaps all the changes that time imposed disappeared when seeing them so close. In contrast, her sister glowed with her open smile; her shining eyes marked by shadows.
"Your grandmother’s heart grew."
"And your grandfather, all of a sudden he forgets things."
"Maybe the most important," her mother said.
"Senile dementia," her sister added.
"For the moment, that's it. You came in time. Your classes are over?"
They all smiled and Grey thought they appeared comfortable acting this way, as though nothing had happened, because maybe nothing had happened, she decided while she let her parents carry her bags. It's what they deserve she said to herself and immediately felt shame for having thought it.
To return was to stop in front of a wall full of cracks splitting the new paint. The city had grown too much in too short a time; the new shopping centers lit the avenues, and even so, the light was nothing like that of Houston, a crude and exaggerated light that had always made her feel exposed.
They walked through every part of the house. It looked white and spacious. A comforting uterus that gobbled her up, gobbled up the weight she carried.
But Grey told other stories from the one that led her here. In her tales there was a young man from Wisconsin who was in love with her, a Jewish librarian; and there were two or three young Latinas both pleasant and arrogant.
"Arrogant or nice or the opposite, I don't know. They were my party friends," she said with pride.
They talked until they were exhausted. Her family saw her as happy and this irritated Grey. This is why she had left home: because this little happiness was smothering her, it depressed her, it was such a contradiction. Deep down maybe she was envious of not being like them: goldfish capable of being happy with themselves. She couldn't. She couldn't live here or there: she hadn't been able to study in the university, aspire to more, etcetera.
Her parents guided her to her room. Grey and her sister stayed awake a while longer. They were still talking when their father poked his close-cropped grey haired head in the door.
"Forest or ocean?"
And although the question was the same one that he had asked ever since they could remember, they could feel his gaze cross the darkness of the room. It had something to do with the desire to let go and fly, and the discomfort that they couldn't. "I can't do it," was the family slogan, the worst injury Grey and her sister received.
"Forest," they answered and their father left.
"Of course I'm not going to get married...! Aside from that, I'm fine.
Better than ever. I met a new man."
"The only thing I can tell you is that he has money. A lot."
"Do you love him?"
"What kind of question is that?"
Her sister was different. Everything was other than what it seemed.
"Of course they don't agree with it. You don't have daughters who are born in a shit neighborhood so that they can have affairs with politicians from the class that you hate. Or who knows... Maybe you do have daughters for that."
"It sounds like fun."
"Also you don't know how awful it is to see them grow old... When Papa brings me my juice in the morning he's just wearing underpants. Do you understand? Then, Mama has started to buy me dolls as if I were a small child... I can't stand the television at full volume...! And this fucking neighborhood full of gossips, I can't take it anymore...!"
Grey didn't want to know about the intimate life of the three people who lived in the house. She was struck by a feeling of guilt. Why did it have to be like this? The two of them fell asleep and too soon, from a distance they heard a voice, the signal that their father was awake.
"Sea or mountains?" the father repeated, wearing only his underpants, without any modesty in front of his daughters.
Then their mother appeared in her panties and brassiere with a glass of some thick liquid in each hand.
"Kiwi, pineapple, celery juice," she added, compelling her two daughters to drink.
They ended up at the ocean.
The landscape was an oppressive green. Cows over there. A volcano in the distance. Suddenly a car that wiped out the view with its speed. Or vans in the back of which someone could be committing a crime. From the south, her place of origin, the rest of the universe seemed distant. Grey imagined it this way: like a dull point, fine, where the lines of the highway come together.
"You went to New York? When? You didn't tell us anything!"
"Well, it wasn't a big deal... It was just four days."
“Is he Christian?”
"Don't be ignorant... He doesn't have to be Christian..." Grey said, irritated by the question. "I already told you he's Jewish, but that doesn't mean anything... He's an atheist."
But Grey realized that, in fact, she barely knew anything about Abraham, except that he was the only thing she had aspired to after she chose to leave the university to go to "a bigger city."
"What do you do?" he asked.
"I make beds," she said.
The afternoon they rolled around in one seemed like the highpoint of her stay: the neon flower of Paradise entered through the window.
"Do you think it will be difficult to get our visas?"
The question interrupted her memory.
"If you have 100,000 pesos in the bank, no."
"Ah," she answered dryly, "But you went… How brave you are! I never would have gone to another country. Without knowing the language. Talk to us, say something in English..."
This was the type of family she came from. Small fish, food, bait to serve as food. And coming from that she asked herself what more could she have done.
Looking in the rearview mirror (they had slowly merged onto the highway), Grey was nothing more than a talking mouth. But she believed it was the others who wanted her lies. And she talked. An English clumsy and lively, very different from the English of the one who worked as an illustrious hotel maid, sickened by the timidity of being a servant. She felt superior and at the same time she felt ridiculous. They headed toward the coast, a place even farther south and then after two hours of driving it appeared, a sea the color of zinc, its motion threatening a storm.
"When you get back from Texas we can come more often. We've even thought about buying some land here... Build, I don't know, enjoy ourselves with the children," her father exclaimed.
"I don't know,” he admitted.
They bought sandals in one of the stores that fronted the ocean. They ended up in the same restaurant they went to in the summer. The same high ceilings made of palm. The same fine, dark sand in which they dug their feet while looking at the malignant shine of the water on the horizon.
"My daughters, " whispered their father with a hesitant, uncertain smile.
"Our daughters," repeated the mother.
Grey breathed deeply, feeling like the salt was oxidizing her lungs.
Her sister looked away. Grey was definitely far away from the sea, with her head a little confused, her heart uncertain, feigning confidence and in reality wanting to rebel before they made another trip like this, one in which they would be trapped.
"I don´t know if we should be here."
"Another beer?" her father asked, announcing his tedious drunkenness.
Now everything was different. The loudspeakers were on and you could hear border music which made Grey aware of how far she was from Houston, and from El Paso, where the university stood unmoving with its walls of cement, vacant hallways, and an African American guard asking “Whadayalookinfor?”
"Why is everything so strange now?" the mother asked. "Can't we act as if everything were the same?"
Grey felt as if the waves were threatening to carry her off. It had seemed so simple to begin the story like a cinema flashback. In the end, it was their fault too; the bad genes that were in front of her eyes. A depressing mix, dysfunctional, mediocre, united in the elusive strength of the bonds that in reality incorporated the secrecy of the grave; a middle-class family like a timid band of fish without any other desire than to feel pride for having advanced a little, but just a little. Grey's lie was a collective lie.
"It's going to rain."
"What is it you know?" But Grey's mother changed the question.
"Why don't you go to the hotel to see if there are rooms?”
Maybe this was the origin of the lack of foresight in their lives. From what she could remember, never in their trips had they made reservations. It was always forest or sea like two itineraries without plans.
When they were alone, the sisters looked at the waves and her sister said, "They act as if we hadn't grown up... It annoys me, that's all I have to say."
Grey wanted to hug her and tell her that at this point, she should be writing notes for her thesis, but instead she had dedicated herself to running around after children fed up with being so healthy, to making hotel beds with pillowcases smelling of lavender. But no one would believe her, and at the worst, they would see her as she was; a provincial woman who had wasted a great opportunity.
"It doesn't matter that you don't love him... Marry the guy, the rich guy."
Grey supposed that that was provincial too.
They saw a misty line in the horizon that became a downpour. Grey had wanted to leave before her roots sank deeper in the restless hard sand but the feeling left her with the rain. From where they were, they caught sight of their parents, small in the distance. They gestured, calling them. Father and mother caught up with them.
"Are you cold?" the father, a little drunk, asked.
Then he threw himself into the water and began to swim.
"What are you doing?"
"Hey, what are you doing?" yelled the mother.
Grey thought of Abraham, of the fact that she could no longer return to the United States. What are you looking for? She should tell them. After all, she had improved her English and had reason to brag: she had been there; she had gone a little further than she had imagined. Also, why try to know more when life presented questions for which there were no answers?
Her father didn't emerge from the wave. Suddenly she realized that her mother and her sister were flapping their arms with movements that could mean they were enjoying themselves or could also be signals of alarm and desperation.
Translated from the Spanish by Pennell Somsen
Pennell Somsen is a 2015 graduate of CUNY (City University of New York) Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies. Her published translations include “Cowboy Boots” in the Rio Grande Review (2015) and “Casas” in Delos (2017), both by Nadia Villafuerte. An essay in Spanish appears in Memorias del Coloquio de LART 2014.