Time was measured counting dog carcasses along the roadside, like a prisoner scratching days from a stone wall, calculating how many chalky white mounds of flesh I’d find concealed in lime between house and city to mark the passing weeks.
“Well if it bothers you that much don’t look!” he’d bark.
“Is it some kind of sick game?” I’d growl. “It seems like they’re trying to hit them.”
I’d ignore his flared nostrils and the way his shoulders spread alpha-wide when he hackled at my complaints.
But dead dogs weren’t the only navigational setback on our road.
There were donkey carts piled high with cilantro the colour of raw chlorophyll, and drifting clouds of stench that rose in tendrils of steam from the open sewers in the fields every morning. There were patrolmen dressed in smog-coloured uniforms riding white motos like urban stallions, waiting to stampede the blue-eyed ladies with foreign plates. And there were roundabouts, those treacherous, prayer-invoking glorietas where you’d manoeuvre into the fray one second only to be spun out the next; always hoping it was the right spoke off the wagon wheel lest you’d be forced to go around again, or have to deviate past the shanty towns.
“Well you were the one who wanted to live out here,” he’d say.
“Because the mariachis were driving me crazy,” I’d retort. “And that smelter is toxic,” I’d add, throwing my hands into the air for the kind of emphasis his medical eyes might diagnose. “How can anyone live near it?”
Like all other things in matrimony, what seemed akin to moving across the spectrum from infrared to ultraviolet for one, was considered a safe enough distance to the other. Twenty kilometres from the slag heap converted into ratios of dead dogs versus live ones, carts against cars, bribes or no bribes, and the clash of inner-city traffic as opposed to the perils of a peripheral life. It was a trade-off between the city’s neighbourly fiesteros singing romance at three in the morning, or the cock’s own serenade at dawn. Choosing the cock was what got me here in the first place, I’d think, without a trace of irony. Sanity versus insanity.
Four fateful words.
“I will marry you.”
But there were concessions, too, certain indulgences to going rural, like the reticent lady who’d shuffle past the house, unwrap her shawl, and pick up a broom made of bundled twigs to sweep the walkway based solely on her hope that I might have spare change in the clay dish beside the door. And my buddy, a tar-skinned paraplegic who sold bags of fresh-picked mandarins from his acrobatic chair at the stoplights near the bridge.
To this day I’ve never tasted a sweeter mandarin. His face, blackened by years in the sun, would crinkle at the sight of my outstretched hand waving paper money like a flag in truce. He’d spin towards me, popping wheelies and dodging other cars.
“I’ll take two bags, amigo. I’m making gelatina today.”
“God be willing, ma’am. See you soon.” His teeth were Hollywood white.
I knew people with full use of two good legs who were never that joyful.
And the car would smell like Florida.
“You have to wash that fruit,” he’d state as I arrived home.
“I’m peeling it,” I’d rebut.
“You have to wash your hands too.” He’d shake his head, knowing I could be stubborn.
“It won’t kill me.” I became an authority on how to survive.
While there were rules to living in Mexico I had difficulty following some: greet each person in the room with a kiss, never wear shorts in public, always sit with the ladies at parties, attend your mate or someone else will tend him for you.
It’s easy to scoff at social etiquette when you haven’t been bred that way, until you start breeding your own and the differences between you suddenly grow so colossal they no longer fit inside your own blinkered view.
The stork arrives and days and nights become a study in shades and contrasts: when innate disparities get placed on the ever-growing list of things between you requiring something more than compromise but slightly less than sacrifice and you seek the grey areas because right and wrong are always unforgiving.
“Leave him with the maid.”
“I’m not leaving my infant with a maid.”
“Nothing’s going to happen.”
“I’m not that kind of mother.”
“I’m going then.”
A Canadian mate wouldn’t place such demands, I’d reflect.
I should have married someone from here, I’d give him a mantra too.
“Tell me again why we have to invite a hundred people to our son’s first birthday party?” I asked.
“Because if we leave anyone out they’ll feel offended,” he said without looking up from his paper, secure in the black and white knowledge on his page.
“These sandwiches are delicious. Can I have your recipe?”
Was she a cousin or an aunt? I’d forgotten how that worked.
“It’s peanut butter and jam,” I said with a shrug and a hasty explanation on childhood staples in my country.
It took years for me to realize that his cousins and aunts were never really interested in the recipes. They were interested in accepting me but I’d been oblivious to the signs and appraisals, like the compliments on how rapidly I’d learned the language or how blonde our children were.
What does having a university degree matter when one’s net worth, one’s practical value, is suddenly defined by how successfully one hosts a party or the colour of one’s eyes?
“I’d like to go back to work,” I’d whimper.
“You can’t work and be a good mother at the same time.”
His foot was down. Down, like his father’s before him. Planted deep in expectation. Rooted in what he thought was proper tradition. It wasn’t his fault.
“My mother worked her whole life,” I’d assert.
“The kids need you,” he’d cajole.
I couldn’t argue with that kind of truth. There were times when we played off one another like wind over water, undulating to the tide’s gentle ebb and flow: his caress a salve like Arnica to a purple bruise, his kiss a mist-like breeze across my arid landscape.
“See that red lightning bolt on her back? She’s venomous. You got that buddy? Check your shoes from now on, okay? Always!” They did need me, but I needed them more.
I caught the boys poking a scorpion with a stick on the street one day, and chasing a baby rattler down the road on another.
“Watch out for the mother,” I’d warned, pulling them back to safety.
It’s all fun and games until the mother gets involved. And without realizing how or when we’d gained fixed habits like tipping out runners, shaking out towels, and never putting bare hands into dark crevices where black widows might nest. You discover these things the way you discover what to do when a bear wanders onto your campsite in Algonquin Park: you learn how to live or die.
Never get caught between a cub and its mother.
And when the small, filthy children paced the dusty roadside selling packets of gum or bags of candied nuts, I would seek out the mothers, unwilling to believe that any parent, no matter how poor, could let their child get so dangerously close to moving vehicles without proper supervision.
I’d find them, their arms laden with wares, working the stoplights, and we’d give each other knowing glances over the metallic sea as I handed their child a free coins before driving away to my clean home with floors and toilets and servants.
“Where’s Helena?” he’d seldom ask.
“Why?” I’d answer with a query of my own, eyebrows raised and senses alert, not because of him but because of his culture. There were modern legends about patrons who ran away with their muchachas.
“I need my blue shirt ironed.” He spoke to her so rarely it captivated my interest.
“I can do that.” I took ownership of all things him when necessary.
“That’s what we pay her for,” he smiled.
“I gave her a raise,” I smiled back. “We pay her bus fare now. It’s only right.” His generosity towards anyone less fortunate made me a better person.
The heart of every upper-middle-class Mexican home: we shared Helena with our neighbour like a cup of sugar or a missing egg for the soufflé.
“Can I have her Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday?” Cathy might ask.
“Sure, that works,” I would agree.
Three days for each of us and one day for the Lord, she bounced between our homes with ease. But I couldn’t pay her more without causing a revolution, even if my small-town upbringing begged me to.
“If we do that, the other maids will demand the same pay,” he pointed out. “They’ll hate us.” He meant the employers, not the employees.
Helena and her contemporaries earned the equivalent of twelve dollars per day.
“She’d be making twenty dollars an hour at home,” I stared off in the distance, eyes stuck to a cactus, knowing that my comments were futile. I’d already learned that you couldn’t play hypothetical games without consequences.
“This is her home.” There were times when I needed reminders.
I’m sure I was the only employer in the colony, or possibly the entire city, who prepared their servant girl a hot cappuccino on cold autumn mornings, or hugged her on her birthday, or loaned her gold earrings to wear on her wedding day; the very same earrings that had pinched the employer’s own ears on her wedding day.
“Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue,” I’d said with some kind of nostalgia.
“What does that mean ma’am?” she asked.
“Do you have anything special to wear?”
“I have a dress.”
“You can borrow these earrings for luck. It’s an old tradition where I come from,” I explained.
And the neighbours simply thought I was cute. A quirky foreigner who did things her own way. No revolutions. I was forgiven for my many eccentricities.
We shared the kind of community that others might envy so it really came as no surprise the day Cathy knocked on our door before dawn.
It wasn’t alarming.
They say that facial expressions transcend race and culture. Humans have similar ways to wear emotions on their faces and in their bodies regardless of how they’re raised, their cultural and religious beliefs, or their countries of origin.
They also say there are moments in life that are pivotal, central to all other things, like roundabouts that spin you off in a direction you never expected, onto a road you’ve never travelled.
So I already knew, even before the words spilled from her mouth, that something was wrong. I knew it in her hands, in her shoulders, in her creased forehead; and in the fact that she wouldn’t be standing on our doorstep at this dark hour on a school day without good reason.
I knew it, the way dogs must surely feel the low rumble of tractor-trailers as they speed down the highway, or the way a roped horse’s ears perk up when he hears the rest of his herd galloping away.
Four fateful words.
“There’s been an accident.”
Some call it autopilot. Others call it instinct. I was in motion before she finished speaking, counting seconds on the clock, envisioning each of them whole and intact with my talisman thoughts for three.
“Tony called… he’s with them now… do you want me to stay with the little ones…?”
Miraculously my mouth worked, “Where?”
I wrapped them like tacos and ignored their sleepy questions. Cathy helped. We each carried one small child to my waiting chariot.
“Just on the highway.” Close enough to hear if you’d been listening. “I’ll follow you,” she called out.
I wore the amulet of hope like a noose around my neck that day while racing through the black.
“I’ll take the boys early,” he’d said. “You won’t have to make two trips.”
A morning, just like every other, filled with toast crumbs and over-stuffed backpacks and the kinds of conversations we so easily disregard until they’re gone. “Did you get your homework done? Where’s your brother’s sweater? Want more yogurt? Hurry up it’s time to go. Love you. Turn your brains on. Do your best. Yes, I’ll pick you up at two. Drive safely….”
There were lights. People up ahead. So close. So damned close. Accidents often happen within five kilometres of home. They’re the deadliest kilometres in existence.
Screech. Halt. Stop. Breathe. Hazard lights are flashing.
I triaged them intuitively, as nurses do.
He was standing bathed in the headlights from Tony’s van, waving his Latino arms around his beautiful Latino head.
I bent down, kneeling before the beast that had tried to swallow my children whole, and peered in at their pallid faces covered in the glitter of shattered glass.
The noose released.
“It’s okay. I’ve got you. I’m here. Are you hurt? You’re both okay. Come with me. Wait! Don’t blink. You’ve got shards of glass in your eyes. Try not to blink. Can you climb out? Good. Be careful. You’re both safe. Don’t worry. Shhh. It’s okay. Daddy’s fine too. I’m taking you to the hospital. Everything’s fine. Shhh.”
Did I know the physics behind such an impact? No. Sixty-five tonnes of force. At that speed it was like hitting a concrete wall rather than a pregnant mare.
Like me, she never knew what was coming when they hit her from behind, taking her down behind the knees and propelling her onto the hood, rolling her over the roof and kicking her off the boot. She’d crushed the car like it was a tin can but my children and husband were somehow unharmed.
And while the adults had words with the policia and someone who claimed ownership of the carcass, I whisked my children away. Let them try to slow me down, I thought as I willed white stallions to chase me just this once. Come on you bastards. Do it!
I learned later that the adults had been standing there arguing about three things: Why was the mare loose on the highway? Was my husband sure he had insurance? And praise God that no one was hurt.
Strictly speaking, it was a divine miracle that they had walked away unscathed.
Statistically speaking, I thought their salvation was far more exceptional than the biological rarity they’d hit, because a female mule, the cross between a jackass and a mare, should never have conceived. And half of our family should have perished.
We met at the junkyard later, medically released to live good lives, where the crushed and broken vehicle sat in testament to our fortune, and we paid our last respects.
No human blood had been spilled, no skin or bones were broken, and silent bruises would heal in time. We’d discovered that nothing else ever mattered.
What do we take away from any accident, whether it’s one we must endure or one that transforms us completely? The chance meeting of the one person who will change your life forever, and the accidental ways in which you learn to mesh two lives. Or the unexpected realization that nanoseconds always count for everything.
We began to navigate our partnership with a little more caution, with the extra care and vigilance required of every marriage, on any given path, regardless of the obstacles.
I stopped counting dead dogs and started watching the donkey carts with their drivers perched atop their mile-high cargo of soap-scented herbs, guiding their produce to market, and I always waved them on.
My cargo was precious. I had all the time in the world.