The Subaru's air-conditioning purrs arduously, pitted against the
one-hundred-and-one degree radiance of Texas, turning the dust on its dash to
platinum lint and setting twin suns afloat in the big black lenses hiding Tom's
wife's eyes. Crushed coffee cups, a foxed map folded to the Rio Grande, a
cinnamon-red stone saved from the cement waste of a rest stop where they changed
the baby's diaper on a shaded picnic table: the litter of five hours'
conversationless travel. Her silence isn't aimed at him, Tom knows. They're not
a couple to nurse mutual incomprehension in silence. Their trouble is more
likely to lie in expecting too much of each other, and so, after a little study,
he decided to leave Nina alone.
Ten miles back she caught his wrist and slanted it toward herself to read his
watch, and then, he thought, she would say something, she'd say, "It's two
o'clock," or "It's getting late," in the faintly marveling tone
she reserves for that observation, but she'd said nothing after all. In essence,
despite touching him, she had not felt compelled to acknowledge his existence.
She simply took temporary possession of his wrist. For years they had done such
things back and forth without their meaning anything. She had straightened his
tie, or he had brushed strands of hair from the corners of her smile. He
remembers once using a fingertip to rub lipstick from one of her front teeth,
the left one, which minutely, endearingly, overlaps the other, his favorite
imperfection in her body. In kissing her he used to search out that tiny overlap
with his tongue, adoring her for it. This time her clasp was too light to alter
the peacefulness with which his hand lay on the wheel. Her touch was utterly
familiar, light, practical, dismissive, quick. It made him nervous. Yet they
can't make each other nervous; it's a possibility that vanished from their
marriage years ago. They're so deeply unselfconscious with each other, in fact,
that it's not even clear that she "borrowed" his wrist, or "took
temporary possession" of it. It's as if she read her own watch, really,
moving her own arm slightly to do so. Thinking nothing of it. Her touch couldn't
have been more neutral, so why did he experience it as so suddenly, exquisitely
sexual? If a stranger, someone he's never seen before, touched him lightly, just
so, wanting only to learn the time, he would feel this distracted, this moved.
How can Nina's touch be as disturbing as a stranger's?
He grants himself the kindest interpretation: sex, sensing a vacuum, nimbly
presents itself as a way of making contact, though surely, for now, it's the
wrong way. He wants Mexico to be, for Nina, a giant garish distraction
gift-wrapped in noisy confusion: what she needs distracting from is the strip of
litmus paper, dropleted with her urine, that--one morning almost two weeks
ago--dyed itself brilliant indigo blue. Miserably unwilling to trust her own
eyes, Nina carried the slip of blue into the kitchen where Tom, droning like an
airplane, was steering oatmeal into Griffin's open mouth, while in the second
high chair Wills, Griff's twin, jealously waited his turn. Tom saw the slip of
paper; he read the meaning of its blue in her eyes; he said, "Oh, Nina, oh,
honey," and stood awkwardly to hold her while she cried herself out, and
Griffin, excited, dashed fistfuls of cold oatmeal, then his spoon, then his bowl
to the floor, and Wills, straining toward his brother, laughed in a dolphin's
manic, accelerating pops. "The damn diaphragm," Nina said, leaning
back in his arms to look into his face. "It's nobody's fault."
The suns in the big lenses hiding her eyes seem to brighten as the Saturday
afternoon traffic is funneled toward the border. An unimpressive bridge spans
sand and dun water. The boxes that should house Mexican customs guards
(bandoleered, in Tom's mind's eye, and suspicious) are boarded shut and
jubilantly graffitied with the names of couples and sexual acts. "They just
let us in?" Nina asks. "Hey, they love us," Tom says, cheered.
Garbo talks. The first they see of Juárez: a small park of dead grass and
monstrous dying palms where drivers smoke, leaning against rattletrap cabs,
mildly surveying the crush of tourist traffic fifty yards away. Tom could have
left the Subaru there, safe in its shiny, uninsured Americanness, and bargained
for a cab. Too late. His sunglasses are so clouded with baby fingerprints that
he hands them to Nina to burnish on her skirt, hoping that her gesture will
clear his mind as well.
"I want an abortion," Nina said, leaning back in his arms to look
into his eyes, over Griffin's squalling.
"Another child now would be a mistake."
"It's too soon."
"It's too much."
"I know," Tom said softly. He himself often turns up at the clinic
hot-eyed and disoriented with sleeplessness, late for his first patients, having
eaten only a test spoonful of oatmeal while the high-chaired twins cried,
"Da da da." In rooms of cinder block painted a curiously
enervating pink, Tom inoculates fragile, undershirted Pueblo elders with next
winter's viruses; he entreats pregnant Catholic high-school girls not to diet;
he tweezes slivers from the feet of toddlers twisting in the arms of
seventeen-year-old mothers, all the while wishing he were gifted with insight
shrewd enough to counter the ailments and little sorrows continually setting
themselves before him. Magically to end that stream. The fierce ninety-year-old
widow seated rigidly still in her white paper gown, presenting him with a spine
like that of a starving wild horse: What had she been living on? Cat food?
Communion wafers? He knows too little Spanish to ask. The necessary things, a
nurse translates for him. It was the nurse who laid a hand on the bony shoulder,
which flinched. Obviously his is no way to meet pain--across such an
uncomprehending, if courteous, distance. Doctoring, and understanding, must both
run deeper than that. Obviously he should learn the language. But he can't, or
he hasn't. He's picked up very little. He has no ear for it.
"What are you thinking about?" Nina asks suddenly.
He says, "Nothing. Patients. How's Wills? Does he look hot?"
She answers distractedly, "No, he's great," the tenderness in her
tone referring backward to ten months ago, to a relief so radiant that time and
well-being have scarcely dimmed it. Smaller than his brother, with a dangerously
low Apgar, Wills spent his first week in an incubator, his tiny heels
periodically pricked for blood, his curled fists smaller than violin scrolls,
his connection to them a thread, and his doctor/father could do nothing for him.
He howled. Nina rocked him. In neonatal care, there was a rocking chair. Hope
had always struck Tom as a mild quality, a virtue that, like faith, was part
suffering passivity; in Nina it flared in manic epiphanies, gifting her with an
immense energy founded on nothing. Staples sealed her crimson Cesarean scar; she
sang into the baby's perfect ear. Tom overheard their pediatrician telling a
nurse, "God save me from treating doctors' kids." Carmelita, their
neighbor, moved in, taking over Griffin, freeing Nina and Tom for the eventless
merciless intensity ruling neonatal care. Nina sang, "We all live in a
yellow submarine," and Tom remembered sliding the door of translucent glass
open to find his pregnant Nina basking in a hard shower, her belly's powerful
arch coronaed in deflected drops as she sang Beatles hits in her high offkey
voice. She chose "Wills" so that the name, assiduously, adoringly
repeated, would add, with each utterance, a feather's weight to the scales on
the side opposite death.
They were lucky. Wills weighing five pounds, they went home, but the
emotional constellation formed those nights in neonatal care subversively
persists. Of the twins, it's Wills whose hold on his parents is the more
clinging and infatuated, Griffin who chose to wean himself so dramatically,
biting Nina each time she unbuttoned her shirt for him. Riding in Carmelita's
arms down Safeway aisles, Griffin is taken for her grandson, so moon-faced and
mutually satisfied are they, and she explains no, this is her godson, which is a
lie, which is wistfulness because Nina won't have the boys baptized, and fends
off Carmelita's attempts to take over more of their care. Letting himself in one
evening, Tom padded yawning through the house to find Nina asleep in a pile of
dirty laundry, the naked twins cavorting around her. Just as Tom caught Wills up
in his arms, Griffin squatted sturdily to pee on Tom's favorite shirt. It was an
hour before Tom got both boys fed and in bed, and Nina still lay dreaming in a
welter of sheets and tiny filthy overalls.
Wills sleeps behind them in a baby seat engineered to survive an emergency
landing on the moon; Griffin has been left behind with crowing Carmelita.
"Did we lose a diaper in here?" Tom asks. "No," Nina says
shortly. A lick of red hair, loosed from her chignon, clings to Nina's nape, and
her freckles are out in force. Six lanes of idling American cars are the Avenida
de la Revolución. Neon ice in cones: their vendor, a pretty girl ducking to
Tom's window, smiles brightly to show missing front teeth. Nina rules out turista
with a shake of her head. The girl slides past. An Oklahoma Volkswagen filled
with laughing boys butts into the girl; she wheels to give them a frightened,
ruined smile. The horn is tapped--a sale, but blown when traffic is freed in
swift small shocks from its wait. Glacier-like, the glittering cars grind
forward in concerted, decisive inches. Nina bites her thumbnail in rabid,
critical clicks. What her OB/GYN gently told her was that abortions are not
considered safe before six weeks. She was--the sonogram proved--only four weeks
along. The wait is now nearly behind them; the abortion is scheduled for Monday,
the day after tomorrow.
When a street opens to their right, Tom tries it. "How hot do you think
it is?" Nina says. "Do you know where we're going?"
"Is there a dirty diaper lost in here?" Tom demands, with
such miserable rudeness that she scrabbles underfoot even as Tom chooses street
after street for their increasing emptiness, and the buildings on either side
grow smaller, meeker, older, and more foreign, their plaster no longer pink or
turquoise but dusty ochre, no neon in sight, no cold beer signs, no iron
flourishes. When Nina looks up, having found nothing, the world around them is
poor and shut against them.
"I hate this," she says.
"Well, we're lost." Desperately he's trying to reconstruct the
turns he took, each on the spur of the moment, no logic linking them. Behind
them, Wills says, "door," perfectly, in his sleep.
"Not lost," Nina says, "look," pointing as a bicycle
whisks alongside agilely as a trotting dog. Its crouching child, a wing of black
hair falling just shy of his eyes, asks Tom in English where he wants to go.
This sentence exhausts the boy's English and he can only, pitched forward
optimistically over his handlebars, wait on Tom's answer. He does this by
gracefully, agreeably coasting, adding not a pedal's stroke of pressure to his
sweet selling job. He's wearing a man's high-top sneakers, which gape around his
ankles, and his huge shorts are patterned with orchids.
Nina leans across Tom, her hand on his leg, and asks in Spanish to be led to
the big shopping mercado, por favor. The bicycle flicks away from them
down an even narrower street. "Hey," Tom says, worried. "Did we
have a deal, or what?"
"He's just showing us how good he is," Nina says.
"This street was never meant for this car." A glimpse of orchids
and pistoning legs leads into an alley. A dappled hen is flung underhand from a
doorway and buffets across their windshield. "Christ," Tom says.
"Did I kill it? Do I pay for it if I did?" The hen flutters away, Nina
watching. "The chicken's fine," she says. "Where's the kid?"
Tom asks. "Does he call this doing his job?" "Try turning left up
here." Nina points, patting his shoulder, Tom glancing back to find the
fender within inches of rasping the side of a burned-out, lavishly tail-finned
ruin of a Chevrolet half blocking the street. Nina cries, "No!" in
time for Tom to brake, the Subaru jolting to a stop, the boy in place before
them, slowing, holding up his arms to show no harm was done. Nina calls, "Oyez,
chico, demasiada serca!" and is ignored.
"He thought he'd lost his rich customers," Nina says, almost in
apology for the boy.
"No, he's a little daredevil," Tom says. "He liked that. Now
where's he taking us?" Because this new street is wider, overhung with
banners, and it opens into another street where there are cars again, clusters
of high-heeled girls in Ray-Bans, and shops with iron arabesques guarding
bleeding wooden saints and fawn ollas from Mayan ruins. A shirt-sleeved,
black-vested owner unfastens the series of locks on a turquoise door; the wings
and rear end of a light airplane are lodged surrealistically over the bar's neon
name. Here it is again, the blazing Avenida they had hoped to leave behind
"So he didn't know what he was doing after all," Tom says.
"Maybe this is the fastest way."
"How could it be? How old is he?"
"Eleven?" Nina guesses.
"Did you notice his hand?"
"He's got it bandaged in something filthy," Tom says.
"All I could see was his face. His face is beautiful."
The median line of palms cartwheels in fantastically slow motion under a sky
so hot its blue is beige. "I haven't given him a dime," Tom says,
"and he's sitting out there for us in the sun."
"If that bastard keeps blaring his horn, he's going to wake the
"I'll get out and beat the guy up."
"No. Me. I will," Nina says.
"Threaten him, then break his nose."
"I will." She makes a freckled fist. "It's that Texas
Mercedes, license plate, `Bones.' So he's a doctor, having his fit."
"You don't know he's a doctor."
"Doctors love that license plate."
Tremors run through the traffic. The boy waits for a slot to the right,
taking it so fast that Tom pops his turn signal and stares beggingly over his
shoulder. An opening granted by an Isuzu pickup; Nina waves thanks. The bicycle
dodges into five ominously charged feet of space before a truck whose horn
sounds a bullying fusillade. "No way," Tom says. Nina says, "Go
on. Follow. We must be getting somewhere."
"Did you see his hand?"
"I told you I didn't."
The truck's corrugated metal sets up in the sun such a malevolent glare that
Tom feels his depth perception vanish. He says, "He misjudged me. There's
no way I can get to him from here."
"We got him into this, Tom."
"It's over," he says, because it's like driving into a huge, hot
mirror, and the need for aggression is wearing against his temper. He is about
to misjudge something; he knows the signs. He lets the Subaru lag back,
relieved, sorry, defeated, hoping that his hurtful blindness will ease as he
looks over his shoulder at the slower lanes, hearing Nina cry out just as
something thumps the car and spills with a raggedly sliding, buckling momentum
across the hood and down; he has automatically slowed and stopped, he has even
convinced himself from the rear-view that he won't get hit from behind, because
while his fear is great, it has endowed him with the lucidity of adrenaline,
plowing him through a single vast thought at a time as everything around him
stutters, slows, and stops, and the beautiful life he lived before this moment
breaks off and floats away from him. A weary voice announces that his life as he
has so far understood it is over. Another voice assures him that everything,
everything was always leading to this. Nina pleads, "Don't go," in a
voice so passionate and clear that he listens to her, he stops, thinking she
understands something he's missed, but of course she doesn't, and though he
hates leaving her he answers in a voice as clear as her own, "I killed
him," and climbs from the car to crouch at what should be the boy and is,
instead, astonishingly instead, a duffel bag from which, by violently
shaking, he dumps five pairs of boots, their leather like glass in the sun. From
watching cars, he is called a whore's son. He yells, "Nina, did you see
these boots," setting each one upright on its sharp-toed shadow, dazzled,
disbelieving. She squats to face him. "Get up," she says. "A
million people are waiting." They stand up together, Tom drunk on relief,
puzzling out the license plate of the Mercedes before them. BONES. He
laughs. "Don't laugh," Nina says.
He takes her sunglasses off to see her green eyes. "I love you," he
"I know you do."
"How are you?"
"You're not faint?"
A big man, bearded, his shirt open far enough to show a second swath of
tightly curled black hair, lets himself out of the Mercedes. "You're not
faint?" he asks Nina, having heard Tom's question, feeling obscurely bound
to repeat it. "I'm a doctor," he says. "So is he," Nina
says, taking Tom's arm. "You were right," Tom tells Nina. "You're
always right. I'll never argue with you again." She turns so that her
forehead is against his shoulder, effectively hiding her face. She shudders. The
bearded doctor graces her with a truly troubled appraisal, head to toe.
"What's wrong here?" he asks.
"The boots?" Tom says, against the symphony of horns.
"We're having this fight," the bearded doctor says after a pause,
"and my wife bucks them right out the window before I can stop her."
In the minute he's been standing here, his chest hair has been brilliantined
with sweat, his shirt patched with damp.
"Why so many?" Tom asks. He really wants to know.
"I got a Mexican fixes the heels for me," the man says.
"Hospital floors wear them right down. My insurance is taking care of that
dent, now." He squints through a satiny black leather wallet for his card.
"Say, I know a place five minutes from here where we-all could--"
"You're crazy," Tom says. "Your damn wife could have killed
"An exaggeration," the doctor says, "though I can
Nina says, "Nobody's suing. It was an accident. An accident. We
see your side of it. But we're leaving. I'm driving," hooking her
sunglasses; Tom had forgotten he had them.
She drives, and either Juárez does not confuse her or the accident has,
oddly, relaxed her. A small street with one pretty restaurant in its middle
appears for her. Inside, the restaurant is wonderfully cold and dark. They
decipher the handwriting of the menus while Wills concentrates on a saltine's
cellophane. The waitress admires the baby's corn-silk blondness before
liberating him from his high chair and waltzing him away.
"I should trust this, but I don't," Nina says, and follows. From
the kitchen comes high, ecstatic Spanish: a baby party. Tom agrees with himself
that he's light-headed and should eat. The waitress reappears, alone, but with
huge plates of food. He tarts up his Tecate with salt and lime. In the poster
above him, the bull's head is lowered, the cape soars out, and the matador's
golden backside is beautiful as a girl's.
"Look at Wills gloat," Nina says, returning to buckle the baby in
his chair. "Did you know that except for that first week they've never been
"The boys?" Tom says. "I guess not."
"It's nice you're not raging over that dent."
"I was scared it was that kid I hit."
"You told me, `I killed him.' "
"`I killed him,' you said, so clearly."
"Well, didn't you think of that?"
"Maybe I could see better than you. I didn't think it was him you hit,
"So I'm the one who panics," he says, meaning he very slightly
doubts her word. He doubts that he went through those frantic emotions alone.
"Do you know that story Lisa tells?" Lisa is a friend of theirs, an
anthropologist working in Cusco; Tom nods. "The earthquake wakes her in the
middle of the night, and she grabs her husband, and they're flat in the bed with
fear, and it's this long, long time for them before they think of the baby in
his crib across the room."
"Whenever she looks at the baby now, she feels guilty for that second
she forgot him."
"Don't be like that. Don't expect me to be like that."
"I still don't understand you," Tom says.
"I mean"--she sets her fork down--"Lisa fears for herself.
That's natural. You feared for that boy. That's natural. All I think of is Wills
behind us in his car seat, safe, quiet, O.K., and my fear stops right there, and
it's natural. I'm not going to judge the way any of us feels things. In what
people feel, they're alone."
"But that's so incredibly lonely," Tom says. "I'll never
"You want to know the first time I even remembered that boy? When we got
back into the car and traffic had carried him away. And I thought, he's not
going to get paid. Then I felt sorry for him."
Wills oils a piece of avocado with saliva and skates it around his tray. Nina
says, "Eat it, Wills. Eat it. Eat it." Wills says, "Da fix,"
and throws it to the floor. He trades stares with his mother, angelic sweetness
on his side, maternal inscrutability on hers. Nina says, "Juárez is
terrible, isn't it? Let's just get out of here."
In the darkness, under a half moon, the border has backed up into a plain of
taillights. The only moving things are beggars. Tom hangs his hand out the
window, but when a crippled girl lifts twenty dollars from his fingers and
seesaws past on her crutches, he feels nothing more than if the wind had blown
it away. The U.S. Customs guardhouses are the waist of a vast hourglass letting
a red grit of taillights tick through. In the seat behind him, Nina nurses
Wills, being discreet because now and then someone, a one-legged man or a fat
woman herding four shirtless, shy children, leans right into the window, having
understood that the driver is vulnerable, is guilty, will give. Though Tom
empties his wallet, Nina says nothing. She doesn't say, "Save at least
something." Nursing, Wills fools around, following lute-like tones with a
"I wish I was you," Tom tells Nina.
"Because all you have to do is sit there, and he gets what he
She laughs, the first time that day. Tom keeps the Subaru nuzzled up against
the rear of an old Ford pickup. Four men are sleeping there, dirty straw hats
slanted down. When the truck reaches Customs, the inspector lowers his clipboard
and lets his flashlight wake the men. He orders them out. They clamber down to
stand ashamed in the concentrated light of the waiting cars.
"These guys will take forever," Tom tells Nina. "They're
Mexican, crossing on a busy Saturday night. I'd be suspicious."
"Of what?" Nina wonders, yawning.
"Don't you worry that Carmelita's husband comes and goes this way?"
Carmelita's husband periodically disappears back to his Oaxacan hometown.
"Sure," Nina says. "But he's paid somebody here. He knows how to
do it. I'm not even sure she'd mind if he went to jail."
"The last time he was home, I could hear them making love," Tom
"What do you mean, you could hear them?"
"I couldn't sleep, I was up, they weren't terribly quiet."
"Right next to the babies' room, they were loud?"
"Not loud. Not quiet. Just their voices."
"Were they happy?" Nina asks.
"Happy? Yes, they were happy. I think so." He waits a moment.
"Nina, we'll be happy again. We'll be fine."
"You don't wish you were me," she says softly.
She's still behind him, so he can't see her. "Why don't I?"
"You couldn't stand to feel what I'm feeling."
"What are you feeling?"
The four men swing themselves in, the pickup rolls forward, and suddenly Nina
and Tom are asked what country they're citizens of. The flashlight splashes the
back seat and dazzles Wills' eyes, starting him crying, and he cries as they're
gestured through, he cries all the way through an El Paso abandoned for the
night, he cries at the desk under the grim gaze of the clerk and up the elevator
of the hotel, the first hotel Tom saw, Nina holding Wills and humming against
his head, Wills crying in gusting wails, waking the fifth floor, the seventh,
the ninth, his breath coming in little stunned pauses, until finally, as the
elevator doors break apart on a genteelly lit and carpeted corridor, he shudders
himself calm, Nina wiping his nose on her T-shirt as Tom glides the thing like a
credit card into the lock. It sticks. It won't work. They will stand here all
night. At last it clicks, letting them in.
Tom lugs bags around and finds baby pajamas while Nina bathes Wills. When Tom
looks in on them--the mother leaning into the tub, the baby standing up sucking
the corner of a washcloth--Nina yawns. "I can't stay awake," she says.
"Please stay awake," he says, "we have to talk," but once
she's settled Wills into the crib, singing him through his resistance to yet
another strange place, she drags her T-shirt off, her shoulder blades set tight
with fatigue, her bare back brilliant in the moment before the bathroom door
closes. Fresh water is run into the baby's leftover bath, a hairbrush clicks
down against the sink, and then Tom hears her gratefulness as she enters the
water, the slide of her bottom against porcelain, her chin tilted up, he
imagines, so that the back of her head can rest against the cool rim. While
still distantly conscious of wanting to stay awake for her, he's asleep. Wills
whimpers and is hushed. Nina's in bed with Tom, then, and to his surprise she
wants to make love. When they're done, she's still lying across him. She sets
her cheek against his cheek, breathing past his ear into the pillow; she says,
"Sadness. Just such sadness"--answer to a question he can't remember
asking. She kisses him before he can say, "What?" His tongue finds the
tiny overlap of tooth over tooth and it is all there: his love of her, of the
pale, freckled body that slides from his. She turns her face away. He breathes
into bathwater-darkened red hair. He can tell, because the weight of the arm she
has flung across his chest grows subtly denser, the moment she falls asleep.
After a time, he follows her. In his dream he unwinds the dirty bandage from the
boy's extended hand and sees at last how to help.