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Elizabeth Tallent

Ciudad Juarez

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."

"I know."

"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 forever.

"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?"

"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 baby."

"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 says.

"I know you do."

"How are you?"

"I'm fine."

"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 somebody."

"An exaggeration," the doctor says, "though I can understand--"

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 apart before?"

"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 remember."

"`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, no."

"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 believe that."

"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 lusty grunt.

"I wish I was you," Tom tells Nina.


"Because all you have to do is sit there, and he gets what he needs."

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 says.

"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.

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