The man who helped Alejandra with her luggage was missing part of his left hand. His pupils looked like brown globs of paint dropped carelessly into the clouds of his eyes. He put down her bags and mumbled and held out his hand.
After checking in, she found the gate lobby and took a seat opposite three hunters in their camouflage greens, clothes that do little good when trying to strike down jackrabbit in the desert. Her father had been a hunter and once showed her how to use a rifle. She enjoyed firing the rifle.
“Where you off too?” one of the hunters asked.
“Boston,” she said.
“I love the way you pronounce that. Like the queen of a lost kingdom.”
“You mean gracias, don’t you?”
The two hunters to his side opened their eyes.
“Are you visiting someone?”
“No. I’m going to school.”
“Oh, a smart spic, didn’t know there were too many of those.”
Alejandra lowered her head.
“Don’t mind him,” one of the other hunters said. “He’s mad we missed our plane. My buddy here shot a hole in his foot.”
“Can I see the hole?” Alejandra asked.
The third hunter took off his boot and then rolled down his sock and exposed the wrapped foot. He unwound the gauze and the other two hunters looked away.
The wound was purple on the outer edges where the tiny bones had shattered. The hole was covered over by an almost caramel color like flame applied to pudding. She wanted to touch it, but he began to wrap the wound and pull his sock tight around his calf.
“Not much to look at,” he said.
“It’s a fucking horror show,” the first hunter said.
The other hunter slipped his foot carefully into his boot.
“Anyway, it hurt like a son of a bitch.”
She looked up at the departure time and then to the clock attached to the far wall. Boarding would begin soon and she decided to use the restroom before getting in line.
“Goodbye,” she said.
“Have a safe trip, sweetheart,” the first hunter said.
The others saluted her.
She washed her hands and face and went to the stall and had a cigarette, blowing the smoke up into the vent. She put the cigarette out in the toilet and chewed a piece of gum. She checked her face in the mirror and went to her gate.
It was a small plane. She had a seat by the window and for a while no one sat next to her, but finally, when the plane was nearly full, an older white woman took the seat. She was a little heavy and sweating from hurrying down the jet way. She wore a cross at the base of her neck and her hair was rough and knotty, tinged red as if the sun had changed the follicles forever.
She took a napkin from her bag and wiped her forehead. Alejandra watched her and then turned to look out the window, noticing that the wing seemed somewhat flimsy to be carrying all these people and a portion of it looked duct taped.
She pushed the window shade down and sat back.
“Oh, please, darling, keep it up so we can see ourselves leaving the earth,” the woman beside her said.
She must have thought Alejandra had not heard her because she reached across and pushed up the window. She kissed her index and middle fingers and pressed them against the pane.
“I told them window seat, but do I ever get what I ask for? No. Maybe in the next world. Are you a believer?”
“Believer in what?” Alejandra said.
“Jesus Christ. Our Lord and Savior.”
Was it a question of believing or a question of knowing? There was a photograph of Alejandra’s mother with her hands clasped on the sides of her round stomach. She told Alejandra she used to pray with her. The warmth of her prayer and the sound of her voice delivered sonic messages of life in the hereafter and life that was not yet here.
“I think so,” Alejandra said.
“You can’t think so. It’s something you feel in your heart. Understand, pretty girl?”
The woman took a cross carved from a modoño tree from her purse and put it in Alejandra’s palm.
“For you in your journeys,” she said.
As the plane circled East Texas Alejandra watched the wing, the flap open in resistance, descending with a word from the pilot who sounded calmer than the desert at dawn. The woman next to her held on to her crucifix with her eyes closed.
“Don’t you want to see?” Alejandra asked.
“No, dear. I only like to see us leaving. When we return I know too well the ills I’ve been sent to rectify.”
“Ills of America?”
“All over the world, but in America more than anywhere else. We’re responsible for the world.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, you’re not American.”
“Do all Americans feel this way?”
“If they are true.”
The woman put her head forward and Alejandra saw a bump of some kind protruding from her back through the open hole of her blouse. What kind of God deformed its saviors? The plane wheels bounced on the runway. Children shouted, a baby wailed, teenage boys cheered their return home from a place they will claim to never forget but already cannot remember.
At the customs station of the George W. Bush Intercontinental Airport, the customs official said she was pretty and she thought she saw him smell her shoes. She had a two hour layover and went to the gift shop and bought a candy bar and a magazine. She flipped through the magazine while eating her candy bar, looking at the women in the advertisements. They seemed otherworldly. She tried to picture where they lived, what they did beyond the camera lens. She left the magazine on her seat and went outside to have a cigarette at the smoking station far off to the left. Two blonde women were sitting in plastic meshed seats, smoking with their legs crossed. She asked one of them for a light; hers had been taken at the luggage check in Hermosillo.
“I keep my lighter in my underwear,” the girl on the left said.
“That’s smart,” Alejandra said.
“Let her light it for you,” the girl on the right said.
Alejandra leaned down with the cigarette just between her lips. She wasn’t used to starting up conversation with strangers; lost in books and their dialogues, she could never figure out which course the narrative should take, where she should begin, what sparked the simplest entry into the lives of other people.
“I really need to get laid,” the girl on the right said.
“Yes,” the girl on the left said. “You really do.”
“Fuck if you have.”
Alejandra let out a small laugh.
“And you have a man I bet,” the girl on the left said. “You’re beautiful, and, let me guess, Columbian.”
“I wish I were Mexican,” the girl on the right said.
“No you don’t,” Alejandra said.
Alejandra finished her cigarette and thanked the women. She watched a 24-hour news channel in one of the lobbies. A graph showed all the planes flying at the moment. They nearly covered the whole of the U.S. and the image frightened Alejandra who looked around to see if anyone else felt what she felt and saw a boy looking up at the screen with fantastic wonder.
A man announced the arrival of the plane from Boston. She had a row in the back to herself and thought maybe she would be able to stretch out and sleep through the flight, but soon the plane filled up and a man as tall as a folkloric legend took the aisle seat and asked if anyone was sitting in the middle.
“No,” Alejandra said, “I don’t think so.”
He lifted the armrest.
“Gives me a little more room.”
When the plane took off, she closed her eyes and felt the rumbling of the side of the plane-wall next to her, the vibration flowing through her. Her ears popped and a mechanical sound from beneath the plane echoed. She kept her eyes closed and dreamt of Boston from photographs she’d seen, and she dreamt the young man she traded letters with in Cambridge, though she had never traded any letters; instead, in her free time, she wrote one to the fictional man and then wrote his response, taking on the voice of a man the best she could. She made his struggle simple: he wanted to be loved. And so she wrote sentences where he imagined her, and so was the imagined self she had invented long ago. Not the young woman with straight black hair and a pointed chin and dark eyes, but taller, voluptuous, not a showstopper, but someone people noticed when she entered a room. She wrote back that he was close, but not that close, and she told him she was a news reporter for the El Liberación, and that the last story she had done was about an American male who had been kidnapped and raped and she was forced to get a quote from him but the man made no sense at all. He had said about the attack, “Life on planets like this one contain certain mathematical inaccuracies.” Her editor loved it and so the quote made its way into the article. Still, the man and the crime, its proximity to where she lived, terrorized her. She wrote the man’s letter back to her, explaining how sorry he was she had to go through such a trial and that things would be better in the States. He couldn’t promise anything—Boston was not the safest town by far—but he would look after her and make sure she never traveled in the wrong direction. “But sometimes I like to travel in the wrong direction,” she wrote in her subsequent letter. “Well then we’ll travel together,” he replied.
Alejandra felt a foreign weight on her left knee. The man beside her was pushing down with his heavy palm. She flinched and sat up straight in her seat.
“Your legs were shaking all over the place,” the man said. “It was getting rather annoying.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“I got you a soda when the girl came around. Would you like it?”
“Thank you.” She took the soda and filled her cup, listening to the liquid fizzle over crushed ice.
“Here’s some mixed bag of I don’t know what. Just a bunch of salt.”
She took the bag and put it on the tray in front of her.
“You see some strange things while other people are sleeping,” the man said. “Look over there.”
To the left there was a woman in her mid-forties with her head bent and her mouth open. Every ten seconds or so, her tongue flipped out of her mouth and twisted back and forth.
“What do you think she’s dreaming about?”
“Catching flies,” Alejandra said.
The man laughed.
“I can’t ever sleep with other people around,” he said. “It’s probably the reason my marriage broke up. My wife thought I was seeing someone else, but I would just drive around at night and then go to sleep in the morning when she woke up. I usually conduct my business from home, but once in a while I fly out to meet a client.”
“It was meant to be.”
Alejandra saw that the man had removed his shoes and socks and his feet were enormous. He was rubbing them together so that in the faint light they looked like a dirtied swan attempting to fly out of the muck.
“We should be landing soon,” he said.
Alejandra took a sip of soda and leaned her seat back.
She thought of the fictional man who was to meet her at Logan Airport and drive her through the city to Cambridge. Maybe they would stop for a glass of wine and talk about their futures. Once a person is seen, an entire life is invented. What she had held onto for the last six months was a vision that could go no further than her mind would allow, but soon she would put a face to the man she had invented and that man would purport her toward an understanding of life outside the bindings of her body and brain.
When the plane landed, the man beside her put on his socks and shoes and waited restlessly for the plane to dock. He stood up and grabbed his bag and asked if her bag was up top as well. She had only brought a small book-bag with her and a suitcase she would claim at baggage check. The line moved slowly off the plane as if everyone felt they should stay on a little longer in safe enclosure. She walked weakly through the tunnel and said goodbye to the man who had sat beside her and then stopped for coffee.
She could not choose just any man. She had an aesthetic. He would have to be older, his hair slightly graying. He would have to be a little heavy, but with a sharp jaw and piercing eyes. He was a meat-eater, a drinker, a failure, a lover. It mattered little that the city outside was a place she had never been. She knew of all places in the world and the sea was the sea wherever one went.
The men she watched took their luggage and walked outside, greeting their lovers and their children, or else standing alone, smoking or talking on their phones. They were predestined men, aware and afraid. But, they were alive, and what was she if she had none of the things they had?
Her bag was not on the carousal and she went to the help desk and gave a woman her ticket. She sat on a chair in the lobby and looked at a poster of a man and woman riding bicycles and smiling and the man was pointing at something and the woman looked to whatever it was he was pointing at and they were struck by an ice-truck, their bikes and bodies twisted and mangled, the beautiful thing beyond the wall still beautiful.
“Sorry, honey, your bag must’ve never made the trip to Houston,” the woman at the desk said. “You give us your address and we’ll send it to you when it comes in.”
Though her luggage contained her clothes and toiletries and books and notes, and everything she needed to look beautiful and smart, she felt freed without it, as if the loss of the bag somehow erased a part of her past.
She waited in line for a cab and asked the driver to take her to where good music was played.
“What do you consider good music?” the cab driver asked.
“I don’t know the city,” she said. “A dark place. A trumpet. A saxophone. A piano.”
“I’m in love,” he said.
They went down into a tunnel and emerged onto a place darker than she imagined an American city to be. She could only make out the buildings in the sparse light from the many cars on the street shining their beams. Even the streetlights were out. Car horns beeped like crickets in an alleyway.
“What’s happened to the light?”
“Power outage,” the driver said. “Happens when it gets humid like this.”
The driver seemed to be turning to his left over and over, going in a large circle, though the path descended then rose, no clear pattern or only patterns, codes on how to get from point A to point B imprinted with names and arrows on street signs. To understand the city was to understand the people, to live among them, and she knew this was why she came to The States.
“Okay, here’s a place now,” the driver said.
She looked at his meter. She had forgotten to change her money and still had pesos and asked the driver if he’d accept them.
“I can change them back at the airport, but you’ll have to pay a fee for me having to do the extra work.”
“And how about changing some for me now?”
“You’re a bastard.”
“I am,” he said and chuckled.
They made the transaction and she took her bag and shut the door and the driver beeped the horn as he drove off. She saw that there were still no lights in this part of town, but that music was coming from below as if climbing a ladder of scales and spreading out across the street.
She followed the sign down and past a black doorman who patted her head as if she were a dog and then she was inside, surrounded by candles and people, the people in the light of the candles more like what she imagined souls to look like, vague images of their former selves.
She went to the bar and ordered a Coke.
“No rum for ya?” said the bartender.
“A little,” she said.
The drink burned the second heart in her chest, the heart her father had given her when he left the family a long time ago, died someplace in the desert they were told, the second heart, his heart, the first, her mother’s, and she thought of her father as jazz and her mother trying to catch it.
“More?” the bartender asked.
She had finished the drink and tasted only sprinkles of water through the stirrer. She held out the glass and this time the bartender made a stronger drink and the first taste made her cough. She put the glass down on the bar and went to the bathroom, nearly tripping over feet, the sounds of horns diminishing as she made her way down a dank hallway to a room with only a toilet and a trough. She cleaned up at the sink outside the room and went back to the bar, but her drink was gone and the bartender was talking to a group of white girls who looked like they’d pasted magazine clippings of second-rate actresses to their plain faces.
She followed the music, the end of the music, she thought, as the trumpet had stopped and the man on the Hammond B organ played a lazy, three-fingered chord, while the drummer tapped lightly at the metal around his paste-colored booms and the guitar player rested his chin on his chest and let his guitar whine out a single note as his finger squirmed on the fret like a beetle trapped in a jewelry box. Soon, though, as if coaxing her toward the stage, the band began to pick back up. The trumpet sounded, the Hammond B quit its long note and blasted a fury of inconsistent noise until finding a rhythm and then the guitar followed, snaking its way around the Hammond’s bass notes and the trumpet’s military-like passage and the drummer’s tempting flutters, as the music rose and rose and finally broke into a chaotic symphony, moving some from the audience around her to clap respectfully, while others closed their eyes and still others lost balance as they tried to dance but failed and removed themselves to the darkness of the bar, the music following them with its spawning web, collecting, boring, collecting, boring, and Alejandra knew by the candle’s flickering and the sound from the stage, that only in places like this could the dead visit without being seen.
When the band finished its set, the room filled with more light; a big Christmas candle had been lit.
“Found it in the basement, ya’ll,” said the bartender.
The crowd applauded. A waitress came to her table where she saw she was sitting with a couple, the woman with her head on the man’s shoulder, asleep or sick, and a man in a collared shirt and jeans, still lolling his head as if the music hadn’t stopped until the waitress tapped his shoulder.
“You should know what I want by now,” the man said.
“I should, now, should I?”
“What’ve I been tipping you for?”
He turned to Alejandra.
“What’ll you have?”
“Your daughter?” the waitress said.
“Boy, I’m glad she’s not.”
The waitress scooted from one table to the next, taking orders.
“Open all night,” the man said.
“This place, it’s open all night, or until the band stops playing, though they never do. They take breaks, but they play sometimes until four in the morning, sometimes six, when it’s light and the trains start back up.”
“I love the music.”
“Your voice, where are you from?”
She had never made herself a Floridian, but it sounded right coming from his mouth. The story had to change once the characters began to speak.
“Are you here alone?”
“I’m here alone, too. I like it better when there aren’t many people, but tonight, with the lights out, it’s filled up some.”
“People are scared of their homes when the lights are out. All those old ghosts.”
“There’s one right behind you.”
The waitress put down their drinks and the man jumped up in mock fright.
“Here’s twenty bucks,” the man said. “Don’t come back you bloody vampire.”
Alejandra sipped her Coke and the man drank whatever the clear liquid was in his glass. A wind came through the open door and flickered the souls once again, forcing them into a tango.
“Are you a student?”
Not wanting to be taken care of, to be coddled or fathered.
“I’ll figure things out for myself, thank you.”
She pulled her seat closer to him and he leaned back in his chair. She didn’t know how to play the rest of the game. In her story, the man came on to her and she let him in, but this man had none of the aggression she had given to the man in her mind.
“Where’s your apartment?”
“I don’t live around here.”
“Are you staying in a hotel?”
She grabbed hold of his hand.
“Please,” she said. “I’d like to go there now.”
He had a room at the Park Plaza, where the lobby was much nicer than the dingy quarter of space on the sixth floor. It appeared he’d checked in, laid down his bag and left without mussing up a single item. She crashed down on the bed, exhausted.
He took off his clothes and she followed his lead and soon they were in their underwear, lying next to each other like two teenagers unsure of what to do next. He put his arm over her and under her left side, flipping her on top of him as if uncovering a rock on sand-packed beach. He drew down her panties as far as his hands could reach and then pulled her up to his chin and prodded his tongue around and inside her. She moaned out and locked her knees against his cheeks. He pushed her knees apart and she dropped into the water in his mouth. Soon, she was lying on her back and he was on top of her. She realized they hadn’t kissed, but she didn’t want to kiss him now that he had her taste on his lips. He pushed her arms back and held her wrists together as if his own hands were made of the thickest hemp. She did not want to make a sound, but his thrusting forced them from her, like guitar strings unwound, tightened, strung, the double E tuned to D. Finally, he turned onto his back and let out a stunted breath, ejaculating onto his stomach. He got up and went into the bathroom. She found her underwear and put them on and drew the covers up over her breasts. She thought now he would love. Now he would stroke her hair and kiss her neck. Now their sweat and smells would intermingle like two people on their own resting just above them, their ‘others’ as her mother believed. “We all have others somewhere far off,” she had said.
Alejandra saw his silhouette reenter the room and heard his belt click and felt the bed lower at the end as he put on his shoes.
“That was nice,” she said.
“It was,” he said.
“Are you going somewhere?”
“Tell me if you’re leaving.”
“I’m not sure I’m leaving. I might be back.”
She watched him stand up. He had combed his wet hair back. He had knotty elbows and hair that wrapped around his arms like vines.
“Don’t eat anything on the counter, or else they’ll charge my card,” he said.
He grabbed his wallet and put it in his pocket and without looking at her, left the room.
If there was a way to end a story of this kind, one where a young woman traveled from her home to a foreign place unknown to begin her studies which would lead to a career and money and better health, one that would find her in the company of the strangest people, in an American City where great books were written and written about, she would have to say that the ending to her own story, her first story, was anticlimactic; that to leave a woman half-naked in bed after fucking her like a dog with an order not to snack was like finding out the heroine was the same as all the women she had ever known.
But she was different. She had to be different.
She showered and put on a robe and sat on the bed and ate nearly everything from the counter: chocolates and pecans and caramelized popcorn. She drank three sodas and watched a pay-per-view movie about talking animals. She called downstairs and had them send up a cheeseburger and a blueberry sundae. She tipped the waiter one thousand dollars.
But it wasn’t enough.
Soon, she thought. I won’t let you suffer like all the rest.
PATRICK DACEY's stories have appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, Guernica, Bomb Magazine, Salt Hill, and the Washington Square Review, among other publications.