I’ve been driving a cargo van down a Mexican two-lane for eleven teeth-clenching hours. My wife Kate is trying to keep me alert by playing Berlitz Basic Spanish cassettes on a boom box, but it’s past midnight and I’m losing concentration—hypnotized by the rhythm of the windshield wipers. I’ve squinted through the Econoline’s dull headlights for so long my face hurts. We’re on the coastal highway, somewhere between Mazatlán and Tepic, and the night is a few clicks darker than those back home in Columbus. I steer into s-curves and around potholes—baches in Spanish, Kate tells me—with just enough high beam to see that thick jungle flanks the road. By day this place would be stunningly beautiful. Everything pulsing and green. But I am too tired to appreciate the scenery. And I long ago stopped repeating the nouns prompted by the Berlitz tape: coche and reloj and playa. Kate pronounces them solo. For several miles hers is the only live voice in the van. Eventually I ask her how to say, I need a bathroom and a big coffee.
The Lonely Planet has us believing that by night, Mexican roads are patrolled by crooked cops and car-jacking banditos. And in my semi-lucid daze I hear the voice of a friend from work: You know, my cousin’s buddy drove through Mexico. He was just sitting at a stoplight, when somebody slid up beside him and hacked off his left hand. Just to get his freaking watch. And it was a Timex! My work friend is an alarmist, with one eye tuned to the local news. But I don’t want to tempt potential watch thieves by stopping to pee at a seedy cantina. So while Kate takes a flashlight to the Rand McNally, I hunt for a stop that meets our American expectations for highway safety. On my Citizen I clock fifteen minutes with no evidence of commercial life, before I finally spot the green, red, and white sign beaming above the palm trees: PEMEX. Mexico’s national gas monopoly.
We pull onto a gravel drive that opens to a parking lot, gas pumps, and a 7-Eleven-style quick mart. The store’s cheerfully franchised exterior clashes with the tropical surroundings, and it seems to be sweating—as if someone shipped the whole place down from a Minneapolis suburb and uncrated it in jungle heat. The plate glass windows are so fogged with condensation, we can’t see inside.
I aim for a spot near the entrance, and throw the van into Park. Through the cracked windshield I see five dark-skinned men leaning against the front doors, under a lip of roof and out of the rain. I can’t tell if they are in their thirties or forties, but with their muddy jeans and work shirts, it’s clear they’ve spent their lives doing jobs that leave calluses. They’re all lean as Bantam Weights, and I can see the veins in their forearms from ten yards away. Crushed Tecate cans litter the ground.
“Let’s keep going,” I say, shifting into Reverse.
Kate hits Stop on the boom box. “You wanted coffee.”
“I can wait.” As I curl the van backwards, our headlights shine directly on the men. They all look our way. One of them lowers the bill of his ballcap. Another shields his eyes with his hand then goes back to cleaning his fingernails with what looks like a pocket knife. I’m wondering if they can see us inside the van. I’m about to drive off when I notice the blankets and bedrolls at their feet. “Jesus, Kate. Those guys are sleeping here.”
She nods. “Maybe they’re migrants. On their way north.”
“They’re a long way from north.”
I check the odometer and know exactly how far they have to go.
Kate and I left Columbus a month ago. We moved out of our apartment, put our furniture in storage, and loaded my band’s Ford Econoline with camping gear and canned food. Our plan is to spend three or four months on the road, going as deep into Mexico as we can before the money runs out. We’ve done some traveling in the three years we’ve been married: Venezuela, Turkey, Western Europe, but never for this long. This time our mailing address is a P.O. Box. We’re like a shadowy offshore corporation.
When we get home, Kate’ll be starting her Ph.D. in British Literature. I quit my miserable office job the week we left, so other than my struggling rock band, I don’t know what I’ll be driving back to. The odometer tells me I’m three-thousand miles from Columbus. Three-thousand miles from having to interview for another soul-sucking job. The five Mexicans are nine-hundred miles from the border. They’re going north looking for work. I’m headed south, avoiding it.
His nails apparently manicured, Pocket Knife folds the blade into his jeans. Then he bends over and scrapes up a handful of gravel. He showers the others with tiny rocks. Everybody ducks, elbows to ears. They laugh as they straighten, and they pass around more beer.
“How far to Tepic?” I say. I’m thinking ahead to a soft bed and morning coffee.
Kate scans the map, and I shift gears. But it won’t go into Drive.
“What’s wrong?” she says.
I shift back to Park and start over: Reverse—Neutral—Nothing.
“It’s locked,” I say. I try coaxing the shifter into Drive. Try applying steady pressure. Try jerking it. Nothing works. I try again and again, but the transmission won’t budge.
Not knowing what else to do, I pedal the gas, and we circle around the lot. Backwards. I take us through a 360-degree O-turn, and the headlights again flood the Mexicans. They give us a second look, and I notice that Pocket Knife is wearing sandals made from tire treads.
Two parallel lines form above the bridge of Kate’s nose. “All we’ve got is reverse?”
I stab the shifter to the left. “And park.”
Kate and I idle there, the rain smacking the van like the sky let loose with a bag of marbles. It’s loud; it’s hot; and we don’t have air-conditioning. Roll the windows down, and we get wet. Leave them up, and we steam. We roll the windows halfway down.
Off to the left are two PEMEX attendants squatting on the oily concrete. One rests an elbow on a gas pump, and the other—wearing a New York Yankees cap—gestures toward us. I wonder what we look like to him: two gringos rolling their elephantine van in backwards circles. Yankee Cap hops on a BMX bike and rides our way.
I turn to Kate. “How do you say mechanic?”
She holds up the boom box. “It’s on tape three.” Then she opens the door and climbs down to meet the guy.
We dated for ten years before we married, so I’ve been with Kate long enough to know that she deals with strangers better than I do. For me social situations are like business transactions—polite but curt. I guess my demeanor is abrasive to some. But everybody likes Kate. She’s funny, smart, and pretty. My shaved head and Eastern-bloc cheekbones make me look like I’m plotting a hate crime.
Yankee Cap’s uniform stretches from neck to ankles, and as he smiles, I see that his teeth are capped with silver. “You need a mechanic?” he asks in mildly accented English.
I step down from the van to join them. Yankee Cap says his name is Chiclet, like the gum. He’s about thirty and way too stocky for such a tiny bike. His knees almost hit the handlebars as he pedaled up. He tells us there is a garage a kilometer or so up the road, and he volunteers to call the local mechanic to see if he can make it out.
“Tonight?” I say. “In the rain?”
Chiclet takes off his cap and pushes a few fingers through his slick hair. “I don’t know, amigo. Let me call and see.” He pedals toward the phone.
I’m conflicted. Like Blanche DuBois we are depending on the kindness of strangers. And yet an American-bred suspicion has kicked in. A miniature Uncle Sam has appeared on my shoulder, whispering that they want what we have and they’ll steal it if they have to. I look over to the C-store at the five migrants who surely think Kate and I are wealthy because we can afford to be here. I’m worried that they see us as materialistic, self-important Americans even as I’m typecasting them as shifty, conniving Mexicans. But I’m not like that, am I? A xenophobe? I’m pretty sure I’m just suspicious of do-gooders. Even home in Ohio I wonder, what’s this guy’s angle? when faced with good-samaritanism. I have a hard time believing anyone would help us simply because we need help. Vulnerability and paranoia are the by-products of privilege. But I can’t afford this fear tonight. It’s trust Chiclet or nothing. Still, I’ll keep an eye on him. He’s a Yankee fan. You can’t trust them.
Chiclet rides back smiling, saying the mechanic is already on his way. And sure enough, twenty minutes later a pick-up truck pulls into the lot. With Chiclet acting as translator, the mechanic climbs into the van to try the gear shifter. I feel awful about leaving the windows half-open. The driver’s seat is torn, and the exposed cushioning has soaked up the rain like a Nerf football, but he doesn’t seem to notice. I’m still convinced that with just the right touch, Drive might be had. The mechanic starts the engine, palms the shifter, and pulls forward and down. Reverse—Neutral—No such luck.
To Plan B: The mechanic opens the hood and holds the end of a dipstick to his nose.
“Transmission fluid,” Chiclet says.
Kate and I look at each other, crossing our fingers as the mechanic wipes the stick and slides it back into the pan. Even I know a pint of fluid is cheaper than a whole new transmission. He pauses briefly for dramatic effect and then pulls out the dipstick. It reads right in the crosshatch, midway between Min and Max.
The mechanic says something to Chiclet and points under the van, and I reach into the cargo space for my beach towel. It’s clear that the terry cloth won’t be much insulation from the muddy gravel, but to be polite he unfolds the towel and drapes it over the puddles anyway. After poking and prodding under the chassis, he crawls out with the prognosis.
“He’ll come back tomorrow and tow you to his garage,” says Chiclet.
“Does he know what the problem is?” I say.
Chiclet pulls a bandanna from his back pocket and tosses it to the mechanic.
“Amigo,” he says. “Your transmission is fucked.”
In the morning the mechanic will rebuild the tranny and get us back on the road. What will he charge us? That’s tomorrow’s problem. Tonight’s problem is that we’re sleeping in the van, in a gas station, in the jungle.
“Could be worse,” Kate says. “We could be stuck out on the road.”
She’s right, of course. I imagine the two of us pushing the van into the weeds, hoping the Federales would find us before the banditos did.
“We need to celebrate,” she says. “Let’s get some beer.” Kate’s always up for a party, sometimes to the point of annoyance. Right now I’d rather crawl into the van and go to sleep, making the morning come faster.
I look back to the store, where the five Mexicans are illuminated in the fluorescence. “Celebrate what?”
Kate shakes her head, turns, and walks away.
We’ve been fighting since Flagstaff. Two weeks ago, at the Route 66 International Hostel, we walked into the lounge, where four backpackers were practicing trick shots on the pool table. One of them was using Let’s Go – USA as a coaster for his beer. He wore his jeans too high on the hips, but he was blessed with the veteran traveler’s ability to look not of a place and yet completely at home there.
Kate asked if she could borrow the book. “I want to see what they wrote about my hometown.”
“You are an American,” he said. I couldn’t tell if it was a statement or a question. He swigged his beer and handed the Let’s Go to her. “From what city?”
She flipped through the pages. “Columbus, Ohio.”
“Like Christopher Columbus?”
He said he was from Paris. While Kate explained how much we loved France, I went to buy beer, leaving her with Paris and his hostel buddies. When I came back they were standing around the pool table, watching as Kate tried to jump the cue ball over the eight. Soon everyone was drunk. I played DJ on the jukebox. Kate danced with Paris. The guy was a shitty dancer, but she was having fun.
A few songs later, we all staggered to a dance club, where Paris disappeared into a swarm of sorority girls. I took Kate by the hand, and we conga’d out to the floor. And I was feeling it. I was the white James Brown. 150 pounds of pink-skinned soul. Kate put her hands on my hips. But she wasn’t dancing with me so much as pointing me in the right direction.
“What’s wrong?” I said over the Bumpf-Bumpf-Bumpf-Bumpf of the music.
“You’re not with the beat.” She took my waist and tried to show me.
I pulled away. “What do you mean?” How can I not be with the beat? I thought. I’m a bass player. Rhythm is my job.
“You’re just swaying back and forth.”
“But it’s 4/4 time. Left-right-left-right.”
“You’re not moving with me. You’re not dancing with me.”
“Then count it out for me.”
Her voice broke as she strained over the volume. “I don’t know how to count it. Just feel it.”
“Can’t we just dance?” I yelled. “Without a goddamn rhythm lesson?”
“But if you just move your hips like this—”
I pushed her away. “You didn’t show Paris how to dance.”
“But he’s a good dancer.”
“How!” I was screaming.
“Some people just have it,” she said, and she turned away.
I grabbed her. “I have rhythm. I’m in a band.”
“Maybe that’s why you guys never made it!” She yelled. “Maybe you’re not that good.” She slowed down to emphasize not...that...good.
I came up short of breath and turned toward the dance floor. Paris was deep in the throng. “He’s better than me? How? How!” I reached for Kate’s shoulder.
But Kate was all icy detachment. “Don’t touch me,” she said. And she walked away.
I followed her out of the bar and into a group of police officers. They were standing cross-legged and slumping casually against their mountain bikes, but as soon as they saw Kate and the tears that were now sliding down her face, they went to work.
“You want to tell me what happened?” said the cop who separated me from Kate. He was fit, with calves like canned hams. The product of a thousand uphill miles on the Flagstaff bicycle beat. Where donut jokes go to die.
In his eyes I was the asshole who abuses his girlfriend, and anything I said would reinforce my assholeness. “Nothing. Seriously.”
“Then why is your girlfriend crying?”
“She’s not my girlfriend.” I looked over to where two cops were consoling Kate.
One of them was asking her, “Was he dancing with another girl?”
“No,” Kate said, sobbing now. “He was trying to dance with me.”
“She’s my wife,” I said, turning back to my cop. “And she’s crying because she thinks I can’t dance.”
“You can’t dance?”
“She thinks I can’t dance.”
He took a ballpoint from his pocket and clicked it a few times. “Hmmm…” Then he tapped the pen on his bike handlebars. “Have you ever thought about lessons?”
Walking back to the hostel, I tried making-up, but Kate was still mad and hurt. She said she was scared of me. She’d never seen me so angry. She said she just wanted to go home. And she didn’t mean back to the hostel.
I catch up to Kate at the store entrance. I’m feeling especially conscious of my whiteness and my baldness as we excuse ourselves past the Mexicans. They’re much younger than they looked earlier. Early twenties, maybe. They seem curious, possibly ready to fight. Pocket Knife smiles as he holds the door open for us.
The store is blindingly well lit. I can see everything and nothing, like leaving a matinee by the doors to the sunny parking lot. And this is the first air conditioning we’ve felt since we crossed the border. My wet t-shirt feels like it might freeze.
Kate grabs a bag of chips and heads for the beer cooler while I beeline for the door marked Caballeros. The bathroom is spotless, and it smells good, like it’s been soaked in space-age, disinfecting chemicals. Everything is white on white, fluorescence on porcelain, safe institutional sterility. It smells like home.
I return from the bathroom thinking, Kate’s right. This isn’t so bad. We’ve got snacks. Beer. Bathrooms. This is practically my living room on football Saturday.
But I can’t find Kate. She’s not by the beer coolers. She’s not in the snack aisle. She’s not at the register. I figure she must be in the Senoritas’ room, so I wait there a few minutes. But we’re three-thousand miles from home. With no cell phones and no GPS. All we’ve got is a van that runs backwards. So I can’t wait. I knock on the door of the bathroom. No answer. I try the knob. It’s unlocked, so I nudge it open. There’s nobody inside.
I go to the windows, trying to see if she went back to the van. But they are too fogged-over. I wipe half circles with my palm and press my face up to the glass, shielding the light with hands cupped around my forehead. But I still can’t see. The condensation is on the outside. Then I remember the Mexicans. Mean-eyed drifters that want what I have. They’ll steal it if they have to. I hustle toward the front door, and open it with both hands.
No Kate. No Mexicans. No bedrolls. Nothing but the night.
Then I hear her voice. She’s working through the Spanish words, practicing them out loud, just as she’s done for nine-hundred miles. “Buenas noches, Señors.”
I turn and see Kate. Standing with the Mexicans, who’ve moved twenty feet down the side of the building. They’re laughing, Kate and these men. She holds a six-pack in one hand. The other is extended toward Pocket Knife, who shakes it gently. His forearm is lined with scars and home-inked tattoos.
I’ve known Kate for thirteen years, and I don’t know her at all. If I can’t grasp the complexities of one person, how can I ever measure the subtleties and variances of an entire country? I’ll never know them and what they want.
Kate looks over, smiles, and says, “Want a beer?”
Pocket Knife smiles too. “Bienvenido, amigo,” he says. And it hits me that when Kate and I entered the store, the Mexicans must have broken camp so as not to block the doors. But in doing so they moved farther from the air-conditioning spilling from them.
I motion for Pocket Knife to come back to the entrance, back to where it’s cool. But he shrugs as if to say one place is as good as any other.
So I walk toward him. And toward Kate. Closing the space between them and us.
She hands me a beer, and as promised, we celebrate. Beneath the convenience store overhang, sheltered from the rain, we drink the sweating jungle and dance the lonely highway rhythms. Kate, five Mexican guys, and me. All of us on the way to someplace else.