La Frontera: Mexicali, Baja California, Norte, 1990


The Mexicali bus station is bustling with people, some dragging their luggage across the floor by a strap like a pet on a leash, others sitting as they fan themselves to cool off, their suitcases prone like coffins at their feet. The grainy voice over the speakers announces gate numbers, schedule changes, arrivals and departures in a flat, disinterested tone that seems to ridicule the level of anxiety in the lobby. Armed policemen walk about with a sense of purpose though visibly bored, and the taxi drivers accost anyone with a packed bag.

“Taxi, amigos?” a man in a yellow guayabera asks us as we stand at the entrance of the station, trying to figure out where to go.
My father waves him away.

“ Where are you headed?” the taxi driver insists. “I’ll make you a good deal.”

“ Michoacán,” my father says.

The driver quickly turns to a couple with a child in tow passing by. “Taxi, amigos?” he asks them.

“ First class is in the other lobby,” I point out. My shirt is sticky on my skin. For some reason I decided to wear white and I’m dismayed I’ve already collected grime on the brief car ride to the station. The blue Mustang will stay parked at my aunt’s old house, though I doubt it will remain unused. I can already picture my cousins joyriding into the sleepiest hours of the night. When they dropped us off at the bus station I detected that mischievous glint in their eyes.

“ I don’t have enough money for first class, you,” my father informs me.

My body spasms, giving me a clear signal that this is the start to another bad ending.

“ Well, I don’t want to take a bus that’s going to break down half-way to Michoacán,” I say.

“ But first class is a waste,” he argues. “What are you paying for, a can of soda? Some stale peanuts?”

“ No, I’m paying for a working toilet and air-conditioning.”

“ But I can’t afford first class,” he says.

“ I can,” I say.

“ So you’re going to pay for a first class ticket when second class is half the price?”

“ Absolutely,” I insist.

“ You could buy two tickets with that money.”

“ Look,” I say, exasperated. “I can let you borrow some money for your ticket as well, just make sure you get good seats.”

“ Give me the money, then,” he says.

I hand over the money because I don’t want to hassle with the lines. I’m already hot and uncomfortable, and the constant flow of people has begun to make me edgy. Engentarse, my grandmother calls this claustrophobia that comes from getting swallowed up by a flood of people. I stand over our bags like a chicken roosting over a nest. My father returns fifteen minutes later.

“ You bought second class tickets!” I complain as soon as I look at the flimsy paper stubs.

“ You said you were going to pay for my ticket. And I’m going second class, so I bought one for you as well. Aren’t we traveling together? Here, I saved you some money. Can I borrow it until we get to Michoacán?”
Unbelievable, I think as I shake my head. My father has done it to me again. But I let it go. It’ll be my give to his take. We’ve had plenty of practice this past week since I agreed to travel with him back to Zacapu, Michoacán, four states south into México, the homeland we traded for California ten years ago.

We make our way to the gate, nonrefundable tickets in hand. The run-down bus waits at the end of the station, edged out like the runt of the litter by the newer buses. I suspect our bus will stop at every town with a station en route from Baja California to Michoacán to load and unload passengers. At that pace, the trip will take over three days, maybe four. Incensed, I make my father take the aisle seat. I want the advantage of the window, but to my dismay, it doesn’t open. I scowl at my father.

“ Now what?” he says.

“ It smells in here,” I say.

“ I don’t smell anything,” my father says.

“ No, of course not,” I reply.

The cramped bus begins to incite my claustrophobia so I stare out through the green glass to watch the soda and pork rind sellers gravitating like bees toward the bus windows, their goods precariously balanced on tin platters. Despite the condition of the bus, I’m glad to be safely inside, away from the flurry. More people climb on board, filling up the bus with bodies, boxed packages, a crying baby and the whining of children, and the odors of armpits, evaporating perfumes and oily foods. When the bus finally pulls out of its parking space, I breathe a sigh of relief. The journey back to Michoacán has officially started. For the last decade I’ve been going back and forth between México and the U.S. an average of every three years, the length of each stay varies depending on the temperament of my adult companions. My father likes the long stays, my grandfather loses steam quickly and heads back to the states on a whim. Regardless, I feel a sense of renewal each time I depart, as if whatever has happened up to then could be left behind like belongings too bulky to take along. I look forward to emerging from the bus at the last stop, stretching out my arms to a new beginning.

My disposition begins to soften as the bus slowly inches forward. I even turn to my father and exchanged a complicit smile. He throws in a knowing nod for effect. An open window a few seats up begins to ventilate the acrid odor of sweat mixed with the polluted fumes. “Here we go,” I declare with childish excitement. If this journey were a musical, this scene would be the perfect place to break into song. As if on cue, the bus driver turns the radio on. Los Tigres del Norte—or one of the group’s many imitators—plays an upbeat norteño, heavy on the brass. The tune isn’t exactly what I have in mind, but it will do. Suddenly I’m easy to please. I make myself comfortable against the itchy seat, relax my head against the rest, and sigh once more.

And then the bus pulls over to the side to let the first class buses exit first.

“ Santa mierda,” I say. I’m positive I’m not the only one on board to curse.
When the bus driver turns off the noisy engine, the music grows obnoxiously loud. The old bus stands parallel to the back wall like an overworked boom box sentenced to the misery of its cheap speakers.
When I look over at my father he grins apologetically. I can say something now or save it for later. Since I get motion sickness when I read, I don’t bother bringing a book on board with me. Speaking to my father will be the only way to kill time. He’ll be the intimidating tome I get through by consuming it piecemeal. Except that I’ll be forced to reckon with my father more frequently since he’s sitting next to me on a bus. I cannot escape him. I decide to save my complaint for later.

When the bus finally squeezes out of the station, picking up speed as it makes its way through the blackened façades of Mexicali, the tension in my muscles begins to ease. It takes only minutes for the bus to reach the outskirts of the city; the arid desert looks reddish and damp through the green tint of the glass. And once I’m visibly relaxed, my father pipes up as if he’s been waiting to seize the moment. He asks me abruptly, “Do you remember your mother?”

I hate it when my father comes at me like that. Invoking the memory of my mother is the fastest way to make me raise my defenses.
“Of course,” I say, slightly indignant. I immediately turn my entire body toward the window, my reflection superimposed on the passing desert and a row of wooden shacks with clothes on the lines that look like party decorations the day after the party.

“ You must never forget her,” he says.

I see my chance. “You mean like you did,” I say.

“I haven’t forgotten your mother,” he says in alarm. “Why do you say that?”

I think the answer is obvious so I don’t bother with it more.

I focus on a child bent over a basin with water. He stares out at the passing bus as if he has to pose for the passengers because in the next instant he’s gone, quickly forgotten. On the glass I see my father pinch the small scar on the right side of his chin. He had a mole removed a few years back because he kept cutting it open when he shaved. Now he fondles the flesh when lost in thought—a habit he didn’t have when the mole was still there.

“ Does your grandfather still work in the mercado in Zacapu, you?” he asks.

“ Don’t change the subject,” I say. “And quit asking me these dumb questions. You know he still works there.”

“ Look, son,” he says to me in the low tone he adopts when he grows serious. “We don’t need to start the trip like this. We have three days to go and plenty of time to throw punches, so can’t we just have a friendly conversation for now?”

Bajar la cresta, my grandmother calls the act of calming down your anger. I picture the agitated rooster lowering its neck, the corolla of neck feathers folding down, his comb becoming flaccid.

I nod my head in agreement. My fingernails are already dirty, the edges looking like inked-in frowns. My father tries to chat again but I’m not in the mood, so I simply rest my head against the window and close my eyes. I want to remove my glasses, but without them I can’t see the view through the window each time I open my eyes, so I leave them on my face. With the vibration of the bus the frames keep tapping against the glass. I hear my father sigh with exasperation. All around us people are talking and laughing. The baby stopped crying when the bus started rolling and I imagine him collapsing with relief into his mother’s arms. I zero in on the hum of the motor.

When I feel my father elbow me on the side I’m ready to turn around to object and ask him to leave me alone for a while. But when I turn I realize he has accidentally bumped into me as he twisted his body around to talk to the people in the row behind him.

“ To Michoacán,” I hear him say.

And then a little later, “Oh, that’s my son. He goes to college in the United States. He studies letters.”

I imagine the people nodding politely, perhaps picturing me hunched over an old book and a magnifying glass, an amplified Cyclops eye scrutinizing the varying lengths of the ls, the dissimilar bubble-mouths of the os.
As I nod off to sleep on this first afternoon on the road to Michoacán, I promise myself that I will try harder at communicating with my father the next day. Promises are so easy to make in a warm bus steadily reaching the falling night. My grandmother used to say that in order to remember a thought, she had to go back to the place where that thought was originally conceived because place triggers her memory. By dawn the bus will be in a different town—a different state altogether in fact. Tracing the promise back to its source will be impossible. My father and I are both headed forward, at the same speed for a change. And yet, we continue to go our separate ways.