Only an idiot could believe that all Latinas could have the good luck of a J-Lo. And so she closes the magazine and looks up at the TV. The bus station is like any bus station in the world: locos, beggars, bandits taking advantage of an instant to outsmart the distracted, a coyote discreetly boarding with his three charges, hurried passengers packing sandwiches and fried food before climbing aboard.
Elena has finally left Eros, finally, she thinks, still incredulous that she’s here, in the station, with a ticket marking her departure to Mexico City’s TAPO station, nine p.m., seat twenty-nine. From a corner where pirated CDs are sold, she hears Maná’s “Mariposa traicionera”; the last time she performed to it, she danced enthusiastically because she knew that she was only a few steps away from leaving. More than a year in the nightclub with a stifling routine of undressing, fucking, and drinking without knowing why. More than a year clenching her teeth to avoid the dazzling offers that would have her buy clothes or furniture for a tiny monthly payment, whose real catch was anchoring her even more firmly in the city where she remained, inexplicably; Tapachula was only supposed to be a stop along the way.
Her destination was Juárez. But clearly it would have been enough to settle in Tapachula and never return to her hometown where, despite its touristic attractiveness, she wouldn’t amount to anything more than just another little whore, without aspirations or glory. This would make the stay on the border worth something, though actually there wouldn’t be real differences besides a few expressions and customs. She learned, for example, to recognize how spiritless some women were, talking softly as if they weren’t allowed to express themselves, or their overly polite “Could I please just have a half a pound of ham, please?” while shopping. There was the haughtiness of other women, too, partly due to their coastal temperament and their reputation for bitchiness. Work in any bar or bordello was guaranteed. On this border, as on the other, gentlemen preferred them foreign. It was better if they hadn’t hit twenty and if, above all, more than never asking for money or getting caught up in silly infatuations, they didn’t cause any drama and, coldly and indifferently, dedicated themselves to their work.
Elena gets up to buy a vanilla Coke. She takes change out of her coin purse along with a good-luck charm that Malú gave her before saying goodbye. There’s no way she’ll make it. She wouldn’t dare. The first Mexican migration checkpoint had already trapped her as if it were a fucking wall, with its tiny city that doesn’t have even half of what other border cities possess.
With her sickly red fingernail she picks out a piece of chocolate stuck in her molar. She’s not a Leo for nothing. According to Cinthia, the holy woman who’s read her cards for the past year, Leos are always plenty stubborn. What’s Juárez like? Enormous. Like your dreams, doll, like your hopes. Of Juárez she has only a postcard that Lina sent her, a panorama, neither big nor small—how can she compare if the only thing she knows is her hometown and Tapachula?—and a phrase Lina wrote saying, “It’s super fun.” Since then she’s been a fan of Los Cadetes de Linares.
No more drinks at Eros. She hasn’t had a drink in almost a week and it feels like she’s detoxing. Going to a new life. She laughs. All lies. She knows that anywhere she goes she’ll be starting over. Bending over again. So what? She doesn’t want to cross to the other side. At least not so fast. Such a long trip so that they can deport you right away? She wants to do it her way, pianissimo, preparing little by little for when the right moment arrives.
Throughout the station she hears shouts and music coming from the street. She’s a hussy, she just wants his money, and that fool doesn’t even realize. Elena doesn’t know whether the woman behind her is talking about the handsome, idiotic-looking dark-skinned man on the television or if it’s a real-life case that would make her call the man stupid with such intimacy and vehemence. She hears the nasal voice announce the departure to Mexico City.
She picks up her suitcase. Gets in line. Shows her ticket without letting her fist tremble. Checks her luggage. They’re not going to stop me, she repeats silently until she finally settles into seat twenty-nine. Window seat. She turns on the light. Takes out her ID. This she paid for in cash. Twenty-three years old. From Tapachula. She doesn’t need a cheat sheet anymore. It’s as though living there has given her rights, given her another name. What’s more, she deserves it. She sees two men pass; judging from their appearance, they must be wetbacks. For a second they exchange looks. Except that she doesn’t look with fear or twitch in every direction, making a spectacle of her awkwardness. They sit down behind her, making her a little nervous. We’ll stop at a checkpoint for sure. Shit. We’ll all end up paying for these two. She doesn’t even respond to the smile they toss her, seeking complicity.
She flips through the magazine again. These bland, skinny models are uninspiring. She prefers Salmita Hayek, the sparkling Mexican who hit the big time. In her thighs she feels the rising tremor that unfolds from the bus’s motor as it starts up. There are no fanfares, but she hears them anyway. Somebody has to cheer, dammit. They leave the city behind, or perhaps the city leaves them, abandoned to the fortune inscribed in the dark line of the highway.
She’s really going to the capital, and then really heading north—she doesn’t believe it. There’s an American movie playing on the TV. In less than an hour, the aisle begins to smell like egg sandwiches, shoes, the air conditioner’s humidity, and that rare mix of disinfectant and urine strained from the miniscule toilet for when there’s just no other option. That’s what happened to her when she traveled from Santa Rita to Guatemala. She thought her bladder would explode like the water balloons in the street during Carnaval. She drank her vanilla Coke. Please, God, let her hold it.
She looks at her watch. Two hours have passed. Who knows where they are now, but she shouldn’t worry. She doesn’t know anything about Mexico except that it gets wider as you go higher. And tonight, this half of the country is just a black curtain that runs beside her. Not even one hot droplet in her eyes. She’ll cry at the cemetery, not before.
She hears them speak. Her little compatriots behind her; of course, it’s obvious. She’d like to stand up and tell them to shut their traps. The accent is always an issue. Because the rest is the same: color, height, the unmistakable look of screwed-overness. That black singer in Cosmopolitan has blonde hair and it doesn’t look half bad. Elena could change her style, synonymous with moving up, with being in the right place at the right time. The first thing she’ll ask Lina is to help her look for a new hair color. She observes again the sensual expressions of the singer, runs her fingers over the pearlescent pages of the magazine. They were alike, she and the singer: both with ambitions, obviously distinct ones, but, in the end, ambitions. The singer, too, must have had to pay the price to get to where she is.
Two hours erasing the nights in Eros, her binges when, sometimes, desperation would defeat her because the bills were small and Juárez was still far away, like a stain, like a shadow.
Four hours, barely four. There’s no hurry, there’s always somewhere to be, Charis used to say. Two hours erasing the nights in Eros, her binges when, sometimes, desperation would defeat her because the bills were small and Juárez was still far away, like a stain, like a shadow. You’ve got to have confidence, doll. Look at the table, all Major Arcanas. A journey. You’re about to take that trip, the wrinkled lips of Cinthia dictated, but Elena didn’t go anywhere except Eros and the witchcraft stand to buy salves she used to anoint her purse. Cinthia, my dear, what would I have done without you?
Lina has told her that in the last few years Juárez has changed for the shittier: dead women, dust, cantinas—but it’s still super fun. An ID. A name and a practically new life. A place to go without struggling or paying a coyote who’ll just leave you lying in the middle of the road. As soon as she arrives, she’ll ask Lina to take her to where they sell the magical blue salve whose scent will take her closer, doubtless, to success.
Everything in life is a question of measure, of calculation. Before closing the curtain, she raises her gaze and looks for the moon. She remembers Tomás’s hot arms around her body as they drank on the roof. His run-of-the-mill face illuminated in the yellow light. That night and his lips repeating, goddamned naïve bitch, I want you so much. The moon. Better alone than in bad company. Being Mexican is a step up from being Salvadoran. She doubts that she’ll ever be able to live in a Yankee city; she prefers to be realistic; she is ambitious, but her dreams have guardrails. Besides, it’s not like living in a gringo city would make a difference. Probably not, anyway. She prefers to think about Juárez. At first she might dance again, but during the day she could work in a factory, a restaurant, as a hotel maid.
The actress on TV takes her suitcases and leaves her house. It’s clear that she hates her mother. In the movie. She, by the way, never loved hers all that fervently. She was always blackmailing her. She thinks of her mother, her lazy, pothead brothers in the barrio. The night is an indecipherable straight line, until the bus slows down and stops. It isn’t that she doesn’t love her mother, it’s just that she doesn’t feel that hypocritical affection like everyone else. She feels cold. She was about to fall asleep when she sees it. The flashlight cuts the darkness of the aisle. Twenty-three years old. From Tapachula. Do you want to know the mayor’s name? What you call a person from Tapachula? The lyrics of the national anthem? I’m offended, truly offended, officer, that you would ask for my identification.
The man turns to the guys behind her. You, you, you too. Elena can tell the bus’s air-conditioning is starting to make her nervous. Being too cold always puts her nerves on edge. She coughs indifferently. She watches them pass. One of them gives her an imploring look; she prefers to turn toward the window. Why do they look at her? One doesn’t get anywhere in a hurry, boys. You’ve got to plan things. Do you really think the Mexicans are going to let us make fools of them? She has nothing to fear. That’s what she’s worked for. What a pain. Checkpoints, ugh.
Elena yawns. Through the crack in the curtain she observes the four men lined up and the officer conducting his routine interrogation.
She sees the officer board again and head toward another seat.
They can’t take me. I’m practically Mexican.
The man points at two more women and they step out. The deep rattle of the motor puts her nerves on edge. It seems like every passing minute intensifies the odor of sour sweat. Now it’s her feet sweating; she feels her wet socks. She turns the pages of Cosmopolitan. Gringa whores.
A shrieking voice screams, “You can’t arrest me, officer! What are you thinking? I’m not a foreigner!” The woman sits back down; she’s furious, ridiculously furious: her accent gives her away. Silence falls over the bus. This number wasn’t in the script. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a chilly night, you’ve still got a long way to go, and we all want to be on our way, right? Look, don’t pressure me because I’m not getting out. You must not know who I am, Sir, you don’t know. Again, ladies and gentlemen, please excuse the inconvenience, but this young lady is a foreigner, she doesn’t have papers, and we will not move until she gets off of the bus.
The murmurs grow. The driver kills the motor. Without the air-conditioning a light, hot wind enters. The woman in seat twelve approaches and the nervous and hysteric woman insists, dragging her s’s, that she is not a foreigner. Listen, don’t cause problems for us. We still have ten hours to go. We want to get there, too. But she keeps screaming that she won’t get off and then Elena gets up, joins them, and asks her to show her ID. The officer approaches them. Too late. She should sit down before the man arrives. Too late. His enormous gold watch shines when it passes before her eyes as he reaches for the foreigner’s ID. Stupid. Stupid, naïve idiot. An incautious woman is a poor imitation of a female. She hates her. She hates all the bitches who spend their money on bad replicas of voter IDs or birth certificates. She realizes that she’s the stupid one here. She should sit down and shut up. Close her eyes and let the stupid cow figure it out on her own. Turn her back and head to her seat. One second of imprudence could bring it all tumbling down. The officer’s voice is tense. Isolated babblings from around the bus demand that the woman get off and quit resisting.
It’s fake, officer, the ID is fake, Elena finally blurts out, first with fear, then with the security that she couldn’t have made a better choice because no one can doubt her now. She’s released her voice with fury and burden. She turns her back on them. The officer yanks on the woman and, struggling, they both descend from the darkness of the aisle into the asphyxiating night. An empty spot remains. Elena could change seats. Stretch her legs and fall asleep with the weakness she carries in her skin. She settles in. Out the window she observes the three men and two women, in line, awaiting interrogation. She would like to have an affair with an officer. Their height attracts her. Not to mention the badge.
Her hair is poorly cut and she’s a little overweight, but that, too, was pure strategy. Guats, lazy asses, stupid sheep, she says to herself, letting her barrio talk escape.
She’s at peace. Some are left behind, others simply continue. This world is for the clever. And the fortunate. Surely the most difficult part of the night has passed. She moves her head. There’s no reason to be nervous. She’s practically Mexican. Four more years in Mexico and she won’t have to move. She wants to go to Juárez, no further. Once again the rattle of the motor rises, almost licking her legs. The bus’s lights advance, cutting a swath in the night, slashing it, revealing, along with the sun, the ordinariness of things. We’ll see what happens tomorrow, she thinks, yawning.
Translated from the Spanish by Julie Ann Ward
This story first appeared in English in World Literature Today 91, no. 1 (January 2017).