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from the May 2008 issue

Under the Bridge

I went to look for Martín even though he didn't like for me to go all the way to the riverbank. Since it was Monday, there wasn't anybody in the restaurant, and at seven, Mere let me leave. I took off my apron, changed my white blouse and put on a black T-shirt that had a Hard Rock café sign on it that Martín gave me when I turned seventeen, and since my high heels were killing me, I put on my red Converse. Martín didn't wanna see me on the riverbank cuz the other pasamojados gave him hell, saying I was really hot. One time one of em told him that with a woman like me, there was no need to get in the river so much. He didn't put up with any crap. He responded like he did when he felt threatened, with his fists and knives. If the people watching hadn't pulled em apart in time, Martín would've left him cut up like a sieve. That was the reason why he spent those weeks in jail. With Mere's help I managed to get all the paperwork done to get him out of there. He loaned me cash to pay the lawyer's fees and, when he finally got out free, I asked him not to go back to the black bridge. I was freaked out that the other guy would wanna get revenge, but he told me that he got there first, that that was the best spot for crossing wetbacks, and if that other guy wanted shit, all the better, he'd just finish him off once and for all. Fortunately when Martín returned he didn't run into him again, that day. Monday, the sidewalks that go from the restaurant to the riverbank were almost empty, no gringos or wetbacks. It was really hot, the stench of the puddles mixed with the smell of urine that came out of the cantinas. A man in the doorway of a cabaret was shouting to come see a show. He called out to me with a sick little voice. I didn't pay no attention to him, but I was sure that the next day he was gonna be in the restaurant messing with me. I didn't like that little man. He invited me to the movies, to get a beer, all over the place. He really was messed up, besides his teeth were all rotten, not like Martín who had nice little straight white ones. "Mónica!" he yelled at me, but I just walked faster, I didn't find Martín and I asked the other pasamojados if they'd seen him. They told me he'd just crossed over. At that hour there were just a few people on the edge of the river, like they didn't really wanna cross. I sat down under the bridge and to distract myself I started watching the clouds and the buildings of the city in front of me, really tall glass towers with tons of colors—green, blue, metallic, black—the buzzing of the cars was putting me to sleep. Suddenly I saw him appear in the train yard on the other side of the river, between the boxcars, Martín and a Migra. It looked like they were arguing. They lifted up their arms like they were gonna start whaling on each other. The Migra guy grabbed Martín by his shoulder and shook him. Me and all the people on this side were watching close to see what was gonna happen. I got real scared cuz I knew what Martín could do, but then Martín got free and squeezed out through a hole in the chain-link fence, ran down the cement slope, and got into the dirty river water that came up to his waist. Then I saw the sky was starting to get dark. "What're you doing here?" he asked me, all pissed off when he got to where I was. I didn't answer cuz I was waiting til he calmed down. We started walking along the riverbank through dust and debris. Martín had on his Chicago Bulls T-shirt, all soaked, not to mention his shorts. When his clothes aired out a little, we went back to Calle Acacias. It always stank like day-old grease over there, and the sidewalks were full of snot-nosed kids. We stopped at one corner to eat tortas. It struck me that the bologna tortas looked like open mouths with the tongue hanging out, cuz of the piece of meat that stuck out of the bread roll. Martín thought what I said was funny. He grabbed a torta, opened and closed the two sides of the roll like it was a mouth and he started talking with a gringo accent, "Cuidado, Martin, cuidado, better to be friends than enemies, okay?" He threw the torta into a puddle. It was about nine at night. You couldn't buy alcohol in the stores anymore, so we went to Mere's restaurant. I got two Coors in a paper bag. We walked a few blocks and went into the Hotel Sady, ten dollars for a room for the whole night, but we were just gonna use it for a few hours. On the way I asked him if the next day he'd take me across the river cuz I'd never been to the other side. Martín asked for a room on the third floor, the last one with a window on Calle Degollado. From there we heard the commotion in the street like a faraway hum. Catty-corner to the hotel there's a bright sign with a rosy light, and Martín liked when its glow lit up the room. He said that he felt like he was in another place, that he even felt like a different person. I remember that night I felt his body real nice, hugged him real tight for a long time, till he pulled away from me. He drank two beers and got serious. I asked him what happened, why he imitated that Migra guy and made fun of him. He told me he had a beef with him cuz of some people that he'd tried to cross, money stuff. He said it just like that and closed his eyes. I waited till he fell asleep so I could watch him comfortably, big and strong. I felt happy with him. I liked my Martín from the very first time I saw him come into the restaurant with some other cholos, all of em really slick, with their hair pulled back, held tight in a net. When I asked what they were gonna drink, Martín answered for all of em. After I came back with their beers he asked me what time I was gonna get off work. Later he was waiting for me outside. Martín had eyelashes that curled up at the ends. He laughed with his eyes, and that made me trust him. I became his girl that same night. Afterward he told me he was a pasamojados. As time passed, as we were getting to know each other I realized that he liked weed. I didn't like that. He made fun of me, said I was really square. I didn't care for weed or wine, but he liked me like that. We were thinking about renting some rooms to live together, just till we went to Chicago, like wetbacks, like the poor people who cross the river with nothing but God, climb into freight train cars, hiding and waiting for hours, sometimes a whole day till finally the train moves, with them inside, suffocating hot and afraid. When Martín asked me if I wanted to leave with him, I didn't answer. The truth is I didn't want to travel hidden in a freight car like my dad must have done just a few days after we arrived here. My mom found a job quickly in a factory, but my dad complained that he wasn't finding any work, till the day came that he lost hope and he told us he'd go further north. It was a Sunday when he got outta bed determined to leave. My mom and I went with him to downtown. Once we were there he wanted to go to the Cathedral first. Afterward we left him on the edge of the river with a small suitcase in his hand. It was the last time we saw him. Just remembering I got sad, made me wanna kiss Martín's little tattooed tears next to his left eye, "one's for the first time the police caught me, the other for when my mom died," he told me one night when we were together. "The cobweb I've got on my left angel wing is from a bet I won off this real chingón friend of mine; the loser had to pay for a tattoo for the winner in the best tattoo shop in El Chuco." When he opened his eyes, I had so many thoughts mixed up in my mind that I asked him again about the Migra guy. At first he said it wasn't important, but I pressed him on it, and he ended up telling me. "That guy's name is Harris," he said. "I know him from a long ways back, almost since I've been in this. We started out workin real good, without no issues, but then later not no more, cuz he didn't wanna pay me shit. He asked me for people to slave for him in El Chuco. I crossed over maids, gardeners, waiters, even a mariachi with instruments and everything. They were for his place and for his homies' places. He paid me good, but the shit started when I took people across to go pick chile up in New Mexico, cuz I took em all the way up to the fields too, so since it was more risk for me, I asked him for more cash. He didn't wanna pay and we got into it. Now he's making deals with the fucker that I stabbed that time for being such a loudmouth, remember? All I want is to get my money." He finished talking and hugged me. "Don't freak out, Moni, it's not the first time I've got issues with la Migra." We kissed and then we felt each other again. We left the room in time for me to catch the last bus to Felipe Ángeles. That night it took a long time to fall asleep. It was always like that after sleeping with Martín. I kept thinking about him and I was worried. Finally I got to sleep after I decided that I didn't want to go to the other side anymore. The next day I put on a necklace made of colored beads and grabbed a denim bag where I put some pants so Martín could change out of his wet shorts. I meant to invite him to the movies, but when I got to the riverbank I freaked out cuz I saw him between the boxcars arguing with the same guy. I thought Martín was gonna pull a knife on him, but after a few minutes the other guy disappeared and Martín crossed quickly to this side of the river. "Let's get outta here, cuz I just might cut him open!" he ordered as soon as he saw me. We walked to Mere's restaurant and had a Coke. Martín calmed down and I took advantage of the chance to tell him that I'd changed my mind. He didn't like that, he said we'd go no matter what. It was a challenge for Martín. He told me the Migra guy was scared of him cuz he'd threatened to rat him out, besides his shift on patrol had already ended, he was sure he'd already taken off. Martín's reasons didn't convince me. I regretted having gone looking for him. The only thing I wanted was to disappear from there. Martín got mad at me, dragged me to the riverbank, and pushed and shoved me onto the tire tube he used as a raft. "Don't move, it's just a few minutes!" He pulled the tube slow so the water wouldn't splash me. It must've been about three in the afternoon. The sun was still high, reflected in the muddy water. Under the bridge, women and men waited for their turn to cross over; up above, on the bridge, others with their fingers hooked on the chain-link fence looked all around. They watched me and Martín. Despite feeling scared I got excited thinking that we'd stay on the other side the rest of the day, that we were gonna walk the streets of a city unknown to me—all that thrilled me—I watched the blue sky, the Franklin Mountain, the colors of the buildings, an enormous billboard for Camel cigarettes, and below it the train boxcars. Right at that moment I heard a shot. We'd already gotten to the other bank. I could see a man was hiding between the boxcars. It was a man with the unmistakable green uniform. "What's going on, Martín?" I asked him panicked. "Get down!" he screamed at the same time as he hid behind the tube. Another shot rang out. Martín doubled over, the dark water of the river covered him. Terrified, I screamed. I wanted to get off the tube, stand up, or do something, but my fear wouldn't let me. I looked around for help. There wasn't a soul under the bridge anymore, not even up above, not anywhere. I felt like everything was far away, the little kids that played in the dusty streets, my house, Mere's restaurant, the Hotel Sady, the Cathedral, its staircase and its beggars. The last day I saw my father, I felt an intense heat in my eyes. The August sun I thought. I closed them hard and saw how much silence the river carries.

Translation of "Bajo el Puente." From Bajo el Puente: Relatos desde la Frontera/Under the Bridge: Stories from the Border, published May 2008 by Arte Publico Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Read more from the May 2008 issue
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