So it’s four hours to the border, then another three down to Ensenada, and freedom by sunrise. Right now, we’re just heading out of San Diego, and Eleanor is a head and a pink felt blanket in the passenger seat. She is asleep and the roadside foliage is nothing but a mess of moving shadows. The Mustang rattles in unison with the highway. It is steel and old leather.There is a shoebox of my father’s cassettes in the back seat: a couple of Carlos Santana, Sade and Camilo Sesto. My father, a man of eclectic tastes, also had tapes of Donna Summer, Paul Simon, and the Fifth Dimension. Ellie and I listened to “Age of Aquarius” the first time we were “together.” Later, we lay twisted in the cramped backseat of the Mustang and I whisper-sang her “Up, Up and Away.” Her eyes traced the pathways of our tangled hands, hers pear white, mine a darker shade.
“Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?
Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?
We could float among the stars together, you and I
For we can fly we can fly
Up, up and away
My beautiful, my beautiful balloon.”
She sighed. Our bodies were a brown and white panorama, a relief map of low lying mountains.
“We are beautiful,” she whispered, “Beautiful, beautiful…”
In the way her voice trailed, I could hear the old worries resurfacing. Thoughts of her father, her mother, and the gossip that would arrive like a second tray of sandwiches at the country club. I pulled her closer by the crook of her hip. Our stomachs kissed.
“Marry me, then.” Knees on knees.
“Luís.” I traced her earlobe.
“We can run. Get married and stay with my aunt a couple of days. Maybe longer.”
Her body shifted. I melted to receive it.
“Tell me you love me,” she said.
“Te quiero.” She giggled, ran a hand along my cheek, “Que te quiero, te quiero, te quiero.”
At the country club tomorrow, her mother would be mixing Valium and mint juleps. She might lie and say that Ellie had up and left for Europe with some of her silly friends. To anyone who’d listen, she will complain loudly about their gardener. He kept ogling Eleanor like a greyhound.
Now it is 4 AM and I can see my own mother waking up for work, starting the coffee, and walking down the hall to check on my sister and me. She will cry when she reads the note, the way she did the night before my older sister’s wedding. I had been out late. She slept in my bed waiting for me. When I woke her, she asked if I ever prayed.
“Sí.” I had quit going to church the summer after seventh grade. The summer my father died and I began working.
“Yes, Mami, every night.”
The tears were irrepressible. She tried to wipe them away with the back of her hand, then with the neck of her cotton nightgown.
“I am happy for your sister.” In a week, Nacha was marrying a GI she met while working at the restaurant.
“He is a wonderful man. I pray for all of you, you know,” my mother said. I wrapped my arms around her, cooed and petted her like a child. All I could do.
“It is a mother’s duty,” she whispered into my shoulder. “It is our duty to love and to cry.”
And so, tomorrow, when she sees my note, my mother will weep into her morning coffee. She will pray to Saint Christopher and la Virgen and stare into space throughout her shift at the Holiday Inn. And then at night, she will call her sister in Ensenada and ask if we had arrived. They will alternate outbursts for a while, and my mother will demand to hear my voice. Both will end the conversation crying, for no particular reason, and for every imaginable reason.
With all this on my mind, I smooth the blanket covering Ellie in the passenger seat, then reach beneath it to find her hand.
At one thirty, with everything ready, I had buzzed her cell phone. She came trotting out back through the sliding glass doors, rolling a leather suitcase behind her. Her mother and father were still at the party, she told me. No reason to rush.
“Are you scared?”
She was hovering in the passenger seat, fumbling with her pink blanket. The door was propped open by her right leg. Her foot hadn’t yet left the patio.
“My aunt has a garden with a tall fence around it,” I told her. “My uncle built it for her to win her hand. There is a birdbath where there are always blue jays, and a bench with their initials carved inside a heart.”
She stared into the Mustang’s red dashboard. Ellie’s heart was a tiny node of restraint, hard and grey and more worrisome than girls of her age and station needed to be. The frown lines below her yellow bangs were visible even when relaxed, put there by years of frowning over cello strings, melancholy contemplation of French poetry. I tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, waited.
“It’s only a couple of days,” I said. “Just for fun.” But I knew it was more than that. Ellie could never just come back to her house, pretend like nothing had happened. Neither of us would be able to do that. Then her hands found mine and pulled me close. The bridge of her nose wandered in circles around my neck.
“It’s you. You, you, you.”
My mother and father had their first date in the Mustang. The leather had been slicker back then. My mother knew it was love when my father held the door for her at the movie theater. No man had ever made her feel like that. He worked in construction. She was a secretary. Both dirt-poor and newly immigrated, seeking something to hold on to.
I was the first of the four children that they were ready for. Antonio and Nacha were what my mother so tenderly referred to as “love children.” By the time I was born, my father had finished a three bedroom house for his growing family. When I was younger he would give me tours of the architectural highlights: the simple molding where wall met ceiling, the inlayed floors in the den.
“Your father does not have much money, Luís,” he would tell me. “But he has his own hands.”
When I was fourteen, those hands would mistakenly grab a live electric cable on a shopping plaza construction site, leaving my mother to work three jobs and weep alone for her children. Antonio had already moved out, so I taught myself how to drive the Mustang. The automatic transmission made learning relatively easy. For the first few months, I sat on two pillows to see over the steering wheel.
The sky over the highway has been lightening for about an hour now and the desert of the borderlands begins to simmer orange. Freedom by sunrise or bust. The houses are farther apart here and have begun the slow evolution from SoCal stucco to the inevitable yellow of Mexican adobe. Ellie stirs, hesitates, opens her eyes. She folds the pink blanket into her arms, then runs her hand down my arm. She holds my chin gently, sighs.
“Good morning, starshine,” I say.
She grunts lightly. “You tired?” she says.
“Nah. Just a couple hours to go now, you know.” I ignore the way the lines of the interstate begin to veer, to lose themselves in each other, in the fenders and chrome of the Mustang.
“We’re going to tie the knot, huh?” she giggles. The node of worry makes her voice tremble slightly.
“There are chapels in my aunt’s town. I’m not sure if it’ll be recognized or anything, back in the States. It’ll just be nice.”
“How — how long will we stay?” I hear the dread of a romantic weekend that will slip into a week. Disrupting cello practice, Math class.
“How long did you tell your folks in the note?”
“Oh.” She is not smiling anymore.
“You did leave a note?”
This time her attempt at giggling is more noticeably an attempt. She is staring at me, her neck turned awkwardly away from her forward-pointing body. My pulse has quickened for no apparent reason and the only escape is to kiss her.
I took the gardening job because my younger sister wanted ballet lessons. When my mother first told Teresa we couldn’t afford them, she had cried. My mother had cried as well, because she too could never get what she wanted. Teresa turned glum for a few days, then began practicing the steps the ballerinas on PBS programs did around the house, along our father’s inlaid floor. The day she quit dancing and went to the movies with a boy, I offered to pay for the lessons.
A Cut Above the Rest gave me seven dollars an hour to work in private homes, mostly pruning rich-people shrubs. Ellie’s family was one of them. Her father did real estate. A business man, tried and true. He had once offered me a beer while I re-mulched the garden path. No thanks. Didn’t care much for the taste of it.
“Oh, that’s what you think now,” he had popped one open for me. “You haven’t tried Stella before, have you? British. A continental beverage.”
I sipped a little to be polite. Stella was dismal.
Mr. Rosenfeld wore a visor, light blue golfing shorts, and tall socks. This was probably his third beer. It was Saturday.
“You still in school, friend?”
“Yes.” I sat the bottle on the porch railing.
“What year?” His face was pink and glistening. He wiped it with the back of his hand, then with the sleeve of his t-shirt.
I grunted in affirmation. The mulch stank of decay. I pressed the stuff between a few stones, feeling its softness give under the rake. Mr. Rosenfeld showed me the courtesy of not asking what I planned to do after high school. We talked about baseball instead.
Mrs. Rosenfeld didn’t come around much. The flowers I was to plant were always her selections, but they were usually just left in their plastic by the garage door. I often glimpsed her through the glass doors of the patio, floating through the shadow realm that was the inside of Ellie’s house. Ellie herself was no more than a flash that shot between her convertible and the patio door each weekday around three. We knew each other from a fleeting encounter at a nearby bookstore: she went to prep school the next town over, and her parents had bought her a BMW for the commute. I had found her pretty then, but vacuously so. Not till I was up close did I realize her hair color was natural, her eyes a shade you couldn’t buy in lots of twelve. Once or twice she would tarry a few seconds beside the Mustang, which I parked on the other side of the patio. I imagined the muscles in her neck tensing as she craned it ever so slightly, examined the red leather through the window, the St. Christopher’s medal hanging from the mirror.
From then on, she would linger a little longer on the patio after she got home. We made mostly awkward prattle, always about her life. She didn’t ask much about mine. I think she was afraid. One day, as she told me about the latest trouble with her boyfriend, I slipped an African violet behind her ear. It burned there, like an emblem. She ran her fingertips along it, petal on petal.
“My mother loves them,” I said. “They make her cry.”
“I’m not sure. She just does sometimes.”
Ellie shot a glance beyond the glass. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mother cry.”
My father used to tell me that there is a moment in all love that feels like jumping off a cliff.
“I was wondering what you were doing this weekend?”
She watched the ground, the spaces between the garden path. The cool tiles of the kitchen whispered behind the glass. “Nothing,” she said. “I have nothing planned.” That must have been three months ago now.
Dear Mami, I wrote on the pad in the kitchen used for grocery lists.
I am going away for a few days to visit Tía Pilar. I have met a girl here and we want to get married. Her name is Eleanor and I know you would like her. I will bring the Mustang back in one piece. Please do not worry too much, and please be happy for us.
We are in love.
Ellie was an avid collector of music. All her CD’s (which she called “albums”) were alphabetized and put in volumes with plastic pages. Her bedspread was fluorescent blue, the same color as the gaggle of post-its tangled on her desk lamp, peeking out from the pages of her books.
The first time I visited her bedroom, I didn’t sit down, felt like that would have been presumptuous. The next time, we lay on the carpet, doing a jigsaw puzzle of two white puppies in a basket. One had a bow on its head. I put the edges together, sifting out the pieces with straight lines and connecting them into a square. She did most of the middle, more quickly than I could finish the outside.
Ella Fitzgerald and Kiss held equal footing in her music collection. One day, she gave me a tape with a fluorescent label: For Luis. She had put the cassette on record and then played her “albums” through the stereo. Track 1: “My Funny Valentine”.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s cute,” she said. “My father and I used to dance to it.” I imagined Mr. Rosenfeld doing the bunny hop with his baby girl, her tiptoes digging into the points of his black loafers.
One afternoon, she sang “Everlong” into a hairbrush, jumped in circles on the bed and didn’t look worried about a single thing.
“And I wonder
When I sing along with you
If everything could ever feel this real forever
If anything could ever be this good again
The only thing I’ll ever ask of you
You’ve got to promise not to stop when I say when
She said — ”
It might as well have been our first kiss.
“Luís,” Ellie pats me on the cheek and I yelp as I snap awake. We are still an hour out from the border and the lines are crossing in flashes.
“Oh God.” I guide the Mustang onto the pebbly shoulder of the road.
“I could have — ”
“You didn’t.” She cups my face, buries her hand in the crook of my arm. “Six hours now. Rest, baby.”
I kill the ignition and climb into the back seat, over her suitcase and my Led Zeppelin duffel bag. There is a rustle and scrunch of leather as she joins me.
The tapping on the glass sounds like something metal. Ellie stirs with a grumble and we part. The policeman outside the driver’s side window doesn’t look happy, like he was just at the end of his shift when this assignment got called in. I climb into the front seat and work the stiff lever until the Mustang’s window is open.
“Power nap, officer,” I say. “Been going all night.”
“Luís Peña?” The officer’s voice is vaguely Southern, perhaps from the tip of Indiana, maybe Virginia. His badge gleams in the light of what is now full blown morning. 10 AM.
An affirmative can never be good in situations like this. That is why I hesitate, as if I must consider who to be.
Ellie has climbed into the front as well. Wide-eyed, she watches the officer but doesn’t say anything. There is a hint of what’s to come in the way the officer raises his eyebrows slightly. It’s recognition in his eyes when he sees Ellie’s face. He laughs to himself.
“And Eleanor Rosenfeld?” By this time, Ellie’s parents have supplied the police with a recent photo, which will be on the morning news of every television in three states.
She lowers her chin and manages a slight nod.
The key dangles from the ignition, vibrating with pulse of the highway. We could be out of here in a matter of minutes. Freedom by noon at the latest. Vows at sunset. But already I can feel the question take wing. It springs from the officer’s lips and my heart in the same instant.
“And just what is it that you think you’re doing?”
We could float among the stars together, you and I. Ellie has taken to watching the cars pass, biting her nails.
“We’re getting married in Ensenada,” I say, looking at Ellie. She does not corroborate. Instead she plays alphabet with the codes of passing license plates. Then, like a squeeze of the hand
“We’re in love,” she says faintly, but I know she believes.
“Listen.” The officer puts his hands on his hips. The starched cotton of his uniform rustles. “I’ve got a missing person’s report out on this young lady. Officers in seven counties up all night. I’m gonna need a little more explanation than that.” His voice is unwavering.
“We just didn’t feel like telling anybody.” My knuckles are white on the steering wheel. The policeman’s eyes narrow.
“Stupid kids. Both of your parents are probably out of their minds worried.” He pauses, looks me over once more, the turns to Ellie. “Honey, why don’t you take your telephone and have a little talk with your daddy?” Then to me. “You know somebody in Mexico, is that was this is about, friend?” I nod. He doesn’t really sound like my friend.
Ellie is looking at me for a sign. I give her none, my turn to spell “pickaxe” from license plates. In my peripheral vision, I can see her fishing in the side pocket of her suitcase, where her telephone waits, on vibrate. She finds my hand. With the other, she dials. I wait, can feel the hot blood rising to my cheeks. And my beautiful balloon deflates.
Ensenada is out of the question now, so I take the next exit and merge back onto the highway in the opposite direction. Back to square one. The officer sees us off.
“I’m sorry,” Ellie says at one point. I don’t respond. After an hour more of the silent treatment, she begins to doze.
My father asked my mother to marry him while riding a Ferris wheel. Later, he would joke that he had wanted my mother’s mild fear of heights to temporarily alter her judgment. She loved him because he didn’t sit close to her at first. My father waited for her to sidle up to him, searching for a feeling of home, dangling in the empty sky.
They could afford no ring, so my father tied a gold-colored thread to her finger the next day. That way all the men who cared to look would know there was someone else around that loved her. After he died, my mother confessed that she had had her doubts. She had waited for the thread to break, for a sign that their matrimony wasn’t made to last. Several times, she had scrubbed her hands anxiously in the shower, willing it to snap. She called it the biggest almost-mistake of her life.
“Baby,” Ellie whispers. It is nearing six and the Mustang is navigating the serpentine country roads near her house. We find a spot next to a cabbage field: a green hill with a twisted old tree and a big view of sky. I unpack the picnic lunch I have made: Coke and Poptarts. As we eat, she says,
“Remember when we first met?” She crinkles the silver paper and slips it into her pocket.
“Yes.” I don’t have to close my eyes.
“At the bookstore,” she reminisces. “I had always thought you were cute. In the dictionary section. I knew.”
She smiles, sips Coke sheepishly from a plastic cup. When the cup is down to only drops, she drinks from the bottle.
“I knew it was you.”
And now we are a sprawl of legs and giggles. Later, she looks me in the eyes and tells me that her parents are going to kill her when she gets home. Already, a hundred anchorwomen are announcing the false alarm. Opinion columnists are drafting tirades against today’s youth and I fear that the last forty minutes were the last we will ever steal together. Because the owner likes me okay, Cut Above the Rest will not fire me, and someone else will be assigned to work on the Rosenfelds’ garden. But I am still furious and cannot say why.
Ellie kisses me goodnight when I put the Mustang in neutral on the patio. There are no words exchanged. She only touches my face, lingers, and finally pulls herself away. As I watch her flip flops disappear beyond the glass doors, I remember my father’s gold thread.
The next evening, she rings my doorbell then goes to sit in the passenger seat of the Mustang. I recognize her car, abandoned, and the silhouette of her Victorian tub shoulders in the window of mine. When I climb in, I close the door, look straight ahead, as if driving.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“It’s not important.” The keys are dangling from my ring finger. Not sure why I brought them. She takes them up, slides one into the ignition.
“I’m ready,” she whispers.
Inside my mother is cooking dinner. Our fingers tangle.
There is a cassette sitting halfway in the tape deck, and I decide to play it. One of my father’s. Simon and Garfunkel.
“Time it was and what a time it was it was,
A time of innocence a time of confidences…”
Our hands continue the argument. We kiss and that is enough.