Issue 20 / Winter 2020
Saturday afternoon, I stood in the bedroom I shared with Dulce, my shy, thirteen-year-old host sister. A short towel wrapped me from armpits to thighs, my hair dripped down my shoulders and back, and leather chanclas protected my feet from any scorpions that lurked. Surveying my limited outfit choices, I sighed. Mexican women dressed more formally than American college students in general, but what does one wear for a walk in the countryside with Miguel?
I settled on a black, cotton skirt and tank top, with my sturdy walking sandals, then peeked out the upstairs window and saw Miguel sitting outside already, a few minutes early. I let myself stare, taking in his neatly-ironed khaki pants, his long-sleeve white shirt casually rolled at the wrists, and gold, chain-link bracelet glinting in the sun, beautiful on his dark skin. He exuded confidence, self-possession. I smoothed my skirt down over my hips, gave my hair a final scrunch, and took a deep breath before walking downstairs and opening the gate, which squawked my arrival. He stood and turned toward me, smiling.
“Buenas tardes,” he said.
“Buenas tardes,” I responded, feeling shy, nervous.
He hesitated, then pointed uphill. “We’ll have to walk this way a bit to reach the bridge across the stream.”
I loved that he slowed down his Spanish enough so I could understand him. “Okay.”
We walked up to the fork in the road and took another branch of the calle down toward the bottom of the ravine where we crossed a small, cement bridge over the stream. On our left sat a house with a yard containing a giant sow nursing piglets, a donkey, a bunch of chickens and a rooster.
“Huh. There’s the bastard who wakes me up every morning,” I said, giving the rooster my dirtiest look. Miguel’s laugh thrilled me because I made him laugh in Spanish.
“You’re not used to roosters, I guess,” he said.
“No. And I thought they only sang one time, at dawn. But no, he crows every five minutes starting at four a.m.”
“I guess they do. I don’t even hear them. City girl, huh?”
“No pigs there either?”
I loved how easy it was to talk to him, though I wondered for a moment why he had learned to simplify his Spanish—for another güera? If you’re a desirable, twenty-year-old guy, and ten American girls moved into your neighborhood each year, surely you have dated a few. It doesn’t matter, Laura.
“Is it crowded like here where you’re from?” he asked.
I looked around, noticing that as we ascended the other side of the ravine, we had left civilization behind. Surrounding us, long grass and wildflowers swished and swayed, and small, white butterflies floated over undulating hills.
“This doesn’t look very crowded.”
“I meant the colonia, funny girl.”
I savored the word “funny.” “My town is very close to Filadelfia, and the whole area around the city is pretty crowded. There’s no open space like this, except in parks.”
Was it a shame? I’d never thought about it. It just was. “Nobody lives over here?” I asked.
“A few people do.” He paused, then reached out his hand to swipe a leaf. “Look.” He opened his hand, revealing a grasshopper before letting it go again, then indicated I should walk in front of him on the narrow path. “Cuernavaca basically ends with our neighborhood, which was only built within the last twenty years. Before, this was all countryside.”
I glanced back at him. “Do you remember before the street was built?”
“Sí. I helped build it.”
I pictured tiny Miguel, carrying a bucket of water to mix with cement and smiled at the thought.
“What?” he asked.
“I’m imagining you as a kid.”
“Yeah? What do I look like?”
I turned to face him, squinted, considering. “Basically the same, only smaller.”
He grinned. “That’s about right. And you? Like this but smaller?”
I flashed on childhood photos and winced. “No. I had short hair, more freckles—pretty ugly.”
I smiled at his disbelief. “It’s true. My brother still calls me Dennis the Menace. That’s an insult,” I added, in case he didn’t know who that was.
“Brothers are mean. I’m sure you were always beautiful.”
“Then why are you laughing?” We were both laughing, and again I noticed the ease of our conversation.
“Here, this way,” he said, climbing onto a big rock, putting out his hand and pulling me up next to him, the feel of his skin on mine sending warmth up my arm, jump-starting my heart. If he was similarly distracted, he didn’t show it. Instead, he pointed toward the horizon at two large mountains, one with a snow-capped peak. “See over there? That’s Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl,” he said.
He repeated the impossible names. As if Spanish wasn’t hard enough, many things in Mexico had names in indigenous languages.
“You haven’t heard their story?”
I shook my head. “Tell me.”
We sat down on the rock, his thigh touching mine through our clothes, my skin tingling accordingly. His eyes got a little dreamy and far away.
“Bueno, the Emperor and Empress of the Nahuatls had only one child, late in life. They named her Iztaccíhuatl, which means ‘white woman.’”
He turned to me and smiled. “Sí, like you.
“Iztaccíhuatl, Izta, was a beautiful princess. Her parents wanted her to marry well and picked out many suitors, but she rejected them all because she wanted to marry for love. One day, she was walking in the hills, not far from here, and met a handsome warrior named Popoca. When their eyes met, something powerful happened between them—they both felt it, even though it was hard to explain. Love at first sight. Luckily, he was exactly the kind of husband her parents would have wanted for her, but unluckily, he was from a different tribe.”
He paused and studied my face. “Are you understanding me?”
I nodded. The words I understood. If there were similarities between what he was describing and what I felt about us, I refused to entertain them.
“So Popoca asked the Emperor for his daughter’s hand in marriage, but the Emperor said he would only allow it if Popoca’s people fought with the Nahautls against their enemy. He assumed that either they wouldn’t fight, or if they did, that Popoca wouldn’t survive. But such was his love that Popoca convinced his tribe to fight with the Nahautls, and after a long and bloody battle, they emerged victorious.”
I was drawn into his story, but not enough to forget about his leg touching mine, or the warm boulder under our thighs, or the sunshine on my face.
“So did they live happily ever after?”
He looked at me, then back at the mountains. “No. That was not their fate. Popoca had enemies among his tribe, warriors who were jealous of his courage and success. One of them secretly sent word back to the Emperor that Popoca had been killed in the battle. When Izta heard the news, she fell into a deep depression and died of a broken heart, unable to live without her one true love.”
I sucked in a breath, shaken. Franklin appeared before my eyes, lying on his living room floor, eyes open, unresponsive, victim of a physically broken heart.
“Weeks later, when Popoca returned in triumph to claim his bride, he found the Nahuatls preparing her funeral. Devastated, he took her body up into the mountains, laid her down, knelt to watch over her and died of grief. The gods, who saw the exceptional love of Popoca and Izta, took pity on them, and turned them into mountains so they could remain together for all time.”
There I am, kneeling over Franklin. I’ve come back from the accident, ready to do more battle, and he has died. He’s fucking died.
I put my hands over my face, trying to erase this image, substitute the legendary lovers, or Miguel and me.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“It’s real, right? That’s how things turn out. Popoca did everything he was supposed to, and he still lost her.” I hopped off the boulder and began pacing. “But why couldn’t he grieve, and heal? Why did he have to die with her?”
Miguel slid down the rock and stepped next to me. “I like the idea that for some of us, there is only one right person who is meant to be their love. I guess for Popoca, he knew there could never be anyone else.”
He pointed out the curves in the one mountain. “Do you see how she looks like a sleeping woman? Her head, her chest, her knees? And there’s Popo, kneeling beside her. Every once in a while, he sends smoke up to let us know that he’s still watching over her.”
I became suddenly aware of his body, so close to mine. I looked down, heat rushing to my face.
He leaned toward me and traced a finger down my cheek. “I love the roses on your face.”
I covered my cheeks with my hands. “I hate them.”
“Ay, qué lastima,” he said, gently removing my hands, “because they’re beautiful.” He lightly brushed my still-warm cheeks, then leaned closer and kissed me, first gently, then with growing urgency, his hands roving over my back, pulling me closer.
Yes, lips on my neck. Yes, hands under my shirt. He pressed against me, hard between my legs, our breath fast and shallow. Oh God. The straps of my tank top and bra, down, shoulder bare. Yes. Make me forget everything. Then a pause. His fingers lightly traced the puckered skin of my scar.
I jerked back, pulling my straps up and hugging my arms over my chest.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Are you…okay?”
I turned away, nodding.
His hand on my arm made me flinch.
“Laura, can you look at me?”
He wasn’t the first person to see my scars. So why did it feel like he was? I turned slowly, looking at his chest. He tucked a hair behind my ear.
“Do they hurt?” he asked.
I looked up at his face, his green eyes full of concern.
“Not in the way you might think.”
I wanted to sprint, away from his gaze that studied me. It was too much. I looked toward the mountains. Did Izta die of a broken heart or from fear? Is it the same thing?
“I can go as slow as you need to,” he said.
He didn’t ask. That is my only explanation for hearing the truth fall out of my mouth.
“I was hit by a car.”
He swiveled his head.
“That’s why I have the scars. I was out for a jog, training, and a woman blew a stop sign and ran right into me. I didn’t even see her coming.”
“Dios.” He took my hand. “When was that?”
“Two years ago.” I extracted my hand, turned toward home.
“So, that’s why you stopped playing tennis?”
No. I had come back from the accident, and could have been even stronger, but Franklin’s death changed everything. I couldn’t fight without my coach. I couldn’t even pick up a racket. But I didn’t say any of that to Miguel. Too many people had made it worse with their well-meaning attempts to comfort: you’re young, you can find another coach; he’s in a better place; or, my favorite, he would want you to keep playing. As if they fucking knew anything.
Miguel kept a respectful distance. “I’m sorry you went through that.”
“Shit happens, right? I guess everyone learns at some point that bad things can come out of nowhere and change your life forever.”
Miguel nodded, and we started to walk back toward the colonia. “Good things can come out of nowhere too,” he said eventually. “They can show up in your neighborhood, from another country, to name a random example.”
I turned to see him smiling, bringing me back to the present, back to this sunny day where this god of a man reached for my hand, and kissed it. The sun caressed the top of my head, and the grass swayed against my legs.
Maybe we weren’t Izta and Popo. Maybe their story didn’t fit any of my stories. Maybe Franklin had died, taking my tennis dreams with him, but maybe new dreams were possible. Maybe I had come to Mexico to find out what they were.
I plucked a wildflower and inhaled. “Maybe you’re right.”
The warrior-lover-volcanoes kept watch over us as we made our way down the steep hill, past the rooster, sow and piglets, over the bridge and back into the unlikely neighborhood, that stretched down the side of a ravine, on the outskirts of the City of Eternal Spring.
Julie Owsik Ackerman has been published in The Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Bitch Magazine, and The Main Line Times. Her work has received a Philadelphia Writers’ Conference Award for Fiction and Nonfiction, and a Reader’s Choice Award for Poetry. This story, an excerpt of her first novel, draws inspiration from her experiences of living in Mexico and working as an immigration attorney. Follow her on Twitter @julieoack.