I had my reasons for returning, but they were pallid and empty as I dropped into the back seat of the taxi for the long drive---I'd forgotten how long, and how terrible.
RegresarM. Stanley Bubien
Without a seat belt, we dodged through the traffic as was wont of the Mexican driver, pressing, always pressing for position, anything bringing faster passage to our destination, no matter how large the bus we'd cut off, no matter how small the space between bumpers we'd slip into. My only consolation was that the driver wore no seat belt either.
Accepting my predicament, I sank into the seat and gazed out the window as we weaved into the center of the city---el centro de la ciudad---a place I once lived. I recalled the soccer games as a child, each father, an adequate player and even better coach himself, crying instructions from the sidelines. And Benito, my brother, two years senior, instructing me just as loudly beside our own father.
Or---and I grinned at this---the pranks we played with fireworks, pretending we were the great "Revolucionarios" of old, defending our proud country, overthrowing the oppressors of our brothers and sisters. I always stood watch, while Benito charged onto the street, laying out our incendiary and lighting the fuse. We squeezed into the cracks between buildings---barely wide enough for a child to fit into---and covered our ears as a shower of flames sprouted skyward, whistling its way down the tube to its echoing finale---BANG! Even then I doubted the Revolucionarios howled in laughter like my brother, who would throw an arm across my shoulders, pulling me into a triumphant embrace, and, eventually---once his spasms subsided---surrendering me to fall lightly against the wall.
I sighed and my grin slowly faded.
Outside the streaked VW window, the streets today, I could see, were exactly the same, yet, still, they looked so different after nine years of absence. Everything was so dirty. Yes. So dirty. The autos, the streets, the randomly thrown-up buildings, even the air, choked with the third world's restriction-free soot.
I coughed reflexively as we slowed to my brother's address. Paying my driver, I uttered a heartfelt "gracias," truly thankful to arrive alive.
My brother rushed out crying, "Miguel! Miguel!" He clapped me upon the back, held my shoulders and warmly stated, "Bienvenidos."
"Gracias," I replied, "But let's speak in English, Benito. You need the practice."
I instantly regretted the statement, sure that my brother would see through it to my true motives for returning. But his chest heaved as he bent backward and laughed, "Ah, my brother! Is good I have you once more."
Within the apartment, he pointed down the brief hallway to the bedroom he shared with his wife of nine years. "You come take our bed."
I held up my hand and argued, "No, no. I can't. That's not how we do things in the US." I indicated the couch. "I'll sleep here."
"Ah," he replied, eyebrows wrinkling together. "We are like this in Mexico. You stay there. Soledad and I, we sleep here."
I relented. After directing me to closet and dresser space, he left me to unpack. I hung pants and shirts in the closet, unfolded socks and underwear into the dresser.
Shutting the drawer, I looked up and faced a mirror. A warped image of myself stared back across the various icons and statuettes of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus---the holy family---that graced the dresser top, a reminder to my brother, no doubt, that God blesses families. Without averting my gaze, I lifted my hand to my forehead. My distorted reflection did the same. Frowning at my image, I dropped my arm without completing the sign.
"Sit yourself, Miguel," Benito ordered, pounding the couch as I entered the room. "He handed me a bottle of beer and slid down beside me. "Now Soledad makes dinner for us. She is ready soon."
I nodded and opened my mouth to ask, but instead said, "I hear soccer goes well."
"Muy bien!" he stated enthusiastically, and between slugs of beer he described the games he'd organized between his work-mates on the bottling line and rival companies.
"Is your team good?" I asked, rubbing my thumb up and down the beer's painted-on label.
"Team? Lo depende. We no have one team. Some play this week but tomorrow, no. Some good players, some bad. It matters not so much. We win, we lose. But all the time, we have fun!"
Soledad entered, and I jumped to my feet. She wiped her hands on her apron and presented one with a shy "Hola, Miguel." I grinned, reached past her hand and pulled her into a hug. My brother chuckled from the couch as she patted me on the back lightly.
In the kitchen, seated upon folding chairs around a table with one leg different from the other three, my brother offered a Catholic blessing before passing me the food. The beans he scooped in heaping portions upon his plate, smacking his lips with gusto. "Ah, you know," he said through a mouthful, pointing his spoon at me, "Soledad, she makes with lard of pork. El sabor!"
The meal was a Mexican feast, and my brother was right about the beans---they had the most wonderful flavor. I stuffed myself as he spoke, but I did so as much for the food itself as in the hope of avoiding my question.
"You know of the Zapatistas? Here in our city they visit."
My eyebrows raised.
"Do you remember us? We pretending for being revolutionaries?" he asked with a laugh. "So young. But these fighters from Chiapas, they come to get free for real."
My brother's eyes flared, and his demeanor suddenly changed. "Foolish men," he said in a way sounded like spitting. "Our government gives nothing. Not without the many pesos for politicians." He sniffed and rubbed his nose. "You know, the police I cannot even trust them. Here in our own city capital!" He sighed. "These poor Chiapas men. Our city it shows them no mercy."
Even though I had a mouthful of beans, I blurted, "Then why don't you leave."
My brother frowned, "Que?"
Well, there it was, out in the open. "If it's so bad," I waved my arm as if trying to encompass the whole city, "why not come to the United States with me?" And grimacing, I grabbed my fork to shovel a scoop of beans into my mouth.
My brother lifted his napkin to wipe his own mouth, replaced it, scooted his chair away from the table, and said, "Ah, you come to Mexico, not for family, but with reasons."
I swallowed and held up my hands, "No, I didn't just come for that, I swear to God!"
Benito pointed at me, intoning in his best English, "In my house, you do not swear to God with such lightness." He crossed himself.
After a profound apology, I said, "It's true. I want you to come to America. I've made a home there. I can even get you both green-cards---I mean, visas."
"Yes?" my brother asked, "and what jobs? You get jobs?"
"Absolutely!" I replied. "Visas and jobs! I've lined up two. They're both a million times better than working on a beer company production line."
"Why? Why for would I go to the United States? My work is good here. I think of no reason for leaving."
"Come on." I gestured toward him. "Your economy sucks---you know, is really bad---how long can you keep this job? It's not permanent."
"Come on you," Benito mimicked. "I work for makers of beer. My job never goes away! Never, never, never!"
Of course, in this he was right. There would always be a need for beer. I smiled and lifted my bottle in salute. My brother took a swig from his own, replaced it on the table, and broke out in laughter immediately upon swallowing.
"Okay," I said still grinning. "But you'd be so happy in the States. You can trust the police. Less corruption. It's safe to drive. I mean, there's tons of things that are better than in Mexico."
Before my brother could answer, Soledad inhaled heavily beside me, and gazing upon the center of the table, she said in a subdued voice, "It is here we are both happy." And, to emphasize her next words, she looked me directly in the eye. "Our life we enjoy in Mexico."
Benito placed his hand on Soledad arm, and she covered it with her own. "How would you have I go forget my wife's happiness?"
I shrugged. "You've never been Stateside. You have no idea how great it is. It's so much better than..." I looked around the room---the table, the rundown appliances, more icons hanging upon cracked walls---and waved my arms, "so much better than this apartamentito!"
Soledad tapped her husband's hand. He squeezed her arm twice and she stood and left the kitchen. My brother watched her leave, and when she was out of sight, he returned his attention to me. "Ah, my poor brother."
"You are like the Chiapas men who come to Mexico City looking for something you will never have."
"Whatever." I took a confused mouthful of beer.
"You have been gone much time. You no can understand us."
I had to agree with him there.
"I explain. In one word. Una palabra."
He leaned against the table, reached around my neck and pulled me forward until our foreheads touched, and he whispered his word.
Releasing me, he relaxed again in his chair, but seeing my look, he said, "Ah, Miguel. Still you no understand."
He bent, removed his shoe, and dumped a small pile of dirt into his hand. "You see what here?" He waved it at me.
He pointed to his eye. "You know what this is I see?"
I shook my head.
He pinched a bit between thumb and forefinger. "Soccer field! I stand here yesterday to give ideas for my team for playing good." He dropped the dirt onto the floor and took another pinch, "Ah! The building I work in. This is more than one hundred years. Very old." Again he dropped it and took another pinch, presenting it for me to see better. "This you recognize?"
To humor my brother, I examined it closely.
"Ha!" he interrupted. "You no recognize it! You should, but you do not. It is the dirt two young brothers made mischief on with loud firecracker bangs." He turned both palms vertical and brushed the remainder onto the floor.
"This dirt I am happy to spill in my house. You know why?"
I stared at him.
"Because this dirt is my country!"
Again, he pulled me against his forehead. "Understand, Miguel. I love my country. There are many things not perfect. But me and Soledad, we love our home."
He released me, but I remained leaning over the table. What could I say to that? We sat silently. I became aware of traffic sounds, engines roaring, horns honking, intruding upon our solitude.
Putting my beer aside, I reached out, grasped his neck and pulled him eye-to-eye. "I love my country too," I told him, "But my brother---hermano mio---I miss you. I miss you so much."
He blinked at me, eyes so close, and put an arm around me. But, instead of grasping my neck, he laid it across my shoulders, and turning his head aside, he pulled me against him, embracing me like only my brother can. He held me for a long time, and when he loosed his grip from about me, he pushed my shoulders gently so I drifted to rest in my chair.
"Ah, you have come with reasons," he smiled softly, and, taking his beer in hand, he contemplated the bottle for a time. Pointing to the intricate markings painted on the side, he said proudly, "My job is this. I do drawing."
I glanced at my own bottle, and, exhaling long and hard, I raised it high and said, "Un artista! Es lo mejor." And we spoke in Spanish for the remainder of my stay in my brother's home.
Copyright ©1997 M. Stanley Bubien. All Rights Reserved.
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