Lázaro was lost and alone in the desert and in need of medical attention. I was thirty-three years old and momentarily away from LA volunteering in the borderlands of Arizona. Supplied with little more than my broken Spanish, I tried my best to aid Lázaro with friendly chatter.
“¿Cómo conociste a tu esposa?” I asked how he met his wife.
“Su familia tenía una tiendita en el centro del pueblo. Ella atendía la tienda por las tardes, y yo busqué razones para visitarla.” He recalled visiting her as kids at the corner store her parents owned.
“Yo la conocía pero no sabía cómo acercarme a ella,” he said. He smiled with the memory of being too shy to approach her.
“Busqué cosas interesantes que hacer. Quería impresionarla con actos de valor,” he said, and I wondered what brave acts he performed to impress her. I imagined a young Lázaro with shaggy hair and torn pants running into the corner market with an emerald beetle, as shiny as a gem, hidden in his hand. Maybe he slowly approached the object of his affection as she wiped down counters, painting for her a heroic tale of an epic battle, before opening his fingers and presenting her with his kill. Maybe she screamed, and Lázaro grinned at himself, pleased. And maybe as they grew older Lázaro raced into the store just as an older village boy was pushing himself on her, pressing his body against hers, and Lázaro took the boy by the collar, escorted him out the doors, and shoved him into the dirt. But these are my imaginings.
What I knew was Lázaro was a man from Guatemala who was deserted on a nondescript, barren hill a few miles north of the Arizona–Mexico border. He was on his way to contacts in New Jersey for work while his wife and children stayed back home. When I met him he was severely dehydrated and suffering from an infection in the second toe of his right foot. The toe was tender and turning the colors of a ripened fig. He said he was a diabetic, looked to be in his late thirties and about five-foot-five. Lázaro had clay skin and deep eyes.
I would like to detail how or where this meeting with Lázaro occurred, but any meeting with a person who has crossed into this country by illegal means—whether the meeting is on a remote, dirt road in the Arizona desert or a congested parking lot in Los Angeles—is enough to be interpreted as a federal felony according to Section 8 of the Federal Immigration and Nationality Act. For this reason and in order protect the continuation of humanitarian aid efforts throughout our militarized borders, such details must be omitted or changed.
It’s July 2013, and I am volunteering for my second time with a direct humanitarian aid organization that patrols the Arizona-side of the border in an effort to help end death and suffering in the desert. Today, I am joining five other volunteers on a hike known as Ruby Quarry, named for the bright boulders that appear to be created out of a mosaic of magenta, lavender, and royal stones that bejewel the wash leading to the foot of a Sonoran mountain range. There we are to climb up to its ridge and find an oak tree shading a collection of water gallons and white buckets parked along the side of a dirt trail tracing the mountain range’s jagged spine north.
This is what the organization calls a water drop: a scouted location along a migrant trail where gallons of fresh water, cans of food, and socks are stocked in the hope of a person happening by, grabbing provisions and continuing north. Humane Borders, a separate nonprofit organization doing similar work, has counted 2,269 deaths from October 1999 to March 2012 along the Arizona–Mexico border. Most of these deaths were caused by dehydration, and water drops are placed all over the Sonoran desert in the hope of saving a life. Today our job is to take as much water and food as we can carry up the one-and-a-half-mile long, 1,300-foot-high rocky incline and replenish the supplies.
By 7:00 a.m. the white sun has risen over the vast peaks and valleys of the desert, and a Border Patrol helicopter has done its morning flyby. The volunteers begin to gather under the dining tarp to distribute the day’s duties. Someone inquires about a plane in the distance and asks if it is a drone. With an orange seventies coffee mug in one hand and a red marker in the other, Anita, a volunteer who has been in camp for a month, moves to the dry-erase board, “Well, I would like to do Ruby Quarry today. Are there other suggestions?” She writes a list of desert locations on the board as they are called out: Spearhead, Ruby Quarry, Mojave, Cinco Vacas.
Veteran volunteers give basic descriptions of each location for those who arrived the night before: “Cinco Vacas is five water drops. You drive to each one, do a short walk, and leave a few gallons at each.”
Anita campaigns for Ruby Quarry: “We haven’t hit it in a couple of weeks, so the water supply must be low. It’s beautiful up there. It’s a hard hike, but it’s worth it.”
I had planned on leaving today, but I had also planned on leaving the day before and the day before that. In fact, the original plan was to drop off a carload of donations from my mother’s church, do one long day on the trails, and head back to Los Angeles as quickly as possible. Now, a week in, I still haven’t done a hike.
The last time I was here was in August 2011. I was ten pounds heavier and had only hiked a handful of times in my adult life. After one grueling hundred-and-ten-degree day on the trails, where I fell multiple times and busted a plum-colored bruise over the heel of my palm, I found the only hammock in camp, wrapped my beaten body in its steaming, sticky nylon, and sobbed, “I can’t do this! I can’t do this!” until I fell asleep. When I woke panic-free and rested, my mind wandered to a solo white cross in an elbow of hills I visited the day before. The shrine—painted with delicate green vines and pink buds—was erected for Josseline, a fourteen-year-old girl who was traveling north with her little brother to meet their mother in LA Her coyote abandoned her when she began experiencing debilitating stomach cramps. She urged her brother to go on without her, and three weeks later a volunteer found her body sitting by a shallow pool, her naked feet dipped in the water. Josseline died because unlike me she wasn’t allowed a safe place to rest. Josseline died trying to find her way home.
I raise my hand: “Sign me up for Ruby Quarry.”
Lázaro crossed the Mexico–U.S. border on foot and in the middle of the night with a small group of men, each covered in long, camouflaged sweats. They bought the paraphernalia at the counsel of their coyote from a desert supply stand erected on a street somewhere on the Mexico side of the border. I have heard of such stands selling oil-black water gallons and sneakers with swatches of carpet glued to the soles, and I imagine them lined up on a dusty western-like main street where men stumble through as lost as tumble weed.
Two days into the journey, the wounds on Lázaro’s feet became infected and the pain was so bad he could no longer walk. With few options, one of his comrades turned on him, wrapped his fingers around Lázaro’s throat, and attempted to strangle him to death right there on the path north. When others in the group convinced this man to let Lázaro live, they carried him together to a distant hill, far off and hidden from any roads, and left him.
This was to ensure they had enough time to get away before authorities discovered him, but it also almost certainly ensured no authorities (nor anyone else) would ever discover him.
Stories like Lázaro’s are common in the desert. Women are raped, children are abandoned, and men are robbed of shoes and shirts before being left for dead. But what is uncommon is Lázaro was found alive. He said it was a miracle, and not even the atheist, anarchists in camp had it in them to disagree.
“¿Y tú? ¿Tienes marido?” After he shared the story of how he met his wife, Lázaro asked if I had a husband.
“No, no tengo.” I winced at the reminder of being in my thirties and alone.
“¿Ni novio?” His brown-amber eyes smiled with the question, and I thought of my best friend, Joe, back home. Joe, whom I talk with nearly every day, Joe, who likes to smell my hair when we hug. Before my stomach could contract I pushed all thoughts of Joe out of my mind, which was easy in the desert.
I shrugged. “No. Ni novio.”
“¿No?” He was surprised by my answer. Lázaro was probably no more than five years older than me, and he had a ranch, a wife, two children, a daughter and a son, and this week he almost died for them. This week he continued to live for them.
“Mi hijo quería venir conmigo, pero el camino es muy peligroso. Mi hijo dijo que cuando tuviera dieciocho años, me iba a seguir, pero yo no quiero que cruce el desierto como yo.” Lázaro looked over his injured foot when he talked about the son that wished to follow him through the desert when he turned eighteen. He grew quiet, and I wondered if he was running down the long list of things he would do to keep his son safe in Guatemala so he’d never have to cross. Or maybe the list had been thrown out for one single item: stay alive.
If Lázaro died, his son would have no choice but to cross when he was older. In that moment, watching him ponder his far-away boy, I felt a flash of jealousy because I didn’t know what it was to love a child of my own, and as I grow older I worry that I might never know. It may have been wrong, but at that moment I thought at least Lázaro had someone to live for.
It’s about 10:00 a.m. when we park the truck by a bend in the gravel wash shadowed by the mountain’s peak. The six of us disembark. Jack is a first-year medical student. He is about six-foot-two, blond, and has a model physique. This is his first day in the desert, but the previous summer he volunteered at a reservation. Nick is a punk anarchist who recently moved to Tucson to become a long-term volunteer through the summer. I take note of his purple, sparkly nail polish and the way he looks me in the eyes when we talk. Anita is a twenty-three-year-old activist from the Bay Area. Before this month-long stay in the Arizona desert, she spent time helping with humanitarian efforts in Palestine. She covers her brown, curly hair in a trucker hat and her arms in a long button-down sleeved shirt. Hopper is also in her early twenties. She is blond with the waif-like body of a ballerina, but she has been living the life of a vagabond since she dropped out of school at fourteen. She was once a long-term volunteer and has returned after a year absence to introduce her little brother, Cody, to desert work. She wears jean cutoffs and a torn-up tank. Cody is eighteen, eager but inexperienced, and has only been in the desert a handful of days. I am at least ten years older and thirty pounds heavier than everyone else in the group.
Waiting to start, I stare up at the ridge, squinting my eyes in search of the mythical oak tree. What if I lag behind? What if I fall? What if halfway up I have to go to the bathroom? In camp, there is no running water, toilets are white five-gallon buckets, and I haven’t been able to go in days. I can’t do this!
I think of Josseline and Lázaro and the other countless, nameless people who might be out on the trail right at this moment scared or hurt, and I try to psych myself up, but I feel tiny needle pricks run up my leg. When I look down, I see my heavy black boot resting over the mouth of an ant hole and an army of red fire ants attacking the right leg of my pants. I quickly brush them off, but it is too late because the swell and itch begins to burn my thigh. If I were home, I would complain to someone. If I were home, I would go out to my yard, grab a fresh blade of aloe vera, crack open its cooling meat, smooth it over the welts, and take a rest on the couch before I even began. But I’m not home.
Finally, Hopper says “Let’s do this,” and we begin to move en masse through the magenta, stony wash to the foot of the mountain. As I stumble over shrubs and through gravel, Jack and Hopper look as if they are taking a Sunday afternoon stroll. She picks flowers and talks to him about their health benefits. The first-year med student is enthralled with her.
Hopper gives Jack a shy glance as he offers his hand to help her duck below a mesquite branch, and I find myself getting irritated. How is it these two can happily find each other after one morning in this inferno?
Back in LA, I spend most free nights going to bars with Joe and his best friend Brad, and I repeatedly lie to myself saying that having platonic relationships with two men—two good-looking, funny, smart, creative, single men—is good for me. I tell myself it’s healthy and that I’ll learn how to better relate to men. I tell myself this because I’ve found good-looking, funny, smart, creative, single men never love me. Or else they never love me they way I ache to be loved.
Thankfully, the desert is merciful in this aspect because I don’t have to lie when temperatures soar into triple digits and my inner monologue focuses on how much water I have consumed, the color and amount of my urine, the number of empty gallons found on a trail, or the number of fresh gallons left behind. In the desert, life becomes about water and water about survival, and love is only an abstraction. But even that is a lie because everyone around me is doing something for love, and Hopper and Jack are just a reminder of this.
“Move toward that tree,” Anita instructs when we reach the foot of the mountain. We crane our necks up to see a distant tree framed by the blue sky and begin. As we fumble up steep, loose ground Anita comments that there is no actual “trail,” since we are short-cutting to the mountain’s ridge.
Hopper pauses to inspect some gray, wispy clouds in the distance. “I don’t know. Those look like thunderclouds,” she says, but we keep climbing. It doesn’t take long for the three boys and Hopper to begin moving faster. Anita and I straggle behind. My right leg still burns from the fire-ant encounter, and I punch and squeeze at it as I move.
“Hey, can you wait up for us?” I yell ahead, but they do little to slow down. At a flat ridge with a view of the peak, they stop.
“I’m really worried about those clouds, man. We gotta move faster,” Hopper says as soon as Anita and I reach them. I don’t reply. Instead I take a seat on a stone under the branches of a bitter snakewood and sip from my camel pack. They choose to stand among a family of spiny yucca.
“We gotta keep going,” Jack says, and the four of them head up together. I squeeze at my thigh, which has stopped swelling but continues to itch, and all I can do now is try to keep up.
As the mountain gets steeper, dirt gives way below my boot, and I have to move on all fours, grabbing at the soil with my fingers. The closer we get to the ridge the more I notice gnarled trees charred black down the middle. The four up ahead continue to pull farther away. With Anita just a few feet in front of me, I give up asking for the rest to wait. A stone breaks loose under my hand, and I watch as it rolls down the incline, hitting other rocks as it continues on its journey out of sight to the faraway wash below. My legs begin to shake. If I fell right now, no one would know.
At a small outcrop of stones I find Anita waiting. “They aren’t stopping,” she says.
“Yeah, I noticed.” Neither of us says what we want—that this isn’t the way we are supposed to do things. We were trained to stay together and to make all decisions based on consensus.
I think back to our “safe spaces” training session. We sat around a campfire while one by one people shared something that made them feel safer. Staying in a group would make me feel safer.
“Let’s go slow and stick together,” Anita says.
“Yeah. I’m good with that.” And we continue up. When my legs start to shake, I stop. Anita stops. We breathe. We drink water.
“You good?” We check in. We continue. Grab with hand, plant foot, push up. Plant foot, push up. The itching has stopped. We can’t even hear the other four members of the group, and I pretend they don’t exist.
“I hope there are carne asada tacos and cold beers at the top of this mountain,” Anita says.
“I bet there is the best mom-and-pop taco shop at the oak tree,” I add, and we laugh a little too hard because cheesy jokes give us needed respite from water gallons and dead bodies.
We stop and look up at the sky. It is mostly blue, with some heavier clouds forming in the distance to the north. “I don’t know what she’s going on about,” Anita says.
“I don’t get it either.” When we start again, I test the ground by tapping my foot lightly against the gravel. I strategically choose patches where plants grow and directly step on the shrubs. Thirty yards or so from the summit, the incline grows steep and rocky.
“This is the end of it. Just over this rise. We are almost there!” Anita says, and I am back to all fours. The closer we get to the ridge, the more I try not to notice the growing number of charred trees we pass. Just get to the top.
“Those tacos are going to taste so good,” I tell Anita.
At the summit, I reach out my arms to the open air and take a deep breath. My eyes pan across the desert floor, I did it! Anita and I hug. But then I remember the clouds, and I give a slight glance to the graying sky behind me and realize we are still alone.
I fixed Lázaro a plate of fried strips of tortilla mixed up in an egg scramble the way my mom used to cook, and I hoped the warm, simple meal might remind him of home.
“¿Dónde vives en Guatemala?” I asked him.
“Vivo en la costa cerca del mar. Mi hermano y yo somos dueños de un rancho ganadero.” He told me about a cattle ranch he owned with his brother.
“Bueno, eso está bien, ¿no?” I wondered why someone who owned a cattle ranch might need to travel north for work.
“No, allí es muy peligroso. Mataron a mi vecino el otro año, y la segunda vez que yo fui al norte, mataron a mi compadre. Matan a todos.” I didn’t ask who was killing his neighbors and friends—the government, the narcos, the gangs—but took it as fact that violence was a normal part of life where he was from.
When I said nothing in response, he looked me straight in the eyes and gave a solemn head nod, “Sí.” He said “sí” as if he was trying to reassure me that everything he said was true.
“Es muy peligroso. No hay paz. No hay ningún lugar seguro en mi patria.” He told me there was no peace, no safe places.
“Esa es la realidad,” he said. This was the reality that brought Lázaro to where he was now, stranded and speaking to me, but this wasn’t his first attempt at migrating to the US.
For people coming from Central America, crossing through Mexico can be just as difficult and even more deadly than crossing into the US. The Mexican government’s immigration policies are not unlike those in the US, but corruption makes individuals migrating through the country easy targets for the Federales and narcos alike. Before Lázaro, I had heard stories of arbitrary checkpoints set up by narcos a mile from the border. If you are able to pay their fee, you are allowed to cross their single steel chain gate and continue north. If you are not, they shoot you, with the border in clear view. Others are arrested by Federales and lost within the Mexican prison system. It takes a lot of money and luck to get as far as Lázaro has gotten.
“Dos veces en Mexico me regresaron a Guatemala. Sí. Dos veces.” Lázaro was deported from Mexico twice before. “Y en esta tercera vez los Federales me sacó de un autobús sobre dos km de la frontera. ¡Híjole! Yo tenía tanto miedo iban a deportarme, pero pagué la mordida, y ya, fuimos.” On his third try he was taken off a bus by Federales a mile from the border, but paid a bribe and was let go. It took him three tries to get to where he was now. I pictured his wife and children meeting him upon his return from Mexico the first time. How they must have run to hug him as he stood in the open doorway of his home. I wondered how that was different from the second, or how he left the third. I wondered what his family thought as they watched his back disappear on the road, and if they wished they could make him stay.
He looked me in the eyes and nodded his head. “Sí.”
A month before this I was in Mexico for a destination wedding in Sayulita, a small surfer town on the Pacific coast an hour outside of Puerto Vallarta. Joe, the best friend, invited me as his plus one, and when he said I had to go with him, a silent smile of hope grew inside me.
The first night we stayed at an all-inclusive hotel in Puerto Vallarta with two other friends, and the first thing the four of us did was raid our hotel-room bar. It slid out from a wooden dresser beneath the TV to reveal four full bottles of liquor connected to dispensers. We took celebratory shots, and one friend decided to have a shot from each bottle. Before long, Joe and I were the only ones still standing.
High on cheap liquor and beach-resort adrenaline, we decided to change into our bathing suits and get into the hot tub that sat in the middle of the room. I remember sitting across from him, our legs parallel as we talked and laughed about nothing at all. When we got tired of the hot tub, we clumsily hopped out, traipsing water everywhere, poured two glasses of red wine and ran to the beach. We went straight into the ocean and kicked around the mellow waves rolling in below the moonlight. When we got tired of the beach, we ran to the pool where we stood in waist-deep warm water moving in closer, talking, laughing until hotel maintenance came and asked us to get out. We ran around the near-empty hotel like it was ours, and the one thing I remember clearly was how safe, how without worry, how happy I felt.
A couple of days later, the four of us traveled to Sayulita to meet up with twelve other friends and wedding-goers at a giant three-story white house at the top of a hill that overlooked the zocalo. People called it the cartel house, and instead of protesting, I walked through the outdoor living room nestled against an infinity pool on my way to the kitchen, where I opened a Tecate to wash away thoughts of makeshift borders and murder.
That night, we met up with more wedding goers at a rainbow-colored restaurant. Beers were ordered, shots were taken, but then our server Mickey, a 20 year-old kid with a Chicano accent that reminded me of my cousin’s San Gabriel Valley one, made me think of the growing deportation crackdowns since 9/11. Other people in our group made friends with Mickey fast, but when I spoke to him a multitude of questions entered my mind: Why do you have that accent? Where did you grow up? How did you end up in Sayulita? But I didn’t ask one.
ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) reported nearly 400,000 deportations from the interior and borders for the 2013 fiscal year, and here in Sayulita, Mexico, a kid that looked and sounded like he lived on my cousin’s block in La Puente served me my next beer. Like the “cartel house,” I pushed Mickey’s accent to the back of my mind, little by little, with each sip.
In Sayulita, Joe forgot I was his plus one and spent the rest of the weekend trying to hook-up with a bridesmaid. I spent time with Brad, Joe’s single, good-looking best friend. From the moment I met Brad, I liked his smile and the way he seemed interested in everything I said. I sought him out on the cobblestone alleyways in the long afternoons, but once the sun set, he joined Joe on his mission, and for two nights they swapped women back and forth like puzzle pieces. By the wedding night, neither cared if I was there or if I had disappeared into the dark ocean, so I skipped the beers and disappeared into a golden bottle of tequila. The next morning I woke up, still drunk, in time to stagger onto a sailboat for a last-day excursion. By midday the hangover slowly broke over me like the waves hitting the side of the boat, and with each crash, a hazy memory began to clear of taking a faceless man to my bed, asking if he had a condom, and being left over a still-made bed, multicolored-heart bikini bottoms below my knees. By 2:00 p.m., I couldn’t tell if it was the revelation, the tequila, or the waves turning my stomach sour.
The next day, when all the wedding-goers momentarily reconvened at the airport, people retold funny stories of the girls doing Zumba in the infinity pool and reminisced about the fireworks over the wedding reception, and I realized how much of the weekend I had successfully drowned.
One story was about Mickey, the server from the first night who ended up partying with the group every night after. They said he cried when everyone left.
“Isn’t that sweet?” one woman cooed. Sweet? I wondered what one individual in 400,000 might look like, and if this one person might resemble Mickey, a 20 year-old kid with a San Gabriel Valley accent who liked to party.
I never learned why Mickey had that accent because I never asked, but maybe Mickey cried because he longed for a place where people noticed and cared if he disappeared. Maybe it was a place he once knew, or maybe it was a place he was searching for.
When I got on the plane to California, I pictured Mickey standing on the street alone crying, and wondered if we weren’t similar. Buckling my seatbelt snug across my lap as instructed, I felt like a miscellaneous piece of broken glass discarded on the beach, and I pulled tighter on the loose end of the belt. As the plane lifted from the tarmac and started to carry me north, it was suddenly clear I was lost and alone.
“They are probably at the water drop,” Anita assures, and I follow her south along the ridge. I thought we were done. Fifty feet more and they are standing by the oak tree, all their backpacks emptied of provisions. Anita and I sit to unload water gallons.
“We’ve been talking,” says Hopper, “and we think we should get down off this mountain as soon as possible.”
“Yeah, I get it, but I need to rest a minute,” Anita says, and Hopper opens her mouth to say something.
“We just got here. I need to rest,” Anita says again, and Hopper has no choice but to walk a couple of feet off and squat on the balls of her feet.
It’s Jack’s turn next: “Look, those clouds don’t look good.” They are in an alliance.
“I need a minute,” Anita insists. Everyone is silent. I slowly lift one gallon from my pack and drop it on the path like a stone.
Suddenly, thunder cracks then growls across the desert.
Hopper springs up. “That’s it, man! That’s thunder!” She points into the distance and starts back along the ridge.
“We’re out of here!” Jack says and follows fast behind her. Without a word, Hopper’s little brother and Nick, the punk anarchist, follow behind him.
I think about my training: “In case of a lightning storm, spread out and crouch close to the ground.” I know that the chances of getting hit by lightning are one in a million, but those numbers certainly change when you are standing atop the highest point within a five-mile radius and surrounded by a three-foot tall forest of scorched trunks.
I hoist myself back up and follow everyone down the path. Anita is not far ahead, but the others are practically running. Rocks and dirt slip from under my feet, and I keep my eyes on the ground. When it gets too steep and loose, I sit on my butt and scoot. I try not to think of the clouds behind me, and instead opt on focusing on the long drop in front of me. As the charred trees get fewer and fewer, I picture tick marks, like on a football field, measuring the growing distance between me and the lightning. This gives me some relief, but then Anita slips and falls back onto the ground. Just a few feet behind her, I stop and watch her rock her ankle in her arms like a crying baby. She is silent.
“Are you OK?”
She shrugs. Up ahead, I see the rest of the group still moving down the mountain toward that first ridge with the bitter snakewood.
“You guys need to stop,” I yell after them, but they don’t. The distance between us is growing, and I know what I have to say, but I seethe at having to say it.
“You guys, stop! Anita is hurt.” They stop and turn around.
“What’s wrong?” Hopper calls up the incline.
“I’m fine,” Anita says only for me, but she wipes tears from her face.
“Anita fell. She’s hurt.” And they begin to make their way halfway back to us.
“What’s wrong?” Hopper asks again, this time close enough to ask Anita directly.
“I sprained my ankle. I just need a minute.”
“Look, man, we gotta go. That was thunder!” There are no trees between us, only open arid land.
“I hurt my ankle, Hopper! What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know, but I’m really freaked out, OK? I don’t want to die up here!” Hopper jumps back and forth in the dirt, clearly wanting to bolt. She is panicking, and I remember two days earlier when she tried to maneuver a rickety Suburban over a gulch that cut through our path. For thirty minutes she turned the wheel this way and that, the car teetering at times, two wheels dangling over the crumbling road. At one point she put it in brake, the engine idling, and got out to assess her next move. She looked at the car and then at me, “I’m not going to die doing this, right?”
“Hopper!” I yell at her now. “What do you want from us? Anita is hurt. We are going as fast as we can. If we don’t hurry, we might get hit by lightning and die. If we do hurry, we might fall and die. Either way we die. It all sucks!” I realize that this may not be the most encouraging of words, but it is all I have.
“Hey, that’s the breaks up here then, huh?” Hopper’s brother, Cody, relatively silent this whole hike, moves into the group with a little macho swagger. I think of Lázaro almost strangled. Lázaro left on a hill to die. I’m sure his comrades told him something like, “that’s the breaks.”
“Wait, no.” Hopper puts a hand up calling Cody off. “That’s not how we do things. We are supposed to look out for each other.” I take a breath. It seems that seeing her brother dismiss me has returned some of her clarity. The wind picks up moving a cloud over the sun, and the five of us are in a standoff under its shadow. Anita nurses her ankle.
“I don’t know what to do. Tell me what you want to do?”
We are all silent.
Hopper begins again, “How about we walk behind you two? Anita, you can lead us.”
“Fine.” Anita shrugs off something more she wants to say and starts to descend in silence. We follow, finally moving together.
Back in the safety of the truck, no one talks as we find our way over bumpy dirt paths to the paved road. I sit in the passenger seat, with Anita sitting between Nick and me. The thick air in the truck turns suffocating. I roll the window down and let the wind cool my face. We pass a solo windmill. Hopper plugs her iPod into the stereo and begins to play music.
“Xochitl, do you think you want children?” Hopper asks from the backseat.
“Yes, but who knows if it will happen.” Since passing thirty, this is the answer I have begun giving to that question.
“You’d make a good mother,” Hopper says.
We are quiet again when the thumping beat of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness” kicks up on the stereo. It’s the Steve Aoki dance remix, and I start to bob my head. I close my eyes when I hear, “Feelin’ lit, feelin’ light, 2:00 a.m. summer night,” to imagine Joe and me back on the beach in Mexico. We are jumping around and laughing. Kid Cudi’s voice says, “I’m screaming out fuck that, I’m screaming out fuck that,” and we sing along, “Fuck that! Fuck that!” into the other’s smiling face because it’s the crescendo. At the beat drop, he holds me by the waist and spins me in circles and all the desert madness melts away. This is when I open my eyes with a gasp. This is when I start to cry.
I think of safe places and a single weighted word forms in my mind: home.
When we return to camp, I pack up all my gear. It is finally time to go, but before I leave, I sit on the roof of a trailer with Anita to watch a cloud-speckled sunset. I thank her for being on that mountain with me.
By the time I reach the Border Patrol checkpoint blocking the two-lane backcountry road between the desert hills and Highway 19 to Tucson, it is night. The white tent and floodlights come into view, and I quickly fumble for my phone, press record on the camera and stick it in the center console.
Three officers and a dog wait for me. I turn off The Beatles song playing and roll down the window.
“Are you a citizen?” asks the officer at my window.
“Yup,” I say too quickly.
“Fantastic,” he says, and the two other officers walk the perimeter of my car flashing lights into the hatchback, spending time around the tires and bumpers. I worry the camping equipment is a red flag. The dog barks.
I feel vulnerable, but with a wave of a hand they let me go.
Not until Tucson is behind me and I am on the straight highway to Phoenix do I give Joe a call.
“Hey, buddy. I miss you,” I tell him.
“I miss you too. When are you coming home?” he says without a thought, and I smile.
“I’m on my way now. Dude, I almost died like five different ways today.”
“Oh, yeah?” and I tell him about Ruby Quarry, the lightning, the red fire ants, but not Lázaro. Not yet, not while I still worry about drones in the sky.
I wonder where Lázaro could be. Chances are he is in a detention center waiting to go through Operation Streamline: a federal order that allows for daily mass trials of fifty-or-so border crossers, where eight people at a time are lined up before a federal judge—shackled at the ankles and wrists—and shot down one by one with felony convictions. Deportation if he’s lucky. Prison time if he’s not. Almost definitely, he is alone and dreaming of home.
“So, pho tomorrow?” Joe asks, and I laugh because Joe always wants pho for dinner.
As I hurry back to LA, I settle into the realization that I want Joe to be my home and worry that he may not want to be mine. For his home, Lázaro headed out on a journey that he knew could kill him, not once, not twice, but three times, and I think about how we are all searching for that safe place, though not everyone is allowed to find their way. I hope we can both find what we deserve, though I know, for Lázaro and his wife and children, it’s not as easy as driving west on the I-10, and it may not even be possible, but that won’t stop them from trying.
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the 2013 poetry winner of the Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange. She has work published in American Poetry Review, CALYX, Acentos Review, Los Angeles Review, and The Nervous Breakdown. A short dramatization of her poem “Our Lady of the Water Gallons,” directed by Chicano activist and Hollywood director, Jesús Salvador Treviño can be viewed at latinopia.com. She is the creator and curator of the quarterly reading series HITCHED and a co-founding member of Women Who Submit. Selected by Courtney Kersten.
Image © Bureau of Land Management via Flickr Creative Commons.