By Matthew Wallenstein
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
B had just gotten her green card after a long rough process. She and I were in Tijuana. She grew up far south of there in Mazatlan, but in adolescence she lived in Tijuana briefly. She knew it well. I had never been before. I was there to work and we were visiting friends.
I got a Sansta Muerte candle in a shop that I still haven’t lighted. The man at the shop carved my name into it, said some words over it, put some dried things and oils on it.
F was a long time friend of B’s. He worked at a tattoo shop and lived with A. We were staying with them. Their apartment was on the second floor behind a gate and a small courtyard.
In the courtyard, there were all these old cars and scattered car parts. Some of them had tarps over them. And there were many stray cats that climbed on the old cars, and humped, and called out in shrill brays, clawed at each other.
Their neighbor was an American. He was old. I never saw him wear a shirt. He was pink with sunburn, had the belly of an alcoholic. A said the cats were there because of him, but I can’t remember why. A and F kept taking in the strays, feeding them, giving them a place to live. Their apartment was filled with them. To go from room to room you had to open the door a few inches and block them with your foot and sneak through real quickly. In the courtyard, the cats kept copulating and making more of themselves to climb and scream and copulate.
The four of us ate together each night. B and A took turns cooking. We laughed and told stories over our meals. The food was delicious. F and A were good to us.
One afternoon we walked in the direction of the ocean. F spoke in his broken English, I spoke in my broken Spanish and we tried to fit the pieces of each other’s languages together. F and I had made it a rule when we talked to each other that I would only speak Spanish and he would only speak English.
There were carnival rides being set up near the beach. They all had hand-painted characters on them: crude versions of famous cartoons, inaccurate portraits of singers, devils, Our Lady of Guadalupe. The sun was setting, dropping towards the ocean. We went down to the boardwalk. There weren’t many people on the beach. We turned right. B and A were walking a little ahead of F and I. We were all talking, looking around. It was getting dark. Ahead of us stretching out from the land into the water was the wall that divided Tijuana and San Diego.
A homeless guy asked me for money. He called me guaro and spoke with the cadence of a carnival barker. I gave him some. He reminded me of a guy in downtown Mexico City from when I lived there with B. I’d seen the guy in DF a few times and he would follow me and keep on with his sandpaper voice, ‘Guero, guero, guaro.’
We went all the way over to the fence. It was made mostly of thick metal mesh. People — separated families, loved ones, friends — would go to either side of it to reach their fingers through and touch fingertips. When it was created it had just been barbed wire. People from Mexico and people from the US could meet, kiss, hold, offer gifts to one another. It wasn’t that way anymore.
The sky was black by then. I could hear the waves. I could hear car horns.
Behind us to the right, there was a bullfighting stadium. Bullfighting always made me think of blood, think of Hemingway, then always made me think of what a friend of mine said to me once about how Hem made it seem so appealing somehow. I still thought it was ugly business but I could see what he’d meant, there was something to grace in survival. But it always seemed to me I was more akin to the thing running at the matador’s sword than the matador.
Standing there, it really set in that it was the first time in two years that, if we wanted to, B and I could go to the border and they could look at our passports and we could pass through to the United States together. The idea of being able to do this was amazing to me.
Her visa had been taken away by a border officer two years before. She was sent back to Mexico. I’ve written before of the mess that followed: all that crawling time, and pain, and shit, and the devourment of hope, the loss of myself, herself, sanity. But to stand there on that beach knowing she finally had a green card, it was something like being born.
A few days later when we did cross together I was terrified. I had to play it off like I had complete confidence that it would be fine, but that wasn’t what I was feeling then. All that residue from all those months had settled thick on me. As each person moved forward in line more of it got kicked up.
It was okay. We went through. She was allowed. I breathed. I walked. I went up the street with the border behind me like so many other times. She did too right there next to me. A couple of old bulls with the matador’s sword between our teeth.