Same day and then some, now in the U.S.
When I first hear the police siren in Cotulla, Texas, I do what everyone does. I slow down a bit. I think about maybe pulling into the right lane to let him pass more quickly. I check my seatbelt. I also check Gabriel’s since he’s fallen asleep again. I look into my rearview mirror. And there it is. A flashing, patriotic display of “Welcome back to the U.S. Miss Waller. We’ve been watching you.”
Not a problem. I can handle these guys. I’ve never been pulled over in the United States, but I know perfectly well how to smile at just the right angle to avoid paying a fine or slipping a bribe to a cop in Mexico. While living in Monterrey, I learned that dealing with authority south of the border is like dancing a delicate waltz. It’s convincing a police officer that driving with your headlights on during the day is not actually a crime and that by law, you’re not obligated to pay him. Meanwhile, he’s not sure that’s entirely true. And neither are you. It’s juggling a roundabout explanation with your boss about why you couldn’t get to work before noon last Friday. You even waltz with self-proclaimed parking lot attendants; the ones that want to charge you 30 extra pesos to watch over your car just as you’re pulling into a publicly metered spot. I may know few things about myself, and I may be traveling the world to discover more, but one thing I do know is that I am an expert dancer.
“M’am, I’m pulling you over because my radar reading says you were goin’ 81 in a 65. That’s 16 miles over the speed limit.”
“Oh, officer… oh my. I didn’t realize. I saw 70 posted and thought I was just a few miles over. “
“Seventy is our daytime limit. It’s 65 at night. You have your license and your insurance card?”
“Yeah, here’s my license. I have my insurance card too. It’s somewhere,” I point to the pile of bags and boxes, “back there.”
“It’s ok,” he tells me, as he takes my license. “I’ll be right back.” That’s what I like to hear. Cutting corners from the get go. Surely we can settle a deal.
Officer Ruiz returns to my driver side window and asks me to step out of the car. In Mexico, you never step outside the car. In order to keep the dance floor safe, and at an even keel – officer stands outside, you sit inside.
“This is the number you’ll need to dial in order to report to Judge Victoria Rodriguez before February 13,” the officer explains. “Here you can see that your infraction corresponds to this fine amount.” His index finger lands on $270. You have got to be kidding me. This is my gas budget to get the car back to Pittsburgh before flying to Stockholm. I’m shocked.
“But officer, isn’t there some way to work this out?” ¿Como nos arreglamos? The male lead’s next step in the waltz should read something like, “Well, m’am, you tell me. What do you propose?” Bueno pues, digame usted… ¿que es lo que usted quiere hacer? And the dance continues in this fashion, flawlessly.
“M’am, like I said, you’ll have to call Judge Rodriguez sometime next week in order to pay the fine. I’m sorry, but I can’t really give you any other recommendations.” It’s ok. His suggestion rings through perfectly clear anyway.
This side of the Rio Grande, honey, we dance the fox trot…
Day one of the 32-hour drive from Monterrey to Pittsburgh lands us in Austin. Gabriel and I are both applying to graduate programs at the University of Texas (MBA and Global Policy degrees respectively), and so we take advantage of the trip to visit admissions advisors, tour campus, and feel out the city’s weird vibe.
Pulling into the Motel 6 just north of campus, we’re anxious to unpack our overnight bags and head down to 6th street – Austin’s premier party street. Tomorrow we sample academic life; tonight we sample student life. The Cuban receptionist hands me our key. We have to pull around, out of sight, in order to access our room.
The motel is full this evening; vans and station wagons line the backside of the building. Stepping outside my car, I pat Sally’s hood and thank her for a safe day. Double click the car key; swipe the hotel key, in then out. I walk inside the room, fall backward onto my double bed, and clack my boot heels together in the air. Such a long day, and we’re finally here. I thank Gabriel for making the trip with me. We embrace for a slow moment. Our eyes meet. And simultaneously we consider one more thing we’d like to do today…
Salsa dancing! (If you thought anything else – go, repent, and sin no more!)
We change our clothes quickly. Within 15 minutes we’re out the door again, cruising south on I-35, listening to Colombian Vallenato, tapping our shoes against the floorboard, wiggling our hips in the seats. I’m ready to show Austin that the waltz isn’t the only step I know. It’s merengue and salsa!
“Mieeeeentes tan bien…” I’m singing now, and as I’m singing I notice a fast breeze slipping through the top of my driver side door. Strange. The window isn’t down. I turn around. “Oh my God,” I mutter. The window should slide seamlessly into the roof of the car. Mustang doors (the same for both coupes and convertibles) do not fit into an upper metal frame. Mine at this moment, however, is leveraged outward, bent away from the roof of the car. I’m slow to understand.
Before I can even imagine, Gabriel gets it. He knows why the window is pried open just enough for an arm to get through. “They stole my laptop,” he says. So matter-of-factly, so sure, and so completely disappointed.
“But when?!” I demand to know. We’d never been more than five meters away from the car in our hotel room, and for no longer than 15 minutes. “I mean, this guy would have had to break into my car with us practically watching!” I’m indignant and breathless, because this is exactly what he did.
“I had it right there,” Gabriel says, his face blank, his arm reaching around behind my driver side seat, feeling nothing but the rubber floor mat where his leather computer case once lay. “I knew I should have taken it out first,” he says under his breath, recounting the crime to himself, step by step. “I just didn’t think. Seven years in the Mexican barrio and nothing. Ten minutes outside the car in the first world and…” He trails off.
I am already turning the car around. Salsa music on mute. As soon as I pull into the motel, I tell the receptionist that we’ve been robbed. She says “that’s awful,” then shrugs her shoulders and tells me that local calls are free from the room phone. I tell her thanks, but state it more as a question.
The Austin police arrive while Gabriel answers questions from hotel security. The hotel guard writes down the most relevant information on what appears to be a hello kitty notepad. He scratches out every third word, and repeats every second question. The Austin police officer is my age – a dusty blonde boy. He takes fingerprints from where my door was pried open and tells Gabriel to call with the computer’s serial number as soon as he has it.
It feels right to report the crime in the same way that it feels right to fold fresh laundry – dot the “I’s” and cross the “T’s.” The reality is, however, that your laundry will always unfold and always get dirty again. The Austin police must receive hundreds of these cases from around campus each year. The chances of recovering the laptop case and all of its contents (computer, ipod, two years of corporate material) are remote. We simply have to accept it. No further business here.
The next day, we drive two more hours and arrive at College Station – a small university town just outside Houston. My mother is waiting for me there at my grandfather’s house – a beautiful Home and Garden retirement ranch. We enjoy our weekend together, discuss the crisis, visit the George H. W. Bush Library, and I begin to ponder the next leg of my journey – a transition from Gabriel’s arm around my shoulders to unabridged books on tape about the Bin Laden family with my mother. A change from Spanish to English; from the past four years to the next four.
When it’s time to say goodbye to Gabriel at the Houston airport, it feels like moving to a new high school during senior year. It’s pulling away from four years of ups and downs, ex-boyfriends, first Thanksgiving dinners away from home, achievements, and disappointments. It is a heavy moment for me because Gabriel’s faithfulness during years of friendship and now something more has grown into one of the few assets in my life to continue appreciating in value, unscathed by the crisis at hand (to understand more about this faithfulness, please see footnote C). My mother waits for me in the car as I watch Gabriel walk through airport security. Letting everything go. Shoes in the bin, please. Knowing emptiness in order to later become full. Your belt too, please. Following something, hoping it takes me there. Passport and boarding pass, please. Saying thank you and wishing with everything that I’ll see you again soon.
Footnote C: It’s the middle of the night and I am dead asleep in Monterrey. I live in a state park called Chipinque. It’s a mountainous nature reserve full of creatures – even black bears – and strange, not so edible plant species. I feel something crawling quickly up my leg and it stops. I’m sure that I am dreaming and fall asleep until it starts again. It’s moving more quickly, and this time it lands on my face. I’m slapping myself now; sure that this is no longer a dream. I’m throwing sheets and pillows, standing above my bed, fumbling to find the light, looking down. It’s a scorpion. On my face. In my bed. I’m screaming, frightened and totally creeped by it’s long, curvy tail tapping up and down against my mattress. I am frozen. I reach for my cell phone, not sure how to best go about killing this creature. My fingers go on auto-dial. Gabriel picks up.
It’s Friday night and I’m going through a rough break up. My roommate is out of town. All my friends are busy. I call Gabriel and ask him what he’s up to. He says he has plans that evening, he’s taking a girl out to dinner, but says he’ll be right over. He changes plans with the girl, turns it into a group thing, calls up his friends, and brings me along. Together, we redefine the term “double date.”
I’ve never cooked a turkey by myself. Eleven people are coming to my house for Thanksgiving dinner. I’m working on the sweet potato casserole, the stuffing, and the cranberry sauce. I realize I’ve forgotten some of the ingredients, and that I won’t have time to finish the menu before guests arrive. I’m overwhelmed. Gabriel puts on an apron, starts washing the turkey, peels sweet potatoes for two hours, and asks me to write down a list of the missing ingredients, a table cloth, and some champagne. He takes the list, runs all over town, and returns just in time – not a single thing missing.
I tell Gabriel that I’m afraid of leaving Mexico. That I’m not sure I’m making the right decision about quitting my job and going to Europe. He puts his hand on top of mine and tells me that this is what I was born to do. That if I don’t do it now, the dreams I have will stay inside and start to hurt, that I have to go, and that he’ll never be farther than an ocean away. We talk about the possibilities. About when we’ll see each other again. Perhaps later in the journey. Maybe in the summer. Perhaps in Paris. “Yeah,” I say. “I like the sound of that,” again. “See you in Paris.”