Dispatch 23 (Nov. 26-28, part 1)
I felt like an idiot for bringing it, but there it was
in my lap, a paperback Spanish-to-English dictionary, as we drove down the highway on an
overcast Thanksgiving Eve.
Id taken Spanish classes in high school and in
college, but I still had trouble following Ginas language when she switched to her
ancestral tongue. In fact, when Angie had visited, their
chatter had intimidated me at first a mix of rapid-fire talking mixed with slang
and turns of phrase textbook learning couldnt have begun to cover. After a few
attempts at listening, Id unconsciously begun tuning them out when my brain tired of
trying to make context out of half-remembered words.
This time, tuning out was not an option I was going
to a place where Gina said the population was about 90 percent Hispanic and where for most
people our age, it was a toss up whether English or Spanish was considered the first
At least this is what Gina had told me, and as we entered
the second hour of our trip, getting just past San Antonio through increasingly heavy
traffic, I began to wonder what it would be like, seeing Ginas family and knowing
where she came from. Heredity versus environment and all that. I watched Gina as she drove
intently, her alertness, I guessed, stemming from anticipation. Shell see her mom
soon, whatever her condition might be.
We arrived late in the afternoon just as the hiding sun
was retiring for the day. Harlingen, at least what
I could see of it from our arrival drive, was a weird mix of big town convenience (lots of
Whataburgers, McDonalds, H.E.B. grocery stores) and some manufacturing. We approached
town on Highway 83 after having passed a larger small town, McAllen.
Ginas house was just outside of town and when we
came up a gravel road, I thought we were going to hit a ranch. Instead, we came upon an
out-of-the-way residential neighborhood with something a lot of areas of the Rio Grande Valley seemed to lack real trees.
The family home was in a one-story, but very wide house
held back far away from the road by a long expanse of perfectly trimmed grass. The house
itself was sepia and the windows were hidden behind bushes. If I didnt know Gina
already, I would have had no idea who lived here. It was tasteful and anonymous.
Gina pulled her car into a slot in the two-car port and
shut off the engine. Shed parked next to a small white Ford truck with a bumper
sticker. University of Texas Pan-Am, it said.
A door near the truck opened, and a girl stood in the
doorway. I guessed she was 14 or 15. She wore braces and her thin, tan limbs seemed like
improbable stands for her long white T-shirt and blue shorts. She had long wavy black hair
highlighted with orange streaks and some of Ginas features a rounded chin and
large liquid eyes. But a combination of her braces, her acne and her non-existent posture
gave her the look that on an uncharitable day Id say exemplified the teenaged
But her eyes and her lips were Ginas and it
wasnt hard to see the woman shed be. It made me wonder how awkward Gina might
have been at that age. I found I couldnt imagine that. Id have to ask for
"Theyre not here yet," the girl said, in a
voice that was higher and less accented than Ginas. "Dads still at the
Gina, carrying an overnight bag over her shoulder, turned
to me. "Heather, this is my sister Sandra. Sandra, this is Heather."
Ignoring me, Sandra kept her eyes on Gina, her arms folded
in front of her as she leaned against the doorframe. "Is she staying the whole
weekend?" Sandra asked.
"Yes, Sandra. Until Saturday at least."
"Okay," Sandra said and walked inside.
Gina went back to the car and I helped her retrieve a
blanket and pillow shed brought. We lugged our items inside the house through the
door Sandra had left open.
"She gets a little cranky," Gina explained.
"And shes a teenager."
I nodded solemnly, then Gina and I exchanged a smile.
I wasnt sure what I was expecting from the
houses interior, but it certainly wasnt this. Besides Luisas home, I
hadnt been to very many traditional Mexican homes in my life, and I thought the art
and the furnishings would reflect the familys culture. Instead, I felt like I was
walking through catalogs for Pier 1 and Montgomery Wards.
Photos of family members from past trips and barbecues
long past graced the walls, but the furniture and artwork were featureless. I remembered
the outside, the anonymity, and was again struck by how this could be any home in Anytown,
USA. If I were to catalogue the things that made Gina what she is (confident, if unstable,
and self-possessed if not terribly self-aware), I wouldnt have guessed it came from
this home. I didnt see Gina as someone who could fit in to any situation I
instead perceived her as someone who could take charge of any room and sway any audience
to her point of view by sheer charisma and will. This home, at least the little I could
tell from the kitchen, living room and backyard visible through the living rooms
windows, seemed to reflect just the opposite in the origins of the girl I thought I knew.
The TV at the center of the living room was a large
console and pictures of Gina and her sister flanked the cable box and VCR on top. Opposite
that side of the room was a simulated bar, complete with big brown barstools. A little
neon Budweiser sign hung behind the bar, unlit.
Gina led me to a room two doors past the living room. The
first door was closed and since we hadnt seen her after the carport greeting and
judging from the "Mr. Lover" song coming from inside, I thought that might be
Sandras room. Gina opened the door next to that one and what welcomed me was a color
scheme that again defied my expectations pink and white.
"Sandra and I shared this room for a couple of years
until I made a fuss and moved into the guest room," Gina said. "Now Sandra is in
my old room and my mom never really redecorated this one."
I wanted to laugh suddenly, but I knew it would be rude,
even if Gina were in on the joke. A joke at Ginas expense was one thing. A joke at
her mothers expense probably wasnt the best idea right now.
But the room. Oh God, the room. Frilly lacy curtains.
Stuffed animals adorning both twin-sized beds. A hunky poster of Luis Miguel and a stack
of magazines adorning a chest-of-drawers and mirror unit that were probably five or six
years old. The model on the cover of Seventeen at the top of the stack looked as if she
needed a sandwich or a rehab program. The Kurt Cobain Era already that time seems
ready-made for a retro comeback.
"My mom kept it this way. She kept telling me I could
change it if I wanted to, but why bother, you know? Its not like Im moving
back in, right?" Gina asked.
"You dont live here during your summers?"
"Only for a week or two at a time. I couldnt
spend the whole summer here. It would drive me crazy," Gina said.
I put my own travel bag on one of the beds as Gina threw
her blanket and pillow on the other. Gina was starting to unzip her carryall when we both
heard the doorbell. She froze, looking toward me with frightened eyes.
"I think thats them," Gina said.
She rushed out of the room as I followed. On her way and
without stopping, she knocked loudly on Sandras door. "Theyre here!"
Gina yelled through the doorway.
The music from within stopped abruptly and as I turned,
Sandra was following behind.
Outside, a gray sedan was parked behind the truck. A man
with a thick head of black and gray hair and a bushy moustache was moving around to the
passenger side. He must have heard the door open because he turned toward us. His fierce,
dark eyes settled on Gina.
"Mija! Come here! Ayudame con to mama!"
Gina rushed over as Sandra and I watched.
The woman they led gently out of the car looked years
older than her husband. Her black hair was tied back tightly and her body looked limp
beneath a plain red blouse and blue jeans. Ginas mother looked half-asleep, dazed as
Gina and her father half-carried, half-walked her past us and inside. Ginas father
didnt notice me or Sandra. Instead, his worried face looked only on his wife, as if
trying to determine how much pain or discomfort every step taken might put her through.
Sandra and I followed them inside. Sandra closed the door
behind us and when she turned back to me, she turned her head away from me, as if from
If that was the case, she hadnt hidden it well
enough. I still saw that the beginning of tears had moistened her eyes.