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.
     I’d taken Spanish classes in high school and in college, but I still had trouble following Gina’s 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 couldn’t have begun to cover. After a few attempts at listening, I’d 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 language.
     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 Gina’s 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. She’ll 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, McDonald’s, H.E.B. grocery stores) and some manufacturing. We approached town on Highway 83 after having passed a larger small town, McAllen.
     Gina’s 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 didn’t 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. She’d 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 Gina’s 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 I’d say exemplified the teenaged "awkward" phase.
     But her eyes and her lips were Gina’s and it wasn’t hard to see the woman she’d be. It made me wonder how awkward Gina might have been at that age. I found I couldn’t imagine that. I’d have to ask for photos later.
     "They’re not here yet," the girl said, in a voice that was higher and less accented than Gina’s. "Dad’s still at the hospital."
     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 she’d brought. We lugged our items inside the house through the door Sandra had left open.
     "She gets a little cranky," Gina explained. "And she’s a teenager."
     I nodded solemnly, then Gina and I exchanged a smile.
     I wasn’t sure what I was expecting from the house’s interior, but it certainly wasn’t this. Besides Luisa’s home, I hadn’t been to very many traditional Mexican homes in my life, and I thought the art and the furnishings would reflect the family’s culture. Instead, I felt like I was walking through catalogs for Pier 1 and Montgomery Ward’s.
     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 wouldn’t have guessed it came from this home. I didn’t 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 room’s 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 hadn’t seen her after the carport greeting and judging from the "Mr. Lover" song coming from inside, I thought that might be Sandra’s 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 Gina’s expense was one thing. A joke at her mother’s expense probably wasn’t 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? It’s not like I’m moving back in, right?" Gina asked.
     "You don’t live here during your summers?"
     "Only for a week or two at a time. I couldn’t 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 that’s them," Gina said.
     She rushed out of the room as I followed. On her way and without stopping, she knocked loudly on Sandra’s door. "They’re 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. Gina’s mother looked half-asleep, dazed as Gina and her father half-carried, half-walked her past us and inside. Gina’s father didn’t 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 embarrassment.
     If that was the case, she hadn’t hidden it well enough. I still saw that the beginning of tears had moistened her eyes.