Dispatch 29 (Dec. 6, 1998 Part 2)

     There was a light drizzle and the black streets were slick and mirrored with a hundred fast-food shops, automotive parts stores and 7-Elevens as I headed east on Riverside toward Gina.
     I had the directions written in a notepad and I kept looking down at it, trying to figure out if I’d gone too far. I hit Pleasant Valley, passing the big hill near the HEB and the old, non-stadium-seating Presidio Theater.
     There was a road off to the left that dead-ended at the apartments I was heading toward. The gate was brightly lit and secure. A little speaker box with a phone pad greeted me at the entrance.
     I dialed the apartment number Gina had given me, my arm hanging out from the Honda’s window as the drizzle misted my skin. After the first ring, a man’s voice, deep and rough as a broken well, answered. "Hello?"
     "Hi. I’m here to pick up Gina," I said.
     "Who is it?" the voice barked.
     "It’s Heather. Gina’s expecting me."
     I heard some discussion, muffled and distorted by the cheap speaker. I couldn’t understand what was being said, but I understood the tone. Gina’s host was pissed off, and I wasn’t sure why.
     There was a beep and then the gate began to open.
     "Thanks," I said, but by the time I got the word out, the speaker had shut off.
     I drove on around the apartment circle hesitantly, my instinct telling me I should turn around and leave, let Gina deal with whatever her dilemma was. If she was stuck, she could take a cab. If she couldn’t afford a cab, she could walk to the HEB and ask a cop there for a ride.
     Why was I here? Did I owe her anything at all?
     I drove on, frustrated by my inability to extricate myself from even the stupidest of situations. If she was in trouble, I rationalized, I should be there to help.
     I parked next to the building and climbed up the stairs with the black metal rails. An apartment I passed blasted loud Tejano music, the sounds of the strings and accordion boomeranging outside in the cool air.
     Upstairs, I found the apartment and knocked on the door. A few moments later, Gina’s friendly guy answered.
     He swung the door open a few inches, sticking his face in the open crack. He was tall, over six feet, and his tanned face would have been handsome if not for the scowl he gave me. He looked me up and down, his glance pausing as my chest, then dismissed me casually. He turned away and yelled, "Gina, your ride’s here!"
     He let the door swing open behind him and I followed. The apartment was elegant – a marble-topped coffee table, Greek columns holding vases and houseplants, a huge entertainment system with a large television set. The set was off and from the stereo, I could hear soft Latin music playing, even over the booming chorus from downstairs.
     The apartment’s dweller, wearing white gym shorts and a gray Nike muscle shirt, went to one of the bedrooms. "Gina!" he yelled. "She’s here."
     I caught the first look at her as she was storming out of the room. She blew past they guy, throwing her shoulder against him, knocking him back. His face contorted from a frown into a sneer and he reached forward to grab her.
     He caught hold of her arm, pulling it roughly. Gina, her hair swinging wildly, flung her arm away, getting loose.
     "Let me fucking go!" she screamed. I rushed forward, unaware that I was doing it until I was between them.
     Our humble host yelled back at her, looking past me as if I were Madame Invisible. "Go, bitch! Get your ass outta here, puta!"
     I’m not as well versed in Spanish curse words as I maybe ought to be by now, but even I knew Gina wouldn’t stand to be called a "puta," whatever that means, and I guessed she wouldn’t be content to walk out the door and let it slide.
     I looked toward her and sure enough, she was beginning to turn around, to come back and confront, to give her own special version of "sticks and stone may break my bones, but cocksuckers like you will never bed me." I didn’t know where things would go from there, so I barreled forward, pushing Gina as gently as I could toward the door.
     Rico Suave in the Nike Shirt reached an arm toward her and, caught in the way of it, I got slapped on the arm. I counted myself lucky. Gina was starting to say something, but I kept us moving.
     As we exited, Gina with her purse skinny black purse flapping against her side, he was still following. He stuck his head out of the doorway, his bare feet loathe to venture out onto the cool cement stairway and yelled again.
     "You’re a shitty fuck, too, pendeja!" he cried in a tone evocative of Late 20th Century Ugly. I cringed at the words and tightened my hands at Gina’s shoulders, again hoping she wouldn’t turn to fight back.
     For her part, Gina was keeping her cool. I couldn’t see her face until she finally turned to me. She didn’t look shaken or emotional. She looked calm, if a little angry.
     "Thanks, Heather," she said. "He was just trying to piss me off, you know that, right?"
     "That’s what I figured," I said. "Was he the guy?"
     "Yes, that was the guy, puto pendejo," she said. "Jeez! What was I thinking, Heather?"
     "You’re asking me?" I said.
     "And I’m a great fuck!" she yelled into the air behind us. We were already in the parking lot near my car and I doubt Mr. Lover could hear us. Instead, I thought some of the neighbors might have gotten an earful of Gina’s reproductive ad copy.
     Inside the car, I turned on the heater. I was a little cold, and not just because of the temperature. In my mind, even as I was happy I’d semi-rescued her from that asshole, part of me couldn’t help but blame Gina for getting mixed up with a pretty-boy shit like that in the first place. I tried to control it, to not let her see that I was both disappointed in her and a little angry that she’d put us both in a potentially dangerous situation, all in the name of her burning thigh sweats.
     "Heather?" she asked.
     She was looking at me impatiently. We’d been sitting in the lot for a full minute in silence, my hands gripping the steering wheel. "Are we going?" she asked.
     "Where’s your car?"
     "It’s at home. Michael drove me here."
     "I thought you said your car broke down."
     "Your car broke down at the co-op?" I asked.
     "If I hadn’t said that, would you have come right away?" Gina asked.
     Anger, hot and engorged, flooded my thin veins until I thought my skin would burst. "So you lied to me? Gina, what the fuck are you doing? What is wrong with you?"
     I sounded shrill and irrational, the shadow-past ghost of my mother, denying me every teenaged whim I’d ever entertained. No concert, no staying out past midnight, no $350 prom dress. I was the lecturer instead of the lecturee now.
     Gina didn’t respond. Instead she stared, looking at me with her big brown eyes, waiting in calculated form for me to calm down and apologize.
     Apologize? Fuck her. She was the one who lied. She was the one who asked me to pick her up, deceiving me in the process. She was the one who’d cheated on real love with some shithead charter member of the Future Wifebeaters of America. And I was getting the condescending stare?
     I backed out in furious silence, choosing for once not to ease the tension with a flood of clumsy words.
     Halfway back to the co-op, with the garish stretch of East Riverside behind us, Gina finally spoke.
     "I’m sorry, Heather. I didn’t mean to get you involved. I needed a ride, that’s all."
     "You’ve got a ride," I said through clenched teeth. "What you really need is a therapist."
     "Heather, don’t even fucking start with me because I am seriously not in the mood for your shit," Gina said, her volume rising with each word. "I asked for a ride, not your judgment. If that’s what you’re offering, you can let me out here."
     We were zipping along at 65 miles per hour, northbound on IH-35, and the thought of kicking her out at that speed was a guilty temptation.
     I must have hid my half-smile well because she didn’t notice. Instead, she threw herself into the act of perching an elbow against the passenger side window and holding up her chin on the palm of her hand.
     We arrived at the co-op 10 minutes later. I didn’t look for a space. Instead, I double parked near enough for her to walk.
     She got out, slammed the door behind her and moved toward the building.
     I began to drive off, preaching a mental "good riddance," when she spun on a heel and came back toward me. I stopped the car. She opened the still-unlocked passenger door and sat back inside.
     "Heather, what am I doing?" she asked, the pained expression on her face telling me her question had little to do with me and everything to do with everything else awry in her life right now.
     "I don’t know, Gina," I said. "I don’t know why you keep doing things like this."
     "I want to hurt myself, I think, to see how much I can stand. Does that make any sense?" she asked.
     "It’s called masochism," I answered.
     "No, not like that," Gina said. "It’s like I’m preparing for the bad things I know are going to happen anyway. Preparing for pain in the future."
     "You don’t have to live that way," I said, meaning it. "Not if you don’t want to."
     "I don’t know what I want, Heather," she said. "I’m sorry. And thank you for picking me up. That guy was an asshole."
     "That I could observe," I said.
     "Goodnight, Heather," Gina said.
     She left my car for the second time that night, this time, her step a little lighter as she made her way back home. The anger in me had evaporated, instead replaced by something like sadness, or maybe pity.