Dispatch 36 (January 18 to January 27, 1998)

     Because they are so grave, because they are so tangible and resolute and worst of all so permanent, I tried to make light in my mind of the markers, the marble and stone "Hi, I’m (blank)!" stickers of the dead.
     I thought many of them looked like the plastic blue letter dividers in a Rolodex or like discolored square tongues trying to taste the air.
     None of it worked. A positive attitude cannot beat the reaper, and it especially cannot beat the reaper’s battlefield, the cemetery where I thought it odd that we were the only visitors, even though it was a Monday. All my cynicism, all of my jaded pretension couldn’t guard me from this. The last time I’d visited a cemetery, I was very young. An uncle had died of a heart attack. I remember running through the graveyard with a cousin, getting yelled at, not understanding.
     Today, as I silently watched Gina kneel at her mother’s fresh grave, I couldn’t laugh or distance myself. I turned and looked and saw gravestones everywhere, each representing a life lived and lost. I knew none of them, but their totality, their sheer numbers, created a haunting picture in my mind, a crowd of people, life still flowing through their hearts and veins, before they rested here, before they got off at the last stop.
     If Gina was as uncomfortable as me, she didn’t show it. In fact, she seemed calmer and more assured since she had since I’d arrived. When we got there, she crossed herself, then knelt next to the grave marker. The gravestone for Gina’s mother was no larger than its neighbors, but its pink marble surface shined, its newness distinguishing it from the others.
     Her mother’s name was carved in clear, capital letters. Beneath that, it read, "HERMANA, ESPOSA, MADRE." 1954-1999. Carved into the surface.
     Gina lay the small bouquet of flowers she’d brought at the foot of the gravestone. Her hand touched the smooth surface of the stone, caressing it as if it was made of flesh. She sat next to the grave, running her hand along the fresh deep sepia soil. She ran some of it into her hand, squeezing it, sifting it and letting it fall.
     She closed her eyes, mouthing words I couldn’t understand. She was talking to her mother.
     After a few minutes, as the early sun began to bore its heat through my clothes, Gina motioned me over. I sat down next to her, on the cool grass next to the grave.
     "I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to come here," Gina told me.
     "Why is that?"
     "When we came… the first time, I kept thinking this is it. This is the only way I’ll ever see my mother again. I saw my whole life, one visit after the next, visiting a grave. It was too much. It hurt too much."
     "But you made it here," I said.
     "It’s weird, huh?" Gina said. "I feel peaceful. This is where my mother is. Here where I’ll always find her. And wherever I take her with me in my heart."
     "That’s a good way of looking at it," I said.
     "It hurt so much. It still does. She’s not going to be at my wedding. She’s not going to hold her grandchildren. She won’t be there when I get old, when I would have had so much more in common with her."
     Gina lowered her head. Her voice was shaking. I thought she would begin to cry. Instead, she closed her eyes. She raised her head as if looking to the sky. I could hear her deep breaths. When she opened her eyes again, looking back down at her mother’s grave, her eyes were clear.
     "Are you going to be okay?" I asked.
     She nodded. "I think so," Gina said. "I keep trying to remember every little thing about her, but there’s things I know I’m missing. The way her voice sounded. Her scent. Her favorite TV shows."
     "You’ll remember," I said.
     "Juan told me something this week. Well, he told me a lot of things."
     "How is he?"
     "In love. It’s scary. I don’t know if I’m ready. But I’m trying, Heather. I really am."
     "What did he tell you?" I asked.
     "He said that if we ever have a baby, a little girl, he wants to name the girl after my mother." Gina laughed, raising her face to the sky again and letting it have her mirth.
     "Wow," I said. "Did you tell him he was crazy?"
     "It was sweet, so I didn’t say anything. My mom would have laughed too, if I had told her that. I miss her so much already, Heather."
     "I don’t know what to say, Gina. I wish I could help."
     "You have helped," she said. "You’re here. My mom would have liked that."
     "Why?" I asked.
     "Somebody’s with me, looking out, being the sane one. You don’t think I listen to you, but I remember everything. Everything you’ve said."
     "I thought about what your mother said before," I said. "What she told you at the hospital."
     "I’ve been thinking about that, too."
     "I was thinking I should borrow that advice," I said.
     A breeze tingled my bare arms and blew the lightest of the soil from the grave. Gina ran a hand back over it, touching the dirt with her fingers and palm.
     "We both could," Gina said. "We could both do that."
     In what should have been a silence, a still anti-breath from the graveyard rolls, I thought I could hear everything. Birds, a distant airplane, cicadas, Gina’s calm breath, the rustle in the leaves of the tree as another breeze provoked them. I could hear everything, all the sounds of life.
     Gina and I sat there for a few minutes longer, the words of a dead woman forming the skeletal frame of a bond between us.

* * *

     Heels: not as high as Gina’s, but at least they’re not flats.
     Lips: painted like a harlot’s.
     Hair: a tentative, hesitant test tendril, the rest of it done up with clips, spray and prayer.
     Skirt: the new one with the lovely slit running up the side.
     The radio is turned up loud and the windows are rolled down. At every stop sign, I fight back the urge to turn down the stereo. I keep thinking we should, lest others hear whatever’s blaring from the car speakers, but tonight we want to be seen, to be noticed. Let them look. We’re beautiful, in this region between that I’m exploring.
     We find parking at a multi-story garage and walk down the filthy stairs, our shoes clack clacking on the echo concrete. We reach the street, the cold air making our bare arms shiver.
     At the door, we’re ID’d. Just as we begin to dig in our purses, looking to pay the $7 cover, an older man wearing a suit and a matching moustache puts a hand out. He motions to the young Latino checking IDs. "These ladies get in free tonight," he says. "They’re so dressed up, they make us all look good. Verdad?"
     The younger man smiles and waves us in. The moustache man’s eyes tracks us as we leave him.
     The band is playing a slow, sumptuous salsa and the couples are spinning and holding each other with the precision and timing of safe crackers. I look to Gina. As if sensing my uncertainty, she puts a hand to mine. "They lead," she said. "You just go with the flow."
     Before that, though, drinks. We each order margaritas. We watch the dance floor. As the live band continues to play, the movement intensifies, the men signaling movement with a flick of their partner’s wrist. The bandleader, young, tanned and with a voice like dangling honey, gauges the crowd, sizing them up for his next burst of lyric.
     In the hours before we arrived, I’d sensed hesitation from Gina. It had been my idea to go out and hers to come to Miguel’s La Bodega. Neither of us, I imagined, was sure if this was a good idea or not. Since we’d returned from Harlingen, we’d spoken on the phone, had lunch together, gone shopping on a trip that yielded me my Miguel’s dance ensemble.
     But this was different. This was revelry, celebration, partying. Gina told me that growing up she half-remembered hearing as a child that mourners weren’t supposed to listen to music or dance for months to a year after a death. Whether it was a true memory, the fragment of it had worried her. Now she was here, sitting next to me on a stool by the bar, unsure where to go next.
     I wanted to ask her if she was okay, but thought it best to let whatever was to happen happen.
     We dressed and made ourselves up at Gina’s co-op. She was to move out soon, either to a new place in Austin or back to Harlingen. Like so much in Gina’s life, it was still up in the air, this future of hers. She’d already dropped out of her classes for the semester. She could stay in Austin, working and saving money for the next semester. Or she could go home and help rebuild the broken structure of her family. Knowing what I knew, it was the first time I didn’t have an opinion on what she should do. She asked me, one day over lunch, what my advice was.
     "I don’t know," I told her. But I knew she’d figure it out without my help, probably letting her emotions and passions overrule her rationality. This time, though, I didn’t think that would lead her in a bad direction.
     Tonight, from her temporary residence, we’d turned ourselves into dance partners, the ripened berries that the skilled dancing men would pluck from the seats. They might buy us drinks. They might ask us out after the lights came on and the crowd streamed out.
     "Heather," Gina said, loudly over the music.
     "I want to dance."
     "Me too," I said.
     "You do?"
     "I do," I said.
     "Let’s go dance," Gina said.
     She grabbed my arm by the wrist, leaving our half-consumed margaritas at the bar, and led me to the edge of the dance floor. About three seconds later, Gina got a tap on the shoulder A tall, thin man with long hair asked her without words, holding out his hand and motioning to the dance floor.
     Gina turned to me, smiling, her hips already moving with the music.
     About four seconds after that, I was tapped. "Quieres bailar?" he asked. He was as tall as Gina’s partner, but broad-shouldered, with intense green eyes and thick black hair combed back.
     I took his hand and he led me away.
     I saw Gina as I arrived. She was laughing, the turns and rhythms taking her to a place without grief or death. I thought for a moment, in a trick of the lights, that I saw the shape of a halo around her, a beam of light. I thought about the love of the soul, Gina’s mother and her wish for more life. Not more life for herself, but for her daughter.
     I followed in the dance, spinning this way and that, shaking my slim hips as best I could, catching the eyes of my dancing beau, looking for signs of where my body would be moved next.
     Gina’s eyes and mine kept meeting as we danced only a few feet from each other. She was still smiling, her skin shining in the lights.
     I wasn’t uncomfortable here as I’d been before when I’d felt like an outsider. This wasn’t Gina’s world. It wasn’t my world. It was the region between that unlikely friendships create. It was a place both of us, these strangers thrown together, had created and now lived in, comfortably.
     The song finally ended, as couples disengaged and clapped. But the music still played in my head as surely as it did in Gina’s, a pulsing, alive creature that touched us both at our centers, stirring what was there.
     Souls once at rest, now souls in motion.