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, Im (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 reapers 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 couldnt guard me from this. The last time
Id 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
Today, as I silently watched Gina kneel at her
mothers fresh grave, I couldnt 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 didnt show
it. In fact, she seemed calmer and more assured since she had since Id arrived. When
we got there, she crossed herself, then knelt next to the grave marker. The gravestone for
Ginas mother was no larger than its neighbors, but its pink marble surface shined,
its newness distinguishing it from the others.
Her mothers name was carved in clear, capital
letters. Beneath that, it read, "HERMANA, ESPOSA, MADRE." 1954-1999. Carved into
Gina lay the small bouquet of flowers shed 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
She closed her eyes, mouthing words I couldnt
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 wouldnt 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 Ill 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.
"Its weird, huh?" Gina said. "I feel
peaceful. This is where my mother is. Here where Ill always find her. And wherever I
take her with me in my heart."
"Thats a good way of looking at it," I
"It hurt so much. It still does. Shes not going
to be at my wedding. Shes not going to hold her grandchildren. She wont 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 mothers 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 theres things I know
Im missing. The way her voice sounded. Her scent. Her favorite TV shows."
"Youll remember," I said.
"Juan told me something this week. Well, he told me a
lot of things."
"How is he?"
"In love. Its scary. I dont know if
Im ready. But Im 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
"It was sweet, so I didnt say anything. My mom
would have laughed too, if I had told her that. I miss her so much already, Heather."
"I dont know what to say, Gina. I wish I could
"You have helped," she said. "Youre
here. My mom would have liked that."
"Why?" I asked.
"Somebodys with me, looking out, being the sane
one. You dont think I listen to you, but I remember everything. Everything
"I thought about what your mother said before,"
I said. "What she told you at the hospital."
"Ive been thinking about that, too."
"I was thinking I should borrow that advice," I
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
"We both could," Gina said. "We could both
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, Ginas 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 Ginas, but at least
theyre not flats.
Lips: painted like a harlots.
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
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 whatevers blaring from the car speakers, but tonight we
want to be seen, to be noticed. Let them look. Were beautiful, in this region
between that Im 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, were IDd. 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. "Theyre so dressed up, they make us all
look good. Verdad?"
The younger man smiles and waves us in. The moustache
mans 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 partners 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, Id sensed hesitation
from Gina. It had been my idea to go out and hers to come to Miguels La Bodega.
Neither of us, I imagined, was sure if this was a good idea or not. Since wed
returned from Harlingen, wed spoken on the
phone, had lunch together, gone shopping on a trip that yielded me my Miguels dance
But this was different. This was revelry, celebration,
partying. Gina told me that growing up she half-remembered hearing as a child that
mourners werent 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 Ginas co-op. She
was to move out soon, either to a new place in Austin or back to Harlingen. Like so much in Ginas life, it was
still up in the air, this future of hers. Shed 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 didnt have an opinion on what she
should do. She asked me, one day over lunch, what my advice was.
"I dont know," I told her. But I knew
shed figure it out without my help, probably letting her emotions and passions
overrule her rationality. This time, though, I didnt think that would lead her in a
Tonight, from her temporary residence, wed 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.
"I do," I said.
"Lets 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
About four seconds after that, I was tapped. "Quieres
bailar?" he asked. He was as tall as Ginas 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, Ginas 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.
Ginas 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 wasnt uncomfortable here as Id been before
when Id felt like an outsider. This wasnt Ginas world. It wasnt 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 Ginas, a pulsing, alive
creature that touched us both at our centers, stirring what was there.
Souls once at rest, now souls in motion.