Somewhere in northern Baja California, Mexico – November 23, 1989
The bartender from work drives her car down the two lane highway that snakes alongside the beige, desiccated cliffs of northern Baja California. The woman who used to be me huddles in a blanket on the passenger side and stares out the window. Everything seems alien – the car, the man, herself, the landscape. It’s as if she’s viewing reality from behind fingerprint-smudged glass. The sea appears immobile – waves frozen into ripples. Sun rays pierce the clouds, illuminating two small islands.
“They’re uninhabited.” His voice penetrates the fog in her mind. “The Mexican government uses them for bomb testing.”
She flinches. She’s not yet ready to hear her voice again or to communicate with him. The drugs that she was forced to take are wearing off. A slow recession like an outgoing tide. Desolation awaits her in sobriety. She crumples in the seat and closes her eyes. She’s detached from the world. Unmoored and drifting away.
Shards of last night cut through her mind. The entire staff from the restaurant met for drinks at a local dive. It was the night before Thanksgiving, so no one had to work the next day. It was the first time that they were all able to party together. She’d recently celebrated her twenty-first birthday, and was thrilled that she could finally go out with them. She stiffened when the bartender sat next to her. No one liked him. He was a hostile presence behind the bar. Stalking back and forth like a caged predator, casting looks of contempt at the wait staff. You people can’t do anything right. Yet he often screwed up the easiest of cocktails.
“Jack Daniels is what you drink, right?” he said, setting a glass down next to her.
She nodded, feeling annoyed, and then a small pang of guilt at being annoyed. He was trying to be nice. Maybe she shouldn’t be so hard on him.
“Let’s try to get along, okay?”
She smiled. “Okay.” Maybe she just didn’t know him well enough. Maybe he had an interesting side. The others beckoned from the dance floor.
“Go ahead,” he said. “I need a couple of drinks before I can dance. I’ll keep an eye on yours.”
She must not have eaten enough. Or they must give generous shots. After two drinks the edges of reality began to darken. One by one the others disappeared.
Fade to black.
And then shadow and light. The bartender from work’s kitchen. She swayed and tried to speak. How did she get here? He grabbed her face and shoved a tiny piece of paper into her mouth. His large hands clamped over her jaw so she couldn’t spit it out. “C’mon, stop fighting me. It’s LSD. You’ll love it.”
Fade to black.
An EconoLodge next to a freeway. Morning. Someone moving rhythmically on top of her. She opened her eyes. Oh no. No.
“We’re here,” the bartender from work says, jarring her back to the present. He pulls into a parking place, throws the engine into park, and turns off the car. His movements are sharp, they cut through the air like potential blows. “The Rosarito Beach Hotel. This place is a landmark.”
She stands next to the car as he gathers their things out of the trunk. She could scream and run into the hotel. If she could only find her voice again. However, it would be his word against hers. How could she explain the fact that she had brought a backpack, had spent time packing it, no gun to her head? He had somehow convinced her to come here of her own free will, or the remnants of it.
While he checks in, she stares at the nature scenes painted on the walls in primary colors. Huge windows frame the Pacific Ocean. It’s a place for honeymoons. Their room has a small double bed and a television. He puts their bags on the floor next to the television.
“The beach at sunset is so beautiful,” he says. “C’mon, let’s take a walk.”
The wind howls, blowing her hair in her face. The sand is dingy, defiled. Every once in a while the world comes back into focus. Why can’t she just shake it off like other women do? He didn’t hurt her, he only drugged her and then took advantage of her while she was unconscious. He put one part of his body into hers in a way that did not induce pain. When he saw that she was crying, he stopped. It could have been so much worse. Other women talk about their drunken one night encounters with nothing more dramatic than rolled eyes and resigned sighs. She thinks of all the boys of yesteryear who had tried the same thing, expecting her compliance, outraged at her defiance. They started rumors about her that she could not dispel. She had learned to take precautions: no revealing clothes; no drinking alone with men; no walking on the streets alone after dark. She’d heard about some new drug that rendered you compliant, but didn’t think that a person she saw nearly every day would be bold enough to use it. Maybe it’s also her fault for not being vigilant enough. Or maybe it was bound to happen no matter what.
He stops and takes a deep breath. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
She has seen bleak places before – the Mojave Desert, the flat expanse of Nebraska – and has always been able to find beauty. Through the numbness, she feels a muted pang of regret that this is all she knows of Mexico. She shakes her head. “No. Not really.”
He snaps, “Why do you always have to be so negative?”
Later, in the restaurant, he says, “Order what you want. All of this is my treat.” He spreads his arms wide in a gesture of benevolence. “Happy Thanksgiving.”
She stares at the menu in bewilderment. She hasn’t eaten in almost two days. She orders enchiladas and wolfs them down as soon as they arrive. The fog in her brain dissipates a little.
He downs a double tequila and orders another. “I think of myself as an optimistic fatalist,” he says in a first date voice tinged with condescension. He swills the ice in his glass. “I used to be a salesman. My hair was falling out and I had stomach ulcers. I’m forty years old and my life is so much better now than when I was your age.” He takes her hand.
She recoils and tears her hand away.
He looks down at his plate. “I know I shouldn’t have done what I did last night, but I’ve never felt so driven. You are so feisty. The way you talk back to me all the time at work. You don’t take any shit from anyone. You’re so different.”
Her stomach churns. He had mistaken her animosity for flirtation. “Please. I don’t want to talk about it.”
He downs his drink and slams the glass on the table. “Fine. I’m just trying to make up for it and do things the right way.”
She flinches and looks down at her plate. She searches for some sign of the feistiness that she used to have. It had, up until now, saved her from this kind of thing. Once, in high school, she had even fought off two football players. You think that little blondes are easy targets, eh? Think again, assholes! But now all she finds within her is silence. Not a calm silence, but the silence of absence, of something extinguished.
Overnight, the wind intensifies to tropical storm level. She curls up on her side of the bed and listens to the howl. He sleeps on his side, turned away, curled up in a dejected ball. The last of the LSD dissipates. The edges of reality harden until they are sharp enough to cut.
She opens her eyes. The wind has died down. He is still asleep, snoring softly. She gets up and walks into the bathroom. Her limbs and lower back ache and her mouth is dry. She turns on the faucet, but no water comes out. She lifts her eyes to the mirror. I look back at her. We look away.
When she walks into the room, the bartender from work is gone. She sits on the bed and runs a comb through her greasy hair.
The door opens. “The storm knocked out the water and electricity,” he says. “The front desk says it will be out all day.”
They pack their things and go down to the dining room. The other couples hunch over their food, disheveled and grouchy. The bartender from work speaks of neutral things like his love for Mexico. All of the things he knows about life that she doesn’t.
“You have serious problems,” he says. “I have a degree in psychology, so I know problems when I see them.”
Defiance reignites. “I’m taking a psych class right now at the junior college. I’m fascinated by Jung’s work on synchronicity and archetypes. The collective unconscious.” She flashes him an innocent smile. Yes, let’s talk about problems.
His face hardens. He empties his drink and pushes back from the table. “Let’s go.”
As they walk towards her car, she says. “Oh no. The passenger side window’s open.”
“We couldn’t get it to close, remember?” he barks. “This car is a piece of shit.”
Small drifts of sand have formed on the seats and floor. They brush off the seats and get in.
She lets him drive so that she can stare out the window and think. The scenery flickers. Yesterday’s film loop played backwards. Once again she’ll have to take refuge in flight. New job, new living arrangements. Just erase it all and disappear. Again. Like a loser. A wave of sorrow washes over her, and she sinks like a stone.
She lifts her eyes to the rear view mirror. I hold her gaze. I won’t abandon you, even if you pull me under. We will go down together. An ember flares up, cauterizing our wounds.