My father’s used Town Car was riding on a spare tire, leaning hard to the left as we drove across a bridge into Mexico over the muddy waters of the Rio Grande. It hadn’t rained in weeks, the river looked low, and dust rolled from behind the car as we drove down a border road. I heard the car lighter pop, then my father pulling it from the dash, and I knew he was pressing the red-hot coils against the end of his Winston. He took a drag from his cigarette, filled the inside of the car in a cloud of smoke, and said, “Welcome to Juarez.”
He wasn’t saying this to his wife, Christie, sitting next to him, or to her son, Danny, sitting behind him, but to me. I didn’t say anything. I was looking over my shoulder through the rear window, thinking of how my mother had warned me just days before not to cross the border with my father. My parents separated five years earlier when I was seven, divorced when I was eight, remarried other people when I was nine, and my father moved from Ohio to El Paso a year before now, starting over again with a new family. My mother found out that my father was moving the same day I did, when she dropped me off for my regular visitation at his house one weekend, and an Atlas Moving van was blocking the driveway. Now I was twelve, and after years of wrangling over the conditions of my custody, my mother was convinced that my father intended to take me across the border someday, beyond her reach and the reach of the American legal system. Her fear seemed irrational, but then again, there we were—across the border, beyond her reach.
The bank sign back in El Paso had read a quarter to four and 102 degrees, but my father told me this was a “dry heat,” which I took to mean more tolerable. The forecast called for a slight chance of rain, but so far this afternoon all it had been was hot. The wind was picking up though, and clouds slid across the sky, daubing indigo in white billows as they slipped over the peaks of the Franklin Mountains that divide East and West El Paso.
My father rolled the windows down, letting the cigarette smoke out and the summer heat in, and I could taste the dust rising from the road to meet us. The car’s A/C struggled to compete with the outside air as we passed by a blur of buildings. Dentista. Farmacia. Taquería. As we got deeper into the city, traffic started to bottleneck, slowing us to a crawl. My father looked at his watch, drummed the top of the steering wheel with his thumbs, then turned on the radio. He scanned through static until he hit a station that promised Menos conversación, más música, and a lively mariachi song spilled from the speakers.
After a minute or two of sitting bumper-to-bumper, my father cut the wheel, taking a left down a pot-holed and rutted side street, and I worried about a flat tire. What then? Maybe my mother was right. I trusted my father, but maybe crossing the border was a bad idea.
My father smoked the Winston down to the filter, snuffed it in the ashtray, then craned his head to look at me in the rearview mirror. “This isn’t Cancun or Cabo,” he said as we passed through a graffiti-tagged barrio with barred windows, crumbling stucco, and chipped terra cotta tiled roofs. “This is the real Mexico.”
It was my first time there, and my father wanted to immerse me in the culture. He said he wanted to show me the glass blowers at Casa Mendoza Artesanías, eat dinner at El Presidente, maybe gamble a little and watch the greyhounds run. But first, we were headed to the Plaza de Toros to watch a bullfight.
Christie pressed her palm against an A/C vent, lowered the thermostat as far as it would go, then fanned herself with the Rand McNally. My father took the hint and rolled up the windows. A block or two later, Christie said, in her overly proper London accent, “I need to use the loo.” When Christie and my father first met, she was living in Madrid, recently divorced from Danny’s father, a native Spaniard, but, as my father once said, “She was born and raised a scone’s throw from the Thames.” Christie stabbed at the radio, stopping the mariachi music mid-song. “Did you hear me, Adrian?” she said to my father.
“Where do you want me to pull over?” he said, gesturing through the windshield as we passed vacant lots overgrown with salt cedars and sagebrush, and homes where laundry hung from lines, flapping in the wind. But then he saw a corner store ahead with hand-painted signs advertising hielo, cerveza, licores, cigarrillos, and botanas. There was a baño located at the back of the building. “How ’bout here?”
A gust of wind blew, stirring dirt to life and a tiny dust devil danced across the parking lot, whisking up debris and trash in its path. Christie looked at the sagging cinderblock building, at the cracked window covered in tape, and the cobwebbed neon signs.
“Are you trying to wind me up?” she said, “I’m not going in there.”
My father shrugged. “Then you’ll have to wait ’til we get to the bullfight,” he said, pulling back onto the road.
Christie thumbed through the atlas, stopping on a dog-eared page. “Do you even know where you’re going?”
“Of course,” my father said, poking a finger somewhere below the dotted Texas-Mexico border, but never looking down at the map. “We’re almost there.”
My father knows the way, I reassured myself. He had been to Juarez several times. He used to live in El Paso before now with his third wife, Giuliana, and their two boys. El Paso was also where my father met Louise, my mother, who had a son of her own from her first marriage. In fact, it was my father’s history with this area that made my mother so leery. She was aware of things I didn’t know yet, like how my father sued Giuliana over the terms of child support and alimony after they divorced. He cited jurisdictional issues because she and her sons had moved to Manassas while my father was still living in El Paso. It became a landmark case, making it all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court.
A little more than a decade later, here he was again, my father, moving west and starting over. My mother was suspicious of everything he did, wary of repeated patterns, but my parents didn’t argue anymore. They hardly even spoke.
When we got to the Plaza de Toros, Christie found the bathroom while Danny and I went with my father to buy tickets and drinks, a couple Tecate beers for him and Christie, Cokes for Danny and me. As I watched my father thread his way through the crowd toward the bathrooms to join up with Christie, I was struck by how much the plaza reminded me of being at Riverfront Stadium waiting to watch the Cincinnati Reds play. My father and I used to go to baseball games every summer, even after my parents divorced, a constant that I found comforting. We also played catch from time to time, my father often crouching in a catcher’s squat, punching the inside of his mitt, and saying something like, “Give it the ol’ pepper, kiddo.” But that hadn’t happened for quite a while. After my father moved to El Paso, I would play baseball with other kids in the neighborhood, but even when their older brothers or fathers joined in, we still never had enough players for two teams. So it was common for someone like me to hit a double and yell, “Ghost man on second,” a placeholder for the person who wasn’t there.
I lost sight of my father in the plaza for a moment and stood on tiptoes straining to see over the crowd. Then I found him waving to Danny and me to follow him and Christie in the direction of an arrow that pointed toward the entrance. By the time we found our seats, it was nearly 5:00 p.m., but the open concrete stadium was still sun-scorched and I was thankful my father paid extra for tickets stamped sombra, so we could sit in the shade. The plaza was perfectly round with concentric rows of seats that descended to the dirt ring below, where I could see the fight had already begun.
I would find out later that bullfights are divided into three stages, and that I was watching the last one, the tercio de muerte or “death third.” The bull, slick with blood and sweat, had already been speared with lances held by horsemen, and skewered in the shoulders with barbed banderillas that bobbed up-and-down as he trotted around the arena, looking for a way out. At first, there was a cartoonish quality to this image, and it didn’t fully register what I was looking at. The music, amplifying through the loudspeakers, sounded almost carnival-like, and the banderillas were fringed in festive colored tissue paper, so the bull almost looked like a piñata.
The soundtrack changed to more dramatic music, and a matador entered the arena to a round of applause. He was dressed in green and embroidered gold that twinkled in the sunlight as he took exaggerated strides to the center of the ring and bowed to the crowd. Danny is from Madrid, and bullfighting is Spain’s national pastime, so he watched this like I did the Reds. He was smiling and clapping as though Mario Soto had just taken the mound, throwing warm-up heat to Johnny Bench. After the crowd quieted, Danny leaned over to me. “If he does a good job,” he whispered, “he gets to cut off the bull’s ears to keep.”
I felt the Coke sour in my stomach as I watched the matador unfurl his red cape and shimmy the sateen cloth. The bull was already tired, breathing heavily, and wobbling on unsteady legs. Snot and saliva streamed from the end of the animal’s snout, puddling near his hooves in the dirt. But when the matador squared up to face him, the bull, as if on cue, pawed at the ground, stirring the dust around him. Then the bull lowered his head and charged, narrowly missing the matador, to a chorus of “Olés!” from the crowd.
Vendors walked up and down the aisles, offering seat cushions for rent, flowers for sale, and cerveza fría, but when Christie saw one holding a corrugated cardboard box with the words Papas Fritas written in red, she elbowed my father and said, “I’m hungry.” My father bought a bag and Christie and Danny shared the fries as they watched the bull circle back for another pass at the matador.
A gust whipped across the plaza, snatching a man’s sombrero from his head, cartwheeling it across the dirt ring, and the matador shielded himself with his cape for a moment, waiting for it to die down. When the wind quieted, the plaza looked fogged in an opaque haze. The matador wiped his eyes and walked within inches of the bull’s horns. He shuffled his feet in the dirt to the rhythm of the music that echoed throughout the plaza, dancing a silly jig to a smattering of laughter in the crowd. Danny giggled as well, then looked over at my father who smiled back and reached over to tousle his hair like dads sometimes do to their sons.
Done with teasing the bull, done with his dance, the matador turned his back on him and walked away, apparently unafraid of being gored or trampled under his cloven hooves. Then the music stopped, the crowd quieted, and the matador turned to face the bull again. “This is it,” Danny said, edging to the end of his seat.
The matador stood tall and drew his sword just below his chin, aiming at an area between the bull’s shoulder blades. He ran toward the animal, thrusting the sword forward and into its flesh, hitting nothing but bone. The crowd groaned as they watched the sword get stuck for a moment, then drop to the dirt. The bull stumbled, falling to his haunches, but stood back up. The matador picked up the sword from the arena floor, and without cleaning its blade, tried again. He missed the mark a second time, then a third. It was like Soto suddenly couldn’t find the strike zone. Some in the crowd were angry and protested, throwing their rented seat cushions, and a small hail storm of pillows tumbled into the arena. Others, like Danny, seemed more understanding, blaming the matador’s failures on the windy conditions, the sand in his eyes. The crowd didn’t calm until the matador’s fourth attempt when he hit the spot, plunging the sword into the bull all the way to the hilt.
The bull was already dead but didn’t know it. He lowered his head for one last charge, took a couple steps, and collapsed in a cloud of dust. Nearly everyone stood and applauded, including Christie and Danny, nearly everyone except my father and me. Danny tapped Christie on the shoulder. “I want to go down there,” he said, pointing to the people gathering ringside to throw flowers, and hoping for the chance to shake the matador’s hand.
“We’ll be right back,” Christie said to my father as she and Danny shuffled past him, taking the steps by twos down to the ring.
I looked over at my father, sitting three seats to my right, as he cupped his hands around the end of a Winston, shielding his lighter’s flame from the wind. “Well, what’d you think?” he said, looking down at the arena, at the dead bull slumped in the dirt.
“Mom told me not to come to Mexico with you,” I said, looking down at my feet. “She said you’d take me across the border and never come back.”
“Is she nuts?” he said. He shook his head, laughed a little at the thought, then flicked cigarette ash into his empty Tecate can. “I would never do that.”
I should have been relieved, but instead I felt a slight sting, unwanted in some way. It was the same sting I’d felt the day before when my father picked me up from the airport, the first time I’d seen him since the day he left Ohio, nearly a year before. I wondered where I fit into his life, into his new family. “I know,” I said, clearing my throat. “That’s what I told her.”
The wind gusted and dirt rose in the swell, clouding the plaza again in dust and debris. The wind ebbed and flowed, pushing forward, then receding, quieting back down to a breeze. My father looked off into the distance and I followed his gaze to the skyline. We were facing north and we could see the ridge of the Franklins peaking over the rim of the plaza. In the distance a silver curtain of rain fell from the clouds, but it never hit the ground.
“It’s called virga,” my father said, “A dry rain.” He leaned toward me and pointed skyward. “It’s evaporating before it hits land.”
I looked at the swollen clouds, at rain only willing to meet the ground halfway, then down to the arena where the dust was still unsettled. A breeze swept across the plaza as my father took another drag, and the smoke wafted away. He stared at his cigarette for a moment, lost in a thought, before dropping it into the Tecate can. Then he slid down the concrete bench, closing the distance between us.