Down in Mexico
by Anna Barto
Corey’s Mexican host family lived a few blocks from the university, on a narrow street lined with stucco walls and orange flowering Tabachín trees. Every day when he returned from class, he pressed the buzzer and waited for Mari Carmen, the maid, to come unlock the wrought iron gate, and followed her up the brick walk to the door. She walked without hurry, long black braid swinging between her shoulder blades.
The house was bigger than Corey had expected, bigger than his parents’ back in Beloit: two stories, white, and with porticos on all sides overlooking the parrot green lawn. Inside was cool and dim, and every step resounded on the tiles. There were bars on the windows, but no screens. Flies buzzed in and out, crawling over the brocade furniture.
Corey saw more of Mari Carmen than he did the family. She served him breakfast before he went to school and comida when he returned at four. The family took their meals earlier in the formal dining room. Corey ate at the kitchen table, in front of the television. He watched novellas and game shows while Mari Carmen reheated leftovers on the comal.
“How come almost everyone on TV is blond?” he asked. “I haven’t seen one blond person since I got here, except for tourists.”
Mari Carmen brought over the pitcher of agua de jamaica, bowing her head to refill his glass.
“I don’t know. Because blonds are pretty?”
He had difficulty understanding her. He thought maybe she didn’t know Spanish well, that she came from one of the villages outside the capitol where they still spoke indigenous languages. She couldn’t be more than 20, but her face made him think of the ancient ones he’d seen carved in stone at the Museum of Anthropology, cheekbones spread like wings on either side of her long, straight nose.
“I’ve always liked brunettes,” he said.
Mari Carmen blushed and turned back to the stove. Her fingertips grazed the hot iron as she flipped the tortillas.
When Mari Carmen was around Corey, she could never think of what to say. Only later, when he was in class, or at night, when she tried to sleep, did she think of all the clever things she should have said. Her room—a cinderblock afterthought anchored by rebar to the flat roof—trapped the heat of the day. She lay on top of the sheets, sweat beading her skin, and thought about Corey. She thought about his curly blond hair and eyes that were green or grey, depending on what color shirt he was wearing. She thought about his white skin that burned easily in the Mexican sun. There was a line on his arm, just above his sleeve, where the white showed when he reached for the basket of tortillas. She remembered that she still had a jar of calendula salve she’d brought from her home town, where the yellow flowers dotted the mountainside in autumn. Her mother scraped off the petals and boiled them down with wax until it formed a thick paste that was good for chapped hands and kitchen burns. It would be good for sunburns, too . Mari Carmen started carrying the tiny jar around in her huipil, where the fabric bagged between her breasts, waiting for the right time to give it to Corey. When the cool glass rolled against her skin, it made her think about him. She imagined rubbing the salve on his skin, under his shirt where he couldn’t reach. These thoughts made her queasy, but she got to like the feeling and would think these thoughts on purpose, while she did dishes or ironing, or while the Señora chattered on and on about her sons and how all they did was play video games and throw their father’s money away on alcohol and loose women.
Every day when she entered Corey’s room to clean, she paused to inspect his possessions: the razor poised on the lip of the sink, bottles of shampoo with English labels, Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s “Conquest of Mexico” bristling with Post-its, and stacks of bootleg DVDs. Once, when the Señora was out, she closed the door, and lay down on the four-poster bed. The bed was so big she could stretch out her arms and legs without them dangling off the edge. The sheets were cool and musky. She smoothed them with her fingers and felt them pressing against the backs of her bare legs. She thought about the same sheets touching Corey’s skin, and she couldn’t stand it. She felt tingly all over and had the urge to pee, so she leapt up and ran barefoot to as far as the kitchen before she realized that she’d forgotten her sandals on the floor beside the bed.
Three months into Corey’s stay, his host brothers, Ale and Toño, decided to take him to the coast. The day of the trip, Mari Carmen and the Señora got up at 5 a.m. They did all the boys’ laundry and packed a cooler of tacos and refrescos for the bus ride, which was 7 hours, if there were no landslides. Mari Carmen had never been to the coast, but she knew the sun was stronger there. There would be no better time to give Corey the salve, but she felt funny giving it to him with the Señora there, even though she wouldn’t mind. Her employer liked her, said she was the cleanest muchacha she’d ever had. When it was time for the boys to leave, Mari Carmen stood waving beside the Señora as the wrought iron gate clanged shut behind them. The glass jar lay like a stone against her chest.
The entire time the boys were gone she barely slept. She couldn’t stop thinking about Corey, how he was different from the boys in her town. He was white, of course, and taller, but there was something else, too, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. In the hot dark, she let herself go and thought about what it would be like if Corey took her back to his country. He was from a place called Wisconsin, she knew, because she heard him tell the Señora. Mari Carmen congratulated herself on knowing where that was, near Chicago. She had a cousin who worked there one season, fishing cranberries from a bog. She didn’t think this was a coincidence.
When she gave up on sleeping, she unlatched the door and stepped out onto the terraced roof. There were no stars tonight, only the city lights climbing up the mountainsides. She saw across the rooftops, crisscrossed with clotheslines to the trees in the park and yellow Cathedral dome. Music played in the distance, coming closer and closer until she could make out the jarabe beat and the wail of trumpets. It was a calenda, the procession that kicked off every important fiesta. Mari Carmen mentally calculated—could it be the feast of Santo Domingo already? In her town, the celebration had lasted for days. Bands played in shifts. Women stayed up all night, stirring vats of mole and black beans. The men came back from Mexico City, Los Angeles, everywhere. They paid for the music and the fireworks, set on towering metal frames that spelled out fiery words of thanks for their good fortune. The sparks rained down, alighting on hair and skirts. People brushed them off and kept on dancing. She hadn’t been home since Christmas because the Señora had too many students to host and couldn’t spare her.
She stood listening until the procession passed by, and all she heard was the pop of firecrackers, high above the narrow, crooked streets, and the doorways where families gathered to watch and hand out dulces and mezcal shots. Then she returned to bed and waited for morning.
The boys got back Sunday night. Mari Carmen heard them laughing before they burst into the kitchen, lugging a carton of Dos Equis. While the Señora embraced and chided, Mari Carmen hung back by the stove, stirring the barbacoa they’d bought to celebrate the boys’ return. She snuck a sidewise glance at Corey, who was showing the Señora the pictures stored in his camera. His whiskers had grown out while he was gone, and the hairs were redder than on his head. When he saw Mari Carmen looking, he smiled and asked if she wanted to see . She glanced at the Señora, who nodded, so she put down the spoon and came over to the table where the family was gathered. She had to stand very close to Corey to see the tiny screen, which made it hard for her to concentrate. She saw the three boys sitting on under a palapa, holding up surfboards and feeding French fries to an iguana. Then there was Corey, standing in a boat and holding up a fish as big as his head. Mari Carmen was more interested in Corey, bare torso visible above his bathing suit, but she knew she was expected to comment on the fish.
“Did you catch that?”
“Sure did. Weighed five kilos.”
“Orale, that’s big!”
After dinner, the Señora went upstairs, smiling and shaking her head. The boys sat around the kitchen, drinking and laughing, while Mari Carmen did the dishes. When the carton was empty, they told Mari Carmen to go get the mezcal, the good stuff their father kept for special occasions, gold colored and clear as water. She served it in the souvenir shot glasses their parents had collected on their tour of Europe.
Toño raised his glass. “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también.”
His brother, Ale, draped an arm over Corey’s shoulders. “To Corey! He’s Mexican now!” He whooped like a Ranchera singer. “Brown as an Indio!”
Corey looked down at his arms and said, “ More like red as a lobster.” He couldn’t stop smiling, and it wasn’t just the mezcal. He would go back to Madison soon. There would be football games and bar-hopping. The leaves would turn the same color as the petals on the Tabachín trees, but it wouldn’t be the same because he’d be looking back from this place, forever.
Mari Carmen took her time finishing the dishes. She didn’t want to go to bed yet. She wanted to see Corey one more time, so she could carry how he looked upstairs with her. She could hear the boys laughing in the kitchen when she went outside to switch off the gas and cover the parakeets’ cage. But by the time she came around front to bolt the gate, it was quiet, except for the Señor’s snoring and feral dogs barking in the street. The fresh breeze gave her goosebumps and she pulled her rebozo tighter around her. In the corner of her eyes, she saw a shadow detach itself from the white column of the portico. She spun around and saw Corey. His eyes shone and his hair was mused.
“Cielos!” said Mari Carmen.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“I thought you went to bed already.”
“I can’t sleep,” he said.
“Would you like me to make you some tea?”
“Mari, you don’t have talk to me like that.”
“Like a servant.”
“But it’s my job.”
“Not right now it’s not. You’re off the clock.” He glanced up at the dark windows. “Come on, let’s go for a walk.”
He held out his hand, and she took it. The weak feeling in her stomach shot all the way to the ends of her fingers and toes. He lead her down the brick walk, stumbling a little because it was dark or because he was drunk, and shut the gate quietly behind them.
They hurried down the street through the tunnel of trees. Orange petals covered the pavement like confetti. It had rained earlier, and a few drops still fell from the branches. Mari Carmen shivered and Corey put his arm around her shoulder. It felt heavy and warm. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been out of the courtyard at night. The only time she ever left was to go to Sunday Mass or to the market with the Señora.
When they got to the park, she hardly recognized it without the venders, the shoe shine men, and the children playing. The street lamps cast puddles of yellow light up and down the promenade and here and there dogs curled up like piles of sticks. The smell of the flowers mixed with the stink from the overflowing waste bins.
They sat down on one of the benches and he pulled her close. This was really happening, Mari Carmen thought. Her life was happening. She heard his breathing change and then he kissed her. He kissed her mouth and her neck and the little groove along her collarbone. She didn’t care that his tongue was slobbery and tasted like beer. His hand slid down her back and up and under her huipil. The little jar tumbled out onto the ground, but Corey didn’t notice. He had his hands on her breasts. She liked it, but she was scared because she’d never let the boys in her town get that far.
“Don’t,” she said, but he must have known that part of her, the wicked part, wanted it, because he didn’t stop. “We should wait.”
“But I’m leaving soon.”
“I know, but—” She was so scared the words caught.
“We might not have another chance.”
Corey’s hand moved up her leg.
She thought she said it in Spanish, but later she decided that she must have slipped into her native dialect, and that explained what happened next.
The wrought iron bench was cold and hard. Corey had her skirt up. He fumbled around between her legs, then there was pain—bad enough she cried out and Corey clapped a hand over her mouth—but the pain was mixed up with an irresistible burning sensation that made her back arch and her limbs shudder.
After a while, he stopped moving and she knew it was over. He rolled off her and was sick in the grass. She tried to help him to his feet, but he kept falling down. He was too heavy to lift on her own.
“Come on, Corey. Get up!”
She shook him, but he just groaned, rolled over and was sick again. For the first time, she saw his back. The skin peeled away in transparent sheets. The flesh underneath was purple red, like the inside of a cactus pear. She never thought the sun could do that. Only once before had she seen a person shed their skin like a snake, and that was when her Uncle Mario’s propane tank exploded and melted his ear off.
She felt around in the grass for the jar that had fallen from her huipil. Her hands shook as she unscrewed the lid and dipped her finger in the yellow wax. She rubbed it onto his back, softly at first, then more vigorously. Sobbing silently, she worked the salve between the bulge of his triceps and shoulder. Corey was asleep. She leaned on both hands and dug her fingers into the meat of his back, following the firm sweep of his rib cage to the point of the triangle, just below the waistband of his shorts. Corey let out a shuddering snore and was still again.
When the salve was all gone, Mari Carmen screwed the lid back on the empty jar. She’d reuse it for something. She shook him one more time. His head lolled to one side, vomit leaking from his mouth. She knelt in the damp grass and began to cry.
“Please, Corey. Wake up.”
Corey twitched, but didn’t open his eyes. Mari Carmen picked up her rebozo and spread it over him, tucking in the fringe so it wouldn’t blow away. Then she stood up, brushed the petals off her skirt, and walked back to the house. The wet hinges groaned slightly as she slipped inside the courtyard, but no lights came on. Concentrating hard to control the tremor in her hands, she drew the bolt shut behind her and scurried up the walk. She tiptoed down the long tile corridor, past the Señores’ bedroom to the rear balcony, and climbed the rickety-spiral staircase to the roof. It was raining again and clouds covered the lights on the mountains.
Anna Laird Barto lived in southern Mexico for three years before completing her MFA at Emerson College. She has published travel writing in Matador, InTravel, and GoNomad, among others. Her short fiction has appeared in Terrain.org, and her creative non-fiction is upcoming in EDGE.