I first met Laura at a washateria the day both my washer and Michael Jackson died. It was the end of June, Austin gusty and yellowed in heat, orange in the sky. Wildfires were consuming the Hill Country, and local TV anchors had started to talk about the end of the world. It was Thursday, and for no reason, I had called in sick.
“First time in a laundromat?” I chose that word because it sounded nicer than washateria, and because the moment I spotted Laura I felt the urge to impress her. I knew immediately where she came from. People like us recognize each other from miles away, we overdressed outcasts adrift in middle-of-nowhere America.
“Why, yes,” she said in Spanish, glaring dismissively at the buttons on the washer’s control panel.
“These guys are a piece of cake, unlike the one I’m sure you have at home.”
“Like I know how that one works.”
“Of course.” I smiled.
“May I ask, why are you doing this yourself?” I said. “Why didn’t you ask one of your domestics?” I wondered if she employed in-house servants in Austin as she surely had back in Mexico, or if she could now afford them only by the hour. I wondered if hers was one of those families who brought their longtime maids with them from home and then, once abroad, called them au pairs. I wondered how many servants she had on payroll before, how many remained, and if she cried at night for her loss.
“Ugh,” she hissed as she threw clean, perfectly folded clothes into the machine. “Don’t get me started.”
Laura’s helplessness was wrapped in a thin layer of arrogance that made her sexy and unnerving, a thing you wanted to put your hands on. She’d dyed her hair the color of an explosion in the sun. I thought it made her look older than she was. She wore single white pearl earrings. You can tell a woman’s true class by the way she wears pearls, Grandma would say. Diamonds are flashy and expensive, an easy bet. Pearls are different. Pearls are hard to pull off.
She’d forgotten to bring detergent and softener, and so had I. I bought two single-load packets of Tide and a small bottle of Downy at the vending machine and got both washers going. The laundromat was cool and almost empty. Besides us, there was an elderly Asian man folding one synthetic-fabric sports shirt after another and an obese young Latina with two little girls who played tag all over the place, filling the room with giggles and yells. They were loud and annoying, but we didn’t have the nerve to give the mom a look. “These people are hopeless,” was all Laura said.
We sat facing a long line of mammoth dryers with glass doors and waited. Two large flat-screen TVs showed a muted news segment on Detroit’s auto industry, the same soundless images repeating themselves on a loop, like a recurring dream. I glimpsed at the screens from time to time, but Laura ignored them. We watched jeans and panties and skirts roll in soothing twirls of hot air as they dried in the big machines, a troupe of dancers flying and tumbling together, as if their owners’ bodies had broken free, vanishing into merrier realms.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I know that.”
“I mean, which part of the city?”
“Which part do you think I’m from?”
Crow’s-feet branched from the corner of her eyes. She wore very little makeup—unusual for a Mexican housewife. Michael Jackson was minutes from the end and the larger world was about to change. Ours too, but I didn’t know it. She did. Laura’s plump body was clad in a navy linen dress decorated with water lilies that played nicely with the vintage mustard Gucci bag that lay on top of the washer, like an aardvark at a cattle ranch. Every time I remember Laura in that dress, something stirs between my legs.
“You look south.”
She let out a small laugh. “You’re doing well, country boy. Keep going.”
“San Angel, I’d say.”
She giggled and looked out the window. Had she just called me “country boy”?
“I grew up in Polanco but moved to Chimalistac when I married. His family always lived there.” Laura stood and reached for her purse. She retrieved her phone and ran a finger up and down the screen, pretending to check her messages. I took out my phone and started to imitate her every move. I wondered what her breasts looked like.
Like Laura, I still lived under the weight of having fled the city where I was born. I worked for the Consulate General of Mexico’s Department of Protection for Mexican Nationals, running dead-end errands like visiting undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation, pretending to make them feel cared for. The Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores had just transferred me from Raleigh to Austin. I had moved to Raleigh from Mexico City because my parents had begged me to take the job in the Mexican Foreign Service that Dad had secured for me. They’d recently moved to La Jolla themselves, tired of seeing friend after friend disappear in broad daylight, exhausted from wondering each morning when their number would be called. I didn’t want to leave. I was cutting my teeth as a reporter for El Financiero, but Dad said that letting me stay was the same as their not leaving Mexico at all.
In the days after I moved to North Carolina, I started having dreams that my friends from Mexico would ring me from Butner asking for help, but when I called the prison I’d learn that they’d already been deported to an undisclosed location. I started dreaming of Grandma, clad in one of the bright, silky dresses she liked so much that smelled of baby powder. I’d see her in her living room, knitting, singing “Solamente Una Vez” as if the bolero were a lullaby. She died alone in her apartment on Cofre de Perote on a winter morning the year after I moved.
“Let me see your hands,” Laura said. I offered them to her, palms up.
She held them carefully at first, as if getting acquainted with an alien object. She massaged my knuckles with her longest fingers and my palms with her thumbs, maternally; fingertips tepid and unused, the color of raw pork meat.
“Beautiful hands,” she said. “So soft and young. How old are you?”
She looked me in the eye and chuckled.
“I’m forty-five,” she said. “There. I said it. Now let’s pretend I didn’t.”
“I’m cool with that,” I said, my hands still in hers.
“Anything else you may want to know before we move on?”
“You said you’re married.”
“I am.” She sighed, her face sagged. “We moved to Austin five years ago, but he still spends most of his time in Mexico. Taking care of the business, or so he says. We have two girls, one finishing college, the other starting. They’re both on the East Coast. I’m stuck here, in this big, super-cosmopolitan metropolis full of pickup trucks, where you may run into vultures and deer on every corner. Lovely, isn’t it?”
I wanted to ask why she’d left Mexico, but I didn’t.
“So, which part of the city are you from?” Laura’s face got playful again.
“Are you gonna guess my neighborhood by abusing my hands?”
“Why not?” She smelled like classic perfume, perhaps Chanel No. 5. “Are you afraid of a human’s touch? Have you become that American already?”
“It’s not that, ma’am. I just wanna show a little resistance. I think you’ll like that.”
“You’re definitely south. Jardines del Ped-regal?”
I laughed. I put my hands in my pockets and swiftly kissed her on the cheek. Her skin was a peach.
Later, we saw our own clean clothes tumble away inside the machines. She rested her head on my shoulder.
“Give me your phone,” she said.
Laura pointed the camera toward us, her slender naked arm outstretched, her flesh loose and freckled, and brought her face close to mine. She closed her eyes and took the first snapshot. In the days that followed we’d photograph each other like crazy. Pictures of us eating raw octopus; pictures of us in bed taken against the burning background of the hills. Pictures of me caressing the sides of her breasts. What would her daughters say if they saw these photos? I’d ask. What about her husband? She’d say she didn’t care and keep snapping, amour fou–style.
She pretended to lick at my ear and said, “One more. Say por vida!”
The laundromat was filling up with young hipster couples, middle-aged men, and frumpy single mothers, children hot on their trail. There was something tragic about washing your clothes in front of others, and I wondered why Laura would be here voluntarily.
“You haven’t told me your name yet.”
“Plutarco. Plutarco Mills.”
“A portentous name for a dashing young man,” Laura said. “I think we don’t speak the same lingua anymore, Mr. Mills.” From then on, she always called me by my last name. It turned me on. The sound of my name on her lips made my limbs and ears rattle. Had I known what would happen afterward, I’d have recorded her voice with my phone.
“Yes, we do,” I contested. “Not only do we speak the same language, we also respond to the same impulse.” Listening to Laura made me feel at home: she twisted statements into questions that turned doubt into a familiar space.
“No, we don’t, Mr. Mills. You’re young and still believe in things like love and the future. I don’t have the stomach to prove you wrong, not as long as my wrists are attached to my hands, but this you must know,” she said, and paused. “The main difference between us and other couples is not what you think, those naughty clichés working up your cute little brain that make me yawn. The main difference between us, Mr. Mills, and them, all of them, is that the words that come out of your mouth, even the simplest ones, ripen into origami prunes in my heart.”
I imagined my tongue inside her mouth, swollen purple and moist. The dryers buzzed, and our hot clothes collapsed to the bottom of the machines as if life had suddenly been sucked out of them.
“Would you like to go out with me, Mr. Mills?” she asked as we pulled them out and tossed them back into plastic baskets, two jumbles of color and indistinguishable fabric that made no sense.
We walked out into the hazy afternoon air. It felt heavy and metallic in the mouth. The unexpected taste of smog and burnt debris that arrived in gusts brought me back to Mexico City. Laura looked up and took a deep breath, and I realized we both felt the same. Nostalgia is the saddest form of glee.
“One more thing,” she said by the door of her black Porsche Cayenne. “Condoms? Don’t bother. I couldn’t care less.”
“What if I care?”
“Let me ask you something, Mr. Mills,” Laura said, the commanding words not matching the sudden frail tone of her voice. “This game won’t have many rounds. Are you man enough to let the lady take the lead?”
“Mr. Mills!” Laura yelled on the phone. “We’ve got to celebrate!”
It was noon on Friday, and we weren’t supposed to meet until Saturday. The news that day was full of rumors that Michael Jackson had taken his own life and reports that the Hill Country wildfires were reaching the shores of Lake Travis. Firemen from every corner of Texas and Oklahoma rushed in our direction as Jackson’s classics from the seventies and eighties topped the charts.
“And why is that?”
“Surprise, surprise! Can we meet now?”
“I’m in the middle of something,” I said quietly so that only she could hear me.
I was at Brackenridge Hospital, translating for a family from Estado de México whose teenage son had been badly beaten the night before outside a gay bar on East Cesar Chavez and later dropped off by anonymous friends outside the emergency room. The kid’s mother was chubby and small. She looked devastated, her skin the color of cardboard blistered by the Texas heat. Her husband wore a ragged Longhorns cap and explained that they were from Ixtlahuaca. I’d probably never heard of it, he said, but I had, because most of the maids from home came from there. He’d been living in Austin for several years, but his son and wife had arrived only the year before. The boy was seventeen but had always shown a great talent for the arts, he said. The word “arts” sounded foreign in his mouth. He wanted to be a filmmaker; in recent months he’d been working on his first project, championed by his art teacher at school. “Teachers adore him,” the father said. The movie was titled Zombies and Narcos vs. Aliens and was about zombies who are about to take over a small Mexican town controlled by a ferocious drug cartel when an extraterrestrial attack strikes. “He didn’t know who prevailed in the end,” the father said, his wobbly cheeks glossy wet and flushed. He looked insignificant and fragile in spite of his sunburnt, strong, hairless arms. I sucked at my job. I didn’t know how to comfort these people, how to make them believe that things would get better, because most of the time, they didn’t. I translated the doctor’s prognosis, that the kid had received too many kicks to the head, that the skull presented several fissures, and that the boy had slipped into an irreversible coma. My phone rang, and I asked them to excuse me for a minute. When I heard Laura’s voice, I felt grateful and safe, and cowardly.
“Can we meet tonight then?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Where?”
She said the laundromat. “I’ll bring some clothes, and we’ll celebrate while we watch them dry. How about that?”
Years later, I still consider her words. I now divine longing and anxiety in her voice, but in that moment all I found was Laura’s unleashed self, a storm impossible to contain, an energy that made me want to laugh and be with her, to see her bare.
When I returned to the hospital room the parents were now sitting on plastic chairs, looking hopelessly down at the floor.
Laura walked into the washateria around seven carrying a basketful of clothes masterfully folded. She wore a narrow white dress and copper sandals with wedge heels. When she saw me, she dropped the basket on the floor, grabbed me by the hand, and dragged me outside.
She opened the trunk of her SUV to reveal a small cooler filled with ice, two fuchsia thermoses, and a bottle of Taittinger Brut Millésimé 1998.
“I didn’t want to overdo it, so real flutes were out of the question,” she said, like the gracious host of a cocktail party apologizing for the mind-blowing hors d’oeuvres. “People’ll think we’re drinking iced tea.” She handed me the bottle of champagne.
“You’re so definitely north.”
“Shut up.” Laura cracked up as I poured bubbles. “Okay, let’s make a toast!”
“To this gorgeous Jean Paul Gaultier that I got at Neiman today,” she said, gently pulling down the neck of her dress to show me a sliver of cream-colored ruffles, and clinked her thermos on mine. The evening air was nuclear hot, we were alone in the parking lot, and nothing moved, nothing else made a sound. I felt like we were the only ones left in Austin, the only ones left in the world.
“Are you serious?” I said, and let out a nervous laugh.
“Oh, absolutely, Mr. Mills. But wait, there’s more.”
“I’m all ears, ma’am.”
“I’ll let those beautiful hands of yours unhook it for me tonight,” she whispered in my ear.
Before I could reply, she kissed me on the lips for the first time; the childish kiss of a trembling gal is how I remember it now, but in that moment all I felt was her wetness on mine and a quick hard-on. She refilled our thermoses and dragged me back inside the laundromat.
We separated our clothes into two categories, white and everything else, and dumped each pile into a dryer. We cranked the machines and took a seat to watch each load create a distinctive palette while tumbling, makeshift flutes in one hand and in the other each other’s, like a couple of inexperienced schoolkids. My thoughts raced imagining the texture of her underwear.
“White or colored?”
“White’s so balmy.”
“I know, right? But colored is, like, rough and intense, and, like, sexy.”
“It is.” She sighed.
“Balmy or sexy? Choose one.”
“I can’t,” Laura said. “I just love seeing all those clothes fly away. I wish I could do the same.”
We grew quiet. I felt Laura so close to me, closer than anyone else had ever been, her body washing all over me in waves of heat.
“You can, if you want to,” I said, shaking my thermos; it was empty now.
“It’s not so easy, Mr. Mills.” Her voice soured. “You think it is, because you’re juvenile and unharmed, but it’s not.”
“Actually, it is. I can make that happen for you, ma’am. I can stand in front of the dryer while you’re inside, so that the manager doesn’t notice.”
“Are you kidding me?” She stared at me, stunned. For once, I felt older, stronger.
“I’ve never been more serious, ma’am. I can try it myself first. If something’s not right, I’ll just swing the door open.”
A big mischievous grin spread across her face.
“Would you do that for me, Mr. Mills?” she asked girlishly and ran a long, perfectly French-manicured index finger down my slender biceps.
“You said you’ll let me dispose of your undies tonight, ma’am. It’s the least I can do.”
We took the clothes out of the dryers and dumped them into a metal basket on wheels. We waited for the manager to retreat to the back, and then I hopped into the dryer. Laura and I agreed that the cool-air cycle would be the safest. Once I was inside, she wheeled the metal basket in front of the dryer and pretended to make herself busy with our clothes.
“Watch your head, Mr. Mills,” she whispered before closing the door. I knew then what Laika felt like when she was launched into orbit—that damned solitary dog and I, two little furry animals searching for unknown forms of life in outer space.
The first couple of spins were rough as my body adjusted to the metallic hardness of this new habitat. The air was itchy and had an artificial, eerie taste to it. It felt leaden in my lungs as if I were breathing from an air tank filled with morning breath. But then the space flattened out and the air cleared, the sense of flying in circles vanished, and I broke free. My body felt light as if made only of cartilage, the direction of my flight determined by subtle movements of my limbs and nose and brows. I hovered over the big city, savoring a bubblegum taste in the air I didn’t remember it had. I recognized the rooftop of the house I grew up in and the tennis courts of the country club where I learned to ride on horseback and where I almost drowned at four, and the lush, infinite garden where I saw myself and Grandma on the lawn, holding a book from Les Aventures de Tintin in her pouchy hands, my head resting on her lap.
Then the muffled yells of the manager broke into the dryer. When the machine stopped, I fell hard to the bottom, 180 pounds of flesh and bone back in my body all at once. I was hot and claustrophobic.
“What the fuck are you people doing?” The pale young woman dressed in a sad blue-gray uniform was now standing in front of the dryer, wide-eyed. “Get the fuck out of there! Now! And you, lady”—she turned to Laura, whose face I couldn’t see because I was desperately trying to hop out of the dryer—“you should be ashamed of yourself! At your age!”
Customers of all ages and ethnicities and fabric preferences looked on amused as the manager escorted us out the door.
“If I ever see you two here again, I swear to God I’ll call the police!” she shouted as she threw Laura’s basket of jumbled clothes into the parking lot.
“Are you okay?” Laura asked.
“I am. It’s just that some people don’t have a sense of humor at all. Tant pis.”
“I’m not talking about her, Mr. Mills,” she said worriedly. “Are you sure you’re not hurt?”
“Yeah, I’m perfectly fine.”
“The sounds of your body hitting against that drum were unbearable. That’s why the manager noticed, but I freaked out and didn’t know how to turn the damn thing off. Even a couple of women started to scream when they saw you tumbling like a bag of potatoes in there,” Laura said, containing a laugh.
“Well, ma’am,” I said as I combed my hair back in place with my fingers, feeling suddenly full of life, “you gotta give it a try.”
“The poor girl said she’d call the cops on us. I don’t feel like getting myself a mug shot tonight, Mr. Mills,” Laura said.
“My dryer at home works fine,” I replied. “It’s not as big, but I’m sure you’ll fit in.”
An amber night had settled in the city by the time we arrived at my place. I lived on the fourteenth floor of a brand-new apartment building on Second Street. Laura tumbled flimsily inside my dryer for almost five minutes, until I worried that the lack of air or the adrenaline rush would keep her from feeling pain and that the next day she would die from unnoticed bruises or internal bleeding. She stepped out of the machine with a melancholic grin on her face, and we went straight to my room.
She was surprised that I had such a furry butt and asked me to tell the story about the scar running down my groin. Her dress and the new bra that I’d helped her remove were draped over a chair.
We ordered sushi, and I brought it to bed along with an iced bottle of verdejo. We ate tuna-and-masago maki while she snapped pictures of us nude.
“Why are you here, ma’am?” I finally asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Why did you leave?”
“We were having such a wonderful time, Mr. Mills,” she said, motherly. She stroked my leg, then my chest, drawing circles around my nipple with her index finger. “Why ruin it?”
I tried to apologize, but she cut me off.
“I’m teasing you, Mr. Mills. We’re all like that. Eventually, we all wonder.” She took a sip of wine. A siren howled in the distance. I didn’t say a word.
“My father,” she said. “He left his office one evening; it was late May. He was supposed to drive home, but he didn’t. At first I didn’t think there was anything wrong. I thought it was even normal. He was not a kid anymore, his children were all grown-ups now; he was a widower. Why should he come home every single day? What for, to whom? But the next day his assistant called to ask if we knew his whereabouts. He hadn’t shown up for work. We called his cellphone, but he wouldn’t pick up. We never saw him again. We all had to leave. We didn’t know what could happen with us, who could be next.”
I thought about saying many things, but none of them felt right. I whispered that I was very sorry.
“I saw him tonight in the dryer, though,” Laura went on as if she hadn’t heard me. “The moment I was in the air, I headed to Paris—I couldn’t help myself,” she said. “It was his favorite city. I hovered over Le Marais, looking for him. I spotted him outside L’As, ordering falafel, which was odd because he used to say garbanzos were food for the poor. I called his name, and he looked up at me; I was floating above him like a lightheaded dragonfly. He seemed embarrassed that I’d found him, but I smiled to show him that he shouldn’t be. I’ve had similar encounters with him in the past, in dreams, always abroad, but nothing like this one. Many times I’ve dreamt that we bump into each other at the entrance of a department store, Barneys, Selfridges—he’s coming out as I’m walking in. His face flushes when he sees me, and he stammers, struggling to explain himself. My joy is so boundless. I kiss him on both cheeks and on the forehead and on the cheeks again, cupping his face in my hands as tightly as if I’d never let him go. The way he looks at me, with those eyes so repentant and sorrowful and yet so free and so alive, makes me believe that he wasn’t kidnapped at all, that he ran away.”
“Did you get to say something to him this time?”
“I mouthed that he looked dashing, and he seemed moved, but he didn’t reply.”
Laura’s eyes were closed in the scarce light, the expression of her face hard to read. The room smelled like soy sauce and ammonia; her skin, like Downy.
“I wouldn’t have the nerve to do that,” I said after a while.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Leave the people I love behind without notice. Run away from them.”
“I’m not saying he did,” Laura said with a hint of exasperation in her voice. “But if he’d done that, I wouldn’t blame him.”
“Why would you want to escape from those you love the most? I don’t know if I could forgive someone who did that to me.”
“You’re such a puppy, Mr. Mills,” Laura said, and reached for the sushi. She ate it slowly with her mouth open, making unpleasant noises, as though she’d suddenly become a brat.
“Why would you like to hurt someone so close to you like that?”
“C’mon, Mr. Mills. That’s irrelevant—you know that. We’re raised to fulfill our big fat last name’s expectations, not to make sense of ourselves. But time is unforgiving. And when your belly sags and your skin turns orange, everything else is left to rot. When you grow older and you start realizing that this is it, you don’t want to hear things like I love you and Family is everything. It’s okay, but not enough to keep you alive. You want to hear I want to have you, you want to hear Life would be meaningless without you, but you stop hearing that. You wonder whether someone will still find you attractive, whether there’s something more exciting than what you settled for, and you want to find it, you want to make sense of yourself, but now you have kids, people whose so-called happiness depends on you, the same people you’re now teaching to believe in things like love and loyalty and family.” The sexy voice was gone, replaced by a jaded, drunken old man’s. “You’re young and romantic, and you possess a virility that’s worth a round of applause, Mr. Mills.” She gave me a gentle squeeze between my legs. “Honor that. Don’t wait for the second chance.”
I remained silent, mortified for her and afraid of her all the same. Naively, I believed she was wrong—that life passes slowly, serving up chances every step of the way. But both happiness and misery are fleeting—longing and regret are all that remain—and I didn’t know that then. I only knew I wanted her to stop. I drove my hands in the dark toward her breasts.
We fell asleep, scooped against each other, in the eerie early hours of the morning.
Laura and I spent the weekend in my apartment, going from bed to dryer—we discovered I could fit in as well, albeit tightly—to kitchen, where we consoled our rapacious appetites with leftovers of week-old takeout and frozen pizza. Sunday was particularly noisy. I heard movement in the building and also far away, down the street; the kind of sounds you hear when someone’s moving in or out, mixed with a cacophony of sirens.
It was around midnight on Sunday when Laura approached the window, pulled the curtains open, and gasped.
We hadn’t watched TV or checked our phones in more than 48 hours. We’d disconnected ourselves from the world, and the world was reporting back to us. The Hill Country wildfires had reached the city, and the hills of West Lake, where Laura lived, were raging in the background, a hypnotic wave of burning drapes framing in orange the summer dark.
We turned on the TV. The wildfires trumped any story related to Michael Jackson’s death, but the information was vague and chaotic. A mandatory evacuation of the city would be enforced the following morning. Military planes carrying evacuees were departing every few minutes. I asked Laura how I could help—make phone calls, get in touch with her family in Mexico or elsewhere—but she ignored me. She sat on the bed and stared vacantly through the window. I didn’t know what to say.
“Please turn off the TV, and the lights,” she asked. I closed the curtains and made to leave the room, but she waved me closer. She went back to bed and asked me to join her.
“We can’t stay here, Laura. We have to go.”
“I don’t want to talk about that right now.”
The sense of peace and separation from reality in the room had vanished. The sirens howled like a mother lamenting the loss of her children; they had been all weekend, but now that I understood why, I could no longer ignore them. Laura snuggled next to me as if an endless summer of love still lay ahead, but the skin of her butt felt dry against my stomach, and our toes remained freezing cold, even after they tangled.
“Have you ever read José Emilio Pacheco, Mr. Mills?” Laura asked after a while.
“A little bit.”
“Would you happen to know any of his poems by heart?”
“I don’t, ma’am; I’m sorry. I vaguely remember a couple of lines, something I read in college.”
“How do they go?”
“Let me see . . . there was one about how you only really meet the sea once in your life, and another that said, When you turn forty / you become everything you despised / when you were twenty. Something like that.”
I gave it to her, and she took one last picture of us—her back resting against my chest, both of us looking away. To this day, the image remains on my phone, obscure and out of focus.
I fled Austin the next afternoon. The Mexican government provided a plane to evacuate the consulate personnel to Houston, where I spent the following weeks. Despite the efforts of firemen and the National Guard, the Hill Country wildfires swept through the city’s ever-expanding limits. The state capital had to be temporarily reinstated in Houston. The consulate in Austin never reopened.
As compensation for our having lost everything, the Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores offered to transfer us anywhere we liked. After visiting my parents in California, I moved to Paris, where I spent the next five years working for the embassy in the mornings, wandering the wobbly cobbled streets of the Rive Gauche and the Rive Droite and Place Vendôme and Rue de Saint-Honoré and the Champs-Élysées in the afternoons, looking for Laura. I was later transferred to São Paulo, where I spent five miserable years, and then promoted to consul in Zurich, where my hopes of bumping into Laura on the street reached their lowest point, as I was sure she’d never pick such an aloof place. In all those years, I resisted the temptation to climb into a dryer again. After four years in Zurich, I learned about an opening in the Protection Department at the consulate in New York, an infamous middle-rank position that would force me to pretend once again that I cared. I wanted it regardless, because I wanted to be back in America.
Shortly after my arrival in Manhattan, an invitation to the opening of an exhibition by a Mexican artist at a SoHo gallery arrived in the consulate’s in-box:
“People Bleeding Firecrackers is a series of 3-D holograms in which Nicolasa Gutiérrez-Arteaga (Chimalistac, Mexico, 1991) recreates the cities where she was born and raised, Mexico City and Austin, Texas, as she blends them together into a single homeland, transient and elusive.”
I recognized the name of the artist immediately. I looked her up online. When I found her picture, the hairs on my arms curled. The image showed a young woman whose features looked familiar. Her eyes were her mother’s, but Nicolasa’s looked unfathomably sad. It was like seeing a version of Laura distorted by water and memory and make-believe. The invitation said the exhibition was to open in a couple of days, but I couldn’t wait. I dashed out of my office and grabbed a taxicab.
The gallery was located on the grounds of a nineteenth-century building with a cast-iron facade, overlooking a quiet, cobbled street. A young red-haired man greeted me ceremoniously at the door. Old-school manners were en vogue once again.
“Ms. Arteaga is not here at the moment, sir,” he said, and my heart prickled. “May I ask who’s looking for her?”
“Plutarco Mills. Mexican Consulate. Is she coming back today?”
“She is, indeed.”
“Do you mind if I wait?”
“Not at all, sir,” he said, looking startled. “Please make yourself at home.” The gallery was a large white empty space flooded with bright light that didn’t invite me to stay, but I didn’t want to leave. I was anxious and filled with anticipation. I was convinced Laura would arrive any minute, trailing behind her now-prominent daughter, playing her role of proud and submissive Mexican mother.
An hour later, a woman burst into the gallery, her arms full of shopping bags. It was her. The young man took the bags swiftly away from her and whispered something in her ear. Nicolasa looked at me warily. The guy left us alone. As I approached her, I cleared my throat.
“Plutarco Mills, Mexican Consulate,” I said, trying not to stammer as I offered Nicolasa my hand, my palm embarrassingly moist and shaky. “Very nice to meet you, Ms. Gutiérrez.”
She was slender and tall and wore an upsetting citrusy perfume I didn’t recognize. She was dressed all in black. In person she wasn’t nearly as beautiful or intriguing as her mother.
“It’s actually Arteaga. Nice to meet you too,” she said. I could tell she didn’t mean the latter.
“I’m here to let you know that everybody at the consulate is very excited about the opening of your exhibition,” I said in Spanish. Beads of sweat broke out on my scalp. “Anything we can do for you, just let me know. It will be my pleasure.”
“Thank you. That’s sweet of you,” she replied, switching back to English, and this broke my heart. She offered me a diplomatic smile but still looked unsettled. The word “sweet” a product of mere courtesy. I searched for echoes of Laura’s fierceness, but I found none.
“It’s funny,” Nicolasa said, “I know some people at the consulate, but your name doesn’t ring a bell.”
“I’m new here,” I replied. “I just moved back to the States after many years abroad. My last position in the country was with the Austin consulate.”
“Really? I lived there for a while,” Nicolasa revealed, as if I didn’t know. Her face lit up. I imagined her mother back in Austin as I never had, shopping for groceries at H-E‑B, driving the girls to soccer practice and art class and medical appointments and birthday parties, attending endless PTA meetings, picking her husband up at the airport, driving her Cayenne listlessly along Highway 360, all on her own, a world away from home, making stupid miles up and down a beautiful, meaningless place, looking for something, anything, that gave her a reason to keep on living. “It was my second home. Austin used to be such a gorgeous place.”
I wanted to tell her I remembered the city the same, but her reasons and mine would have collided. I wanted her to repeat that word, gorgeous, for when she said it, she sounded like her mother.
“In fact, I think I met your parents there,” I said. My stomach cramped. “How’s your family doing?”
“Everybody’s fine, thanks for asking.” She looked unnerved. “They’re flying in from Houston for the opening. I hope you join us, Mr. Mills.” I knew she wanted me to leave, I knew she didn’t mean to extend any invitation. I was scaring her, but she was forcing herself to say things she didn’t mean out of pure Mexican-bred politeness. She was one of us, after all. I imagined Laura feeling proud of, and miserable for, her daughter’s exquisite, self-destructive manners.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” I said, my voice trembling. I saw this pale, foreign girl in front of me, a complete stranger, and realized how absurd my presence there was, how disturbing and creepy my visit must have been to her. Excusing myself and leaving immediately was the right thing, the only thing, to do. But I couldn’t help myself.
“I can’t wait to see your mother again, Nicolasa,” I heard myself say, as if the words had been uttered by somebody else. “After all these years, I haven’t been able to forget her.”
“My mother won’t be here,” Nicolasa replied quietly. “She died in the big Austin blaze of 2009.”
“Oh,” was all that came out of my mouth.
And then, as if she knew the right thing to say, she added, “I’m very sorry, Mr. Mills.”
That last day I ever saw her, Laura woke me up with a whisper. It was very early in the morning.
She said she was leaving. I asked where she was going. She said she didn’t know. I wanted to go with her, flee Austin together.
She said no.
She said she wanted to do this alone. I said we were a sphere, we were an elephant that had found its own lightness on the moon; we needed to remain a sphere.
She laughed as if she were a hundred years old, and her face darkened with sadness. She said she wished me luck, and she hoped I would find someone who thrilled me.
I insisted, and she cupped my face in her hands. She came close to me, as if there were more people in the room.
“Goodbye, Mr. Mills,” she breathed in my ear, as if she were telling me a secret.
Copyright © 2015 by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho. From the forthcoming book Barefoot Dogs: Stories, by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, to be published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. Printed by permission.