Below Sea Level

No matter how many times I take this drive, the final descent into the Imperial Valley rattles me. Into the man-made canyons I go- the sky returns to its proper place above the sunroof and the sharp paved sloping creates acceleration, a careful formula of gasoline and physics. There’s a moody wind out today and that makes it feel uncontrollable. I take deep breaths and yearn for the cascade of broken boulders to part, where through my windshield, a panoramic vista of the Colorado desert, ivory wind turbines and blue agriculture will appear, taking me to Sea Level.

“I can’t wait to see you, baby. I need to get lost in you again.” he texted.

I was in my kitchen blushing, iPhone in hand wearing drugstore reading glasses. The school year just had ended and my children were in the dining room writing thank you notes to their teachers waiting  for dinner. At the time, I thought I was having my first hot flash and menopause was coming for me. I am a middle-aged woman, an attractive and fit middle-aged woman but nothing makes me blush anymore.  I would be seeing  him soon.

I almost reach bottom. The freeway brings me to a sign that says Sea Level and in a few more miles, I will go below it. I will be submerged under the sea but no water will touch me. As a child, I could not grasp what this meant for motorists. The encircling landscape was dry desert and the Salton Sea was too far to acknowledge. On every trip home from San Diego, my parents would patiently explain,“Changing elevation effects road conditions. Sea level made the Imperial Valley fertile for farming but before any of us were born a disastrous flood nearly ruined it all.”And then, I would counter, “How would you two know? Who told you?” Somewhere along Interstate 8, depending on my parent’s level of frustration, they enacted the silent game. This is where I was bribed, usually a promised new toy if I kept my mouth shut till we got home.

Nowadays, no one worries; no menacing torrent of angry water will drown the valley like long ago before the Hoover Dam and the All American Canal were constructed and the surveyors, the capitalists and the engineers who made too many incisions, were losing to the wild Colorado River. Colorado, colored red, ruining America’s Winter Garden, green and lush farmland that lured the manifest destiny farmer to a new identity and now was luring me back to him.

I exit onto Highway 98, a direct route to my destination. The paved charcoal road lifts and dips. It is thirty–three miles till Calexico. The green guide sign says so. This is where I’d lose my discipline and blurt, “Did they use thirty-three because Jesus died on the cross at thirty-three?” And this is where my parents would reply, “Uh, we’re not sure if Caltran’s is up on Bible knowledge, but you know you’re not getting a toy, right? ”

We figured we must have met as children. I can remember car trip conversations I had with my parents but I don’t recall the moment I first saw him. That bothers me. I have to settle for a reunion two decades ago while I was home from college, away from my serious relationship and he was separated from a wife I did not know. We were surrounded by people with familiar last names, a coat of arms of unique facial features; hook noses, wide jaws, almond eyes, and big teeth. Throughout the twentieth century our ancestors congregated together in each others homes, sharing food and niceties and we, the descendants willingly scattered throughout cities, states, and countries were carrying on the tradition in a bar with multiple flat screen TV’s. Lets catch up shall we? Who are you again?

At the end of the night almost into morning, descendants dissipated, he and I took an undisturbed walk. We held hands. Drunk in rural darkness the following evening, parked by an irrigation canal where lettuce and alfalfa bud, what used to monopolize our thoughts was put on hold. Someone new but not new. I’ve known you forever, haven’t I?

Mt. Signal is on approach. The lone mountain watches over the desert and has an alias, El Cerro Centinela as it mostly occupies the Mexican side of the boundary line. It is a beacon for the clandestine that cross the desert’s harsh topography of hermetic snakes and prickly plants that upholster Highway 98. Farmland and cattle ranches begin to appear. The Baja based New River wearily floats swollen with pesticides, mother’s little helpers. I roll my window down and the scent of sweet onions pulls me toward the city limits. The pungent manure makes me slightly ill. The air burns at my face. The window goes back up. The outskirts have expanded into track home developments and superstores with super low prices. Some of the farmers moved away to higher elevation; they gave up taming the desert.

I once told my mother that I, a bohemian citizen of the world would never ever fall in love with any local Mexican boy who would just knock me up and force me to iron his underwear. Too many friends of mine became pregnant before they graduated from high school. I used to see children as a life sentence when my only ambition was to escape the Imperial Valley.

There is however an unfortunate nonsense that occurs when you start sleeping with someone and they intrinsically know you. He even went through the trouble of assuring me that he did his own laundry. I was so relieved. And then it was over.

His wife summoned him back and I couldn’t really blame him. A young valley couple is what they were; there was nothing else to do but work the land, be a teacher, or cling to some government position. Throw in procreation and church going and you’re living the manifest destiny dream. She was pregnant; he wasn’t certain if it was his but they were still married and I was safely on the pill. They reconciled but the damage was done. I finished college and married the serious relationship, settling down in San Diego. I’m not in Valley anymore. I’d don’t live in Calexico. I’ll move on. In time I will forget.

I arrive to my destination, Calexico. Highway 98 intersects with Highway 111. Highway 111 morphs into Imperial Avenue and as I drive into civilization, there are so many gas stations and mini marts to choose from. Do you need foreign currency? Dollar to Peso, Casa de Cambio exchanges are at your service, those embroidered peasant dresses and tequilas hatched in Guadalajara await. Hungry? The Chinese restaurant with $4.99 lunch specials is to your right but it’ll make fingers swell. McDonalds, Jack In the Box, and Church’s Chicken are now accepting EBT credit cards but I’d rather mourn the fallen, the twenty-five cent Hamburger Stand that soared to forty-five cents and crashed, the abandoned Foster’s Freeze ending its run after forty glorious years, never once changing its menu but grossed me out when the guy serving my chocolate dipped ice cream cone had the dirtiest finger nails I ever did see. Let us also lament that clever drive thru liquor store that used to hand you a Clamato preparado and a mini me bottle of vodka, otherwise why would anyone bother? Oh, and if you’re really going to cross that international border that is fast approaching, pick up some Mexican auto insurance, it’ll protect you from car damage but not the mordida, you’ll need to hand over to the Mexican police. Last stop before I turn left, the duty free store I once tried to cheat by buying a bottle of rum and taking an abrupt U-turn back toward Calexico, getting caught by a fat clerk who ran out into the middle of Imperial Avenue and took a photo of my car’s license plate. Strangely, I never did get a ticket, a phone call or even a out of breath fuck you.

He and I never moved on but we certainly tried. The advent of social media, prehistoric  My Space and Facebook, the ultimate lost connection king that even grandma can use kept us in the same universe yet had us segregated by uploaded images of beaming families enjoying their vacation on a beach ugly feet crossed, beer in hand. Look everyone we’re relaxed! Feigning joy at children’s birthday parties where caked out kids pop balloons and stain the carpet. After a few drinks, in comes a private message,“Damn, our kids are grown, I guess we should count our blessings we made such beautiful children with our spouses, right? How are you?”

A couple of years ago, a descendant dropped dead in Calexico and all the familiar families came to pay their respects. I stood alone in the back of the church behind the glass that separated the attentive parishioners from the antsy ones. He arrived late. He walked across the last empty pew with the same slow gait and hand in pocket, dark eyes bouncing around looking for someone. He didn’t see me. With social media, you can chose to choreograph what you post if you’re not too smashed or emotional but in person you cannot suppress the authenticity of the unexpected. Once he peered through the glass he couldn’t halt the look he gave me, the one where he still wants to undress me even as the statue of the Virgin Mary was a few feet away giving him the stink eye.

We were more haggard but smarter. That night, we made very sure the lights were dimmer but it felt the same way as it always did. “You still smell like the same perfume.”  He said. His hand glided down my torso, “Habits are hard to break, aren’t they?” Adding rhetorically, “This is the body of a mother?” His stubble still chafed my skin. Colorado, coloring me red. We’re setting fire to the America’s Winter Garden, aren’t we?

As I continue my drive, it occurs to me that I am not used to this awful dreadful heat anymore. Its 115 degrees outside. My car sobs cold air through its vents.  I don’t have anywhere to be yet and getting out of my car is risky. I don’t want to sweat. My makeup is perfectly applied. My family gave up on Calexico for softer climates and anonymity. I could reach out to friends but the only excuse I have for being here is cleaning my grandparent’s gravestone. It’s an unbearable season, the natives have more than likely evacuated to the beach; none of them are here.

The text arrives. He’s predictably cryptic. I drive to the Library named after the local D.E.A agent who was tortured by a drug cartel. I spent summer afternoons hidden away in the children’s wing, running my fingers along shelves of colorful books and sitting in front of the midget stage watching a dull puppet show. It’s empty now. Do children spend there summer in the Library anymore?

I walk past the children’s wing and find an enclosed desk in the adult section. I can hear the Librarian’s quiet voice. She was talking to a police officer as he leaned against he book checkout counter.

“I’m not sure what he wanted, he just kept screaming.” She’s worried.

“I didn’t see where he went. He was probably just dehydrated, lots of the homeless suffer heat exhaustion if they don’t get indoors.”

The officer’s radio transmitter is searching for intelligent life from his hip. It’s a woman’s voice. I bet she’s indoors. A buzzing sound bounces against the acoustically challenged high ceilings. A man with down syndrome uses Windex to wipe down library desks. He groans but I think he is trying to hum as he moves from desk to desk. I glance over and his eyes look like they are on the verge of closing as he rubs each desk with a red rag. He’ll be rhythm to locate my lover’s whereabouts.

It’s always a paper note. The text indicates the location of the note. Today, it’s in a book. Once I find the book’s coordinates; I’ll find the note. It’s his way of being playful. Daily, weekly and yearly routine brought on by marriage and children numb the senses, no one ever warns you and even if they had, would you have really listened? Getting thrown in this marital vat of acid causes you to mutate. And then you’re writing old girlfriends notes, leaving them in books.

He chose Drama in The Sun: Tales from the Imperial Valley. I flip through it and a folded paper falls out of page eighteen where there’s a poem written by a disgruntled pioneer, channeling a soothsaying, sentimental mouse.

 “The mouse told me my life was a failure And I was a bum. If you don’t do some rustling fellow, you’ll starve to death, chum….”

Seems like the pioneer rustled up some killer desert peyote. I pick up the note off the floor. It says,

Meet me in Mexicali. Walk across. I’ll meet you at the Hotel Del Norte. 6pm. Besos, M             

From the United States side, the Hotel Del Norte looks like it’s behind prison bars. I could scale the border fence, climb over a line of feverish cars waiting to cross into Calexico and I’d be at the hotels entrance in less than five minutes. I lost my virginity at the Hotel Del Norte. I can’t remember if I ever told him. I look at the writing on the back.

Ps: No, we aren’t staying at the place where you lost your virginity.

They call Calexico and Mexicali twin cities. There are two ports of entry, east and west. The west port of entry is downtown; a block from what was once my grandparent’s home, now an empty office building where I park my car. I begin to walk and the air is heavy despite the evening rolling in. Breathing takes time. There are so many small stores that sell the same Made in China nothing. Each day, my grandfather took this same route to his banking job in Mexicali. I try to imagine him walking past me in his creme colored suit after a long day of doing business in his native tongue. He’d be disappointed I was having an affair but at least he knows the boy’s family. That was always my family’s first question whenever I dated someone, “Do we know who he is? Oh god, he’s a gringo? Is he Catholic? No? And you’re not going to marry in the church? Pero como, aye Catalina, it won’t last!

It didn’t. I am the one that’s separated now.

The United States Inspection Station is a concrete cylinder spaceship with beady eyed second story windows. The fountain at the entrance is no longer operational. It is a clock shaped fountain with tiled salamanders swimming at the bottom avoiding Darwinism as who would want to evolve into this purgatory climate? Pushing past the metal turnstile gate, I walk through a tunnel of Mexican ice cream and luggage shops. I glide past the Mexican inspection officer. He asks nothing of me. There is hardly anyone going to Mexicali at this time of day. Up a steep flight of stairs and presto change-o, I’m in another country, separated by a tall rusted fence. The transient shuffle quickly to their destinations. They’re too smart to breathe exhaust fumes or get diverted into a corner that smells of rotting garbage because they stared too long at a pagoda erected in honor of Chinese immigrants.

I wait outside the Hotel Del Norte while Banda music blares from the pharmacy next door. As the tuba carries the baseline it reverberates throughout my body.  Ten minutes go by and my long brown hair is dripping. I am worried my make-up will go abstract art on me. Oh god, discretion is such a bitch and here’s friendly reminder, don’t have an affair in a city where the prevalent word to describe the summer here is infierno.

He finally pulls up and opens his truck door from the inside. He’s wearing a baseball cap and his mannerisms are no smoother than the awkward teenager that took my virginity at the Hotel Del Norte. I wonder if they knew each other.

 “Sorry I’m late, oh and by the way,  my air conditioning’s busted. At least the library was cool, right?”

I am drenched in my own sweat. At least it’s perfumed sweat. Why am I wearing black? Oh yeah, it’s slimming. I pick up an empty can of soda on the truck’s floor and throw it at himHe laughs and pulls my face right against his. His face is just as sweaty as mine.

“So it was Library this time.”

We had been silent in bed for a while. The hours of sex shushed us. I’m brushing my lips up against his nipple, my head perched on his chest. My earrings are all that’s left of my dressing and need to take them off. It’s so unnecessary, I can’t enjoy the moment. From the oval mirror hanging on the wall, I can see him in bed staring at me as I lay my earrings on the dresser, those deep lines around his mouth accentuated by his five o’clock shadow. Fresh new carpet smell permeates the hotel room, its antiseptic scent rises from the ground. A thin film of whatever soap or antiperspirant he used today coats my body.

 “I couldn’t choose anywhere outside cause heaven forbid that body of yours gets scorched.”

We’re in a hotel in far from the border crossing in what used to be miles of scalding earth, now flourishing gated communities that guard against kidnappings and offer steam punk brew pubs and newly erected dealerships that sell European cars assembled just a few miles away.

“How’d you come across the book?”

I’m directing my question to the mirror. The mirror replies by granting my wish. He walks over and wraps his arms around my hips. His profile is against mine. He smiles and closes his eyes. I open mine. He opens his. I close mine. I know what we are doing. We don’t keep any photos together so we’re taking a mental picture of what we look like as a couple.

“I chose the book because it’s about the valley. Know where you came from, Catalina, as much as you like to try, you can’t escape.”

He buries his face on my neck. I’m so happy, I just know he’s going to ruin it.

“And you’ve become such a wimp when it comes to summer in the desert, I wanted you to read about real suffering.”

And there it is.

“You are so romantic and thoughtful.”  I nod my head no.

He carries me into bed. I’m not a waif anymore but giggle like one. He pulls the stiff new sheets over us and we enter into the familiarity of our ecstasy. It all goes dark; his arms are around me. All I hear is “I just can’t stay away  from you” and then we sleep.

I wake up alone. Did this really happen? I assure myself by smelling the pillow his head was on. He let me sleep. He probably told her he was working late. She’s probably suspicious but has given up just as I did with my marriage. Or maybe she’s indifferent. We never talk about it so I wouldn’t know. He leaves me a note to tell me that he was there. He knows what I’m thinking.  I love you my dear, please do not ever forget that.

 A car is waiting for me. I will walk back across to Calexico and not see him for weeks.

People fall in love, people get married and people die all the time, it’s nothing that sacred. I’m sitting in the cemetery drinking coffee and cleaning my grandparent’s slab. I once read an article about local pioneers who died of illnesses easily curable today. They’d probably be pissed if they knew. It listed their names and cause of death. It was the usual stuff like tuberculosis that led to consumption. Heat exhaustion that I thought I was dying of yesterday because my dumb shit lover was late and needs to get his car serviced. Postpartum hemorrhage which makes me feel guilty about complaining about the diaper I wore after I giving birth. Dysentery, botulism, gastroenteritis and the intentional stuff like suicide, poisoning, stab and gunshot wounds oh, and the random “thrown out of wagon and a disc plow wheel ran over his head” death. I bet some of them fell in love more than once, possibly married the wrong person at some point too. I bet they had regrets and compared to today, it was probably harder to change those regrets, to uproot, to shift, to start over. But the again, they did reach below sea level, didn’t they?

The summer weeks have blurred by and once again it’s time to go on my scavenger hunt to find him. On this drive, I am caught in a summer storm, the winds are blowing manically through the canyons as I struggle to steer downhill. I don’t know if I will get through this descent. I’m almost at Sea Level, I keep repeating. It’ll be flat before I know it and soon I will see the unobstructed view of this once untamed land with promise, now just a ball of corrosive ventures. If I survive, I will sit him down and we will resolve this painful distance, our elusive time and the lingering life we created apart that is keeping us from being together. Love conquers all, right? Spanish counterpoint, Amor de lejos, amor de pendejos: long distance love affairs are for fools. Forward, backward, so many things are wearing me down. The ex nickel and diming me as he finally lost his complacency and those pesky fifteen pounds. Looking healthy and well dressed just to spite me but it never would have happened had I not pushed him away. Enter the Greek chorus, the judges on America’s Got Divorces, they chant, “He‘s better off, why just look at him!”

Would my lover’s wife be looking at his phone as they watched T.V together at the very precise moment I wanted to tell him about the Moroccan wine I sipped for the first time, or the dark but funny fairytale I read my children or how I miss him and want to see him more often? Does anyone talk over the phone anymore? Lying in bed alone at night, deciphering the misconstrued, decoding the Egyptian Hieroglyphs, I want him to hear my voice as I tell him that our texts feel stilted, clipped. I am exhausted. Maybe I should just scream at him and demand, Come and get me, get your head out of your ass, pull the fucking trigger, rip the band-aid off, cry over the spilt milk later. What the fuck are we waiting for? The car sways back and forth, nodding its head in disapproval like everyone else would. Keep it together, you need to be reasonable but I don’t know if I will survive tonight. I may lose control of this car. I may slip off the road, now you see me, now you don’t and none of my deep affections, my longing, my intense feelings, the ones that kept me distracted as my children fought, as I tried to finish some monotonous chore, read a book, watched a movie would be relevant anymore. They will disappear with me.

He once left a note at the cemetery. It’s convenient when your dead relatives are buried in the same place. The note said, “Meet me back at your room at the Holiday Inn. I watched you get into your car and snuck past you. Room 256 in case you forgot.” He left it on my great-grandmother’s headstone. She was a Catalonian blue-eyed blind woman. I didn’t know her personally. It was said that the only reason her son, my grandfather married my grandmother was because she felt the shape of my grandmother’s legs and approved. If only it was that simple.

If I don’t make it, I wonder if he will leave notes on my grave? Will they be notes or will they turn into long letters declaring his undying love, remorseful of our inability to be together permanently? Oh goddammit, I’m starting to tear up now; I didn’t know that when you think you are about to die your happiest moment kicks like a continuous loop. I mean who would really want to know that? They’re about to die for fucks sake. I will live the following over again, reaching below sea level, feeling the anticipation, the exit, the thirty-three, meandering through town, the text, the note search, the find, the meeting, the mutual embrace, the mischievous look on our faces as we position ourselves, the weight of your lean body against mine, the silence after, the sleep, the warmth, the logic behind our lies, the how we strayed for so many years, the brief passing of anger, disappointment and mutual resentment, your arms temporarily tighten when this happens but you always return back to me with that voice of yours that almost sounds like a whisper, the moan as you kiss me, it feels so vibrant after so many years of dormancy, the night, the closing of the hotel curtains, the you, the me, and the valley.

I never did like driving in bad weather especially when I descend into the Valley. I’m afraid of heights and I am really a terrible driver. The sun has set and Highway 98 will not be an option, it’s too isolated if I get a flat. I’ll stay on the Interstate and pull over to grab coffee once I see a gas station. I know there’s one next to the Desert Museum that celebrates the indigenous who drifted through the Yuha desert before any pioneer. I once wandered in there as I was waiting for him, as usual. It had its own guided sign,

Those around me will know my connection to this place.  Everything that flows in this land. Has flowed through my blood. My Eyes, My Breath and My Heart. – Campo Kumeyaay Nation                               

I’ll call him. He can always send me to voicemail if he’s busy. I mean who cares, right? No one ever listens to voicemail anymore.