When You Cross the Border
3rd Place Prizewinner
Molly Greeley attended Michigan State University, where she was nominated for and won the Louis B. Sudler Prize for Creative Writing. Her work has been published in “Cicada” magazine, and she is currently attending Johns Hopkins University’s M.A. in Writing program part-time. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two troublesome cats.
When your mother refuses to talk to you after your marriage, you will turn to your husband and say, “She’ll come around to us in time.” You will say this after she has recoiled in horror from his Catholicism, after she has cried about how young you are, and after she has slammed the door in your faces so hard that the mezuzah on the doorframe shook. You will run hand-in-hand with your husband to the sputtering car parked in front of your parents’ house, and he will hold you when you start to cry. You will love him with everything inside of you because he doesn’t care whether you are Jewish or Catholic or follow a hippie shaman out in the desert of Arizona—he only wants you, and you only want him, and you will think that there is nothing better in the world than that.
You will get a job at a bank, but you’ll only work for three weeks before you have to quit. “It’s my father,” your husband will say, his voice taut, hand trembling as it replaces the phone’s receiver in its cradle. “A heart attack.” And you will touch your cheek to his in a gesture of sympathy and silent support. His mother has asked for him to come home to Mexico for awhile; his brother will need his help wading his way through their father’s business affairs, learning how to run the business on his own. “It’ll be temporary,” your husband will assure you, but you’ll kiss his cheek and tell him not to be silly, Mexico will be the adventure you’ve been waiting for.
You’ll drive to reach Texas from Florida, sleeping in a run-down motel and eating bags of potato chips for lunch. Your husband will insist that you speak to him in Spanish; you will stumble over vocabulary that you don’t quite remember, and he’ll laugh and tell you that his family will love you.
Once you cross the border between Texas and Mexico, you will stare out the car window, your feet draped outside, leaning against your husband’s shoulder, feeling like somebody in a movie. Eventually, your husband will glance over at you and frown. “You might want to cover up,” he’ll say, and in his voice will be an unfamiliar note of disapproval. “It’s not like the States here. Girls don’t prance around in shorts like that with their legs on display.” You will look at him and say, “Okay,” and fold your jacket across your lap. You will think about packing the car with him, stuffing suitcases into the trunk, filling the backseat with things his mother asked for, about how he wanted you to take out some of your things, and how you refused. Now, on the drive, with your legs growing hot under the jacket, you will hear the overstuffed car groaning under the weight of its burden, and your husband will look at you once more over the rims of his sunglasses. “That’s your electric frying pan,” his eyes will say, and then, “That’s the hair dryer you needed.”
In Mexico, you will set up house in an apartment converted from his parents’ garage. You will put a rug on the concrete floor and a curtain between the bed and the kitchen table. You will hear your mother’s voice even across the border, turning up her nose at the bare brick walls, at the maid his mother has hired to clean the tiny room for you. “I wash my kitchen floor every day,” she will say. “Didn’t I teach you enough to do your own housework?” Only when his mother gives you a housewarming present—a room-warming present, really—a thick wooden statue of the Blessed Virgin, painted in bright colors, to stand on your bedside table, will your mother finally stop talking.
He will spend his days poring over books of accounts with his brother as they try to straighten their father’s business out together, and you will wander the city with his mother and sister-in-law, buying fruit and rice and meat and stopping to speak to other women you pass. Your years of high school Spanish will not help you here, and you will stand by, listening to the whir of their voices and reviewing verb forms in your head. You will be grateful to his mother for her English when she breaks away from the cluster, puts an arm around your shoulders and tells you, “Come, let’s return. I’ll show you how to make perfect tortillas.”
Later in the brightness of her kitchen you’ll plug in your electric griddle and his mother will smile at you when you tell her that you thought it might come in handy. As she sets tortillas onto the hot griddle to cook, you will tell her about how you spent the days before you left Florida looking up Mexican culture and Mexican recipes in the library, and about how irritated your husband was by all the hassle the griddle and all of your other things cost him.
You will watch the tortillas puff slightly as they cook, and you will watch his mother’s ropy hands rolling the dough with such energetic efficiency that you’ll be put in mind of your own mother, so suddenly that your breath will catch. You will see her hands with a thin gold wedding band and smooth oval nails braiding dough for challah bread with an ease born of long practice; you will remember how she can drop dense matzo balls, one by one, into a simmering stockpot of chicken broth and vegetables with quick deft movements. You will miss her then, terribly, but along with the sadness you will still be so angry, so angry that she is so close-minded, and you will fist your eyes until the image of her hands disappears.
His mother will turn to you, holding a steaming tortilla aloft, and hug you once more around the shoulders. “Eh, he’s a man,” she’ll say, picking up your conversation with the same effortlessness with which she turns the tortillas to brown each side. “He doesn’t understand how important a really good griddle is. But I know—” giving the tortilla a shake and setting it down on a warm towel. “I know how lucky I am to have received such a smart daughter.”
After a few weeks you will start dressing like your sister-in-law, in square-necked blouses stitched in bright colors. Your Mexican adventure will feel far more romantic in these clothes, less dull and everyday—you will know that he has work to do, but sometimes, staring at siesta time out across the deserted, dusty street, with sleep miles away, you will wonder how his father could possibly have left his business affairs in such a tangle to begin with—and then your husband will smile at you and dance with you across the apartment’s concrete floor. “I need a rose for my teeth,” you’ll say, and he’ll laugh and shake his head.
“Wrong country—nobody does that around here.”
The door will open and his brother will step inside, eyes covered. “I heard noises from in here—is it safe to peek?” he’ll ask, and you’ll blush and still be laughing when you realize that your husband is gone, back to his books.
One day your husband will say to you, “Shouldn’t you at least tell them where you are?”
You’ll give him a searing look and turn away. “I will sometime,” you’ll say. “But it’s too soon now. I’m still angry.” And then you will return to the pork you are cutting for stew, ignoring your mother’s sharp intakes of breath.
His mother will give you the letter on the Day of the Dead. She and your sister-in-law will have been busy in the kitchen making sugared confections to offer their dead relatives; you will have sat watching them for hours, vaguely bored after the novelty of their artistry has worn off. “I wrote to your parents,” his mother will say suddenly, looking boldly into your startled face. “And I just got a letter from them. I couldn’t stand thinking about your poor mother, not knowing where her daughter has been all these months.” She will hand you an envelope, unopened, and you will take it silently into your apartment to read in private.
Your mother’s letter will be angry, frightened, and you will crumple it into a ball and start to cry, sagging into the room’s only chair. How could you—? she will begin, and you will feel your anger welling up once more. Selfish! Irresponsible! she will write, and you will think, “Close-minded! Prejudiced!”
And then the anger in her voice will drop away. I was so afraid that you were gone for good, she will say, and, Why haven’t you called? And finally, Make sure you thank Mrs. Vargas for taking you under her wing there. Make sure you help her with meals, and setting the table. I’m sure you are, but—please remember to keep kosher, though I know it will be harder without our two sets of dishes. Give Mrs. Vargas my thanks for writing. And I hope that you will call or write sometimes, too.
Later, after you have read the letter over several times, your husband will still be in the office with his brother, and there will be no one but you to answer the door when someone knocks. You’ll be unprepared for the crowd of children standing there, sacks out-thrust, homemade masks making them almost frightening against the fading sunlight. You will try to tell them in broken Spanish that you don’t have any candy, but they will only clamor more loudly, until you take a paper sack full of oranges off of the kitchen counter and pass them out one by one. The heavy fruit will make their sacks bulge grotesquely, and you will stand, clutching your mother’s wrinkled letter in one hand, as the children shuffle off. They will cast disgusted looks at you over their shoulders and you will feel guilty, thinking of how you used to love Halloween, listening to their muffled, outraged cries of “Naranjas!” fade away.
If your husband were there with you, you will realize, the two of you would have laughed together about the children’s disgust. You would have laughed about how badly you both would have reacted when you were children to some bumbling person giving you Halloween fruit rather than Halloween candy. Instead, you will storm into the office where he sits with his brother, not discussing business, as you expected, but drinking warm bottles of beer and chuckling about something in Spanish. They will not notice you standing in the doorway, so you will move so that you are standing in front of them and shout, “How could you not tell me children here trick-or-treated?”
He will guide you by the arm out of the office and through the house until you’re standing once more in your apartment, and his voice will be very reasonable when he says, “What?”
When all of the sensible things you wanted to say to him rush out of your head, when you manage to both turn away from him and at the same time fall into his arms when you begin to cry, when all you can do is wail, “She hopes I’m at least keeping kosher!”—you will know that you have to go back. He will manage to be both hurt and supportive, and you will accept his offer to drive you back himself. “It’ll only be to get things straightened out,” you’ll promise, but you will avoid the eyes of the Virgin Mary when you say this.