“Fuck me,” Carter sighed as the strip-mall signs flashed by, yellowed transparent ovals covered indifferently with generic line drawings and fading public-domain fonts, “Christopher Columbus was right, you know? He was just early.” From the passenger seat, Marisol scrunched her face at him in the expression that he had come to think of as no comprendo.
“What do you mean, Columbus was early?” Carter flicked on his turn signal and slowed the rental car before making a hard right.
“I mean, look at the names of the storefronts. ‘India Bazaar’. ‘India Grocery’. ‘Amul India’. And that mini-mart, it used to be a United Dairy Farmers, now it’s just a generic Indian mini-mart. The name… they probably picked it out of a hat or a turban or whatever. What I’m saying is that Columbus came here from Spain looking for India, right? He was so stuck on it that he used the name “Indians” for the Native Americans who lived here. Well, if he came here now he’d have all the bona fide Indians he could stand. He just got here too early.”
“I don’t understand,” Marisol replied, in a deliberately level tone clearly meant to counteract the riding tide of his agitation. “I see also a Hertz Car Rental, and a Pro Golf Unlimited. It is not all India theeeeees and India thaaaaat.”
“You,” Carter stated with resignation, “are the dumbest God-dammed bitch on this planet.” Marisol looked straight ahead and said nothing back. The silence stretched for long moments as they passed the graffiti-covered brick end-cap of the mini-mart. Carter coughed, once, in place of an apology. “Since we’re here,” he said, “I might as well show you the old neighborhood.”
Down the mile-long squiggle of the subdivision’s main drag, the duplexes sat crooked and forlorn, the uneven sinking of their foundations exaggerated by calf-deep thickets of mongrel tall fescue mixed with dandelions gone to seed. Thirty years ago, these were rented by young people with Camaros and Daytonas and Z-cars; they boomed stoner-rock late into the night with Cerwin-Vega ferocity. Carter and his friends would contrive to ride their bicycles home late from the United Dairy Farmers on weekend nights so they could observe the parties starting, the kegs rolled out of minitrucks and the impossibly pretty girls walking in with their teased-up hair and parachute pants stretched tight. Now the sidewalks on which they’d ridden were buckled and broken, traversed with patient and sorrowful dignity by furtive clumps of dark-skinned women and children in headscarves and shapeless robes decorated seemingly at random with silk and sequins. The driveways that had teemed with two-door Japanese metal were mostly empty now, occupied by repurposed indoor furniture and piled trash. The few cars in evidence seemed to all be decade-old Toyotas, dented at every corner.
The harsh impact of a pothole shook Carter’s sneer into a bite of the lip; a single drop of blood rolled down his chin and he winced more from the embarrassment of it than the pain. “My idiot brother ran into a pizza delivery guy right over there, you know. He saw a woman jogging along the sidewalk on the right side of the road and he was so busy watching her that he ran right into this guy’s Tercel.” Marisol did not reply. She had what amounted to a credit balance with him, courtesy of his previous comment and two more like it from the previous night. If she replied without rancor it would signal the cancellation of his obligations. This game was only slightly younger than their relationship as a whole. It would not be won, or lost, today.
Anxious to draw out the time before they arrived at their destination, and feeling oppressed by the relentless dilapidation on all sides, Carter turned right again, this time down a long street of single-family homes. There had been a girl at the end of this street, a stunning brunette, fifteen years old, razor-sharp of features and C-cup busty in an era before every teenaged girl had deep fat tits from a diet consisting entirely of Cheetos and cow hormones. Every kid in the neighborhood would have chewed glass to hold this girl’s hand but she’d fallen in love with some trailer trash from the downtown city schools. At some point the boyfriend’s father actually beat him hard enough to break his nose. So he’d run away from home and amazingly the girl’s parents let him move in with them. The girl and the boyfriend shared a bedroom. At the age of fifteen. In the summer afternoons they would sit on the stoop of her house and chat with Carter and his pals like Carolingian nobility receiving distinguished guests, sometimes pausing to whisper to each other in the sparse, knowing tones of people who possessed the ancient and sacred knowledge of what it was like to fuck and then fall asleep next to each other.
Once Carter and his friends had been sitting around a table at the UDF, talking about a Nintendo game, when Carter’s older brother, a supremely sullen and bitter six-footer with raging acne and a zest for self-destructive behavior, suddenly stood up, turned, and ran toward the exit door. “I think I’m gonna ride over there and beat him to death,” he yelled over his shoulder, by way of explanation. Everybody knew, instinctively, that “he” was the boyfriend. Carter and his friends pedaled hard after his brother like a trail of BMX ducklings. When they got to the house, Carter’s brother was sitting on the stoop with his head in his hands. “Nobody’s home. I should wait. Ah, fuck it, I’ll kill him tomorrow.” There had been a lot of days that went something like that.
The house where the girl had lived was sunburned to cornflower from its original deep blue; the mailbox leaned despondently into the street. “This whole place has become a shithole,” Carter declared. “I mean, it was bad when we lived here. It was always where the poor people in this school district lived. But it wasn’t this bad. Shit, I wonder what our apartment looks like.” He envisioned the worst; maybe they’d torn it down, maybe it had undergone one of those cheap-but-cheerful renovations that just made things worse.
But when they arrived at the entrance to the three cul-de-sacs of his old townhouse complex, there was a new sign and the grass was both homogenous and level around the mostly decent-looking brick buildings. The parking lot was almost entirely empty of cars, but there were dark-robed children running to and fro with no visible purpose. He pulled into the spot where his mother used to park, then turned to Marisol. “My sister had her own room, but my brother and I had to share a crummy ten-by-twelve bedroom. There was one shower for all of us, plus mom. The carpenter ants never stopped, regardless of the season. As you can see, we didn’t even have a garage. We didn’t even have a full basement.”
“It seems nice,” Marisol replied, slowly, after calculating that her credit balance could survive this brief relaxation of hostilities. “In my hometown, in Mexico, all the children had one room to share. There were seven of us when I was ten years old.”
“Well,” Carter replied, “that isn’t how things were done here. My friends lived in real houses. That didn’t have common walls with people who fucked and played their boomboxes all night. They had their own rooms. They took Christmas trips. And Spring Break. To Vail. And Daytona Beach. Meanwhile, I lived in this rathole, too fucking poor to do any of that.” Marisol gave him a funny look, one related to no comprendo but not precisely like it.
“Mi amor, I know you are sad about this. But I… I would give anything to live this life, as a child. You have these nice clean places, and places to run, and play. When I was ten years old, my uncle shot my cousin in the hallway outside my bedroom. It was over a small amount of coca, maybe a hundred grams, do you know grams? Maybe less. At night I would hide in the corner of the room and hope that my older brothers, who already smelled and spoke like men, would not hurt me the way they hurt other girls in our building. We did not always have something to eat, mi amor.” Now it was Carter’s turn to look forward and say nothing. Except he couldn’t just say nothing, could he?
“That’s great, Marisol. Well, it’s not great. You know what I mean. But things here… well, they were fucked. They were bad. I don’t expect you to understand.” There was a BANG! against his door and he jumped as if he’d been struck. A dark face appeared outside his window and he drew back his fist in angry defense. But it was just a child, holding a ball and bowing in what seemed to be apologetic fashion. “Jesus! Some fucking kid. This whole place looks like one of those fuckin’ late-night shows where they tell you that a kid can eat rice for just twelve dollars a day after shipping and handling. Well, we can look at the park before we go.”
It was a ten-minute bike ride to the park, but it was also a ten-minute drive that stretched out to twice that; Carter’s sense of navigation through his old neighborhood was heavy on backyard shortcuts and light on actual roads, causing him to backtrack a few times before they wound up at the dead-end street leading to the park. The two of them stepped wordlessly from the car and began walking towards playground equipment that had been new in Carter’s youth but now looked rusty and just plain dangerous.
“We had good times here,” he said, more to himself than to her. “There was this old guy — well, he was twenty-two — and his parents had owned all this land. He was rich, he had zilch to do, so he was all-time quarterback. Like, uh… there’s no soccer equivalent, it just means he was always in charge.” The benches around the playground were crooked and missing a few wooden slats; they were also crowded with people speaking an alien tongue. The air stank of sweat and spice and unwashed ass beneath yards of wrapped fabric. The field on which Carter had played football was knee-high with junk weeds. Perhaps twenty people, all veiled or hooded, wandered back and forth through it as if searching for a missing cat.
“This is a very nice park. We did not have anything like this, no place to run in the open air.” Surely Marisol was taunting him at this point. Carter realized, somewhat belatedly, that all the conversation in the park had stopped. A group of teen boys was sitting on the concrete bench beneath the shelter house a few dozen yards away. Thirty-some years ago, he’d felt his first actual breast there, courtesy of the girl who lived next to the park and was famous for going to second and even third base almost immediately after “going steady” with someone. Had they even gone steady? He couldn’t remember. The boys were giving him what were apparently meant to be hard-assed looks. Carter sneered at them and the biggest of the boys jumped off the bench.
“Oh, look at you,” Carter spat. “Sit your ass back down, tough guy, before I break your fuckin’ jaw in front of your homeboys.” The kid didn’t move so Carter took a few steps in his direction and he quailed a bit in response, stepping behind one of the kids who was still seated on the bench. “What are you gonna do?” Carter yelled. The act of confrontation broke some kind of dam in him and he found himself screaming. “This is my neighborhood, you little bitches! I sat right there where you are! And we had some pride in the place! We didn’t let it get like…” and he waved his hands to indicate the scene around him, “… this! This was a shitty place, you know, but you people made it a thousand times worse! Just… go the fuck back to wherever you’re from, why don’t you?”
“Did choo just really say that?” It was Marisol, screaming at his back! “Did choo chust really say to go back when I am from? You don’t even liiiiiive here anymore and you want to tell them theeees and you want to tell them thaaaat? Well how do you feel about me? I was poor like these people! No! It was worse for me! These people are reeeeech compared to me! But you want to come back here and tell them, maybe tell me too, where to live and what we are going to do? Why don’t you maybe look at yourself just one time, and tell me who you are to tell them these things?”
The air surrounding them was dead and charged at the same time, like the stillness between cloudbursts. Carter took a deep breath. “Fuck you,” he said, pointing at the boys under the shelter, “fuck you,” he repeated, pointing at the families huddled near the playground equipment, “and most of all,” turning and pointing his finger in Marisol’s face, “fuck you. I’m not responsible for… all this trash. Welcome to America, I guess. Turn out the fuckin’ lights when you’re done with it.” For one luminous moment he considered driving away and leaving Marisol to be gang-raped by whatever branch of ISIS was forming over there at the shelter house but by the time he reached the car he was content to sit there in seething disdain until she opened her door and took a quiet seat.
When he switched on the ignition the music started blasting, this Mexican rock-rap garbage that he’d put on his phone in an effort to cross a couple of cultural and generation gaps with Marisol. He punched the volume knob, which achieved the desired result but also bloodied his hand. For the next forty-five minutes he rubbed the raw parts of it on his wool trousers. Then they were at the hotel. He handed over the keys. “Bring the luggage,” he snapped at the valet, then strode into the foyer.
“Mr. Carter, how nice to see you again,” the desk clerk simpered. “I have you for three nights on the rooftop, city view.” Carter paused as he was seized by an idea.
“I’ll take the other side. Facing north.”
“Ah, that is reserved for an incoming —”
“Fix it,” Carter interrupted. “My father rowed crew with your CEO. If you like, I’ll write down his personal phone number, from memory, right now, and you can call him at home right now, then explain to him why you wouldn’t switch my room like I’ve very reasonably asked.”
“Sir, there’s no need for that —”
“You’re fucking right there’s no need. Like your man Colin says, just do it.” Marisol was a shadow behind an unpleasantly elaborate water feature, but she followed him into the elevator and rode with him to the top. Once they were in the room, Carter put his finger in her face. “You can get with the program, and put on a dinner dress,” he told her, in a quiet and flat voice, “or you can sleep in the extra room while I fuck some local talent off Tinder. Es no importante to me.” Then he slid a glass door open and walked out onto the balcony. His old neighborhood was ten miles away, dead ahead. Carter unzipped his fly and pissed over the railing. “Too bad it won’t reach all the way there,” he said, to no one in particular, “but this will do.” Then he leaned back against the glass and stared up at the sky.
He was angry, but why? It was all about migrations, when you thought about it. All those Indians, migrating here and opening their restaurants, settling into the same places that had once held the bright, clean stores of his youth. The Africans and the Middle Eastern crowd, descending like locusts on the homes and fields where he’d slept and fought and played and loved. Marisol’s migration, from the slums of El Loco Shitsville, Mexico, to an exalted if occasionally difficult place by his side. And most of all, his own migration, from a two-bedroom townhouse to a suite that cost more for a day than that old hovel did for a month.
Each movement took space and left space. He’d left space and they’d taken it. No reason to be mad. He thought about how the faces around the boardroom table had fallen last month, when his new position had been announced. Then he laughed. How was he any different? What did his old neighborhood look like to the MBA sons of MBA fathers on the East Coast? The only difference was that he could cross borders out of power and talent and brilliance, not out of helplessness and need. He was the captain of his own refugee boat, and the prize wasn’t just a meal or a place to squat. “We’re the same!” he yelled, then he laughed long, hard, until he coughed and spat.
When he returned to the room, Marisol was standing in the dress he’d brought her from Rodeo Drive, her eyes smoky with anger but averting his in submission to the natural order of things. Magnanimous in victory, he took her hands in his and brought them up to kiss her knuckles, smiling the whole time.
“Let’s head down for a drink,” he whispered in her ear, leading her body with his like the dancer that he was culturally prohibited from being, “and I’ll tell you how I escaped that wonderful little neighborhood so I could shoulder that inevitable burden of respectability in which none of your friends, real or imagined, seem interested. Trust me, you’ll enjoy the story. But if you don’t,” he grinned, sweeping his hand towards her in a mock gesture of gallantry before spinning on one heel to the open door, “I can’t really bring myself to care.”