You used to be friends with this girl Carmen. Her mom died in a car accident when the two of you were still in high school. That afternoon, Carmen came home to cops and her aunt who’d flown in from Miami, then ran the two miles to your house and whispered, out-of-breath, “Ernesto, I need money.” You were fifteen then and didn’t have any money, but still you said, “Okay, let’s do it.” By let’s do it, you meant, Let’s steal from your piece of shit stepfather, and that you did—the two of you—breaking into his house through a window while he was still at work, knocking over a few things on your way to the basement, where Carmen’s stepfather kept a wad of cash buried under stacks of legal files. Carmen’s stepfather had left her mother nine months before. They were still technically married, though he fucked some girl on the side and wore his wedding ring the whole time. Carmen found a pair of hot pink panties in-between the couch cushions one day while scrolling through the channels on TV and told you about it after, saying she would never tell her mother; it would crush her.
It wasn’t enough, the money you and Carmen stole from her stepfather, but Carmen still beamed like she’d won the lottery as she stuffed the cash into the back pocket of her jean shorts. You ran to the nearest bus stop, Carmen lagging behind you, the thrill of running away finally wearing her down. When you reached the stop, you sat on the bench, and Carmen plopped down next to you, then slumped her shoulders. “Where to?” you said, still catching your breath. She shrugged. “The Grand Canyon. New York City. Anywhere but here.” You looked down at the money she’d retrieved from her back pocket, then looked back up at her.
Carmen was the first friend you’d made in this nothing town when you came here with Mamá from North Carolina. You were on the cusp of your thirteenth year, acne sprouting across your forehead and along your hairline. “We’re not going there to find Papá,” Mamá reassured you in Spanish, before the two of you boarded a plane to California. “He left us. He’s dead to me.” Your father did more than just leave. He abandoned your mother, while she was pregnant with your sister Sandra, and you, struggling to navigate a place that spit on your existence—kids at school asking, How high was it? that fence you jumped, you putting your head down and taking it like Mamá would want you to, despite your whole body urging you to get up and fight.
If you had chosen to fight, you would have fought like your grandfather who had been a matador in Mexico City decades before. Now your grandfather was dead and all the money he had saved—all the money Mamá had inherited—was gone. And you lived here, on the outskirts of better cities, better towns, in a wasteland with no future in sight. “¿Como?” you’d asked Mamá once in disbelief, wondering how someone as careful and meticulous as her could wash all that money down the drain. “Así lo es,” she’d said, but you knew it had something to do with your father. He’d taken Mamá out of Mexico and squeezed every drop of spirit, of vitalidad, from her blood. This is how it had gone down. You knew from the way your mother scrubbed the kitchen floors—too hard—like she could never clear the floors of their grime, never get them to shine the way she wanted them to.
You placed a hand on Carmen’s shoulder. “You won’t make it,” you said. “Not with that money.” Carmen studied the broken concrete, where weeds had grown from cracked parts. You looked up, instead, at the landscape that had swallowed your family whole, that would do the same to Carmen. In the distance, you could make out a sign built from old pine. It was shaped like a barn, bearing big white letters. Welcome to Wasco, it read, a nice place to live.
On the walk home, Carmen joined you in silence. You walked until concrete became dirt. You kicked up sand and ate it. This is how it always was walking home: your lungs expanding like an accordion to welcome the dust, you clearing your throat to fight it, coughing until you finally took it all in. Until the dirt became a part of you. This time, however, Carmen was beside you, drinking in dirt, too. “So,” you said, trying to conjure the adrenaline from before, “how crazy good did that feel?” Carmen was thinking about her mother. You had to distract her from the dreadful feeling that came with losing someone—the sense that your heart was sinking into your stomach and gradually unraveling in layers. “Did you feel powerful, taking something from that asshole?” She offered you a faint smile, and gave some disheartened reply like sure or yeah.
Carmen went home to her aunt, who stayed a year or two before going back to Miami. Her stepfather never reported the theft. “Do you think he knows?” Carmen had asked once on the walk home from school. “I don’t know,” you’d said, though you did know. Carmen’s stepfather had come to your house the day after her mother had died. “Probably not.” He pounded on your door, gripped you by your shirt collar, spit in your face as he cursed your kind, and called you a lowlife, a dirty fucking Mexican. You told him you didn’t know what the hell he was going on about and smirked to piss him off more as he yelled even louder, Yes you fucking do, you son of a bitch. So, you yelled, too. That was your wife, you disgusting piece of shit. The muscles in his face shifted. Veins bulged from his temples. He let go of your shirt with so much force you skidded across the sidewalk in front of your house and scraped up your knees and hands.
A month later, your scrapes had healed—a basketball accident, you’d told everyone who asked—and you went to the Rose Festival with Carmen. Your town was big on that: the roses. You went to the festival every year, but this was the first with Carmen. The festival put on a pageant, where they gave some girl a crown of roses and dubbed her the Rose Queen. There were concerts and art shows and tours through fields of roses. Look how beautiful, you would hear the townsfolk say year after year, all the rows of red and yellow and white. The roses distracted them from the barrenness of the town. They even distracted you. You watched people participate in chili cook-offs, tasted chili from every pot, and walked through the maze of roses, mesmerized by the endless sea of flowers. You drank in the colors, the soft petals, the smells. Every year, you would admit to yourself: the fields were pretty, the expanse of new bloom in September magical. Every year, the roses almost made you fall in love with the town.
After the festival, you and Carmen took a bus back to your neighborhood. You returned to a dark, empty house. You could hear your kid sister downstairs, watching cartoons. Your mother, you assumed, was attending evening mass. Carmen took your hand and said, “Let’s go upstairs and watch a movie.” You followed Carmen to your bedroom, allowing her to shut the door and guide you to your bed. Your heart struck hard against your chest. “What do you want to watch?” you asked, turning on the TV you bought off Craigslist the week before. Your mother hadn’t liked the idea of you bringing a TV into your bedroom, but you’d bought it with your own money—75 bucks on eBay—so it was your responsibility, not your mother’s. “Cálmate, madre,” you’d said to her. “It’s just a TV.” Then she’d scowled and called you pendejo or desgraciado or something else that basically meant the same thing. Any which way, you were still an asshole.
Carmen took the remote from your hand. She crawled closer to you, and put her lips on yours. You let her, not hating the feeling. Her lips were so soft you were afraid of bruising them. So, you pulled away and tucked loose strands of hair behind her ears instead. She avoided your gaze. You started to say something, but she was already slipping off her socks, her pants. She kept her t-shirt on. It was white with a Looney Tunes character printed on the front. “Maybe next time?” She gestured to the shirt. “Sure,” you said, trying to play it cool, and kept your shirt on, too.
You couldn’t stop looking at her underwear, the purple bow above the fabric. Sweat rimmed your forehead. You could feel your ears getting red. And you knew, as you were staring at that bow, you didn’t want to do this.
You thought of her mother, how she had been driving down a freeway just weeks before, maybe listening to something on the radio to distract herself, singing along in the absent, off-key way she usually did at home. She’d made up her mind before the drive. She’d pushed her daughter and the whole world she was leaving behind out of her thoughts. She’d kept driving—singing along to her favorite part of her favorite pop song—until it felt right. She’d pressed her foot harder on the gas, passed the cars in front of her, and swerved off the road, her car hitting a tree on her way down. She had died on impact. All she’d left behind was a note tucked behind a fridge magnet that read, Carmen, I tried for you. I love you. More than anything.
You pulled away from Carmen and said, “I don’t think—” She whispered, “It’s okay,” her face flushed red. “I want to.” You stroked her hair. She held your hand. “I’m fine,” she said. “I’ll be fine.” You kissed her forehead, her cheeks, her lips, and felt how slobbery it all was. “I’m sorry,” you whispered. She said, “It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine,” until she reached for your belt and you thought of her mother dead in that car again and stood up. Carmen ran to the bathroom down the hall, her pants trailing behind her. You heard the door lock. You heard her crying.
“Carmen?” you said, knocking on the bathroom door. You put your ear to it. “Listen, I didn’t mean to upset you. It’s just…Sandra is downstairs, you know?” She sniffled but didn’t say anything in response. “Well, to be honest,” you continued, “it’s not my sister I’m worried about. It’s you.” She was quiet in there, waiting for your voice to go on. “We’re good friends,” you said. “You’re the best I’ve got.” You didn’t know what else to say after that, so you told Carmen about the time your grandfather pardoned a bull, a story your mother used to tell you before bed. “I used to think Mamá was making this shit up,” you said, “but one day I found a newspaper clipping in one of Mama’s old photo albums. It was so ancient it almost crumbled in my hand. The article was in Spanish, with a black and white picture of my Abuelo Don Ricardo. It told the story of the bull he let get away. The bull fought so honorably, he was pardoned and allowed to return to his home ranch, to live the rest of his life in peace. El indulto. That’s what it’s called.” Carmen laughed, and you were relieved—finally, you thought, a sound from her! “Why are you telling me this?” she asked, sassy as always. “Because,” you said, “you like those Aesop’s fables and this story has a moral: when you fight a bunch of bulls, eventually you gotta let one go. I thought you would appreciate that.”
Years later, when you’re thirty-two, you learn you’re going to be a father and think of Carmen. You’re still living in the same town. Carmen never left either. You know where she works, where she lives, where she likes to go for lunch on the weekends, though you haven’t spoken to her in years. You tried to make it work once, after high school. You tried for a little over a year. You moved in with her, even started going to church with her, but you could never get over the traces of death threaded through her existence. Every time you got a moment alone in that apartment—when Carmen would go to the grocery store or out with friends—you would think of her dead mother. You would remember all the times her mother baked chocolate chip cookies when you were over and asked you how school was going. You would remember how, at fifteen, Carmen looked so much like her, how she looked even more like her mother now that she was older. Every time Carmen would return home, you would see through her and meet the ghost behind her eyes. Then, all at once, you would feel the spirits of everyone you’d ever lost.
When you finally left Carmen, you told her, “I’m not leaving, I’m letting go,” because you didn’t want to be like your father. You said, “It’s everything. You must feel it, too. And anyway, you shouldn’t be with someone like me. I’m cursed. It’s in my family’s sick blood.” Carmen wasn’t angry. She didn’t argue with you or cry or beg you to reconsider. “We’re better as friends,” you’d whispered, your lies rushing faster than a river without rocks or debris to slow it down. “Besides, look at me. I’m a dirty fucking Mexican. Things don’t work out for people like me.” Carmen didn’t bother telling you to quit your shit, that you were wrong.
Now that you’re going to be a father, you can’t be a fuckup. You have to reverse your history, reverse the curse you’ve given yourself. You have to look at yourself in the mirror, raise a toothbrush to your face, and point at your reflection with that fucking toothbrush like you would point a finger in someone else’s face. You have to tell yourself you’re a Mexican motherfucker. You’re a bull charging your opponent at full speed. Life can knock you down and keep punching, but God damn it you have to fight. You have to stay in that ring. Sure, the matador will pierce your side, your back, your heart, but you have to stand back up. You have to let the blood drip from your body, then tell yourself to look that motherfucking killer in the eyes, look until you see your reflection staring right back. And when he lifts his descabello to end it all, charge, you motherfucking bull. You charge, even when you’re not sure you’ll win the fight.