That Christmas was, in every respect, the horror Héctor had feared it would be.
Homesick, broke, unchurched (AveMaría, after the second round-trip drive to the Assemblies of God church in Lordsburg, had decided to hold a Sunday prayer service at home instead), cooped together like rats in a cage, the Villas, with the Juárezes, endured a holiday season that, Héctor reflected bitterly, was about as merry and joyous as Ramadan. On Christmas Eve, AveMaría, who had decided she could not bear the prospect of celebrating the birthday of Christ without giving, made a last-ditch shopping trip to El Paso, where she ran up $1,500 worth of credit-card charges at the malls. (“I know,” she protested when Héctor reminded her it was money they didn’t have. “But it’s less than half what we usually spend for Christmas, Panchito!”) Even Christmas dinner was spoiled for him when Beatriz, who wanted a honey ham, and AveMaría, who insisted on turkey, failed to come to agreement and the families compromised by taking themselves out to the Denny’s in Deming, where Héctor overheard Contracepción, on the way to the ladies’ room, giving the pimply young waiter her e-mail address, which she accessed on the new laptop her parents had given her for Christmas. (“He says they have karaoke in Deming, papaíto!”) The worst came that afternoon, when Beatriz, after listening to Contracep rehearse her Britney routine for three-and-a-half hours straight, had an hysterical fit that ended in her flinging her plastic champagne glass against the wall and grinding the CD player under her spiked heel. AveMaría rushed to defend her firstborn, and the two women grappled together, snarling from deep inside their chests like lionesses and yanking at each other’s hair and jewelry. When at last each retired in tears to her room and a semblance of peace had been restored, Jesús “Eddie” winked broadly at Héctor. “Looks like everyone’s going to live till morning. What say we run down to the Pink House for a coupla drinks, compadrito?”
For most of the week between Christmas and the New Year, the two women were hardly on speaking terms. The result was a sound vacuum Contracepción seemed more than eager to fill. To cope with the uproar of rehearsal, AveMaría resorted to earplugs, while Beatriz raised the volume on the TV to intolerable levels. The ensuing pandemonium drove Héctor and Jesús “Eddie” out of the house and down to the border, where they divided their time about equally between the line of invasion and the Pink House. As most of the Critter Company remained on holiday in the bosom of their families, the friends had the bar mainly to themselves, the local clientele, and Jacinta Ruiz, who seemed never to take a vacation, or even a day off, from work. From one day to the next, she was there to greet them: a slim but shapely figure in a bright print Indian dress that left her brown stockingless calves and ankles bare above leather sandals, the strength of her handsome face heightened by the severely pulled-back hair that exposed the delicate, perfectly formed ears decorated by pendants of silver, coral, and turquoise and emphasized the large liquid eyes, in which Héctor imagined he could perceive uncomprehending reproach. Her pertinacity in the face of rejection astonished him, as did her discretion. Any other woman, similarly scorned and losing all hope at last, would have accused him of improper behavior before his friend—and perhaps even the assembled house. But Jacinta, he told himself, was not just any woman. And so his heart went out to her, even as his mind drew back. He would have taken her in his arms at any moment, had his wrists not felt bound together at the small of his back. Vorrei, e non vorrei. She wanted so very badly from him something that he simply couldn’t bring himself to give her.
More than his absence from home and from his attenuated business—more even than the future of his besieged country—Jacinta Ruiz weighed on Héctor’s mind, and on his conscience. And then Fate interposed itself once again, and he found he had yet another worry to contend with.
Beginning a day or so after her mother’s row with Beatriz Juárez, Contracepción had kept increasingly to herself, huddled over her new computer when she was not engaged with the CD player. Héctor could not help noticing how secretive she seemed—even with Dubya, who pestered her a dozen times a day with requests to look up lion websites on the internet. His favorite was www.FatherOfLions.org, devoted to George Adamson and the many lions—among them, Elsa the lioness—he had adopted and acculturated to the Kenyan wild, with its elaborate index and numerous color photographs. To save time, Contracep had bookmarked the site for ready retrieval. In practice, retrieval proved too easy when Dubya, after observing his sister at the keyboard, managed to log on and go directly to the site as easily as she did, thus proving himself to be his father’s son. After that, Contracep guarded the laptop as girls in Héctor’s day used to protect their virginity. She was so fierce about it that her parents, exchanging anxious glances, began to fear their daughter might be exploring sites inappropriate to an innocent girl of thirteen. It never occurred to either of them that Microsoft Outlook Express, not Internet Explorer, might be the proximate threat to Contracepción’s morals.
At around eight in the morning at midweek, Héctor arrived home with Jesús “Eddie” after a night on the line, frozen and exhausted, to discover his wife standing, grim-faced and rigid, in the primitive kitchen.
“Why do you look at me that way, María?” he asked her. “If my breakfast isn’t ready yet, that’s OK. I’ll take my coffee first, while I wait.”
“Go to your daughter,” AveMaría said in a graveyard voice, indicating their bedroom with her chin.
“Ask her,” AveMaría told him.
For the first time in what seemed to him months, absolute silence obtained behind the bedroom door. Héctor, still with his hat on, went and knocked on it. Then, having received no answer, he opened the door and looked in. Contracepción lay sprawled across the bed, her face hidden in her arms.
“What’s the matter with you?” Héctor asked, sounding more harsh than he’d intended to. He had to ask twice before receiving the muffled answer.
“Mamá won’t let me go to Deming with Bo.”
“Who the hell is Bo, en el nombre de Díos?”
“Just . . . some guy. You met him. He works, like, at Denny’s.”
“You gave him your number. So he’s been calling you?”
“We’ve been e-mailing each other all week,” the girl pleaded. “He wants to take me to Deming tonight—you know, for karaoke at the community center. O papaíto, puh-leeze—I sing all the songs better than Britney ever did herself!”
It did not seem to Héctor that he could bear another crisis in his life.
“And how old is this tipo, I am asking?”
“He’s twenty-four. Very experienced for his age.”
“Contracepción—you won’t be fourteen till this summer!”
“But I’m old for my age—Jesús ‘Eddie’ says so! Anyway, I’m experienced, too! I was with Abdul Agha for, like, weeks!”
Had he not taken this by way of a taunt, perhaps Héctor could not have summoned the nerve to put his foot down as firmly as he did.
“Hija, you are not going any place with this man!” It was precisely in that instant that inspiration struck. “But if you truly wish to sing karaoke, then I—your father—will take you myself!” Jesús “Eddie” could go alone to the Pink House tonight, if it meant so much to him. Probably, he’d take advantage of Héctor’s absence to put the moves on Jacinta Ruiz himself. Well, so be it, and good luck to him! After weeks, Héctor had arrived at his decision without realizing he had made it. Every normal, healthy American adult had an affair at least once in his life. Therefore, not to have an affair was un-American. Very well, then: He, Héctor Villa, chose to be guilty of un-Americanism. He would not cheat on his wife! He felt unworthy and ashamed of himself, while understanding that it could not be otherwise. In his moment of crisis, he had accepted the ultimate challenge to his identity as a One Hundred Percent American—and failed miserably.
That evening, Héctor scarcely noticed the uproar of the karaoke concert, including the prominent part his daughter played in the affair. Since his decision was reached twelve hours before, he had conceived a plan that would formalize that decision by making it irreversible. In his preoccupied condition, Héctor found himself able almost to ignore Contracepción’s lack of modesty in performance and the ardor of the budding male vocal stars pressing round her.
AveMaría and Beatriz were highly enthusiastic about Héctor’s proposal that the two couples attend the New Year’s Eve party at the Pink House together, Jesús “Eddie” notably less so. Indeed, in their eagerness to solicit sartorial advice from each other and to compare the effects, the two women nearly forgot their quarrel of only a few days before.
The four of them traveled in Jesús “Eddie’s” crew-cab truck. Héctor had volunteered as designated driver. A winter storm with hard winds driving a dry snow that lay upon the highway like a dusting of winter seeds reduced visibility and caused Héctor to proceed with caution, greatly to Jesús “Eddie’s” impatience. Lit up like a Polish church, the Pink House, glowing in a ruddy nimbus of snow, looked more like a house of ill repute than ever. “¡Qué linda es!” AveMaría and Beatriz exclaimed together.
The place was surrounded by parked vehicles, and Héctor had to leave the Dodge at the opposite curb. He and Jesús “Eddie” handed the girls down and helped them, teetering on spike heels, across the frozen street between the potholes. Héctor was struck again, as he had been when AveMaría showed herself to him an hour before in her party dress, how lovely his wife looked that evening. Indeed, it seemed to him he had never been so proud of her. Comparing AveMaría with Beatriz, he could not help feeling sorry for Jesús “Eddie,” even though he was one of those men who appeared never to notice his wife at all.
Spilling from out the vestibule, a group of Mexicans was gathered by the door outside the Pink House, drinking beer and pouring themselves shots of tequila from bottles they handed round. Indifferently, they made way for the American party who, once inside the building, were compelled to elbow their way with repeated exclamations of “¡Perdón! ¡Perdón!” toward the restaurant.
The restaurant and bar had been cleared for dancing, the tables and chairs pushed against the walls except at the far end of the dining area, where a six-piece mariachi band on a raised platform played enthusiastically for a dozen or so couples on the dance floor. Silver and gold bunting had been affixed to the pink and scarlet walls, and to the polished vigas overhead. A carved wooden figure of a monk (or was it Saint Peter?) wearing a key suspended from his belt, eight feet tall and slightly sinister in aspect, had a ristra hanging round his neck. Héctor’s heart banged and the butterflies in his stomach beat with strong, bat-like wings. A sweeping glance around the room took in the absence of the presence he was looking for. Instead, a wiry young man he’d never seen before, with greased, back-combed hair and dressed in tight black pants and a white nylon shirt, came toward them from the bar to ask if Héctor and his party wished to be seated. The table he placed them at was immediately in front of Saint Peter, around the corner from a small alcove filled with bric-a-brac.
While their wives sat inventorying the merchandise, trying to decide what to buy for souvenirs, Héctor and Jesús “Eddie” ordered drinks—bourbon on the rocks for themselves, sparkling wine for the girls. Jesús wondered aloud if any of the Critter Company would show up, but Héctor hardly heard him. It couldn’t possibly be that Jacinta Ruiz wasn’t around tonight, thus weakening his resolve as well as ruining his best-laid plans.
The band’s loud playing, a deterrent to conversation, was an inspiration to the girls, who proposed that their husbands should offer them a dance. Exchanging pained looks, the men assented—Jesús “Eddie” carried his drink onto the floor with him—and, for the next ten or fifteen minutes, they “danced,” Héctor more lead-footed than usual as he searched the crowd for the face and form of Jacinta. At last, feeling the call of nature, he excused himself and went to the room marked caballeros, where he nearly collided in the doorway with a youngish man of extreme good looks who reminded Héctor absently of Rodolfo Fierro, General Villa’s dashing executioner.
Half an hour later, when AveMaría wished to dance again, Héctor was aware of having drunk somewhat too much bourbon than was good for him. Jacinta Ruiz, he felt certain by now, was not going to make an appearance tonight at the Pink House. However, to please his wife, he assented. The dance was an old-fashioned one—some sort of polka—he hadn’t danced since he’d been a young blade in Namiquipa.
Héctor had mostly forgotten the steps, he discovered, and the bourbon he had drunk was an aid neither to his memory nor to his coordination. In trying to hold tight to AveMaría while keeping his feet free of hers, he reached out for balance with his right foot and trod hard on one belonging to a couple that was dancing past them. The foot was jerked away, and Héctor, glancing over to apologize, found himself speechless. Jacinta Ruiz was beautiful tonight—her bare arms and shoulders brown and molded, her dark mane coiffed, her profile straight as a statue’s—in the arms of Rodolfo Fierro. She gave him, as she passed, one long, serene, utterly disinterested look before being swept on by Fierro, who scowled at Héctor over her shoulder and uttered some incomprehensible, presumably rude, remark.
“I think you just stepped on that poor girl’s foot,” AveMaría told her husband. “Panchito, you should practice dancing with me more—and drinking with Jesús ‘Eddie’ less.”