They left at the break of dawn when the day was still dark and outside felt like a dream. Inez pulled up to her half-sister Astrid’s driveway and honked until her niece Jolene stumbled out the door. Under the porch light, Astrid fluttered like a moth. She caught Inez’s eye and waved, raising her arm so high her other hand sloshed her coffee and a spot of brown soaked into her dolphin nightie. Inez waved back without taking her hand off the wheel. At that hour, neither of them bothered with small talk. They were used to the routine by now. Inez had taken Jolene to Mexico for her orthodontist appointment every first Saturday of the month for the past two years. Ever since Astrid was diagnosed with early heart failure. From this distance, it was easy to ignore her knobby wrists and swollen ankles. The only notable things missing were her big curlers. Instead, a yellow head wrap shielded her skull. A skinny ribbon of yolk.
“Ready, kid?” Inez asked Jolene as she climbed in the passenger seat.
Jolene answered with a groan and slammed the door shut.
They snaked their way out of town while the sun rose. Inez tried to pass the time with simple thoughts. The oily spread of light in the distance took the form as a large body of water. She imagined herself completely submerged. She rolled down the windows and let the straps of her camisole fall off her shoulders. Her seatbelt covered the long pale strip of her collarbone while the rest of her began to darken like a plum. Looking out at the empty highway, she felt as if she and Jolene were the only two people alive. They passed by mountains stripped bare where waterfalls once ran and tall stalks of ocotillo blotted with blossoms red as wine. The brazen scent of red meat caught Inez off-guard until she realized it was the smell of asphalt softening in the heat. Still. The smell made her heady thinking about her plan. She felt the two folded slips of paper in her back pocket. The prescription she forged for her painkillers was based off the one for Astrid’s heart medications. A three-months’ supply. That would be enough to sell for now, she told herself and gripped the wheel tighter.
Beside her, Jolene pressed her head against the window, seduced back into the lull of sleep. The book she brought fell into her lap. On the cover, a tall teenage girl offered up the same demure glance Jolene often gave Inez. It was the same one Astrid used to give too. Inez didn’t understand the glance, what secrets it kept. It was difficult to keep from watching Jolene. Her ropey, bronzed legs stretched out on the dashboard and the spread of her blonde hair over her shoulders. Like a young, insouciant Palomino. Jolene was eleven years old and still young enough to sleep with her mouth hung open wide. Inside, the silver flecks of her braces flickered white.
This was the day they were supposed to come off, a moment Jolene had been waiting for ever since she first got them on. Inez tried to determine if there had been any time in her life when she had wanted something quite so desperately, but she could not bear to dwell on what came to mind. Instead, she tried to think of herself when she was Jolene’s age and the years before that, before Astrid was born, but those were stark memories. In the vast Chihuahuan Desert, she saw herself like a dot in space. Miniscule, haphazardly rendered, completely useless. Everything in her life skidded past her.
She took a deep breath and willed herself to keep her eyes forward. Splotches of green signaled Mexico in the distance. A few minutes later, the Rio Grande peeked out from behind a corner and ran parallel to the road. Something about its filmy surface reminded her of the warped blue veins on her ankles and everything else that trespassed beneath her skin.
She passed over the bridge into Ojinaga with nothing to declare.
“Jolene,” Inez whispered after they pulled into the dirt parking lot. She tapped Jolene’s shoulder, but when the girl didn’t budge, she thought of how Astrid used to wake her up and pinched Jolene’s nostrils together. “Come on. We’re here. Wake up.”
Jolene’s eyes flew open. She yanked her head away, blinked, and then glared at Inez. “I’m awake, I’m awake. God.”
The two walked up to the purple stucco building in hurried, uneven steps. The dentist office matched the rest of the buildings, which lined O.J.’s streets in colors that deserved the same names as oil pastels. Cerulean blue, viridian green, yellow ochre, Inez thought, remembering the college art classes she had taken before she dropped out.
She wasn’t sure what to expect the first time she took Jolene here. Astrid always hated the border town. Too dirty, she complained. Then, there was the traffic coming in from Presidio and on top of that, the heat. How did anyone stand it? Yet, the border felt familiar to Inez. Back home, there were talks of a wall that would keep the two countries separated, but she couldn’t imagine it—the desert torn in two like a body split in half. Unlike Astrid, Inez was half Mexican. Even though she had never met her father, being here beckoned a strange, unwieldy part of her.
Inside, the dentist office boasted marble countertops and a flat-screen TV perched high overhead the waiting room. The brochures were written in both English and Spanish. The doctors here knew they were catering to just as many Americans as locals. Jolene’s orthodontist was a young woman with glossy curls and big, white teeth. Her name was Julie Espinoza. Dr., Inez corrected herself. Dr. Julie Espinoza. Dr. Espinoza was never late and her English was almost perfect. When they first met, she told Inez she studied in Mexico City, and when Inez asked if she had ever been to the U.S., Dr. Espinoza laughed. She and her husband vacationed in Florida every spring. Inez was surprised, but when she tried to determine why, her cheeks grew hot with shame. What was she expecting, that the doctors here would be poor, inept? Sometimes, she was almost as bad as Astrid. She was also, admittedly, jealous. In another timeline in another world, perhaps Julie’s life could have been hers.
The idea buried itself inside of her as she and Jolene waited to be called. Inez was a hotel maid. She did not mind her work. In fact, if anything, she found it cathartic and revealing. There was an art to erasing the mangled histories that hid in stained sheets. But seven dollars an hour was hardly enough to support herself much less make a dent in Astrid’s growing medical expenses. If she really wanted to help, she had to resort to something quicker. She would be better this time too. She had promised herself that. She would not succumb.
“Jolene Gardner?” The receptionist called. “Dr. Espinoza is ready for you now.”
“Finally,” Jolene whispered, standing up.
Inez repeated her promise to herself as she trailed behind Jolene into the exam room.
“¡Abierto, Jolene!” Dr. Espinoza said.
Jolene opened her mouth and the dentist clucked. She knew Jolene had skipped her brushing. Jolene always skipped her brushing. Yet, it didn’t matter if she couldn’t be bribed with glow-in-the-dark braces or Invisalign. Her braces were two thousand dollars cheaper here than they would have been in the U.S.
“Jolene, you have to brush every day,” Dr. Espinoza said. “You cannot forget. Your teeth will rot.”
“Hear that, Jolene?” Inez said. “No brushing, no teeth. No teeth, no boyfriend. And when you’re old like me, still single, and also toothless, well, trust me, that’ll be a doozy.”
Dr. Espinoza raised an eyebrow but nodded nonetheless.
“I do brush,” Jolene argued. “The food gets stuck. Because of the braces!”
Dr. Espinoza clucked again.
“Today gonna be the day?” Inez asked. She wiped her palms against her jeans. Dr. Espinoza couldn’t be that much younger than her, but Inez felt small in her presence as if the dentist could detect more than crooked teeth.
Dr. Espinoza pursed her lips. “Can you wait outside for Jolene? Go sit down? Read a magazine?”
“Or my book?” Jolene said. She pointed to where she had tossed it next to the door.
Inez held back from sneering. “Oh, sure,” she said. “Just wanted to say hello is all.” She picked up Jolene’s book and left.
Back in the waiting room, she sank down into one of the chairs and watched a pair of fat goldfish laze around in a murky tank beside her. The waiting room was packed today. Saturdays always were. Some of the women talked amongst themselves, but Inez failed to catch their words. Even after all these years, Spanish still ran together. She counted the patients and realized she recognized two teenage boys by the clean sweep of their blonde hair when they turned their heads. They were the brothers who rode their bikes in the landfill behind her house. Their father was a Border Patrol agent, and their house was one of those obnoxious eyesores with thirteen kinds of windows. Of course, they had good health insurance, but was it really a surprise to still find them here vying for the same cheap dental work?
Inez threaded her tongue through her own teeth. Her family had been too poor to get them fixed. Back then no one cared.
She ducked her head and opened the book. Out fell a photo of Jolene and Astrid from back when they were still living in California. Astrid looked serene in her washed-out Levis and strappy sandals. Jolene had the plucky glow of a child who had not yet learned how to say goodbye. Inez flipped the photo over and read the date that had been scrawled in red Sharpie. The photo had been taken four years ago, right before the move. Inez felt numb.
Astrid had hoped the trips would bring Inez and Jolene closer, but their encounters were still met like the stuttering edges of a broken zipper. Before Astrid moved to Texas, Inez had only seen Jolene a few times when she was a baby. She never learned what you say and don’t say to a kid.
An hour later, Jolene stumbled out of the exam room, her bib still clipped around her neck. A clear string of snot hung off her chin. Inez realized she was crying.
“They’re not coming off yet,” Jolene wailed.
“Dr. Espinoza says they’re not ready!”
Jolene spied the older boys. They didn’t look up, but she still let out another tormented wail and ran to the bathroom. The door rattled behind her.
Dr. Espinoza walked into the waiting room. “I told her one more month is all. To be sure. We must schedule it,” she said. Her voice was calm, unperturbed. “It takes time.”
“Jolene is…” Inez started but then gestured at the air, unable to finish her sentence.
“Very passionate,” Dr. Espinoza offered with a smile.
Inez repeated the news to herself. The braces were not yet ready to come off. That meant if this worked, she could come again. There could be a second time. And maybe even more times after that.
She knocked on the bathroom door, but Jolene didn’t answer. Inside, she heard the girl’s ragged sighs. Inez hesitated. Her hand hovered over the doorknob. She watched her fingers shake, little startling tremors that blurred the air.
“Jolene,” she said. “Please.” She waited another second and knocked on the door again.
Jolene peeked her head out. Her eyes were still red and puffy but at least, she was no longer crying. She came out and wrapped her arms around Inez, who froze. Inez’s mind flashed to the day Astrid, newly divorced, first landed on her doorstep. Jolene had run up to Inez and hugged her but then quickly backed away, wrinkling her nose. She had smelled the sin on Inez before Inez had smelled it herself.
“Come on,” Inez said. She stepped away from Jolene’s embrace and shook herself out of the memory. She was better now, she reminded herself. “Let’s get lunch.”
The stairs that led them to the dining room were covered in green velvet. Each time they walked down, it felt like they were being led into the underworld. Maybe this was why the restaurant was called La Cueva. They had gone there for the past year because of mere convenience. The restaurant was located in the basement of a hotel next to Astrid’s pharmacy. In the dark room below, the hair on Inez’s arms stood straight up and her top glowed white. She pressed her tongue against her bottom lip and tasted salt where the skin had cracked and begun to peel. In botched Spanish, she ordered a chile relleno with a martini. Jolene got bean and cheese nachos like she always did.
“Mom says I just have to grow into my looks,” Jolene said. “But how can I if I never get my braces off?” She threaded her fork through the filmy layer of cheese that covered her nachos.
“Well, as soon as you grow into them, you’re gonna grow out of them,” Inez replied. She looked down at herself. Her own body betrayed her the summer before seventh grade. Yet, Jolene was still stick-skinny with the round face of a child.
“Not everyone ends up pretty,” Jolene said as if it just dawned on her.
“No, not everyone does.” Inez sipped her martini and plucked the olive out. She tucked it underneath her tongue like a stolen jewel.
“Can I try your drink?” Jolene asked.
Inez pushed her glass toward her. “Be my guest,” she said.
Jolene took a sip and managed to feign a smile. “Can I have some more?”
“No,” Inez said. She took her drink back and finished it one last gulp.
“One day then,” Jolene said. “One day, I’ll order a whole bottle of champagne, and you and my mom will have to watch me drink it.” She smiled to herself, satisfied.
Under the table, Inez’s legs quivered. Suddenly, she couldn’t stand the dining room’s stale air. She clenched her jaw. Her heart thrummed. She couldn’t stop thinking about the pills. Despite her inner protests, her imagination spun gold and her want circled down upon itself, ravenous.
Inez had started taking painkillers during her sophomore year of college when her life started to lose its outline. She couldn’t explain the nature of her pain. She dreamt out of her body and her memories developed the grainy filter of a silent film. To no avail, she even tried searching for the Mexican father she never knew.
She thought the painkillers. They were different, after all. Not even drugs, not really. She remembered the evenings she spent crushing them on her cutting board. After she took them, she lay on her bed and ran her fingers up and down her arms and legs as if she were an injured creature, something she herself had shot.
When Astrid and Jolene arrived, Inez was in the throes of an addiction that didn’t seem like any of the ones she had read about in elementary school. Astrid saved Inez’s life. She was the reason Inez had been able to get help and back on her feet. Sure, she still didn’t have much, but it was a start, and she had been grateful. Until Astrid’s own body began to fail.
In the pharmacy, Jolene admired the stereos, brushing her fingers over them as they passed through the empty aisles. Inez saw how easy it was to want them. Their oblong shapes reflected back the same lustrous colors as a city street at night. Everything outdated in the States seemed novel here. Inez held pesos in her hands like they were ancient gold coins and the old adobe churches made her want to pray to a god she didn’t trust or else bask in the hot, viscous center of her poor life choices.
Jolene picked up a bright green boom box and held it up to her. “Can I get this?” she asked. “Please? I can pay you back later.” Her blue eyes sparkled, full of need.
Inez couldn’t argue. “Okay,” she said, her voice shaky. “Okay.”
They made their way to the counter and Inez tried to quell her nerves. Sure, there were other options, but not for someone like her. They were here. This was what she had planned to do.
The pharmacist smiled when he saw Inez approaching. Inez had come here so often he was beginning to know her. Usually, he teased her about her inability to roll her R’s despite her complexion. She handed him the two prescriptions and tried to keep her face calm, but the man read the second piece of paper and narrowed his eyes.
“This for you?” he asked.
Inez couldn’t find it in herself to say yes. She nodded.
“My store doesn’t carry this,” he said.
Her arms felt loose in their sockets. “But where then? Somewhere must.”
The man shook his head and disappeared to the back of the room to fill Astrid’s prescription. When he returned, he wrote down an address on a piece of a paper and slid it over.
“Center of town. They can fill it for you.” He paused. “But you are a healthy woman.”
“It’s none of your business,” Inez said. Her words took on more of an edge than she intended and the man curled his upper lip.
Jolene cut in front of Inez and set the boom box on the counter. For the first time she could recall, Inez was thankful for the girl’s presence. “This too, please,” she added. “For my niece.”
She paid with her head down. The pharmacist’s stare bored into her even after she and Jolene walked away. Jolene pushed the door open to leave, and Inez turned around. She wanted to apologize, but it was too late. The man had disappeared into the back again.
Outside, Jolene asked, “Are we going home now?”
“One more stop,” Inez said. “I promise.”
Inez drove around in circles. Three times, they passed by the same storefront window full of giant balloons sporting the same cartoon faces Inez grew up watching. The problem was not the lack of pharmacies. It was that there were too many to tell which one was the right one. Inez got out and asked a girl who couldn’t have been much older than Jolene for directions. The girl smiled and toyed with the gold hoops lining her ear. She pointed to a squat, gray building down the street. Above it, a sign displayed a dancing pill complete with a top hat and cane.
“Oh,” Inez said.
The girl laughed.
Inez got back in the car and parked off to the side of the central plaza. As she opened her door, a rich blend of accordion and saxophone music snagged the air. Under a gazebo, a band played for a small crowd.
“Maybe when we’re done, we can take a peek around,” Inez said.
Jolene nodded, her eyes locked onto the band’s shiny red uniforms.
Inez tried to explain herself to the man at the counter but he cut her off. “Hay no problema,” he said.
He whistled as he filled her bottles. He looked unfazed, as if he were used to these kinds of requests and Inez couldn’t help but wonder how many people like her had come in here. When he rang her up, she saw that the total was less than what one bottle would have cost in the States. She felt self-righteous knowing that. At least she had done her research correctly. Yet, with that knowledge, another sticky feeling coursed through her. When the transaction was complete, Inez shoved the bottles into the same pink bag that held Astrid’s prescription and shooed Jolene out the door.
“Can I go look around?” Jolene asked.
Inez nodded and Jolene skipped away to the crowd. Against her car, Inez opened the bag and peered inside. Astrid’s medications looked lonely amongst the brown bottles containing Inez’s painkillers. Last week after one of Astrid’s appointments, Inez had offered to continue to make the trips to Mexico. She could still pick up the medicine after Jolene was done with her braces. Astrid reacted to the offer ambivalently. She refused to admit her medications actually helped her. They made her hair thin out like she was a cancer patient. Like she was dying.
What did it mean for the heart to fail? Inez opened her palm and tried to remember how a doctor had explained it to her. She traced the line that extended from her forefinger to her pinky and thought of how the left ventricle could stretch and then thin. She pictured a waning moon ready to burst. Astrid’s first doctor predicted a life expectancy of three months. The second swore a year, but after the defibrillator, it had bounced up to three. Now there was the chance of a heart transfer, except that the cost was far above what they had been able to fundraise.
Astrid was wary to hold out for anything beyond what God intended. She spent most of her time worrying about Jolene instead. Instead of agreeing to Inez’s idea, she took Inez’s hands in her own and started, “If I die,” but Inez pulled away. She couldn’t bear to hear where the rest of that sentence led.
She took out one of the brown bottles. She knew she shouldn’t take one but she couldn’t help herself. She never had a choice, had she? Of course, the trip would have led to this. She realized now this was how she differed from her sister. Astrid may have done careless things in the past, but she had her limits. She knew when to stop.
Inez gnashed her teeth and twisted open the bottle. One of the pills fell into her palm. Just one. That would be all. Where to do it—here? Where else? She opened her car and sat down in the passenger seat. A man with the face of a bruised avocado passed by, and for a second, Inez was afraid he knew. He must have. But no. The man walked away.
Inez crushed the pill between her fingers and dipped her head forward to inhale the remnants. It only took a moment for herself to become smooth again. Everything went vivid and still and glorious. She was a stone sinking to the bottom of a creek. She set the bottle back in the bag and pushed the bag underneath the backseat cushions. She closed the door and scanned the crowd. Her vision took on the faint texture of water and the music sounded louder than ever.
On the other side of the gazebo, Jolene kneeled next to a boy with dark, shadowy skin. Her knees jutted out like a pair of blades. Inez wasn’t close enough to get a good look at either of their faces, but she wanted to imagine something raw and vivid blossoming in the two of them.
Jolene stood back up. In her arms, she held a small scraggly dog. So it wasn’t what Inez had assumed. The boy was a boy and Jolene was still a girl. She was still a child.
“Can we take him back?” Jolene asked. She skipped back toward Inez, grinning. The dog squirmed.
“Oh, Jolene, honey, I’m sorry but Customs wouldn’t let us. He belongs here.”
When Jolene started to cry again, Inez didn’t know what to do. She grabbed one of Jolene’s arms and swung her forward. “Dance, Jolene, dance.”
Jolene looked so startled she didn’t even react when the dog jumped from her arms.
“Did you know your mama and me used to come to Mexico on the weekends back when we were teenagers?” Inez said, catching her breath.
“No, Juarez. When we were in El Paso.” Her voice went high and she couldn’t stop herself from spinning, but it didn’t matter. It was beautiful how her memories crystallized as the pill took effect. Could Jolene believe it—that there was a time when Astrid saw Inez with light in her eyes, a time when she whispered secrets in her ear and led her to forbidden places?
“And do what?” Jolene unlocked herself from Inez’s arms and stared at her.
That first morning after. Astrid and Inez down to their white cotton underwear draped across some boy’s aunt’s pink porcelain bathtub. Both of them pretending to be drunk for the boys who barged in at seven a.m. to take their pictures. At that instant, she had understood Astrid’s happiness, how it felt to be loved and looked upon, all consequences damned.
“Dance.” Inez shrugged and giggled. “Eat, drink, meet boys.”
Perhaps, these bits of information could be what brought Jolene and her together. Perhaps, Inez just needed to loosen up. If they could understand each other, then they could see each other as equals, as confidantes, as friends.
But when Inez glanced up, Jolene’s eyes widened. Inez saw her confusion turn to fear and then disgust. “Fun,” Jolene said, letting the word drip off her lips.
Inez tore her eyes away from Jolene and saw herself reflected in the shiny surface of a nearby jalopy. Her hair hung over her face and her pupils had dilated into dark storms.
“Come on,” she snapped, turning around. She grabbed Jolene’s wrist. “Let’s go home.”
“Ow!” Jolene ripped her hand away.
Inez’s murmur of a sorry came too late. Jolene fled back toward Inez’s pickup and stood, waiting to leave.
Inez turned around one last time and watched the town unfold itself across the horizon further into Mexico. In the distance, she saw a dust devil begin to form. A tall winding staircase of ruddy particles, it rolled forward, its pulse quickening in the unpaved street, until it came toward the plaza and parted the crowd. The band grabbed their instruments and everyone scattered out of the way, but Inez stood still. Oh, what to make of it—the barest feeling of a place she could never truly know? She raised her face to the sky and let the dust pass through her.