Belén and Ramiro dance and laugh and drink. They dance. They laugh. They drink. There’s beer, lots of beer. On the table stands a bottle of aguardiente con Jamaica, a drink that Guatemalans worship and adore. Everybody is drunk, drunk and happy. Belén and Ramiro, her older brother Joaquín —and Yamilet, his wife. There are also a few neighbors, and all of them are laughing long and hard as they party.
La Cumbia Sampuesana has played at least three times already. It is Ramiro’s favorite, and since it’s his birthday, well, “Cumbia Sampuesana it is,” Yamilet says as she plays it again on her computer YouTube, her only sound system. The Cumbia becomes the evening’s anthem. Nobody is complaining, though. In fact, everyone likes it and the whole gang dances and sings:
La cumbia sampuesana
‘pa que baile con ganas
Yes, they are dancing hard, “con ganas”. They are celebrating Ramiro’s birthday and even though no one dares say it out loud, tonight they are also celebrating that he and Belén finally made it to the States. It’s been several weeks now, but you can still see in their faces and the way they move the exhaustion, the lack of food and water, the lack of direction.
Nobody says anything, but everyone can tell Ramiro has a slight limp. Belén has that look in her eyes that says without words what her soul and body –especially her body– have endured. After all, how many of those attending the party haven’t gone through the same thing? But now, right now, nobody gives it a second thought. The night slips away as they dance, laugh, drink.
La cumbia sampuesana
‘pa que baile con ganas
Ramiro lifts Belén and spins her for a bit. She says, “watch your leg, Flaco.” Ramiro ignores her, he’s happy, he’s drunk. Really drunk. They spin and spin, and the guests applaud and everyone at the party shouts “hey, hey, hey.” High spirits all around.
After one more turn, Ramiro lowers Belén to the floor just as Celso Piña’s solo begins. Then he pulls away from his wife, moves to the center and using his hands, plays an accordion that everyone can see, even though it’s invisible. Ramiro dances and plays at the same time. “Míralo, se cree Celso!” shouts Joaquín. He has had the backs of the new arrivals since they first started out. What would they have done without Joaquín? Where would they be, how would they be now?
“Hey, hey, hey,” Joaquín claps and shouts as his brother-in-law channels Celso. At this party, everybody drinks, laughs, and dances con ganas. Everybody.
Joaquín and Yamilet cleared out that little spare room in the backyard, the one he used to use as a shop and Yamilet, as storage. “You can stay with us in the house, you know,” Joaquín told them. Yamilet was the one who insisted that they’d better not. “Not that I mind, at all. I grew up in a house with twenty brothers! But married people need their own roof, right? Better for them to have their privacy.” How will they ever repay so much kindness, Belén wonders sometimes.
Joaquín left Coatepec six years ago, and his life is here now. A wife, two kids, and three jobs later, Gabacho has become home. It hasn’t been long since he became a legal resident thanks to his marriage to Yamilet, who is Puerto Rican. “Mira nomás this one, he had to marry me, a girl from a place that’s nothing but a gringo colony, so he could get his papers.” Yamilet has a great big heart, that’s what everyone in the neighborhood says.
When he arrived, Joaquín was flat broke. Sending money home was out of the question. But little by little, he started earning more and more and was able to help his family. From time to time, on those Sunday morning calls he’d invite his brothers or sisters to come, but “it was more out of politeness than a serious invitation,” as his mom used to say. Belén barely remembered her brother, there were so many years between them. Years and life.
Truth be told, Joaquín did not insist too much on having any of his brothers or sisters cross like he did to get here, because he knew. Because he knows what you see and experience on that road. Joaquín never asked his brother-in-law or sister anything about their journey. He doesn’t have to, he knows all too well what the deal is. Some things don’t change, they just get worse.
It was Belén’s idea to cross. As for Ramiro, he would have followed her anywhere. Belén was leaving a life and home, but Ramiro wasn’t leaving anything anymore, what was his, what he had, had been left behind long ago, when he got out of Guatemala early in the year 2000. They met at a baile, in Coatepec. Ramiro was working there illegally, Belén was the only one of her sisters who didn’t have a husband or children. Belén was the only one of her sisters who didn’t have a future.
“Real money and real living is on the other side, Rami,” Belén would say to him, over and over. “Let’s get married and go, I have a brother there.” Ramiro didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no. This, despite the fact that he knew how things were, despite the fact that he knew La Bestia backwards and forwards. Ramiro got off La Bestia in Acayucan and promised himself never to get back on. Before coming to the States, he was happy in his little room with a toilet there in Coatepec. He didn’t care about commuting to Xalapa to work, he didn’t care about hitchhiking back to town.
They hadn’t been married for five months when they started their journey North. Belén thought they’d never get there. Ramiro, more likely than not, didn’t want to.
The party goes on for hours and hours. Some guests have left, here and there someone has fallen asleep on the table or sofa. Ramiro has emptied more than half of the bottle of aguardiente he got from who knows where. Joaquín drinks with him, and every now and then says “this crap tastes like perfume,” but he is still keeping up with Joaquín, drink for drink.
Belén and Yamilet drink beer and gossip and laugh. They sing like Shakira and then laugh again. The kids went to bed a while ago. Belén feels important when they say to her, “Oiga, tía,” and she approves of how Yamilet has raised them. She likes Yamilet, she feels as if they are sisters. She doesn’t understand why, if she’s from Puerto Rico and speaks English, she married her brother, who had no papers and no money. Yamilet takes good care of Joaquín and the kids. Yamilet takes care of everybody. She remained patient when Joaquín kept refusing to marry her. “I love you more than your papers,” he’d say out of pride. “But without papers, we can’t be together forever in the same country,” she’d reply. “Later on, when I finally convinced him that we should get married, he started in on how we couldn’t have kids, because he wasn’t making enough money.” He’s a good man, Belén’s brother, and everyone knows it. “And Chacha, your brother is so happy you two are finally here.”
La cumbia sampuesana
‘pa que baile con ganas
“Ay, that song again, why do you Mexicans like it so much?” Belén shrugged; she doesn’t remember hearing it that often on the radio or at parties or in buses. “Do you miss home?” Yamilet asks her, but doesn’t let her answer, “you can’t miss everything that’s still there, someplace, me on the other hand… I lost everything, house, furniture, everything, I really do miss home.” Yamilet’s family had lost everything in a hurricane that hit Puerto Rico a few years earlier. “Goddamn Irene, she took everything,” she said when she told her the story for the first time, and Belén had wondered who this Irene who had taken everything from them was. “But in the end, I owe my life to Irene, if it wasn’t for her I would not have left my life on that island that’s been going under for years, I wouldn’t have left that job that was pulling me under.”
Yamilet has a way of telling things, a rhythm in her words. It’s as if she were always in a good mood, singing. Even when she’s angry, you can’t tell. “And Chacha, don’t you go thinking that life here is paradise, here you have to swim fast to keep from sinking, but it’s better, you’ll see, and little by little you two will be better off. Yamilet says Chacha instead of muchacha, like those women along the border who say mija instead of mi hija. Belén never fails to be surprised at the affection people sometimes deposit in everyday words.
It is almost two in the morning, and everybody is really wasted now. The guests have all gone, only the four of them remain. Belén picks up plates and cups, she puts the chairs back in place. Yamilet says no, “Ay, what a drag, we’ll clean up tomorrow, Chacha.” She pulls Joaquín by the arm to bed and says good night. Belén then does the same, she helps Ramiro get up from the sofa. She ignores him when he says “just one more little drink.” Belén turns out the lights. “No more little drinks,” she says, “come on, let’s go home,” then she opens the door into the backyard, to their little spare room in the backyard.
Home. How strange, using that word again. It feels almost natural to use it again. “Let’s go home,” “I left it at home,” “did you turn out the lights back home?” It didn’t matter that home was just a room with a toilet, a tiny sink and a little window that looked out over an alley. That was her home, and home is better than any of the places where the slept on their way here. A better home than sleeping outdoors. A better home than the shelter of all those bus stops. A better home than that big warehouse in Texas.
Belén and Ramiro cross the backyard. Well, Belén does all the work. Ramiro is like a rag doll with no willpower. They almost fall over a couple of times. He sticks to the edge of the door when she tries to open it. Belén isn’t angry, no, she has never seen him like this before and the whole situation strikes her as funny, but she tries to hold it in so as not to wake him, so he won’t be frightened, so she won’t knock him over. Unlike all the cousins, friends, and boyfriends she had in her hometown, Ramiro doesn’t drink because, as he says, “All the men in my family have lost everything to booze.”
Ramiro is from Santa María de Jesús, a place Belén only knows from the stories that he told her while they crossed that long and desolate desert of Sonora. Stories he told her to entertain her and make her smile, “because your smile lights our way, Belencita.” Ramiro told her about Volcán de Agua and how when he was a kid, he and his friends would climb up there and bring ice back down to sell in town. “Mentiras,” Belén would say, and they both would laugh. Could it be true that Ramiro collected ice to sell it so that he could buy candy?
“Such a good man, Ramiro,” Belén thinks while she settles him into bed. He has been sweeter to her than anyone else in her life. Almost as good as Joaquín, maybe that’s why they get along so well? Ramiro did everything he could to watch over her on the way there, he wanted to protect her always. And to think of all those times when she asked herself, “why did we do this, why did I convince him to come when we were doing so well there? We didn’t have much, but it was all ours.” If only she hadn’t talked him into it, if only he hadn’t let her talk him into it, neither of them would have went through everything that happened on their odyssey to the United States.
She takes off one of his shoes. Then the other. “Belén, Belén…” Ramiro says. His breath smells like fermented Jamaica and cigarettes. “Belén te amo, ¿lo sabes?” Belén tells him she loves him too, but it’s time for bed. She takes off his socks, because Ramiro hates sleeping with his feet too warm. She unbuttons his shirt and manages to lift him up and take it off. First one sleeve. Then the other. She places his head on the pillow.
When Belén is about to stand up to take her own clothes off, Ramiro says to her, “No, where are you going? Don’t leave me Belén, don’t leave me.” He grabs her by the blouse, sits her down, and lies on her lap. He smiles, Belén smiles and lights up the room. She caresses his hair, the way he likes, massaging gently in circles with her fingertips. When Ramiro’s weight lets her know he has finally fallen asleep, she tries to push him and settle him onto the bed. Impossible.
Ramiro is already snoring. Belén can’t move, so she decides to stay a little while longer, after all, what else is there to do? Ramiro’s hair is straight, straighter than hers, straighter than the mane of a horse and just as long. “You need a haircut,” she tells him, even though he can’t hear her. She takes a lock between her fingers, “Ramiro mane,” she thinks. Ramiro starts to cough and when he moves, Belén manages to escape.
She tosses her sandals, or chancletas as Yamilet calls them. She can’t stand them, but they are the only thing her feet will stand. The soles of her feet haven’t healed despite the fact that weeks have gone by. Despite the many pomades and many remedies that Yamilet and the neighbor women have applied. Then she takes off her dress, which is also Yamilet’s, like everything else she has now; dresses, shorts, and blouses that she leaves practically new. The seam has left a mark on her side. Belén scratches at it when suddenly, Ramiro starts to cough and cough and cough. He sits up half-asleep and the coughing becomes nausea, gagging, and before Belén can come up with the word for it, she runs to the bathroom and brings the waste bin to Ramiro, who misses it and ends up throwing up on the floor, and what’s worse, on the naked feet of his wife. “Ay, that’s disgusting,” Belén thinks.
And then comes more gagging, and more, again and again. Since the waste bin is already in front of him, Belén places his hands on either side so that he can hold it while she steps back. Belén can’t help laughing upon seeing Ramiro like a child who put a piece of badly cooked chicken skin into his mouth and doesn’t know what to do with it. Ramiro pukes and pukes and Belén laughs and laughs. He glares at her sidelong, and she is pure laughter. But the smell of Ramiro’s vomit is so much and so strong that Belén starts to feel sick as the bits of rice, pork chop and fried banana fly from Ramiro’s mouth.
Sick, very sick.
So sick, that she starts to feel her stomach churn and the bile rising up in her throat. She runs to the bathroom, lifts the toilet seat and starts vomiting and vomiting herself. There’s no one laughing at her, no one there but her, puking up everything she learned to cook with Yamilet that day: the rise and the beans, the bits of pork chop, the fried bananas.
“Belencita, tás bien?” asks Ramiro, his voice hoarse.
The last time he asked her that, Belén was far from being all right. The soldiers had just stopped them, the soldiers had taken everyone off the bus. The soldiers had taken her along with three other women. Why them? Why not the others? It was her youth, her long hair, her rosy cheeks? What was it? The soldiers made her do things, things she has never talked about to anyone. “Belencita, tás bien?” Ramiro asked her when she returned to the bus, and she just nodded while putting her blouse back in place. Ramiro nodding with her, convincing himself that everything was all right.
More and more vomit. Belén is puking up everything, the beer, the Coca-colas, the tres leches cake. Belén is puking up the music, the laughter, the dance. Belén pukes up the desert of Sonora, the hands of the soldiers and their taste of salt of sweat. Belén pukes up the soldiers and one after another, they leave her stomach and go into the toilet. She lowers the lever and everything starts to spin and spin.
“Belencita. Belén. Tás bien?”
The bile and nausea return to her throat and she starts over again, to get everything out: the remains of dinner and the last few weeks. Ramiro is beside her now, he strokes her back and she wishes he wouldn’t, that he would stop touching her. “Belencita”. When her stomach is finally empty, when Ramiro’s voice and her crawling skin are the only things she feels, a realization hits her. It strikes as suddenly as the worst things in life always come: when was her last period?
Belén drops the toilet seat, Ramiro lowers the lid and the lever, the sound of the swirling water distracts her for a moment. “That might also be why we didn’t eat, because we were too weak, because of the heat, the thirst, the lack of rest.”
Ramiro gives her his hand to help her to her feet and when she takes it, she breaks out in tears. He doesn’t understand what’s wrong with his wife, but if there’s something he’s learned, it’s that when a woman cries, you need to hold her and tell her everything is all right. He did that the entire journey, held her, stroked her back, kissed her forehead and told her everything would be all right. Over and over, he told her that they could turn back if she wanted to, but she never wanted to. For Belén, there was no going back.
Belén crying on her husband’s shoulder. Belén clinging to her husband’s body. “It was all the food and dancing and drinking, don’t be ashamed, we had a really nice time, didn’t we?” Belén doesn’t answer. “But wait, better keep those tears for tomorrow, we’re going to be really hungover and then you are really going to want to cry.” The tears are joined then by Belén’s laughter. Ramiro had that, a way to make you laugh in the most unexpected situations. “We’re going to be all right, Chiquita, no matter what happens we are going to be all right because we are together, and we are not alone.”
She draws back from him, looks him the eye and for a moment, is about to tell him, that in all likelihood, they were not alone. Then she gags again, Ramiro lifts the toiled seat, but only foam comes out of Belén’s stomach.
“It’s my fault. No, no, no, it’s Celso’s fault, and his cumbia made us drink con ganas.”
She tries to smile, cleaning her mouth with a rag and says to herself that it’s not Celso’s fault or Ramiro’s fault, it’s not her fault either, everything that happened, everything they went through, everything they did to her is not her fault and cannot be her fault. The fault lay with her ganas, those ganas to leave behind what little they had in search of this. This.
He flushes one more time. He lifts up Belén and says to her, “let’s wash your feet.” Ramiro turns on the showerhead and when she draws near, he stops her, “it’s still too cold,” he says. Then he squats down, takes one of Belén’s feet and rinses it off, he rubs it, he caresses it under the warm water. Then the other. He does this carefully, affectionately, he does this as only he does things.
Meanwhile Belén, sitting on the toilet, dries her feet, Ramiro sticks his head into the shower. He scrubs his face, wets his hair, drinks water with his mouth wide open, rinses, then spits. He repeats this twice more. Belén hands him his toothbrush with paste while she brushes her own teeth in front of the mirror. When they finish, Ramiro takes her by the hand. “Let’s go to bed, Chiquita, you’ll see, we’ll feel better in the morning.”
Ramiro settles onto the right side of the bed and stretches his left arm out to make room for Belén. She snuggles up to him. Her ear over his heart. They close their eyes, perhaps each of them thinking that yes, tomorrow will be a better day.
Sylvia Aguilar Zéleny is a fiction writer, translator, and professor at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). She teaches English Composition courses at the El Paso Community College (EPCC), and Creative Writing for the undergrad and the graduate program at UTEP. She has published eight books of fiction in Mexico, and a young adult series titled Coming Out in the United States. Her novel Todo Eso es Yo won the Tamaulipas National Book Award in Mexico in 2015. She bikes, knits, and believes in green tea. Her cat’s name is Nimona.