The Stray by Shuly Cawood

I was alone in the backseat when it happened. I remember city lights and cars hustling down lanes, and listening to the voices of my aunt and uncle, my tios, who were speaking to each other in the front seat, using a language I had come to understand.

There was a moment just before it happened when the world before me stilled, then stopped.

Torreon, Mexico burned hot and dry, even at night, and had until then, but I remember that night in March as something else: rainy, slippery, a place where you could lose something if you weren’t careful enough.

* * *

I was often in the backseat the months I lived in Torreon. I had gone there to teach English for a semester; to live with Tia Tela and Tio Rene in their white stucco house emptied of their grown children; to finally learn my mother’s native language. I had escaped a temp job, which I had taken after graduate school to stay near my boyfriend in Columbus, Ohio. My cubicle had squeezed tighter every day.

In Torreon, I was driven to stores, driven to my cousins’ houses, driven to work sometimes and picked up. I had gotten a Mexican license a few weeks into my stay, and though Tia Tela let me take the car when she did not need it, I heard stories of policemen stopping drivers for the most minor offense, leaning with hot breath into their windows, pressing, in low tones, for bribes. I drove white-knuckled and with one foot jabbing at the brakes, so I didn’t say no when my tios offered to drive to the bus station to pick up the boyfriend who had come to visit all the way from Ohio, taking bus after bus to reach me.

His trip was meant to erase the separation, to mitigate the facts: that I was learning a language he did not know; that I had missed him more on the days when we had lived in the same city and he did not have time to see me than I had in in the months since January when we had kissed goodbye at the airport; that I had been the one, not he, who was ready to get engaged at Christmas, and I had been the one, not he, who was no longer ready when he had finally said in February, by phone, ok, yes, let’s. By March, I was an American 24-year-old trying to be ready for something other than marriage.

That’s what Mexico had done in two months. That’s what 1,800 miles between two people can do. That’s what people do, really, to each other when they are caught between two places: they struggle toward an undetermined and terrible middle.

* * *

At the bus station, I opened the glass doors, stepped inside, and scanned the row of orange bucket chairs fastened to the floor. I spotted him before he saw me, and he looked smaller than I remembered. Not that his body was big: He was around 6 feet tall, but thin. (Once, I had pulled on his jeans, discarded on the bedroom floor, and had to tug them up my own slender legs and to my waist. When I frowned, he said, “They look way better on you,” before putting an arm around my waist to draw me to him. “You’re a woman. That’s what they’re supposed to look like.”) But his impeccable posture always grew his height, bulked his chest and shoulders. He had a pet peeve about people who slouched, so I straightened when around him. Yet at that bus station in Torreon, it was hard to imagine him with his booming voice, as the one making jokes and commanding attention in a room. I had fallen in love, in part, because of how big his spirit was, how small I could let mine be. But across the room, he looked hunched, his wiry frame bunched into a chair. He clutched the duffel bag on his lap—a bag that in my memory now appears enormous, dwarfing him.

* * *

Through the rubble of years, any specific memory of that visit comes to me in pieces only—a shard of a moment here, a broken bit there, as if the whole is unimaginable in its betrayal of how close we had been, but were no longer. We were both fighting to reclaim what was rightfully ours: for him, all the love I’d promised; for me, his shelter, and at the same time, my freedom.

During his visit, he constantly smiled, asked my relatives questions, rolled out the few Spanish expressions he knew, sampled all food set in front of him—jocoque, chorizo, fruit speckled with chile. He even attempted one afternoon to really converse with Tio Rene, who knew only a little English. I had come down the hallway and from a distance seen them, sitting in metal chairs, elbows on kitchen table, both of them straining but determined to speak. I waited and listened as they bent toward each other and repeated phrases and searched for more words in their opposite language—ones impossible to find since they were never in their vocabulary to begin with. After several rounds of grunts and gestures, they simultaneously laughed and leaned back. Isn’t that what I had wanted when I had invited the man I had so loved—for him to like them, for them to adore him? My throat clenched, and I looked down at tiles of hallway floor and let the quiet swell once more.

Before his visit, I had wanted to share every bit of my tios’ house: the arches and circular staircase; the balcony from where one could see people sweeping their sidewalk in the early hours of morning; and the smell of the house—oh, the smell—of warming tortilla, of roasting chicken, of stewing beans with onions and peppers. But now that he stood beside me, I seemed to hold my breath. The rooms shrank when we sat alone in them, as he reached over for my hand. I held on and let go, held on and let go.

If we walked to the alameda, it was I who led us around the tree-lined block, through the clusters of families eating popsicles and elotes, by the couples draped onto each other on benches. If we dined at Martin’s, it was I who looked up at the waitress, asked for drinks sin hielo, and ordered for myself, for him. If anyone drove, it was I. All around us, rocks of mountains soared to sky, the city stretched into vast Chihuahuan Desert, and Spanish words flapped and rose and flew.

* * *

At the end of his journey, we stood in my tios’ garden, in between white walls and black fence, in between tenderness and uncertainty. In this part of the yard, no one could see us. I don’t remember how we arrived there—if he asked me outside, if he pulled me gently from the house onto the bricked veranda and then the patch of grass. But alone, we faced each other. I imagine now the fig tree shifted slightly as he—without ever posing any question, as if making a declaration—took my hand, limp at my side, lifted it and tried to slide the ring he had brought onto my finger.

My heart thumped furiously.

The ring stuck halfway, and he pushed the solitaire harder against my knuckle. I shook my head and touched his arm—an arm I loved still with its muscles and freckles, a blend of man and boy—and said, “I really meant it when I said I’m not ready.”

He looked at me, and his arms dropped to his sides. The corners of his mouth turned down, and his gaze fell to a place where I could not find it. I handed him the ring, and he shoved it back into his pocket, and we stood frozen in that moment in a place we’d been avoiding but now could not escape.

* * *

It was evening and raining, and my tios were driving me again, and all the cars in all the lanes clipped forward at a mighty speed. I sat alone in the backseat, having said goodbye to what I’d once thought of as my future. Water slushed everywhere.

Then a dog—short-haired and lanky—darted out.

We could see it just ahead, motionless in front of us, but with lanes crowded on both sides and cars barreling behind us, there was nothing to do but keep rushing forward, our tires slicing the sloppy, soaking street.

The dog seemed to look right at us, through the windshield and frantic wipers, just before we hit it with a thud.

For a horrifying five seconds—count them, they are long—the dog yelped, caught beneath our racing car. Trapped by wheels and chrome, its body knocked, smacked, battered right below where I sat in the back seat, stunned. Canine cries echoed against metal, and fur and bones clanked against the undercarriage; the dog rolled on and on and on.

When it was over, without a comment or acknowledgment, my uncle and aunt resumed their conversation—one I no longer wished to capture and hold, their Spanish language suddenly like a frail netting falling apart in my reaching hands.

I didn’t belong to Mexico, but I didn’t know where I belonged, and the darkness of the car hovered, and the city lights burned, and the traffic streamed onward down streets I could not name.

Shuly Cawood is a writer and editor who is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Queens University. Her writing has been or will soon be published in: Mud Season Review, Red Earth Review, Naugatuck River Review, Label Me Latina/o, Rathalla Review, Under the Sun, Fiction Southeast, Full Grown People, The Louisville Review, and Two Cities Review. You can read more of her work at www.shulycawood.com.