During the free speech era I graduated Phi Beta Kappa in mathematics from UC Berkeley.
What would happen if a quiet, introspective young lady fell in love with a rough, uneducated criminal?
Thirty-eight years old now, medium small, sweet looking, of Sicilian-English-German descent. An evident but not debilitating limp. Living alone in the wild mountain chaparral east of San Diego, in a plain cabin without utilities. Supported by teaching calculus half-time at a technical college in the city. This is me.
This is Ignacio: Also thirty-eight, an American-born Mexican — not Mexican-American. But the Mexican-American war is not his issue. He is a captain under Montezuma fighting Cortez. Quick, lean, angular, uniquely labeled on the forehead with a white crescent scar. All male characteristics are exaggerated in his body: the dense beard, the implausibly broad shoulders, the vanishing hips, the muscles articulated like an anatomical model, the miraculous changing-parts. By age thirty-four, when I met him, Ignacio had accumulated fifteen years in the prisons of Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico, usually convicted of auto theft. Actually he specialized as triggerman in armed robberies, that is to say, raids on enemy citadels. A laborer, a drunkard, a sculptor, he sleeps alone now in a windowless room in a Tecate slum.
Men embodied with his beauty and grace and power are not rare in Southern California. But Ignacio’s fearlessness, his unstoppable life force, his acceptance of this world and of himself, complete his animal perfection. He has no plans. “You got the whole month planned already!” he would lecture me. “You ain’t alive. Wake up in the morning and figure how you’re gonna eat. That’s peace.” His nature is constant. “Yeah, I’m bad. I was born bad. You see those suckers in their big houses up in Rancho Santa Fe? They gotta set on top of bad guys like me or they ain’t nothing.” His virtues: the generosity which allows him to give away his only blanket or his guitar or his other pair of trousers, the loyalty which endures police torture, the devotion to mother which returns him from the dead, the zeal for hard work, the quick forgiveness, his fidelity to love. But these virtues are not goodness; they are simply the consequences of his manhood. “So what, my little brother messed up my car. You want him to fix it? Well, he didn’t fix it. That’s old. Forget it. He’s my brother.’’ Visible changes in his behavior are not changes in character but the response of an unalterable character to altered circumstances.
The solid truth is that I want the kid who won’t sit still in class, the man who doesn’t break under torture, the animal whose attack holds straight through gunfire, the creature who stares at a rock and breathes quietly and isn’t going anywhere.
Ignacio and I met the first time at the sleazy Del Rio Motel in Chula Vista during a Santa Ana heat wave. That was early September of 1978. The belief that we were fated together derived from that first encounter, as did the presumption that our love would transcend the disasters of character and circumstance.
In later months, when Ignacio was angry, he’d say, “Francesca, you were just a whore when I found you. I made you a woman. The only respect you have is the respect I give you.” When sentimental, he’d say, “Sweetheart, you looked like a nun coming through the door. No make-up, no hairdo, nothing. And I said to myself: ‘She’s the one I’ve been waiting for. That’s her!’ Your eyes were so lonely, babe. I knew I could give you what you needed and nobody else ever could.”
We arrived at the Del Rio Motel by very different routes. Ignacio’s father worked mines on both sides of the border, but mainly in New Mexico, where Ignacio was born, seventh of ten children. To save his sons from black lung, Felipe took the family to Los Angeles, where he worked at auto wrecking, welding, and construction. To save his sons from L.A. gangs — too late — Felipe relocated near El Centro, in Brawley.
Ignacio’s progress was smooth: theft and deceit from age eight; alcohol, cigarettes, and gangs from age ten; heroin at fifteen; armed robbery at sixteen. He stayed out of seventh grade to care for his baby brother while his mother worked at a cannery. At fifteen he quit school and ran away, back to L.A. “When I got off the bus with ten cents,” he told me, “I didn’t know nobody to help me. You oughta try it. Then you can grow up and stop worrying.” Field and orchard work, sleeping under cars, gangs, drugs, armed robberies, reform schools, jails, serious loves.
At nineteen he married a devout Catholic girl, two years older, Mexican, most importantly a virgin. She was rigid, perhaps on principle; she wouldn’t let him touch her at all when she was pregnant; she had to live on the same street as her mother. But she was faithful. He spent most of their eight married years in prison and never saw his third child. After that his girlfriends were white. I have his photos of them hidden with his prison photos. None of the women was especially pretty. He was looking for something else. The man singing Mexican ballads in Room 2 at Dei Rio Motel was looking for the madonna, for the faithful woman whose pure love alone sanctifies the life of man.
My own path to Del Rio Motel is more circuitous. My father is a ghetto-bred Sicilian, predictably impressed by money, social position, intelligence, and education. As an insurance salesman in Pueblo, Colorado, he found my mother studying physics at the University of Colorado, smartest daughter of a poor family of English-German descent. My mother married “the golden boy of Pueblo,’’ dreamily handsome, a suave talker. They were proud of their mixed marriage in a region of race hatred. (They didn’t reckon on the mixed psyches of their offspring). After three weeks of marriage my father was sent to boot camp in Texas and then on to France in World War II.
They say that at age two and one-half I screamed uncontrollably when first handed to my father. Relations didn’t improve. My father was a tyrant, or perhaps just a normal Sicilian head of household out of context. For he, without college degree, emerged from the war with rank of captain and continued on out of the Sicilian enclave into white America with an Army career, leaving behind all nine brothers and sisters. Whatever “Sicilian” meant, I hated it, since my father beat my mother, who is unquestionably fun and good. But somehow my grandmother Josephine’s standard conquered me: “Ladies don’t wear slacks. Only whores paint their faces.” I most emphatically don’t. From the time I was thirteen, when my parents divorced, until age twenty-five, when a Hindu master delivered me into filial devotion, I spoke not one word to my father.
For three decades I held the Latina bound and gagged inside a visibly Anglo-Saxon body. Brain prevailed over heart. Eye prevailed over hand. Womb was sealed.
During the free speech era I graduated Phi Beta Kappa in mathematics from UC Berkeley: “Gentlemen, here’s my pound of flesh, so get off my back!” I settled in with a Princeton man of Scotch-English descent and Scarsdale .upbringing, as unlike my father as possible. We spent a year in the Middle East. Back at U.C. in math graduate school, I went under with the strain of a competitive male environment. I quit, kept house. Ken was a university professor and researcher, and I followed him to South America on a Fulbright fellowship to watch the start of a revolution. We returned and farmed seriously for two years. Then academia again, this time in San Diego.
Throughout everything, my dissatisfaction with being ruled my inner life. “Why am I alive?” Thus I arrived for my second three-month retreat at a Buddhist monastery in New England.
It was dead serious: no talking, no touching, a daily minimum of fourteen hours’ meditation. I did not attain to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. I spent four days sitting naked in my closet with a mere accessory vision: my bare animal nature. I should have been a good sport and tried again, but I recklessly determined to abandon spiritual teachers and to continue observing by myself.
In San Diego again, I was meditating seriously, alone, three and one-half hours a day. Such a regimen swiftly alters perception. This is no problem in the monastery, where there is little scope for action, but outside. . . . The Latin woman I had repressed for three decades rebelled, and that woman wanted a Latino, now. Hence the Del Rio Motel.
With trepidation and delays, I went with a book and a picnic blanket to Golden Hill Park, where Twenty-fifth Street forms a loop just north of A Street. I read alone all afternoon. At dusk I took a walk. A skinny Mexican with slicked-back hair asked to walk along. Esteban spoke no English. Perfect. He worked in a fish cannery. Perfect. He was twenty-one. I didn’t mind. It was dusk and we followed a cat over an embankment into the bushes. From there it was easy. He was nice about picking the leaves out of my clothes and hair. I was physically unharmed and I felt just fine, contrary to social myth.
Then this Esteban had to meet somebody at a pool hall. I more or less tiptoed in with him, being afraid of bars. Esteban and his friends asked what I wanted to do. Go dancing. They knew about a party with live music in Chula Vista.
The room at the Del Rio Motel was furnished with a concave bed, a broken dresser, and a ripped vinyl chair. It was empty of personal belongings. A Mexican man sat on the bed singing to his guitar. A mean-looking girl in cut-off jeans sat in the corner. She called herself Irene. My escorts stationed me on the chair without introduction. Two of them went out for beer, cigarettes, and gum. Refusing the beer and cigarettes, I amiably chewed the gum. A friendly, frizzy-haired blond burst into the room to change jeans. She smiled at me (no front teeth) and introduced herself as Diane. Irene, Diane, and the guitarist knew English, the other men only Spanish. I couldn’t join in the rapid Spanish conversation, so I just watched. Esteban was courteous but showed no further interest in me. Yes, I was uneasy in that sordid setting, but long meditation accustoms one to sensations of fear.
About 9:30 I went out and called home to Ken to say I’d be later than planned. Esteban’s friend Carlos accompanied me to a pay phone. He was a husky fellow with the squat build of a South American dictator. With eloquence, he told me, slowly, he’d never been with a woman like me, an educated woman with no make-up, etc. He wanted to make love to me, right then, in his own room at the motel. I can’t reconstruct my mental state, but I know I had set out for a singular experience. I had an idea that Mexicans are violently jealous, though. Carlos said Esteban didn’t mind at all. He brought out a barely conscious Esteban to testify. So I agreed to Carlos’s proposal, after ascertaining he was still unmarried at age twenty-six. He was winsome, like a grizzly bear eating a cookie at the zoo.
Carlos knocked at the door to a room he said he shared with a friend. A sleepy fellow leaned out. They signed without words, and the half-dressed friend stumbled across the courtyard to the party room. In the bathroom Carlos took off my clothes as though he were unwrapping a gift. He put me in the shower and washed me matter-of-factly. I was thinking: a raccoon with a potato. I was thinking: I want to be here. We didn’t get far before he broke down with a voluble confession. Honesty was urgent in him: he did indeed have a wife, and two children besides, but his wife devoted herself to TV, shopping, clothes, and make-up. He wanted a woman to talk to. He couldn’t talk to men. I felt a small grief for Carlos, but I said that of course we couldn’t see each other again. He began to kiss me in earnest. Abruptly, the owner of the room knocked on the door to inform us the promised hour was up. We dressed and went outside. I was sorry at the outcome; I liked Carlos, and I was still excited.
The lean guitarist from the party intercepted us and haggled with husky Carlos. Then Carlos stepped away while the guitarist reprimanded me in English. Two men in one night were enough; I ought to go home. The other men were deciding in which order they would take me. He had put an end to that talk — by muscle, he insinuated. Carlos butted in to say the guitarist just wanted me for himself. Another argument in Spanish slang. As I got into my car, I saw Carlos and the guitarist carry my “date” Esteban to Carlos’s car. The guitarist slapped Esteban in the face to wake him up, too hard I thought.
While I studied the map for a route home to Tierrasanta, the guitarist stepped up to the window and introduced himself: Ignacio. Yes, he said, he wanted to see me. “After all this?" I asked in surprise.
“Are you married?”
“No. It’s the truth.”
“All Mexican men are married and have children,” I maintained, drawing from recent experience.
“No, it’s the truth. She left me a long time ago.”
Our fingers were almost touching on the car windowsill, we noticed shyly, as if suddenly innocent of the debaucheries of the night. I gave him my phone number. He could call me in a week, I said. If he made peace with Carlos, I would see him.
Seven days later Ignacio telephoned. In an agonized voice he was saying, “Francesca, what if I fall in love with you?” I was glib. “Don’t worry. You’ll fall out of love again right away.” It was Thursday. We arranged to meet at his motel room at noon on Sunday, and I would bring a picnic lunch. We stammered and couldn’t say good-bye. He gave me roundabout directions from Tierrasanta down Interstate 805 to Chula Vista.
It was a blistering hot day. As I pulled up to the motel, Irene from the party strode out to meet me. She staged an amazing tantrum. Ignacio was her man, today was her birthday, I had better get out. . . . She took a threatening stance. Four deadpan, shirtless Mexicans watched us from a doorway. I sensed they wouldn’t intervene on my behalf. I apologized from deep shame, and quickly drove away. I ached unexpectedly from Ignacio’s betrayal. Home again, I ate most of the picnic lunch alone.
At two o’clock it was Ignacio on the phone in a grief-stricken, whispery voice. “Francesca, aren’t you coming?” I was stiff. I explained that Irene ran me off. He barely knew her — she was just mean and jealous, that’s all. I refused to face her at the motel alone. He said he’d wait at the bakery parking lot at Third and Main.
It was the first of Ignacio’s lies to me, and he lied purely, with a clean conscience, to protect our love. And the lies would unravel a little bit at a time: Irene and Diane had slept in his room when they had nowhere to go, but he’d never taken them to bed. Well, once. Well, twice. No, not more than that because they were whores, and he just couldn’t get an erection for whores. Sometimes he looked after them a little because their work was dangerous and they were careless. . . . But the final story was that Ignacio protected them for money. On the Thursday I’d agreed to visit him, he drove them out.
I arrived at the bakery parking lot worn from the confrontation with Irene and sick with the heat, but I had no suspicions about Ignacio. He wrapped his arms around me and held on tightly. I burst out sobbing. There had been the college years when I hallucinated wildly, screaming, “Get me out of this body!”; then the years of meditation with progressively better-disguised schizophrenic episodes; and always the existential tension. I sobbed and sobbed in Ignacio’s fierce embrace on the comer of Third and Main. I came home to this earth for the very first time I could remember. We didn’t speak.
Finally Ignacio walked me to his room. 1 washed my face and blew my nose. It was really too hot for touching. We lay our perspiring selves down, bodies apart, and spread out our limbs to dry. “Wait, I need to get used to you,” I said. Ignacio waited two minutes. Irene passed by outside and called through the window, “Is that whore with Ignacio again?” He got up and jammed the chair against the unlockable door. In the next three hours Ignacio came into me with his whole life six times, stopping and then just starting up again. It wasn’t erotic; it was cataclysmic, like a night storm at my tiny mountain cabin with gale winds and lightning and hail. Heart escaped mind. Hand escaped eye. The Latina broke free.
The next time I visited Ignacio, on Tuesday after his cement work, Carlos accosted me in the parking lot. The gist of his vehement warning was that Ignacio was a drug addict and generally a bad person. A gentle person like me should stay away. Drug addicts will even rob the houses of their own brothers and sell their girlfriends. His eyes got so wide I didn’t believe him. I never take drugs myself — there are too many fireworks in my mind naturally — but I have no special prejudice against those who do. Ignacio discounted Carlos’s accusation as sheer jealousy. Another of his pure-hearted lies to protect our love.
In fact, Ignacio was a full-scale heroin addict. I didn’t know until fourteen months later, when he handed me a wrinkled lunch bag with two syringes and a spoon and made me break the glass. I didn’t leave him then, but stayed to nurse him through withdrawals.
At the outset it was heroin that proved to Ignacio I was the woman he’d been waiting for. Heroin suppresses libido. He’d been out of prison for a year and hadn’t much wanted women. I overrode the effect of the drug. There wasn’t any higher standard.
Ken and I had been together since I was a freshman. He was a beginning graduate student, and to my eye the most elegant dancer at the UC Berkeley folkdances. Ken grew me up; Ken protected my sanity. Ken: brilliant, fair-minded, courageous, loyal, well-bred, athletic, adventurous; also uncommonly tall and finely coordinated. His faults don’t matter to the story. They are mainly sins of omission. Only that he didn’t throw his arms around me and love me unconditionally. First, I had to be good. Only that he wasn’t Man to my Woman. And vice versa, I guess, because by the time I met Ignacio, Ken had had a woman of his own style for about a year. My emotional extremes and my poor reality-orientation exhausted him. In the beginning I watched Ken and Carol closely, to see if she could summon the passion and intimacy Ken withheld from me. But no, she was content with an avoidance that left me frantic. My jealousy passed away.
But I never ever wanted to lose Ken. I would have continued in a double role as Ken’s mate in Tierrasanta and Ignacio’s woman in Chula Vista. I was the only split personality in the bunch, though. Ken was struggling with a necessary career change. He wanted calm and cooperation, the sort of things Carol was good at. Ignacio wanted me.
Until the end of December I commuted between Tierrasanta and South Bay areas. On my fourth visit, I was saying in Ignacio’s arms, “My inner violence just disappears with you. I would have thought that only a violent man could take away my violence. You’re tender.’’ Ignacio smiled a big smile. “Sweetheart, you don’t know me. I spent fifteen years in the joint. Everyone here’s afraid of me. It’s just your love makes me tender.” I was astonished but not unnerved.
We were meeting uncertainly in cheap motels in Chula Vista and National City. At first it was, “If I could have you every Tuesday night. I’d be happy forever.” Then, “Tuesday and Friday.” Then, “Look, sweetheart, it’s right out front. You’re the woman I wanted all my life. I wouldn’t never split on you, if you just stay pure for me. But you better figure it out fast! If you’re not coming with me, you better get back to your old man. ’Cause I’m a one-woman man, and I want all of you.”
Ignacio offered to give me up to Ken if Ken would give up Carol. Ken made no sense of the offer. He bore Ignacio no ill will, and I was easy with Carol. Ignacio concluded I was his, but he blamed me all the way for Ken’s irritability and dispassion. “You ain’t natural,” he said. “You don’t want his kid and you expect him to wanna hold you?”
On November 1 Ignacio rented a two-room apartment in Chula Vista, and carried me in. In that house he stayed awake all night holding me before I flew north to visit my father, now dear to me. I kept waking up to look into the bright brown eyes and see the bright brown skin. On the return trip Ignacio was late picking me up at the airport. He’d driven up to the big PSA hangar by mistake. He had never been to an airport, or to a museum, or to the San Diego Zoo. We went to all those places.
In those days Ignacio liked me to meditate, maybe just because I was completely there at his place. Often he lay his head in my lap, eyes quieter than mine, looking up at me. It was his beingness I most treasured, his ease with the axioms of this universe. He didn’t pull back from suffering. His logic ran something like this: He was a man. Men suffer. A man needs a woman. I was his woman. Thus we would suffer together. A whole lot, evidently. He was puzzled that I tried to avoid it. I’d gone to college, hadn’t I learned anything? (He had no idea what people learn in college; I finally had to read him my transcript.) “You spend all that time meditating. You do it just the same as drinking. You oughta learn some mind control or something if you don’t wanna suffer.”
My reality bent around him. I was soft, content, accepting. Only just to sit in the same room and listen to him breathe.
Yet it didn’t seriously occur to me to separate from Ken or to make my life with another man who was so handicapped in society. I was the one who needed to be looked after. Besides, I expected Ignacio to be arrested or shot again any day. If he had bled to death in my arms, I would have cursed God and been satisfied.
In early January Ignacio disappeared. I traced him to the El Centro jail. I was hysterical, and he would explain nothing on the jailhouse telephone. Ken put up bail for Ignacio, a total of $2300 to three different courts. “It isn’t a question of whether to bail him out,” Ken was stern. “You love him. You have to take responsibility.”
Ignacio had never witnessed that degree of magnanimity, natural to Ken. He thought he’d seen everything, but he’d only seen everything bad.
I picked up Ignacio at the El Centro jail. After twenty days he was still in pain from a beating by five cops in Calexico. There had been blood in his urine and he had a broken rib. I rescued his guitar from a pawnshop. I couldn’t get him to a doctor, though. “Sweetheart, just hold me. You can make me well,” he said. The first night I demanded the whole story, straight, of his entire criminal career. He told me maybe five percent, deceiving me again from good intentions.
Two weeks later Ignacio returned to El Centro to complete a six-month sentence for attempted burglary. While there he had the pleasure of punching out the drug dealer who first shot him up with heroin at age fifteen.
Ken went east alone that summer to his family’s country place, to be visited by Carol. Driving with him to the airport, I longed to retrieve my energy from sixteen years of self-absorption, to rework the relationship with a better me, to emerge as helpmate. Forget the Latin issue. No man is so fine as Ken. I cherished his life more than any other, and I still do.
It was a foggy night at the airport. At the curbside unloading zone our eyes met, tremulously. But we didn’t speak; we couldn’t seem to find the mechanism that would allow us to talk directly about ourselves. The desire was there but finally, in those silent moments, the hope was lost. Ken boarded the plane and was gone.
For more than a year we made no property settlement to mark our parting. We had never married legally, and so there was no need for paperwork to separate us. I knew I finally had to face up to the material world. I didn’t want a $15,000 delay, and money could only hurt me with Ignacio. Our five acres of mountain chaparral and boulders meant most to both Ken and me. He kept it and bought for me the adjoining lot, for twice what he believed he owed me. It was separation with commitment.
The summer that Ken flew east alone, I taught summer school and waited for Ignacio. For the first time in my life I was on my own, unprotected, unsubsidized. My meditation sessions dropped to the “hygienic level,” half an hour or an hour a day.
At midnight on July 3, I picked up Ignacio at the El Centro jail once again. I was solemn. “Do you have any reservations, ’Nacio? Tell me now. It doesn’t matter that I waited for you.”
“No, sweetheart. No reservations. You’re the woman I always wanted. Just stay pure for me.”
Our life together was semi-nomadic. Omitting such way stations as the Tecate riverbank or a friend’s garden shed, I count ten different shelters for Ignacio: first an apartment in Imperial Beach with me; then his parents’ place in Calexico; then three Tecate slum locales; the barn of a ranch on the road to Mexicali; three more shacks or slum rooms in Tecate; the retirement cottage of his parents at Las Palmas, on the road from Tecate to Ensenada, where he went to recuperate from serious injury; then his leaky, windowless room in Tecate again.
The key move was Ignacio’s departure to Tecate. After his release from the El Centro jail, we had rented an apartment in Imperial Beach, convenient to his heroin connection. He was arrested there for petty theft, but jumped bail and fled to Calexico. I took a studio in Lemon Grove, which was promptly given a 6:00 a.m. search by two thugs from the sheriffs warrant detail. I telephoned to warn Ignacio, whence his exodus to Mexico.
It was at his parents’ place in Calexico, a sinking wood-frame house near the cattleyards, that Ignacio gave me his syringes to break. I held him through withdrawals, through the trembling and jerking, the sweating and insomnia, the excruciating tension in his joints. I swore I would never leave him.
For the next three years I followed his relocations. Some weeks or months I commuted from Mexico to work in San Diego. Other times, depending upon his ferocity, my schedule, and the sordidness of his quarters, I commuted from San Diego to visit him in Mexico. When people asked me, “Where do you live?” I answered, “I don’t know.” I had no week-to-week whereabouts. Ignacio manufactured chaos. To succeed with him in the trivia of daily living demanded creative excellence.
In Tecate I cooked over fires, on a camping stove, on a two-burner Mexican propane rig, and with electric “stingers,” as circumstances allowed. I bought cooked food from the other side, we ate from vendors on the street, and we picnicked for weeks at a time. As for water, at Ignacio’s second shack we ran a hose in from a outdoor faucet and stored water in a plastic garbage can. Mostly, though, we carried it in gallon milk jugs from a public faucet somewhere. Once we had a private toilet, twice a private outhouse. I remember electricity somewhere. It didn’t matter. What wore me down was the coming and going, the noise from the neighbors — typically Elvis Presley screaming from a speaker on the front porch, and the uncompromised filth, such as dirty diapers dragged around by dogs.
In this chaos we were oriented by the palpable current of energy flowing between our two bodies. Even when feeling deeply alienated from one another, we would touch surreptitiously for strength and direction. “Do you feel it, sweetheart?” Ignacio would ask me suddenly in the night.
“Yes, it’s spooky.”
“I felt it the first time I seen you at the Del Rio Motel. Didn’t you?”
On nice days, when Ignacio was feeling good, he’d take me for a walk into the hills around Tecate. He’d stop to watch nearly invisible insects mating. He’d discover plant mutations and speculate on rock formations. “Slow down,” he would implore. “Your idea of hiking is walking past everything.” He’d point out a boulder at some distance: “I’m gonna lean you over that one, ’Cesca.” Then a rest and a snack and reading aloud from a science magazine, together with marijuana for him. Or we’d walk out at night along the railroad tracks or by the river. He would find a ground bird or a toad in the grass; in the sky, planets, satellites, falling stars, or a UFO. “Sweetheart, last night I dreamed they came to get me for a UFO, and I told them to wait ’til I get you. You know I won’t take off without you.” We’d lie down in the dry grass out of sight of car lights to make love.
Ignacio endeavored to strip me down to woman. He was driven to peel away from me the privileges of the dominant class, my education, my intelligence, my talents, the security of my white friends — all of which he exaggerated. He demanded that I leave everything on the other side and live only with what he provided. When he could feel my faith and need, then surely a responsible husband would arise from the drunkenness and dissipation to care for me. But his violent fits terrified me. I couldn’t let go of my small securities. For my part, I wanted to strip Ignacio to the naked psyche, totally honest and drug-free.
When occasionally he was in focus, Ignacio was a most satisfying intellectual companion. We read science magazines and looked at art books. He came from a family of closet intellectuals, amid the poverty, racial hatred, drugs, and crime. The first time I talked to his older brother, Ricardo opened with: “Ignacio says you’re a mathematician. Do you know how to prove there are infinitely many prime numbers?” I did, and so did he. I had been to college. He had been to prison. He worked, when he worked, in a cannery. Ricardo sent me neat letters discussing his results in number theory, written in professional notation. On my first visit to Ignacio’s parents’, their father pulled out a dusty math book from the 1930s to show me where he’d learned to take cube roots of six-digit numbers in his head. Ignacio’s heroes were the great scientists. “If I hadn’t been a gangster,” he proclaimed, “I woulda been a scientist.”
Ignacio was a charismatic musician (he had even given up smoking to sing) and hence in great demand with friends, most of whom were drinking buddies. If I was the first cause of his salvation, then surely one of them was the second.
I pay tribute to Manuel, a live-in junkyard guard, heavy drinker, weekend pickpocket. A petite man in his fifties, Manuel seemed frail and sensitive. But after all, as a youngster he had lain in wait for the schoolmaster who had raped and beaten his sister and he had murdered the man. He was prison-wise, in spite of his air of the mournful philosopher. He shared with Ignacio his tools and he had learned by himself about carving wood. Quaint folk art: houses with roofs that open, saints in a bottle, peach pits rendered as monkeys biting their tails, energetic disproportioned women. Ignacio went off heroin to love me, and for periods he stopped drinking to carve. Of course he quarreled terribly with Manuel, during which times I was forbidden conversation with the man.
One Tecate friend stood by us throughout and bore witness. It was Raoul, a staunch Yaqui Indian in his middle seventies. He was my height, barrel chested, well groomed, with nice dentures and the “noble savage” profile, his head capped with thick, silver hair. After Ignacio’s first month in Tecate, Raoul picked him out among vagrants in the park when his loading crew was short a man. Restacking fifty-kilogram (110-lb) sacks of cement is no light task. If a man doesn’t break his neck or get a hernia, still the cement dust cakes on the skin, rubs into open sores, then hardens into concrete scabs.
Raoul knew how to do everything that ever needed doing, and he did it without reading or writing or figuring. When Ignacio broke his guitar finger loading cement, Raoul knew how to splint and wrap it. He wouldn't use the clean rag I brought. “The finger will never heal with women’s rags!” He commanded me not to make love with Ignacio until the finger healed.
I regularly brought Raoul luxuries from the other side: an Army surplus raincoat, two dozen bottles of Rigident denture cream, Quaker Oats, a five-pound tin of honey, Swiss Miss Cocoa Mix. Usually he would pay Ignacio for the goods in peso equivalents, thus serving as one of the many disguised conduits of money from me to Ignacio. I had the honor of sewing a denim jacket for Raoul. The two jackets I had made Ignacio were widely admired — the point being, I think, that I wasn’t just a rich, white broad but actually a woman. I had refused to bring Raoul a pistol (private purchase is illegal in Mexico) to replace his convincing black cap gun, but I did gratify his wish for a secret pistol pocket in the jacket.
Raoul stopped by frequently to bring us goodies from the bakery or vegetables from his garden. If Ignacio wasn’t home, Raoul would give me a big hug and say, “Francesca, I dreamed of you last night.” Most of Ignacio’s friends weren’t permitted in the house when I was there alone. I took Raoul’s affection lightly by reason of his age. In Tecate I was lonesome for friendship. He was the only Mexican man who treated me naturally, and also the only person who corrected my Spanish grammar and pronunciation.
A few times I stopped by his house alone. I saw the notebook where he practiced signing his name, the Bible under his pillow, the long dagger under his bed. He had been orphaned young, he told me. He never married or had children, but had lived in sin with three women. Women were too much trouble, though, even if they weren’t sin.
Until age sixty-nine or so he was an alcoholic “more vicious than Ignacio,” as he put it. He had even begged without shame on the streets. Then he got religion and gave up alcohol and women. (Ignacio insisted he had a fifteen-year-old girlfriend.) He worked steadily and saved his money and bought many suits of clothes, which he displayed for me neatly folded in a trunk. Every Sunday at 7:00 a.m. Raoul took the bus to Tijuana for an all-day service at Los Hermanos de Cristo.
Raoul helped train me in appropriate behavior for a Mexican woman: “Francesca, don’t sit with your legs up.” He functioned somewhat as a marriage counselor, too, berating Ignacio for his drinking and violence and advising me to stand up for myself.
But I guess I imposed on him too much one night when Ignacio ran me out of the house and I couldn’t cross the border. I had no place to stay, so Raoul let me sleep on the floor. It was very cold. In the middle of the night he took me in his warm arms and said that, since Ignacio had run me off, I had no more obligation to the fool. I should come and live with him, a good man. Drinking and fighting were behind him now. He would treat me well. Raoul hadn’t considered his age an adverse factor in romance. I backed off. Well, he continued, I had come to his house on my own. What else for? (He was a vigorous and desirable man, after all.) I couldn’t explain across cultures, and to excuse myself on account of his age would dangerously challenge his virility. He relented. He wouldn’t take me by force that time, but if I came alone again. . . !
At the San Diego end of my /I commute was my mother’s house, near the college where I taught, and a tent at the mountain property. During a two-month separation from Ignacio, with the help of friends and especially Ken, I put up a ten-by-ten cabin. I was operating on about $8500 a year, with a considerable drain to Tecate. During subsequent lengthy separations, I perfected the edifice with a propane kitchenette from a trailer, a ten-by-eighteen room addition, and finally an elegant wood stove. Tecate slum life had already accustomed me to hauling water and to lighting with kerosene. On warm nights I would sleep out on Wide Rock to watch the Milky Way pass overhead.
The mountain cabin stands as testimony to the fact that I grew up again. The first time through, I didn’t take into account the physical world. From the time I was eighteen, Ken mediated between me and it. His second biggest complaint against me was that I never took responsibility for finances, transportation, housing, or locale, even though I was helpful and extremely frugal. (The biggest complaint was my excessive emotionality.) I expected Ignacio to mediate for me in the same way after he got out of jail. He didn’t and he couldn’t. Moreover, until he stopped stealing (when he went off heroin), I wasn’t able to accept any support from him. I had to take care of myself or get a more accommodating man or join a monastery.
For love of Ignacio I learned to take care of myself. One of my first strategies was a night class in auto repair. I worked as a secretary out of temporary employment agencies and studied medical transcription. Finally I achieved some security teaching math half-time, and gained a sense of “right livelihood,” as the Buddha put it. 1 couldn’t work full time. I need time.
This is not a story about Ken, but my conviction that he was my husband persisted in spite of my fervor for Ignacio. The magic hope. In a certain way Ignacio would have been pleased too. “Even if I could just send you back to Ken a whole woman and you had his kid and I knew you was happy, I would be happy, too.” As I spent less and less time in Tecate, I got into the habit of staying a night at Ken’s house every week or two. They were especially nice times, like the best possible between brother and sister who share a secret. He always encouraged me with Ignacio, bound that I would at least make good with the man who took me away from him — as he construed it. Ken’s close relationship with Carol continued, but they didn’t marry. He needed a wilder woman for his very own, he discovered, one who would touch his mysteries.
I was actually capable of, or beset by, simultaneous visions of Ken as my husband and Ignacio as my true animal mate — the split psyche. Near my mountain cabin there is a house-size boulder split vertically, with the two halves set about a foot apart. I slide into that cool, sharp space and look up at the sky. I say: The myth is wrong. Unity is not the only stability. Here is stability in division. At Split Rock I am in the cool in-betweenness. From here I imagine that had I mated with Ignacio first, I would have clung afterward to Ken with the same sense of miraculous deliverance.
My relationship with Ignacio was wildly unstable. The weekly or biweekly commutes between Tecate and San Diego threw me into culture shock on both sides. His violent moods kept me in distress for days running. Yet I studied mathematics for the first time with joy, great joy — Ignacio’s mere presence made spacious my intellect. My compulsive eating dropped away, and my weight stabilized at ten pounds lighter.
Ignacio’s drunkenness squandered every material thing. One time, for instance, he sold the one refrigerator we had to buy liquor and marijuana. But he gave up stealing when he gave up heroin — for himself and everyone else. With his fists he beat out corruption in the Tecate loaders’ union: the head man’s embezzlement of the members’ dues, the two-thirds wages to drunken illiterates. He had Raoul bank the dues cleanly (hence the signature exercises in Raoul’s notebook). And when funds accumulated, Ignacio supervised the purchase and renovation of a grand dump truck. He was proud! As soon as he left for other work, though, the union thugs emptied the treasury. “Damn Mexicans!’’ swore Ignacio. “In the U.S. the rich bastards rip off the poor. Here in Mexico the poor people rip off each other besides. The damn fools. They’re so stupid they deserve it!” Whatever his rages, I belonged to this earth with Ignacio. He loved me powerfully. He would come into me fully, over and over again. His face showed not urgency but deep peace, like a photo I have of a saint in samadhi. The sexual bond was inviolable. A real man has only one woman, according to Ignacio, and she is pure. Guys who run around on their wives aren’t to be trusted. They’re not man enough to get what they need at home. The worst imaginable thing would be my infidelity. “I don’t know what I’d do,” he confessed, “if I found you with another man. I guess I’d have to kill you both.”
There was the baby. Ignacio would ask again and again after making love, as though the topic were fresh each time, “Sweetheart, have you ever thought about having a kid?” Yes, I’d thought about it. Human life is too painful to create one more person, I’d thought. “You’re thirty-five,” Ignacio would say. “Look at what your body’s made for. You ain’t got much time. You ain’t a woman yet.” The baby was always a part of our dream. “You think we’re happy now? We ain’t got nothin’ yet,” he said. “When a man’s got his old lady in one arm and his kid in the other, that’s it!” Sometimes I'd challenge him: “You had the wife and the kid. You left them three times and went to prison.” “’Cesca, that was different. .. .” I gave up the birth control pills, after seventeen years, and the baby was always in the dream. It was to be a brown baby, just to be alive with.
And there was the land. Ignacio drew me a picture on a plastic dinner plate of the house he would build for me, on a river plain, with the trees and the garden he would plant, mountains in the background under a happy sun. It was a potent picture in primary colors, a dinner-plate fetish.
Even when the dream was faint, there was still the preciousness of his brown skin, the right skin, like my Sicilian father’s I’d distrusted; not white skin, the wrong skin, like my mother’s I’d loved. Fighter’s muscle in the back and arms and chest I held so tightly asleep; not runner’s muscle, not weightroom muscle, not Hatha yoga muscle, but worker’s muscle, fighter’s muscle, like my Sicilian uncles’ (boxers all of them).
Every morning I woke up with Ignacio was like a miracle for me. I would perform the benediction of his sacred body, kissing each scar in thanksgiving for his life: the characteristic crescent on his forehead from a playmate’s roller skate; the two small, round scars, front and back underneath his ribs, where a bullet had passed through; a four-inch scar with stitch marks like a centipede crawling on his belly, from surgical exploration of his viscera for gunshot damage; the six-inch scar running the length of one calf where a steel plate reinforced the bullet-shattered bone; the “spiral galaxy” scars on his thighs, bullet wounds from the same policeman's gun at fifteen feet — Ignacio just kept attacking until the fifth bullet dropped him; on his lower back, stitch marks from a stab wound. Then I would kiss the torture sites. On work days my benediction omitted the minor scars. The dream held us fixed in embrace on its screen, whatever drama played past.
The first time he hit me was two weeks out of the El Centro jail. Conspicuously bruised, I taught class the next morning. Ignacio apologized with all his heart. “You’re my whole life!” he claimed. “I just had to know once that you won’t freak out on me if things get tough. I ain’t no wife beater. It’ll never happen again.” I believed him. I wasn’t really hurt much. And after so many years of having a man go cold on me and disappear when he was irritated, I really preferred the violence, if it didn’t go any further. Besides, sometimes I feel rough myself.
But it did go further, much too much, about two months later at the Imperial Beach apartment. I screamed once with the surprise of being struck. “So you’re trying to get the cops on me! Just you scream again!” He had me pinned down. He held a kitchen knife to my throat. He was slapping me hard and growling, “Scream, you bitch, scream. ...” I didn’t scream again. 1 knew I was dying. Nothing was important but readying my soul. I rose into the clear peace. Suddenly Ignacio left the house. I could have escaped, but I had no interest in my body then. On later inventory I discovered that the body was bruised and twisted but otherwise intact. Ignacio returned in an hour or two, agonized with remorse. (He had gone out for a fix, which I couldn’t have known then.) He made love to me with all his healing powers. But I had to leave to find my life again. I went up to my mountain to sleep in a tent for four nights. Then I was safe for maybe six months. What had happened was so terrible and bizarre it wasn’t real.
The third time he beat me was the first time it was real. He terrorized me for six hours. My worst fear was for my teeth. “This is happening to me,’’ I acknowledged. I stayed away for a month.
The fourth beating didn’t quite happen. There was the gun from under the mattress, a bad scene, a few shots, Ignacio throwing my stuff in the car and sending me back across the border late at night. “’Cesca, don’t think I don’t love you, but I gotta get you outta here.”
Until I met Stella, ten years younger than me, I had no sage confidante. She befriended me on the street. Stella had grown up barefoot and unschooled in the south of Mexico, and had fled to Tecate with her baby in her arms. For three years she had endured the beatings of her first love, and supported him besides. She passed her limit when he threw their infant daughter on the floor: “You insult me by giving me a girl." He pursued her to Tecate eventually and tried to kill her and her baby boy by another man. The two-year-old boy was standing there with a ten-inch belly scar as she related the tale to me. Stella saw her would-be murderer to a seventeen-year prison sentence.
When I confided Ignacio’s violence, she yelled, “Pegalo! Pegalo!" (“Hit him back!”) She had always fought back against her husband. She wouldn't put up with any man attacking her. I re-enacted Stella’s “Pegalo!" for Ignacio. He exclaimed, “Yes, that’s a woman!
Why couldn’t you be like that?” The “opportunity” had passed. By then I was too scared.
Stella told me to leave the jerk. She could find me a better man if it was a Mexican I wanted. “But Ignacio’s the one I love.” Big deal. I’d get over the jerk in no time once I had a good man to love me. She’d stand by me.
The fifth time was by the river in Tecate. Ignacio met me walking into town for groceries along the railroad tracks, too late in the afternoon to return before dusk. So I must have been looking for trouble from the drunks at the tracks. He himself was very drunk.
He recited to me again the grizzly tortures he had suffered at the hands of the Mexican police: the cold-shower beatings; four or six days in the “hole” — thirteen men stuffed into a six-by-six-by-six-foot cubicle to sweat and shit there together and gasp for oxygen until they were lunatic; and especially the repeated drownings to unconsciousness in a dirty rain barrel. Ignacio had held out for his manhood while other victims begged and cried and spilled everything they knew. I’d be better off if I knew what it was like. I thought I was so big with my college degrees, teaching calculus to engineers. The scum! And what were they doing? Wiping out jobs for all the poor people so they have to steal to eat, destroying all the plants and animals on the face of the earth, building the big bomb to blow up everything. And they’re getting paid for it, too. Robbing a liquor store is small-time. Besides, Ignacio knew from reading the papers after his jobs that the stores always reported to their insurance companies two or three times their loss.
Ignacio was punctuating his argument by picking me up and throwing me down again. “’Nacio, it’s your Francesca! Don’t do this to us! ’Nacio, I love you! You’re forgetting everything!”
“Like hell you love me. You still love your old man. You go over there and cook dinner and clean his house. Don’t tell me he doesn’t fuck you. I oughta kill you just for that.”
“You know he doesn’t. He stopped making love to me the year before I met you. ... I was with him seventeen years, ’Nacio. I don’t stop loving. But you’re the only man I ever tried to have a baby with. ...”
“Then stay outta his house. I ain’t no sucker for you.” On and on.
“’Nacio, love doesn’t stop. Don’t you want me to love you for always?” “You’re just blabbin’. I'm goin’ to show you what it’s like to drown. Then you tell me you love me!”
We were on the riverbank. I was terrified in every nerve. I tried to steady my spirit for dying, but this time my will said: I will survive. I would have killed him to save myself then. I was never drowned. Ignacio half carried me home when he had completely reduced me to terror.
That time I left Ignacio for good, so I thought, tearing myself out of his arms in the morning, crying for both of us. For the first time he was conscious of what he had done. He was suicidal with despair. I despised myself because I couldn’t give more than I was to heal him. The fact is, I lack substance, I thought.
Manuel, the junkyard guard, the wood carver, the weary philosopher, would say, “The virtue of evil is to open our eyes. The evil of virtue is to close them.”
My mother returned with me to Tecate in a few days to help me move out. Ignacio was too drunk to help. He tried to hug my mother. She straightened up and said authoritatively: “Ignacio, I like you. And you have made my daughter happier than anyone, sometimes. But if you ever hurt her again” — she is possibly the only unarmed person who ever stood up to him and got away with it — “if you ever hurt Francesca again, I personally will come down to Tecate to settle with you!”
I went to the Battered Women’s Coalition for support. Ignacio fit the profile of the typical male abuser. My upbringing with a violent, autocratic father was characteristic of battered women. But my (newfound) independence and my natural (now ebbing) confidence were counterindicators.
My youngest sister, a doctor who received battered women into emergency rooms, decidedly withdrew from me as long as I continued with Ignacio. My middle sister Anna, a Marxist sociologist, was forgiving of the downtrodden poor, and she admired Ignacio in many ways. She observed, “You were so abstract before, I couldn’t communicate with you. Ignacio brought you down to earth.” She was still hopeful, and she wanted me to have the baby with him if I could. “But Anna, he’s completely irresponsible.”
“So what. For a father like that! Take the baby and run. At least you’d have the baby.”
My mother saw her romance with my father come alive again in Ignacio and me. She wanted it to work, but even more she wanted me safe. Perhaps even more she wanted a second grandchild. She sent Ignacio a gift subscription to Science News. My counselor at the Battered Women’s Coalition told me the violence could only get worse.
Stella’s opinion had weight, for she desired to give me her daughter Lali to raise, with the educational opportunities she coveted herself. I had instant rapport with five-year-old Lali. Our birthdays were on the same day. Lali wanted to come with me. and I wanted her. But Ignacio’s violence stood in the way.
Our last year together we were mostly apart. There was a pattern I recognize in retrospect. When Ignacio was working, he felt good, even when he left at 6:00 a.m. on an icy morning in an open truck. “We hadda stay workin’ all night at the pipeline,” he would tell me. “Was it cold! We took turns sleepin’ in twos to keep warm with Raoul’s blanket. I made everybody sing on the way back.” When work was scarce, he was feisty and malcontent. When work stopped, he was dangerous.
Ignacio didn’t get to the point of beating me again. But I would leave for a week or a month or two when he terrorized me. I never wanted to go, but I had no other way of communicating to him that terrorism wasn’t okay.
“Don’t be pretending you love me,’’ he warned. “If I even hit you one little time, you’d split on me.”
“I do love you, and, yes, I would leave.”
“You scare so easy, ’Cesca. If you loved me, you wouldn’t scare. I ain’t never broke no bones or put you in the hospital. I just slapped you around a little so you could feel like a woman.” “It makes me hate my womanness. That’s what.”
“C’mon. . . .”
“’Nacio, you terrorize me for hours. You threaten to drown me.” “Sweetheart, that’s just words. Your white suckers think words is things. Words ain’t nothin’.”
“Then don’t say them.”
“You’re my whole life, ’Cesca. But there’s some things you gotta understand. ...” Wanting and fearing the same man was making me neurotic.
Marvellous events would rivet us together. For example, I woke one night snuggled around him with my hand on his chest. I opened my eyes to see a bright light streaming out of his chest from my hand. I had a vision of his soul. Ignacio was awake, too. “What’s goin’ on?” I told him, then I fell asleep. Ignacio stayed awake all night because his chest felt electrified. And many times he danced me to other worlds with his supernatural guitar, then joined me there. Our psyches were interlocked. Even in the worst of times we slept as one being.
Nevertheless, I would not be terrorized, and dreadful events drove us apart. I left Ignacio again after a friend was kidnapped and tortured by the Tijuana Federales. Ignacio came home late in a tequila stupor. “I oughta beat you up good one time just so you’d know what it’s like!” And more, and worse. Maddened by smug, middle-class invulnerability, he slammed me down on the bed and then passed out, holding me securely against his chest. Safe, I savored him through the last hours of the night: his smell, his heartbeat, his tough skin taut over muscle, the raised scars, the hair patterns I had memorized, the conviction of his dreamtime embrace. At 6:00 a.m. he awoke and drank another bottle of tequila. Still dangerous. In late morning I escaped.
As I drove past the junkyard, conscience overruled fear. I paused to pay Manuel for the doll my mother had commissioned. (He sold for drink the quilt she made him.) Manuel perceived my condition. “I am a man of sorrows, too,” he said. His first wife had hemorrhaged to death at the birth of their child. His second wife had crossed the border when their baby was due and had never returned from the easy life. “I know how to cry,” said Manuel. I cried. It was Ignacio’s drunkenness. “All men drink,” he said. It was the violence. “Stay away for a while to punish him, and then come back.”
“I’m never coming back. I won’t be terrorized.”
Manuel deduced, “You have a man on the other side.”
“No. I will not be terrorized.”
“Francesca, you’re his whole life. Ignacio will die.”
I kept my cool as far as the border check. “Young lady, what are you bringing back?”
“A pendant carved from cow bone.” It was the Hunchback of Good Fortune, Manuel’s parting gift.
Then my disintegration. I stopped along Highway 94 to phone an emergency hotline — I was hallucinating on the road. Passing Parkway Plaza, I pulled off at a carnival. I screamed myself to delirium on a Ferris wheel with spinning seats. Then to Encinitas and Moonlight Beach for a night swim in the cold. Then to the arms of another man, an acquaintance. My first infidelity, to authenticate the break with Ignacio.
Several weeks later I responded to Ignacio’s plea by mail for my return. He had almost bled to death after a fight with three men living in the river brush. They had demanded his wallet (with one hundred pesos) and he had counterattacked. He had stopped drinking. Raoul confirmed it. “This time it’s for real,” Ignacio entreated. “If I don’t make it for you this time, I won’t never bother you no more.” I was teaching two summer sessions back-to-back, but I nursed him as best I could on weekends. Among his friends, only Raoul, the born-again Christian, cared for him. The drinking buddies disappeared; Manuel the carver, too.
Sober, Ignacio was magnificent. We saw heaven. But in sleep his body no longer melted into mine.
We spent the last weekend together, at his parents’ newly purchased cottage at Las Palmas, on the road to Ensenada. In Brawley, three years before, Ignacio’s father had first accused me of being a white woman going slumming. I said, “I’m here because I love your son. And when he gets out of jail. I’m going to make my life with him. Tell me if that’s slumming?” After that I was family, and they gave me their very best. Felipe told me twice, “Even if you and Ignacio don’t make it together, you’re still our daughter, and we want you here with us anytime you can come.” It made me proud.
Sunday night, while absolutely sober and drug-free, Ignacio went berserk. We were sleeping in the back of my pickup in his parents’ yard. He accused me of getting ready to turn him in to the police. Already exhausted from summer sessions, his injuries, and the long commutes, I think I went into shock.
At his room in Tecate the next morning, he loaded all my belongings into my truck. Then he limped away to look for work. I sat in the car and struggled to get hold of myself. It was 7:00 a.m. I had a three-hour calculus class to teach in San Diego beginning at 8:20. Slowly I unloaded the wood and carving tools back into his room. Then I drove to the college and taught class brilliantly.
I determined to rescue my life from chaos and destruction. I felt all the more impelled because Ken had met again a lovely, lively, younger woman friend of ours from ten years back and had suddenly decided to marry her. The stability of my relationship with Ken had subsidized the wild drama with Ignacio, just as Ignacio wore me out enough so Ken could appreciate my company. The new wife seemed perfect for Ken, and she wanted children. She was openly possessive, though. I couldn’t see him alone. I had to stand on my own. I buried my wedding dress under stones at the boundary between Ken’s mountain property and mine. End of an era. Both my hearts were lost. When I had to rest, I would lie bare on my mountain on bare rock.
It was six months ago I left Ignacio for the last, last time. I’m all right. Family, friends, and activities are gratifying. My cabin is almost livable. I have a thousand dollars in the bank. No serious health problems. Work at the college is decent. On my small scale, things are more or less under control.
Maybe nothing is wrong. I don’t quite feel contact with the earth, though. I’m trying to get five-year-old Lali here, but there are bureaucratic complications. I heard an inspiring talk by a woman who works with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I hoped to spend my Christmas vacation serving the poor with the San Francisco Sisters of Charity but their facilities weren’t ready yet. Every week I stop by a psychiatric ward for some original conversation with the patients.
If anything is wrong, it’s that my mate is missing. I wake up every morning praying for Ignacio: “Lord, heal ’Nacio.” Sometimes I can’t fall asleep without praying for him, over and over and over.
After two months’ absence, Ignacio wrote a wistful note saying he had crossed the border to find my place but had turned back when he was sighted by the border patrol. I replied that I wanted him desperately but I was exhausted with the effort; it was up to him to make a way for us. Then another sweet, sad, tentative note from him. I responded as before. His third letter said: “Don’t go out sleeping around with your friends if you really want me. . . .I still love you and want you the same as I always have. We just need to work it out.’’ I took my life in my hands and wrote back: “I need a steady man and a home and children. I have to consider getting a husband as legitimate activity,” and followed it with a profession of longing for him.
If I hadn’t been afraid, I would have gone looking for him a hundred times. But I knew I couldn’t hold out past Christmas, the day of amnesty. And somehow I had to say good-bye to him in order to move on. I sent a date and time to meet with him: Saturday, December 18, 1982 at two o’clock.
I took precautions. First, I had a session with my former therapist. She reminded me that my desire for Ignacio belongs to me and not to him — I can retrieve it. She suggested I take him a good-bye present. It was my grandmother Josephine’s scapular I wanted to give him, a Catholic devotional necklace. My father had been born nearly dead, and my grandmother vowed to go to Mass every day if he lived. She was a woman of her word. I took her scapular for Ignacio. Second, taking a tip from Ulysses, who had himself bound to the mast when his ship passed by the Sirens, I imposed on my middle sister Anna to accompany me to Tecate and bring me back.
The night before, I was all despair; if I give up the dream with Ignacio, how can I ever have faith again? My inner voice was unaffected: Ignacio is the man.
Idrove down to Tecate again early on the eighteenth of December, with Anna. We spent the morning visiting my friend Stella in the poorest section of town. I hadn’t seen her for as long as Ignacio. We brought two quilts from my mother. As a Marxist sociologist, my sister inquired seriously about work and living conditions. We walked through the neighborhood and watched women washing clothes at the public well. Anna carried Stella’s little boy on the downhills. Lali held my hand, and we danced and skipped together. She is one of those perfectly beautiful, well-mannered Mexican children, and bright besides. In conversation I mostly translated between Anna and Stella. Before we drove away, Stella told me forcefully to forget that drunkard. Lali’s face covered with tears. When would I take her with me? First I need a home, I told her.
At 2:00 p.m. I went to Ignacio’s room. The door was open, but Ignacio was out — at the liquor store, the landlady told me. My sister agreed to return at 4:30. Ignacio’s windowless room was true to his resources. There were two plastic gallon jugs of water and a wash basin at the foot of the unsprung bed. The basin was an old oil pan 1 had salvaged from the dump. Another plastic jug was cut off for a urinal. On a makeshift work table and along a side wall stood his redwood carvings. They were not the quaint works of a folk artist but the elegant and intense works of a master. He had few tools (gifts from my mother), only Manuel’s simple training, and little practice. I inspected the carvings: a life-size Indian head with a removable hairpiece concealing a stash hole; three four-foot guardian spirits for Ken’s garden (a wedding present); letter boxes carved from a single piece of wood; a lizard, a tortoise, two old men. The floor was swept dustless and everything was neatly arranged, according to his habit. Diesel oil darkened the bedding: the quilt my mother had made for him; a large beach towel with leopard spots I had sewn at age thirteen; and the soft wool rug I had hooked for him, with a staring jaguar bordered by prints of his own hands and feet. Even on a dry day the room smelled like wet plaster.
Ignacio pushed open the screen door. We stared at each other. We touched fingers. The current passed between us. We wouldn’t have to suffer the worst kind of separation, of not being wanted by each other. He introduced me to the kitten he had rescued from the river. He showed me his carvings in detail. “They’re all for you, ’Cesca. I only just do this ’cause of you.’’ We stood there with nothing to say. The hope and the hopelessness were equal and unspeakable.
Ignacio was medium drunk. I had brought my sister to limit the event, but circumstances seemed irrelevant again.
My weariness pressed in on me. I said, “I haven’t breathed out all the way since I was with you.” Ignacio closed the door and wrapped his arms around me tightly. It was first meeting again.
Sunlight came through the cracks around the door, so we still could see each other. Ignacio started to make love to me, and he didn’t stop until my sister arrived at 5:00 p.m. First meeting: not sensuality but cataclysm. We exchanged maybe fifty sentences: “Sweetheart, sweetheart, I just been waitin' for you every day. I ain’t been with no broad since you left.”
“I had to fight myself not to come looking for you. I would have come a hundred times if I weren’t afraid of you. ’ ’
“Let go of me a minute, ’Nacio. I want to look at you. I want to touch the scars.”
“I can’t let go a minute.”
We heard the 4:00 p.m. horn from the beer factory, then the 4:30 bells from the church, then the 5:00 bells. My sister came to the door. She’d been waiting in the car. I searched for my watch and underpants while Anna examined Ignacio’s extraordinary carvings. The Indian head and animals were for me, the letter boxes for Anna and our younger sister, the tall spirit dolls for Ken. My mother’s fancier letter box was still in the making. Ignacio unloaded from the truck the new wood and sandpaper for him and chatted with Anna. I tried to kiss him good-bye on the sidewalk, but he stepped clear of me. I had forgotten his distaste for public affection. Then he helped us into the truck and waved us cheerfully on our way.
Nothing was settled. Nothing was discussed. I didn’t force the issues of drunkenness and terrorism. Ignacio didn’t make me swear fidelity. He didn’t tell me when to come back. I still had the key to his room. We didn’t say final farewells, though I believe we said good-bye.