Alejandro already knows her face because he has seen it on the internet:
Her arms around his cousin Javi’s neck in the doorway of their new flat.
Licking ice cream off her bottom lip in a sunny plaza.
Grinning with her girlfriends in a purple bandana amid a sea of angry placards.
Lydia. She looks flimsier in real life. Alejandro can see the veins in her chest.
It’s the first time Javi has brought her to stay in San Ignacio, and the whole day she is like a bird blinking a hundred eyes. She agrees to a beer, but when someone asks her which brand she prefers, she just says thank you very much in her strange Spanish, and everybody laughs. When they sit down for lunch, Alejandro notices—even if his parents don’t—how Lydia’s shoulders hunch as his mother says her earnest grace. How she sits impossibly still, right up to the Amen, as though if she doesn’t move it won’t count, she won’t have participated. He sees, even if they don’t, the involuntary revulsion that flashes across the girl’s face when his dad slices a banana cheerfully into his lentil soup. Everything is placed deliberately within the couple’s reach, and they are offered alternatives even as their plates are piled high with food. Javi says an enthusiastic yes to everything that’s suggested, and Alejandro winces as his mother jumps repeatedly to oblige. His parents have long held Javi up as a shining example, but now that he is tall and handsome—and especially now that he has brought a foreign girl back with him from university—his position as the family favourite is only exaggerated.
Between courses, Lydia tries to clear some plates, but there is so little space that she jolts the table as she stands, slopping water from her glass over the tablecloth and into the salt dish, and is shushed back firmly into her seat along with her apologies. Alejandro notices how Javi’s hand remains on Lydia’s thigh for the rest of the meal. How he talks slowly to her, or switches to English, while she nods gravely at each new piece of information, trying to determine the most appropriate facial expression.
Halfway through the meal, Alejandro escapes to the bathroom and examines himself in the bathroom mirror. He has used his Xtreme wax too many days without a wash, so musses his hair violently with the palms of his hands to make it look less crispy. There is a red swelling in the left crease of his nose—he presses down on it, hard, with the flat of his thumb, then plucks at his t-shirt to stop it clinging to the flesh above his waistband. When he goes back into the kitchen his parents are asking Lydia about her job and she is answering insofar as she can. Her cheeks are a high pink, like a child who has been allowed to get overly tired.
They’re giving her an award, Javi says. Teacher of the Year. The kids made her a crown and everything. Here. And as he pulls out his phone to show them the photo, she looks at him like he’s pouring sunshine down her throat.
The endless meal eventually migrates from the kitchen to the living room. Alejandro’s dad, Beto, squats awkwardly on a beanbag so the guests can have the sofa. Under the watchful eye of Pope Francis on the wall, Lydia allows Alejandro’s little sister, Fernanda, to plait her hair, perhaps grateful that the child’s chatter doesn’t seem to require much by way of response. His mother, Gabriela, flaps in and out, bringing more cushions, a bowl of Hershey’s kisses. Alejandro slouches against the wall scrolling through Instagram. Javi has recently uploaded a photo. A table outside a café, men with elaborate facial hair, sunglasses. #V60 #coffeelove #romanorte. From clicking on Javi’s profile and scrolling through his posts, it’s clear he and Lydia spend their weekends at friends’ parents’ country houses, lounging beside swimming pools and doing yoga on bright green lawns. Alejandro suspects they’re only here because it’s on the way to San Miguel.
By way of introduction to the extended family, Javi starts naming everyone who appears in the living room’s many framed photos. Lydia’s attention is captured primarily by one that shows a group of children slick and grinning in the bath, among which Javi’s own blurry face can be seen. Fer gets involved, her teeth full of chocolate, climbing along the back of the sofa to deliver them a pile of frames that haven’t yet been examined.
This is my uncle Juan and aunty Gloria, she says, taking over, and my cousin Paco and my cousin Sebas and my cousin Lupita, but she’s gone to heaven. And this—
Oh, Lydia looks at Fer, then up at Javi and round at the rest of them. I didn’t—
Alejandro’s dad gives a rough sort of cough. Javi steps in.
Lupita, ah, she—she died last year.
Oh I’m sorry, Lydia says, setting down the close-up of a dark-haired teenage girl along with the rest of the photos. How sad. I’m so sorry.
Alejandro sees his dad direct a panicked look at his mum, who blinks once, twice, and then leaves the room.
Another drink, don’t you think? Beto slaps his thighs in readiness to heave himself up off the beanbag. Alejandro, why don’t you get us some more beers from doña Mari’s. He stands, feels around in his jeans for his wallet, then passes him a couple of folded notes.
Alejandro slowly hauls himself to his feet.
Two sixes and a pack of Marlboros, Beto adds, squeezing Alejandro’s shoulder. Gracias, hijo.
As Alejandro turns to leave, he is surprised to hear Lydia’s voice.
I’ll go with you. Lydia is on her feet, smiling at him. If you don’t mind, I mean. Javi told me about the sunsets.
Great idea, Beto agrees. Why don’t you go the long way, Ale, show her the church too?
Alejandro is sure the church is the last thing Lydia wants to see, but he waits for her. Javi tugs on her hand before she leaves.
Shall I go with you?
She shakes her head. You stay and talk to your aunt and uncle. I could use some fresh air, is all.
Alejandro shoves his heels down into the broken backs of his trainers then follows Lydia out into the street. They scuff along the pavement in the warm evening, footsteps loud in the village quiet. Alejandro cannot think of a single thing to say. Not that he’s nervous around girls. For example, it never even occurred to him that Lupita was a girl. Until she got a boyfriend, that is.
Javi said he used to come here for summer holidays? Lydia prompts.
Alejandro tries answering in English but his mouth contorts as he speaks, as though the vowels are hurting his tongue. Yes. They stayed for one month, usually.
He remembers how when they were little, before they went to the US to study, Javi and his brother Leo (pronounced ‘Leeo’ now, as often as not) would spend most of August in San Ignacio, staying either with Alejandro’s family or with their other cousins in the next street. They’d all run between the two houses a dozen times a day, so nobody was ever quite sure which child was supposed to be where when.
That must have been fun. Did you visit them in the city too?
When I had eleven, or ten, I think. Javi’s toys were the best. But I was very young to play. Lupita also.
Lupita was your other cousin? Gloria’s daughter?
Alejandro nods. She was borned five days before me.
It was about six years ago that his mum and aunt Gloria took the two of them to the capital for a week. Alejandro remembers an automated gate, a stone wall dripping bougainvillea and a quiet woman who left his shorts neatly folded at the end of his bed. He wore a favourite t-shirt of his—MAKE THE FUTURE SO ROUND, it read in English—which Javi and Leo thought was hilarious, though they never explained why. He’d long since balled up the offending item and shoved it to the back of his cupboard along with a series of school reports he’d never shown his mum. They had a new PlayStation console, he remembers, but not once, the entire week, did they let either he or Lupita have a turn.
The row of little identical houses gives way to yellow grass, shot through with weeds and broken slabs of concrete, and dry trees painted up to their waists with faded lime. Through a wire fence the ghost of a basketball court is visible on the rubbly stone. Lupita and her friends used to smoke there after dark, tinny music sounding on their phones. Alejandro remembers how that man pulled her hip tight against his body as they leaned against the wall. How small she looked.
I’m sorry. You must miss her, Lydia says. Alejandro makes a noise in the back of his throat.
El pan de cada día, they say.
She gives him a querying look but does not press him.
Alejandro’s dad keeps talking about moving to Vancouver, ‘to get away from it all’. As a child, the idea of flying to another country used to make him panic. He’d picture himself in his house, a little figure sitting inside it on the bed. Then he’d think of the village, and neighbouring Celaya, where he’s got another year and a half of school, then the capital, and the wonky arc of the nation curling around its sea. From there he couldn’t help but zoom right out to the Blue Marble. He’d think of all they’d learned about the solar system: its roiling balls of gas and that frozen not-quite-planet on the outer rim. He’d think of Laika, the Russian mongrel that exited in 1957 and never made it back. Then came the Milky Way, the Plough and what Fernanda called O’Brien’s Belt. If he got much beyond that—to unfathomable gravity and infinite expansion, to all the unknown unknowns—then the galaxies would start screaming and the sky seemed to be melting and he’d have to grab the bed to stop from slipping past his own event horizon, to stop his body flying apart, his skin from his bones and his bones from his organs, disintegrating like Laika’s remains on Sputnik 2’s re-entry into the atmosphere.
Now, Alejandro imagines himself in that northern city every day. Cold wind off the water. Tall buildings pushing all their blinding glass into the sun.
They round the corner onto the main thoroughfare where the old factory stretches out as though asleep. Alejandro nods at the fat woman frying meat under a tarpaulin, a series of plastic containers laid out beside her. They stoop to avoid hitting their heads as they enter doña Mari’s shop. Alejandro pulls the coldest beers out of the back of the fridge and asks for a packet of cigarettes while Lydia surveys the tubs of Picafresas, the amaranth bars. He hands over his dad’s money and they duck back out into the warm street.
On the way home they climb the hill to the church. Its doors are wide open, revealing a small gathering of mourners inside. To the right of it is an outsized cactus with spines so broad and sharp, he has often been told, they can slice clean through a human body. A mangled prayer seeps out into the street—two elderly men singing hoarsely in a minor key that tugs at Alejandro’s organs.
Lydia stops to take a photo of the building with the pink sky behind it. Her hair is still tied back with one of Fer’s scrunchies and a series of plastic clips. Alejandro watches as a loose strand dislodges itself in the wind and gets caught in her mouth. She eases it free with a finger, leaving it damp with saliva.
The rough voices echoing out of the church remind Alejandro of those strange days last year, before any of them knew for sure, when none of the adults would talk to him properly, but neither would they let him out to play basketball after school. He spent whole afternoons sitting on his bed, trying to distract Fer with stupid games, as people came and went from the house, slamming doors and raising and lowering their voices in quick succession. Until one night he heard his aunt Gloria through the closed kitchen door. Like they were pulling something animal and alive out of her throat.
Since then, his mum’s stopped driving the car by herself and his dad’s been saving up for plane tickets—there’s a thick roll of cash in the drawer beside the bed. Every Saturday Alejandro quietly adds the hundred pesos he gets from helping out in the shop, ever since that night his dad broke four toes kicking grandma’s old chest of drawers and then sobbed all the way to the hospital.
When Lydia finally turns away from the view, she shows him her photo, happy with it. You must love it here. I wish we had a mountain on our doorstop where we could go walking every day.
Alejandro does not say that his family would never dream of letting her go walking in the hills around San Ignacio. But she does not seem to need a reply. He looks at her fingers as they lock her phone and slide it into a pocket, and imagines what it would be like to lie next to her. To have her tuck one leg over his hip or lean into the too-warm press of his back. He can practically feel the shape of her as he gathers up her limbs, the salt on her skin, the terrifying softness of her pale neck. Her bones like bleached coral.
As they take off their shoes in the hallway, Alejandro can hear his dad talking to Javi in the living room.
I’m trying to get us asylum status, Beto murmurs, snapping open another beer. Canada. I want the kids out of here.
Javi exhales slowly. Sure, sure. Makes sense. So, has it been, erm, bad here, lately I mean?
Beto takes a moment to reply.
Twelve in Celaya, just last week. One thirteen-year-old.
Fer sits cross-legged on the floor, getting the cat all worked up with a pair of headphones. She is humming the theme tune to Frozen II.
Right, right. Yeesh. And, ah, how’s the business going?
Honestly? They’re bleeding us dry. Every month. No choice but to get out, really.
Javi is evidently at a loss for anything useful to say.
It’ll be hard though, leaving Gloria, for obvious reasons, Beto goes on.
Lydia goes in to distribute the beers and cigarettes and prompts them to let her in on the conversation.
Canada? she asks tentatively.
My, ah, my uncle’s planning a trip, Javi explains.
Beto nods. Vancouver.
Oh, I love Vancouver. But you should go in March when all the blossoms are out. And the Vietnamese food is amazing, oh, what’s it called, there’s this place on the waterfront where I had the best banh mi—. Lydia stops herself abruptly and looks down at the beer in her lap. Javi smiles wanly and translates.
Vietnamese, Beto murmurs, bewildered.
Listening quietly from the hallway still, Alejandro has an acrid taste in his mouth, of something that’s not supposed to burn, like plastic, or metal.
When it’s time for them to leave, Beto offers to give them a lift to the bus station.
Shouldn’t we call a taxi, Lydia suggests, glancing at the number of empty cans on the table, but Beto insists, and the whole family piles into the car with their luggage. They sail around corners in the dark, Beto navigating unmarked speedbumps with barely a glance at the road. Lydia’s fingers are wrapped around the ceiling handle, her body pressed up against the door. Her fear is a clammy, invertebrate thing you can see right through. In the passenger seat, Fer is kneeling, seatbelt-less, on her mother’s lap, reaching around the headrest so she can teach Javi an elaborate clapping game. Alejandro winds down his window at a traffic light, where a yellow sign outside a roadside joint reads: RICA PECHUGA, PIERNA CON MUSLO. He thinks about little Fer with her papaya silk skin, and about his mother, all spindly-legged and warm barrel-bellied, whose happiness is a delicate thing these days, eyelid thin. Mainly he thinks about Lupita, who was taller than him and taught him to roll tortillas into long cigarettes between her palms. How it was three days before they found her body. He swallows, blinking fast, casting around for something to hold onto.
They merge onto a six-lane highway, but it’s not long before they are forced to slow again. When a siren starts to wail in the distance, Alejandro feels an immense, savage energy in his chest, like that time Fer wandered off while he was trying on a hoodie in the market. Before he found her chewing on a mango behind an elderly couple’s fruit stand, there were fifteen frantic minutes when he felt as if he might blow open or turn inside out.
The car has slowed almost to a standstill, and there are multiple sirens now.
What’ll it be this time? A roadblock or another dead body?
Alejandro, his dad rebukes him.
There’s a roaring in his ears. They crawl past four police cars, blue lights screaming. Ragged holes in a windshield. Figures crouching in white suits. A sheet laid out. His mother is staring straight ahead, her arms wrapped around Fernanda as though wishing she could fold the child right into her body.
Told you, Alejandro says, his voice uncannily loud inside his skull. Otro muertito. El pan de cada día, verdad?
Alright, man. Javi claps Alejandro’s leg in the tight space of the back seat.
Why did you even bring her here? Why did you come?
Alejandro, ya. His father’s voice is louder this time, his face shifting painfully in the blinking red hazard lights. Alejandro pulls himself forward, leaning between the front seats.