18% Gray, Page 2Zachary Karabashliev
—look at me
—look at the camera
—i need coffee . . .
—we’re almost done
—i want to get dressed already . . .
—this is the last roll of film and i swear we’re done
—the last one?
—the very last one
I walk back to the house, grab the keys to her sports car, the one I surprised her with for her last birthday, and turn on the lights in the garage. I unlock the car and get in. Before I turn the ignition, I close my eyes and lean my head back. The interior of the car, unaired since she’s been gone, still smells like her. I exhale loudly and start the car. The garage door opens and I peel out, tires screeching in the night. I roll down all the windows to chase away her presence. The cold canyon chill seeps in. At the ramp for I-5, I stop at the light. West Hollywood is an hour north. I know someone there. Mexico is less than an hour south. I have no reason to go to Mexico. I will have to decide which way I’m going before the light turns green.
The light turns green and I hit the gas pedal.
Miracles don’t happen, I repeated in my head as I crossed the street. She was a beautiful blue-eyed girl with big, round breasts and an intelligent face who would never pay attention to a guy with a uniform and a moronic haircut. I hadn’t smelled a girl for two years. Before I got drafted, I was always the “life of the party” and had lots of friends and all, but I had no idea how to act around girls, and it seemed I would never learn. I would always try too hard to come up with something clever and hilarious to say, and would always end up going home alone while my boring buddies made out with girls under the lindens. I was a loser. A dumb, dorky loser.
I strode down toward the beaches, beating myself up, but I knew, mercilessly, clearly, I knew that I had seen and felt something different this time. Sure, I had the same major hard-on I always did when I fed a pretty girl to my inflamed imagination, but this time there was something more. My mind—as ridiculous as this might sound for a guy in an army uniform—my mind had a hard-on this time; my intellect was aroused.
I walked into the city park known as “The Sea Garden,” wandered around the cool pathways for a while, until I reached a row of benches scattered with old people, overlooking the bay. I found an empty one and sat down. The view was nice—the sea, the sky, the horizon. North was to my left, the old Gala Lighthouse to my right, Varna Bay in front of me, and behind me, the love of my life.
I took a deep breath, got up, and walked back to her.
—will you always take pictures of me?
—even if i get fat?
—yep, even then
—with a huge booty?
—all the more to photograph
—don’t worry, i’m not going to get fat
—i’m never gonna get fat
I park Stella’s car in front of the still-open McDonald’s on the US side. I have no business driving in Mexico. I cross the border into the Third World on foot. The Tijuana cab drivers chat in front of their cars, eat sunflower seeds, and look at the passersby just like cab drivers anywhere in the world.
“Hola,” I say.
“Hola,” says the one at the front of the line. I get in.
Where am I going? Avenida Revolución?
Avenida Revolución sounds good.
We take off. The radio is playing Mexican rap with accordion. A gilded Jesus glued to a plastic crucifix and a pine tree air-freshener swing from the rearview mirror.
The cab stops before the end of the song. I pay and get out. I inhale deeply.
The intersection of Avenida Revolución and Paseo de los Héroes blasts from the speakers of every nightclub, penetrates the air with the smells of the street grills, stares at me with the hungry eyes of every vendor of everything that’s ever been for sale, and wants my money with every beggar’s hand.
A mariachi family plays sloppily tuned guitars and sings their heads off. No one pays any attention to them.
Under a street lamp, a scrawny dog stretches a piece of gum off the pavement.
From the roof of a nightclub called Spiderman, a guy dressed as Spiderman swings from one side of the street to the other on a rope over the heads of the crowd. On the sidewalk across from me is a donkey painted with black and white stripes like a zebra. The zebra is hitched to a cart as colorful as a Christmas tree. $5 photo, Viva Mexico.
People, people, people . . . that’s why I’m here. People, people, people, people, people, people. The energy of Tijuana pulsates through every aorta, thrives in every germ south of the border. This very energy sucked me out of our empty house on the canyon, away from go-to-work-in-the-morning suburbia.
I go into the first bar I see. The bartender, thank God, speaks English. I ask if he can make a vodka martini.
“You got olives?”
“Can you make a dirty martini?”
“Now, the señor here wants a dirty martini with three olives.”
Three martinis later, Señor finally looks around. It hits me that if I had done so earlier, I surely would have left. What kind of a place is this? Dirty, dark, and it stinks something awful. A TV set on a wooden crate in the corner plays a never-ending soccer game. A few customers in cowboy hats watch the crate and drink beer from green bottles. During every commercial break, though, the hats turn to look at me. I pay and get out.
Outside, Tijuana enfolds me in its sweaty, open bosom. Noisy merchants pull me left and right, trying to lure me into their stuffy little shops.
I dive into another bar. This time I look at the crowd carefully. A TV set on a wooden crate in the corner plays the same soccer game. Men in cowboy hats are drinking beer and watching the game. The commercials begin, the hats turn toward me. I stay. On my way out, the stairs seem funnier.
The night now is hot and throbbing. I need panocha now. Panocha. A fat tattooed neck pulls me up fluorescent stairs. A whorehouse? No. A nightclub. The speakers slam Latin-Electro. The lights change with every beat, the girls under them, too. It’s full of girls. A waitress shoves her huge tits under my drunken head. What do I want to drink?
“Martini,” I yell.
She brings me a margarita. I’ll drink margaritas, then.
The dance floor is packed. The crowd consists of American military men, Mexican pimps, bleached-blond hookers, drug dealers, and losers like me. While normal people north of the border rest before the workday, Tijuana is wide awake.
An hour later I realize that the margarita was a mistake. I get dizzy from the lights, bodies, mirrors, boobs, sweat, glasses, tables, chairs. In the bathroom a geezer with a bowtie and pencil mustache hands out toilet paper for pesos. I dig out crumpled bills, drop them in his bowl, stagger to the sink, and splash water on my face. In the spattered mirror, a gray man frowns at me. I frown back. His wife left him. Boo-fucking-hoo. If I were her, I’d leave you, too.
Outside the john, Tits greets me with a new margarita. I didn’t order a new margarita.
“Sí,” says Tits.
“No,” I say.
“No sí sí,” I say.
“Sí, sí, sí, señor!” Tits insists.
“I did not order a margarita!”
Tits is angry. She whirls around and heads over to the bouncer. I pull out money and chase her. Mexicans understand English when they want to. I pay before she makes a scene. I down the watery margarita and shove the glass in my pocket—a little payback, fucking extortionists. They treat me like a regular gringo. I might be boracho, but I wasn’t born yesterday. And, no, I am no gringo. The
whole world spins fiercely before my eyes; I am going to die here. I stagger down the stairs, grabbing the railing with all my might, and end up next to the tattooed neck. I attempt to hug the bouncer as I stammer panocha. I’ve got to have a panocha before I die.
“I want panocha!”
“Panocha, sí, sí.” The fat neck grins and makes that gesture that all of us idiots make. “Fucky, fucky, huh, señor?”
“Fucky, fucky, yes.”
“Yes, find me a panocha before I perish! I need panocha.”
He points to a man on the other side of the street. I can’t quite make him out. I set off in that direction, but the sidewalk has something else in mind—it suddenly ends. I trip and hop on the pavement, barely keeping my balance. Out of nowhere, a little hunchback midget in a white sombrero appears and pulls me aside. “Donkey show, donkey show, donkey show.” I have no idea what’s going on. To my right against a wall, a sailor kisses a whore while tugging on her g-string. She smirks at me over his shoulder.
To my left, leaning on a crumbling wall, a man with no legs stretches out a plastic cup—he wants dolla.
A scruffy five-year-old girl sucking snot from her upper lip stretches out a plastic cup—she wants dolla.
An Indian with a baby on her breast reaches out a plastic cup, she wants dolla.
A one-eyed grandma holds a plastic cup, she wants dolla, too.
Dolla-dolla-dolla-dolla, everyone wants dolla.
Something swings over my head, I duck at the last second and make out Spiderman.
“Donkey show, donkey show, donkey show . . .” the white sombrero wiggles his ass back and forth. “. . . fucky, fucky . . .” I don’t understand. “Donkey fucky señorita.” A-ha! A spectacle involving a donkey and a naked female suddenly seems appropriate. I follow him. “Donkey show, donkey show, donkey show . . .”
We cross Revolución and go down the steps of a side bazaar. The white sombrero stops in front of a beat-up door lit by a dirty naked bulb and rings the bell. The door cracks open and a shaved head peeks out. Sombrero turns to me—he wants dolla. I give him dolla and he slinks away up the stairs. I pay the shaved head an entrance fee and go a few steps further down.
Smoky bar, maroon booths, brown padding on the walls, columns painted in black enamel, Christmas lights, on the walls are faded posters for Corona, Dos Equis, and Tecate. Leather jackets, Hawaiian shirts, and navy uniforms are crowded around the tables. There’s a stage at one end of the room. I enter when the music stops and go to the end of the line at the bar, behind a row of square backs, so I have to stand on my toes to see anything. Now all eyes are focused on the red velvet curtains, which draw open. A couple of Mexicans drag a gray donkey on stage and disappear. Whistles and claps. Dollar bills reach toward the bartender. He hands back beers.
The curtains open again and a naked brownish woman with short legs, a flabby stomach and floppy breasts comes out. I picture her, laundry pins in her mouth, hanging saggy bras on a clothesline. Her legs perch atop a pair of white glossy sandals and meet in a black bushy tuft on top. Her hair is the color of henna. The makeup is bad. Her eyebrows have been waxed off and drawn in with a brown pencil. Booing from the audience. Ungrateful bastards, what do you expect for five bucks—Shakira?
After a little foreplay, the woman shoves herself under the animal. She grabs his thing and starts rubbing it energetically. The donkey shakes his head, showing two rows of yellow teeth. The woman keeps working it, but the donkey does not respond. The woman moves her hand faster and faster. Suddenly, the donkey snorts and reaches back to bite her, but only gets a bit of her hair. The woman manages to escape cursing and yelling at someone behind the curtain. Two Mexicans hop out; one of them grabs the donkey by the muzzle and the other hits him in the teeth.
A-a-a-a-h-h-h-h! The crowd groans in disapproval.
The animal snorts louder and rears back, but a pair of mustachioed mariachi show up and tackle him to the floor. One of them, guitar hanging from his back, traps the animal’s head between his bow-legged pantalones and firmly grabs the front hooves, which are now pointing towards the ceiling. His buddy, accordion strapped to his back, grabs the hind legs.
The entertainer works the donkey’s hard-on with both hands now. The audience, who thought they had gotten ripped off just a minute ago, now exclaims its approval.
The donkey reciprocates with size.
Silence. Then someone claps. A drunken female tourist starts laughing hysterically.
I turn my back on the spectacle. I weave my way through the crowd and climb up the steps so I can throw up the margarita and everything else I’ve ingested tonight. I make it out, wobbling. I’m dizzy and I need to lie down. I turn the corner and lean against a wall. Breathing heavily, I force myself to eject the poison.
Then I see them. I stagger toward them clinging to the wall.
The body is sprawled on the ground. The two men kick it silently, indifferently. As if in a dream, I hear the dry thumping sounds and see the head jerk back and forth with each blow.
“Hey!” I yell. I can’t stand violence. But this doesn’t even look like violence. No one is screaming, no one is angry. Just two men kicking a third, as if knocking the mud off their boots. I get closer, still leaning against the wall.
One of them turns my way and looks at me, motionless. The other one keeps kicking, but soon he stops as well. They are big; short leather jackets and short black hair. They wait for me to get closer. The body on the ground stirs, thank God. I smile and wave.
“Hola, amigos,” I say before the fist hits my forehead. The sidewalk meets my face. A kick to the ribs lifts me off the ground. I manage to half scramble up—only to receive another blow to the face. I spot a flight of stairs, a railing. I grab the railing, fly down, trip over, and keep going. They are a few feet behind me. I keep flying down more stairs. I try to catch the railing again, but no luck. I trip and start rolling down for a long time. I finally stop as my head collides with a metal door. The glass in my pocket shatters.
Their silhouettes thump down the stairs. Their shoes flash as they speed towards me. Then their kicks. They pull me up by the collar. One pulls out a lighter and studies my face. They drag me up the stairs. I’m on the sidewalk now. I stumble on a shoe. There was a body here a moment ago, nobody now. We reach a trailer with a few cars parked around it; barbed wire, gravel crunching underfoot, urine-colored light. They start pulling me toward a shabby van with California plates. One of them cracks the door open and it starts dinging. The other tries to push me inside. Hell no—they can beat the shit out of me, but I am not getting in their fucking van!
I spread my arms wide so they can’t ram me inside like livestock. One of them kicks me in the stomach, and I double over, clutching my midriff. A pair of hands grabs me by the hair and pushes my head down. The anticipation of another blow to my belly—a strong blow, a blow that will leave me as breathless as a sack of potatoes. I tighten my abdominal muscles as much as I can. The kick doesn’t come. The seconds stretch on endlessly. I gather my strength and, in a last, desperate effort, jerk my head away, and jab at the face of the guy holding me with the broken glass. He screams. The other one has been busy looking for the end of a thick roll of duct tape to tie me up with. I get his throat. Something dark spurts geyser-like several feet in the air. I turn to the first one, who keeps screaming while staring at his hands, now black with blood. I punch him in the forehead and hurt my wrist.
Somewhere in the dark a window slams shut.
The open van door is still dinging. I jump in and slam the door behind me, turn the key in the ignition, and stomp the gas pedal. In the rearview mirror, I see one of the men rolling in the dirt, the silhouette of the other one hovering over him.
I am in a narrow, unlit street. A dog starts barking.
I realize that I’m driving with no lights and slow down until I figure out how to turn them on.
Five or six turns later, I’m on Boulevar Constitución. I speed u
p. I reach a traffic light, turn right, and drive fast until I reach Avenida Revolución. Seeing the crowded well-lit place, somewhat familiar already, I relax a little and take a deep breath.
I start replaying the scenes from a few minutes earlier in my head. What have I gotten myself into?
Before I know it, I’ve reached the US border. I get in the line of cars. At this ungodly hour, there are only about ten other vehicles ahead of me, but the checks are somewhat slow. I take off my jacket and slip out of my bloodstained T-shirt, wipe my face with it as well as I can, then shove it under the seat. I put my jacket back on and try to fix my hair. I can hardly keep my head up. I’m still drunk and feel like throwing up and sleeping at the same time. I start dozing off behind the wheel.
I go back to the café. My heart is going to explode. But what does the heart know? I get in line in front of her register and wait. Just before my turn, I spin on my heel and leave. Why does my damn heart want to burst? Why does it give me away? I gather up my courage and go back in, but a few people are in line in front of me. I start doing some breathing exercises. I have to act normal, damn it! I can’t. If I only knew then that so many years later I would still feel the same way every time I thought of her!
“What can I get you?” Her voice. Her lips. Then she glances at me. The blue of her eyes glows and spills out as in a watercolor. And then, a miracle: I manage to stutter a few words. For the first time I speak to a girl without forcing myself to come up with the most clever line ever. She doesn’t answer. She keeps looking at me. I don’t sense that annoyance or boredom that I get from most of the girls I try to strike up a conversation with. It’s more like curiosity. While she’s probably wondering how to get rid of me, I ask what time her shift ends. She answers calmly, and I take off immediately, before she regrets talking to me.