Tijuana was filthy. A year ago, I would have been happy to leave because of that alone. The heat, even in December, the layer of crud on everything, the narrow alleys that smelled of piss, and the stink of old tequila and beer in the air would have been enough to get me on a plane early.
We had no phones, no way to be contacted. We were gone. Poof. Disappeared. I never felt so free in my life.
“Terrified,” I said to Antonio. He looked as if a layer of worry had been scraped from him. He looked younger, even.
“Fear is a good thing,” he replied, leaning over the bar, tilting his glass bottle on the bar surface, leaving an arc of condensation behind. We’d stopped in a small hotel that looked as if it was going to give up any minute and collapse into a pile of wood and dust. “Keeps you honest.”
I hadn’t been afraid when we’d crossed over the border into Mexico. He’d packed clothes and cash and hid his wounded arm under a sleeve. It hadn’t been so bad, nothing a little unguent and a kiss couldn’t fix. My hands had second-degree burns, and though they looked awful, I only had to fold them to hide them. I had nothing. He thought I wasn’t coming, so I had only the clothes on my back, the crap in my bag, and some valuables I wouldn’t part with.
We’d crossed the border when the traffic was so dense we would have only gotten stopped if blood were dripping from the trunk. Then we made it a point to laugh and joke as we went through Border Patrol, as if we were no more than a loving couple looking for a fun weekend. I think we were so high on adrenaline that nothing was easier than manic laughter.
The explosion had made the news immediately. It had been contained in the tunnel. The report stated no deaths and one injury.
“They’re not saying we’re dead,” I’d said.
“It’s been an hour,” he’d replied, but he furrowed his brow.
“I saw that tunnel. Nothing would have survived it.”
“Things happened we didn’t expect. Our exit wasn’t clean.”
“I’ll go back and die again,” I said.
He laughed and drove the Toyota safely and sanely southward. I talked when I didn’t want to think about my family. I knew my memories of them would cloud,and get distant, until I could only remember little things. I played with the radio, and before we even hit San Diego, the news of Daniel Brower’s collapse as mayoral candidate hit the airwaves.
The TV was on in the bar, hanging above us, blaring Spanish, the light shining through the miasma of cheap Honduran cigarettes. Antonio could only decipher some of the news, but the pictures told the story. They showed an Italian wedding, joyful yet staid, and a room full of people, each with a story, each living a different version of the events until suddenly, arrows were superimposed on the screen, pointing at three men in suits.
As one, they whipped off earpieces as if in pain.
“What happened?” I asked.
He leaned his back on the bar, looking very pleased with himself. “When you pressed your home key…”
“No bomb. Thanks for that.”
“They got their wires from the bathroom attendant. Then you put this radio signal out. A very loud, high-pitched squeak. Very loud. His little team was exposed. He looks like the ass he is.”
I must have gotten sullen. My face, which hid everything from everyone else, was pure bright-yellow signage to him. It always had been. From the minute he beat some guy on the hood of a car, he’d known what I was feeling.
He put his fingertips on my chin. “It was for your own good.”
“You didn’t want to fight for us. You were just going to leave.”
“I didn’t want you to spend your life fighting. I want life to be easy for you. I want you to be happy. If I humiliated him, and he lost the election, he’d back off troubling you. I’d be gone. You’d be happy. That’s all I ever wanted. More than wanting you for myself, I want you to have a good life.”
“If it hadn’t worked out the way it had—”
“Are you upset that we’re here, together?” I asked.
“I’m upset that you scarred your soul for me. That’s the biggest sin I live with.”
“That’s not what I asked.” I looked at my orange juice then at the specks of pulp on the side of the glass, as if they could help me divine what he was thinking.
“Theresa,” he whispered then drifted off.
“Never mind,” I said, waving it off. “It is what it is. I think I’m just tired.” I shut down. I didn’t want to talk anymore. I wanted to pretend everything was perfect. If we’d been alone together I would have taken my clothes off and tried to drown my sorrow in pain and pleasure.
But being let off the hook wasn’t going to fly with him, not for one second. He put his beer down and took my head in his hands, thumbs on my cheeks and fingers at the back of my head. “Listen to me, and listen very, very carefully. We have a difficult list of things to do, and I need you to be the woman you are, the woman who can run the world. So, I’m going to say this once. Are you listening?”
He was so intense, so close. He couldn’t lie or obfuscate from that distance. “Yes, Capo.”
“I didn’t dream of this moment. I did try to leave you, but it was for your own good. I wanted to free you. I admit I was ready to walk away. And I admit that when you shot Paulie, I decided you had to come with me to protect yourself from being accused of his murder. I had to tell myself I was protecting you. But, my Contessa, I was so happy to be forced. I felt it was a gift. I had an excuse to take you and have everything I wanted. I can’t lie to myself. Yes, I want to protect you from being hurt, but I just want you. Plain and simple.”
“Antonio, You’ve been trying to get away from me since the minute we met. If you do it again, it will be the last time. My heart can’t take it.”
He nodded, looking at the bar surface. “I didn’t dream God could make it possible for me to have you. But He made it impossible for it to happen in any other way. Do you see what that means? It means I was destined to defile you. I live with that every day. My destiny is to destroy.”
“Maybe I was destined to be destroyed.”
“Shh. Listen. I want you to have a normal, sweet life, but I can’t give you that. I will never be that man for you. Never. But here you are, with me. I am happy, and I carry the weight of my guilt for that happiness. So, don’t fool yourself; I don’t just want you, I hunger for you. My skin needs your skin against it. My mouth needs to taste your mouth. I. Am. Happy. But my soul has never been so stained.”