Itzap and Toño have been together without physical intimacy for years. When Itzap discovers she’s pregnant, she expects her lover, Leopoldo, a political radical who staunchly opposes bringing new life into a world that’s in the process of ecological and authoritarian freefall, will support her decision to get an abortion—until he urges her to keep the baby.
Itzap, receiving confirmation at the consultorio that she really was pregnant, wanted the baby taken out from the very first. Her implant had expired two months before and she’d lost track. She was embarrassed to have willfully ignored all the symptoms for so many weeks, but now some of the tension subsided and she quickly forgave herself, not least because she’d caught it early. Her nurse (a woman in her late thirties and very pretty except for a heavy, seemingly permanent veil of acne) stood beneath the bright lights with all the serenity of a nun, gently urging her to go home and reflect before making any decisions. In her experience, she said, attitudes had the tendency to change drastically when it came to a pregnancy.
But Itzap’s feelings on the matter were not at all ambiguous, not even emotionally murky. Childlessness was a virtue she had fought and argued for her entire adult life, not just with boyfriends and family members, but even now, while serving as a delegate in El Congreso de las Mujeres de Guanajuato, where maybe it shouldn’t have surprised her, but did, that certain women remained remarkably conservative on the subject of motherhood. Her status as a delegate also put her in a well-connected position to secure an abortion in Mexico City. Leopoldo would be in full agreement with an abortion—in all likelihood would offer to pay for most of it (she would suggest half)—so, as far as reflecting on things was concerned, the decision was all but made.
Walking home from the consultorio she spotted a pack of sand-colored mules hauling bulging sacks of produce from one of the outlying campos, huffing languidly up the cobbled glorieta on the other side of Túnel Santa Fé and being driven along by a robot. The thing was little more than a matte-black polycarbon stick mounted atop swivel treads made of composite rubber, shiny camera lens serving as its face and catching sunlight like a monocle. Following the mule train around the corner was a group of three impoverished haitianos all in an uproar, arguing loudly amongst themselves in explosive French. The people on the street stared, customers and shop owners peeking out of stores to get a glimpse of what was going on. The steady stream of taxis and motos flowing through the glorieta slowed. The tallest of the haitianos was struggling with the other two, who were attempting to restrain him. Itzap saw from the corner of her eye four older men, construction workers who’d been standing around in front of an abarrotes shop sipping Coca, detach from their post like a pack of perros on the hunt, having had some odd intuition of what was about to happen and strutting wolfishly toward the weird procession, paint stains on blue jeans and cowboy boots clacking on cobble. The haitianos spotted them approaching, the one in hysterics finally breaking away from his companions and dashing past the sinewy, disinterested mules up to the robot driver, but before he was able to attack the machine he was forced to turn and face the men. He was on some kind of drug, eyes wide and wild, barefoot and clad in ripped pants, shouting broken castellano at the mexicanos quickly encircling him. Itzap, on the other side of the glorieta, could hear only the gist of what they were saying.
I am Mexican!
No, friend, we don’t do that here.
I am Mexican, I deserve a job!
Calm down, lower your voice. We don’t do that here. Here, we respect other peoples’ property.
I respect when they give me a job!
Oye, negro, cálmate. There are families here. You need to go.
The robot and huffing mules ascended one of the steep streets branching off the glorieta.
As soon as she was home she called Leopoldo, as she’d promised, to give him the news. Answering, he sounded typically half-drunk but unusually emotionally disheveled, his voice foregrounded against bubbly noise of what she already knew was some smoky cantina of the type she’d been to with him hundreds of times, arguing and nuzzling at corner tables, nipping at bottles of Victoria. She decided not to go to the trouble of any sort of preamble, instead just laid it on him in two vicious, succinct strokes.
“I’m just back from the consultorio. I am.”
Nothing but modulated bar clatter through speakerphone, the unpleasant sound of a nearby table of drunk men bursting into laughter.
“I’m just calling to let you know I’m going to get it taken care of, so you don’t need to worry about anything.”
She was faced with more silence, a few sonic sparkles of bottles clinking. She imagined, in an admittedly sick way, that he might take a weird sexual satisfaction from her decisiveness, but he wasn’t talking, maybe feeling shocked or guilty.
“Okay,” she said, “I’ll talk to you when I know more.”
“Itzap—” he said, deep smoker’s voice flanged with something between emotional and physical anguish.
He didn’t often call her by anything but pet names.
“Wait,” he said.
“I don’t want you to get an abortion.”
Her breath caught. “Leo, I—”
“Or,” he suddenly backtracked (possibly qualified), “it’s not that I don’t want you to, but I don’t like the idea of you having it done before we get a chance to discuss it together.”
She couldn’t help but take note of a stinging irony. Toño, too—had this been his baby—would have opposed getting rid of it. The only difference would’ve been that, for him, objecting to an abortion would’ve been keeping perfectly with his character.
She felt acidic disappointment rising inside her. Rather than focus on it, she reflexively pushed it away. She wasn’t used to feeling negative emotions toward Leo, and for that reason she was loathe to start. But it wasn’t something she could just forget or ignore. He had shattered her trust in him. She recognized the manipulation in his vocabulary, especially the word discuss.
Leopoldo was a literal professional when it came to discussions, a history, philosophy and history of philosophy professor with an altogether overactive sex drive for a 52-year-old, and (she was always so certain) more girlfriends than just her. Not to mention his wife, of course, his two grown step-children. They had been dating nearly two years (two years seeming worthy enough to dispose of the term having an affair) and she was sufficiently versed in his behaviors and personality to know that his invitation to “discuss it together” was precisely the kind of thing he usually said to get his way. Of course, his manipulations would’ve been ineffectual were it not for the fact he cloaked them with an utter sincerity that was, to her at least, addictive. An honestly dishonest man.
They’d had innumerable discussions on the topic of children, and Leo’s opinions had always been equal to hers if not even more stridently opposed. In his analysis, to have a child at this moment in history was tantamount to an immoral act. He condemned the desire to add another person to an already dangerously overpopulated planet simply so “one could look upon a projection of oneself,” as a shamelessly egotistical impulse, especially while so many other children—already born—were in need of parental figures. But in Itzap’s mind, Leo’s principal objection to having a child was just as selfish, even though he considered it a matter of pragmatism. He was deeply involved with a pan-American political resistance movement, and a child would be a crippling distraction from his activism. What that activism entailed, however, he kept secret from her. What she knew was limited: the group was clandestine, composed of people from many nations in the Americas. Their goal was the undermine and overthrow of every ethnonationalist member-state in the COAN. She didn’t take it all that seriously. More likely the whole thing was an elaborate lie so he could hop between women.
As for Itzap’s reasons for not wanting a child, they were less ornate. She saw some truth in Leo’s claims that the world had become a polluted, inhospitable, maybe even irredeemable place, but for her those were little more than excuses. Her reason was rooted in nothing more than a feeling, one she didn’t see any need to explain. A feeling that to bring another life into the world would be an inconceivable injustice.
They had discussed all this ad nauseam, so it was difficult to process such an abrupt reversal of ideals on his part. Maybe he’d just been fleetingly sentimental—but as a general rule, when it came to matters of love, Leo was only ever sentimental about sensuality, and never about sacrifice. In this sense, at least, he was a good materialist. What was it, she wondered, with moderately intelligent men and sheer physicality? She couldn’t really criticize, though, when this was actually what she liked most about him, his immediacy and dispassion set against a seemingly unbeaten romanticism. It was this sudden burst of devotion that she didn’t like.
He had been her teacher, of course, in her second year of university. Back then he offered a creative writing course in extremely high demand due to the fact that he’d managed to write a very objectively good novel (damn him) that young literature majors with little reading experience under their belts had started to list alongside the works of Rulfo, Pacheco, Bolaño and Márquez as among their favorites. But that wasn’t when she had started dating him. At that time, she and Toño had already been together three years.
Their second year of university was also the year Toño’s father was killed in a car accident. His father’s ex-wife—Toño’s older brother’s mother—succeeded in laying claim to half his assets, which left Toño’s mother and little sister in Irapuato without an income. He quit university in the middle of a law degree to move back, an hour away from Guanajuato, to start driving a taxi in order to support them financially.
Even before his father’s accident, they had mostly stopped having sex. Itzap had no explanation for it. If she tried asking him directly, he was defensive to the point of anger, and naturally she had assumed he was cheating. Incredibly, though, there was no evidence to back up her suspicions. She knew his daily schedule, looked through his phone without him knowing, did everything possible to catch him in the act, but as far as she could tell he barely spoke to other girls. She eventually blamed it on his simply having a low sex drive. But even that was confusing. When they’d first got together during their last year of prepa he had been like a pent-up dog, so eager he’d been almost like a cartoon, and then all that sexual energy faded as quick as the details of a dream, leaving her with meager reality.
They were a smart socioeconomic match, both from protective, lower-middle-class families with designs to send them to university, and there had been many benefits for Itzap in keeping her parents pleased. She was afforded privacy, allowed to live in Guanajuato with Toño rather than with the family of an older cousin. She had gone so far as to announce they intended to marry at some point in the future.
Back in prepa, Toño had been studious but strong, projecting a kind of unflappable masculinity for a boy of eighteen. His personality, however, had meant far less to Itzap at that age than his looks: he’d been a straight-edge but brooding type, vulnerable and tough in equal measures, boyishly groomed but mannishly built, with a rounded, full-cheeked smile and exceptionally benign eyes. His reticence around her had driven her crazy in a teenage girl way, had made her wonder, what was he thinking?—was he as interested in her as she was in him?—was he just shy or in possession of a fearsome self-control? True to the stunted nature of their relationship, these questions were never resolved for her, though now she couldn’t have cared less to find out the answers. He’d become little more than an inert force in her life, constant and bothersome.
As early as their first year of university she had lost the ability to arouse him, and he precipitously lost all interest in her. He’d always been stoical in character, but this was something different. His personality flattened down to nothing when in her presence. He expressed nothing personal, became enraged when she inquired or requested anything of him. She groped for reasons, cycling through several different theories as each proved unsatisfactory. The stress of his degree, or too many video games, or another girlfriend, or boredom with her sexually. Nothing explained it in its entirety. Finally, she was past the point of caring. She was going to leave him, needed only to work up the nerve.
Then Toño’s father died, and things got hopelessly complicated.
Under the circumstances, she couldn’t end things with him, worrying that she now had no way out of the relationship. But the shock Toño experienced reopened him to her emotionally, as if a shell that had been covering him had cracked before flaking away in pieces. He began to confide in her again, grew talkative and even cautiously intimate. She went with him to the funeral, stayed by his side through the grieving process, finding herself slowly regaining some of the love she’d lost.
But his openness didn’t last. Once the funeral and formalities ended and the initial pain had had time to deaden, the shell regenerated more rigid and callous than before.
His father, after remarrying, had never updated his will to include Toño’s mother, and as a result his first wife inherited the majority of his assets. There was a brief legal fight consisting mostly of Toño appealing to the decency of his half-brother and father’s ex-wife, trying to explain that his mother had no income. The family had gone into debt to pay for the funeral and burial. His appeals failed, and his mother was left with no other option but to sell their home. Toño decided to leave school, took out a loan to rent his cousin’s cab and started working full-time as a taxista in Irapuato to support them.
The taxi job was meant to be temporary. His plan was to return to school the following semester once his mother’s financial situation stabilized. The fact that he would be leaving Guanajuato for a while came as a relief to Itzap. She wasn’t happy with him anymore, but knew she couldn’t break up with him without incurring an unbearable guilt. Not to mention upending her own world. So she embraced his absence as an easy way out.
What was meant to be temporary slowly turned permanent. Toño didn’t return to school the next semester, or the next, and finally at all, never quitting the taxi job, never moving back to Guanajuato. Likewise, their relationship never formally ended.
One reason was, almost as soon as Toño moved back to Irapuato, she had begun cheating on him. Never anything serious, just an adventure here or there that wouldn’t last beyond a week or two. Even though the guys she turned to to satisfy her sexual urges were more interesting than Toño, and better lovers, she never really considered leaving him for someone else. She already had a long-term, passionless relationship, one which had accumulated years of pressures and complexities, family expectations and deceits. She let herself get strung out on new loves, new losses, experiencing what she felt had been denied her, and throughout all of it she stayed with Toño. He had come to represent an insuperable guilt in her life, a Catholic-grade pasteup of shame and personal failure. But there was another part of her that didn’t feel guilty at all. A rationale took shape in her mind, one that viewed having more than one partner as normal, natural. Maintaining the illusion of being with Toño had kept her family from meddling with her life, gifting her with an easy independence she didn’t have to justify to anyone.
She finished school, abandoned her writing aspirations to graduate with a philosophy degree in women’s studies, avoided Toño’s pleas to move back to Irapuato with him, and got a job at a bar in Guanajuato where she ran into Leopoldo. He came in alone that day, something she would find out was a habit of his. He recognized her immediately as having been in one of his classes years ago, but couldn’t remember her name. He asked if she was still writing, then told her that he, too, had given up on it. This amazed her. He was famous, in the literary sense of the term. He said that the world had fallen into a lamentable state, and politics had corrupted his love of writing. She said that was really too bad, she had enjoyed his book. A regrettable fate for both of them, he said. Then she served him drinks without further conversation for several hours. By the time she clocked out, he was still there, smoking away and reading. She was not very attracted to him—he was older than her by more than twenty-five years—but was drawn to him for other reasons. His eloquence, his knowledge (or pretense of it), the way that, in only a few words, he had intrigued her, made her feel seen and heard. She sat down at his table and their conversation lasted four hours. He somehow understood her right away, got her to say things in the course of twenty minutes she’d never been able to discuss with anyone else. She found herself pouring out every secret and emotion about Toño. About her belief that it was natural to have more than one man, he assured her that not only was it normal, it was her right. She clearly hungered for a broader experience, the opportunity to freely empathize with others outside the neuroses of monogamy. He said that love was an illogical thing, a necessarily animalistic emotion subject to absolutely no set of morals, an instinct which craved, even thrived on, a certain level of depravity. But he also leveled with her, telling her that to deceive Toño was unfair, cowardly and undignified.
Outside the bar she kissed him, and tasted for the first time his pungent but strangely not altogether disgusting smoker’s breath. It wasn’t that the things he’d said to her had never crossed her mind before, or that she even found them so smart, but that he had listened to her so intently as to have hit upon the issues she’d been grappling with for so long, and assure her, in honest terms, that he could understand why she had done what she did. They started sleeping together, and she discovered he was endlessly energetic, devoutly romantic (in the idealistic sense), that he treated her as an equal, inviting her to political and academic discussions with professionals twice her age, always encouraging her to realize her potential. By being introduced to so many of his political contacts, she secured a spot for herself on the Congreso de las Mujeres, an organization working to draft a national women’s bill of rights in México. Leo had been ecstatic.
She had lived apart from Toño for five years, and been together with him nearly eight. At the same time, she’d given up on new loves for Leopoldo and was now pregnant with his child.
She felt suddenly dizzy, the inescapable reality of her situation throwing itself across an ocean of denial and sinking its teeth deep into her neck.
Over the previous month, in the course of doing her best to convince herself she wasn’t pregnant while working six days a week at Galatea, Itzap realized she was going to have a full-scale emotional meltdown if she didn’t vent her problems to someone, so she’d confided to her best work friend. Now she found herself in a similar state. The pressure of Leo telling her he didn’t want her to have an abortion threatened to burst her apart if she didn’t find some kind of release-valve. She grabbed her phone, typing more out of reflex than thought.
wey i don’t believe this but pinche Leo just told me he doesn’t want me to get an abortion. he wants to meet up tonight at clave azul to talk about it and i have no idea what he’s going to say. my emotions are all over the place and i just wish i knew what to do.
She hit the send button, reread the message, waited a few minutes for Lupe to respond but there was nothing. She laid down on the bed and fell asleep immediately.
Toño groaned to life at 5, still dark out. Went to the kitchen groggy and boiled water for the Nescafé. He opened the fridge with willful ignorance to reassure himself there were no leftovers. The world outside was quiet and sleeping, refrigerator light pitching the kitchen with soothing yellow glow. Filled a plastic mug and went quietly as possible out the front door, conscientious of his mother and sister.
Settled into the driver’s seat of the cab, stole a look at his half-dead eyes in the rearview while running his thumb across the slick sticker-chrome ridges of the Nissan logo at the center of the steering wheel. Batted at the small wooden cross dangling from the mirror, crossed himself and kissed his fist. Yawned loud as he turned the ignition.
He drove into the centro to Diaz Ordaz and parked in a long line of identical cabs extending along the curb in front of an Oxxo. Six or seven taxistas drinking out of styrofoam coffee cups were already grouped next to a cab whose stereo was straining out scratchy norteño. Toño got out and loped toward them sleepily.
One of them called out, “Oye pinche flaquito ya tardaste!”
They burst into laughter. They all had round stomachs and august mustaches, the markings of more advanced age. In the context of the taxi profession, Toño was comically young and unfat.
He sipped from his plastic mug, rubbing his eyes.
Another taxista laughed, “Pinche flaquito, güey, no mames, este cabrón nunca llega a tiempo.”
Toño made a smacking sound with the side of his teeth. “Pues con razón, cuñao, your sister’s house is all the way on the other side of town.”
Another spate of laughs. Across the street the tianguis were setting up tarps and arraying merchandise in dawn light the color of mango. Buses began to bellow past and dump people out onto the sidewalk. Bit by bit the cabs filled up and went off on their first fares. Toño went back down the line and leaned against his car, chirping taxi at passersby.
It was taking longer than usual to get his first ride.
Finally a girl wearing a heavy black jacket over a white hotel staff blouse came up to him. “Can you take me to León?”
“León?” Toño said. “I’m not doing colectivo.”
He thought about it a second, deciding if he really wanted to drive more than an hour out today. The fare was big, though, he’d be dumb to turn it down. He threw out a slightly higher price than normal and was surprised how quickly she agreed. He opened the door for her, sat down in the driver’s seat, batted the cross one more time before crossing himself, and slung the Tsuru into traffic.
They drove almost to the freeway without speaking. At a stoplight Toño looked in the rearview. She was looking down at her phone, bored and pensive. Maybe just because it was morning but she had very tired eyes and a jaded air about her. The shape of her face was interesting, a jaw somewhat more pronounced than usual and largish teeth.
He asked her, “What’s the address where you’re going?”
“Plaza de los Mártires.”
“Neta? You work in one of those hotels? That’s great.”
“It’s all right,” she shrugged.
“But they pay really good, no?”
“Not as well as they should. But I’m not complaining, it could be worse. Especially with everything going on right now.”
He didn’t know what she was referring to.
“You always have to take a taxi into the city?”
“No, I take the bus. I’m doing this today because of the protest. That’s why I didn’t argue your price, eh?”
He looked in the mirror and she met his eyes with minor triumph.
“Mm-hm, the autoworkers union called it against the hotels because of the water shortage.”
“Oh,” he said. “What does the water shortage have to do with the hotels?”
“Because the government incentivized the water companies to sell to them without limit in order to prop up the tourist industry.”
“I guess that makes sense. They have money to pay the price hike.”
“Exactly,” voice taking on a combative edge. “All they care about is who can pay. Rich foreigners get all the water they want, and everyone else they let go thirsty. They do this to prop up tourism, but when the factories closed down they didn’t lift a finger.”
“So it would be better,” he asked, “if they let the hotels go under, too?”
He saw in the mirror she was glowering, trying to decide what she should make of the question. He gave her a smile that even he wasn’t sure what it meant.
She winced. “You’re not a PRIista or anything, right? Because if that’s the case I’m not sure I can have this conversation with you.”
“No. I don’t vote.”
“Chale. That’s almost worse.”
“Really? I’d be interested to hear why you think so. I could be wrong, but you look a little younger than me. I’d bet your first vote ever was MORENA.”
“A ver,” she said, sitting forward in her seat, “it isn’t about them not letting the hotels go under. It’s that the government affords rich foreigners more rights than its own citizens, and all this when there are record numbers of unemployed. Not to mention the thousands of caribes they won’t even let work. That’s why they’re protesting.”
“But the tourism industry runs on rich foreigners, doesn’t it? Why organize the protest against the hotels? What can they do to fix the problem?”
He got nothing but a scathing silence.
“And if they don’t take steps to incentivize tourism, another industry could fall, and those hotels employ mexicanos. I don’t get it.”
“I mean, it’s not the responsibility of the hotels to make sure everyone is employed.”
“But it is the government’s.”
“There I agree with you,” he said, twisting the string of wooden beads hanging from the rearview out of habit, letting the cross at the end spin out wildly like a little kid on a swing. “But the government doesn’t control the auto industry, either. GM’s a gringo company. And it didn’t go under, if I remember right. It’s just all the workers lost their jobs to robots.”
“What’s your point?”
“Just that the government doesn’t control private enterprise. And even if it did, one group of workers yelling at another doesn’t make sense to me.”
She laughed. “I wonder if you’ll be singing the same song when you get replaced by a robot.”
“Good point,” he ceded. “I’m not saying they should be happy. But if I lose my job, I won’t be protesting someone else’s. How would it bring mine back?”
“So basically they shouldn’t do anything, because in your view life’s just not fair, and it’s their own fault if they can’t deal with that.”
“No, it’s not their fault. But sometimes life isn’t fair. I mean, look at me, I didn’t always drive a taxi. I was studying to be a lawyer in Guanajuato when my father died and I had to drop everything because there wasn’t enough money for school anymore. Someone had to step up and support my mom and sister. What happened to me wasn’t fair, but I did what I had to.”
“Wow, güey,” she said, voice unimpressed, bitter even, “are you sure you don’t vote? Because you talk like a politician.”
He looked at her in the mirror. She seemed fed up, arms crossed and looking angrily out the window. He narrowed his eyes.
“You’ve got a strange way of responding to someone who tells you a parent died. But you know what, I’m not going to take it personally. After all, I’m not the one who serves all those rich foreigners you hate so much, am I? If you’re so opposed to the hotels, why don’t you quit?”
He sped up to get around a bus and realized she hadn’t said anything. He looked in the mirror again. She was still looking out the window, but her face had changed. She’d taken on a pained look, like a prisoner staring out at the world through bars.
They didn’t talk again until half an hour later when they were passing into the heart of the city.
She spoke up meekly to say, “You’re probably better off if you drop me a few blocks from the plaza.”
“It’s okay,” he said, “I’ll take you right up to it.”
They got closer and he noticed a chopper circling high above the sprawl, along with a high number of police, military and guardia nacional trucks moving along in their same general direction. He took her all the way to Belisario Dominguez and pulled over to the curb by the park. She dug in her purse, handed the fare up to him. He made change and handed it back. She opened the door and started to climb out.
“Hey,” he said, turning around in his seat.
She looked at him.
She got out and shut the door.
Toño watched her meld into the crowds of families, workers and ski-masked policía carrying machine guns.
He shifted into gear and moved a short ways down 5 de Febrero before taking a right on Emiliano Zapata, but before he could get even a block he was stopped by a contingent of federales as a pair of trucks swung themselves sideways to form a roadblock. When the maneuver was finished he leaned out the window and tried to get their attention.
“Señores! Disculpa, señores!”
They ignored him, moving into a state of urgent, organized activity. Traffic had already piled up behind him, an uneven chorus of horns arising.
He got out to go talk to one of them.
“Señor!” he called out again.
One of the officers guarding the trucks finally noticed him and threw up a hand to stop him where he was.
Toño shouted, “Will the traffic be able to move soon?”
“Go back to your vehicle, now.”
He went back and waited five minutes before resigning himself to his fate and killing the engine. He laughed through his nose. He should’ve taken the girl’s advice to drop her off farther away.
He sat almost twenty minutes messing around on his phone before realizing the chopper had reappeared overhead, lowering to hover only several hundred feet over the buildingtops. A squad clad in riot gear started to flush into the avenida on foot, assembling into formation just beyond the truck barrier. He could hear faraway chanting and drums. A few minutes later he saw, through the gaps in the trucks and bodies, an immense column of workers bearing signs and banners marching up Emiliano Zapata, thrusting fists into the air in rhythm with the chanting. More police found their way through the side streets, rushing to fortify the line and blocking Toño’s view.
He looked up toward the helicopter again, seeing also now two observation drones buzzing hornet-like over the street and military figures with high-power rifles taking position on the rooftops. Things had gotten very loud, even inside the cab. Toño could tell the workers were closer by the angle the snipers tracked their aim. The protest was now in a gauntlet if they didn’t somehow redirect off Emiliano Zapata, but Toño realized that was no longer a possibility when he saw, over the heads of the police, a hoisted banner proclaiming the faction and national group number of the autoworkers union and a black and red anarcosindicalista flag fluttering back and forth in long, proud arcs. The two sides were at a standoff, the chanting of the workers having broken into a roar of voices directed at the federales. A massive tension built as the impasse dragged on. There started to be much movement and jostling amongst the riot squad, and then, whether spontaneously or by command, the tight formation advanced on the workers, attacking with batons. At first the people had nowhere to go, the vanguard trapped against the barrier by their own column, causing some of the protesters to be hit again and again with no way of defending themselves and no room to retreat. The previously fluttering flag had gone flaccid, searching its way through the chaos. Toño, immersed in the scene unfolding in the windshield, fixed his attention on a shabbily dressed Rasta with a graying beard who was hit twice in quick succession across the upper arm, absorbing the baton slashes with a look of shock, keeling back from the relentless body-armored figure, taking another harsh crack to the back of the neck, several to the ribs.
An aggressive metal pounding filled the taxi and sent an adrenaline-burn through Toño’s system. A ski-masked face filled the driver’s side window.
“Oye! Are you listening, hijo de puta? I said back the car up now!”
Toño looked in the rearview. He hadn’t noticed a pair of policía must have been redirecting the traffic jam behind him for some time because the street was almost clear.
“Perdón, señor, sí, perdón,” he babbled, fumbling to shift and reverse. Moving backward toward the intersection, he shot a last look at the battle taking place beyond the truck barrier before turning back onto 5 de Febrero and returning into what seemed to be the usual routine of the city. He made it past two or three stoplights before something overcame him and he pulled to the curb. He didn’t know what he wanted to do, whether to cry or to scream. Finally, he did nothing. He looked at himself in the mirror, said out loud—“No, you told her you didn’t believe this was the way to solve their problems, so just stop.”
He sniffed hard, set his face straight. Crossed himself slowly and kissed his fist. Started the car again and went on with his workday.
Rather than drive all the way back he stayed in León and ran fares. He stopped for lunch at a puesto in the leather district and ran into Chuy, another taxista he knew.
“Something got you down?” Chuy asked him.
Toño shook his head. “Just Barcelona’s record.”
“Some of us are going to King Kong tonight after work. You should come.”
“That’s not really my scene, compa.”
“Come on, pinche flaquito. You need a drink.”
At 7 he met up with Chuy and several other taxistas in the parking lot of King Kong.
“I’m surprised you made it.”
“Siempre, man. Anyway, I might not stay long. I’m already close to Guanajuato, so I’m thinking of staying at my girl’s place.”
They stepped into a barrage of brass music, red and pink neon fuzzed with hanging cigarette smoke. They snaked their way through the endless maze of tables full of sweating, drunk, rowdy men, most still in work clothes, calling out to the women and girls in skimpy primary-color dresses circulating through the room.
They sat, and a waitress wearing a lace top set down five Dos Equis and a plate of peanuts, the green bottles sweating, radiating in the neon glow. Horns blasted to life, tuba flatulating steadily.
Chuy flashed him a thousand-watt smile, extended his beer. “Salud, güey.”
Toño forced one back. “Salud.”
Several girls came to the table, provoking rapturous chatter from the taxistas. Chuy grabbed a girl wearing a thin yellow dress around the waist and yanked her to him, saying, “Mami, ven aca. See this loser right here? I need you to cheer him up before he makes me cry.”
He gave her a smack on the ass and nudged her toward Toño.
“Chuy, Chuy, por favor, no,” he stammered out, but she quickly sat down in his lap, plenty used to ignoring the protestations of shy men.
“Hi there,” she said, not looking totally insincere in her flirting. Her hair was dyed a noncommittal blonde, and when she smiled her teeth twinkled with braces.
“Hi,” he said, shifting awkwardly to adjust to her weight on his leg. “Look, I know what my friend said, but I really mean it. I’ve got a girlfriend.”
“Well that doesn’t have to matter,” she affected sweetly, putting her hand on the back of his head and pulling her perfumed breasts closer to his face. Her cleavage was visible through a descending series of slits in the yellow fabric, and he caught a glimpse of a small cross flashing goldenly against the swell of her small tits. “Maybe you should take your friend’s advice and relax.”
“That’s nice of you,” he said, “but I’m serious. I’m not going to pay any money.”
She recoiled, taking on a look suggesting he had offended her professionally, but nonetheless got up and moved to the next table.
Everyone else barely noticed he’d sent her away. They were eager, and the girls had pounced. For a while he sat and watched them all luxuriate in one another, sipping his Dos Equis uncomfortably. He took a look around the vast room, imbibing the sad spectacle of the tablefuls of men, gnawing away at peanuts and draining beers, most of them ugly, letting their sexuality out on display unembarrassed, and the looks on their faces made him feel odd, as if he were witnessing some unfamiliar ritual.
He took his phone from his pocket to text Itzap and saw he’d received a message fifteen minutes ago from someone he’d saved to his contacts but who had never texted him before, a guy named Arturo who he remembered was the boyfriend of one of Itzap’s coworkers at Galatea.
i know its not really my place to do this, but lupe left her phone out while she was in the bathroom and i saw a text your girlfriend sent her. i think you should see it.
Leopoldo had been a good if not great writer who became nothing more than a politics addict. The less he could idealize things on paper, the more he felt the need to idealize things in his own life. He had one time characterized Guanajuato to Itzap as being, like her, one of the only objects of his true affections, a statement that echoed briefly through her head while descending from her apartment to the centro, seeing the slaggy arrangements of multicolored cubes melting like bits of coffeeshop-poster psychedelia toward the valley floor, tiny lithe birds sliding in fast little arcs across slick red domes. She was freshly showered and dressed, almost as if she were going out for a night of dancing instead of this remanded “discussion,” flowy white blouse printed with thick blue vertical stripes and black jeans, face vaguely scrunched, impatient to get there, wide-set and sharp-cornered eyes which made space for a long, columnar nose.
Even if she had the ability to appreciate both, Itzap could distinguish romance from reality. People preferred to think of the city as halfway stuck in time, navigating encapsulated and unmolested through the dimensional folds, destined to witness sun-death in more or less its present form. The truth, though, was that the flow of modernity had long ago broken its banks and flooded the ancient streets, increasingly inundated with forlorn poor and rootless caribes from every bygone island nation, newspaper kiosks silently shrieking of this nationalist military alliance here, that evaporating natural resource there, headlines that the people were made to feel somehow a little guilty to be interested in at all. Current history, for a city of fossilized aesthetic beauty, was too distressing, too unwieldy, and simply not poetic enough. In such a rarified environment, taking a stand on any issue save for the preservation of culture felt unnecessary, even crudely political.
This was one explanation why, despite Leo’s political aims being theoretically well-suited for a city such as Guanajuato, he was viewed by his colleagues at the university (who, if anything, were suspiciously apolitical, so much that they had essentially rolled over for the new reactionary government—which also happened to be the controlling financial interest of the school—and conveniently forgotten the need to practice, or even teach, dissent) as an obsessive type of person destined for trouble with authority.
Itzap could see it from both sides. She could understand his work as being necessary, maybe even noble, but the unpleasant truth was that he could indeed tire those around him, including her, with his relentless politicization of everything, and his romantic nature led him to go too far, so that when he encountered those who were skeptical of him he fought back by making overly bold displays of his convictions. More than anything, though, she missed the artist in him, his old quaint but admirable manner of rejecting and critiquing a hypermodern world losing track of its humanity.
Clave Azul was a bar that catered to older intellectuals and communists-at-heart, a low-lit, quiet place except for when alcohol-fueled debates became contentious, which they often did, the interior composed of several small chambers with stone walls and rough wood furniture and framed portraits of famous leftists. She found him in the backmost room, empty except him, sitting at their regular corner table over a goldbanded bottle of Bohemia, mouthing the words to a Jorge Negrete song that was playing with eyes closed and a Chesterfield chuffing madly in his fingers. He sensed her come in and put down the cigarette, standing to kiss her hello (just barely a bit shorter than she was) with an uncharacteristic look of seriousness that failed to put her at ease. His features were handsome but seamed and well-worn, and he still had all his hair. What made him seem younger was his physicality, still vital, and a strangely enthusiastic spirit. A smoker for decades, his voice was deep, damaged, melancholy. They settled in across from one another.
“So?” she said. “What the fuck?”
He failed to contain an amused smirk, reaching for the nub of cigarette he’d left balanced on the ashtray’s edge.
“Amor,” he said (his whole nonchalant air irritating her greatly), “you know more than anyone how I feel about this—”
“Exactly. I thought I knew, but now it turns out you were lying to me the whole time, or agreeing with me for some other reason, maybe because it was just convenient for you, maybe just because all you wanted was to fuck—”
“—but,” he continued, “this is different, it just feels different. When you told me you were pregnant I felt happy, and that’s the last thing I thought I would feel. It’s impossible to explain. But the more I think about it, the more I think we should have this baby.”
She was left staring before breaking into a long, seconds long, mournful groan. She was still in the middle of it when Martin came to the table to take her drink order.
“Esteee… something for you, Itzap?”
“Dios,” she breathed, “yes, please. I’ll have a—” She stopped, remembering all over again, and suddenly the tortured groan came back.
Leo ordered for her. “Maybe just a Fresca, Martin, gracias.” He turned back to her. “Itzap, please…”
“I just want to know,” she said, “how for two whole years your opinion was always the same—it would be immoral to bring a new life into this collapsing world, you would never because it would distract from your work—and now all of a sudden you’re this different person. I mean, I trusted you to let you know I was pregnant. If I had known, I probably wouldn’t have even…”
Leo mined another cigarette from the carton, sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m not telling you what to do, just how I feel. If you decide to get rid of it, I’ll understand.”
“But it wouldn’t be what you’d choose.”
His face turned almost apologetic. “No. I’m prepared to love this baby.”
“Leo, this isn’t funny. You say you’re not telling me what to do, but it feels like you’re putting pressure on me. Do you get that?”
He nodded. “I know. It’s not fair. I’m not trying to be fair. If I was being fair I would agree with you.”
“Fuck, Leo. What about Patricia?”
He turned grave. “I’ve thought about that. If you decide to have the baby, I’ll divorce her. Even if you don’t want to be with me.”
This exploded in Itzap’s mind into a trillion potentialities. She felt sickened by a twinge of excitement at the idea of having Leo all to herself, an option that had never been on the table as a matter of practicality, but even so she had quietly wondered about for a long time now. The excitement gave way to disbelief, tangled realizations: she would be destroying Leo’s wife’s marriage, and then she would be stuck with him, a man twice her age, raising a child, she would have to break up with Toño, admit to her parents what had been going on all this time…
“Itzap, what’s wrong?”
No, it was too much. She needed to have her feet on solid ground. “Something else,” she said, skipping over the part about divorce, “how is it this whole idea of having a baby suddenly fits with your politics?”
“My politics haven’t changed,” he said, straightening in his chair.
“But your opinion of having a baby has.”
The question seemed difficult for him. He took the time to finally light the cigarette he’d queued up.
“I don’t know,” he forced out, staring into the rising smoke. “I’m a pessimist. I never really think about it that way, but I guess it’s the truth. Look, could you turn your phone off?”
She gave him a confused look, but did as he asked.
He leaned toward her and said quietly, “The thing is, you don’t become an arms trafficker if you’re an optimist. And you especially don’t become one if your goal is to be a family man. You do it because you’re scared shitless, or because you hate—all the way down into your soul—the people who want to rule in your name. I stand by what I’ve said in the past. Who would want to bring an innocent life into this dying, authoritarian, bigoted world? Maybe only someone too stupid or too stubborn to know the difference, but why should I assume that someone isn’t me? That’s one of the problems with politics, it’s all about fear. You can end up afraid of your own shadow.”
“So you figured, ‘Why the hell not?’”
“If that’s what you think, I won’t try to convince you otherwise. The problem is, all I can do is defend a feeling, and how I felt when you told me you were pregnant was happy. Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are. There are certain luxuries I try not to afford myself, and hope is one of them. But I’ve been strict with myself too long and maybe I forgot how to pay attention to my heart.”
“Don’t throw emotions at me like they were revelations,” she said.
“Fine. But there’s no question in my mind that I love you, and for what it’s worth, I would love our child. If I couldn’t give it the best, I would settle for what’s possible. And maybe this is what sustains my political convictions, more than just pure commitment to a cause. I—”
He went quiet as Martin came back in carrying the bottle of Fresca. He took a rag and wiped the condensation from the glass before wrenching the cap off with a hiss and setting it on the table, blind to the silence and tension.
“Algo más, chicos?”
“Estamos bien, Martin, gracias.”
He left them there looking at each other.
“It’s a beautiful speech, Leo,” Itzap said, “but right now I can’t trust a beautiful speech.”
He took offense. “Carajo, Itzap. This isn’t some performance! Is that what you really think of me?”
“Please. You know I think highly of you. But my feelings haven’t changed.”
“You’re worried about money.”
“Not money. It’s just… Look, if I was any good at this I would’ve come out of your course a writer. I’m not going to try to validate my reasons, and I don’t have to. Just know that you might have all these considerations, but I just have one.”
She was about to answer but saw Leo’s focus switch to something behind her. She turned in her chair. Toño stood barely a meter from their table.
He made no move, but his face was wild, burning, hands shaking.
“You’re pregnant?” he said.
“Toño. How did you know we were here?”
He lifted his shirt, pulled a black .32 revolver from his waistband and aimed it at Leopoldo.
“Toño!” Itzap shot up from her chair.
He retreated a half-step, turning his aim on her.
She faced him. “Put the fucking gun down.”
“I should fucking kill you,” voice trembling, eyes wet. “You fucking lied to me.”
He menaced her with the gun again, trying to remind her who was supposed to be in control.
She looked past the revolver. “Do it, then.”
“Stop!” Leo pleaded, helpless.
“Do it. You fucking coward.”
A tear streaked down his face. He smashed her across the face with the gun. She stumbled backward, came into contact with her chair and toppled to the ground.
Leo stood. “Hijo de puta madre!”
Itzap writhed next the overturned chair.
Toño’s face melted to horror, humiliation. He looked at Leopoldo, something beyond fear shimmering in his eyes. He put the gun to his own head.
Martin turned the corner, taking hold of the hand with the pistol from behind. Leo, overcoming a moment’s hesitation, rushed forward and tackled Toño full force, taking both of them to the ground and leaving Martin holding the gun.
Itzap staggered to her feet, cheekbone deeply gashed, masking the lower half of her face in vivid blood. She was screaming something distorted by shaky vocal chords.
Martin and Leopoldo hauled Toño off the ground. He had gone catatonic, no longer putting up any resistance. They dragged him away toward the front of the bar.
Itzap could follow only a short distance, vision foggy and head light, still screaming.
“Let him do it! Let him fucking shoot me!”
She collapsed, wishing she were dead.
“Hola, Señorita Escobedo. Are you ready to hold her now?”
Her baby had been cleaned up, clothed in a pink onesie and a soft white cap. Itzap felt deadened, hair still damp with the sweat.
The mushy brown face squirmed a bit as it was transferred into her arms but quickly settled, desperate to be held by her. Tiny white mittens latched weakly onto her collarbone. Little lips smacked, showing a curve of pink tongue, eyes shut tightly against bright hospital lights.
Itzap had never seen anything more innocent, more radiant. She cried quietly.
I will spend my whole life justifying what I’ve done to you.