I travelled a long way to get here and now that I’ve arrived it turns out things are pretty much the same – hirsute men in bike caps and check shirts drinking craft beer in a pub called Bristol. I might as well have stayed where I was, apart from the cactuses and the yellow sunshine. Sunshine’s never yellow back home, it’s too limp, filtered through grey clouds and reflecting off grey bricks. There aren’t any clouds today, only the blue basin of sky ringed by the mountains surrounding the city. People here call them hills but they are mountains.
Even under the yellow sun the days stay cold until late afternoon when the heat sinks into the city and sets. So you sit still in the shade and drink cold things and eat spicy food and look out into the glare at right angle rooftops cut into the pale sky. Stranded in the relative cool of the terrace of a pub named for an English town, you will most likely become drunk watching cars circling a roundabout, tall colonies of cactuses reaching for the flyover above.
Riding the swells of just such a drink- and sun-sodden day, we fill the troughs of each other’s conversation with crests of our own. We began drinking an hour or so before, sitting on a terrace next to a dark wooden pillar under a dark wooden beam arrayed with African masks. Why African masks? The English lie on sun beds. Koreans bleach their skin. African masks in an English pub in Mexico.
“Come on man, put your phone away for once.” That’s all Ernesto’s done all day: play with his phone. I might as well be drinking on my own which, I’ve heard tell, would make me an alcoholic.
“I tell you what, man,” he holds out the phone so I can see the picture on its screen, “chunky girls are real grateful. Check her out.” It shows a girl in black lingerie taking a photograph of herself in the wardrobe mirror. She isn’t thin, but she isn’t chunky either. She’s attractive.
“What’re you on about?” I hand the phone back.
“Just that they’re real appreciative is all. They don’t get enough attention, I guess,” his gaze on his phone again, his eyebrows leap on his forehead and he purses his lips, “Those tits, man – I tell you what…”
“She the one coming down later?”
He’s a short guy but well-muscled. He wears tight t-shirts to emphasize the fact. Someone told me he was a fat child but I’ve never seen any proof. His skin shines from his routine and his hair, black like boot polish, is swept back and moulded into a ducktail. His eyebrows are expressive like a dog’s, jumping up and down, slanting inwards or out depending on his mood. Above his left eyebrow is a thin curved scar about an inch in length. He says he got it running through a glass door when he was five. Very occasionally the ‘I’s in his words become long ‘E’s. Otherwise his accent is Texan. “Three weeks since I saw her last, man, and I’ve been striking out with all the chicks round here. I can’t wait for that dirty, dirty, pussy smell,” he bites his bottom lip and grunts in anticipation, “Swear to God I’m going to screw her into the floor.”
“What time’s she getting here?” I concentrate on ignoring those images.
“Couple of hours,” he takes a swig of beer.
“Careful you don’t drink yourself out of a boner.”
He laughs and, picking up a lime wedge, bites into it. Then he waves it at me, “What about you, man? I ain’t seen you with a chick since you got here. How about that one over by the door,” he jerks his head back to direct me over his shoulder, jiggles his eyebrows and grins, “She’s pretty hot, right?”
I’ve noticed her. She is cute and she does keep looking my way. “I don’t know mate…” I hide my non-committance behind a swig of beer. I don’t have the energy. That or I haven’t drunk enough.
“Whatever you say, man, but I think she’s into you,” he waves at the waiter, points at his still half full bottle of beer and holds up two fingers. The waiter nods.
“Ah, man…” my protest’s pretty weak. I’m not in the mood for a piss up and I’ve barely touched the beer in my hand.
“Come on, dude,” he grins, punching my arm. Hard.
An hour later and four beers deeper we’re asked to leave. Ernesto doesn’t want to.
He’s been trying to push the girl by the door in my direction, sometimes literally, which doesn’t go down well. He wants to stay and dispute it, glaring with alcoholic ferocity at the bartender who’s trying to usher us to the door and resisting the arm I put across his chest to get him out.
As soon as we’re around the corner he forgets to be angry. He’s smiling and laughing, the incident wiped. “Dude. I’m fucking hungry,” he says, spotting the dirty old man selling dirty gorditas just up ahead, the meat stuffed rolls sweating in a glass box mounted on the front of his bicycle. Its walls drip with condensation and even after a few drinks it looks like a really bad idea.
Ernesto’s first goes down whole. I throw mine away half way through and look for somewhere likely to wipe the grease dripping over my hands. I settle for patting him on the back and rubbing it off on his top, smiling at him while I do. Starting on his second, he pulls out his phone again. He doesn’t care about the grease he’s spreading all over the touch screen. “I’m gonna see where this chick’s at,” he takes another bite, the phone to his ear.
It’s still too hot to be out. We seek out the slim shade, hugging the white walls while we wander on. The sound of a mariachi band follows us, bouncing down the sunbathed streets with great loping steps, glancing off the flats with the light and heat. It comes from every direction, following us like a parade of Mexican ghosts.
We pass under a guava tree, entering the pocket of cool, sweet air around it. I breathe the smell deeply. Ernesto kicks it hard so that its leaves shake and some fruit falls. He puts the phone back in his pocket without a word.
I give him a moment’s cooling off period before asking, “No answer?”
“Let’s get some beers,” he points to a little bar across the road.
“I don’t know, mate,” I’m already gone but more drinking does sound good. He’s already crossing the street anyway.
I’m not sure what’ll happen if I fart. I feel a desperate need to but I don’t know if I’ll pass wind or pass shit or if they’re the same thing right now. Now and then I feel something make a break for it and I clench desperately, trying not to let the effort show on my face. Not that Ernesto would notice. He’s leaning his head on his arms on the table in front of him, lifting it occasionally to clear his throat and spit.
“What time’s her coach get in?”
He looks up at me, confused, then around. His gaze skims over everything uncomprehending.
“This girl – what time’s her coach get in?”
How long is it before I can go home and lock myself in a bathroom and do what needs to be done. I contemplated the toilet in here but I don’t know what horror’s going to enter the world when the levee breaks, or how long it will take.
I can’t leave him in this state though. I’m not sure he’d make it home on his own.
He takes out his phone again and blinks at it a few times, then looks at me, eyebrows slanting. He looks pathetic, like a dog that knows it’s done something wrong but isn’t sure what, or how it’s going to be treated for it.
“Eight.” He sighs.
“What time is it now?”
“She hasn’t called?”
He looks down at his phone again and blinks. Then he shakes his head. Propping himself between stool and table, he stands up, “Let’s go to the station.”
“I don’t know, mate,” I start to say but he’s already tilting towards the door.
“Let’s go the station,” he blinks in the sunlight, trying to figure out which way the coach station is. The heat of the day has calmed down a little and the shadows stretch out from the base of the walls. Walking in their shade you can feel the day’s heat radiating back off them, slapping the side of your face.
“You’re better off forgetting about it, Ernie.”
He stops and turns and points at me, “Don’t fucking call me that.” The threat in his eyes is real so I stay silent and out of reach.
He leans his head on his arms, crossed on the counter while the clerk checks her computer for arrival times. He clears his throat horribly and spits on the floor again. Every time he does the clerk flinches but refuses to look at him, even when she says, “A las ocho y media.”
Ernesto doesn’t hear. His hips sway a little, like a marionette whose strings are fraying. I tap him on the shoulder. He looks up at me with a question on his eyes. I think the question is “who are you?” but I say, “Half-eight, man.”
“She’s on it?”
“I don’t know mate.”
“It’s here now?”
“No mate, it gets in at half-eight.”
The woman behind the desk directs us to the stand at the end of the station. I help him onto the bench. I almost hope she doesn’t turn up. That would be way too much of a scene for me to handle right now.
As soon as we’re sitting the bugs make merry in my bowls again. It’s like there’s a battle going on in there, legions too numerous for my insides launching an assault on the breach of my sphincter. The ring’s holding out, though the effort is sickening, sweat squeezing out of my pores with a shiver every time, as if every hole in my skin is clenching in solidarity. I try not to grunt when I feel the rumble of retreat in my lower intestine. I relax. A little. I eye the toilets, but they cost money and I resent paying for the privilege of necessity. So I shiver and hold out. “Any word?”
Ernesto has his head between his knees and keeps taping his phone screen to see if there’s a new message. He spits every time there isn’t.
I’m getting beer tired now that the alcohol’s wearing off. Darkness has fallen and I need to go home and minister to myself. The only thing that’s keeping me half-awake is the terror of being caught short. It’s nearly nine. Every coach that arrives brings false hope. Ernesto looks up and we wait while the passengers file off. His head drops again when the last person descends.
A stray dog puts its head around the station gate. It considers the scene for a second before the rest of its body follows. She’s old, black teats long, thin and drained. Her coat is crusted with grime and slick with grease. As she passes she casts disinterested glances at us and the extended family squeezed onto the next bench, young children overflowing onto the floor. A baby stretches out a hand in the dog’s direction, twisting in his mother’s arms, but she ignores it. Stopping by the wheel of a recently arrived coach, she turns on the spot a few times, stops, looks around at us again, turns a couple more times and then curls up. It is getting cold. It’s probably cosy down there by the wheel.
Another dog arrives. Maybe they’ve arranged to meet for the nine thirty coach from Mexico City. Or maybe he’s come to convince her to stay. He’s a big dog, old and struggling to walk. His snout is covered with small black scars. His bottom eyelids droop low to expose livid red insides. His exhausted, waiting-for-death gaze passes over us much like hers did, taking for granted that we are there. The dogs exchange glances too, but nothing more. He sits in the middle of the pavement, then collapses onto his side, unable to bend his back legs to lie down softly. He lets out a sigh so expansive and wearied that I think for a second it is his last. I look carefully for the rising and falling of his side. His eyes flick open for a second and look at me. Then he sighs and shuts them again.
“That’s it,” Ernesto stands up as another coach pulls in, from Oaxaca this time. He sways a little and heads towards it. I get up and follow close to make sure he doesn’t fall under the wheels. I take his elbow to move him back from the people getting off. The driver, standing by the door to wish his passengers well, frowns at us in between smiling at them. The family greet a young man with laughter and shouts and hugs of welcome and take his luggage for him. A reunited couple start kissing with abandon. Ernesto glares at them.
The flow of passengers slows to a trickle and then stops. I have to stop him getting onto the coach to check at the back; it’s not hard given the state of his motor skills. The driver shuts the door and goes to get some food. Ernesto takes out his phone and blinks at it, fumbling with the screen for a moment. He holds it to his ear and sways on the spot.
“Come on, man,” I hold out a conciliatory hand.
He shrugs me off and takes two involuntary steps away. Holding his phone up in the air above his head, he sways again for a moment. Then he brings his arm down as hard as he can and smashes the phone on the floor. Its parts skitter across the concrete. The dog lifts its head and its red eyelids blink.
“’Nesto, mate,” I put an arm around his shoulders. He shakes me off again and aims a kick at the dog.
Someone shouts. I turn to see a policeman coming towards us, the coach driver leading the way. They look angry. They care about dogs here.
“’Nesto, mate, fucking calm down, alright?” I hiss it into his ear and try to pull him away but suddenly he’s got strength even though he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. Finding a piece of his phone nearby, he starts stamping on it. I’m pretty sure something’s made it out of my arse in the middle of it all, not much, but something. I wish they could all just understand that I need to be at home on a toilet, give me sympathy and leave me alone, maybe even a lift back.
I can’t understand what the cop’s saying but hold out a placating hand and say, “Esta bien,” over and over and trying to stay between him and Ernesto and show that I’m taking him away. He’s not a prime specimen of policeman but he’s got a gun on his belt and that’s enough for me. “He’s…” I shrug, “Su mujer,” I swing a hand across my neck and raise my eyebrows.
The policeman’s demeanour softens. He frowns for a moment, studying me. Then he looks at Ernesto and nods in sympathy and shrugs, “Chicas…”
“Si. I’ll…” I point to the gate the dogs came through, “Nos vamos.”
The coach driver and the policeman help pick up the pieces of Ernesto’s phone and hand them to me. Throughout he’s standing motionless with bleary eyes, staring at the floor. The coach driver pats him on the back and Ernesto and I hobble from the station in our various forms of distress. The night is very cold now but I am sweating from clenching.
There has to be a taxi along soon.