Pac-Man on the Southern Border
 
 “The way I see it, we were just as bad. Girls came here thinking they’d go north. But most stayed. Like Mayday. She had eyes like tide pools. So much life was stranded in those pockets of water and light. She came here asking about something. Directions, money, it didn’t matter. The point was she was in the door. Back then, we could still smoke indoors. The bar light fell on her like amber-colored sap, dim and viscous as the men trapped inside it. We had armpit hair like flypaper left in the kitchen too long. She liked it. She decided to stay. Whose fault was that? It was ours, coño. It was mine. Stay awhile, I told her. Make some money on your way north. Waitress. See how you like it. Then some borracho walked in, nose slanted between his eyes like a % sign. He took Mayday to a back room. He closed the door. She held him like a water spider. The tension was only on the surface.” “Why didn’t you leave this place?” I asked Mikaela, the bartender. “What I want to know,” Mikaela said, “is why Mayday never left you.” I had no idea. I’d lost friends over her. My parents disapproved of everything we did. Mayday was my woman in red. I saw her by the light of bridges burned to get her. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve got time,” Mikaela said. She took down a bottle of bourbon and poured me a beer back. “Tell me where you and her left off.”

*

I saw her in our bedroom window. “Mayday, please don’t,” I shouted. First she hurled insults. Then she threw drawers of clothes. And lastly, my dresser climbed out of the window like a gargoyle. It leapt from the second story. Clothes floated down. My daughter and son dove into the shirts like spirits leaping into bodies. My daughter climbed atop the dresser with bedsheets in hand. She spun the white fabric into beams of light. Her entire body was a lighthouse, a lifelong turn toward the lost and the dark. “Splinters, honey.” I motioned for her to come down off the broken dresser. She refused. Wonder went barefoot through the world and so would she. She looked at me defiantly. Her eyes were the color of sea ice, a blue disappearing from this earth. My son tied a makeshift parachute of bedsheets to his backpack. Wind filled the sheets. His heels left the ground. His body lifted into the air. “Let me go,” he said. He kicked his legs free of my grip. “He’ll be fine,” Mayday shouted down at me from the window. “What happens in our bed sheets never carries anyone away.” 

I ran up to Mayday to try to smooth things over. She wasn’t in a smoothing-over mood. As Mayday’s husband, I’d become winter sunlight, something she could see but no longer feel. To her, a man was nothing more than a bruise, defined by the size of his swell and how fast he could disappear. Mayday yelled I couldn’t keep my pants on. Lacking trust, our relationship had become closed-captioned. Her attention was divided between watching me and reading part of a screen. I picked my way through the rubble of our bedroom. Mayday was in front of the mirror. She put her finger against the glass. Old, dark wood framed the mirror. She traced her finger along her jaw, another shoreline for beauty to leave high and low tidemarks on. Mayday took my hand. “I’m leaving you,” she said. I’d grown up Catholic. Penance always bought more sin. I asked what I could do to change her mind, but Mayday wasn’t negotiating. She smoothed her dress on her lap. She stood to go. She walked out my front door. Her footsteps fell like lemons from their boughs.

Our daughter joined me at the window to watch Mayday leave. The traffic lights down the street we lived on turned red. I cupped my hands and blew into them. The sound produced was similar to that of a bújo, or owl. The traffic lights turned green the moment the sound left my lips. My daughter shrieked and clapped her hands. The clock turned from 11:59 to midnight. The lights turned to a flashing yellow. My daughter blinked her eyes in sync with the traffic lights. She looked for her mother. It was past her bedtime. I led her to her room. She loved staying up late. She loved the fear at the top of the stairs. She loved the light in the hall leaking under her bedroom door. She stole her mother’s lipstick. The red hue on her lips looked like the light underneath a secret door she had yet to open. Until she did, we were everything to each other. Our hands were two halves of an hourglass. When cut, they spilled the grains by which we measured time. 

“Get out of here,” she yelled. Our neighbors were stealing my clothes off our lawn. We chased after them until we reached the waterfront. My son skipped his rock first. Then he taught his sister how to skip hers. I swam out to where their furthest throws landed. She got a little better. I swam a little further. We would play this game when she got older. Her phone calls would come across longer distances. I’d go farther out to receive them until we wouldn’t see each other at all. “Hit me,” I yelled. I splashed the water. “Right here,” I yelled and pointed to my belly. My daughter sailed her next throw. The stone ricocheted off my paunch. They cheered. I gasped. I swam back hurt. I told myself to stop being an old man. Four skips away, my sides cramped up. Three skips away, their rocks shot like steamboat canons over the Mississippi raising Tom Sawyer from the dead. Two skips and my daughter and son dove into the water after me. This is what I wanted. Not for them to reach me, but for them to be part of what swept me away.

Back on shore, my daughter untied her brother’s parachute from his backpack. She offered it to me as a towel. We’d been on this beach before. This was before my son put his sister’s dolls in the oven and watched like an astronaut peering through the glass at a world on fire. I handed him his first kite here. It was a warm, clear day. He smiled, the kite tugging at the corners of his mouth. My body was at the kite end of a genetic, double helix string. He did what he could to sever the line. 

Mayday couldn’t have gone far. I dried myself off and put the kids into the car. I drove to the bar, Mayday’s home away from home. A drunk lay on the curb like newsprint, full of stories until he got too wet to hold himself together. I left the kids in the car and walked up to the bouncer. The man at the door had these pontoon muscles keeping him afloat in a sea of admiration. He and Mayday knew each other well. He worked at the tattoo shop next door. She got new ink done whenever our relationship wasn’t working. Over time she’d tattooed lyrics of songs on her arms and railroad crossing gates across her eyelids. “I’m sorry,” I said. I stethoscoped my apologies. I pressed them firmer against her heart. I didn’t hold any secrets back. I didn’t want us to speak the way we tipped, giving only a percentage of the total lives we lived. 

She took the keys. “Come on, let’s go home,” she said. She drove us from the tattoo parlor in a light rain. The windshield wipers cleared the rain in sonogram shapes that displayed everything in its infancy. New sections of the city appeared and receded behind us. Mayday’s mascara ran down her cheeks. Where her eyes had once resembled logged hillsides, there now was first growth. She smiled slowly, the way grass unbends after being walked on. I pulled up to our block. I parked the car in our front yard. My clothes were still all over the lawn. A neighborhood kid who’d taken one of my shirts ran past us. “Hey,” I yelled. He was so small in my XXL shirt. With the long sleeves dragging on the ground, he looked like a little ghost. I started chasing him. He ran back toward our home. Had I been spray-painted yellow, my body would have been Pac-Mannish in shape and color. My white socks and mostly-white underwear dotted the sidewalk. I grabbed the shirt from the kid. Mayday checked if he was okay. He turned around and hit her. Other little ghosts ran at us from all directions. One kicked Mayday. “You little shit,” she said. Her voice never sounded so heavenly. If the sky had an inner ear to keep its balance, then her voice was vertigo. She spoke and paradise fell within reach. Bruises formed a Technicolor border between wonder and pain on her skin. She yelped. The border was not so porous as when she was young. These kids knew the rules. A grandmother, a forgotten aunt, or just some cousin with a landscaping job, was enough to make them run the risks. Some of them wore shirts sporting the logos of the Trail Blazers and New York Giants. Others wore shirts made for funerals: In Loving Memory of Zeke or Tallon 1997-2014 R.I.P. They were ghosts in two families. On one side of the border, their family gathered in a séance around the telephone, waiting for a response. And on the other side, another family heard their footsteps in the shadows instead of more familiar children walking in the light. Cherries, strawberries and oranges had brought these families together. I picked one of my shirts off the ground: Wecenslau 1998-2014 R.I.P. Mayday took another. We ran toward my daughter. 

“Baby, come here. Don’t run,” I said. My daughter looked at me with wild eyes. She had circus tent eyelids. Wonders were beneath them. She flexed her muscles and hit me. Her thimble-throated voice asked me “Why shouldn’t I?” Before, her words had sleepwalked through her body. Now, the right questions awoke criticism in her voice without startling the dreams guiding it. My phone rang. “Who is it?” my daughter asked. It was a woman I used to date and cheated on Mayday with. I was trying my best to keep these two worlds apart. “Go ahead, tell her” Mayday said. “Explain the photos I found in our dresser. Explain why our things are all over the ground.” I didn’t begin talking so much as treading water with my lips, keeping the conversation on the surface. I hadn’t shaved. My unibrow looked like a hand shake above everything I saw. And my triple chin fat had accumulated into a Wi-Fi shape. My daughter saw that I stumbled over my words. She saw that I could not speak to owls. I had no special power over traffic lights. I could not scare away pain. When she put on lipstick, a secret door would open. She would walk through and hold it tight against me. I used to want an aisle-seat relationship with my family, one that I could exit while inconveniencing the least amount of people. Things were different now. “I’ll show you what she looks like,” I said. I took the lipstick and began putting it on my mouth. My daughter grabbed the makeup out of the broken dresser. She covered me in eyeliner, concealer, and foundation. From the dresser, she pulled out scarves. She pulled out bras and funeral shirts. She pulled out Jeggings and sequined jeans. She wanted to see all of me. She gathered up Roos and Nikes. She wanted to dress me like all of the people that had loved and stopped loving me. Mayday gathered our bedsheets-turned-parachutes off the grass. She tied them around her body, ready to be carried away.