Authors: Leonard Foglia,David Richards
Night fell. The street lamps came on and the frosted glass windows in the living room at Venustiano Carranza spilled a cold white light onto the sidewalk. That meant only one thing: Hannah and Jimmy were waiting up for their son. Normally, the family lived in the back part of the house, away from the street. The living room was the one place where the inside and outside worlds overlapped. Sometimes festively, sometimes sadly. Tonight the lights betrayed concern.
Hannah worked fitfully, mending a pair of Little Jimmy’s jeans, but her attention wasn’t in it. “Jimmy, what if what we did was wrong, after all?” she said.
“You don’t really think that. And neither do I.”
“But you must have thought about it. At least once or twice. We’re human. Humans make mistakes.”
“Our children are not mistakes.”
“I’m not talking about Teresa or Little Jimmy.”
“None of our children is a mistake,” Jimmy insisted, his voice stern. Hannah wondered if the sternness was directed at her. Jimmy’s strength had always been quiet and unassuming. Tonight he seemed uncharacteristically nervous, ready to swing out, break something to release the tension.
“Are you angry with me for saying that?”
“Angry? No. Just surprised, I guess.” Jimmy reached out and ran his forefinger along her cheek, as if tracing the fine bone under the flesh. But the gesture that usually calmed her failed to dispel her anxiety. She turned away so that Jimmy wouldn’t see the tears that had formed in her eyes.
“I have never doubted our actions for a minute. Separately and together, as a family.” Jimmy’s voice had lost none of its sternness. “We made a choice – it was not forced upon us - and we have dealt with the consequences justly. It’s not been easy, but it was never wrong.”
Hannah tugged insistently at the thread. “Do you ever think what would have happened if I had fulfilled my contract … not interfered? What if I had gone along with them, as I promised I would, what would have happened then?”
“He never would have had a chance at a normal life?”
“Does he now? Now that they’ve found him?”
Jimmy reflected for a while. “He’s a man now and he can make up his own mind. He can judge them for who they are, as well as judge us for what we’ve done. That’s what we’ve given him – the freedom to decide for himself. That’s all any parent can give a child. They never would have allowed it.”
“So we were right, after all?”
“I’ve told you what I think. If you want another answer, I guess you’ll have to ask him, when he returns.”
“If he returns…”
“No, he’ll come back. They may have confused him or even frightened him with their stories. He has to sort things out. Like it or not, we’re part of the sorting out.”
It was ten o’clock before he finally returned. Except for the two oblongs of light on the sidewalk, the neighborhood was dark. Hannah had abandoned her sewing and settled into a fretful silence. She realized there was nothing she and Jimmy could do, other than tell the truth, free of apology and regret. They had no other defense.
The hinges of the front door moaned. Hannah sat up with a start and Little Jimmy’s jeans slid off her lap onto the floor.
“That you?” called out Jimmy.
The young man who entered the living room looked haggard, old beyond his twenty years. He kissed both parents’ on the cheek, as was customary, and sank into a leather chair, his youthful body drained of energy.
“Where have you been?”
“We were worried for you, son,” said Jimmy.
Scarcely a second passed. “Am I? Am I really your son?” Jimmy took a deep breath, as if preparing to plunge into unknown waters.
“Legally, you are. You bear my name. Your birth certificate lists me as your father, just as it lists Hannah as your mother. Biologically, your origins are more complicated. We do not know who your real parents are. We were given information at the time, names, dates, told stories, but we’ve come to believe that very little of what was said back then was true.”
“What do you mean?”
“Presumably, your real mother was unable to carry a child to term. Hannah was hired by the woman and her husband to be a surrogate mother. The woman’s fertilized eggs were surgically implanted in Hannah’s womb. Hannah was young and healthy at the time and you developed normally inside her, as if you were her child. But genetically, no, you are not related. Hannah nurtured you, she did not conceive you.”
“And my real mother?”
“Perished before your birth in a car accident.”
“What about my father? You said the woman had a husband. So he was my real father?”
“We don’t know. Your paternity is a mystery. The doctor who supervised your pregnancy—-“
Hannah winced perceptibly at the name.
“Yes, the same doctor who came here searching for you,” Jimmy continued. “He claimed your DNA came from the blood on a holy relic in Spain, a cloth that had supposedly covered the face of Christ in his agony. He believed that his genetic engineering would result in the second coming. We couldn’t accept that. Dr. Johanson is a dangerous man. That’s why your mother and I vowed to give you as normal a boyhood as we could. We would not allow you to be the plaything of fanatics.”
The young man had a vision of the faces around the table at the Meson Santa Rosa, all fixed upon him as if he had the secret to life, not just the directions to the Museo de la Ciudad. Obviously, they had not abandoned their experiment, he had simply been forced to delay it. Their zeal, frustrated for twenty years, was all the greater now.
“Why didn’t you tell this to me before?”
“Tell you what? How?” Hannah intervened. “When would have been the right time? Besides no one can ever know for sure the origins of your DNA. As a young woman, I fell into a trap. I didn’t know any better. I was just a waitress in a diner. Your father helped me, helped
get out. Afterwards, we made a decision: We would raise you. We would give you your values. We, not Dr. Johanson and his followers, would help you become a man.”
The young man let silence fall over the living room. Outside in the street, a stray dog barked at a cat or a shadow. Hannah cast down her eyes, waiting for a reaction. Jimmy reached out again and instinctively ran his finger along her cheekbone.
“I’m sorry for any pain we’ve caused you,” she said.
The young man got up and went to her side. She kept her head low, not wanting him to see her tear-streaked face. But she took his hand in hers and pressed it softly. Then Jimmy took both their hands in his, so that the young man’s was sandwiched between those of his parents. He realized how much their future happiness and sorrow now lay on his shoulders. They had protected him. Now he was an adult and he would have to protect them. It was the eternal seesaw of the generations, when the older cedes its power to the younger. They were no longer his caretakers.
“I love you both very much,” the young man began quietly. “So I hope you will understand when I say that I need to go away for a while.”
Jimmy released his son’s hand.
“Not with those people!” Hannah cried.
“No, of course, not. I need to go away to think. To find out what I am.”
Shadows were no longer passing as frequently in front of the oblong windows. She told herself that once the living room lights went out, she would give up her watch. It was already late and it was unlikely that the young man would re-emerge from the house at this hour.
She put her camera away in her backpack, fastened the straps, and allowed herself to sit on the curb, her back up against one of the ficus trees that lined the Avenida Venustiano Carranza. It was only then she realized how tired she was. It had been a busy day, what with the luncheon in the Meson Santa Rosa and then the young man’s vigil in the Alameda. She’d already captured enough on film for one day.
Before the arrival of the visitors, her task had been relatively simple: record the young man’s movements and stay out of sight. She already had hundreds of photographs documenting almost every move he had made recently. She had highly dramatic shots of him crawling out of the mudslide in the Sierra Gorda. But she also had shots of him beforehand, lecturing the villagers. And she’d got him in the midst of more mundane activities – tending his parents’ store and shopping at the market. But that was all necessary, too, for the dossier.
But the visitors’ presence had altered everything. She had to dodge them constantly and they seemed to be everywhere. They had almost caught her in the Plaza de Armas. (She’d turned her back just in time.) That couldn’t happen again. Still, she couldn’t avoid them. She had to include them in the pictures, since they were part of the story. However they’d explained things in the Meson Santa Rosa, the young man had come away from the luncheon profoundly changed. That’s why the pictures she’d taken of him in the Alameda were so important. They showed him withdrawn and troubled. Curiously enough, more troubled than when he’d crawled out from under the mud.
She could only speculate what was going on inside the house right now, but she had little doubt she’d be able to read the consequences in his face tomorrow. You couldn’t take as many photographs as she had and not understand him as she did now. His eyes, the forehead, the set of the jaw were like pages in a book she’d memorized.
But what was next?
That decision was not hers to make, but she knew she would no longer just be recording events. Her role would be changing, too.
She was told to travel light, so she could move at a moment’s notice. A change of clothes, extra underwear, a few toiletries and her camera all fit neatly into her backpack. Her passport and her credit cards she always kept on her person in a money belt. In a crowd, she passed for just another student, traveling through Mexico on the cheap, her hair bleached by the sun, her tanned face that of someone still young enough not to worry about skin cancer. She needed no other disguise.
She glanced at her watch – 2 a.m. –the lights continued to burn in the living room. She was fighting to stay awake, but she’d not spent all this time in Mexico to miss anything crucial now. Still, her eyes were closing despite herself and she caught her head nodding forward. She forced herself to sit up straight. She figured she was good for another fifteen minutes.
She felt a clawlike hand dig into her shoulder and nearly let out a scream. Then she heard a woman’s voice asking, “Is that you, Claudia?”
Adrenaline shot through her body. She jumped to her feet and found herself facing Judith Kowalski and Dr. Johanson.
“It’s been so many years,” Judith continued. “How you’ve grown! You’ve turned into a beautiful young woman.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The young woman reached for her backpack and slung it over her shoulder. “Excuse me, please. You must take me for someone else. My name is not Claudia.”
“Don’t you recognize us? It’s Judith and Eric,” the doctor proclaimed. “Surely we don’t look that different. How interesting to find you here!”
“Look! I’ve never seen either of you before. I’m sorry, but I have to be going now.” She pushed the doctor aside and walked away from the couple at a brisk clip.
“You don’t belong here, Claudia,” Judith shouted after her. “This is none of your business, young lady. You’ve been misled. Like so many, you don’t know your rightful place.”
Across the street, the living room lights went out.
It was happening all over again, just as it had twenty years ago, when Hannah and Jimmy had fled New Hampshire in the middle of the night. Only this time, it was their son and he was going alone. Now, as then, they knew it had to happen and it had to happen without delay. Still Hannah felt her heart leap up into her throat when she saw her son emerge from his bedroom carrying his leather satchel.
“Just tell us where you are going,” she said, knowing what his answer would be. She and Jimmy had kept their flight secret twenty years ago. Why would it be any different now?
“If you don’t know, no one will be able to find me.
“But we wouldn’t tell.”
“No, but you wouldn’t have to lie, either. I don’t want to put you in that position. This way you can tell the truth: you don’t know where I am.”
“How will we know you’re all right – it will be unbearable?”
“I’ll let you know I am well.”
Hannah threw her arms around her son and buried her face in her chest. How had he grown up so fast? It seemed the day before yesterday she had agreed to be a surrogate mother. And only yesterday she had left him at the door of the escuela preparatoria, the grade school two blocks away. Afterwards, walking home alone, those two blocks had seemed to her like two kilometers. What would she feel now, with him adrift in the world itself?
“Come, let’s go. There’s no time to waste,” said Jimmy. Adding more would have split him wide open with emotion.
Hannah opened the double wooden doors, so he could back their van into the street. It was still dark out, but the horizon was lit with the first mauve hints of dawn.
“You have everything, son?” Jimmy asked. “If you need money, call us. Say goodbye to your mother now.”
The young man leaned his head out the car window for a final embrace. As the van started down Venustiano Carranza, he turned back and watched his mother, dwarfed by the double doors, waving forlornly.
Claudia had expected something like this. After she’d given up her watch, she’d raced back to the hostel, put fresh clothes in the backpack, then thrown them in the back seat of her Toyota. The car was an old model –the odometer registered more than 125,000 miles – and it had the dents and scrapes to show for it. But the motor was indestructible. She had parked on the corner of Rio de la Losa and Venustiano Carranza, knowing that anyone leaving the house would have to pass by her. Slid down behind the wheel, her neck resting on the back of the seat, she saw the van, before she heard it. She started up the engine and waited until the car had passed her. Then she pulled out behind it and followed at a discreet distance. There were only a few delivery trucks on the roads at this hour, so it was easy to keep the van in sight. Besides she had a good idea where it was going.
Her hunch was confirmed when the van took the turnoff for the Central de Autobuses, the bus station just off highway 57 to Mexico City. At this hour most of the ticket counters were closed. Only the Premier Plus counter showed signs of activity; it alone ran an hourly bus service beginning at 4 in the morning that took passengers directly to the International Airport at Mexico City, avoiding the heart of what was the biggest metropolis in the world and clogged with traffic at almost any hour. From her car, Claudia watched the young man buy a ticket and head for the Premier Plus platform. His destination was all but certain in her mind. It was also certain that if she pushed the Toyota to the limit, she could get there before he did. Without pausing, she pulled out onto Highway 57 and headed south, along with the trailers carrying pigs and produce to market.
She was waiting in the docking area, where the Premier Plus buses pulled into their respective berths and unloaded their passengers, who were then carried by escalator up to the main airport promenade. The area had the bustle of a small port, with people scrambling for their baggage and porters soliciting their business – all of them pressed for time. Claudia stood off to the side, behind a concrete column, until the young man had located his satchel and pushed his way onto the escalator, muttering the odd “
” to those whose plodding pace obliged him to elbow past them. Several persons behind, Claudia followed after him, as he strode down the polished hall to the AeroMéxico desk. The illuminated screen above the clerk invited passengers to check in to Vuelo 06. The young man walked up without hesitation, bought his ticket and checked his baggage.
It all made perfect sense to Claudia. She felt she could understand the young man’s thinking and decipher his motives. Of course, that’s where he’d be going. Things, she thought, were following a logical progression. Inevitable almost.
Reassured, she let the young man disappear into the labyrinth of airport security, then approached the counter and also bought a ticket on Vuelo 06.
“Window or aisle seat?” asked the clerk, as he returned her credit card.
“Window,” she said. “Near the back of the plane, please.”
Ticket in hand, she had one last task to perform before boarding and went in search of the airport post office. It was closed, but that didn’t matter. Claudia had already affixed postage to the thick manila envelope she inserted in the letter drop. She heard it land inside the box with a light thud and knew that in a couple of hours, it, too, would be on its way. Once on the plane, for the first time in months she let herself relax and instantly fell asleep.
The young man didn’t sleep, however. He stared out the airplane window and watched as Mexico City turned into a vast sea of yellow and blue lights, contained by the dark volcanoes that ringed the metropolis. It was like soaring over a field of budding wildflowers, then suddenly nothing, just the blackness of night, of lava congealed. The plane was mostly filled with tourists, eager to begin their holiday. It was Semana Santa, Holy Week, the holiest of the Christian calendar. Beginning with the triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, proceeding inexorably to the barbarity of crucifixion, the week ended gloriously seven days later with the miracle of resurrection and redemption. A fusion of joy and agony, each step of the way was marked in Mexico by processions and ceremonies, a profusion of flowers and, because the body, not just the soul, must be fed, an abundance of food, as well. But the young man’s mind was not on what lay ahead. It had retreated to a past Semana Santa. He was fourteen at the time, but the events were still sharp and clear in his memory, like a movie unfolding against the screen of blackness just outside the airplane window. His family usually took a vacation during Semana Santa. “To escape the madness” was how his father put it. The streets were filled, not with tourists who might have contributed to the shop’s prosperity, but with religious fanatics, bent on paying for a year’s sins and wiping their consciences clean.
On Palm Sunday vendors in front of every church sold fanciful crosses woven from palm fronds that were teased into rococo patterns, a guarantee for those who saved them for a full year and then burned them on the following Palm Sunday that good fortune, or possibly a new refrigerator, would be theirs. On Holy Thursday it was thought mandatory to visit seven different church altars and buy a bunch of chamomile, blessed by the good fathers so the tea brewed from its flowers would ensure a year’s worth of health. On Good Friday, the Stations of the Cross were re-enacted in the streets of even the humblest parish. But the biggest event of all -the one that now played itself out in the blackness just outside the airplane window - was the silent procession.
Starting at the Templo de la Cruz, just up the street from the house on Venustiano Carranza, it wound its way through town – a macabre ritual of collective penance that involved the entire community from children, dressed as angels with tinsel halos, to grandmothers veiled in black, carrying close to their ample breasts flickering candles of salvation. But it was the men who constituted the real show. They were dressed from head to toe in hooded robes, like members of the Inquisition. Only this being Mexico, the colors of the robes were bright and vibrant – the KKK on acid. The men went barefoot and attached to one ankle was a chain that clanked metallically, as it was dragged over the cobblestone streets. But the greatest burden was the wooden crucifix, hammered together out of mesquite, that each man carried on his shoulder. The wood, twisted and dried, spoke of the agony of death. There were hundreds of crosses, a forest’s worth, marched through the streets where the silence was broken only by the rhythmic beating of drums, the labored breathing of the men and the mocking clangor of the chains. Even those who stood on the sidelines remained quiet as they watched group after group plod forward, some staggering from heat, others from the sheer physical effort.
Jimmy and Hannah found it morbid, the dark side of the religion they worshiped, and tried to shield their children from it. But that year, the year of his 14
birthday, the young man had convinced the parish priest to let him participate. There was something about the anonymity of the procession that appealed to him, being part of a community and yet unrecognizable behind the pointed hood with the spectral holes so the eyes could see out. That afternoon, he was instructed to meet in the convent adjoining the Templo de la Cruz, where he would be given a purple robe and a cross heavy enough to test his adolescent strength. He was strangely excited by the prospect. As he slipped into the purple robe, he spotted his mother through the convent door. She was running up the street with a look he had never seen before on her face – one of pure panic, as if she had lost her bearings in a hostile landscape and no longer knew her way home.
She caught sight of her son, just as the priest was lowering a wooden cross on to his shoulder.
“No,” she screamed out. “Don’t do that!”
Everyone froze in surprise. This being Good Friday, the procession, not to mention the preparations, was undertaken with a mournful solemnity. No one spoke or joked. It was a silent procession, after all. So the irruption of Hannah into the convent and her shrill cries provoked reactions of astonishment among the robed men. She ran toward her son and before the wooden cross touched his shoulder, wrestled it from the hands of priest. It fell to the floor with a dull thud.
“You mustn’t do this. It is wrong,” she wailed.
The priest, horrified at the intrusion, stepped back and his voice trembling with authority, sputtered, “Señora, this is a sacrilege. The young boy wishes to participate in Christ’s suffering. He must be allowed to experience…”
“No,” Hannah cut him off. “He is too young. Far too young. My son is too young for this.” She was not sure how many times she repeated it. Although she knew that children as young as six participated in the rite, it was the only reason she could come up with. But somewhere deep in her entrails, a primal fear had galvanized her. She kicked the cross away from her son, as if it were alive and venomous. The priest recoiled in shock.
“Senora, why are you reacting like this? You are in a sacred place.”
“I’m sorry. My son will not participate in your procession. No! No! Never!” She tore at the purple robe, stripping it from his body and thrust a wrinkled shirt at him. “Put this back on immediately.”
The young man had never seen such virulence in his mother, normally so easy-going and pleasant. She had never once reprimanded him for anything. And even now, he had the impression her fury was not directed at him, but at the priest, the cross and the purple costume that lay crumpled on the floor. Tears streaked her face and her breathing was so heavy and uneven that he feared she might faint. He realized it was useless to argue.
They walked home in silence. The procession proceeded without him, but although the rhythmic thud of the drums that accompanied the penitents penetrated the thick walls of the house, his mother acted as if she didn’t hear them. Neither of them ever mentioned the subject again.
Years later, the young man found he could still remember the smallest details. After all he’d learned the past few days, they had, in fact, taken on a new life. He stared out the airplane window at the black nothingness and tried to imagine what had been going through his mother’s head that day, when she saw a rustic wooden cross being lowered on to his thin, adolescent shoulders.