We found Hotel Rincón just outside Zacatecas beyond the south edge of the city on the outbound autopista to Guadalajara. We had already been driving twelve hours that day as the sun drifted from the sky. I had read it was dangerous to be on the roads of Mexico after dark and we were racing toward night when we came upon the hotel. I was happy to see it, even though it wasn’t much to see at all—a small hotel, with two floors, and a cramped lobby where a man slouched behind a counter snoring.
I dropped my bag to the floor hoping to rouse the man. “Buenas noches,” he said, opening one squinty eye. Then he looked more closely. “You want a room?” he said.
“Sí, una recamarra. Gracias, señor,” said Mara, stepping to the counter. She was my girlfriend of a few months. Born and raised in Mexico, Mara had convinced me to come with her on a road trip through the center of the country on the way to her tia’s house in San Luis Potosi. I had reservations about the trip, but Mara said, “I can get Miguel to go, if you won’t.” I had no idea who Miguel was, only that Mara’s father frowned and called him a cabrón, which was like calling him a dick. Next thing I knew I was driving her car through the southeastern United States headed to Texas and then down into Mexico.
Mara paid the man one hundred pesos and he handed us the key as a cleaning lady put on a coat in the office behind him, threw a bag over shoulder and said, “Buenas noches.” We walked back outside and up a flight of open metal stairs, the slow moan of evening traffic on the autopista rising to meet us as we arrived at the door to room number twenty-nine. I fumbled with the key as I put it in the lock, the same kind of lock you might put on a kid’s bedroom. The knob felt loose when I touched it and looked like it could have been opened with a simple butter knife.
“We’ll be fine,” Mara said. “No one’s thinking about us.”
“Maybe they are. Maybe this is a kill room. One with a flimsy lock and easy access for bandits.”
“Bandits? We have nothing worth stealing, mi vida.”
She had a point. We were broke and had little more than a carefully planned travel budget and a Visa gift card I got from my mom, but Mexican bandits didn’t know that. But I suspected they did know about the vulnerable gringo in the room on the second floor with the questionable lock.
We entered the small room. It looked like any American motel might, with a flat bed, cheap pictures on the walls, stained carpet, a desk, and an old flickering TV. The remote had been glued to the side table. I turned on the TV and found the A-Team with Spanish overdubs. On screen, Señor Baracus hatched a plan with El Hannibal.
We put our stuff down and Mara sent me to get some ice. I snuck down the hall, worried about being spotted, but saw no one. The ice machine looked like it hadn’t given up a cube in years. The solid mound of shimmering cubes inside the whirring machine looked impenetrable. It took half a dozen whacks from my fist to free the scoop, which I then used to dislodge enough cubes to fill a bucket. This made a bunch of noise, which I worried would draw attention to myself. As if my whiteness didn’t already pulse like a beacon of opportunity for a mugger or murderer. Walking back, I glanced over the balcony at the rows of cars in the parking lot. Two men leaned against a rusted pickup truck with the name Menendez written in gothic script in the cab’s window. They talked in hushed voices. They looked up and I ducked down.
I duck-walked the rest of the way back to our room, wondering if the Menendez men had seen me. When I popped my head up one more time at the room both men looked right at me. “¡Hola! ¡Amigo! ¡Pinche pato! ¡Haha!” They shouted in unison.
Mara had just taken a shower and was wrapped in a black jaguar blanket when I pushed inside and locked the paper-thin plywood door. “I love this cobija. It’s so soft. So warm.” Remnants of steam from the hot shower swirled around her, wafting from the open bathroom door. This had a disorienting effect that made the jaguar on the blanket appear to be stalking me.
“Where’d you get it?”
“It was layered under the bed spread. I love it. You know I’m always cold.”
“Ice,” I said, noticing the bedspread heaped on the dirty floor.
“Good. Make me a soda?” she said, pointing to her purse. I checked the lock, then pushed the small writing desk against the door.
“Oh my God. What do you think’s gonna happen?” she asked.
“Some men downstairs saw me and yelled.” I poured diet soda into a glass with a clump of ice.
“Ay, mi vida!”
“They called me a pinche pato.”
“A duck? Why?”
I shrugged and nudged the desk a bit closer to the door with my hip.
“Babe, it’s fine. Take a shower and get some sleep.”
But I didn’t sleep. I watched the door all night. I waited, but no one came. Not even a shadow passed by the window. I felt silly thinking there was any real danger here. In truth, everyone I had met in Mexico had nothing but kindness to give, yet the flood of news about the violence here lodged in my putty-like American psyche.
The next morning we packed quickly. “Let’s go, tortuga!” I checked under the bed for any rogue clothing. “Vamos,” Mara said.
Vamos. She loved telling me to vamos. Meaning let’s go—as in my speed of life measured a few ticks behind hers. She snapped her fingers like tiny machine guns.
We got to the car and stuffed our bags in the trunk. The sun peeked from the rooftops and the air still had bite. Mara pulled the Jaguar blanket from her bag.
“You took it?”
“It’s okay. They have more.”
“They have coffee around here?” I asked, scanning the surrounding area.
“We’ll find some in town. Come on, babe.” Mara quickly shoved the blanket back into her bag and said, “Shit.”
“What? You forget something?”
“Hola,” Mara said, to someone over my shoulder.
I turned around as a woman in a maid uniform came up on the side of our car. “Oye. ¿Tienen la cobija?”
“Babe, get in the car,” Mara said.
“What does she want?”
“Nothing, just get in.”
I shut the trunk and we climbed in the car, but the woman came to stand behind the bumper, so we couldn’t back out of the parking spot.
“No manches. Wait here,” Mara said. She jumped out of the car and began arguing with the woman.
I jumped back out of the car and walked over to where Mara and the woman stood face to face, shouting.
“Damelo. Sabes que tienes la cobija!” The maid pounded her fist on the trunk.
“¡No manches, pendeja! ¡Es una cobija!”
“¡No salen con la cobija!”
Mara shook her head and laughed. “Open the trunk, babe.”
“What’s up?” I said, popping the trunk.
“She said she has to pay for the blanket if we take it. She also said her boyfriend is coming with a gun.”
Mara pulled out the blanket and handed it to the woman.
“Oh, she’s full of shit,” Mara said.
“Que fea,” the woman said. She neatly folded the blanket, stuffed it under her arm, and stepped aside. She looked at me and scowled, but her eyes looked tired, sad. We got in the car and shut the doors.
“Great. Now I’ll be cold later.” Mara shivered and hugged herself, she even made her teeth chatter.
I put on the heater and put the car in reverse. I glanced at the woman again. She turned her gaze toward the street as a pickup truck roared into the parking lot, blocking the driveway.
“Hurry, hurry! Just go around. On the grass. Go!” I pulled forward to the left of the pickup. A man in jeans, boots, and a blue denim work shirt jumped out of the truck and stood on the grass between our car and the road. His head was shaved and his skin had the sun-formed patina of a farmer.
“Stop!” Mara screamed. “Back the car up. Back up! ¡Andale!”
I backed up, putting distance between ourselves and the man. I could see the black handle of a large pistol sticking out of his pants, just above the belt. The woman from the hotel talked with the man, pointing and gesturing with her hands. He pulled out the gun and let it drop to his side. The woman—la cobija now draped over her shoulder—pointed at us and pushed at the man from behind, propelling him toward the car.
“Mara? What should we do? What should we do?”
“How do I know?”
She rolled down her window a crack. “She’s telling him to do something,” Mara looked over at me.
“Oh fuck,” I said, wishing that cabrón Miguel had gone on this trip and not me.
Mara shushed me and listened again. “She’s really pissed, babe. She told him not to be a maricone. That means faggot. She said to grab his balls and be a man.”
“Wait here.” I opened the door and got out of the car. Mara kept her ear to the crack in the window, offering no solutions and no help. She did, however, stop shivering.
“Cuidate,” she said.
When the man saw me approach, he stopped. He widened his stance like a gunfighter but kept the pistol at his side. “Cayate, mujer,” he screamed at the woman who was still shouting orders at him. She stopped talking and took slow careful backward steps to the wall of the hotel.
I stopped half way, keeping distance between us in case I had to run, duck, or dodge bullets. Instinctively I stretched my neck and cracked my knuckles.
“We’re headed to San Luis Potosi. Can we get around you?” The man looked at the woman with the cobija. “You’re blocking the road,” I said.
The woman said something else to the man. He nodded and waved her off like he understood. He put the gun in his belt and stormed over to me. When he stopped, his face was inches from mine. He looked into my eyes and I looked back. His breath smelled like tar and dirt. My knees shook and even though I tried to be tough, I broke the gaze, looked down, and started breathing fast. The man leaned in, our cheeks almost touching.
“Look, man, just work with me, okay? My girl calls me here then expects me to do something macho. There’s no getting out of that.” He spoke perfect English with almost no accent. “So I pretend to be really pissed off. You pretend to be defending your honor. That’s how this works. Got it?”
“You speak English?”
The man pulled back for a second. “Of course I speak English, pendejo. I lived in California as a kid.” This guy totally reminded me of a Mexican Daniel LaRusso from The Karate Kid. “Now straighten up and act like a man.”
I straightened up. Again, we were face to face. The man stared me down with kind coffee eyes. I imagined him growing up in California, chilling at the beach, watching American movies. In my imagination he’s wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, old jeans and a pair of black tennis shoes. He played soccer on the beach and dated a girl named Ally. I fought the urge to smile at him so I bit my lip until it bled.
“What’s your name,” he asked, his mouth barely moving, like a shitty ventriloquist.
“Okay, Craig. Here’s the deal—if I don’t punch you, I lose face and my girl gets pissed. I can’t have that so I’m going to punch you in the gut and you’re going to make a big display of it, okay?”
“Don’t be a pussy, man. I’ll pull the punch so it won’t hurt that much. You flail and fall back, maybe groan or something, and I’ll walk menacingly back to my truck and leave. You go on your merry way and I can get back to work. Got it?”
I tried to determine how hard this punch would be. If I could fake fall good enough to sell this to Mara and the guy’s girlfriend. Also, what about the groan? How would that sound? And, would I ever tell Mara the truth? “What’s your name?” I asked.
“You on Facebook, Miguel?”
“I’m not going to be Facebook friends with you, cabrón. Now, stand strong like a man and when I punch you, fall back.” Miguel balled up his fist and wound up to punch me. I took a deep breath, reeling from the social media refusal, and when the punch came it hurt more than I expected and knocked the wind out of me a little. I tried to groan but let out more of a wail, then fell hard on the broken asphalt as Miguel frowned, then turned and walked back to his truck. Watching him go, I couldn’t help but think his stride lacked menace. I heard the car door open and Mara jump out. “Corazon,” she screamed. “¡Ay mi vida! ¡Pobrecito!”
As Miguel neared his truck he yelled at his girlfriend and gave her a dismissive wave with his hands. He jumped behind the wheel and started the engine, ignoring her satisfied gaze.