Sometimes I’m afraid that I may have a child out there I don’t know about. With some of the goings-on in my past, it is certainly possible. I once heard a story about the philosopher José Vasconcelos. He was said to have been such a notorious womanizer in his younger days that when a dying pregnant woman wandered into a hospital one day and was asked to name the father before expiring, all she had to say was ‘José’ for the authorities to know it was Vasconcelos’ child.
These days, I meet with my colleagues from the University of Chihuahua at a little coffee shop that has pink chrome and Formica tables, an old-fashioned stainless steel coffee marker and dirty picture windows facing a quiet street of shops and markets. There are rows of pastries in a glass case, and jars filled with liquidos: clear lemonade and pineapple-mango and melon juice. As I listen to my fellow instructors rattle on about post-Marxism and Derrida and neo-pragmatism, I think about the little town where I was born. We would catch fishes in a dirty stream that came down from the high mountains, the sierras. The fish were small, and pale blue, more bones than flesh. All they were good for was soup. The old men grazed their cattle in the fields during the winter. And in the fall, the butterflies, the butterflies… gold and red and silver butterflies from the United States, headed south, to the tropics, the deep, unguarded forests.
My colleagues like lots of milk and sugar in their coffees. I take mine black. And we eat sweet bread and biscuits, big cookies, corn muffins, and doughnuts.
Our server approaches the table. She asks us if there is anything else we need. My colleagues and I politely refuse her offer of more coffee. She has short hair and large, dark eyes. And she looks familiar. I wonder if I have seen her at the university. I ask her if she is a student and she says no.
There’s supposed to be music tonight, but the musicians haven’t shown up. The café is remarkably dead for a Friday night. We are planning to go to a peña later in the evening that a student holds on weekends in the upper floors of his parents’ house. The kids who put on the peña are all Marxists and philosophy students. The guy whose house they use is a former student of mine. His parents are pretty well-to-do, and own a couple of upscale nightclubs that have been the venues for a series of sensational murders. A folk band led by a flutist that we all know simply as “the flute guy” is supposed to be playing at the peña, and a group of independent filmmakers from the university will be showing their work.
I ask my colleague, Juan Fieles, what he thinks of the filmmakers, who call themselves Collectiva 17.
‘Take away their cameras, and they’re just a bunch of masturbating little monkeys,’ he says to me. Juan is kind of an arrogant prick. His students hate him.
We leave the café at nine o’clock. Driving through the darkened streets, sitting in the back of Juan Fieles’ car, I look at the closed shops with their metal shutters down. Old buildings, mostly brick and plastered adobe, pseudo-colonial style, built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The occasional Modernist Movement structure from the fifties or sixties, glass panels and whitewash stained with orange and black iron oxide streaks. No lights, even on the upper floors, except at PAN headquarters, where there seems to be a party going on. Other than that, only the occasional bar or gas station shows any signs of life. And that guy in a straw hat standing under a streetlamp eating a huge slice of watermelon and singing to himself.
There’s a popular song about a guy who cheats on his girlfriend because he’s so in love with her that he’s afraid she’ll break his heart. That’s male reasoning for you.
I teach future teachers. At least I hope that one day they’ll be teachers. And I have a strong suspicion that most of us university professors are actually arrogant pricks.
We end up in an old residential neighborhood, colonia something or other. The two-story houses were built before the revolution, red brick and local stone, with the occasional Victorian or Art Nouveau flourish. Tall Chinese elms and black cypresses out in front. Juan parks his car on the street, blocking a circular driveway.
The room is dark, and people are sitting on ragged sofas or beanbag chairs. No one seems to be watching the movie that’s being projected on a yellowed sheet tacked to a wall. It is an ugly, out-of-focus, black and white collection of clips of a topless dancer, interspersed with documentary footage, perhaps from World War II. (Sure enough, Stalin appears on the screen, speaking bombastically and waving his arms like a maniac.) I turn my eyes from the flickering grey-wash and notice that our waitress from the café is sitting on one of the sofas, talking to a bearded fellow. She’s wearing a copper-colored shirt that sparkles in the dim, reflected light of the film.
I take a seat across from her on a little table. She smiles at me and asks, ‘Weren’t you in La Tacuba earlier?’
I nod yes, and ask her, ‘Are you sure we haven’t met before tonight?’
‘No,’ she says. ‘I don’t believe we have.’
She seems so familiar as she casually pats me on the shoulder and offers to fetch me a coffee or glass of wine. I give her an avuncular smile. And the name Isabel comes to me, not an image of a person, just the name, out of nowhere, out of a past as foggy and distant as the butterflies and fishes in the little village where I was born.
CHARLES HADDOX lives in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, and has family roots in both countries. His work has appeared in over forty journals including The Sand Hill Review, Perspectiva Popular, Corium Magazine, and The Summerset Review.