July 25, 2015
Books made me cry. Reading aloud, in particular. It was embarrassing until it became valuable—a trick, a trade. The people are thirsty! they said. They wanted my tears. It hadn’t rained for days or weeks in Los Angeles, maybe years. I’d lost count. The asphalt on the streets was sun bleached and salt licks formed in wavy half-circles near the drains on each corner. Like the tops of dog’s noses in the summer. Even the ink in the pens had gone dry.
The people were thirsty. The bars were all closed. The drinking fountains at the public pools silent. Everyone’s hair was dirty, there was no way to wash it. It was in these times I was called upon to do my work in the houses and apartments of the people. First, I sat in the home of a girl I met on a dating website, who had a photograph of herself taken by Helmut Newtown on the wall in her kitchen. She invited me to sit on the sofa while she knelt on the rug below me, subservient, her feet hidden beneath her. She handed me a paperback and asked me to read aloud from it—her favorite Bukowski story, “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town.” I obliged even though I don’t like Bukowski very much, but the story was good, and as I saw the ending come into view at the bottom of the page, I heard my voice waver. I did not breathe as I read the final sentence, letting each of the words empty me completely of air.
I began to cry. Instead of letting the tears stream down my cheeks, I allowed them to fall from my eyes in droplets, and she caught them on her tongue as she rushed to my face to drink. She held her long hair with one hand at the nape of her neck, so it wouldn’t get stiff and matted like from swimming in the ocean. She drank and drank. Not cautiously, but heartily and without regard, until her belly was swollen with my tears.
The people in the apartments next door came with mugs and mismatched glasses from their cupboards. Men and women with their children in tow, carrying dusty cut-crystal stemware from their permanently set dining room tables, and scuffed plastic pitchers that had languished sin liquido in the backs of refrigerators. I filled them all. When the saliva returned to the people’s mouths and the elasticity to their skin, I moved on by foot, then by bus and back home.
They were waiting for me there, too, those who had heard. They had vessels to hold the tears, but they also brought things to make the tears come. An architecture graduate student, whom I felt I’d known in a past life, handed me an essay about the beauty of strip malls in Los Angeles. I read it in a chair in the living room of my apartment and it began to work its magic. It was so perfectly executed, so beautifully desperate, so loving in its depiction of shoddiness. I wept on and off for hours at the mere mention of pastel paint on sun-scorched stucco and plastic sign marquises two columns wide and ten rows tall, the store names in as many colors and languages. I cried and cried, lloré, lloré, with two, three, even four Ls, and they brought me what they had: flower vases and buckets from the hardware store, sippy cups, and babies’ bottles. Toward the end of the day, I was nearing exhaustion. I was empty and I didn’t know how much more I could cry.
And then she returned, the one I’d been waiting for. Her hair was short and like a cactus did not require much watering. From afar, she’d heard the stories, read the newspaper articles, watched me on the television programs. In Mexico, there was still moisture. There was a monsoon season and sometimes she felt that her body controlled it. She was sticky and humid. And even though she looked like a boy, she was under the sway of the moon, her tides washing in and out on a regular schedule. I had become too thin and its magnetism no longer moved me.
She was the one I met before everything dried up. I left a husband, a father, a brother, a child. If only I’d cried for him and he for me, instead of for “Tear it Down” in The Great Fires, we could have built an ark and sailed back to each other.
But he had evaporated into clouds. And here she was, a solid state. She took my hand, drew me from the chair, and lead me past the people who were still waiting, camped out in my stairwell, and put me into the passenger seat of my car. How did she get here? I wondered. It was almost like I’d dreamed her into existence. I was too tired to ask. Too grateful to care.
She drove me north to the countryside, up and out of the city during what should have been rush hour, but the roads were empty. She’d forgotten her eyeglasses, she said, but didn’t seem to need them. She managed by squinting. She hadn’t brought any water, either, and she was beginning to get thirsty like the rest of them, but she didn’t want to make me cry. I dozed as we covered the miles of freeway, which were seco like hair after a blow dryer, like vermouth for a martini, like the arroyo in Los Angeles.
“Almost there,” she said. It was dusk. The paved road had turned to dirt, and my car was engulfed in a cloud of dust that hovered around us. We came to a stop in front of a ramshackle house. Two rapidly dehydrating persimmons sat atop a chopping block in the potholed driveway, next to a rusty pickup truck. In the last of the light, we picked our way through the overgrown yard to the porch and she knocked softly on the warped plywood door.
A woman answered, smaller than both of us in height and fuller, more female. Caramel ropes of hair cascaded past her shoulders onto the garnet fleece vest that covered her torso. In her arms, a baby girl with golden hair and warm, brown eyes bobbed and swayed as the woman spoke.
“Ayyyyyyyyyyyy, so nice to seeeeeeee youuuu,” she said, almost like she was sad but I could tell she was not.
My companion and the woman began to speak in Spanish, at a pace I knew they could not maintain without pausing for liquid we did not have. Which no one had. They would need something to help them roll their Rs. The woman stopped abruptly, having seen me nodding dreamily to their conversation.
“Hablas español?” she asked. “Solo poquito,” I said and my companion smiled. The woman invited us inside and closed the door. She motioned to a mattress on the floor fitted with blankets for me to sit on, and then she and my companion left me to rest while they chatted in the kitchen.
They returned and my companion held out a small glass of whiskey. I took a long, deep sip and handed it back to her. She finished it. The woman feared it would make us thirsty—but I wasn’t worried. I had books in the trunk of my car.
They joined me on the mattress and my companion told her how I had quenched the thirst of thousands with my tears. The woman told us about a character in her country’s folklore, La Llorona, who killed her children and roamed the streets at night, wailing with regret. As she told told the story, the baby told it with her, in made up words of accordance and agreement. She looked at me and waved her arms, at once a greeting and an attempt to take flight. I liked her, as I would a friend. She didn’t cry aimlessly or for attention like most babies do.
“Quieres teta?” the woman sang to her, even though she had shown no signs of thirst or want. But she happily latched onto the breast as soon as it tumbled out, and she stayed there while the woman told us of the child’s birth. The baby had been born in August and the woman had sweated profusely, drenching her partner who sat behind her as she pushed. She had given birth at home, in the way women had for centuries, without hospitals, without drugs. And even though it was months ago and halfway around the globe, it was as though I was right there with her, giving birth myself.
It was then I began to cry. Silently, at first, with a strange mix of shame and joy. Birth stories were not the sorts of things that normally produced tears. But I did cry, as I listened to the words pour forth from the woman’s mouth—the larger, fuller facsimile of the baby’s mouth attached to the teta below. My companion positioned herself behind me, so I could lean my back against her chest for support as I cried. My tears soaked both our t-shirts and our jeans, and then the mattress below. I offered her my cheek because I knew she was thirsty, but she nudged my chin away with her nose. She didn’t need anything from me. I loved her for it.
When the baby was done feeding, the woman put her in a makeshift crib fashioned from a flexible plastic piece of white picket fencing bent into a circle and secured with zip ties on top of another mattress in the kitchen. She helped my companion and me change out of our wet clothes and into some of hers. She pulled down a couple blankets from a cabinet above the stove and draped them over our shoulders.
“Llorarita,” she said quietly, stroking the hair near my temple. My companion hugged me in the blankets. The woman left us so she could tend to the baby and we rested in our corner of the living room, the dry webbing of our fingers intertwined under the warmth of the blankets. It was nice to have cried without the tears being consumed or collected. They had washed over both of us and despite their saltiness, I felt clean.
I was just about to drift off to sleep when I heard it. Like footsteps on broken leaves, the sound of rain. It began ever so slowly, like an animal stalking its prey. It got louder and louder. It came down in sheets and drapes and curtains. In ropes twirling like lassos off the corners of the roof.
And even though she didn’t have her driving glasses, and even though we were still wearing the woman’s clothes, and even though we had drank only whiskey, I allowed my companion to lead me outside into the rain at the most deafening moment of precipitation. We ran down the porch steps and stood in the brush, our heads tipped back. We opened our mouths and they filled immediately, water spilling down our cheeks and into our ears. Our feet sank into the ground—I don’t know how it had saturated so quickly—so we untied our shoes and left them behind. We ran barefoot, past the pickup truck, past the place where the persimmons, now swollen with rain, had washed away to replant themselves, and jumped into the car.
She drove me back to the city and I don’t know if I slept, but I did dream. I dreamt of storm drains and culverts as tall as a man standing on another man’s shoulders. And of the tadpoles I’d caught in the neighbor’s creek and kept in a bucket until my mother made me toss them back.
We should grow a garden, she said.
Yes, I agreed.
But she wanted more than tomatoes and squash.
LEAH DIETERICH is the author of thxthxthx: thank goodness for everything (Andrews McMeel, 2011). Her writing has also appeared on Bomb Magazine’s Word Choice. She is currently working on a book about coupling, identity, and vanishing twins.