August approaching the City is an unfortunate event: each day holds on for as long as it can. The sky lolls past sunset so that when I set out to meet him, it is not late in the evening, but visible dissonance, searing purest animal inheritance. Things are not still but un-thrashing. Lethargic yet discomforted. Too hot, too many bright hours to hold, to linger. Things are not clearer but overexposed, reduced to harsh contrasts and blurred outlines. Things are easily lost on nights like these. The brevity of chance rears her head, and the cost of our hesitation settles some scores. I guess you could it’s on nights like these— the nights not unlike those of my childhood on the Gulf Coast, yet nights redeemed by space and shoreline— that I too slowly coming undone, like a migratory bird staggering upon that last stretch of sky, the end so close that it seems beyond reach.
Tell me, I want to tell someone, that I’m not so close.
I asked him to meet at one of my usual haunts, a Mexican diner with an adjoining bar separated only by a swinging door. Look for the bouncers, I tell him, and no red rope; follow the blaring Tejano and nortenos coming from inside the bar, where most of the Hispanic girls click-clack on stacked heels from the bar to the diner’s bathroom to tighten the black corsets over their t-shirt-length tank dresses, the current style. I’ll be at the table next to the men in the circular booth finishing off their first, iced-filled metal tub of beer.
My mother is Mexican; I spent a good deal of my childhood on the U.S.-Mexican border in the Rio Grand Valley, but I do not come to Corona to find recognition of things past, nor to find comfort in the warmth of tacos lengua and tripa. I come to drift away into the foreign that once seemed familiar, knowing these are not my people, my family is far away, I see menudo is not on the menu, perhaps though, perhaps you could, couldn’t you— I wink to a pretty waitress in a tight, white button-down shirt and tight, short black skirt.
It’s too hot for menudo, mija, she says and lifts a finger to the men behind me.
She’s making them wait; we smile at each other. She calls me mija though she can’t be more than a few years older than me. Her skirt is tight though it’s tight in a different way from the corseted, heeled patrons. She wears tightness like binding itself is a uniform. I did not dress properly for tonight, and I feel like she knows it. I’m still that foolish young woman in faded sundresses and flip-flops with an uncombed mess of curls breathing in the salted air of the Gulf of Mexico sitting in this Corona diner with pelicans in her heart; those predators, once landlocked and misplaced, end up eating pigeons, no one can read the cloudy eyes of distant oil spills and disasters. I often feel landlocked in New York, often close to the end of different endings, given over to the whims of seasons so different from the seasonless climate of the Valley, but here I am at ease.
Here the waitress saves me from making yet another stupid mistake off ordering beef stomach for my date, someone I’ve only met once. I arrived early because I didn’t want him to come and wait in a diner in a neighborhood he’d never heard of before I’d suggested it. I arrived early because I wanted to set the score, claim the space. I want to tell the waitress this, ask her if she’s the same way, ask her if she too has a mother who’d die if she knew I preferred it here to the more chic and proper, is her mother too such a lady, mine, that woman, she never had much and she never wore jeans or pants even when scrubbing kitchen floors.
I will not order menudo for us then.
When he arrives, he doesn’t comment that my attire is better suited for the beach than a date. He sits down across from me, and we decide on some tacos and beer. When he asks me how my day has been, I suddenly feel sick and arise quickly.
You okay? He asks.
I smile because I don’t want to lie to someone I’m just beginning to know. I don’t want to speak tonight at all. I want him to put his arm around me, and fade into the evening. But the evening doesn’t come on nights like this, and we aren’t there yet, to do something like that, and we aren’t there yet either for me to answer his question.
You’ll never see men using the bathroom at this diner; they can’t make passage. I wait for a few minutes before two waitresses also in short, black skirts chase four women in metallic makeup and hard eyeliner out of the unisex, single occupancy bathroom. They leave their powder and brushes and lipsticks spread out along the narrow counter, on the sink, propped up on the toilet. I lock the door, turn off the water left running and then lean my head against the paint-peeling wall and cry because I forgot my bag that has the gallon of urine I have to collect for 24 hours. It’s only our second date. I should’ve cancelled. I always come alone to places like this where I can cry in bathrooms with other women’s makeup spread out everywhere like it’s home. I don’t mind coming undone here. Even after yet another battery of test today, even after raging to a sympathetic doctor that it wasn’t illness but my mixed genes in a sectarian war, once I got to Grand Central on the 6, and ran through the zigzag corridors down to the 7, I felt better. That I took it all the way to Last Stop, Flushing, bought a red bean bun from Taipan Bakery and cried some more to the year-old cockatoo living in the lovebird cage in the pet store on Main Street that I might not have the time after all to buy him, that my coming to see him every week was an empty promise, that my Middle Eastern side was taking back turf from my Mexican side, that I was frightened I’d never again wear lingerie because I’d become a battleground among heritages with a history of warmongering.
Tell me I still have time, I said to the young cockatoo that fanned his head to reveal the delicate salmon from underneath his white, rising crown.
Tell me: what’s the glue holding me together?
I wash my hands quickly and pull up my dress as if into some state of appropriateness; it remains a faded, unraveling sundress. When I open the door halfway, the four women already are filing back in. I explain I’m not done yet, that I forgot my bag; my voice cracks. They stare at me with those unreadable, landlocked pelican eyes, and I wonder if they can hear the distance that I too carry in my voice, as if I were not where I stood, but was speaking from another world entire, because one offers to get it for me while another is already on her way to do so. She stops at our table; he’s on his phone, and looks up at her in surprise.
They talk for a moment, and then she reaches over my chair and yanks up my bag. He stands up, and the waitress gets involved. He looks at me. I nod, as if that explains why she’s struggling under the weight of my bag. I feel ridiculous as the waitress takes it from her and lugs it over to me while the girl follows behind. I feel the need to tell them what’s in there, but instead I ask: How did you know it was him?
I don’t know, she says.
When I’m done and they are filling back into the bathroom, I ask: did you see us come in together?
She smiles and shakes her head.
Later, my date is looking at me funny as I order for us another round of beer.
You’re so quiet, he says.
Yeah, I say.
It’s just– you couldn’t wait for me to come out here, he says.
So what do you think? I ask him.
I think you should tell me what’s wrong.
Tell me I still have time. That girl who came over—she didn’t ask what’s in the bag. Here are the beers. And water, please, tap is fine. Always a cockatoo living in a parakeet cage. Those men are on their third ice tub of beer. I have the crazy urge to grab a pair of scissors they use to cut meat—and I mean used scissors that have just cut meat—and snip this dress so short it’s a shirt and steal into the bathroom with those girls and do up my face in silver and gold and blood orange and tease with Aquanet and grab you and dance with you close in the bar next door and then not call you in the morning and not worry that’s another day gone and not worry if I know the score anymore.
But I don’t tell him that. We drink our beer in silence and somehow after an hour— as the music from the bar blares louder, the voices of men and women laughing, the waitresses rushing around to feed families with rambunctious children running under the tables, those still too young to be defeated by days like this—his arm is around me and we are staring outside at a sky that’s not quite dark because of the 7 train, and every time the door opens, we can fragments of elevated rumbling, all that industrial and falsely neon bright and everything too close and cramped. All that is so distant from the openness, the sudden, lush green patches in the Valley, the glass-fragmented beaches of what made me rush to places like Corona—I mean this is not a returning but an origin originating, you see I’m made up of a lot things that do not make a complete thing, just like all the neighborhoods along the 7, what holds them together but the train, just as it held me today until Last Stop, Flushing, the train holds me.
Let me get your bag, he says as we get up to leave. Jeez, why’s it so heavy.
Open it, I suddenly whisper. It sounds like a threat.
He looks at me in surprise and in the reflection of his glasses, I see a fresh group of women filing past us to the bathroom.
Always, always a parakeet in a cockatoo cage.
Tomorrow I am to be the appointments before appointments. It will be too early and meetings that he won’t make, and while they are drawing my blood yet again, I’ll wonder how he’ll explain to his boss the reason was our second date had turned into a brief argument outside a Mexican restaurant over a gallon of my urine. How, for nine stops on the local 7 and connecting at Grand Central, he’d insist on hauling that jug to the Upper East Side and stay with me while they tested for the next x, y and z.
But at this moment, we are walking under the tracks from Corona, with the train passing in both directions, drowning out any need to talk any further about the discovery in my bag, which he carries for 50 blocks until we reach the outskirts of my neighborhood. It’s quite fitting, I want to tell him, that I live on the border of Woodside and Sunnyside—and that not too long ago I fled my old home on the border of East and West Jerusalem just as I once did on the U.S.-Mexican border. You see, this is why I’m not sick, but lost in sectarian war, doesn’t it make sense?
Tell me I still have time.
By the time we approach the northwestern corner of Skillman Avenue, where the
industrial, sparse Woodside falls into Sunnyside, I know he’s going to stay with me for the night. I take him past my building and down Skillman, where west of the avenue, lies a neighborhood heavy with trees and the impression of not wanting to be disturbed. And yet that night along Skillman we hear something rumbling in the distance. A heavy, clattering sound, loud in its lowness. An engine stammering in false hesitation. As if it has been running long before we came here. Waiting.
It’s just the train, I tell him.
I know, he says, drawing me close to him. The trees rustle in the hot breeze.
I’m glad, I’m glad it’s you, I whisper.
He closes my eyes without hands, and immediately agrees.
A former Rackham Merit Scholar and Leopold Schepp Scholar, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a playwright at New Perspectives Theater, and at work on a new play about the U.S.-Mexican Border. Her work appears in Arts & Letters, B O D Y, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and Puerto del Sol. Recently her short story “A Way out of the Colonia” won the Editor’s Prize in Camera Obscura, and was nominated for a Pushcart. Her first book of poems SOLECISM is forthcoming from Virtual Artists’ Collective in 2013. She’s co-editor of HER KIND, the official blog of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Her influences come from spaces that demand constant adaptation: U.S.-Mexican border town culture, both East and West Jerusalem and what she calls “7 Train Culture” of New York City. Find out more about her at 7TrainLove.org