The boy-man said he wanted Rina's belly button forever. She would be his final conquest, his initiation into manhood. But this last part she had made up, hoping that it might come true.
The boyfriend sprawled on the beach as Rina waded in waist-high swell. Sun-ripened and always ready, he was her kisser, the toy that shocked her with his tongue, his slender surfer's back. He was the thing she hoped would split her apart and expose the underbelly.
Standing, the boyfriend tousled California sand from his bushy blonde hair and took Rina by her wrist. He began pulling her from the ocean, his father's longboard tucked under his free arm, the ankle leash dragging behind them.
A shock on her face: feigned surprise. Grains of Rincon Beach gathered in their grip. Next, they'd cruise down to Mondo for some mellower swells, then homestretch via Route 126.
He said, "Castles in the..." She shushed him with her steady mouth.
Their bare feet glided over river rock, and she followed him with the demureness of a house cat, waiting him out, playful.
"Dátil," she said, retrieving a sun-brown palm date from their crumbled brown paper bag.
Rina let the last of their oblong fruit tumble onto his palm, her fingers lifting away before he could recoil.
"Down the hatch," he said, his voice laced with salt and innocence, sex, need. And in it went. His need was more than she could handle sometimes. Sometimes all she wanted was to walk back across the border, to go back home. But this time she wouldn't have to hide out in the desert, under the useless gigantic stems of a Cardón cactus, worrying about getting caught and sent back. She would be welcomed with open arms and the disappointment of her Mamá. So, she stayed in America.
"The day ahead, the day behind," the boyfriend had said, squinting at the bright Pacific skyline.
A blast of yellow and bronze bloomed past the windshield. Casting his nimble fingers over the dash of his restored Volkswagen van, he said, "All of that is ours!"
Rina knew the van had been his father's because he had told her the night they met. He fixed it up himself. "Distance, time, life can heal," she had breathed evenly, letting him hold her close, not sure if she even believed her owns words. They were with his friends at the beach, sitting around a fire pit at Cabrillo National Monument. She left her real friends and family back in La Mixteca.
Half an hour later, just south of Filmore, her surfer boyfriend said, "I'm hungry," veered his van up to a roadside produce stand, and parked.
"Wait, wait, mi gërito," Rina said.
She removed an ice cube from her mouth. Droplets of lemon water hung on her bottom lip, glistening with chance. Rina held it before him like a sacrificial offering.
"Everything melts away, doesn't it," she said in the form of a question. "And you, you only do what you want. When you want. Whenever you want." She slipped the cube back into her mouth, laughing sarcastically though not meanly. Sometimes she wasn't sure of the proper response. She didn't want to upset him, especially now that she was pregnant with his child.
"Sure, baby," he said, "Let's get some grub on."
And before Rina knew it, he was gone.
She sat in the van as he wandered amongst mountains of Valencia oranges, Albion strawberries. She thought of her Papá. He had liked telling her stories. Stories she thought were meant to keep her from leaving. Now she remembered his scowl when saying "La fruta del diablo." Afterward, he would spit vehemently at the floor, stomping his boot on the clay tiles of their one-bedroom house.
But Rina only wanted to think of her life here now. She went back to watching her American boyfriend. He was at a large square table mounded with fresh cherimoyas. Then onto chile tamarindo candy sticks, garlic pistachios, oven-roasted pumpkin seeds.
She watched his head as it buoyed untethered down the rows of overflowing tables sprawled across the gravel lot. He had nearly vanished, and that's when she got out of the van.
At the opposite end of the staged tables a small grove of trimmed palms cast spangled shade over a wooden utility spool. Ancient, sun-varnished men encircled it in variously colored patio chairs, drinking pulque—a milky agave wine that reminded Rina of home.
Wading over to a cluster of out-of-the-sun foldout tables, Rina tried mingling, pretending this was an outdoor market, and she was here for some delicious treats. Like when she was little. Expectantly, she caressed Mexican Cream guavas, gingerly squeezed Ataulfo mangos. Ate a candied walnut from the palm of her hand, then licked the sugary salt away.
Everyone seemed either rushed and sort of happy or exhausted. Except for an elderly couple. Perhaps in their mid-eighties. Lightly tanned, gentle with one another. They were kind and talkative to the Mexican girls behind the counter. They were all speaking Spanish and she understood what she heard. Rina had been trying to speak only English and it was hard sometimes.
She turned and went down another aisle feeling funny, a little light-headed. Homesick, she was all too familiar with the drifting, sometime qualmish sensation. Then she found what she was looking for: sweet maple-skinned Medjool dates. Memories are tough, she said to herself, then bit into the succulent fruit. Rina stroked the pequeña hummock on her stomach. The skin had already begun to tighten, but not too much. She was three-and-half months by her calculations.
Rina hadn't told the boy yet. And why was she still calling him a boy? He was twenty and living in his own apartment, but still so very different from the independent young men from the disease-ridden canals of rural Oaxaca; the seasonal maze harvest that temporarily lifted everyone's spirits.
But was it really all that bad? she now found herself wondering. Yes, she thought. It was just her and Mamá. Her brothers were dead, her Papá had immigrated north when Rina was but a child. Money. He would send for them when the time was right. Then the money dried up. They heard he had died from a fall off a roof while packing concrete tiles. No safety harness to keep him from plunging to his death.
For the longest time Rina hated El Norte. Then she came a few years ago. Bounced between odd jobs. Hotel maid, house cleaner, roach truck cook who offered up fried tortas, burritos, and hamburgers to Mexican construction workers. And that's when she met the surfer boy. To pay for college, he worked at the supply house where Rina's employer stocked up every morning. She'd back the big, wobbling truck into the narrow slot down to the loading dock at a dark time when she figured most regular Americans would still be asleep.
He'd immediately begin packing boxes of iceberg lettuce and corn and flour tortillas, a medley of cardboard flats of soda pop and Gatorade varieties into the rear of the lunch coach, his fair skin arms, neck, and forehead laced with sweat. Rina saw him watching her organize the daily supplies after he had finished his work; paper plates and tinfoil in the overhead steel shelves, the Tapatio and Cholula hot sauce bottles in the metal containers next to the paper napkins. She could tell he liked her. But he was always respectful, never a rude comment came from him.
Now a Honduran man appeared from behind a box of mangos he was lugging. Rina turned and saw his embroidered name tag. It read "Miguel, the Honduran" in bold, cursive lettering.
She laughed under her breath, nervously, though she was relieved by the distraction of the worker's presence. She coughed into her clutched fist, her eyes flicking past his.
"Those will be..." the man started saying, setting the mangos aside. He counted out with two hands, exaggeratedly clicking off his fingers. "Siete dólares cerrados, por favor!" With a strained face, he switched back to English. "Yes, I should charge you more for taste testing before you purchased them," he added with an affectation of sternness.
Rina handed the Honduran man her money, laughing again because he had enunciated his words as if she had won something stupendous. Or maybe he thought she was slow or hard of hearing.
Inhaling, Rina regained her composure as the man leaned closer and slid crisp American dollar bills onto her cool palm. "Ocho, nueve, diez. Aqui tieme, mi bella dama."
His slightly calloused fingers had grazed the flesh of her lifeline, and she had gasped a little, not meaning to.
"Gracias, señor," Rina then said, recalling the sing-song of her grandmother's kitchen voice. Rasp with woodsmoke from making tortillas, the constant stoking of the stove.
A shiver crossed her, but she made herself smile congenially into his face. She could smell the earthen musk of dirt and leaves and diesel ground daily into his biting sweat. He was not tall; he was her height. He was wearing a faded blue tank top and had the browned terra cotta skin of a farmworker. She wanted to take hold of his rough hand, touch his sack-slumped shoulder, his thick frock of mahogany hair. She remembered the ephemeralness of his touch: it was like cool water enveloping her.
From the borderland of the rambling, ready-made tent, the surfer boyfriend was calling out for her. He held up a green- and yellow-striped melon to the sun. He squinted at her, smiling broadly with his hand over his brow. Those sweet crow's feet Rina, now recalled. The flex of his lean, muscled body as he eagerly held her.
He was shaking the melon, dancing in circles, acting like he had just struck gold. She thought how he was always ready for the next good time.
Rina watched as he put his nose to the blossom end, his head cocked sideways, staring quizzically at her as she came up to him. She took his fingertips in hers and let him believe he was pulling her toward him. "¡Abre la boca!" she said, teasingly, and dangled a date above his agog tongue. Rina thought she felt a kick, but knew it was too soon.
Title image "Aqui Tieme" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2018.