First Christmas back from college and El Paso is a stark and lonely place. My dad’s asleep in his easy chair. Mom’s got the caldo de pollo simmering on the stove for me. But something else simmers in my private heart. This want deeper than carnal grinds me down. This unquiet urge slowly reams me out.
I’m locked in my room, poring through my high school yearbook, studying the florid signatures of all my pretty classmates beseeching me to call whenever I’m in town. Hearts for punctuation. Smiley faces dotting the i’s. 2 Sweet 2 B 4 Got 10… What can they possibly mean except U R 4 Got 10 already?
Dad knocks on the door and asks if I’m okay. I tell him I’m going to see a friend. But it’s late, he says. Not late for me. It’s 10:30, he says. That’s early, I tell him. When they’re in bed, I take the keys and go.
The roads are quiet. The sky is overcast. Bing Crosby on the radio wants to make me cry. I follow the city lodestar, there on the Franklin Mountains, the giant five-pointed pentagram of bright electric bulbs that light up every Christmas. I pull into a bar to drink but it’s strange sitting by myself with all these older blinder boozers who can hardly finish a sentence, so I leave. I almost hit another bar but the lone drunk with his pecker out is pissing the word “NO” on the wall outside. I don’t want a drink. I don’t need a drink. I need a girl, some girl to lie to, hold, feel against me, someone to give me a little nighttime CPR, for god’s sake. Just one time. One night. That’s all.
The loneliness is hurting real bad now. It’s not in the heart but in the head like a migraine shooting icicles into the back of my eyes. It’s in my throat too, sore with the whispers that keep hissing out of my mouth like bile. All around me, the streets are barren and shiny in the night. All mortals hidden, out of reach. This is what my born-again high school teacher said would happen. You abandon the Lord and you’ll feel the desolation of that choice. You’ll be more alone than you could ever imagine. Painful and paralyzing is the sinner’s harrowing.
It’s about 2:00 in the morning. A purgatory of empty streets, at every intersection a population of one. What am I looking for? Who do I hope to see? Maybe this girl, coming down Chelsea Street by the railroad tracks. She’s all alone, walking in a coat with a fur collar over a pale dress. We exchange looks as I pass her and I can see that she is a little scared. Not only that. She’s pregnant. In spite of how it looks, I have to stop.
I lower the passenger window and wait for her. Are you okay? Do you need a lift home? She replies in her broken English that yes, she wants to go home, but it’s a little far. I tell her it’s okay, I’m not in any hurry and I have plenty of gas. And with apprehension in her eyes, she steps into my car.
We don’t say a word as I pull away and head down Paisano Street.
At last, in a tremulous voice, I tell her she shouldn’t be out this late. Dangerous for a girl in her condition. She says she was coming from a party but her ride left without her. I hope you didn’t drink much, I say. She turns to me with a smile.
Why, you got some?
I don’t know what to say. What can I do except to shake my head and ask her where she lives so I can take her home? She says we’re heading in that direction already. She says something about how pretty the star looks tonight, throwing that glow up into the clouds, and how every Christmas she’s always surprised when it’s there. Un milagro, she calls it. Then she asks me.
How come you are out so late también?
I want to tell her so much. I want to tell her how something dropped out of me at school one day, some essential cog of faith, and now God means nothing to me, and my night is gutted of people, like they’ve all gone to some other more rapturous place and left me behind and even my heart has deserted me for being such a traitor to myself and all I have is my body craving something it can’t put words to.
But all I say is I can’t sleep and driving relaxes me. There’s a long pause after that and I can feel her smiling again.
Lucky for me.
I tell her that I draw strength from her company and I take it as a propitious sign that she appeared like a mirage after seeing almost nobody for hours.
A sign of what?
I can’t answer that. I shrug and ask her how long before her baby comes.
Two months. Maybe sooner.
Wow. That’s incredible.
She nods and turns up the Johnny Mathis Silver Bells. Are we close? I ask.
She says yes. Real close. Tell me when to stop.
But there’s nothing there. Just a crumbling old sidewalk leading to a small park near the zoo. I pull over anyhow and tell her goodnight and that I hope she… but before I finish my words she sidles up to my side and lays her hand right on my crotch and presses down.
What are you doing?
Ándale, papacito. You don’t fool me. This is what you want. Please don’t do that.
She moves her face close to mine as she strokes me. You like this, no? You drive all night looking for me. And here I am.
What? I’m not doing nothin’. But your baby …
She snorts. He won’t get in the way, she says. No manches, papacito.
How much do you have?
I’m horrified that this is all my abject misery, my loneliness, has convened for my sake. This pregnant girl. This lewd moment held fast in her hand like a gift.
I don’t have anything. I don’t want this. Please take your hand off.
She does. I shut off the radio and stare at the ridges on the steering wheel. I stammer, I didn’t know you were … I had no idea—
Don’t fool yourself. You knew. You knew the whole time. Why did you pick me up?
I don’t get it. How can you do this? You’re so young and nice-looking and you got a baby on the way.
I got another one at home. Give me twenty dollars y me voy. Twenty dollars?
For my Christmas, papacito.
I take out my wallet and give her thirty. When she opens the car door, the overhead light comes on and I see her. She doesn’t look sexy or salacious, only poor. Poor and tired and done with cowards like me. With the sort of pride that seems somehow fitting to the moment, she holds up the bills and says, you knew. Then she gets out and walks back in the direction I found her.
Driving back to my house in the spellbound stillness of the town, I deal with my confusion and my hard-on and the wrenching fires in my heart and realize. Want is not the same as need. I want the girl but she needs the money. Want is her hand on my crotch, need is the baby. The want may be a craving so profound that unfulfilled it can hurt like death, but the need is life itself. The want made me roam all over like a rutting animal but the need will take me home. And how fucking Catholic of me, to pick up Mother Mary on a Christmas night and wind up with a prostitute in her third trimester. What a fucking cliché. But maybe it takes a cliché to slap me across the face with the ironies that make El Paso the rawboned place it is. God doesn’t have to live here, but people do. We try, anyway. The hard-bitten wants and needs of our lives blur into something wondrous and terrible, beyond reality, beyond reproach, our own dirty human miracle like the powered star of Bethlehem blinking off at the gauzy haze of dawn.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Octavio Solis is a playwright whose drama has been performed across the country. His collection The River Plays sets three of them on the US-Mexico border. Besides plays, he has published poetry and fiction in Arroyo Literary Review, Louisville Review, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Reader, and Chicago Quarterly Review. He received the 2014 Pen Center USA Literary Award in Drama for Se Llama Cristina.