Ensenada was the hottest night. The first night. The two drove down from L.A. to Baja: Him, driving, and her, taking pictures from the window.
“Here we are. Big, bad, scary, Mexico.”
The woman looked through the eye of her camera and focused on the coast. The boats in the water seemed still, even with the wind blowing. A person here and down another block walked the road, but not many and never in big groups. The air was hot and the breeze salty. However, what the woman noticed most of all was not through an image, or in her camera, but a sound. It was quiet. Nothing big, nothing bad. The woman looked at the man driving and had to reimagine his entire childhood. Growing up in, what she imagined, a Mexico with loud prostitutes and men with guns, smoking pot in the dirty streets and hollering at the almost-naked women to get it on. The man, with his buttoned up white-collar shirt and delicate glasses, had an expression that said he thought of nothing. Not even the road. Guilt waved over the woman for thinking he was hard. For thinking Mexico was hard.
They continued driving south, nowhere, in particular, but without planning to go much farther.
“My mother was born here,” the man said.
“You never told me that.”
“Really? I thought I did.”
“No, you never told me.”
The road weaved around the coast, and there was always ocean. It never left their side. It felt to the man as if the ocean was his mother. Watching and waiting for him to do something rebellious. To leave her sight and hide inland. To spank him into being a good boy. The man thought of his mother fondly, although in person she was never warm to him.
“Smile,” the woman said, and took a picture of the man. “I can’t wait to get my film developed when we get back.”
“You ran out already?”
“No, but I can’t wait to see the pictures we will take. I know they’re going to be wonderful.”
Beautiful Mexico. The woman took the camera strap off her neck and wrapped it around the body of the camera. She looked at the man who was looking straight at the road. He was a cloud in sunny Ensenada and it depressed her excitement. She had great hopes of what their vacation might bring. She leaned on the door and the window rolled down. Salt and spice and earth, like the purest form of air she ever breathed. L.A. does not have air. The people breathe the breath of a thousand neighbors. All used and tasted. Air from another man’s tongue. The man lived on the opposite side of L.A. from the woman. She did not breathe his air and he did not breathe hers.
The road narrowed and the beach dropped away, slowly disappearing until the water met directly with the mass of rocky land now called Ensenada, in the past called nothing. Pink flowers grew up from the dark rocks. It seemed impossible but was real somehow. The woman put her camera around her neck again and focused on the flowers. As bright and clean as they looked from her window, the camera could not replicate. The flowers were hardly there, appearing more as sunspots or blemishes to the bank of sharp rocks. If the picture could not say the flowers were there, they were not. There was no use wasting the exposure, the woman thought. Her friends would not believe. “Flowers? Growing from ocean rocks? No soil?” No, there wasn’t any use wasting the frame. She took the camera off her neck and tucked it into her bag on the floor of the car.
“My mother was born here,” the man said.
“Yes, you said that.”
“Just making sure you were listening.”
That evening at the motel, the man, and the woman ordered bottles of dark, Mexican beer and sat outside getting drunk. Ensenada was quite still, but the waves curling over the coast were louder than before. The only lights that came on in the metamorphosis to evening were from far away. So far, in fact, they could be distant as stars. The man flushed while daylight dropped away and the beer bottles became empty. He opened his third beer and took a drink, foam splashing from the sides and dripping stains onto his white shirt. The sleeves were rolled up now. The top buttons undone. The woman tried not to speak. She wanted to explain to the man that their vacation was special. In her mind, she strung together the words, edited, and reassembled, to say it in just the right way. The man puckered his lips and sent kisses. “Here, puppy,” he said. A stray dog, skinny, but curious and unafraid, came towards him. The dog was the same color as the dirt. The same light brown, almost gold.
“Come here pup, pup.”
“She’s got a name,” the woman said.
“Adelina,” the man said.
The stray did not come closer, but walked around itself and settled on the ground.
“Diana,” the woman said.
“Delores,” the man.
The dog used its hind leg to scratch an old rope tied around its neck.
“Yolanda,” the man continued, his voice louder so as to be heard above the waves.
“She’s not a boy.”
The man finished his third beer and stuck the empty bottle in the sand. “Alright,” he said, “Belinda.”
“Flaca!” The man shouted and spit projected from his mouth.
The woman did not suggest another name. She finished the beer, which left her tongue sour.
The man laughed. “Estupido. Stupid dog doesn’t know her own name. Giovanna, Letticia, Mari!”
Ensenada was quiet. The woman was quiet. All the beers were gone. The dog got up, sniffing the air, and left in search for dinner scraps.
The next morning, the last and only Ensenada morning, the two turned back north in-route for the border. On their way out of town, they stopped at a street fair and walked down the row of vendors selling candy skulls and fresh caught leopard grouper, a few yellow-spotted fins still wiggling. The man bought a hot chocolate and egg burrito with red chile. The woman refused food, but browsed the candy skulls like they were diamonds in a jewelry store.
“You want one?” asked the man.
“What would I do with it.” She left his side for another cart.
The man followed. “Want to stay another night?”
“Not in Ensenada.”
“Yes, your mother was born here, I heard you yesterday.”
The man stayed back as the woman plunged through the market walkway. She ducked under tarps and crouched to say hello to small children. A little girl jumped on the woman’s back and stayed wrapped around her torso until they reached a booth that sold sweet milk. The woman went to the far end of the fair, where suddenly one cart ended and was not met by more deserts and folkloric dresses. As far as the woman went, the man could still spot her deep black hair and pale skin from the crowd of locals. He was not afraid of losing her.
When they returned to the car, the interior was warm and burned their skin. The man tried steering with as little touch as he could. The woman tucked her dress under her thighs to form a divide between the leather and her body. Even after the city of Ensenada dropped away, the boats, motels, and dogs, and made way for flattened desert, the coast remained at the driver’s side.
“I’m sick of the ocean,” the woman said.
“Take a picture of me so you can remember how much you don’t like it.”
“I don’t have the camera.”
“You left it?”
The woman turned away from the ocean, from the man taking her home to California. Before leaving for Mexico, the woman told herself she would make a decision: either tell the man she wanted more or tell him she wanted nothing. She believed Mexico would change the way she spoke to him. Thought of Mexico as a big, bad place where she too could become big and bad. Nothing changed or was different in Ensenada. Their twin-beds at the motel, the way he kissed her forehead goodnight, called her beautiful and passed out cold. As the woman stayed awake, hoping for sleep and fighting herself for not getting it, she tried to make her breathing quiet. Without the ceiling fan, the hushed town would have made her stop breathing altogether. Nothing breathed at night in Ensenada, not even the man, not even the wind.
The woman turned to the man, demanding his attention from the road. “Did you think I wouldn’t know her name?”
“The woman,” she said. “The women.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“Not her name. Not ever her name.”
The woman lowered her gaze to the man’s neck, which seemed to swell from the tight collared shirt. He could not respond to real life questions. L.A. was for real life, Mexico was for dreams.
“We should be in L.A. by six,” he said.