“I feel like this has happened before,” said the little girl in the chair next to him.
“This,” she said, “This, exactly.”
“It’s déjà vu.”
“It’s what?” She hooked her feet around the legs of the vinyl chair.
“Déjà vu,” he said. “It’s French for already seen.”
“You speak French?”
“No. It just means when you feel like something has happened to you before. Like you’re watching a memory of yourself, like a movie, but you’re the actor who plays you. Everything’s familiar and you think you should know what happens next but you don’t because it hasn’t happened yet.”
“Déjà vu,” she said, “It ends how?” He shrugged.
“You do something that’s not part of the memory. You decide what happens next instead of waiting to see if something happens that you remember.”
And then she took a fleshy bit of her thigh between her fingers and pinched hard. He laughed. He wanted to ask her if it worked, but waited to see what she’d say.
The rain falls all at once, as if some pissed-off god spit a hot lake on the prairie. With an hour’s worth of rain in two choruses of a rock-song, the storm ends as violently as it starts. The searing Texas sun pierces charcoal cloud-bellies, pushes its bright knives down. Thin wisps of steam rise from the flooded sloughs in the fields and off the road at the tops of each rise. Wendell is stopped in the sedan on the side of the road. He rolls down the window. It is, of course, the ground that is hot and not the rain, but the in the wake of the downpour, the air is as thick with vapour as it is hot from the convections of the baked earth. Where the car sits between rises in the road, there are at least three inches of water. Six or eight inches in the ditches on either side. In the back seat behind him, Andie and Grace, ten and eight, pop open their doors and step unexpectedly out in their white dresses and bare feet. They giggle.
Wendell pivots in his seat to reach impotently after them, but is held firmly in place by his seatbelt. He turns the other way, to his wife in the passenger seat, but Hanna is grinning like a camp-girl about to skinny-dip for the first time, tennis shoes already kicked off. She rolls the bottoms of her jeans. Wendell swings open the driver’s side door and climbs out, thankful that he’s chosen flip-flops for driving instead of shoes. The water in the road is surprisingly cool in spite of the heat of everything else, and swirling with petroleum rainbows and broken blades of grass. He stands between the car and the door, an arm resting on each, with the water rippling just below the running boards. There isn’t any traffic on the road, but he wants to tell the girls to be careful, anyway. He doesn’t. He waits to see what happens.
The girls have the skirts of their dresses hitched up in both hands, and take big steps with the water splashing up to their knees. And then Hanna is chasing them, thick pale cuff of inside-out denim banding the darker blue at her knees, white shirt flapping open over her tank-top like a sail at the end of an untied line. The girls’ giggles turn to squeals as they drop their skirts and run in opposite directions. Andie, with the longer legs, glides to the side, spins artfully away. But with a quick sideward lunge, Hanna has Grace by the wrist and pulls her in backwards, picks her up under the arms and swings her around and around, the water streaming off Grace’s little toes in careless flashing arcs. Andie turns back, clutching up the wet hem of her skirt, and with the sun behind her, her legs are sudden shadow-puppets on a dress-shaped screen. She watches Hanna twirl her little sister, and Wendell knows she’s wishing it were she who was caught.
He wants to rush in, to pick Andie up and spin her around, but he can’t. Wendell is stuck in the moment, watching them, looking at his life, entranced as if by fireflies. Grace has Hanna’s freckles, the deep green of her mother’s eyes. The way Hanna holds her, Grace’s head is tucked under Hanna’s chin, her short brown bob framed by the wilder, darker lengths that have escaped the loose knot at the back of Hanna’s neck. And left now, to her own devices, Andie curtsies to no one and begins to kick up water with quick little ballet steps that have names Wendell doesn’t know, her thin legs strong and already disciplined.
A vehicle appears on the steaming crest of the hill behind, a red jeep with the doors off and the top down. Hanna puts Grace down and pulls her to the side of the road. She reaches out with the other arm, wing-like, to keep Andie back. The jeep slows a little as it enters the water, but Grace jumps up and down and yells, “Faster, faster!” so the driver, himself soaking wet in the absence of doors, floors the gas. Grace puts her arms in the air and closes her eyes as Hanna and Andie scream and turn their backs against the splatter. Andie and Hanna stand up laughing, arching their backs as though that’s enough to pull the wet fabric from their skin. Grace jumps up and down, speckled in water-spots from head to toe, cackles harmonies of mischief and joy, and waves gratitude after the red jeep.
At first, there’s just a trickle, like somebody up in the canyon is washing their truck and the soapy run-off makes its way down between the stones and reaches across the low road before it disappears into the dirt on the other side. But a few days later the trickle keeps up, grows from a slither of grey diluent into a narrow stream of clear water, maybe six inches deep at the low point where the road crosses the riverbed. Wendell looks over from the passenger seat of the truck and asks about it. Javier keeps one hand on the wheel and one out the window. He thinks a spring opened up somewhere in La Huasteca canyon, up near Saltillo maybe, says that’s what the ranchers are saying, though none of them has followed it back to the source, that he knows of.
Up ahead where they’ll cross the riverbed on the low road, Wendell can see the girls playing. Ines, the ten year-old and Alma, eight, are bent over where the spring crosses the road, playing in the water like it came down the canyon for their private amusement.
“Your novia,” says Javier, “I don’t think she’s there.”
The girls splash the water in big arcs and grab handfuls of the flowers embroidered on their skirts to hike them up. They step high and splash down hard in bare feet, only to drop their hems and bend back to the water, scoop it up with hands like ladles and let it run out between their fingers.
“Yeah, she is,” says Wendell, scratching at the bit of beard he’s proud to be able to grow. “She’s there.”
As long as he has been in Mexico, Wendell has never seen water in the riverbed. Calling it a riverbed at all is like naming a fat man ‘Slim’. He’s heard there are photographs of Old Monterrey on the banks of the majestic Rio Santa Catarina, but it’s been dry on seventy years. He’s never met anyone who remembers it as anything but a compacted depression of curiously round stones and a monochrome of dust that blows in swirls and settles like wheat flour. Not even el viejo Alfonso remembers water. Out here by the entrance to La Huasteca, all that’s left of the Santa Catarina is its name, borrowed by the town-turned-suburb that hunkers on its bank.
Wendell spots Belen as Javier turns the big red pick-up into the riverbed along the low road. She’s sitting on some bigger rocks on the far bank, in capri-cut jeans and a white shirt with the tails tied across her belly, watching over her younger sisters in the spring. He thinks she must see them coming. She stands and waves and he leans out of the truck window to wave back. Javier slows the truck as they roll down the riverbank toward the water, but the girls are shouting, urging them on.
“Rapido, rapido!” cries Alma.
Ines puts an arm in front of Alma. Belen approaches from behind, laughing. Javier presses the gas, speeding into the clear water. And then it’s like slow motion, and Wendell can’t do anything but look at them. Ines turns in half a pirouette to take the splatter on her back. Belen lifts Alma, who is half her size and half her age, up to her chest, her personal shield against the shower of spring water kicked up by the truck. Belen and Alma have similar faces, wide yellow smiles under wide cheekbones sketched out with dark capillaceous lines—lashes, brows, bangs. Their eyes are deep and soft, only a hint of brown in onyx.
The truck rolls past them and Wendell leans further out to watch. Belen sets Alma down as Ines bends her spine against the cold water clinging to her shirt. And then Alma is jumping up and down, waving after the truck as Ines bends and scoops handfuls of water up at Belen, who didn’t get her share of wet.
The truck stops on the other side of the bank.
“I’ll be back for you tomorrow,” Javier says. “We got to be at back at the ranch by dinner time.”
Wendell mumbles some vague affirmation, but really, he’s just watching the way the wind lifts the fine strands of Belen’s hair, how the water drops sit on her brown skin like jewelry. Ines is chasing her now too, and Belen dances around them, high-stepping through the spring, the three of them screaming delight.
Wendell steps out of the truck. He wants to run down the bank and kick of his boots and dance in the spring and share in the wet and the cool. He doesn’t. He waits to see what happens.
And then Ines steps down hard and screams.
As she falls over and clutches her foot under the water, blood shoots out in deep red swirls underpainting the petroleum rainbows that cling to the surface. The piece of glass protruding from Andie’s foot is big. It is clear, but for the blood and part of a label still stuck to the convex side. Andie lifts her foot out of the water and reaches for the shard, but Hanna gets there in time and pulls her hand away. Andie fights and screams to get it out, but Hanna holds her foot with one hand and wrestles Andie calm with the other, telling her that they can’t take it out, that it will be safer to leave it for the doctor.
Wendell takes a couple of steps forward, ankle deep in water. The fear that rises in him is checked by an otherworldly familiarity. He is stuck staring at the scene as if it were a horror film he can shout at, but not change. So he stands there and rubs his keys together, waits as the drama unfolds.
Hanna motions to Grace and Grace moves carefully forward, scanning the water for broken glass. Hanna takes Grace’s bandana from her head and folds it into a narrow roll, which she wraps around the shard of glass to keep it from moving. Then, with Grace holding the bandana in place, Hanna takes her shirt off and wraps it around Andie’s foot to hold the glass and the bandana in place. Standing, she looks toward Wendell and lets the worry flood into her face. She can’t show the children.
“Start the car,” she says.
Wendell does as he’s supposed to, goes back to the car and slides the key into the ignition. Hanna bends to lift Andie out of the water. Wendell watches as Grace, now crying herself, runs along the passenger side, to the back door.
“Grace, honey, get in the front with Daddy.” Hanna comes down the driver’s side with Andie in her arms, Andie with her fists full of Hanna’s tank-top, head buried in her mother’s neck. Grace climbs all the way across the back seat and pushes the door open then retreats out as Andie’s bandaged foot comes in, followed by Hanna and the rest of Andie. Grace moves to the front passenger door and climbs in, eyes wide. She’s never ridden in the front seat before.
“Vamonos!” Alma explodes, like she’s just knocked off a Seven-Eleven and Wendell is her wheel-man. But the fear in her eyes is real and in the rearview mirror, Belen has just handed Ines up to Javier in the bed of the pick-up. Wendell can see that they’ve pulled the glass out of Ines’s foot, that it’s bleeding the worse because of it. Belen climbs up in the truck bed, pulling at the knot in the front of her shirt. Javier slaps the side of the truck bed firmly and Alma, who learns the English she knows from American television, yells, “Hit it!” and Wendell presses the gas, feeling the tires spin under them.
Wendell drives with Alma kneeling on the seat next to him, splitting her time evenly between looking out the front windshield and shouting directions at him, and looking back through the cab into the bed of the truck to yell encouragement at Ines.
“Here,” says Alma, “go right.”
Wendell slows the truck and begins to turn when Alma slaps his arm.
“No, right!” she says, pointing to the left. “Izquierda! Right, right!”
He turns left, not bothering to correct her. The street is narrow and there’s traffic that’s moving slowly. Belen is yelling from the back of the truck and the cars slowly move out of the way. Wendell edges the truck into the oncoming traffic lane and goes around, catching sight of the clinic at the end of the street.
He stops the truck out front as he is supposed to and gets out to help Belen with Ines, but there doesn’t seem to be anything for him to do. He watches Javier hand Ines down to Belen and Belen carries her into the clinic. Wendell turns back to the cab of the truck, where Alma is sliding out on the driver’s side. She runs past him, following Belen inside.
“Keys, keys,” says Javier. “Can’t park here.”
Wendell hands him the keys and he climbs into the truck. Wendell doesn’t see him leave as the clinic doors slide open and he steps into chaos.
The flash storm that flooded the roads has caused a lot of damage in the town. Blown out windows and scattered debris. The emergency room is full of people with lacerations and contusions. Perhaps a tornado touched down. Hanna puts Andie down in a chair in the waiting area and Grace jumps up beside her and takes her hand. Wendell waits with them while Hanna goes to the nursing station and brings over the triage nurse.
As the nurse unwraps Hanna’s shirt from around Andie’s foot, Wendell is aware that he’s watching. Not just that he’s watching the nurse, but that he’s watching his life at the same time that he’s living it, that he’s stuck in an unfolding moment he can’t quite grasp. The nurse looks at the bandana donut around the shard of glass, hands the shirt to Hanna and takes a gauze bandage from her pocket to wrap around the bandana, holding it firmly in place. Wendell looks at Andie. She’s no longer afraid; her mouth set in a tight line bites down on her lower lip. She squints slightly at some distant point on the wall.
“Keep it elevated,” the nurse says and Andie nods. Grace offers to hold it up and Andie shoots her sister a look at least as sharp as the glass in her foot, then swings her leg over the arm of the chair.
Wendell feels an end approaching, a decision he needs to make, but he puts it off, waits a little longer to see what happens.
It is hot in the waiting room. The weather isn’t hot yet, at least not for this part of Mexico, but there are too many bodies packed into too small a space, and all of them upset to one degree or another. Alma holds her sister’s foot up nearly at the height of her own head. The bleeding has slowed, but Ines looks pale.
Belen gets up and goes back to the nurses’ station. Wendell understands her Spanish best when she’s angry because she speaks slowly and crisply: every word is meant to be felt, as well as heard. He watches her arguing with the nurses and he can’t help but think how beautiful she is. She’s nineteen and prettier than anyone he’s ever met, but that’s not what it is. What it is, is how alive she is. How unlike a princess of predictable manners and thoughts. How extraordinarily and irrepressibly full of life, and joy and desire and intention. He understands her most easily when she is angry, and what Wendell understands is that Ines will be attended to immediately.
Ines takes Belen’s hand as they put her in a wheelchair and push her into an examination room and draw a curtain around. The doctor comes in and asks what happened. Alma tries to explain, but Belen silences her and takes over. The doctor unwraps Belen’s shirt from around Ines’s foot. Peeling the shirt away opens the bleeding again. The doctor takes a quick look and
injects Andie’s foot with a booster needle in three places around the shard of glass. Grace winces and squeezes Andie’s arm.
“Ooww,” cries Andie. The doctor stops and looks up at her. “No, not you doctor, sorry. Grace, stop squeezing.”
Grace lets go of Andie’s arm. Wendell can see from the tension in her face that Hanna fluctuates between impulses to laugh and cry but does neither, preserving instead an expression of calm concern.
“You know, your sister is going to be all right, now. Why don’t you go with your father the waiting room,” she says. Grace looks up at her and knows there’s nothing to say.
“I’ll be okay, Gracie,” adds Andie, and Grace takes Wendell’s hand and leads him out of the room.
When the doctor opens up the suture kit, it is Alma who looks pale. Wendell watches her blanch. He knows somehow, in the peculiar way that he is in his life and watching it at the same time, that she is both Belen’s youngest sister, Alma, and another girl. Grace. He loves them both, wants to reach out for each of them, but one must be real, the other a dream. He cannot decide which to reach for, so he waits to see what happens.
Belen says something to Alma that Wendell doesn’t quite catch. Alma nods and kisses Ines on the cheek and goes out of the room. Wendell watches Belen, who will not let go of Ines’s hand. She smiles slightly at him, a question. He nods and goes out after Alma, who has found a chair.
In the hallway outside the examination rooms, Grace sits with her feet dangling, lifting her legs alternately to peel their wet off the vinyl of the chair. Wendell sits in the seat next to her and watches her smooth out her dress. She stops eventually, and they both look across the hall into the examination room. Wendell can’t see his daughter, but he can see Hanna standing by the bed, her hands enveloping Andie’s.
Alma sighs heavily and pulls at the hem of her t-shirt, still wet from the spring run-off. A bead of water slides down a curl of hair. Then she raises her head and looks at him. Under the fluorescent light, her brown skin looks slightly green, but her eyes are the colour of coffee.
“Is she going to be okay” Grace asks. Her eyes always seem more green after she’s been crying.
“Sure. It’s just a cut,” says Wendell.
“Pero, como sabes?” asks Alma.
Wendell sits with Alma in a chair on one side of him and Grace in a chair on the the other. He looks across the hall, at two side-by-side examination rooms. In one, Hanna’s mask is beginning to crack. She’ll come apart a little now, now that it won’t cost anyone else anything if she does. She is his wife and he loves her. And she needs him now because without him she won’t feel that she can fall apart, won’t feel that someone will be there to do what needs doing while she lets it all go. He wants to go to her.
In the other room, Belen stands with one hand stroking her younger sister’s hair. She stands unwavering and sure. He doesn’t know where her strength comes from, or how deep it goes, but he wants to learn. He wants to learn all of her. She looks out across the hall at him and he wants to go to her, not because she can’t manage the doctors and nurses, but because she’s been loving all-out, and it would be nice for someone to love her. He wants to. But he can’t.
“I don’t know how I know,” he says. “I just do.”
“I feel like this has happened before,” she says.
“This. This, exactly.” She hooks her feet around the legs of the vinyl chair.
“It’s déjà vu,” says Wendell.
“It’s French. It means, already seen.”
“Are you French?”
“No. It just means when you feel like something has happened before. You know, you feel like you are watching a memory of yourself, like a movie, but you’re the actor who’s being you. Everything’s familiar but when you try to think what happens next, you don’t know because it hasn’t happened yet.”
“Eso. Déjà vu,” she says, “It ends how?”
“Usually it ends because you do something that’s not part of the memory. You decide what to do next, instead of waiting to see if something else happens that you remember.”
And then she takes hard pinch of a fleshy bit of her thigh. He laughs. He wants to know if it worked, but he’s afraid to ask,
afraid to act, afraid to impose a choice that will shatter the beautiful, precarious moment that he wants simultaneously to end. Wendell’s heart aches, pinned like a butterfly to two perfect pages. He wants one of these realities to own him, but to awake in one life makes the other a dream, a memory, a whisper of a ghost’s imagination. But waiting to see what happens is not living.
Wendell stands. He crosses into the examination room. He takes her hand and she turns. He sees in her face the shift, the moment she understands that this is not about anything else that’s happening, her attention releasing everything but him. He raises his hands, pushes his fingers through the dark hair above her ears, back and down to cup her neck. He looks into her and she smiles. He leans forward and kisses her, choosing to forget and to remember all at once.
a short story
by Damien Pitter