VECINOS

 

The summer after my sophomore year of college, my high school friend Sarah invited me to come along on my old church's annual college trip down to Mexico, to build houses for a charity in Tijuana. I didn't have a job or a boyfriend or anything, so I signed up. I wanted to help people, sure, but really I wanted to drink tequila with the worm in it. I wanted stories to impress boys at parties.

Sarah and I were waiting in the church parking lot for the vans that would drive us to Tijuana when Veronica arrived. Tall and skinny, hair in a braid down to her butt, heavy pink Kmart duffel weighing her down.

“Oh my God,” I whispered to Sarah. “You didn't tell me she was coming.”

“Yeah, she's like our main liaison with the charity down there. She goes every year.”

“Are we gong to have to share a van with her?”

“Jo!” Veronica said, and waved. She had spotted me. “I didn't know you were coming.”

She hugged me. I could smell the cheap Costco shampoo in her hair. “Oh man, it's been so long.”

I had always hated Veronica. Her family had moved into our cul de sac when I was in seventh grade, and my mom and her mom started talking at church, and then my mom forced me to go over to their house and “welcome Veronica to the neighborhood.” Her house smelled like chickpeas and dog hair, and there was nothing to do except talk about people we knew from church or play an old computer game where you're Noah and you have to carry all the animals into the ark. There were bible verses in it and everything.

Our “friendship” got rough in high school, when I stopped going to church and started wearing Ralph Lauren Romance and changing into low-cut tops when I got to school. After I broke up with my second boyfriend, Veronica asked me if I wanted to do a purity pledge with her.

“I just don't know if it's for me,” I told her. I had spent Saturday afternoon making out with Clayton Johnson in his basement rec room. “I have to think about it.”

“Yeah, think about it. Father Marcus did this service a few weeks ago about how kids our age are likely to stray, and sometimes it's not enough to just have Jesus in your heart, you know? You have to have a firm commitment. That's why I was thinking about it.”

“Cool, I'll let you know,” I said, and never did.

Hugging her bony shoulders in the church parking lot and listening to her talk and talk about how happy she was I was coming to Tijuana with them, I tried to remember where she went to college. Some little Christian school on the other side of the mountains, I thought, but I couldn't remember.

I would be back in that parking lot a week later, holding a candle and pretending to pray, trying not to look anyone in the eye. Veronica's face, name, and school (Whitworth College in Spokane, it turned out) would be all over CNN. It's weird to think about the church parking lot like that—Veronica there one day, talking my ear off, and the week after that, Veronica gone.

***

This was like twelve years ago, so I some things I remember and some things I don't. I remember sleeping in the van as we drove without stopping from Seattle to Tijuana. Sarah whispered a year's worth of churchkid gossip into my ear—who in the van had slept with who, who partied now, whose parents had divorced. “Remember Chris Barton?” she asked. “He's in the other van. Tall guy, cargo shorts? This is the summer I get into his pants.”

I remember waiting in line to cross the border, how Veronica sang along with a mix CD of Christian rock from junior high, and I mentally conjured Lil Jon. Three six nine, damn she fine, hoping she can sock it to me one more time.

I don't remember driving through Tijuana, but I remember arriving at our destination and meeting Pablo. Pablo ran the charity we would be working for, a non-profit called Vecino—Spanish for “neighbor.” He was short and muscle-bellied and incredibly sweet, construction dust always caught in his mustache. Veronica, our church's go-between with Vecino, gave him a big bear hug when she stepped out of the van. “Veronica, girl, aren't you sick of us yet?” he said.

Pablocito! It's so good to see you again! How was the spring season for you guys?”

“It was good. We built lots of houses, lots of people going to have a concrete roof over their heads.”

Then they slipped into Spanish. Veronica sounded fluent. I pulled my bag out of the back of the van and wondered when I would be allowed to sneak off and have a drink.

I remember the Vecino compound: three stucco buildings cupping a courtyard. Ill-lit dormitories and a communal kitchen and a dining room full of featherweight folding tables and chairs. Stained Ikea mattresses and sixty-second showers. We were walled in and the walls were topped with razor wire and broken glass. “It can be dangerous in this neighborhood,” Pablo told us, “especially at night. We lock the gate at sunset, but don't worry. People know why you're here, and they respect you for what you're doing. You're the good guys.”

I remember waking up the next morning and driving to the first job site, spending the day pouring concrete and digging holes for foundations, climbing across roof scaffolding under a sky so blue and cloudless it wasn't even there. Sarah asked Chris Barton for a back rub and he gave her one, but he was watching me while he did it. Blisters. Ibuprofen.

I remember how the family we were building a house for presented us with a watermelon, how Pablo whispered that the watermelon cost them probably two days' wages, and that it was a great gift, how we ate the watermelon.

I remember how the concrete we poured splattered and stuck to our skin and dried, how I was picking it off for weeks, and how it left little constellations of white in my suntan.

***

The second night in Tijuana, Pablo took us out on a long drive to the beach. Sarah and I sat in the back of the van, too tired to talk, drinking bottled water and trying to work the kinks out of our forearms.

“Here we are,” Pablo said, and killed the van's engine. “The border.”

A crumbling wall of concrete and sheet metal rusted its way out into the ocean for a hundred feet or more. Through a gap in the corrugated sheet metal, we could see the long expanse of no-man's land and the hurricane fences and guard towers on the American side.

Pablo told us about how the Americans guarded the border at the Pacific with dogs and machine guns, fleets of coast guard boats and satellite surveillance. “I always thought it was funny,” he said. “It looks like they're afraid of us. Afraid of little old Mexico.”

“When you live here long enough, you really see the inequality,” he said. “Fine houses, beautiful big houses in San Diego sit right across from slums here in Tijuana where people make a few dollars a day. Where kids have to beg for money on the street.” Pablo paused to let that sink in. Moonlight snagged on the crooked top of the wall. “They look at each other eye to eye, right across the border. Nothing is done.

“But you know, with what America spends on its military in one week, it could end hunger. Not just here in Mexico—everywhere. The whole world. One week of military spending—no more world hunger, nada.”

Pablo let us get quiet. I looked out at the Pacific lapping at the wall. There were stars spiking through the orange light pollution. There was the far gleam of America's fences and towers. The sea breeze ruffled my shirt and the skin on my back went tight with cold. Everything felt foreign and kind of sad, like at the end of a party when you're either too drunk or not drunk enough and everybody's done talking.

Then Veronica had to pipe in. “I think it's so sad. So uncharitable. It's crazy that we're not giving more aid to Mexico, and to everybody, you know? They're our neighbors. Vecinos!” Pablo smiled and nodded and I had to shut my eyes to keep them from rolling. “That's why I think it's so important for us to come here every year—not just to build houses, but to, like, bring this message back with us. Because people need to hear.”

Gracias, Veronica,” Pablo said. “Would you lead us in a prayer?”

And even though I agreed with Pablo, I felt a little disgusted with him.

***

The fourth night in Tijuana, Sarah and I went around and asked everybody to contribute pesos for beer. It was only six-thirty, so we had a couple hours before Pablo shut the gate and locked us in for the night. Sarah, Chris Barton and I walked down the hill, past shacks and concrete cottages, unmarked stores that sold who-knew-what, a church where a troop of girls in blue skirts jumped rope and chanted something rhythmic in Spanish. They giggled at Chris and Chris gave them a thumbs up.

Chris Barton wore cargo shorts and Nike tees that draped to his thighs, and he had one of those generous attentions that I've always found very attractive. Drilling eye contact, questions, his long eyelashes. Sarah had it bad for him, I could tell, but sometimes, lifting bags of concrete at a job site or eating tacos in the Vecino courtyard, I caught Chris staring at me.

The bodega at the bottom of the hill was crammed with wire shelves full of canned beans and Jumex. The floor was rough wood planks and all the signs were hand painted and there was a whole wall dedicated to rosaries and prayer candles and postcards with pictures of the Virgin. We bought as much Corona as we could carry and filled the pockets of Chris's cargo shorts with limes. The woman behind the counter didn't speak to us except when she said the price, in English, and she didn't card us.

We brought the beer back up the hill and into the compound. The church kids were sitting around talking or smearing aloe vera on their sunburns. Veronica, sitting at a picnic table alone, looked up from the magazine she was reading and frowned.

“Jo, you guys can't drink that,” she said. “You're not twenty-one.”

“Drinking age in Mexico is eighteen,” I said. “Perfectly legal.”

Pablo came through the front gate carrying two shovels we had used to smooth out a concrete floor earlier that day, and Veronica waved him over.

“Pablo, is beer okay?” She pointed at our beer. “Can they have that?”

“Only if they give me one,” Pablo said. “I'll come and sit with you, just let me put these away.”

Veronica shrugged and popped the top on a squeeze tube of sunscreen. Feeling pleased with myself, I sat down and started opening beers.

Soon there were a half-dozen of us sitting around the table. Two of the boys went to buy more beer, and a cooler with ice showed up. It was going to be a party. Pablo sat down at our table and asked for his. “Let me show you how we do Corona here,” he said. He wet the lip of the bottle with a lime wedge and pressed coarse salt against it, like you would salt a margarita glass, then stuffed the lime in. “One-hundred percent Mexicano.”

Veronica watched us from the next table over. “Veronica, want a beer?” I asked.

“No thanks.”

Sarah and Chris Barton and everybody got quiet, hoping, maybe, that we could turn Veronica into less of a square.
“Are you sure?” I said. “It's not like you're breaking any laws.”

Maybe it was the fact that it was legal in Mexico, or maybe seeing Pablo drinking with us and scratching his belly softened some moral mechanism in her, because she shrugged and leaned toward me and said, “Okay, sure.”

“Hell yes,” I said, and opened a beer for her.

She sipped it and made a face. “Better try it with lime,” I said. She shoved a thin wedge down into the neck of the bottle and tried it again.

“Little bit better,” she said.

The sun was going down, lime wedges bubbling in gold. “Everybody in?” Pablo said, and set his beer on the picnic table and pushed the front gate shut. If my life were a TV show, this moment would be shot through with foreshadowing—pop music in a minor key. But life is just life, and we were only drinking beers and telling jokes. Pablo slid the thick wooden plank home, barring the door and locking us in for the night.

***

I met Luke, my future husband, drinking Corona on a beach in Oregon, five years later. There were no colors in the land or sky and big three-hundred foot cliffs shot straight up out of the water. We had a bonfire, but the weather leeched the warmth right out of it, and we all huddled together in fleeces and rainjackets. Luke was a friend of a friend, and I remember thinking, “What's this idiot doing drinking a Corona? Doesn't he know that's the wrong drink for this weather?”

He drank it with salt on the rim. This is neither here nor there. I just wanted to say.

***

That night, we got more drunk than we should have. I remember our voices getting louder in the courtyard, our beer bottles clinking. I remember Chris Barton chasing me through the pitch dark dormitories, laughing, but now I don't remember why. Even Veronica, drunk off three Coronas and slumped laughing in an Adirondack, had the glow of a potential friend.

“Jo, I've never been drunk before,” she said.

“Welcome to my every weekend.” I sat by her on a bench, smoking a cigarette someone had given me. If Veronica was letting that pass without comment, she must have felt pretty loose.

“It's funny how your standards change as you grow up,” she said. “I used to think that drinking a beer or kissing a boy would make you a bad person. Or, like, saying the world 'hell' would get you sent there? H-E-double-hockey-sticks.”

“Say hello without the 'o',” I said.

She sat up straight in her chair, rested her beer on her knee, and looked me in the eyes. “You don't believe any more, do you?”

I shrugged, embarrassed by her earnestness. “I don't know. I go back and forth.”

“I stopped believing for a little while when my dad had cancer,” she said.

I didn't know her dad had been sick, and I wrinkled my brow in sympathy, unsure of what to say. “Really?”

“Yeah. You know, it's weird: the bible is full of stories about people who doubt or who obey the word of God even when they don't want to, and it usually turns out okay for them, but they don't tell you what it actually feels like, you know? To feel that absence? Like, how lonely it is. And it's such a cliché, staying up late wondering why God lets bad things happen to good people, but it's true. I still went to church and after school services and stuff, but I stopped believing for a while.”

“What always got me,” I said, “is that faith isn't based on any evidence—it's just believing. You can never know, you can only believe.”

“I think you can know,” Veronica said. “Not with your brain, but you can feel it.”

I didn't want to argue with her. “Did your dad get better?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“And you started believing again?”

“Yeah.”

“That's good.”

“Maybe one day you'll start believing again, too,” Veronica said. “You want to hand me another beer?”

***

Some time later, I found Sarah throwing up in the third stall of the women's bathroom. The bathrooms were pretty basic. Three stalls, three showers, and everything dumped into a chemical tank out back, so you couldn't flush toilet paper. You had to wipe and put the used T.P. into a lidded wastebasket by the pot. I pulled the nasty shitcan out of the stall and crouched behind Sarah, holding her hair while she heaved into the toilet. So far nothing had come up.

“I don't think Chris likes me,” Sarah slurred.

“What? Why do you say that?”

“I don't know. I don't know, I just know.” She sighed and collected her thoughts. “You can tell. He's distant. It's like he doesn't get that I'm flirting with him.”

I thought of me, stumbling over somebody's gym bag, running through the dormitories in the dark, knowing that Chris Barton was somewhere behind me, our laughter mixing together. I felt dizzy and drunk and leaned against the wall of the bathroom stall.

Someone slammed open the door to the courtyard and I looked out of Sarah's stall to see who it was. Veronica stood in the doorway, squinting and swaying.

“Veronica, what's up?”

“Jo,” she said, and lurched toward me. She was drunk. “Jo, the guys are talking about making a beer run, but we're not supposed to leave the compound after dark.”

I staggered to my feet and leaned against the sink next to her. “Yeah, but come on, the bodega's like three blocks away.”
“But everybody but me is hammered,” she said.

I gave her a look like What, and you're not? but it was her first time drinking, and she must have not realized how bad off she was. “Then if you're the most sober, I guess you'd better go,” I said.

“I guess,” she said. “Yeah. Yeah, it's only three blocks. I can go get pesos from everybody.”

“Here,” I said, and pulled two crumpled hundred-peso notes from my back pocket.

Veronica left and I went back to Sarah's stall, but Sarah had fallen asleep, slumped over the toilet.

***

I woke up the next morning in a dark and empty dormitory with somebody's arms around me. Chris Barton, still asleep, his breath on the back of my neck. We were both naked. My head was breaking in half and my mouth tasted like a skunked beer. Someone had found a bottle of tequila. A memory of body shots swam up through the fog, Chris Barton shooting the golden liquor, licking the salt off my stomach, slurping the lime from my bellybutton.

I crawled out of bed, got dressed, and sat in the courtyard, next to an overturned bench. Our bottles and cigarette butts lay everywhere. I remembered a late night game, somebody declaring that we couldn't sleep in our own beds, and everybody stumbling, running from dormitory to dormitory with their blankets and pillows, the nip of transgressive joy brought by sleeping in a stranger's bed. That must have been when I pulled Chris aside. Or when he pulled me aside, whatever.

Pablo was in the kitchen, laying out bagels and cream cheese and brewing strong coffee into a massive, dented tin pot.

“You guys got a little crazy last night,” he said, smiling.

“I guess so, yeah. Sorry.”

“That's okay, as long as you clean up. You're allowed to have a little fun.” He poured a cup of coffee from the tap and handed it to me. “Did somebody go outside? The bar is off the door.”

“I don't know,” I said, trying to remember the last time I saw Veronica.

The church kids wandered in one by one, looking haggard. Sarah sat down next to me and whispered, “Jesus, I slept in the bathroom.” Chris sat with us and drank coffee in silence. Pablo asked everybody who came in about the bar off the door, but nobody knew who had done it. He put his hands on his hips and stared at us.

“Guys, we have rules for a reason,” he said. “I'm going to ask all of you—and you're not going to be in trouble, I just want to know—who went outside last night?”

We all stared at our breakfast, embarrassed. Sarah picked little bird bites off her bagel with trembling hands. Finally, somebody at the end of the table said, “I think it was Veronica.”

My stomach filled up with cold air. I had encouraged Veronica to break the rule. I was a co-conspirator. Why hadn't Veronica put the bar back on the door when she came in?

Pablo raised his eyebrows. “Really? And where is Veronica now?”

“Probably still sleeping it off,” somebody said.

“Which dorm did she sleep in?”

Nobody said anything.

“Come on, guys, I'm asking you questions!” Pablo said. “Who saw Veronica this morning?”

We looked at each other, afraid to speak, then looked back to Pablo. The irritation on his face was changing into something else. “Okay,” he said, quieter now. “Everybody stop eating and look around for her.”

I looked in all three dormitories and in the skinny little alleys between the buildings and the compound wall. People were shouting her name, and morning sounds drifted in from outside. Music, car horns, Spanish, the roar of traffic. I was afraid that when we found Veronica she would tell Pablo that sending her on a beer run had been my idea, that I would be sent home or something. I didn't really understand what was happening, the gravity of it. I still don't.

An hour later, Pablo announced that house-building was canceled for the day and that the police were coming. The cops interviewed all of us one by one, with Pablo translating. It took forever. When it was my turn I didn't tell them about my conversation with Veronica in the bathroom, because now I was sure I would get in trouble for it. I pretended I was too drunk to remember. We weren't allowed to leave the compound, so I sat around with Sarah and Chris and read magazines and talked. Even then, I was more worried about what Sarah would think of me for hooking up with Chris than I was about Veronica.

That night, Pablo gathered us in the kitchen. “Veronica is missing,” he said. “The police are searching the neighborhood, but they haven't found her yet. I know how terrible this must be for all of you, and I thought we could send Veronica, and the policemen looking for her, our prayers. Circle up, guys. Join hands.”

The next morning there were men in suits talking to Pablo, and reporters outside the front gate. Pablo looked feverish and unhappy, and he told us that Vecino was sending us home immediately. “Gather your things, guys.”

***

I remember I barely left my parents' house for the rest of the summer. There were reporters everywhere, people calling. My dad had to have our phone number changed. Two women from the FBI came and asked me questions, and I didn't tell them about how I had talked her into drinking that night, how I had encouraged her to go on a beer run. They had the chronology of the night all written up, and they knew that Veronica had gone to buy more beer, so I figured why implicate myself?

There were no leads. The cable networks ran special reports, interviewed her professors and classmates and some of the kids from church—none of her family would talk to the media. My mom was over at Veronica's parents' every day, comforting them, cooking them food. I stayed in our basement and watched TV with the lights off and the blinds down—anything but the news.

Sarah came over sometimes and we watched TV together. It was the only time I talked about Veronica. I didn't with my parents, I didn't with the psychiatrist they made me go see, I did with Sarah.

“What do you think happened to her?” Sarah asked once, in the dark, some Comedy Central stand-up special on mute.

“I don't know,” I said. “I don't think about it.”

That was a lie. I thought about almost nothing else. Over and over, I walked that walk between the Vecino compound and the bodega. I tried to fill in those blank spaces. I tried to reconcile the sweet family who gave us their watermelon with the razor wire and broken glass on top of Vecino's walls. Something was out there. Something had happened to Veronica.

“You know, I feel bad now,” I said. “But I hated her.”

“No you didn't,” Sarah said.

“No, I really, really did. I hated her since like seventh grade.”

“You're just mixed up.” We watched the television, the comedian pacing in silence on the stage. “Maybe that's okay,” Sarah said. “Being Christlike is really fucking hard, you know?”

But I didn't want to be absolved for not liking Veronica. That I could live with. What I needed was an answer. I needed to know what happened to her so I could know how guilty to feel. I needed a measuring stick for my wickedness.

I grunted and hit the volume control on the remote, and the dark room filled with laughter and applause and the bad comedian growling the punchline of an unsaid joke into the mic.

They never found her.

***


My husband and I decided not to raise our kids in the church, but I doubt that decision sometimes. I know that after Veronica disappeared, I would have felt better if I could lean on faith, if I could picture her in a happier place, if I could know that God would forgive me for whatever it was I had done. But I made it through without that, and my kids are tough. They'll make it, too.

Four years ago, just a few months after Luke and I got married, we took a road trip down to Mission Beach to visit one of his old college friends. They surfed and drank beer next to the pool. I sunbathed and read books on parenting. We had just found out I was pregnant.

Now that I was about to be a mom, I spent a lot of time thinking about Veronica's parents. After the media attention died down, they had moved somewhere else, to be closer to family. How had it felt for them? How had they survived?

Unbelievable to lose a child like that. When I saw kids in our neighborhood, waiting for the school bus in neat lines or trailing their parents on the way to the park, I imagined them disappearing one by one. Raped. Murdered. Gone forever.

There were palm trees all around Luke's friend's house, and a Mexican grocery on the corner that was the cleaner, better-lit American twin of the bodega down the hill from Vecino. I could feel Tijuana—so close—like a pulse in my forehead. How had it changed? What was it like now? I could barely remember it.

“You've never been to Mexico, have you?” I asked Luke one night as we lay in the guest bed.

“No, never been,” Luke muttered. He knew about my trip to Mexico and Veronica, but I hadn't told him my part of the story.

“We could hop down there for a day trip,” I said, “check out some of the tourist stuff in Tijuana. Just to say you've been.”

“Sure,” Luke said, and rolled over and kissed my head.

Two days later, we crossed the border into Mexico. We spent an hour wandering through a tourist bazaar, looking at all the wooden marionettes and fake Rolexes and gas mask bongs, then, on the way back, I pretended to get us lost. I drove us toward the neighborhood where Vecino used to be, scanning for houses we had helped build, but I didn't see any, or any like them. I wondered what had happened to the family with the watermelon. Good things, I hoped.

In Vecino's neighborhood, I drove us down all the old streets, past the bodega and up the hill, but I couldn't find the compound. It should have been easy to spot—a big compound like that, walled off from the street—but either I was more lost than I thought or it was gone.

“Do you know where you're going?” Luke asked.

“I thought I remembered. The landmarks are all different.”

I got turned around in a warren of cheap high rise condos on the crest of the hill, all of them abandoned, their first stories fuzzed in graffiti, drifts of trash and plastic wrappers blown up against the doors. The desert was encroaching, filming everything in a fine dust. We didn't see any people, but we saw a pair of wild dogs poking through the numbered parking spots. They ran when they saw our car. It looked like the end of the world.


Ian Denning's short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Tin House's Open Bar, Washington Square Review, New Ohio Review, and elsewhere. He graduated from the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire and now edits prose for Lettered Streets Press and fiction for Pacifica Literary Review.