Cross Border Vignettes: A Common Neuroscience
by Jean Guerrero
Illustrated by Rosalind Helfand

Chapter 7: CARLOS, AGE 43

The Marlboro pack trembles in his hands. Carlos sits behind the wheel of his truck parked in front of his ex-wife’s house and he’s trying to pluck a cigarette out of the pack. His fingers are bulky and quivering and the cigarette is slender and elusive and his armor of aluminum foil is crinkle-cracking distractingly.

“Goddamnit,” he says. He shakes the pack in frustration until all the cigarettes come trickling out onto his aluminum-foil-wrapped lap in clusters. He grabs a cigarette and it seems to have a life of its own, dancing against his vibrating fingers, but finally it’s in his lips and it calms down.

His blue Bic lighter is even worse though. It seems to be bopping frantically to some inaudible techno, clashing with the intent of his hands, and Carlos has to strike it five times before he gets a flame going long enough to cause the cigarette to burn and hiss.

Carlos sucks the cigarette through tightly pursed lips and knits his caterpillar eyebrows together to pinch the thoughts in his forehead back in order. His hands are on the wheel. With each intake of breath, his eyes bulge visibly from his face and he looks like one of those rubber toys you squeeze to make the jelly eyes protrude.

Okay, okay. So he’s going to go in there, speak the lines he rehearsed—making sure they sound natural, genuine—and then he’s going to take the money from his safe and drive to the airport and purchase the tickets to Puerto Vallarta that afternoon, and then things would be all set and let’s hope the attacks on his brain and his heart don’t start up again during any of this.

Carlos doesn’t know it, but his Whole Foods-exclusive, organic, vitamin-rich eating habits have soothed the haywire hellish dopamine explosions in his brain, putting the positive symptoms of his schizophrenia in temporary remission. However, that doesn’t mean Carlos isn’t still under the impression that the government is out to get him. If that were the case, he wouldn’t be sitting here in his aluminum foil armor trying to calm himself before endeavoring to persuade his ex-wife to let him flee the country with his daughters, whose lives he is sure are in danger.

It just means that Carlos isn’t presently hearing voices or feeling shocks in his heart or seeing shadows. But in Carlos’s mind, this is all thanks to his suit of aluminum foil which, oh fuck, he just realized he has to take off because if he goes in there wearing it there’s no way Michelle is going to agree to his plan.

The second time his family decided to send him to Southwood Psychiatric Hospital was after his two girls had walked in on him in the living room, lying before the fireplace in his aluminum foil outfit. They had stared at him as if he were a paragraph in a textbook that must be read over and over again to be comprehended, and Michelle had come in and sent them upstairs and wailed at him as if he had done something horrendous, such as masturbated in front of them.

Clove antioxidant pills, apple cider vinegar salad and wheatgrass shots.

He doesn’t have much time so he better finish this cigarette soon. He has to finish it all the way, until the glistening red tip has met the filter, or else.

The glistening red tip touches the filter so he tosses it out of the window and takes a deep breath and a hard gulp. Here goes nothing. He grasps at the aluminum foil on his chest with both hands and tears it off like it’s a poisonous buttoned dress shirt and suddenly there’s like a brain burp going on in his skull and Whole Foods gets blotted out by it and he envisions all of the buttons of his armor that don’t really exist popping off, one by one, slapping the window and dying from the impact, a violent, sad, pathetic death.

Here we go.

There he goes, past the purple orchids and the singular, drooping sunflower, dying, that looks up at him with a trillion little beady black eyes, moving in their sockets as the sunflower leans toward him, trying to swallow him into its vision. He tries to ignore this sunflower, tell himself its motions are imagined, but now it’s obvious as he’s pounding his fist against the wood of the door that the sunflower really is reaching at him, dramatically, with violent resolve.

Michelle answers the door.

“Carlos, what are you doing here,” she says instead of asks. She looks frightened.

“I’m here because I wanted to say I’m sorry,” he says, gasping for breath, trying so hard not to make the words sound rehearsed that the emphasis is on all the wrong syllables. He slaps at the back of his neck because he thinks it’s the sunflower but really it’s just the wind, which is blowing with a force today that’s causing plants to move about.

He continues, “I realize I haven’t been the best father or anything like that and I just want you to know.” He slaps at his neck again.

Michelle looks relieved.

“Carlos, don’t even worry about it. We’re so far away from that,” she says.

She keeps glancing over her shoulder nervously and it should make Carlos suspicious but it doesn’t because he’s too worried about the sunflower to notice. Michelle is also too distracted to observe that Carlos is continuously slapping at his neck; she is thinking about the closet, its door ajar so that the floor, skinned bare of its carpet with the fat silver safe exposed obviously and inappropriately, like a woman’s nipple, and moneyless because her mother-in-law, Carla, has just driven away with its contents and Michelle wonders what the hell Carlos wants and if he knows and if he saw Carla driving away with his drug money literally less than three minutes ago.

But Carlos is talking about other subjects. He is saying, “Michelle, I want a second chance.”

He pronounces her name Mee-chell instead of Mi-shell. He has always done this even though her name is not pronounced like that and she has always liked it.

“Oh yeah?” she says, not seeming to hear as she wipes curly wisps of hair from her face with her wrists and looks everywhere but at him. She is wearing her golden hair in a loose ponytail, its natural curl exploding from a purple scrunchie.

“I want you to let me prove that I’m better now… and I don’t expect you to forgive me or anything, or take me back, it’s just… it’s just that I want… a second chance,” he says. He is scratching his temple fiercely and suddenly he side-steps and gasps, and Michelle asks him what’s wrong and he says oh nothing, I thought I saw a spider.

He continues, “I can show you. And the girls. That I’m different now. I’m better now, and I need

you… to not hate me. I need… to…” his voice cracks. He takes a few deep breaths and tries again.

“I want to take you guys to Puerto Vallarta, my treat.”

He smiles now, just like he practiced. It comes off slightly maniacal, but Michelle doesn’t notice. She is sweating so much she is glistening.

He continues: “Yeah, you know, with the money that I put in the safe, the one I asked you to keep for me here, where my mom wouldn’t find it… I want to take you guys to Puerto Vallarta. I mean I’ve never done anything really for you guys, and I think it would be nice for the girls to meet Maria and give them a chance to spend some time with their cousins,” he says.

The sunflower has stopped moving. The wind is still.

“And I think you’d really like it there,” he continues, because Michelle isn’t saying anything, her expression is unreadable, she is as stiff as the sunflower behind him. “Really. It’s nothing like Tijuana or Rosarito, it’s actually a great place, and you know I think you’d really get along with Maria, and Alejandro would be going, and Maria already said we can stay with her…”

Michelle speaks, her thoughts running in circles like the chihuahuas in her backyard.

“Carlos, you know I can’t make a trip like that with you,” she says. “I have patients, don’t you see I work, I have actual responsibilities, obligations…”

The words coming out of her mouth are offensive to Carlos, she knows, so she stops and starts over.

“You and I are through, Carlos; you know I care about you but things between us are…” she lets her voice drift off ambiguously. “But the girls… of course, they’re yours too, I’m not going to say you can’t spend time with them… but… Mexico? Does it have to be Mexico?”

The idea of her potentially still-schizophrenic ex-husband taking their preteen daughters deep into Mexico unsettles her.
She resists the urge to look over her shoulder again and she says: “Look, I’m really busy right now, my lunch break was over half an hour ago and I have to go back to work. Let’s talk later tonight?”

Her fingers are itching to rise toward the door, to close it, but she doesn’t let them. It might make Carlos suspicious that she is trying to hide something. She scratches at her legs awkwardly.

“I’m not leaving until you say yes,” he says, taking a step closer, so that the muscles around Michelle’s collarbone tense and flex. She can feel it in her stomach, too, her whole center is squeezing itself together to keep her from falling apart, drifting off in all directions or collapsing in a heap.

“At least say yes about the girls.” It’s the girls whom the voices have been threatening to hurt.

He is saying, “I want a chance to show them that I can be a good father because I’m not sick anymore. I’m not. I haven’t been for months.”

Michelle bites her lip and twists her hands together and says: “Okay, Carlos. Fine. That’s fine. But only if someone goes with you guys—Jeannie or Carolina or somebody.”

He nods. “I’ll talk to Jeannie.”

“Okay. Alright,” Michelle says. Now she chooses her words very carefully.

“So I’m really late to work, otherwise I’d ask you to come in and we’d open the safe—I’ll just get the money together for you and bring it over to Carla’s later tonight, after I get out of work.”

The string of words comes out of her mouth quickly, too quickly, like a centipede. Carlos scratches his head.

Michelle looks at his fingernails and sees that they are all the same length. At least he’s not doing coke anymore, she thinks to herself.

“You know Carlos, it’s really silly anyway, to pay with cash—why don’t you just let me buy the tickets online, with my credit card. You can pay me back later when we have time to do this whole thing with the safe?” Carlos scratches his head again and makes throat-clearing sounds.

“Plus I have guests coming over tonight, and I don’t want the carpet all torn and the place all a mess, I want it done neatly, you know, when we have time to attend to these details.”

Carlos nods. Seems reasonable.

“Sure,” he says. “Sure.”

Reyna starts coming down the stairs wearing Spongebob boxers, her hair all over the place, and she is taking slow, heavy steps, groggy still from waking up.

“Hey Reynita,” Carlos calls up to her cheerfully.

“Hi Pa,” Reyna says. Michelle’s heart begins to flutter in her chest like a robot-butterfly with metal wings. If Reyna reaches the bottom of the stairs before Carlos leaves, she will see the chaos of the closet and she might say something like ‘what’s up with the closet’ or ‘what the fuck’ and Carlos will hear and be curious and then the world will become very complicated.

But thankfully Carlos is saying, “Well anyway. So I’ll let you go to work now I guess. Thanks..for understanding.”

“Of course. I think it will be good, to have you spend some time with the girls.”

She is shutting the door as she says this, trying to convince herself that she is telling the truth, and only two seconds after the door shuts Reyna exclaims: “What the fuck happened to our closet?”

Chapter 9 – JEAN, AGE 11

In Puerto Vallarta the flies are as fat as half of a fist. In Puerto Vallarta, the flies bite and they’re scarier than bees. Not that bees have ever been scary to me. I have never been bitten by a bee—excuse me, stung—and I think they understand me because I understand them. I do not focus on their stingers but rather on how softly fuzzy they are, like black-and-yellow striped puppies with wings. At home I pet them gently with an index finger as they sip from my mother’s purple corn flowers, and they let me.

But not flies, especially not Puerto vallarta flies, I would not in a million years want to touch one of those. Their fat, black, roughly textured bodies give me serious pesadillas. In Puerto Vallarta, the flies land on your chocolate milkshake, which you weren’t going to drink anyway because in Puerto Vallarta, the waiters are also the cooks and the waiters sometimes have severe learning disorders.

“Stop staring,” Papi said, slapping my knee under the table as I watched the Puerto Vallarta waiter move his finger from my chocolate milkshake to his tongue, over and over again, tasting it, and then serving it to me. I gaped at all of this with my mouth open wide but unhungry.

“Close your mouth,” Papi said, exhaling smoke from his cigarette into my face. “The flies are going to fly inside you and lay eggs.”

I could taste the smoke from his cigarette on my tongue and I snatched the cigarette from his fingers and threw it as far as I could. I intended for the cigarette to reach the ocean, to be carried away by the frothy green waves to the golden coast of California, where a seagull might pick it up and drop it at my mother’s feet on her way to work, and my mother would pick it up with a frown and shake her head knowingly, understanding the pain I was in, and come rescue me, but instead the cigarette landed with an unsatisfactory and nearly inaudible plop on the pavement at the far side of the open-air restaurant.

Papi grabbed my hand and looked at me with furious eyes. I could see the veins in his eyes lengthening, thickening and splitting like rivers flooding with blood, and his irises glistening like yellow-brown marbles, and I thought his eyes were going to explode from his head and I thought I was going to cry but Jeannie put her arm on my father’s shoulder and said soothingly: “Andale, leave her alone, she’s just looking out for you.”

My dad let go of my wrist but the pink marks of his fingers remained on my skin, hot and prickly.

“I’m not hungry,” I said, leaning back in my chair and massaging my wrist.

Without looking up from his plate of fried fish—which was ogling me with a dead eyeball—he chewed noisily and gestured with his fork while saying, “Don’t eat then. Starve. At least your sister knows what’s good for her.”

Reyna was combing her noodles with her fork, disentangling them meticulously. She was looking at the noodles with a concentrated expression, determined to get them in a certain arrangement but not by any means conveying a desire to eat them.

I was so hungry my stomach was eating itself, but I didn’t trust any of the food in front of me. I put my forehead on the table and closed my eyes and tried to imagine that I was somewhere else. Perhaps in Pablo’s arms, on the beach.

“Hey Bubi, guess what,” my cousin said. Everyone called me Bubi for some reason and I had no idea why because that wasn’t my name.

“What?” I said, looking up at her.

Jeannie slid a thin, folded piece of notebook paper across the table. It was the size of my finger.

I opened it up and flattened its five creases. It read, “Dear Jeannie, I love you. I have never seen a more beautiful girl in my life. I had to leave the hotel last night, and I tried to come to your room to confess my feelings but nobody answered the door. I want you to know that when I turn 18, I will fly to America and come to you. I await the day and I hope you will wait for me. Yours forever, Pablo.”

I looked at my cousin. I felt as though I had eaten too much cake frosting too fast and my chin and gums and sternum were tickling painfully.

“Why would you show me this?” I asked, trying to sound indifferent.

“It’s for you! From Pablo! He left it under my door last night,” she said.

“If it’s for me, why—why is it addressed to you? You’re Jeannie, I’m Jean.”

“It’s not addressed to me silly! He was calling you Jeannie as a pet name!”

“How—how do you know?”

“He told me. He told me he was in love with you.”

Suddenly, the enormous, ugly Puerto Vallarta flies were beautiful fairy-things, and my sister was a dear friend, and my cousin was my maid, and my father, who was lighting another cigarette, was a king. Everything transformed, and I began taking deep sips of my chocolate milkshake, which was delicious.

It didn’t matter that Pablo was 16 and so was Jeannie and the letter was probably meant for her and she was just fucking with me because after all I was only 12. It didn’t matter that none of it was true, that the beautiful fairy-things were actually ugly Puerto Vallarta flies and that the king sitting beside me was actually my schizophrenic father and that my dear friend was actually Mitch the Bitch and my cousin was just my cousin.

In Puerto Vallarta, when a bee loses its stinger, it dies only for a second.

In Puerto Vallarta, the nights are cold but the beds get soaked with sweat because dreams in Puerto Vallarta are never just dreams. In Puerto Vallarta, the dreams are always nightmares. Pesadillas.

I awoke trembling and hyperventilating in the middle of the night, though I had never truly gone to sleep. I was falling in and out of nightmares—hallucinations, seemingly, because every time my body tried to truly fall into the dark pit of unconsciousness I would catch myself as if tripping, grasping and gasping in my sheets—all of me wet. My face dripping tears I could taste in my mouth, salty, and feel them in my ears, and my shirt stuck to me coldly with sweat. My underwear was damp with blood.

My hunger and cramps kept me awake, my loathing for everything—for how stiff my mattress was, how stained my pillow was with stranger’s drool, and how ugly I was. How hopelessly, disgustingly ugly.

I ran my hands all over my head, grasping at my hair: frizzy. I touched my face: oily, pimply. I grasped my stomach and pushed against my uterus as hard as I could, trying to hurt the cramps away. This was my second period of my life and I was spending it in Puerto Vallarta, with a father who didn’t even know where to buy Maxipads, and I was ugly, ugly, ugly, and nobody would ever love me the way Jeannie got to be loved. I sobbed. I was shaking so hard I thought there was something physically wrong with me because my hyperventilating was frantic and uncontrollable—my anxiety drove my lungs with a life of its own.

Papi came into the dark room suddenly and threw his arms around me.

“Sssh, sssh,” he said, rocking me back and forth, squeezing me almost too tightly.

“Ssssh, everything’s going to be okay, everything’s going to be okay.”

His abrupt presence so shocked me that it quieted my desire to sob and hyperventilate as suddenly as a door slamming shut, but instead I weeped louder, harder, because I didn’t want him to leave. I couldn’t remember my father ever hugging me before this. I tried to memorize the moment—the feel of his sweat-soaked shirt, his smell of cigarette smoke and armpits.

I loved him.

“We’ll go to a nice hotel in the morning,” he said, still rocking me back and forth, his voice frightened. “The nicest one you can imagine. The most expensive. The best.”

Outside, the Puerto Vallarta flies, fat as half a fist, were asleep on beds of damp flowers.