Red Clay

When Gustavo asked her to meet him in Mexico for a “worry-free fuckfest”, Meera said “Yeah, sure,” mostly because she never wanted to be the girl who said no to something she wasn’t supposed to do. Now she’s curbside at Benito Juárez Airport, suitcase safe against her leg, wondering how the hell she agreed to fly there alone and then ride three hours in a private taxi to “El Rancho,” as he calls it – her, all of a hundred and five pounds, bones jutting at the hips like rocks from a path. This is crazy even by her standards. There’s usually at least someone in her big Indian family trying to tag along and now, here she stands, off the radar in a foreign land no less. She doesn’t even speak a lick of Spanish.

Horns are honking. Pasty Midwesterners climb on coach buses headed to Cuernavaca and Puebla. A giant bottle of Real Hacienda 100% Agave seems to be offering her a slug from a billboard across the street.

Gustavo sent her an awkward text message when the plane landed, welcoming her and saying he would see her shortly. The message is written in the way a boss is supposed to communicate with his employees, like their meeting is actually business-related. Apparently the guy’s got a conscience all of a sudden.

A black Lincoln Town Car with tinted windows pulls up beside her. The driver pops out – short, stocky, broad face, hooked nose. Minus the black suit, he’s what she pictures the Aztecs looked like.

“Meera Atwal?” He has a sign with her name on it, except there are mistakenly two ls in Atwal. Gustavo doesn’t even know how to spell her last name.

“That’s me,” she says.

“Bienvenidos a México. Welcome.”

Meera, of course, lied to her parents, told them she was going on a business trip to Cancún. Important conference. The company was putting them up in the beachside Marriott. She was traveling with several coworkers – Jenny Flores, Pete Huffman, Deb Romano. She threw in an Indian girl too. Nishi Chandha. Nishi doesn’t really exist but her parents always seem more at ease when there’s a fellow Indian in the mix.

“Whatever you do,” her dad said, “don’t drink the water.”

The driver lifts Meera’s suitcase and lays it in the trunk. She slides into the leather backseat hesitantly. Everything she’s read about Mexico City warns never, ever to get into an unauthorized cab. The books say to look for the yellow cabs with plastic white TAXI signs lit up on the roofs and TRANSPORTACION TERRESTRE painted across the doors. There are countless stories of phony cabbies, robberies and beatings. As the car blends into traffic, Meera imagines a horrible hoax is being played on her, maybe even orchestrated by Gustavo himself, that she’s going to be kidnapped and ransomed. Her parents will kill her when she’s eventually set free and back home unless she’s beheaded first like those poor victims of drug wars she sees in the papers. There’s a part of her, she realizes, that probably thinks that’s what she deserves.

***

Meera was pretty sure she wasn’t qualified for the position as Marketing Manager. She was green, straight out of college, probably up against many a seasoned candidate. She applied anyway. When Gustavo hired her, her family threw a big party because this was precisely the American Dream they’d sought. Not that Indians needed much of a reason to throw a party. Ain’t no party like a Punjabi party. Tables overflowing with makki ki roti and sarson ka saag, the men all in one room talking shit, mom’s brother’s brother-in-law breaking out into Punjabi song. Now, as the car eats up long stretches of lush Mexican countryside, Meera realizes she probably wasn’t qualified for the position after all.

Gustavo isn’t a good-looking man by any means, though he gives the impression he thinks he is. He’s in his forties with the beady eyes of a hamster and acne scars, proof of mythical teenage battles on his cheeks. His frame is soft but imposing. He probably could have played football or basketball had he grown up in the States, had he bothered to lift weights, but he hadn’t. In fact, even though he’s from Mexico, he says he’s never played soccer either. If anything, he’s an armchair quarterback for his darling Cowboys.

Gustavo didn’t wait long to begin his onslaught of grossly inappropriate behavior and feeble passes at her. On Meera’s first day at work he said, “Man, do I love the breast,” as he was passing through the cafeteria and saw her slicing through a piece of chicken. He referred to her exclusively as “sweetie” and “hon” especially in team meetings. Every Friday, he asked her where her boyfriend was taking her out, even though she’d made it clear there was no boyfriend. He made his pass at the holiday party between the punch bowl and seven-layer nacho dip. He was staying overnight at the hotel and told her he had some important documents in his room he needed to show her. “It’ll just take a minute,” he said. He wasn’t exaggerating by much. As he kissed the back of her neck under the buzz of the bathroom lights he whispered, “I’m down with the brown, baby,” and still she had sex with him.

The driver has a picture of his family on the dashboard, like the one Gustavo has on his desk at work of his two little runts, his wife, all in cowboy hats or sombreros. Meera doesn’t know the difference. In the picture, his wife comes across as a woman who likes to be in charge: big boobs, square shoulders, a sturdy ass and yet apparently confident in tight jeans. Meera doesn’t know her name, doesn’t want to know it. But in her head, when she thinks of her, her name is Gustava.

***

“I have a cousin in Chicago,” the Aztec says. “He works at a restaurant. Do you know Applebees?”

Meera puts her earbuds back in and cranks some Killer Mike. The Aztec will keep yapping otherwise, asking her questions about Michael Jordan, Al Capone, and deep dish pizza. She gazes out the window at the landscape. She never thought she’d see Mexico. She feels so far away from everything she knows. She thought she’d like that but now she’s not so sure she does. They come to a small village with a church and a little plaza, palm trees and stray dogs.

“Let’s stop here for a break,” he says.

Meera steps out. A woman approaches with skin like hers – the color of red clay – and a baby strapped to her back by a cloth. Meera can only see the baby’s red clay legs poking out. The woman tries selling her a wooden comb or tourist pen or knockoff Gucci watch.

“No speako Español,” Meera says, but the woman doesn’t give up. She’s gesturing to her baby, saying, Meera assumes, something about how they’re poor, how she needs to feed those clay legs, how she’ll do anything for her baby including walking around all day selling useless trinkets at the risk of becoming a hunchback. Meera gives the woman ten American dollars in exchange for a Virgin of Guadalupe keychain.

She lights a cigarette and calls home. “Hey mom, how are you? Yeah, the flight was good. I sat next to Nishi. We talked about her sister’s big Punjabi wedding the whole way here.”

Meera wishes she could be honest, talk to her mom like American girls talk to their moms. She wishes she could tell her she’s alone in the middle of nowhere, that she’s sleeping with a married man who also happens to be her boss, that unbeknownst to her parents she’s actually been impure for a long, long time. She wishes she could tell her mom all of this without the fear that she’ll be kicked out of the house, banished from the family forever. She blows cigarette smoke away from the phone, because her mom has no idea she does that either.

There’s a market in the plaza. They’re selling everything from mangos to pet birds to pirated DVDs. Meera buys some gummy bears to snack on. A few weeks earlier, Gustavo had presented her with the Gumby Award at a staff meeting, for being the team’s most flexible member. In his office afterward, she stood with her arms folded, face warm, telling him she couldn’t believe he’d done that. Gustavo snorted, tried patting her ass. She pushed his arm away and looked towards the door. “Relax,” he said. “Nobody knows anything. I actually thought it was hilarious.” She admired his boldness.

***

El Rancho is surrounded by rugged mountains. There are cows grazing in the distance, some horses beside the house. Meera rolls her suitcase to the door while dust rises. Her stomach is swirling. She rings the bell and sees an older woman approaching through the glass window. The woman is slow, fragile, wrinkles like canyons, hair like a gray wolf’s. Meera assumes she’s the housekeeper.

“Buenas tardes,” the woman says and smiles. She’s missing some teeth.

“Um, I don’t speak any Español.”

“That’s okay. I speak English.”

“Oh, good. Well, I’m here to see Gustavo.”

“Gustavo will be back shortly. Please come in. I am his mother.”

Meera almost chokes on a gummy bear. She turns back, but the Aztec is already pulling away.

Inside, El Rancho is welcoming, sandy brown tiles and pale orange walls, sunlight streaming in from the windows. Gustavo’s mother offers Meera a seat on the yellow couch. She brings her a glass of water. Meera hopes it’s bottled because she well knows what kind of hell a person can pay for drinking from the Mexican tap. She looks around for Gustavo. Part of her wants him to walk in right then and another part hopes he broke his neck riding on a horse. His mother sits beside her, hands in her lap.

“So tell me – how did you and Gustavo meet?”

“We met at work. I work for him actually. He’s my boss is what I’m trying to say.”

Against her better judgment, Meera guzzles the water. She wishes it was tequila.

“Do you like your job?”

“You know, I’m starting to think I might be in over my head if that makes sense.”

“Well, I believe Gustavo has done well with the company. He’s done well in America. He’s provided for our family, his wife, my beautiful grandchildren. He built El Rancho.” Her knees are practically touching Meera’s now. “His only problem is he’s become full of machismo and that makes me sad. But, I cannot do anything about that. He’s a grown man.”

Meera places her water down and stands up. “May I use your bathroom, please?”

“Let me ask you something, Meera. Why did you come here?”

“Why?” Meera isn’t sure how to respond to that. Because I can, she wants to declare. Because I can do whatever the fuck I want, even though she knows that isn’t a great answer. “Gustavo invited me,” she says instead.

“I know how my Gustavo is. He’s invited many friends here before. But a young, pretty girl like you – I can’t imagine what would bring you here.”

“I have to use your bathroom now, ma’am.”

Meera hurries off. She stares at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her eyes are dry and red. Looking out the window, she plans her escape. She wishes she could have her parents pick her up like a drunken teenager at a house party. Maybe she’ll jump on one of the broncos and ride it back to the airport. Problem is, she doesn’t know where the hell in Mexico she is exactly and she doesn’t have a map. Not her first mistake. She hears the door open and Spanish being spoken rapid-fire. It’s Gustavo. She lights a cigarette and calls her mom.

“Hey, it’s me again. I think I screwed up.”

“What happened? Where are you?”

“I know you guys warned me not to, but I drank the water. I drank it like an idiot and now I feel Montezuma’s Revenge coming on.”

Gustavo knocks on the door. “Meera, are you in there?”

Meera wishes she was on the plane heading back to Chicago. She imagines herself sitting next to Nishi, sharing her gummy bears, gabbing away about her sister’s wild Punjabi wedding again.

“Meera?” he keeps saying. “Are you there? Is my Meera in there?”

Steve Karas lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter. His stories have appeared in Necessary Fiction, Bluestem, Little Fiction, WhiskeyPaper, and elsewhere. He also writes for The Review Review. You can visit his website at http://steve-karas.com.

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