Pinto Canyon, Texas, March 1994
The town was small, and so was the boy. His name was Randy and he was Maria's size exactly. They fit together tongue and groove, which to Maria, who at seventeen had never had a boyfriend, meant that it was meant.
Because he was too wispy to play football, a near requirement of every boy with a pulse in their small West Texas high school, Randy devoted himself to auto mechanics. At sixteen, his fingernails were oil-blackened and his jeans smelled of exhaust. Maria had never given one second to the thought of a car. To her mind a car moved you from one place to the next, essential in the immense county where she lived, but hardly anything to get excited about. Still, when she and Randy hugged beneath the bleachers during the football game on Friday nights, she felt her body covered by his, exactly covered, and his interests were of no consequence. She made him pink ham and rat cheese sandwiches, which they ate in the Airstream parked behind her house. No one in Maria's family went inside the Airstream, and only in late fall and winter was it even possible to enter it, since her father had long ago disconnected the air-conditioning, and open windows were useless in the heat of day.
It bothered Randy that the Airstream sat unused, probably because it had wheels and therefore qualified as automotive.
"I'd take this sucker everywhere," he said one day after school. She had fixed him a ham and cheese. He liked extra mayonnaise. Maria preferred mustard, though she did not care for the squirt bottles her mother bought, which made a noise that quelled her appetite.
"Like where would you take this sucker?"
"We went once to Big Bend in it. And I think I remember going to the campground at Balmorhea."
"We could get in the car right now and be in either of those places before dark."
"Your point?" Maria said, though she knew what his point was. She said this to Randy all the time because it drove him crazy. He would pick her up for school in the morning and say, "We need to stop on the way to town to get gas," and she would say, "And your point is?"
"My point is get your butt over here." He pulled her up from the tiny booth, littered with his half-eaten sandwich and their half-empty glasses of Pepsi, and led her to the bed in the back of the Airstream. Even though the Airstream was shut tight against the wind, dust found its way inside. Dust on the mattress, dust on the blinds, dust coating the ceiling, which was bare and silver, her father having yanked out the upholstery years ago because it had started to sag.
It wasn't as if they were unaccustomed to dust. Sometimes at night Randy drove her out to the end of Golf Course Road, where they parked the car at the turnaround and strolled out onto the pastureland of the Weil ranch. He liked to claim a plane had gone down just over a rise and was still filled with sacks of drug money. "You silly boy," she would say when he went on about downed planes and unclaimed treasure. He needn't have white-lied to recline next to her on the dry-rotted tarp they'd pulled from the floor of her garage. The tarp smelled of spilled oil, but the roughness of the sand her father had spread to soak up the oil beat the prick of cactus and cocklebur. Stars shot across the night sky so slowly she could nearly narrate their passage. From far down the valley came the faint whistle of the train to El Paso; nearby, a sudden rustling that both knew but neither admitted was a snake.
Inside the Airstream that never went anywhere, Maria and Randy made out for so long their lips were raw, their cheeks reddened. At first, out on the ranch under the night sky, their kisses had been tentative and clumsy, but once the newness had worn off they became aggressive, frenzied, as if force might make up for lack of experience. Maria had seen strangers in movies drawn together by lightning-quick chemistry and she tried to mimic the soft/loud lip brush and tongue plunge she saw on the screen, but to fully master such required the assistance of her partner, whose impatience with the softer verse she preferred to interpret as passion.
Soon they were sliding against each other on the vinyl in only their underwear. When Maria discarded her bra for the first time, Randy, not wanting to acknowledge it (she supposed because he feared she might put it back on if he even changed his expression), clamped his mouth on one nipple and then the other. To Maria's mind—not to mention her body— Randy overtended to her breasts, as if this step were crucial to perfect before moving on to the next. It made little sense to her, given his rushed kisses. Maria thought about stopping him to say, And your point is?
This made her smile, then laugh a little. Randy raised his head to look at her as she imagined a baby might when a nursing was interrupted.
"What?" he said, smiling in a way that barely hid his worry that she was about to tell him he was doing it wrong.
"It tickles a little," she said.
"Well, good, that's good," said Randy. "It's supposed to."
He went back to work. Maria ran her fingers through his hair, tucked a strand of it behind an ear. It occurred to her that they were two children playing in a camper behind a house after school let out but before their parents came home from work. Randy tasted like mayonnaise. But was it not also true that they could say to each other with their bodies, I want this part to be over, I want to move on to the next part? With their bodies there were ways to leave the Airstream, home, Texas. She pulled him up to her and she kissed him and she slid him off her so she could slip off her panties. She gave him two minutes to explore her with his fingers and then she told him to take his boxers off. She waved him forward. Dawdling grade-schooler at the crosswalk, weighted down with textbooks, your poor back bent, let me help you out of that backpack, I will lighten you, I will see you safely across.
"I don't have one," he said, hovering above her, his arms locked as if he was about to do a push-up.
"At least you didn't say that word. I hate that word."
"What y'all call them. Actually I hate every other word for them, too."
But they would use them after this first time except for a few occasions when someone's mother was in line at the drugstore, or when the men's room at the Fina station—where there was a machine—was occupied for what seemed like a century. She would not let him name or even comment on it as he tore open the wrapper with his teeth and took his time unrolling it.
"I trust you," she said, unlocking his arms at the elbows and pulling him onto her, and she did, mostly because they were equal in their inexperience. When would that ever happen again? When would she ever be with someone and not have the touch of past lovers to compare his with? When would the burst she'd heard about but never felt (though she knew, she'd heard, that it got better, longer, even more explosive) ever equal the unknown trajectory of her first?
The ceiling of the Airstream, so starkly silver, was not the night sky of the pasture, so slow with stars. It might not have been where but it was when. And when he finally pushed inside her and they both gasped at its fit, she felt they had stumbled upon something they both could learn from. As they pushed against, away from, and farther into each other, she hoped that soon—not now, but in a while—they would discover a new beauty, they would learn how friction, the slightest strife, could lead to a pleasure terrifying but also somehow containable. Not today, but soon, she and Randy might also arrive at some common understanding of what in this world might matter most, and together they would find in their hearts a special chamber where they could worship these most meaningful things.
For the next two months they did it in the Airstream, out on the Weil ranch on the oily tarp, twice at thrilling risk in the band room after school, even on a field trip to a water park near San Antonio. And then their story grew so familiar and ancient that it might have been written on crinkly parchment or charcoaled across the wall of a cave.
Only after years away from home did Maria accept the notion that her predicament was not original, that such things have happened to people across time continuous, and she no longer felt the sting of the word her mother used to describe it: "unthinking." It was not incorrect, her mother's word, for surely some other factor besides the intellect ruled her time with Randy until, after touching her forehead to the porcelain for the fourth day in a row, she admitted to herself that the only way they truly fit was anatomically.
Randy wanted to drop out of school and go to work at his uncle's body shop and learn to play bass so he could join this band Rockfish his buddy Johnny Rodriquez had put together. He spoke about a standing Saturday night gig at Railroad Blues down in Alpine as if it were surefire stardom. He was so excited by the life he described for himself that Maria, loath to disappoint anyone, nearly went along with it. But the night she took the test, they had driven sixty miles to Skyline Drive and below them the lights of Fort Davis blinked before the valley fell away to empty and desolate ranchland, and each twinkling light reminded her of all the people who hardly ever left this valley. "Unthinking" turned out to be the word that saved her, for she thought about what she would say, and yet no matter how much time she had devoted to saying it gently and no matter how much she knew that this was the kinder choice to all involved parties, she could not bear to look at his face when she told him she wanted to go away to college and get, eventually, her master's degree in deaf education.
Maria's father, Mexican and deeply Catholic even if during Mass he could often be found breakfasting with his buddies at Alicia's Cafe, knew nothing of her predicament, much less how she chose to deal with it. It was he who, a week after that night atop Skyline Drive, came home to find Randy's car in the drive and his body behind the Airstream. Maria and her mother were on their way back from the clinic in El Paso when it happened, and for years — even though she knew it did not matter—she wondered where they were in their journey when Randy pulled the trigger.